Thursday, December 29, 2011

Big Three-Headed River

A single dusty lamp lights a long hallway in an old woman's mansion.
She sits in the living room by the firelight in the evening, knitting a sweater for someone with knobby fingers, but the neck doesn't look quite right. You wonder if it's poor lighting or maybe your eyesight or your mind, but you look closer and no, your mind has not slipped and it’s not the light or your eyes; the sweater has three holes for three heads. You want to put your hand on her delicate shoulder and reassure her, but you fear that whatever it is that she contracted is highly contagious and you pull your hand back and put it in your pocket. “Nice fire.”
Jack walked out of the living room and shook his head. He took off his bifocals and held them up to the lamp. "I swear I saw the fellow who wears that sweater in a temple in India. Had a cup of rice in front of him." He rolled up his sleeves. "Poor fella didn't touch it. Didn't move a muscle. People had to carry him around on poles."
I always liked listening to Jack. He was like an old leather suitcase with decals from faraway lands, a walking travel brochure, and he had an easy way of conversation. You could ignore him for a while as he exhumed tales of colonnades and big game and tribes and fever and then jump into the conversation for a while and then ignore him again as he described man-eating reptiles and jungle kings and he never seemed to notice or care. "I thought the sweater would have six arms."
"That's probably right. Maybe I saw the guy at the state fair. Or up front in a cathedral. That’s right." He held his glasses at arm’s length and swiped a lens with his right thumb. "It must be this. All I see is dust."
The flooring creaked beneath my feet. "Which state fair?"
"I can’t recall." He blew on his glasses. "Oops. That dust was the original owner of the house and there, away he goes, off into the air, maybe all the way to heaven. I must show proper respect." The old woman started to cough.
“I think the original owner is everywhere.”
He did a slight bow before his glasses. “That’s what you call omnipresence, my boy.” He looked at the firelight down the hall, "I'll go stoke the fire," and walked into the living room.
As he walked away, I thought about the forgotten state and wondered why it would be such a likely place for three-headed people. Jack always had the appearance of being hot on the trail of something, even if he wasn’t; sort of like a toothless old Labrador retriever barking up a tree full of abandoned squirrel nests. But if there were more triune people in that state why would they be considered such an oddity as to display to gawking mobs at the fair? Maybe there were fewer three-headed people there than the average; they were a vanishing species, a real rarity. I read about a gated community once where everyone had recessive genes dangling from their mortal shell in fantastic ways. So I wondered which states were surrounded by gates. I knew some city-states had moats. Out here they used levees. But they didn’t stop anything; just as soon as we built them, the river cut across a gooseneck upstream and changed course and ambled about the land behind the levee, filling up Main Street so many times we renamed the town Venice. I felt the urge to move wherever that state was and find out for myself. Maybe I would get a job as a freakish one-headed man housed behind glass in the front of a cathedral, chained next to the marble man with three heads and six arms, fed balls sweet rice on banana leaves by pilgrims bearing candles. This is when I began to wonder if there was such thing as a phantom head.
The noise of Jack rattling the fireplace utensils interrupted my deep thoughts. This was Jack's first time in this house in twenty years, since he was in college studying liquor. The old woman muttered something about the fireplace and Jack replied loudly, "Destroyer. The destroyer." He must have been talking about his days with the Merchant Marines off the Atlantic coast. I could see the fire reflecting off of the walls of the living room, bright enough to signal planes flying overhead. "Hey!” I shouted. "Save some light for tomorrow." A few hours later he fell asleep on the sofa in front of the fire, which had retired as well, reduced to a few shy embers, winking like red stars on a summer night.
The following morning crept into the sky slowly, no sudden, bright, sunny fanfare as one would hope, more gradual, like the way color fades from a fish washed up on a beach. Jack was standing in the back yard. "Where is the light? Is it cloudy here all the time? You forget to pay the electric bill?"
I shrugged. My shoulders felt heavy, both of them.
Rubbing his hands together, he surveyed the skies. "Man, it looks like a burial shroud, clouds from horizon to horizon. Nothing can see out and nothing can see in." He looked down at his feet, old deck shoes decorated with grass clippings, like parsley flakes on two cod filets. "As much as I want to see what might be up there, I can't imagine anyone wanting to see what was going on down here."
I thought about the old woman knitting. "Like the door to her basement."
"Yeah. We just think that there’s something valuable in there."
“I don’t want to know.” The old woman had lived in that house all her life, the daughter of the first owner, Mr. Shaunheunessey, who ran a lumber mill down by the river. She never married. I could see her sitting at her window knitting ever since I could remember. Sweaters and more sweaters and socks, hats, mittens, and scarves, I suppose. She must have made thousands of them over the decades, but nobody knew what she did with them. There were as many rumors as there were mouths. She gave them to charity, she sent them to orphanages, she clothed the monks at the monastery on the hill. She had relatives back in Europe. Maybe they were peasants and would have nothing but stiff, black rags to wrap around their feet and hands were it not for the package of woolens they received every fall. That wasn’t a house, it was a textile mill. The windows reflected the grey skies like cataracts.
The smoke rising from the chimney caught Jack’s attention. "Maybe the clouds are coming from us."
Something splashed in the river down below and we both turned. Nothing.
He put his hands in his pockets. "Or someone just closed the lid on us. How would I know?" We plodded across the front lawn toward the river.
He stopped. His face tightened. His open hand swept from right to left. "There!"
