Sunday, December 19, 2010

Chain Letter Biology

An old rancher looks at me and asks, "You ever seen a dust storm?" I open my mouth to say yes, but before I can answer, he says, "You've never seen a dust storm."
I look into the distance. Today I can see dust devils on the horizon, three of them, cutting through a bleached cornfield. The cornstalks raise their leaves in panic, but it is too late. The stalks are twisted and torn from the ground and pulled apart, leaf from trembling leaf. Bits of leaves and stalk flutter down from the sky like snow - dry, square flakes of corn snow. I hold a dozen of them in my hand. No two flakes are different from the other. This is the best we can do.
Mars is covered with dust devils. From above, you can see their circular tracks on the iron oxide and basalt, much like those left by tornadoes as they twist across asphalt. But there is no Martian travel guide. So the amateur astronomer peers into his narrow, cloudy lens and jumps! He sees the twisting tracks, scoured into the bare rock. He squints and starts counting the tracks. He spends days counting and cataloging. Then one day he sees something coiling across the rocks. From 100 million miles away, he studies it. From directly overhead. It's an organic, evolving shape, moving, gyrating, growing, cutting a track in the rocks and sand. Tracks like a sidewinder, a kangaroo rat, great blue heron. Therefore it is alive and animal. Is that a tail? A hypothesis is born: Sepia colored, one-eyed, leathery desert giants, with rippled, olive-green arms, twirling across the surface like Triassic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, swishing their ribbed tails behind them, leaving sparking, spiraling tracks in their wake. Perhaps they make a call like lemurs or dolphins. He rushes out the door. He spreads the word to his friends. His friends spread the word to their friends. Their friends spread the word to their friends. Thus, if each person tells twelve of his friends today, and each of those friends tells twelve of their friends tomorrow, within several days the amateur astronomer with the tiny telescope will himself be contacted by eleven million, seven hundred and thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and two breathless people, gasping to tell him the news that not only are there herds of highly developed, one-eyed aliens on Mars but that they have invaded earth and have taken over the railroads and control the media and are driving that ice-cream truck that is idling in front of his house. Armed with over eleven million independent reports, he is ready to sit down and write his thesis. Now the shadows on the rocks in his telescope look like a top hat and a sparkly sequined gown. He hears them talking to each other.
No, singing. His thesis is published and the audience of millions embraces what they already knew millions knew to be true. Letters pour through the mail slot in his door like coins from a slot machine.
But somewhere out in the wilderness, a village was overlooked and never got the news. Too bad for them. It could be in the desert southwest, somewhere down a slick-rock canyon beneath a sandstone overhang. An Anasazi village. Stone houses tossing empty windows into the dry wash. Scattered amongst shards of clay pots with jittery lines and charcoal cubes are tiny corncobs as big as your thumb, multicolored with stripes and solids, with blue and red and black and purple and orange - like a Scottish scarf, Indian beadwork, an African kanga, a Laotian sihn. Footprints are in the sand from a woman who had just looked at the lines on the corn. Now she draws lines on the wet clay. She is making more pottery. Too bad for her. Drought is sweeping over the stone ridge above her and will suck the creek dry, take the life right out of her. Winds swirl the corn cobs around the dry creek bed leaving circles in the sand. She drops everything and runs, but it is too late.
Today, the winds continue. The fact is, on a barren, stripped landscape, the whirlwinds run amok. The heat is absorbed by the dark basalt and granite and asphalt or depleted inorganic soil, then it rises, fueling a global army of dust devils. They march across the surface exploding and burning everything in their path, exposing more basalt and granite. This does not have to be observed with a telescope. This day, as they pull the plants out by the roots and vaporize the soil, I hear a hissing sound and at several points across the landscape it appears as if the whirlwinds have peeled away the earth's mantle. Air escapes from the earth's core, sucked into the sky along with carpets of spring ephemerals, moss agates, desert varnish, coral reefs, cloud forests, and cobs of corn, no two of them alike. I drop everything and run. I would pass it along, but millions already know that millions know that this is not true. Too bad for all of us.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Failed Vision

