« … car rien ne se crée, ni dans les opérations de l’art, ni dans celles de la nature, et l’on peut poser en principe que, dans toute opération, il y a une égale quantité de matière avant et après l’opération ; que la qualité et la quantité des principes est la même, et qu’il n’y a que des changements, des modifications. »

— LavoisierTraité élémentaire de chimie (1789)

All nature is contingency and rearrangement.

This rock here is red and light, a solidified piece of lava, probably from an eruption more than 3 million years ago. It has been rounded by the river, and now lies here on a gravel bar created by a 1996 flood. The flood was caused by a jet stream from the tropics, which blew in on top of a preamble of rain and snow in just the right amounts and sequences—the ocean coming to Lookout Creek.

Now tiny water insects, clothed in rock cases of their own construction, sleep through the winter tucked in air bubbles in lava rock. The coincidences and chance that provided these creatures with their tiny niches astound, yet all our world is the result of similarly improbable histories.

Rocks, tissue, molecules, and energy act and are acted upon in a stochastic cascade. Governed by physical laws, yes, but not by destiny or purpose.

All is disturbance. And after each disturbance, things are rearranged. The curious person can trace their movements and transformations and see that all that was there before is still there, just further downstream. Or heaped up in a gravel bar. Or flung into the forest. Or buried, to be compressed and heated into a new form. Or eaten.

When a person or animal dies, the body may be burned, its stored energy released as heat, its matter changed to ash. Or it may rot, its flesh transformed into the flesh of insects, fungi and bacteria, and the rest becoming particles of earth.

But what of the consciousness? The memories, the personality, and stories? The fondness for lemons and ginger, the habit of saying “What a hoot!” the amateur interest in human origins, the memories of the time with Frank during the war?

This “thing,” in all its complexity seems to just disappear, violating the law of conservation of mass. And so we search for it, create supernatural realms for it to fly to, invent and invoke reincarnation. One Dr. MacDougall, in 1901, weighed people before and after death, looking for the mass change, and through wishful measurement, claimed the soul weighed three-fourths of an ounce.

Almost all of nature is contingency, disturbance, and rearrangement. The stuff of this rock will be here forever; we cannot get rid of it. Of all things on this glorious Earth, the one thing most precious to us—the ones we love—is the only thing we lose forever.

Emma Marris writes about conservation, ecology, energy, agriculture, food, language, books and film. Her goal is to find and tell stories that help us understand how to increase the flourishing of both humanity and the rest of the planet’s species, how to move towards a greener, wilder, happier and more equal future. Her stories have appeared in Conservation, Slate, Discover, the New York Times and above all, Nature, where she worked as a staffer for several years. Her first book is Rambunctious Garden.