I followed the sweep of his hand and my eyes drifted to the river. Bleach bottles collected in an eddy. I started thinking about bleach bottles and I wondered what would happen if they were given enough time and given ideal conditions - an ammonia atmosphere with electrical discharges and some giant, strong, benevolent, philanthropic scientist hovering over the whole affair making sure that random events wouldn’t interfere with the rigorously controlled experiment and send it spinning out of control, destroying the atmosphere and engulfing the scientist in a superheated ball of ionized ammonia gas - I wondered if they would replicate. Bleach bottles laying eggs in the muck at the bottom of the river, laced with heavy metals. Prime habitat. The bleach bottle eggs would feed on the heavy metals and grow into nymph stage, then emerge from the primordial soap and shed their brittle, UV-degraded casing and float downstream. Adulthood is reached in two to three months and the males accumulate on the banks of the river in the stiff, phosphate foam, displaying for the females, expanding and contracting their cylindrical bodies, emitting hypochlorites, drawing the timid females out from the overhanging brush and tires and rusting cables and washing machines and -
Jack broke in. "Over here. The Lilliputian Forest, the industrial lawn, the engineered turf, managed for sustained yields, millions of dollhouse board feet, harvested every week by pale, flabby suburban farmers on toy tractors, a cheery, iridescent-green, like the felt on a pool table, an Irish festival, thatched with battle-hardened European and Asian strains, bathed in surplus chemicals produced in the last Great War." He pointed at the lawn.
Now I was looking at the lawn.
"This chemistry of war has a long history - in fact, you can quote me, it was conceived exactly twelve minutes after the discovery of fire, just enough time to finish the roast leg of auroch."
I squinted and for a second I thought I saw many small aurochs munching in the grass. "There!"
I don’t think he heard me, he was on the scent of something. "I suppose two men discovered fire but each one wanted the discovery for himself. Here, my friend, was the birth of the marketplace: First, a new and exciting product - Fire! But then, who would be the producer and who would be the consumer? Thus, the need for another product, one which determined market positions. And the market does not disappoint! The second new and exciting product - The Fire-throwing Device! After working out the glitches with a few trial runs, the market moves again! Now we have but one producer, and the consumer, well, he -he was, shall we say, consumed...but! The producer would have many, many children. And the marketplace grew and grew and lived on and on." Jack smiled broadly.
"Hey, Jack,” I asked, “Did you ever invent something?" We were at the river's edge.
Jack shook his head. "Nope. But I worked in a patent office in England once." He picked up a head-sized piece of concrete and heaved it into the river, sending up a fountain of greenish-grey.
"Maybe we can - "
"I think, if there was a patent office back when fire was introduced into the market, the proliferation of fire would have been prevented." Two fish surfaced near the splash, dark grey backbones rolling along like knobby tires. "I mean, I know that there was a day not too long ago when enemy assaults on castles and walled cities were repelled by dumping boiling oil from positions above the gates. Then naval battles were won by the feared Greek Fire; fountains of burning pine resin and sulfur vomiting from the mouths of brass lions on the prow of the ship. Terrifying. But consumer demands were strong, so naturally the markets produced new and improved terror: Jellied gasoline raining down from clear, blue skies, the Devil’s Thunderstorm, liquid fire that consumed palm-leaf villages and paper houses and their sleepy inhabitants. It's a growth market, this destruction business."
I looked out across the water, sudsy, like pureed avocado. "They always come up with something." I thought about a one-headed job opening in Indiana and traveling the byways in a circus caravan jammed with one-headed freaks, the eighth wonder of the world, arms dangling out the air holes, and then I thought about fishing from a boat that burns the surface of the water away leaving the fish on the hot lakebed roasted and ready to eat. We would have to use olive oil for the fuel, pressurize it and spray it across the glassy surface, light it with a torch, maybe before we spray it we mix it with some capers and salt and pepper, then heat it to about 450 degrees and sprinkle with crushed flat leaf parsley, and bake the lake for about 30 minutes until the skin is golden brown, but you could lay them on a banana leaf in which case you rub the fish in a mixture of lime juice and salt and then serve on a bed of rice and coconut milk. This is naval war on the low seas and it has no Geneva Convention rules, as far as I know, but it does require a license and the ability to keep a secret under torture because once your friends smell those fish they will twist you like a dishrag and bend you so hard you enter four dimensions in three pieces until you confess the name of the lake that you were burning away. I was getting hungry and I swallowed at the sight of the salad of lawn clippings, the loaves of firewood in the woodshed by the old woman’s gingerbread house, all the while rubbing the hams of my hand, prodding the sugar sand, my hands shaking at the sight of the beer-colored foam. I wondered if they had food detoxification centers; I was ready for a relapse.
"Here?" Jack laughed. "Are you kidding? Not 'till we burn everything in sight."
I frowned. "You did that last night."
“No, not there." As he scanned the skies, the deck shoes sank into the green mud. "If you could see far away, up there beyond the scattered, brilliant, blue light that lettered men tell me lies above the endless clouds in this dreary, stratus opacus gloomscape you call home, they say that large stars will burn through sequences of fuel, starting with hydrogen, then, in succession, helium, carbon, neon, and oxygen." Two fish surfaced again. Or was it three. "In the last, they will burn silicon."
"And?" I watched the low clouds slink across the treetops like a grey cat.
"Silicon is last," he continued. "It takes about a day and it is gone. Once that is burned up, nothing can be fused, and within a second” – snapping his finger - “the star collapses. Just like that. Sometimes it explodes - a supernova." He scanned the skies again. "Out there. It's pretty, bright, and short-lived."
Like a fight, I thought, when the fist hits your temple and the whole world turns bright white.
"There is where is next."
"You say where? There?" I pointed at the grass.
"Right. At our feet are tiny palm-leaf villages with paper thin homes and sleeping inhabitants, the sly nematodes, brave arachnids, honorable springtails, dutiful dung beetles, cheery sowbugs, and millipedes, centipedes, slugs, and snails - regiments of hardy exoskeletal creatures which, were we reduced to their scale, would exterminate the whole race of us – revenge killings - each and every soft, pliable man, woman and child, using our gelatinous remains to grow bales of fungi that they would feed to their fertile queens."
That was no auroch I saw in the grass; it might have been a giant scarab beetle. I stroked my throat with my fingers. "I want to fight back."
