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What is a Birthday?

My birthday was a few days ago. I kicked off the day with a short run in my neighborhood, and stretched afterwards, as I usually do, with support from the large oak tree and boulder in my front yard. As always, I said hello to them and asked their permission to use them as support while I stretch.


I felt the tree wish me a happy birthday, which I thanked him for, and then I wondered about his birthday. What could be considered to be his birthday? Is it when he popped out of his acorn self, or when the acorn was formed, or when as a sapling he first peeked his head up out of the soil? It's a silly concept to consider, perhaps. From a slightly different perspective, it is the human idea of a birthday that appears silly.


I thought of other beings and how we might define their births. For most animals - reptiles, birds, mammals - it's a pretty straightforward answer by our culturally-accepted definition. It's when the eggs crack and the child emerges, or when mammals take their first breath of outside air.


But what about plants? Fungi? Rocks? For rocks which are formed by cooling lava, what is their birthdate? When they actually explode out of their originating volcano? Are they even individual rocks then?


All of these questions lack clear answers, which makes me wonder about the silliness of our cultural sense of a calendar. I am far from an expert on First Nations' methods for timekeeping, but from what little I have gathered, many (all?) don't have a linear concept of time. In the well-known book Black Elk Speaks, time is told by natural events. The summer of the great buffalo hunt, the winter after the flood, etc. It's not "three years ago," or "in 1724."


This nonlinear perspective of time ends up underscoring the concept that we live in cycles. Our lives are defined in relationship to natural events, and we're just links in an endless chain of humans (or, even further extrapolated), of life.


This makes the whole concept of a birthday feel weird and arbitrary. Why January 1st was chosen to kick off the concept of a year is entirely arbitrary. It could have easily been at the Winter Solstice, or three days after that event, or any of many many other options. Similarly with why we as intellectual humans divided time into 24 hours (why not 10?) or 12 months (why not 13? or 42?). Trees don't know, or care, if it's Tuesday or Thursday, if it's July 1st or June 17th.


I love my birthday, and had a wonderful day this year. And also, from a natural perspective, it seems pretty weird.

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