around my own infinitely connected universe. Cells and their
separate organelles float loosely in a sea of intercellular
fluid. They're not tightly packed together. Bones do not meet.
Neither do nerve cells. Skin seems to touch itself, until observed
under a microscope. Hair has each its separate follicle. Little
gaps and fissures. Some people think of breaking apart as negative.
I won't deny there are deviant varieties of separation. We want
our formations to be close together to better fill our senses.
Touch is tangible, and we are creatures seeking the tangible.
We desire to be touched, to end an isolation of sorts, the apparent
isolation of our bodies from everything else. In truth, there
are countless interactions occurring all the time that we are
only marginally aware of. Before I began to write this, I took
a drink from a water fountain. Even as I was swallowing that
last sip I was aware that through the mucus membranes of my
mouth and nose, as well as sweat glands all over my body, that
water was already on its way back out. As I exhaled the breath
I had been holding I was propelling countless molecules of vapor
back into an apparently cloudless sky.
I flew back to New York from New Orleans. As I crossed Ohio
and Pennsylvania I was struck as I watched towers exhale their
perpetual litany of smoke. I remembered being at a Native American
healing ceremony in mid-September and how the leader had talked
about the importance of smoke as an intermediary of the spirit,
or as a way to send a request out into the universe. I had heard
this message before, but on this particular day, at a gathering
held in the wake of September 11, I suddenly saw for the first
time what it must have meant to watch those wisps rising from
a medicine pipe 300 years ago, before there was a Louisiana
territory or a New York City. I grasped, finally, the significance
of sending messages skyward. As I watched, I wondered what kinds
of messages had gone up as the Twin Towers came down. On the
airplane, I watched and wondered about the smoke stack messengers
and what clouds they would touch. I wondered what their smoke
was made of, and would those who sent the messages even recognize
the answers when they came back.
WITH THE NAKED EYE -- VIEWING NATURE IN THE CITY
as absorbed in my life as any insect. Sometimes, I am a discordant
butterfly in search of more than flowers to satisfy my thirst.
Butterflies do not eat. Their long tongues are saved for sipping
only. Following the black hydrocarbon flow of estuaries and
tributaries, it takes tremendous effort to remember I am riding
on the backs of dinosaurs -- across femurs, up and down collar
bones, in and out of rib cages and eye sockets. Reconfigured,
all these parts now resemble shadows of what they once were.
Only the dragonflies and the alligators retain their shape.
Someday the alligators -- -- if they escape curio shops, may
be swallowed up by swamp and emerge the dinner of some yet undreamed
of mechanism. I am reasonably sure dinosaurs, with their tiny
cortices, never dreamed their destinies lead to a "substance
that is the by-product of a petroleum-cracking operation."
What I do know, for certain, is that nature never stops moving,
and humans are just one more agent of its change.
living thing is the center of its own universe. Its needs are
what matter most. But what about Gandhi, I argue? Mother Theresa?
Martin Luther King? Were not their natures more evolved? They
saw the world from their particular point of view. My view of
the world is not so grand. It's based on the desire to consume.
ranges from food to devouring ideas, or paintings with my eyes.
I am looking from a very small window on a very vast substance,
and we must talk together, you and I, for me to see more than
just the edges of my piece of the puzzle.
day I investigate my biosphere. I walk down Saint Charles Avenue
and make an accounting of what I find. Nature is on the move.
I measure the rise and fall of ferns. I listen to the ocean
of traffic as sound waves rise and fall, whooshing between trees
and parked cars. Street estuaries are their own oceans. I always
find patterns. Tiny plants, sometimes even small trees, make
their homes in human made terraces. They can't tell the difference
between earth made rock out-croppings and ones that humans have
shifted. To them, rocks are all the same. I can't tell if insects
and birds have an aesthetic preference for carved stone. I see
nests everywhere. Wild parrots seem to prefer both palm trees
and the tops of telephone poles equally. To them, wood is wood.