"Sure." Jack gave me a nod. "We all do. They go about their day unaware, oblivious to what positions itself above them. And then we ambush them, dropping out of thin air. We attack these things with the same ruthlessness that we attacked enemy infantries of old as they marched across pastures and farmlands beneath happy, blue skies. The heavens opened up and we rained down vats of hot chemicals like brimstone and boiling oil and napalm." He kicked the grass. "Today, innovation and efficiency have created yet another superior product: we open the bomb bay doors on the enemy and unload a witch’s brew of hydrodynamic fronts, electromagnetic pulse, ionizing radiation and thermal flash." He paused. "The sky is the limit, son. If you can't compete in this marketplace, you have no place to be and no place being." He folded his arms and glared at the lawn.
A splash. There were those two fish – no three fish - again. They were fighting over something. But back to the lawn. "The lawn?"
“All my life this world has been a playground, my backyard. But there are only so many things to burn. We have gone through pine tar, saltpeter, naptha, quicklime, sulfur, niter and now plutonium." He pokes a dead bird on the shore with his shoe. "It's not 'What's next?' It's 'What's left?' Something is out there that is the silicon of this cold, iron stone that we live on."
“Maybe we already burned it.”
Jack turned his head toward me, squinting. He studied my face. His mouth was open and he wanted to say ‘What?’ but no words were coming out.
We stood looking at each other. A minute passed. I didn’t know what to say, he didn’t say anything. A hundred fish could have walked out of that river and set up communal living with the dung beetles and flatworms but we wouldn’t have noticed. “Jack?” My neck felt hot. Still no words, but I knew what he was trying to say. “Jack, I mean, I don’t know, maybe we used it up already.” I thought about that Labrador retriever barking at an empty squirrel’s nest in a dead tree in the winter at night by himself in an atmosphere depleted of oxygen and a blackened sun unable to give warmth or light. I think the dog was blind and deaf and a seizure was coming on. And I thought about beaches, that the beaches are covered in silicon. There is no end to sand. I find it in my clothes and shoes and food. It blows and carves out rock sculptures and it stacks a thousand feet high in deserts and buries ancient cities. They say the number of stars exceeds the grains of sand on earth. Hourglasses are filled with sand and the glass is made of sand. If you burn sand it turns to glass. I didn’t know what to think. My eyes focused on Jack but he was gone, heading up toward the old woman’s house. “Jack. Hey. Hey, where you going?”
“The old woman.”
There was that splash again. A fish chomped onto a bleach bottle, shook it back and forth and pulled it underwater. A sound, like sloop and a few bubbles and it was gone. Two minutes later bits of plastic rose to the surface and then some large bubbles. Alligators do the same thing; they shake the victim, drag it underwater, dismember it and drown it. Or is it the other way around. That’s when I noticed that the sand at my feet was very big. It was mixed with millions of bits of broken plastic bottles, oxidized, irradiated, abraded, and I was standing on a semi-man-made beach, very colorful. Too much quartz to call it an unspoiled, anthropogenic man-scape, but give it a few more years, just a few more years of this synthetic saturation-bombing, this mad-chemistry, and imagine what it would look like. And two-hundred years in the future, why, with all the sand washed away - it was going to be pristine, pure, a breathtaking polymeric paradise. A thousand automatons in a laboratory somewhere turned their faces toward me and smiled.
Eons beyond, into the distant future, after a zillion floods and channel diversions, and tectonics elevated the landscape upstream an additional two-thousand feet above sea level, this old beach would be buried beneath a thousand feet of debris. Then, some sunbaked paleontologist would unearth the hardened strata and, wafting away the chlorinated outgasses with an old, cotton towel, find my fossilized footprints and declare me primitive man. I could see the vestigial fingers on my left hand fumbling with the vestigial fingers on my right and I could not bear to look. Rudimentary, degenerate, like fat, pink crayons. Stop it. I turned away. They might as well have been hooves. But I had to wonder just what they were doing. I had no ready answers. And yet, this thought did not stop them from doing whatever it was that they were doing over and over again and for a moment I considered tossing one of them away for simplicity. This is not where I wanted things to go and I quickly rubbed my footprint out with my left foot. Wilderness ethics, Leave no trace, right? Of course, the right foot quickly made a new footprint and I knew I could not control my feet either. I could see an automaton in the lab, smiling and I was hot with jealousy.
Upstream somewhere, tiny particles of quartz sloughed off in the raging battle between water and rock and drifted downstream. The sales pitch is that plastics are maintenance free, no thought or effort required, and soon I was going to fit right in just like -
A splash. The fish broke the surface, snagged a plastic bag out of the air and cut back into the river and I swore it had three heads.
At that moment, I heard Jack shout as he ran back from the house. “Hey! I had to ask the lady. I had to ask her what she did with all the sweaters.”
He beat me to it; I had always wanted to ask her that question. “And?”
“She said, ‘What sweaters?’ I thought she was being coy, so I said, ‘I know how you’ve helped so, so many unfortunate souls. What’ve you done with all the sweaters you’ve made over the years?’ She said, ‘I only make this one. Only this one.’ I said, ‘But what about the others?’”
Words jumped out of my mouth, “Charity, she must have given them to charity.” Come on, lady, I thought, Say you gave them to charity.
Jack took a breath. “Then she said it again, ‘I only make this one, only this one.’ I don’t get what she means. And so I looked closer, and I see that she was taking the sweater apart, unraveling it knit by purl, one knit by one purl, one knit by one purl. And then her hands, they are calloused like a sailor’s and full of Gordian knots and pock marks, like yellow golf balls melted together. And then she said - get this: ‘And when I am done, I only make this one again, only this one, and when I am done I only make this one again, only this one, and when I am done...’ She kept saying that over and over and over and I see she is going to make that sweater all over again and I had to get out of there so I jumped up and ran out the back door.” He wiped the sweat from his forehead. "I didn't see this. Did I really see this? This is uncharted territory.”
“I don’t know, I don’t know.” We stared the house. “What is she doing?”
His body leaned slightly, away from the house. “Let’s get out of here.”
I looked up. It was almost noon but it was still a dreary grey. I felt like we were being watched. Maybe it was the old woman, maybe someone else. I didn’t know. I looked at the river. Then the treetops. I could barely speak. “Jack. Look." I pointed. "Those aren’t clouds up there. It's smoke. All this time it’s been smoke.”

