The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
We were born of carbon. The human body is made of it, with carbon surpassed only by oxygen in abundance. We are twenty-two point nine percent carbon.
In all its abundance, carbon is beautifully recycled by the planet, endlessly refreshing its supply. Carbon lives in our bodies for a hundred years at best, but has existed and will exist far longer. We breathe in oxygen and with each breath, give our carbon back into the cycle. The plants take it into their leaves, and we in turn devour the leaves. Of the seven million billion billion carbon atoms in the human body, only four percent were born into us at infancy. As for the rest, ingestion and inhalation assimilate carbon into a full-grown body, borrowing the particles that have been a piece of a billion men before. Then at last, Death and Decay gift us to the earth in whole.
Chemistry chews on our bodies long after the fungi have had their fill. We are rich catalysts, sacks of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Swallowed by the pressure of the earth and pounded to fluids, we are born again as oil after ten million years of purgatory.
When we see the sun again we see it up close. We feel the sun, the intolerable burn of incineration decimating our long chains into tiny gaseous particles escaping the blaze. Perhaps we have been the birth of an ingot of steel, perhaps we have delivered a father home safely to the embrace of his cherry-cheeked daughter. Unleashed by combustion we ascend as carbon dioxide, with front row for the spectacle of daybreak as we settle into our layer of the atmosphere.
Some of us escape our terrestrial confines enraged. We bundle up in deep-earth cracks, our long rest cut short with the greatest insult. We have not become lengthy molecules, carbon-rich gasoline or thick hunks of anthracite coal. Barely decomposed, we are too eager to escape the nighttime of our planet’s core, and bubble still gaseous from vents inside this celestial rock. We build up and pound at the surface for freedom, riled like a lynch mob to demand some unearned justice. Freedom from the ground before any use can come from us, and when we can ascend to the sky given one straight path from here to there we feel we have that right. Our impatience explodes, pressure rocketing out of a still mountain lake and overturning the water, only to find in all that miserable rain a pathetic fallacy, that our dense bodies can fly no further, that all we can do is drive the oxygen away, that all those living in this crater lake were born to be suffocated by our hubris and take our place. The cycle churns, the bodies rot, and we wait in line by vine and sprout in infinite monotony—unless a more glorious opportunity thrusts us from our march.
We circle this planet, and we leave this planet. We are carbon, and our compatriots are elsewhere: in the dusty surface of Mars, scattered in the asteroids that whirr through space, speckling the comets that streak the night sky back home. We are in astronomical nurseries being birthed by massive nuclear furnaces. We are swallowed by stars and disintegrated beyond our atom body only to emerge as a part of one hundred larger bits. By proton we build new elements, new molecules, new meteors, new planets. We do as we did honorably on earth and give ourselves to new life as breath and body.
We are born of carbon; we were born as carbon, with the carbon. Like an infant grown old who can’t remember the start to their life, our unconscious life extends beyond what our parents measured with new steps, words, and smiles. We existed before conception, before our species’ conception, before rock cooled for the first time and the bacterium reigned as sole possessor of life. We existed, and we will exist as long as our elements exist, waiting for the right occasion to form consciousness again.
Ainsley Pinkowitz is a poet and a scientist. She is currently a graduate student of Materials Science and Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. She’s a four-time winner of RPI’s McKinney Prize for poetry, and a regular at open mics and poetry slams around New York’s Capital District.
Photo: “Neuron Gain Intelligence,” from Buddy Beaudoin’s Pedalsmut Series