Celebrating the gift of the Inner Lizard

Jon Steele

Winter in the vineyards of Lavaux, Switzerland (photo-JS)

Sometimes, like walking through the terraced vineyards surrounding my village, memories seep up through the folds of my neocortex; often for no particular reason. I’m looking at the light on the water and boom…I remember cross-mixing the tail of Eric Clapton’s Motherless Children over the lip of Manfred Mann’s You Angel You,was a great segue when I was spinning wax on KBCO-FM thirty-seven years ago.

I’m obsessed with memories. Not mine so much, it’s the very structure of memories. What the hell are they?

We may contemplate memories and analyze them in the neocortex (where human consciousness dwells) and come up with swell ideas like Cartesian Skepticism, The Divine Comedy or cheeseburgers, but memories themselves are stored in the limbic system; in the hippocampus region to be precise. People a lot smarter than me (the ones who wear white coats and go by the first names of Professor or Doctor,) call the limbic system “Old Mammalian Brain.” Meaning, it’s what humans had for brains 100 million years ago before evolution kicked in big time. The limbic system also houses the “Emotional Brain” because it’s where emotions are generated; in a place called the amygdala region.

The realization that things like imagination and creativity (up in my neocortex) draw on emotions and memories (down in my limbic system) is something of a conundrum. Nobody knows how it all works exactly. But for better or worse this symbiotic network of interacting electrical impulses in all our heads, defines our perception of the world around us. In fact, it doth make old mammalians of us all.

Even so, I could not help thinking there wasn’t more to memories. Something older than dreams, older than the universe maybe. So I kept walking and thinking about it.

I remembered reading (while researching stuff on human brains and memories to come up with Jay Harper’s angelic brain for the The Angelus Trilogy) that even deeper within our skulls is something called the “Reptilian Brain.” In terms of evolution, the reptilian part of our brain is hundreds and hundreds of millions of years old. Reptilian Brain makes Old Mammalian Brain look positively space age on the timeline of human existence.

So imagine the smile on my face while walking through the vineyards when I met up with a podarcis muralis, otherwise known as a common wall lizard. He was sunning himself on one of the eight-hundred year old stone walls that mark different plots of vines throughout Lavaux. Pinot Noir here, Chasselas there, Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc way up there. (Much the way our brains are sectioned into this bit and that bit.)

It struck me that me and the lizard both had a brain with similar basic attachments. We both have a spinal cord, pons, cerebellum, and a medulla oblongata. I could’ve dissected the critter then and there just to make sure but it wouldn’t have been nice. It was a sunny day in mid-winter and the lizard was having a fine time warming up. Besides, I left my Swiss Army knife at home.

Just then, I imagined (again, way up in my neocortex) that the reptilian part of my brain (and the only brain the lizard had) were both telling us the same things at the same time. “Must breathe now,” “Must make heart beat now,” and so on. The two of us were being told these things because in the deepest, most ancient part of our common reptilian brain, there exists the instinct that drives all else…“MUST NOT DIE NOW!”

And watching the lizard watch me with its beady eyes, I wondered, How does this creature have a survival instinct without a memory of death? I mean, I have memories of death from working as a news cameraman for twenty-five years. And though I’ve been lucky enough to cheat death more times than I care to remember, I know one day the bastard will finally hunt me down and nail my ass to the wall for good.

Memories of death (in my case, video images of merciless death and are seared into the hippocampus region of my brain) cause me to conceive of nothingness often, or at least no-more-ness. Usually in the dead of those nights when I can’t sleep, and it scares the bejesus of me.

But the lizard didn’t have a hippocampus region to store memories. And even if he did, he sure as hell didn’t have a neocortex to contemplate nothingness. But on the level of “Must not die now,” me and the lizard were sharing the same exact instinct at the exact same moment. And that same instinct to survive no matter what, runs down the evolutionary chain through every life form on the planet; all the way down to a single cell amoebae. How the hell does that work?

Those smart people in white coats will tell you: “Instinct is defined as a behavior performed without benefit of experience or learning, and therefore an expression of innate biological factors.” In other words, while instinct can be observed it cannot be explained…

(whiplash warning)

…like the universe itself.

Quantum mechanics proves the universe is nothing more than the cosmic dust of the Big Bang, born of a point of singularity 13.5 billion years ago. But quantum mechanics cannot tell us if the Big Bang was by accident, or design. So to my ears, point of singularity sounds an awful lot like innate biological factors. In other words, they’re both science-speak for, “Terribly sorry, but that’s all we seem to know at the moment.”

Which is fine. This gigantic lapse in scientific knowledge gives a writer like me just enough room to imagine the wildest things; to create my own universe even. And in my universe that “point of singularity” wasn’t a thing, it was a life form from which both me and the lizard both evolved. Meaning the Big Bang wasn’t the wizardly creation of something that wasn’t previously there; it was the evolution of a pre-existing life form, and we bits of cosmic dust are its descendants.

And that would mean instinct isn’t an expression of innate biological factors at all; instinct is a cosmic memory embedded in every living thing through the stuff of the universe. Hydrogen, helium and some other stuff, but mostly hydrogen and helium. And that great cosmic memory is this: Life is defined by nothingness. In my universe I know this to be true beyond any doubt…and so does my lizard pal, still sunning himself on that warm eight-hundred year old rock.

(like I said, whiplash)

I’m very sure that one day, if our planet survives the willful ignorance of its dominant species to consume in mass quantities, science will discover that life on Earth came from somewhere else. I’m as equally sure science will discover the thing we call “a soul” is a real thing (as Marc Rochat in The Watchers would say,) made up of as yet undiscovered matter. And that this matter is common to every sliver of life on the planet.

It was on a day like this, walking through the vineyards and meeting up with a wall lizard, that all the synapses in my brain fired and words began to fall into place. Then I could sort of see them on a page. The words evolved into a line of dialogue for The Watchers (book one The Angelus Trilogy,) spoken by a morphine addicted tramp named Monsieur Gabriel (who is also one of the last of the good angels left on Planet Earth.) He stands on the altar of Lausanne Cathedral while scratching the needle marks on his forearm, trying to explain to a muddled Jay Harper (who has yet to understand his job as a warrior angel is to save all that’s left of Paradise) just what they are and where they come from. But as angels are just another life form from another part of the universe who mysteriously ended up on Earth, Monsieur Gabriel isn’t that sure himself. So he gives the Big Bang his best shot and says, “We are creatures of the unremembered beginning. We do not know where we come from, all we know is we are here.”

It turned out to be one my favorite passages in the entire trilogy.

Jon Steele is an American expat writer living in Europe.


Lavaux is a real place…