Friday, December 09, 2011

Bedtime Story

My first floor windows on the east side of my house had an excellent view of the first floor windows on the west side of my neighbor's house. The view was so complete that, while I sat in my living room in my reading chair by the east window, I could yawn and stretch my left arm and reach into his living room and trade books. If only for the window screens. The same was true on the west side but I did not care for her cheap romance novels.
One brilliant and wrathfully hot Wednesday morning, just shy of noon, I was sitting in the shade cheerfully swatting a breed of imported flies when Henry, my neighbor to the east, came down the sidewalk toward my patch of lawn carrying a box. Henry walked his way around town, having no car or license. He said that he couldn't drive because he was myopic, but his wife said that he was gloomy. He was whistling again. My ears stood straight up like a dog's. I rose in my chair. "Stop it, will you?" He glanced my way. He was in the third bar of some byzantine, baroque fugue in descending minor that was elevating my blood pressure. "I said stop it. Can't you find something else to do with that excess windage and fattened tongue besides misinterpret Vituperatio or Balooney or Paparazzi or whomever it is you mock?"
He stopped right in the arc of the lawn sprinkler. "I whistle when I am tense. I've got to shed some excess nerves." The sprinkler swept across his back. "Yow - cold!" He jumped aside.
"Well shed them in the fall so they can blow down to Alabama with the rest of the litter on my lawn." I nearly stood up to impress, but I was really hoping that he would pass along too quickly for me to rise. "Anyhow, what's the angst about now?" Never a day passed without his complaint about his nerves.
He looked at me sideways. "Job applications." He had been unemployed for about two years and was looking for work.
I relaxed in the chair. "Any leads?" I looked down at the ants crawling across the driveway that sizzled in the hot sun, tar oozing from the cracks like black summer sweat. The ants would make it about an arm's length into the driveway and then overheat and swell and turn on their backs and then die, legs outstretched. And many of the dead were rescue teams sent to recover the remains of the first casualties. Carcasses piled up. Maybe this was a plan; they would use the dead as bridges to the netherworld on the other side of the driveway where all wood was soggy with rot and the aphids were plump. I looked across the shimmering asphalt and saw ants on the other side working their way toward this side in the same fashion. I wondered what it must have felt like to be on a suicide mission to save another suicide mission that is on a mission to save you.
He shrugged again. "Well, I figure with all my experience applying for jobs, I could get a job looking at applications for job openings. They call it a Personnel Director."
I thought of Russian Nesting Dolls eating one another.
He saw my blank look. "I was interviewed for an opening in personnel at the airport today."
I raised my eyebrows. He looked away. "How did it go?"
He started whistling.
"Hey - "
"Sorry. I was relaxing." He looked at the box of papers. "They tested me today. They had me review applications for job openings for pilots." He paused and looked down and slowly shook his head. "I don't know. I don't get it."
"Get what?" I swatted at a fly that landed on my arm. It was about as big as a half dollar, glittering blue and green like a Vegas hotel with a rack of antennae that would have made a trophy elk run in fear.
He shook the box. "All the applicants were schoolchildren, from Mrs. William's second grade class. Some of the applications just had pictures drawn in crayon. Food stains. Ripped. Crumpled. I don't get it."
I smiled. "Were they qualified?"
His face curled slightly. "That's what I don't get. I was told that they were serious candidates." There he stood, sweating, dehydrating in the hot white sun, losing weight, height and volume, holding a box of crayon drawings of stick men created by the brightest leaders of tomorrow, and tomorrow would begin in precisely 12 hours, coincidentally, the very moment when our world would be at its darkest.
I began to whistle.
Henry tipped his head to the side. "You sound myopic."
I got up and went into the house.
At about ten at night - it must have been ten o'clock because the news was on television and panels of pale men with swollen necks and carnivorous women with dilated pupils dressed in business suits were championing in great detail personal versions of a future reality in ever increasing volume and cacophony. Like a cage full of parrots. About ten at night I sat down to watch the news.
Henry looked out his window into my window. He was watching the same program, or maybe he wasn't because the background colors were different. "I am watching an action movie."
"No you aren't. It's the news."
He looked at his television. "Nah, it's an action movie. You're wrong."
"No, you are wrong."
"It has to be. At the end of this there is always a loud explosion and bodies fly all over the place and the next day I go see the sequel and I see the same set of actors scrubbed and cleaned and powdered do it all over again."
I picked up a book on the end table and tried to read but I forgot that the pages went from left to right and besides, I read it several years earlier. It was a science fiction novel from the 1950's entitled The Eyestorm, about a future that is now long past, one where everyone drives a flying car, motivational music is omnipresent, the moon is cultivated, communities are arranged vertically, and the state wages war against every second thought. Well, I had misgivings about the book when I opened it, but I was afraid to put it down and finished it in a few hours. Afterward, I closed the blinds on the windows.
"See?" Henry pointed at the screen and there was chaos and shouting and the camera cut away to a commercial. "See?"
On the west side of the house I could hear the other neighbor reading a bedtime story to her daughter. I think she read it every Wednesday evening, a book called The Big Red Airplane. The heroine, a young girl named Darcy, takes the controls of a big red airplane when the pilot oversleeps and she flies it around the world so many times that they go forward in time and find a civilization where everyone is literate and animals have rights and houses talk to you and, sure enough, they have flying cars, and the President calls on Darcy to save the city from a family of angry asteroids by sending the asteroids back in time so they miss the earth. This reminds me why I sit on the east side of the house. I had half-a-mind to tell that daughter the real story, and I made sure I let her mother know that I had half-a-mind - and she agreed - and I was fully determined to tell her that the civilization that Darcy saved went on to revoke the rights of animals so that they could use them to fuel their flying cars and all the people could read alright, but became immersed in abject sloth and bliss and their ability to write and create atrophied - but this condition didn't last long because their immune systems were no match for the mutant bacteria that were out-gassing from the genetics laboratories. Besides, the President was the one that sent the asteroids so he could declare a State of Emergency and force a social contract whereby the citizens would give up their inalienable rights in exchange for virtual reality, libations, and the pursuit of pleasure. Darcy was just a pawn and died in prison with hundreds of other children held for their charming, little beliefs.
