For eons, the sun’s gravity and radiance reached across the atramentous depths to her wandering companions. One such companion we call Earth. The balance between the Earth’s momentum and the sun’s gravitational attraction has kept her in orbit. Earth formed in the young sun’s protoplanetary disc four and half billion years ago. She steadily grew, silently drawing strength from the balancing dance. Amidst the darkness, there was light. Amidst the silence their was dance. Earth continues to pirouette about her axis, circling her minstrel as she has done long before my birth, and shall continue long after I close my eyes for the final time.
By March of 2003, I had peacefully perambulated upon the Earth’s skin for a little more than 21 years. If my ephemeral life was a drop of water, hers would be almost six Olympic-sized swimming pools, each six feet deep. She is ancient and she is home. From her primordial waters came the first drops of life; and over the eons, she supported the flourishing evolution of an immensely diverse array of species. She is a cornucopia of life and death, of struggle and peace, dancing through aeonian time. It served me well to keep that in mind as I came to terms with the final closing of my eyes.
Spring was approaching. I looked to the north. Just a few kilometers beyond the horizon Iraq laid in wait. Appropriately, ‘March’ was named after the Roman God of war, Mars—another of the Sun’s wandering companions. Any day now, the order would come and another war would begin. How many drops of life would be tossed into the river of time? It was out of my hands. For years, I studied and trained for war—the dichotomy of honor and horror. Like an artisan perfecting his craft, I molded my discipline, courage, strength, and skill. But preparation was now over. One way or another, the Spring of my youth was coming to an abrupt end.
On the eve of combat the mind can get lost in a diverse array of thoughts. Ever since the republic’s founding young marines had to settle their minds before battle. Before the first shots are ever fired this inner battleground must be won. Those old marines must have done something right. For centuries the Marine Corps fought with ferocity and distinction. Death cannot be avoided, but dishonoring that history, that tradition, and your brothers can be. Not every marine has kept their honor clean amidst the fear and horror of battles past, but the Corps as a whole did. But did I truly possess the mettle I hoped was there? Was this the end?
The camaraderie among warriors is deep, but solace is sometimes the best way to cleanse the mind. I left the tent and my brothers, and again set out to perambulate upon Earth’s skin, perhaps for the last time in peace. The day was ending and the Kuwaiti sand was beginning to cool as the heat dissipated away. In the east, the antecrepescular arch hovered over the horizon, pulling a lavender blanket over the desert like a parent tucking a child into bed. Towards the west, the splendorous sun began its dive into the featureless, sandy plains. An ablution of variegated color splashed the sky in its wake. The sparse clouds were anointed with crimson robes and golden scepters.
But before adorning the sky with such majesty, the dwindling sunlight started its journey long before my eyes were born, many millennia ago…
Within the heart of the sun is a hellish crucible, responsible for pouring life-giving light and warmth across the heavens. Bearing the mass of 333,000 Earths, the sun’s immense gravity squeezes the core into an extremely dense, seething plasma. At 15 million degrees Celsius, this broiling, chaotic brew of ions and electrons are under a pressure 200 billion times that of the earth’s atmosphere. I could relate. There, 600 million tons of hydrogen are converted into 596 million tons of helium every second. The remaining 4 million tons, however, are converted into energy through nuclear fusion—the combining of atomic nuclei. This can happen under such hellish conditions because energy and mass are related, as demonstrated by Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2. Specifically, this fusion mostly occurs via a complicated procession known as the proton-proton chain reaction—a multi-step process involving the fusing of various, intermittent isotopes of hydrogen and helium. The net reaction is four hydrogen atoms forming one helium-4, two positrons, two neutrinos, and two gamma ray photons.
The pull of gravity keeps the pressure and heat required for fusion to continue, and the energy released from fusion pushes out against the force of gravity, thus preventing the sun from caving in on itself. This balance of pushing and pulling, known as hydrostatic equilibrium, keeps the celestial kiln burning. The hell from these torturous forces creates balance, the balance gives light, and light gives life.
The inner layers are so dense that the highly energetic photons can only move a few millimeters before being absorbed by another nucleus. That nucleus then emits another photon in a random direction at a slightly lower energy. This random, zigzagging relay takes quite some time and absorbs quite a bit of energy. By the time the relay reaches the surface, the photons are now mostly in the lower-energy range of the visible spectrum.
In a way, this is much like our own meandering paths through life. We spend much time pushing through the chaos of life, and this is what makes our strength visible. But the photons that left the sun’s surface today, that finally pushed through, are the progeny of a relay that began somewhere between 12,000 years ago (around the time agriculture started in Iraq’s fertile crescent) and 200,000 years ago (when Homo sapiens first walked the Earth in the African Savannah). When looking at the sun, we are looking at the end-product of an organized chaos older than civilization.
It took millennia for these photons to move through the jostle. But once they broke the surface, now unimpeded, they sped across space at nearly 300,000 kilometers per second. Some were on course for Earth, making the 150 million kilometer journey in about 8 minutes. But before reaching her skin the light passes through her breath. Though her atmosphere is much gentler than the solar kiln, the photons still bend and change.
Further west (where the sun wasn’t yet setting) the shorter electromagnetic wave of “blue” photons oscillated the orbiting electrons of atmospheric molecules more strongly than photons in the longer “red” wavelengths. This disruption absorbed the blue photons, and then scattered them in many directions. This process, known as Rayleigh Scattering, is why the sky is blue for most of the day. But from my vantage the sun was just above the horizon. The light had to travel through much more atmosphere than it would if directly overhead, meaning much of the blue was already filtered out. The longer, redder lights—the colors of war—were the survivors that painted the heavens.
But the position of the sun was merely an apparition. At the extreme angle during sunset, atmospheric refraction significantly bends the light’s path. So at sunset, the atmosphere makes it appear like the sun’s leading edge was just beginning to dip below the horizon. If there was no atmosphere to bend the light, then the sun’s tailing edge would already be below the horizon, and the ground would be left in obsidian blackness. This bending also makes the sun appear to move just a little more slowly along its ecliptic than during the rest of the day. This is befitting; time seems to move more slowly, more meaningfully, when saying farewell.
Apparition or not, the light entered my eye’s cornea, was again bent by my eye’s lens, and then focused on my retina. There, the photons stimulated the rods and cones, which then sent electrical pulses down my optic nerve to the visual cortex. There, a series of chemical and electrical signals propagated among a diverse array of interconnected neurons, and identified the image as a majestic sunset. A surge of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin perpetuated another series of neural signals—another complicated procession in organized chaos—among my hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex, elucidating a feeling of nostalgia within the quintessence of my consciousness.
Despite the human affairs controlling my life, I felt connected with the goings-on of the aeonian dance of my home, the Earth, gracefully spinning through time. I reflected on the events of my life from childhood onward and smiled. I had a rendezvous with death in the Fertile Crescent. Blood would flow into the Tigris and Euphrates. Fear and horror would grip my heart. But in that moment, I stared into the ghost of a setting sun, bestowing ancient light and warmth from a balance of torturous forces within the organized chaos that is its heart. It slowed its descent into the sands of time that spanned the horizon, and said farewell. For an ephemeral moment, at least, I too balanced the torturous forces within me, and felt ancient peace radiate from my core. For a drop of time I was here, perambulating upon the skin of the dancing Earth. I was ready for my rendezvous.
(Editorial note: This piece has undergone a few different experimental titles, and few minor content edits since it was first posted.)