When the ancestors of the First Americans crossed the Bering land bridge and set foot in the vast unexplored continent that stretched out before them toward the dawn, they carried with them their precious tools of stone and carved ivory and bone. They carried the ground powders they used to decorate their bodies and belongings, sometimes using it to mark a cliff or a boulder as they passed by. They carried their animal skins and props for the hunting dance and the other celebrations of the lunar and solar cycles. They had language, they had tribal traditions and technologies which they passed down to their children. Their most important possession, however, more precious than tools or skins or culture or even language, was the ability to dream. Their dreams and the driving desire to communicate them to one another in symbol and song, to bring the contents of the dream reality into the waking reality they shared with the tribe, this is what guaranteed their survival and success on this journey into a new and utterly unknown world.
In the old world, in the continents of Asia and Europe and Africa which they had left behind, their cousins in the distant deserts and forests kept on dreaming as well. And these dreams gave rise to different songs, to different myths and stories and celebrations, and the celebrations gave rise to religions and the religions gave rise to shrines and to altars and to larger and larger temples and then to cities and what we now call “civilization.” From dreams came new tools, new technologies, new traditions - the herding of animals, the planting of seeds. And there were always myths and stories to explain them. Each community which adopted these innovations remembered that they were taught by a visiting god or goddess - Enki, Inanna, Thoth, Isis, Hermes, Demeter. In shining visions, these divinities revealed the outlines of a new way of life. And on both sides of the great oceans, across all of the tiny islands and the sea swept coasts, the people continued to dream.
Dreaming reveals what is possible, what is possible eventually becomes what is probable, what is probable becomes what is, and is then the basis for a new dream. In dreaming we exercise the imagination for its own sake, unlimited by the narrow confines of past experience. We escape into the delight of pure invention, free of the suffocating discipline of necessity, that stern and humorless mother. We plant strange seeds which germinate unseen and then burst forth suddenly into new knowledge, new philosophies, new technologies and industries.
In dreaming we combine what we have seen to create things that have never been. A woman and a fish become a mermaid; a man and a horse become a centaur; an eagle and a lion become a gryphon. And so, eventually, a fire drill and a spear become a bow and arrow; a flag and a canoe become a sailboat; a carriage and a steam engine become an automobile; an automobile and a pair of wings become an airplane.
A bored law student in 19th Century Paris entertains himself by writing stories about bold adventurers on fantastic journeys. He imagines a giant cannon aimed skyward and a hollow projectile carrying passengers from the earth to the moon. A century later - 104 years, to be exact - a former test-pilot steps from the flimsy ladder of a lunar lander and takes “one giant leap for mankind.” Six years before the moon landing, a Baptist minister from Atlanta describes his own dream to a crowd of eager listeners. Only 46 years later this time, a new millennium has begun and that minister’s great speech has created a new reality, a reality in which a member of a race once despised and held in slavery stands shoulder to shoulder with the most powerful leaders of the globe.
The sharpest stone axes of the past are useless to us now. The old tales and myths about gods and angels and demons may be a temporary diversion for children, but it is time for news stories, new inspiration. Our heritage as human beings does not lie in the old dreams of our ancestors but in the ability to dream our own dreams. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” the Elizabethan bard reminds us, and our reality is built of dream stuff as well. Whatever the challenges ahead, our best hope is to dream our way through them. Our species has survived challenges before - ice ages have come and gone, flora and fauna have evolved and become extinct, civilizations have risen and fallen. Dreamers have always shown us the path to the next stage, for through dreams we have access to the deep wisdom each of us carries within. As another poet realized:
"All is within us", purgatory and hell,
Seeds full of will, the white of the inner bark,
the rich and the smooth colours,
the foreknowledge of trees,
sense of the blade in seed, to each its pattern.
Germinal, wilful, latent,
Later to leap and soar,
(Ezra Pound, Canto V)