That was about three years ago. She only recently unlocked her first floor window and opened the drapes.
Henry was still watching the news. He looked over. "You know, these men and women on this show look like they are aware and sentient and lucid. One would imagine they had a conscience."
"So?" I looked at the newspaper. A headline read, "Scientists Discover Royal Family Is Genetically Identical to Sausage Links".
Henry continued. "Really, they all use abstract terms and assert their moral certitude. It's a good movie."
"Would you quit calling it a movie! It's not a show, it's a discussion, experts finding solutions."
"That's a good movie." Henry leaned back in his chair and took a swig of water. "I am cheering for the fat fellow on the left there. See him? He can really act. I am almost convinced he really believes he has solutions."
I looked past him at the television. It was a different channel, but they had the same position players, one aging wise man, a blonde woman with sharp eyebrows, a dark-eyed man with a cherubic face, smart haircut, dark hair clipped above the ears and parted on the side. Another puffy, arteriosclerotic man with thick jowls and bulging eyes who sweated and lost his temper first. Once he lost it, the others followed. That was the explosive climax. I think I saw a headline go across the screen about an asteroid.
Henry tapped on the window screen. "Hey. Lincoln said that the legitimate object of a government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do for themselves in their separate and individual capacities."
He said it too fast for me to catch it all. "What?"
He watched the experts shouting above each other. "I am saying that we need more than single-issue Messiahs. I mean, we have five-thousand and seventy-nine critical issues we need to solve simultaneously. One for every man, woman, and child on earth and all these folks can do is shout simultaneously."
I still had trouble hearing him over the din.
He placed his drink on the end table. Moths hit the screens between us. "Unfortunately, Lincoln had to bathe and eat and take naps and comfort his wife and retrieve the keys he misplaced in the icebox and hang out with his relatives when they brought 'possum from Illinois and then go sleep for eight or ten hours and then miss an appointment with the ambassador to Spain because he forgot about it and his teeth were aching oh-so-badly that he had to put down more corn whiskey than he was accustomed to and that was where the Vice President would step in, if only they could wake him up from his slumber after being up all night playing poker with the Speaker of the House and the Secretary of State. They say he lost his shirt and redistricting in Vermont."
The television switched to breaking news from somewhere. Headlines and war scenes appeared. "Peace Marchers Set Fire to Nursing Home."
Henry looked at me. "Are you listening, bud?" I gave a vague shrug. "Think about it: What was Gandhi's policy on health care? What did MLK have to say about child slavery? What did Cyrus the Great think about drug resistant pathogens? And Peter the Great, I wonder what his platform was on groundwater depletion? I suppose that man had the time to come up with something." He looked back at the television. "Yeah, great show."
"Maybe it is, but maybe they are lost in the character and really are what they appear to be."
"For enough money, anyone will be what they are not. These people make a living convincing people they are someone other than themselves." He leaned back and ran his fingers through his hair. "Nah. They will sort things out when they hand out the Emmy Awards." He pointed at the screen. "Well for the love of Pete..." A headline appeared: "Aurora Borealis More Active Around Pet Cemeteries."
Before I could think I blurted, "I believe that!" I backed into my chair. "I mean, I think I have seen that happen in Rosemont, along Highway 63." I looked at the end table. Seven dead flies were on the table. One was caught in the glass housing around the lamp and was burning alive.
"And the show goes on." Henry turned off the television. "I mean, this Machiavellian landscape is overpopulated with also-rans, thugs, megalomaniacs, sycophants, honyokers, and ruffians, many of which are engaged in such villainous acts of compulsive-destructive behavior that new problems at created at such a rate that they outstrip the ability of all the genetic laboratories in the earth to produce cloned Gandhi-like figures in numbers equal to the task."
I raised my hand. "But maybe they could appear to be up to the task. That would at least create security, right?"
I don't think he heard me or maybe he did. Moths swirled in the lamplight like snow. He continued, "Let's be fair. Maybe one of these leaders could multitask. So let's ask, What was Julius Caesar's policy on alternative fuels, nuclear waste, habitat destruction, species extinction, petroleum based farming, corporate greed, internet pornography, school violence, the drug trade, wetland loss, factory farms, consumerism, hyperinflation, quantitative easing, landfill seepage, racism, and the weapons trade? Oh, and I forgot, failing infrastructure. I want to see his mission statement too. By tomorrow at the end of the business day. Four copies please. And it had better make sense. No gimmicks. Consistent, integrated, no contradictions, comprehensive and fully funded. Leave it on my desk."
I laughed. "Don't bet on it. He probably has to take a powder and rehearse his lines."
He nodded. "Yeah, but I hear he has a great smile and a full head of hair."
I sighed and sunk back into my chair, relaxed. "Man, I am glad these folks aren't real. If they were we would be doomed." I looked at the clock. "Hey, it's already midnight."

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Civil War

This is what is war.
I had read that politicians and their wives sat upon the hilltops overlooking the Occoquan River to watch the first battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run or Manassas. They imagined that they were going to have a picnic. This was about 150 years ago. The battle turned and they abandoned the hilltops and fled for their lives.
The fellow sitting at the counter next to me was staring into his coffee cup. He shook his head. "I saw glowing cats in the shelterbelt behind my house."
"What?" The smoke over the Occoquan valley vanished and I looked at his face, pale, loose and baggy like the skin on a rotting gourd. I smiled. "Maybe it was marsh gas, Will-O-The-Wisp. You know. Blue flames."
"No, they were cats. I see them every fall. They herd up at this time of the year, forming a defensive alignment - like Musk Oxen. The females are on the outer edge, facing outward, hissing, protecting their young."
"Where are the menfolk?" I wiped my mouth with the napkin, the one with a phone number I had intended to keep, but blue cats absorbed my thoughts and the napkin was taken away by the waitress.
He looked up, bewildered, his mouth open, exposing toast and eggs. There were no words.