The vision fades with age.
Shielding my eyes from the cloudless skies in the Great Plains in July has not been enough. The ultraviolet rays have slipped around my palm and through my fingers and smeared the lens and numbed the retina. I thought the bones and badlands had bleached over the years, that repeated washings in sunlight took the color away. I thought that the contrails and flue gasses and auto emissions and turpenes were stacking in the dormant air mass. They were mounds of clouds, like bales of cotton. Industrial slaves in the dead of summer, hoisting bales in the open baked land. Not the faintest breeze. I thought I saw a man throw a horse out of his car. Horses were strewn across the landscape, floating in the shimmering heat waves, bobbing like boats. As the years went by, the waves reached my feet and lapped over my shoes. The salt spray left a crust on my clothes. I thought that the heat waves were like tides, advancing toward me as the new moon moved to the zenith, unseen in front of the sun, drawing the oceans upward. Somewhere out there, someone is pointing a finger, as if to say, where were you? If I didn't shield my eyes, I would probably bleach out like those bones that I think that I saw.
I think, this treeless basin is an interrogation room. Just then, I feel someone slam a book on my fingers. My knees shake. I yammer like twelve Olive-throated parrots in a cage. I describe what I saw, but they have me trapped in my words. I stumble from my seat and grope for the doorknob. Do I deny everything? Someone grabs my wrist and I feel a blow to the back of my head. Now everything goes white. Someone is shaking his head. Isn't there an alibi? My recollections are based on observations, careful observations. Through perceptive distortions and cognitive impairments. This is the world that I think that I thought that I knew. I slump back in the chair. I can't recall a thing.
So it is. The ultraviolet radiation pours down like rain, through a porous sky, poked full of holes by industrial stacks and aviation and overinflated ideas and a thousand hands reaching for the stars. There's gold in them thar stars. If I was a welder, I would wear a mask to protect my sight. But a million welders wearing a million masks marching across the landscape yammering like twelve million parrots is terrifying. What can I see that nobody else can't?
This is what they say, the idea: They say that this is the ascent, the condition under which life will accelerate. Advanced habitat and response. Already, the wisdom teeth fail to form, the vestigial tail is absorbed, the third eyelid recedes, the appendix shrinks, and the pinky toe shrivels away. Our fear of height and water has driven us from treetops and underwater life. We have migrated toward an engineered diet of spongiform petroleum products. Advances in food and water delivery systems has enabled us to abandon bipedalism in favor of a sitting position. Air is filtered, light is designed, sound is composed. Pseudogenes multiply, and we cast off our appendages, free at last, free at last.
Then comes the ultraviolet light, pouring down. Go ahead, punch another hole in the sky. And I think, this treeless basin has become a genetics laboratory, a mutation breeder reactor. Just then, my hands begin to swell, then my knees. I start stammering. I can't formulate any words, I can't describe what I am seeing, my thoughts are trapped in my head and I can't get out of my chair. Words and ideas are deleted, duplicated, inverted, inserted and translocated. And then, there is a sharp pain in my head and all I see is white. I can't remember a thing.
This is enlightenment? The body has a fifty-year warranty; there are gene regulators, DNA repair mechanisms, but what about our ideas? Uninsulated and prone, they mutate. They spill out, stillborn, damaged, enraged, deranged, flailing, with six arms, reptilian, with vestigial tails nine feet long - with spikes - and scaly skin, third eyes, bony plates, and breathing fire and growing at a rate that, given enough time, will require four earths to feed.
Up to this point, the saving grace has been their failure to thrive.
Looking out across the expanding urban necropolis, the the hellscape swelling like an aneurysm, sores weeping toxic oils, molten lead raining from the sky, with packs of rock-throwing men hunting down the sick and elderly, spasmodic eruptions of shoppers, the money fires illuminating the night, I realize that there is a day that I may deny ever having been here.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Assumption of Independence

