Love at first sight

On February 1, 1988, two large living room chairs with high backs and thick, cushioned armrests sat near the front of an empty stage.

On February 1, 1988, two large living room chairs with high backs and thick, cushioned armrests sat near the front of an empty stage.

The chairs rested on a three-metre square living-room-sized red and tan carpet and were illuminated with soft amber stage lights making them look larger still.

Next to each chair was a small round table, a pitcher of water and a single glass.

On each table, in a clear vase, flowers leaned in toward the chairs.

I did not know what kind of flowers I was looking at.

Out in front of the stage were 400 empty seats all waiting to be filled. Within the hour this place would be standing room only. But at the moment I was alone in the auditorium at the Utah Museum of Natural History.

I remember writing myself a note: if given the chance tonight, ask about love.

At exactly 8 p.m., university Professor Edward Lueders marched from stage right and thanked the audience for coming to tonight’s conversation.

“We were going to discuss the role of literature in a world of science,” he said.

“We are here tonight in an attempt to harmonize fact knowledge with emotional knowledge.”

In my notebook I wrote: harmonize head and heart.

I drew two heavy lines under these words.

Leuders went on to introduce Harvard University’s Baird Professor of Science, Edward O. Wilson and American Book Award recipient, Barry Lopez.

Both guests sprinted on stage and sank softly into their respective chairs.

Lopez grabbed the armrests like one would the rim of an ice crevasse on the way to certain death. Wilson tackled his cushion with a bit more grace, but then he was much taller and a lot thinner.

In my estimation, one would have to travel far and wide to find two more distinguished authorities on literature and science than these two gentlemen.

Wilson is unmatched in his ability to bring biology to full-spectrum colour, Lopez unparalleled in crafting a romantic literary narrative explaining our relationship to the natural world.

Both, I should think, would clearly know something about love.

I was not disappointed.

That evening I filled an entire memo notebook and then scrawled overflow thoughts along the borders of a museum handout.

Fast forward now to February 5 in Verona, Italy.

Archeologist Elena Menotti and her team of five students carefully and systematically carve away at the dark-coloured dirt, which is tightly packed around two relatively small skeletons.

Most likely they are looking at a young man and a young woman.

The pair is clearly cuddling, skulls almost touching, their arms wrapped neatly around one another. The bones are Neolithic, perhaps 6,000 years old.

Science, it seems, has come face to face with the question of love.

When I first saw the photograph of these skeletons, I was filled with emotion.

Were these two young people really lovers?

Trapped perhaps in young love, did they take their own lives as a way to steal and seal their love for one another?

Or, perhaps did some other tragedy end their love story?

Was it love at first sight?

Science will not tell us the whole story.

After the bodies are DNA tested, we will know the age of the young lovers, something about their diet, their health.

But that is not enough for me. I want the full fantasy of love in the Neolithic. I want the rumours and the secrets that always go with love.

I want the passion along with the science.

Why, I ask myself, will not science give me the full story of this relationship?

Deeper still, if not science, where then do I go to get the big picture?

On that night back in 1988, from between the soft armrests of his over-stuffed chair, Wilson gave me a clue.

“The poet Shelly wrote in his essay A Defence of Poetry that one of the artist’s tasks is to absorb the new knowledge of science and assimilate it to the blood and bone of human nature.”

Lopez dropped another clue.

When speculating on the fact that scientists believe humans to be  “physiochemical mechanisms” and that humanists prefer to view us as emotional life forces, Lopez concluded, “Why can’t we be both?”

Wilson, responding to a question about the importance of writing science in more emotional language — the language of love perhaps — went on to say, “factual information has to be translated into forms that mean something for daily human existence, for the rules of thumb by which we live….”

At evening’s end Wilson and Lopez reached agreement: writers are storytellers; scientists are storytellers.

They then found common ground on yet another point.

Artists as emotive and subjective characters and scientists as rational and objective characters are both burdened by one thing and one thing alone: a duty to be responsible.

Both art and science are tools — tools to help us chip away at the great mystery.

Chip away at the history of the world at first light and at the meaning of love at first sight.

Today with the world thrust into an environmental crisis, we will need ample doses of both scientific intelligence and literary imagination.

Emotion — the love in all of us — is as evolutionary as our hands and feet.

Since that February evening back in 1988, Edward O. Wilson went on to coin the term Biophilia — the love of life.

According to Wilson, scientists will eventually tantalize us with enough information that we will see life for what is really is. When we do, all of humanity will begin to love life enough to want to save it.

Barry Lopez has gone on to capture humanity in all of its complexity, all of its splendour.

His narratives help drive home the fact that literature and landscape are really one and the same. They certainly flow from the same cosmic force, share the same evolutionary history.

Both writers remind us that matters of the head and those of the heart are burdened with responsibility.

Our duty is to love life enough to save it; to describe it in ways that connect the head and the heart.

Remembering this will be of great service to us as we find responsible ways to reverse climate change. The battle to save the Earth will be first waged between the head and the heart.

In the end, science and art will become our warriors.

As I look down on those two small Neolithic lovers I can only wonder if they ever thought about how short their lives would be or how long that of the Earth.