I signaled the waitress, slid five dollars across the counter, excused myself, put on my hat, and stepped out onto the sidewalk. His eyes followed me out the door. I looked up and down the road. It was a small town: one grocery, one gasoline station, one bank, one florist, one funeral home and one beauty salon. I think it was a beauty salon - named Prairie Hair Design. Huh. I wondered if they did prescribed burns. Out walked a woman with blue hair. Is that - ?
A wildland fire usually has one point of origin: a lightning strike, a spark from a railroad car, a runaway campfire, an overheated muffler, a branch on a power line. From above, the boundaries of the fire have a teardrop shape, expanding outward from the point of origin, much like the outline of an island in a river or a patterned peatland. Forensics at the point of origin can determine the cause of the fire. So, working backwards to the point of origin it might be possible to determine the cause of all of the puffy hairdos with blue rinse in the community. Was it a stray lightning strike? Hot cinders tossed by a passing rail car? A gust of wind on the unattended campfire? A branch across two high voltage transmission lines? I figure that's why beauticians go to school for cosmetology; the occupational hazards are formidable and one needs rigorous safety training before setting up shop and releasing all of these chemically-altered fur bearers into the public arena.
But the line between cosmetology and cosmology is a fine one, as is the line between cosmology and astrology, and this transitivity supports my suspicion that the whole business of hair repair and maintenance is simply a superstitious act, like divining the future from the marks on one's hand or witching water with a willow twig or tossing a black cat over one's shoulder or walking beneath a cracked mirror. They strut out of the salon and onto this same sidewalk, puffy and proud, coming toward me with their glowing blue auras. Eager to meet the future. You will meet a dark and handsome stranger today! Luck awaits you around the corner! New experiences will happen to you and emotional connections await! And that lucky stranger just might be me. This mob, why, it looked like a herd of glowing cats. There they were. This set me in the opposite direction, toward the outskirts of town.
The town is surrounded by shortgrass hills, plain and featureless, like a beige wool sport-coat. A side slope overlooking the village has a pile of whitewashed rocks assembled in the form of a large letter "A", the first letter of the village name. It is visible for miles around and to the occasional light plane that might drift overhead, on its way to dust crops. The rocks were moved from the crest of the hill to the side slope a half-century ago by boys from the high school. It was an afternoon outing, a break from classroom studies, a community project. None of the boys noticed the that the rocks they were moving had been arranged in seven circles on the hill crest. Nobody noticed the flakes of black flint scattered around the rim of the hill. The teacher was busy staking out the edges of the letter. One boy found an arrowhead. He put it in his pocket; every kid had an arrowhead collection. Another boy pulled a coffee-colored leg bone out of the soft clay on the western edge of the hill. The teacher shouted and they both trotted back to the group. The letter was constructed and they marched down the hill and back to the school. They admired it from below. "You will be remembered for this as long as those rocks are there," said the teacher. Every year since, a group of students have marched back up that hill to repaint and readjust the rocks.
A century earlier, seven families would set up camp on this hilltop, using the rocks to hold down the skirts of their lodges. They had been doing this as long as they could remember and the keepers of oral history said that their ancestors had been doing it since the day they emerged from the Hole in the earth. The River was visible to the camp and they would venture down to the sandbars and riverbanks each day to trade and to visit. They thought it would last forever.
Well, the village came, bringing forever to an end. The valley where the village was built was in the opposite direction of the River, at the base of the hills. The seven families abandoned the hill.
On the way to that hill, I passed the fellow I talked to at the cafe. "I can't get the cats out of my head," he said, shaking his head like he had wasps in his ears.
"I am trying to forget." I kept on a fast pace, walking up-slope toward the crest of the hill. I could hear him swatting the air behind me and arguing with cats. I raced up the hill and reached the crest, spotted with yucca and sandstone blocks and granite glacial erratics. Standing behind the letter A, near the missing stone circles, I turned and looked down on the village. Cars and pedestrians worked the sidewalks and streets below.
I don't think it would be possible to get too far away from anything in a town like this. Here, the mortician is the beautician's husband, and nobody seems to know the difference, the banker is the brother of the chief of police who has a key to the vault, the Mayor owns the saloon where the pastor moonlights as the bartender so long as he doesn't tell the Mayor's wife anything about his visits, the church group meets in back of the grocery store and sings songs about sin with hearty vigor, and no wonder, they were celebrating the communion with the same brand of wine they drank at the saloon the night before and were singing the same songs they sang that night - with some alterations at the end of the final verse to express penance and sorrow for the backsliding ways expressed in the first verse - and the florist works nights as a nursing assistant at the hospital (her flower arrangements are slightly used), the gasoline station owner runs an insurance agency from his garage, the same garage where he keeps the fire truck, and the ambulance driver is the mortician, never known to speed. This place is everywhere. As the village grows into a city, the connections multiply and mutate and suddenly, it exceeds our natural limitations and simultaneously it exceeds our ability to understand it. A new class of merchants arise, those that ply statistical approximations and primitive, mathematical models to describe our new, self-replicating, autonomous reality, all of which fall desperately short. It is Dystopia, where industrial output of ignorance and error is growing nine-percent a year and everyone has a manufacturing job. In this environment, we don't even recognize our own children.
Thus, you bounce a check at the grocery store and you may end up getting a fatal manicure in a burning church.
At that moment, I recall that I think that I recalled that phone number. It was the number for the mortician. No, the beautician. Or was it the mortician. Ah, what's the difference? It's a thin line between a mortician and a beautician; the difference is the vigor of your client. I think. I know that one or both or neither of them wanted me for something or maybe not for something. That is for sure.
Man, I thought it would be a picnic, being up on that hill, but things turned out far, far worse than anyone could have expected. That I will remember for a long time.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Dante Was Here

The other day someone bumped into me on the subway and slipped a list of questions into my coat pocket. I found them later that morning when I reached into the pocket to pull out the obituary section. I was looking for a story about a man who disappeared and was never seen again. The thirteenth question read: "What are you doing here?" I thought, that was hours and miles ago; I am not doing anything where I am not anymore.