As I watched the heads of industrialized nations gather on the steps of the Bourse de Bruxelles last Friday, posing for photographs, a man behind me shouted, "Follow your dreams!"
I wondered, Day or night?
Spokesman Saul Changoranatan, CEO of of Blodder, Marthian, and Bewomb, a venture capital firm that targets emerging geoengineering technologies, moved toward the microphone and declared, "Our shared dreams are soon to be a shared reality." Reading from prepared notes, he asserted that "the current crisis is an advantage. Current conditions present the human race with a once-in-an-epoch opportunity for renewal, positive change, adaptation, and growth."
I looked at the clock above the entryway. It was 10:14.
Few recognized that those words were the same ones uttered two weeks earlier by an obscure mechanical engineer in a speech he gave at a high school graduation ceremony in Cantansezia, Kansas.
It was Mel Thrattlingshire, an NIT graduate. I tracked Mel down at a cafe in Kansas City a few days later. "It was my daughter's graduation," he explained. "She was valedictorian, of course." He leaned back in his chair and smiled. "They actually read directly from my handwritten notes." He looked at the tablecloth, vinyl, with red and white checkers. "I was stunned. How did they get them?" He pulled a mechanical pencil from his pocket protector, grabbed a napkin from the dispenser and started to scribble. "Aha. See?" He held up the napkin. He had calculated that the dissemination of his ideas at the Bourse was equivalent to publishing four peer-reviewed articles. "It is working out well: I saved four years of research and writing and groveling before two rich benefactors." He tipped his head back and laughed. "I have the data right here in my wallet."
I leaned over to look. "It's empty."
The smile dropped and he leaned across the table and whispered, "It's a metaphor."
"And the metaphor?"
His eyebrows crossed. "Look, bud, we are at the threshold. We face a world with exponential growth in change, an explosion of possibilities. Anything can happen. And what is possible, if we persist, will be probable, and what is probable, given enough opportunity, becomes certainty." He scratched a large black mole on his arm. I thought that the mole appeared to move but he rolled down his sleeve. "Our dreams will come true; we will ascend."
I rubbed my eyes. To where? I noticed that the second hand on the clock on the wall was moving but the minute hand was stuck on 14 and the hour hand on 10. Forever was now and it wasn't going away soon.
He said that it was a daydream that started it all. "It was during a moment of silence at my daughter's graduation ceremony." Mel raised his arm and pointed at the wall. "I looked around at the auditorium in front of me, filled with thousands of teenagers dressed in the school colors. Everyone had their eyes closed and heads bowed. Nobody said a word. It was beautiful. And then all at once, they started to sing the school song." He cleared his throat.

Warriors brave and bold,
Fists raised at the sky
Victory is ours,
Victory or die!

He smiled broadly, looking at the sky out the window. He pumped his fist. "It was inspiring. That's where I got this idea." He paused and watched two men arguing over a parking space.
"What idea?"
"It's from this information age; it bombards us with statements, with ideas. Words everywhere, like gamma rays. The information increase is breathtaking. Did you know that an average man today hears more information in a day than an average man in the 1800's heard in his lifetime? You need to cut through it with a machete, it grows so fast." A buzzing noise came from the kitchen and he turned his head and cocked his ear. It was a radio announcing a severe thunderstorm warning.
He turned back. His glasses reflected the dark, cloudy sky and his eyes disappeared. "And it's diverging into two opposing universes of thought, like thought and anti-thought." He paused. "Sometimes..." His voice trailed away.
"Sometimes the spheres of thought balance out so perfectly that they cancel each other out and all you can hear is white noise - the background radiation." He looked up at the sky. "Like the pinging of Sputnik in your earphones as it sailed across the blackened heavens." He squinted. "A thousand miles overhead, so far out of reach." He looked at the kitchen. "So far..."
I watched as the two men continued to argue, shouting above one another. "Too far."
"So far away - that - that's when you begin to hear things." Now Mel, seeing my eyes switch between him and the two men arguing, looked at the clock on the wall. His eyes brightened. "We just need one more moment of chance, that's all. That will be our breakthrough."
He looked at his hands, folding the napkins on the table in front of him into ever tightening squares. "When two ideas collide, you get one stronger idea. When four ideas collide, you get two stronger ideas. So, imagine the strength of doctrine, the dominion of thought we have under these conditions."
"Strength - or haze?" I noticed one of the men shove the other.
"Strength. The bombardment of ideas, the mutagenesis of thought. Dialectic Steel. We are on an upward spiral." He sat up and swirled his finger in the air.
My eyes followed his hand but I felt myself getting dizzy. "You mean heaven?"
A waitress appeared at his side. "This isn't theology, this is empirical. It's the material equivalent, if you will." She asked for his order. Scrambled eggs and toast. Just water for me.
I put my face in my hands. "This sounds like an invitation to the Roman Games."
"Rome gave us a Republic."
"And Pompeii."
"Look, the winners got a crown and glory and a seat by Jupiter." He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. The two men were nose to nose. He sighed. "We get the equivalent."
I stared at his face. Now, nothing moved except a small blood vessel on his left temple.
He gave a slight nod, then continued. "Lincoln said that government accomplishes collectively what people cannot do individually." He pushed the salt shaker toward me. "So, collectively, we can accomplish anything." He pushed the tightly folded napkins toward me. "You see?"
I closed my eyes. "No."
"What we have in front of us, is a quantum leap forward, the cladogenesis of our species. It is our moment in time. We are at the threshold of reaching unity, of becoming one, a global organism, a pan-species."
"From static?"
"No, no - " he slipped forward in his chair. "It's music, really. It's collective consciousness and shared memory and common dreams and mass movement." The two men were now wrestling. A small crowd gathered and watched. A tow truck was pulling up alongside the cars.
Then one man threw a punch. Then the other. I turned my head. "What movement? You mean revolution?"
He laughed. "Speciation is not revolution. It's ascent. This is not a political act that saves us, it is a biological act." He sat up straight again and looked me in the eye. His glasses reflected the two men fighting, like a stereopticon. They both were defeating each other twice. His face began to swell. "Imagine the world of mankind sending sulfur dioxide balloons up into the upper atmosphere and releasing their gasses to dim the sun and cool the earth -"
"I -"
"Call it our Million Man Volcano." His face was red.
"But -"
"Or millions of windbreaks in the Gulf of Mexico to break up hurricanes - a public works project. Full employment. The Hurricane Nation."
"No -"
"Or millions of people cutting millions of acres of trees across fire-dependent ecosystems. Indefinitely! Save houses and everyone has a job. Call it The Human Firestorm. "
"You are -"
"We are - We, The Ecosystem. It's time. We have spent too many years wringing our hands, passively accepting whatever this planet throws at us. We have the can-do spirit. We cannot take this lying down. This is a call to action. We, an environmental re-evolution. It is certain to happen."
I had to look away. The two men were lying unconscious on the sidewalk. Hailstones, the size of baseballs, began to fall. "Yep."
"You see, when we work together, as a species, there is nothing that we cannot achieve. Collectively, this earth is just no match for us."

