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.