There are questions that leave me awake at night, staring at the ceiling in a cold sweat, and there are other questions that lull me to sleep to dream about lying awake at night staring at the ceiling in a cold sweat thinking about questions. I try not to think of either at any time, but it is like asking someone to raise his hand if he can't hear you.
This night, there I was, looking up at the ceiling again, trying to picture what it is that I am doing somewhere at sometime, but all I could see was darkness. I couldn't see my own hand in front of my own face if I had tried and for a certainty, if it were not my hand I wouldn't have known the difference. And it wouldn't matter, I would still try to swat it away, swat it away like one's arm when it has fallen asleep and drapes across one's abdomen heavy and wet. That's the arm that keeps returning back to its place no matter how many times you swat it away, like a mad dog on a short leash, like that check you wrote last week, like the memory of the war you fought. This is a handicap. Once again, as I dispute the origins and validity of my own hand, I miss the opportunity to come to experience just what it is that I do, and cannot answer questions that only I can ask. I may have simply disappeared. I fold the paper and the names it contains are forgotten.
Or so I think. I squint at the ceiling a little more and there I see tiny space ships moving across the blackness trailing banners with the answers to these questions, but now they are in an ancient script and I can't make out a thing. It is then I realize that all the while I have been outside on a high meadow lying in my sleeping bag next to a dwindling campfire and those lights up there are real space ships. XXM, Vorsted, VRM, ROSAT, Amos. I shake my head: but I am certain that I am imagining the banners. That illusion is true. It is very late and I need to put out the campfire and go to sleep. The northern lights sweep across the sky like the tail of a mountain lion. A meteor makes a paper cut in the sky, bleeding white for a split second, then the black skin of night heals over. After eons of this, you might think that the the night sky would be so scarred it would look like African body art, but night absorbs all wounds. So I sleep. As I nod off, one of the ships reenters the atmosphere at a sharp angle and ignites, sparkly yellow and green and then it disappears. Two days later, as I sat in a cafe eating vulcanized bacon wedgettes with bleached, androgynous eggs and oriented-strand toast, the newspaper headline reads, "Space Junk Reenters Atmosphere and Burns up over Denver. Millions Misinterpret Sign." I guess slept right through it.
The morning in the meadow brings the sun into the open like a loud brass band. I shield my eyes. What am I doing here anyhow? Somebody once told me that we just aren't meant to know, and I told him not to share his personal problems with me anymore. I mean, answering questions about ecology, niche, habitat, associated species, soil type or slope, these are academic and ordinary. Anyone can create a postulate or theory and then assemble supporting data. Go ahead and try. Repeat after me: I postulate that... Now fill in the blank and then apply for a grant. Go ahead. I postulate that army worms caused the First World War. I postulate that decreased rainfall increases religious behavior. Speech intolerance is a reliable predictor of the ability to navigate hedge mazes. Banking security is a function of shareholder disorientation. All parental superstitions are traced to one town crier in France. It's easy. The library shelves have a random and highly disordered assemblage of yellowing journals filled with lofty, mathematical prose, which journals reproduce asexually and can do so in an oxygen-depleted environment. Doctoral dissertations and coauthors and peer review and coefficients of correlation. Yes. Orthogonal two-component experiential hyperbole. Somewhere in there lies ecology and niche and soil type. So I have a theory: What I am is not in there.
So maybe my business is just plain-old Agoraphobia, a fear of going out into crowds of people. An uncontrolled social situation from which there is no escape.
And this assumes that one can actually escape from uncontrolled social situations. It may not be possible. I think that they are universal and all pervasive, sort of like some sort of Zen state, all-one with all. Or one. Or something. Well then, I must be in The Urbanite's Hell: The past four months I have been drifting, just migrating across the open fields like a herd of antelope, on a sea like a rudderless ship, floating through air like a paper airplane, a leaf on a breezy lake, a blind man looking for something to see. Through savannas and black forests of pine, up claystone slopes and down sagebrush swales, meanders along drowsy clear rivers, slogs through soggy black ash bottomlands where every step sinks into the floodplain silt and releases mosquitoes into the air like telegraph messages, pointing into my thighs. Ten thousand at at time, dive bombers, sacrificing their lives for the nation. Could I send one back, half-alive, to warn the others? If reincarnation were true, I would be a mass murderer.
How many levels are there to this hell, nine? The cold air collects on the hillsides in the evening and merges in the draws. By the time it reaches the river bottom, it is nearly a breeze, and it forms a fog that drifts away from shore like a daydream. It is scented with wet grass and turpenes from the ponderosa pine, sweet like tangerines and clove. I have entered another savanna. This is Level One.
The Second Level is finding a pine that looks just like a ponderosa pine on another continent. Level Three is finding that the two pines are genetically similar and that, although they are isolated by time and space, they can actually interbreed, albeit with assistance. Level Four is sharing this with your friends. Level Five is having your friends reply that the sedges and grasses beneath the pines on one continent are not the same as those on the other continent and that they have a completely different function in relation to the pine and that the niche that the grasses and sedges occupy on the other continent are unique and require further study because nobody thought of that niche before and hey, they forgot to tell you that studies have shown that humans have a widespread and ubiquitous preference for natural environments, particularly savannas but also they gravitate toward lakeshores and seashores and sometimes dark forests and more often than not will build civilizations around these natural spots and, by the way, they also forgot to tell you that studies show that the urban environment is shown to have a causal relationship with mental illness. Level Six is the realization that everything you knew up until now was wrong, but something tells you that you had better stay put in this grassy, open woodland, so help you God, Level Seven is the realization that the design in nature is infinitely more complex than anything you could ever imagine from here to eternity, and Level Eight is the realization that the land management program that you worked on with a panel of fifty experts for the past ten years and implemented last week set in motion a series of irreversible and catastrophic natural events that will ultimately lead to the extinction of all life on earth. You probably won't share this with your friends.