Termites dine on all kinds of cellulose. Much to the dismay
of homeowners, it makes no matter whether the wood still has
roots or has been reconfigured into house planks. It's just
see themselves, by and large, as separated from the natural
world. This separation has also been stratified, placing nature
in an inferior position and humans in a superior one. To qualify,
nature is anything not made by humans while anything humans
make is not part of nature; it is artificial. Human intervention,
even though we, too, are pieces of the natural, renders the
transformation of substances unnatural. This assessment flies
in the face of basic biology. We are of the animal kingdom,
categorized by a phylum, order, class, family, genus and species
like all other animals. If I am to change my views about human
creations, I first must accept my nature, my biological designation.
many, I have been taught to see city as "other." Yet
my eyes tell me I am walking and riding on recycled rock. I
see the small pebbles blended with mortar, some of it mixed
with outsides of recycled bivalves. The little patch of street
where I park my car was perhaps a Pteranodon, or a Plesiosaur,
or a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Other dinosaurs, reconfigured, are pumped
into my car's gas tank. I conduct this same kind of accounting
in my home. I have counted 26 rings in the wood rim of my cabinet;
38, 11 and 36 respectively in the three pieces that comprise
my kitchen window's frame. My kitchen chairs are a mixture of
wicker, vinyl and steel. The steel, melted and smelted and tempered
by humans in a factory instead of somewhere near the earth's
core. With more reconfigured metal, I eat from a piece of earth
that has been shaped, heated, pigmented, reheated and is now
called plate. More reconfigured metals line my sink, stovetop
and serve as handles. These handles themselves attached to former
trees or reshaped rocks. This paper I write upon once stood
breathing carbon dioxide. The coverings of my body, like this
paper, at one time, exchanged sunlight for energy and drank
afternoon rain. The water I use to brush my teeth might have
flowed past carp as it meandered past Saint Paul on its way
to alligators and New Orleans.
has no borders. It is everywhere, a living breathing boundary
-- less observatory. Patterns reveal that nature is orderly
while random flux reveals the opposite. This paradox, much to
the dismay of my desire for holdfasts, teaches me there is room
for both order and chaos. It teaches me to make comparisons.
I learn by following patterns. There is symmetry in the dissimilar
-- leaf prints, handprints; human and alligator. Shapes and
lines repeat. These patterns are what link roadway arteries
to the human circulatory system. My palm's surface runs the
regular rhythm of an oak tree. Beneath the helter-skelter of
broken criss-crossing passage ways lies regular patterns, tree
skin shapes, divided by Ys and Vs that give the appearance of
ripples. Finger pads too have these long rectangular U-turns.
With the naked eye, I can glimpse individual dermis cells on
the back of my hands, mostly triangles, sometimes diamonds,
trapezoids or squares, each with hair follicles. It looks like
an aerial view of a forest or a sparse patch of grass. By discussing
appearances, I am not saying things are identical, but rather
similar. There is a connection. At the moment, our alphabet
is a finite line of characters. Nature's character is circular.
Snyder says, "We live in a society of accumulation."
Counting keeps track of things. thousands of species perish
without us ever knowing them. They die because we are focused
on counting and holding what we already know. Nature is not
afraid of destruction. Just look at all the havoc we humans
wreck on the biosphere. In mathematics there are problems that
have no constant, no solution. Calculus is the mathematics of
change. The concept of limits fails when lines that begin from
the same point go off in two different directions. How many
former trees does it take to build a ten room house or a condo
complex? How much heartwood makes a couch, a table, a chest
of drawers, an armchair? Confined to his bed, Descartes traced
the path of a fly as it meandered around his room. Using longitude
and latitude, he invented new formulas. He learned from making
an account of the earth. A fly led to algebra.
tree is the Alpha and the Omega. It is self-fertilizing. My
admiration of it does nothing to further its existence, unless
I am standing near by, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide.
I am expendable. It makes me cringe.
are not isolated builders within the animal kingdom. Insects
stack. Spiders weave. Birds collect. Rodents tunnel. Countless
others dig, burrow according to a template stored in some primeval
part of the brain. Maybe the desire for structure is as much
a part of the autonomic nervous system as breathing or circulating
blood. Maybe everything else stems from this desire for security,
for something to hold onto. Even trees attach.
all start out one shape and end up something else. Leaves will
eventually be dirt. Everything sheds itself. Energy cannot be
created or destroyed, it just changes form. Yes, there is atrophy.
