Ron's Story
Life's Reflections


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This Chapter



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     As you must have gathered, I like to play with words and in general to reflect on life.  I started writing this autobiography initially to write down interesting episodes for my son David.  But I want to end with reflections on life's lessons that I have learned.

     Now 70 years old, I live in the "Howling Wolf" cabin, named for the howls of my dogs.  The Howling Wolf sits on the southeastern slope of Ft. Butler Mountain, the North Carolina mountain that marked the beginning of that "sad" trail, the Cherokee Trail of Tears in 1838.  My cabin is small, comfortable, and isolated, surrounded by acres of tall woods on the "Little Easy", named by those homesick for New Orleans.  Tonight is March 11, 2017, a cold winter night with a nearly full moon and light snow falling outside.  The cabin looks south towards the nighttime silhouette of the North Georgia mountains.  The fire burns in the woodstove and my dogs are scattered around, sleeping on the floor.  These are rescue dogs in Lost Dogs Run, born to run and like me living on borrowed time.  I am glad that they too have survived for they are family and the reason I am here.  I think of those that have passed, buried below among granite boulders placed on the grassy knoll we call "Standing Rock."  The grey boulders stand guard while the wind plays with chimes and the Bonnie Blue Flag flies over the graves, a continuous reminder of life's lost causes and the irrationality of human nature.  This was the first battle flag of the Confederacy in the bloody Civil War in which 750,000 soldiers died.  Of my great grandfathers, one wore Gray, one wore Blue, one was too young to fight, and one lived in East Prussia.  Tonight, the Blue and the Gray with the Cherokee walk the trails on Ft. Butler Mountain, ghosts that never sleep.  These are the same trails that the "lost" dogs run each day.  Below Standing Rock is the "Rocking Bowl", a green hollow nestled in the woods, cut by a shallow stream linked to a pond.  Here, as it must have been in the past, smoke sometimes rises from fire pits in the hollow while the "lost" dogs wade the pond and walk the stream.  The Cherokee would still recognize this place.  The name Rocking Bowl came from a "rocking" Big Easy bowling hall where we used to dance and bowl.  The Little Easy is not a bad place to end the winter of your life.



The "lost" dogs' graves at Standing Rock, summer 2017 - The fenced yard extends 100 yards up slope to the Howling Wolf Cabin.


     I often wonder as to the purpose of my existence.  On evenings like this, I sometimes sip tequila or whiskey and think of the mysteries of the universe that I will never understand.  Knowledge always leads to more questions.  Like the passage of youth, the golden liquor burns briefly and then like memories, the taste lingers before fading away.  Memories give meaning to my past but are not enough to face my future.  Living has shown me that I need goals, outside of satisfying needs.  My goals arise from the curosity that used to drive my research, to understand what I see and come across.  Without goals, life becomes living for existence and with increasing age, eventually existence becomes meaningless.  Retirement should not just be a path to death but a time of reflection and doing what is important to you.  Success is less important in achieving a goal than trying to make that achievement.  For without goals there is no purpose in living.

     There are those basic quality needs in life other than food, drink, and shelter that are not goals but give contentment to life.  I was always a "thinker" and enjoy (even more now than when young) contemplating hard-to-understand concepts.  I was never a "good old boy" but can appreciate the joy of good camaraderie.  Enjoying the friendship of others is the most important part of living each day.  Most important in our needs is the unconditional and non-possessive love between beings.  But humans are careless with those we love, making these relationships hard to maintain and often the most fleeting aspects of our lives.

     Empathy for other living beings is our recognization of their feelings, their hurts and their joys.  Empathy and compassion to help those in need are within my DNA.  When I was younger, those feelings were buried in my love of doing science but now I cannot escape the sadness that comes from having limited resources to help.  Empathy is necessary for people to live together, acting for the good of all and being tolerant of others having different beliefs and lifestyles.  Empathy and compassion should guide our civilization and are expressed but not truly felt by a majority of humans.  For that reason, some humans, with the support of their followers, continuously exploit other living creatures, in a relentless drive for more wealth, power, sex, and domination of the world.  In the end, this lack of care for others will probably destroy our civilization.  Evolution has given us the brains to control our destiny but apparently not the will to control our greed.

     What can explain the inability of humans to live in peace for the common good?  Is it ignorance and distrust of others or is it that we have killing in our DNA.  I want to use hunting for sport as an example.  Such hunting is justified as a means of being alone or with family and friends in the outdoors and using the prey as food.  As a child, I started hunting doves at about age 12.  My father liked to hunt and these were probably the closest times I had with him.  I always enjoyed being in the outdoors but I never liked killing wounded animals and would do so as quickly as possible.  Killing a dove by banging its head against the stock of my shotgun didn't arouse much feeling in me, but wringing the neck of a goose as it gurgled in its throat, exposed the pain that the animal was going through.  I went on my last hunt at age 23, the day before my father died and never went hunting again.  My point is that killing for sport means enjoying killing another living creature.  If a person doesn't feel empathy for an animal he or she is killing, then they are unlikely to feel empathy for killing a human who is not part of their family or friends.  Hunting for sport really illustrates the lack of empathy in humans.  Almost universally, wild animals kill only to survive, not for sport, with animals such as sharks and African wild dogs as possible exceptions.