Monday, February 08, 2010

Killing Fields

A yellow-throated vireo falls to the ground without our knowledge.
Each year, on a Saturday morning in early October, an airplane would fly over our town and drop pastel-colored leaflets - pink, yellow, pale blue, pale green. This was part of the "Fire Prevention Week" festivities, held on the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The leaflets had a drawing of a fireman looking at a sheet of paper he held in his hand. He had this expression of shock and determination. Something on the front of the paper disturbed him, but it was out of view. I always wondered what the fireman saw on the front; I imagined it was some fire-crime in progress, maybe a picture of a child playing with matches. The backside of the paper was usually blank but a few of the leaflets had the word "Candy" stamped on it. If you found one of these, you could turn it in for free candy at the fire station. So, on this morning, hundreds of schoolchildren would fan out in the neighborhood, rummaging through hedges, fields, backyards, treetops, looking for a winning leaflet. I found thousands of leaflets, but I never found one with the word "Candy". Nor can I find one today.
One hundred years earlier, two men had played with matches in a barn near the alley behind 137 DeKoven Street. In the aftermath, people wandered about, stumbling through the ruins of their homes, stunned, despairing, helpless, picking through the bricks and mounds of blackened studs and plaster and paneling in search of something valuable - a child's toy, a kettle, a pocket watch. I do not know if they ever found anything either.
So, six weeks ago I stood in a market in southern Africa, looking at animal hides and carved soapstone and ebony elephants and wooden masks and East Indian spices and bone necklaces and something to shade my iridescent head. As I paid for my items, the shopkeeper, in gratitude for my patronage, gave me a gift. It was a bank note from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. I have it here in front of me right now. The note says "Special Agro-Cheque" on both sides. It is signed by a Dr. G. Gono, Governor. Dr. Gono is the head of the Reserve Bank. The note is valued at 100 billion dollars. Or so it says. The result is this: a box of tissue paper is smaller than the stack of paper money required to buy it. The note actually has an expiration date on it, "Pay to the bearer on demand...on or before 31st December 2008." It occurred to me that if I looked, I might find them scattered across the veld, caught in acacia trees, floating in rivers, drifts of them behind granaries.
This is what is called hyperinflation, when the winds of the economy become hurricane force. There are those that say that this hyperinflation was the result of a rapid expansion of the money supply in Zimbabwe. Some say that there is a direct connection between prices and money supply; others contend that there is no direct connection. Others take a middle ground. Others say it depends. Theories abound - Quantity Theory, Fiscal Theory, Real Bills Doctrine. These go back hundreds of years. Self liquidating paper with forthcoming productions on monetary aggregate real values and net national product or structural deficit on the equilibrium price level. Sixteen men playing with matches. Meanwhile, Zimbabweans rummage through the ruins of their lives searching for bits of aluminum to sell for scrap. Eventually, they will start using bits of aluminum as currency - and eureka! somewhere, in some laboratory, an economic theory is born. Make that seventeen men. Another idea blows around in the wind.
And another vireo falls. There could be millions of them falling for all we know. Vireos and northern parulas and Acadian flycatchers and hooded warblers and wood thrushes and scarlet tanagers. Now let me postulate: I suppose that this could be a function of the total supply of birds multiplied by their velocity or a function of the demand for birds, a constant aggregate supply, or projected reproduction, while some always remain in reserves, and besides, if we are wealthy, the birds can be traded for bird credits and divided by their demand on the exotic pet market. It might be the function of seventeen men talking.
I have spent years chasing down valuables in hedges, fields, backyards, treetops, looking for something, anything - and what do I find - another man with a shocked expression holding a blank piece of paper. Tonight I hear thumping on the roof of my house. What is it? Is that the sound of embers or is it birds?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


