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A Bird Of Passage
by [?]


There is one phase of the much-discussed question of the nature and origin of life which, so far as I know, has not been considered either by those who hold a brief for the physico-chemical view or by those who stand for some form of vitalism or idealism. I refer to the small part that life plays in the total scheme of things. The great cosmic machine would go on just as well without it. Its relation to the whole appears to be little different from that of a man to the train in which he journeys. Life rides on the mechanical and chemical forces, but it does not seem to be a part of them, nor identical with them, because they were before it, and will continue after it is gone.

The everlasting, all-inclusive thing in this universe seems to be inert matter with the energy it holds; while the slight, flitting, casual thing seems to be living matter. The inorganic is from all eternity to all eternity; it is distributed throughout all space and endures through all time, while the organic is, in comparison, only of the here and the now; it was not here yesterday, and it may not be here to-morrow; it comes and goes. Life is like a bird of passage which alights and tarries for a time and is gone, and the places where it perched and nested and led forth its brood know it no more. Apparently it flits from world to world as the great cosmic spring comes to each, and departs as the cosmic winter returns to each. It is a visitor, a migrant, a frail, timid thing, which waits upon the seasons and flees from the coming tempests and vicissitudes.

How casual, uncertain, and inconsequential the vital order seems in our own solar system–a mere incident or by-product in its cosmic evolution! Astronomy sounds the depths of space, and sees only mechanical and chemical forces at work there. It is almost certain that only a small fraction of the planetary surfaces is the abode of life. On the earth alone, of all the great family of planets and satellites, is the vital order in full career. It may yet linger upon Mars, but it is evidently waning. On the inferior planets it probably had its day long ago, while it must be millions of years before it comes to the superior planets, if it ever comes to them. What a vast, inconceivable outlay of time and energy for such small returns! Evidently the vital order is only an episode, a transient or secondary phase of matter in the process of sidereal evolution. Astronomic space is strewn with dead worlds, as a New England field is with drift boulders. That life has touched and tarried here and there upon them can hardly be doubted, but if it is anything more than a passing incident, an infant crying in the night, a flush of color upon the cheek, a flower blooming by the wayside, appearances are against it.

We read our astronomy and geology in the light of our enormous egotism, and appropriate all to ourselves; but science sees in our appearance here a no more significant event than in the foam and bubbles that whirl and dance for a moment upon the river’s current. The bubbles have their reason for being; all the mysteries of molecular attraction and repulsion may be involved in their production; without the solar energy, and the revolution of the earth upon its axis, they would not appear; and yet they are only bubbles upon the river’s current, as we are bubbles upon the stream of energy that flows through the universe. Apparently the cosmic game is played for us no more than for the parasites that infest our bodies, or for the frost ferns that form upon our window-panes in winter. The making of suns and systems goes on in the depths of space, and doubtless will go on to all eternity, without any more reference to the vital order than to the chemical compounds.