     I was raised Episcopalian and have gradually become an agnostic.  Religion is difficult to discuss because so many humans require the unconditional belief in a God to justify their existence.  Usually a religion provides moral framework and reward in an afterlife for living life in a particular way.  Those who believe in a God often say there are no atheists in fox holes, that belief is needed to face death.  Someday soon I will find out.  But belief is a personal choice and as long as one's beliefs do not fringe on others' beliefs, different religions can live together.  In today's world (2017) that is not the case, given the examples of fringe Muslim, Christian, and Jewish extremist groups.  The most prominent are Muslim: Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban who murder non-belivers.

     As a geologist who spent his life examining the rock record, the evolution of life on Earth over the past 4 billion years is self-evident.  There is no need to call upon a creator to explain the life present today.  That is not to say that science has been able to satisfactorily explain the absolute origin of life in the first chemical compounds coming together to form the most primitive living cells.  But once those first single-celled organisms formed, evolution occurred and there is a record of it in the rocks.  Creationists point to "intelligent design" saying complex organs (such as eyes) could not evolve by chance.  But evolution is guided by survival, and random gene mutations that are not beneficial are lost such that over 4 billion years, more complex organisms continue to evolve from favorable gene mutations in earlier organisms.  On a primitive scale, evolution occurs rapidly with modern drugs causing bacteria, fungi, and protozoa to become drug resistant.  The same process over immense time frames has given rise to complex organisms such as ourselves.  And today we are developing the ability to modify the genes in DNA and alter future beings, a process whose outcome is unknown.  I mention evolution not to convince others to doubt their faith but to explain why I am agnostic.  Although I do not understand the origin of my existence, my heart feels the call of my soul and the souls of those that I have loved.  And having a soul gives me hope there is more to explain our existence than evolution.

     One never-ending mystery for me is the passage of time and how it affects each of us.  Time measures the rate of change and the concept can not exist without change.  A universe at equilibrium would be a universe without time.  Our "Earth" time is measured versus rates of "nearly" constant irreversible processes on Earth such as radioactive decay.  But we know from "the theory of relativity" that this measured time would slow down if our planet's speed increased.  I think there is also a personal time for living beings that is relative to their age.  The chemical processes controlling my being have slowed as I have gotten older.  As a result, my conscious awareness of what is happening around me has also slowed such that the days appear to be becoming shorter.  Time appears to be moving faster around me while my personal time is slowing down and will stop with my death.  I think there is a linkage between entropy and time.  The concept of entropy was derived in science to explain the inability to convert all the energy input into any process into work.  The explanation is that entropy must increase in any process and some of the energy is utilized to increase entropy.  In a gasoline engine, this is done through heat flow to the surroundings, providing a way to compute the maximum efficiency of the engine.  The concept of entropy explains the direction of natural processes and seems to predict (to me) that the passage of time cannot be reversed.  For this reason it is sometimes called the "arrow of time."  I have spent many a night drifting off to sleep, thinking of this relationship, and am no closer to understanding it.

     My life has had its wonderful monents when it seems that everything went my way.  This could sometimes occur when I first understood the answer to a scientific problem I was working on, or when I was overcome by the beauty and intimacy of a relationship, and during the feelings of awe and wonder of nature in a far-away land.  But these moments of exhilaration have always been brief.  My understanding of science has dulled with age and past relationships are mostly gone.  We cannot go back to old haunts and expect things not to have changed.  Some of the best times in my life were spent in the Yucatan, working along the coast and in the jungle inland around the cenotes.  On my 70th birthday I went back to some of these areas.  Hordes of tourists were everywhere.  Gone was the beauty of the solitude of a beach with the green waters of the Caribbean lapping at your feet.  Even the colorful corals on the reefs were now bleached.  Often memories of such events are much better than present-day reality.  Enjoy the memories but live in the present, not the past.  If we make the effort to look around, there is beauty and joy everywhere.  Sadness is a state of mind as is happiness.  Each of us can make that choice.

     As a professor, my goal was always to get students to think for themselves, not to accept information and ideas blindly but to check them out from other sources and to think about an idea rationally and test it if possible.  I was rarely successful.  Unfortunately, most students, like people in general, find it easier to memorize information and ideas rather than spend time analyzing them.  And this is also true of those teachers who do not want to be challenged in their classrooms.  Kings, emperors, dictators, tribal leaders and politicians can successfully lie to their followers, knowing they will rarely use their own reasoning to determine if they are being told the truth.  We generally dislike the mental effort it takes to check out information and to analyze ideas, particularly if we already want to believe the information and ideas, making us easily led by the unscrupulous.  The problem is componded when religious differences are added to the mix with the premise that ideas cannot be challenged because they are believed to be God's ideas.  Unfortunately, human nature cannot be easily changed through education, leading to continuing human misery, ongoing destruction of the earth's surface and endless conflicts over the ages.  Perhaps evolution can provide an answer for the human race, because the alternative can only be extinction!

     So why am I here?  And, in a few years, my "unanswered" question will be - Did I make a difference?  Perhaps in the short term - but in the long term?

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© 2017 Ron Stoessell

© 2018 Ron Stoessell