Next Humankind


Bristly limbs of bare trees scrape the December sky blanketing Kentucky hills. Vehicles zoom 65 miles an hour across formations 480 million years in the making. Ronin, seven months old, rides near the window, winter scenery streaming past him, his keen eyes the color of pine brush and moss, soft skin pale like sycamore bark. I watch his warm fingers dexterously grasp little toys in play; solid bones, sturdy as limestone, give structure that animates his energy. A wind, I imagine, whistles through the corridors of branches along those ancient mounds, paths as multifarious as dendrite gardens in the mind. I listen to my son's breathing, the gentle, vibrational "aaah" as he explores his own sound.

The people native to this land lived here for the better part of 15,000 years before they were assaulted with metal and gunpowder by white invaders. In a few hundred years, their territory has been sliced by highways, cut by machines seeking fuel for capital, drenched in the byproducts of oil and coal. Native people live here no longer. The people who remain, the poor, are dying of cancer. And then, there are also storytellers, weavers, farmers, midwives, and healers - those who rectify the desecration with their creative spirits. I recall the courage of the Northern water protectors and hear chords of their song settle in the valleys like fog.

My mind wanders from Appalachia to Aleppo, the children covered in white ash, unsure which breath may be their last. They have stopped crying; their eyes are tunnels that lead me to my own incriminating complicity. I sit comfortably on a cushion as their homes and safe places crumble, the ancient city a living ruin. Bomb blasts reverberate in humanity's foundation. Instead of speaking out, much of the world sips coffee through small plastic mouthpieces that will take the better of 1,000 years to break down. The darkness increases. I click screen buttons, send electronic dollars, in the false light of a cell phone. Oak, two years old, happily sings of silver and gold, of the light's return. I close my eyes and pray.

At the Smithsonian, Robby and I turned to find Oak with his arms around bronze statues of two early humans, a child and mother. He gently patted the little one's back, keenly peering in the direction of the small statue's gaze, inquisitive about what the elder figure seemed to be demonstrating. We silently observed our own child, descendant of these ancestral creatures, embody through his reflexive curiosity the evolution of their instruction. His touch was fond, familial. I saw through tears the exhibit headline, "Imagination Emerges."

Humankind has drawn invisible lines to create countries and concepts, using the mind as a template for terrain we can reconstruct. Young primates yet, we continue to grapple with what power we can wield to magnify our species' influence and centricity. But the nautilus spiral of Earth time betrays our flimsy superiority: the thin edge, nearly invisible, is human history, all 3 million years. In its unfathomable complexity, Earth boasts the majesty of 4600 million years. And we are citizens of a young planet in this unexplored universe, 15 billion years wide.

Cold, white marble, carved to look weightless, shoulders the recognizable Capitol domes. The extravagance distracts from the metallic taste of death, the smell of suffering, holding the place together like mortar. Countless African slaves worked to forge these spaces in which they were not regarded as human. The lofty ideals emblazoned on the walls, speaking of liberty and dignity, taunt the memories of African people whose rich heritage was scoured like ship decks, whose vibrancy has survived their oppression and their descendants'. "Out of many, one" - by force. The efforts of over 200 years have not yet made us a land of the free. To this day, only the survivors of oppression feel the heaviness, accurately estimate the cost. Their descendants are the prophets of our time, calling out in the wilderness of ignorance, holding aloft truth's torch.

In the belly of a colonial ship, Oak said, "A long time ago, I was down here and heard a loud BOOM." Running through the tunnel between Congress's Library and the Capitol Building, he remarked, "Before I was born, I was down here." Certain places hum with a story we somehow know we continue with the tones and cadence of our Voice. The trees and hills and sands and stars are still telling it. The children know the language and interpret for us in every unexamined gesture, every intentional question, every moment we stop talking long enough to listen, to breathe, to touch freedom. The scope of our lives can only be as broad as the understanding of our smallness.

I can imagine the next iteration of humanity: a species that looks in the mirror and sees a striving animal, that begins to only describe any individual with their chosen name, that participates as a cell in the body. The next humankind will absorb the sword into its heart and there dissolve it, will again discover fire but this time within, will honor abundance with temperance, will be led by the generations to come. The next humankind will know its humble place on the dirt. Our ancestors are waiting for us there, whispering the Soul's common fate.

"Aleppo" derives from the Aramaic word 'Halaba,' white like its soil and marble. The mountains ache like exposed joints, blasted and bald, empty caverns devoid of black coal, ghost canaries singing. I look up into the clouds swirling as in the soothsayer's sphere where questions answer each other. Freezing rain falls on the glass pane, running like rivers or neuron networks or veins, before evaporating into the atmosphere, eternal air and light.