Gerry Bishop is the retired editor of Ranger Rick magazine.
He has served as a writer, editor and editorial consultant to organizations including the World Wildlife Fund, the National Audubon Society, Houghton Mifflin and the Peace Corps, and has won awards in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Nature's Best Photography Awards competitions.
The mountains give meaning. It's not their aesthetics that do it – the soft and undulating skyline, the quiet forest paths or whatever beauty and joy I find here. Instead, it's their overwhelming age. What we see here now – and what has changed very little since the first hominids walked the Earth – are the rounded remains of a geological story that began many hundreds of millions of years ago.
I grew up with a very different perspective on time and place – one imposed on me by the culture and beliefs of a rural, working-class community. I didn't fully understand it at the time, but the Christian religion of my youth, like Judaism and Islam, is built on the presumption of Earth as the center and most important part of the universe, where humans are the pinnacle of creation and where we have the undivided attention of a supreme being who brought it all into existence.
That presumption, that innocent story, was my own until Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin and others put me in my proper place. As I grew up I learned that Homo sapiens has existed for only 0.01 percent of the Earth's history, that our sun is only one star among perhaps 400 billion in our galaxy, that our galaxy is one of at least 130 billion other galaxies in the universe and that, quite possibly, our universe is only one of a large or even infinite number of others.
This new perspective liberated me from most of the anthropocentric constraints on my thinking. Excited by this new understanding and bolstered by this sense of freedom, I developed a passion for biology and other natural sciences, which eventually led to a career as editor of Ranger Rick, a children's nature magazine published by the National Wildlife Federation. There, through the years, I did my best to help millions of young readers see the wonders of our world and where we fit among them.
This liberation also enabled me to give up the futile quest for a "meaning of life" based on my self-importance, and to adopt a new and far less parochial view: That our species is a fleeting product of an inventive but aimless evolution, no different from the millions of other species that have come and gone through the ages, and that each of us is a temporary package of molecules, energy, thoughts, memories and self-consciousness, living a brief moment in a universe that couldn't possibly care anything about us. I now revel in my own transience and insignificance.
This view of life leads not to hopelessness and despair but to a heightened sense of wonder and appreciation. What more meaning could anyone want than to be so rare and serendipitous a thing as a conscious being, evolved from countless other species over billions of years? What more could anyone need than a true understanding of who and where we are in the universe, finally revealed to us through science? What more could anyone hope, than for others to discover such awareness and fulfillment.
And standing there, within this world view, are these grand old mountains. To me they represent the world as it really is, not as I wish it to be. A world that offers hope in its challenge to us to give up some of our illusions and find meaning – and joy – and satisfaction – in just being here, now.