Folded up like origami, strapped into position like a man in an electric chair, fed 5/8-scale replicas of food, and forced to stare at an unblinking screen showing an endless loop of a man struggling to break free from his seat might seem to be an attempt by security apparatchik to extract some vital information about an impending act of faith-based schizophrenia or how one in custody might break free from legirons or my maiden's last four digits or the name of my favorite social security card, but the comparisons to prison life find more parallels in prison life than those actually found in prison life. I asked the man across the aisle if he would trade a package of filter-less crackers for a place in the line leading to the lavatory. Or maybe a seat by the emergency exit. He looked at my face and said the price just went up three hundred percent. I recalled statesmen before me and their phlebitic struggles in air flight and I wondered if I had been elected in absentia. "Oh boy!," I thought, "I'm going to Absentia."
I always wanted to go there. Why, I spent most of my childhood daydreaming about the place. And now, the day had arrived. I thought about my family back home. I grew misty. They always said I would end up there. How did they know?
I leaned back in my seat, closed my eyes, and smiled. This was no tiny, airless cell, it was a universe of possibilities. A new world. That baby in row 29, why, he howled like a hyena. The coughing man was calling wild game. A woman walked by balancing her luggage on her head. The man with the hairy neck in 34A bounded from his seat and swung from aisle to aisle. The engines roared like lions. Women gathered in the galley to collect the day's water and scrub their laundry. Newspapers rustled like palmettos. Nobody spoke my language. There was laughing in the back, where men were carving wooden bowls. Somebody hung a woven mat from a tree. A woman walked down the aisle, sweeping it with a straw broom, followed by a line of stewardesses singing in four part harmony.

Move fast
On those mountains
You are running away
On those mountains

Just then, somebody must have chopped open a pineapple; I smelled pineapple, I know it. Where was it? Then a woman appeared at my side and put a plate of antelope stew before me and I scooped it out of the bowl with my left hand. It was delicious. Someone grabbed my arm and I opened my eyes.
It was still dark.
Stars faltered in the moonless sky. I stretched out in my chair. Somewhere out there in the darkness I had seen a herd of hills that followed a dry valley lined with fever trees. The hills were like the backs of cape buffalo, migrating to the western horizon. Now, I could hear the hills moving quickly. Everything moved quickly. This night, the wind charged out of the west, fierce, snorting, stampeding up the valley and the slope in front of me, scattering everything in its path, swinging everything around like a weather vane - even the sky had turned. I tilted my head to see. Orion was now standing upright, directly overhead. Dim and scintillating, he trembled like an aging warrior, red and shrunken, a wrinkled, dying man. I tilted my head again and he was now the reflection of the faint civilization below, where idle men sat in the dirt beneath umbrella trees poking sticks into campfires that sent a plume of orange stars to replenish the night sky while old women folded their hands eleven different ways. An old man nodded. The acacia were swept up by the wind and their thorns fell into an argument, chattering across the valley. The wind burst over the hilltop, full of urgency. My hat blew away. The thatched roof rattled like bones. Wooden masks shuddered against the walls. Chairs walked across the grass. Termites fell from the sky. Predators, gloved and silent, stalked the bush. There was a muffled cry beneath the roar of the wind. I thought I heard a body fall to the ground.
I jumped from my chair.
The wind carried the blackness above like an animal skin, rippling, with swirls of smoke from distant cook fires and the scent of acacia blossoms and wild lemon. That smell, something like pine and peppermint and vinegar and whiskey and creosote. I wanted that wind. I reached out my hand. The savanna arched and hissed, waterless, thirsting. It was said that in the bush, lions patrol the boundaries, swinging paws like scythes, sweeping the edge for men who stray too far from the village.
This was not home, but in the darkness, it looked the same. I stepped closer to the edge. I couldn't see anything, but I heard women singing. Something grabbed my arm and I was gone.