You can't be what you once were. It's a transfer. Things don't
become nothing. They end up something else. At the moment, I
am sitting in reconfigured energy, the visual results of a far-off
thermonuclear reaction, on a bench that was once part beach
and part tree. I watch as two butterflies, their wings the color
and shape of spring Gingko leaves, flutter for a moment
together, and then part ways. Many insects begin as worms and
end up with wings, all within a lifetime. Some animals trade
tails for legs. The most astounding transformations I know of
took thousands of years, that of dinosaurs to birds and dinosaurs
humans are tinkers, experts at fulfilling our destiny as agents
of change. Trees and water both crack rock. Wind scatters it.
Earth erupts. Continents shift. Nothing ever stationary. We
humans are the ever-change. In one lifetime we can erect and
demolish structures that would take other beings thousands of
evolutions to effect. What powers we possess. And, how often
we don't recognize them.
seek out and create. We never fully believe we can guarantee
our own safety. And we are right. This uncertainty has its consequences.
We are both the creators and instruments of our own destruction.
the earth's presence far more here, in New Orleans, than in
Connecticut. Change is easier to trace. I come knowing tidal
flats. They are perpetual shift, as is the moon that moves their
flux. Swamps and river basins are similar. They reinforce my
learning that change is constant. Like math, it is the other
side of the equals sign, the final answer that is no answer.
We have only to look closely to see stillness is an illusion.
Heat and moisture and river silt that lies under relocated sand
conspire to crack and heave sidewalks and roadways.
is the ultimate reorganizer. It's the ultimate appetite. It
is the great grotesque. It is never satisfied. I take comfort
in knowing someday I will be part of something else. It is my
wish to go out like the Vikings, on fire as I float to the center
of a lake. The ultimate Ying and Yang. As my ashes scatter,
they will become animal and lakebed, insect and plant. I will
continue to change after my ability to recognize is gone. There
is fear in this kind of safety, too. I can’t grasp the
magnitude of it.
and death are a process of laundering, of endless spinning.
The world is a winding complicated tangle of empty and full.
We continue to accumulate and specify without plugging back
into the greater whole. If we continue to measure progress without
accounting for our impact on the whole, we will surely starve.
Only by acknowledging our power as tinkers will we ensure our
safety, as well as that of the earth. By safety, I do not mean
structure. I mean a full assessment of impact.
car beside me releases the ghost of some great beast, a grey
cloud of former neurons, skeletal structures, claws and skin.
I know I’ll never be able to grasp the enormity of it
all, but the appetite, the yearning is there.
puzzle will never be finished because the center pieces are
missing. Understanding is forever being strangled by definition.
In our effort to hold on to an answer, to make it finite, we
miss the greater intangible, natural truth. The hard-wear of
holdfasts works until the next invention. Once upon a time,
a squint was a slit for eyes to look through, now it's what
eyes do. Issues used to be children. A fiddle is a violin.
keeps passing away. I am watching from a cliff without the cover
of a cave. You and I are both right, we are just working on
a different segment. It's scary. There are no holdfasts here.
Back at the Laundromat, I watch a leaf whirling toward its dirt-making
destiny. It is November. Nothing is supposed to sit still. Ever.
The car is moving, the air is moving, the earth is moving, and
I am motion sick.
serve a purpose. They clean up the messiness of change. Every
day, beneficent creatures eat their way across eye lashes, clothing
and bed linen, their feast: debris of dead skin cells. How many
unwanted pounds of human flesh would fill the world if they
were not regularly consumed. In vain, I went searching for these
creatures on the internet. When it comes to humans, there is
no benign eating to be done.
think we have sown it all up. The joke is on us. We have gotten
lost in the minutiae. Somewhere, new life forms are coming into
being. I watch from my window and wait for our next conversation.