Very few people make it to the Ninth Level. After all, one man's hell is another man's paradise.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ghost in the Darkness

There is a wind out on the meadow. It whistles through the bones of a bird, hollow like drinking straws, a pneumatic system, bellows pumping air that keeps the frame bloated and aloft. It sings. Then a gust carries the bird away. I look at my notepad. I had something to write down but I lost it.
It is a cloudy, low sky. Wind and water are fundamentally clear, but you add smoke or clay or condensation and they each become visible. It's like putting a radio collar on a suspect bear or radioactive dye in the bloodstream. The suspended substance gives it a form and you can track it across a matrix. But it's still not wind or water.
Sometimes it doesn't matter. The bear circles a sheep herd in the foothills at night and you can watch it move in and out of the herd carrying off one course of a meal after another, a feast, a banquet of mutton - all in the comfort of a climate controlled office in the northern Rocky Mountains. I think about that office and wonder what heat used to feel like.
I want to tie a rope to the bird. Before the taming of the electric current, a sheep herder would have to recognize the shape and space and color of the eyes in the firelight. Two red dots four inches apart. Two blue dots that don't move. Two green ones that move up and down. Quick. Which one is the sheep. Which one is the bear. Which is the reflection of the moon. Which one is the camp cook. A shot into the dark could mean hot bear steaks tonight or prison meals for life. It is at this point in time that the herder, his face raining sweat and eyes wide like egg whites, conceived the idea of radio telemetry and was about to broadcast it to his two friends staring into the woods, but, alas, was unable to expound due an unfortunate combination of poor night vision, wind, rain, and simple miscalculation. Three bears, not one. This is what we call circumstances beyond one's control. Too bad. Under the same circumstances the bears easily recognized the well-fed sheep herders.
The vast majority of humans were rural dwellers in centuries gone by; some 95% in the United States in the 1790's. They were villagers with stone or wood or animal skin dwellings and few dozen family units and surrounding fields with livestock and beyond it, a vast wilderness. This was an unknown wilderness, really, known no more than the accidental provisions that spilled out from it into the village: the occasional elk, the flock of grouse overhead, the swarm of bees, the creek that passed between the fields. Many villages were surrounded by barricades of pointed stakes or stone walls and armed men posted in watchtowers. This wilderness entered by invitation only. At night, when something moved in the darkness the men would fire guns, shoot arrows, toss spears, throw rocks...even their own children. At daybreak they would venture out into the bush and find blood-soaked sand and drag marks. A wounded or dead animal was carried away by something much, much larger. The talk would spread and convolute and quickly the animals would become unimaginably large. Great, horned beasts with claws and toothed jaws that ate entire mountains and breathed fire and ate women and children by the thousands.
Today, it's the other way around. The vast majority of humans are urban dwellers; some 75% in the United States live in cities. These are still walled cities, with stone fortresses and watchtowers with heavily armed men. But the wilderness is proportionately smaller: quaint, little fenced rectangles, like schoolyards, with a sharp, razor-tipped line between the civilized and wilderness lands that can be seen from 800 miles in space. And the forest that was never known is now simply unidentifiable: a scrubby, worm-eaten corpse with tilting trees, pock marked stumps, inbred wildlife, sunken aquifers, tailing piles, herds of feral cats, toxic stains, windblown plastic, severed corridors, and an understory of wiry invaders and genetically-modified mysteries that coil around the last remnants of the original forest.
There is a rustling in the woods tonight. Quickly, the menfolk grab their guns and fire into the darkness. Guns on turrets with fifty caliber shells and thousand-pound bombs with jellied gasoline and dioxin and benzene and plutonium. The smoke drifts back into the city and burns the eyes. An air-quality alert goes out. In the morning the men venture into the bush and find the remains of something unrecognizable; tufts of fir, or is it feathers. Maybe it's a mammal. Probably a bird. Who knows. Who knew. Who would ever know.
I suspect that the animal probably recognized us before it vanished. It's probably true: Something is here that is larger than we can imagine, something monstrous, a great, horned beast with claws and toothed jaws that eats entire mountains and breathes fire and eats men and women and children and living things by the thousands.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Foreshortening

As a man walks away from you he becomes smaller than your outstretched hand. If you look around, there are a lot of things that were very big that have become small for one reason or another. Like Y2K. Atom-bomb shelters. Prohibition. Fur trade. Knee screws. So it is a little unsettling to think that I am shrinking in the distance myself, that is, according to people who see me getting smaller and had the notion to tell me before I disappeared altogether, sort of like the last, desperate protestation of love between a man and a woman at a train station in the few seconds before the conductor says "all aboard". The hands break apart and the fingers reach out to touch but the distance grows until the hand disappears and all that remains is the plume of coal smoke on the horizon.
You wait long enough and the memory disappears too.
It can feel like fatality, this departure, or maybe it's the other way around. The difference is the reason for the disappearance. When one disappears without warning, as might happen when abducted by anthropologists or duped at a card game into taking a monastic vow of silence or when becoming too absorbed in doing the math in one's head or when falling into severe and prolonged existentialism, it feels the same. I had a friend who disappeared that way once. I saw her reflection in a storefront window and I turned to look at her and a bus passed between us and she was gone. I think that is what happened. Her name escapes me. She had blonde, no red hair.
The other day, while in search of vanishing species on the north central grasslands, I came across a cemetery. It was a quaint prairie cemetery guarded by wrought iron fences on the south and a depression-era windbreak of Siberian elm and Black Hills spruce on the north, east. In the European custom, the graves all lay feet facing east, luxury suites with a fabulous view of the early morning sky to the east, so it is said. The oldest graves had fallen into disrepair, no flowers to be seen, the names and dates were weathered, and many were toppled. Someone had taken the time to recast the names on little iron plates staked in the grass, but that person did their work decades ago and, I suppose, they lay amongst the headstones somewhere, rubbing elbows with old friends. Today, their names escape us, faint etchings mottled with lichen and moss.
As I walked away, I turned to look and it got smaller and smaller until it disappeared from view. Now I can't even remember where the place was.
So ends another summer. Oak savannas, black ash swamps, sagebrush and badlands, lodgepole pine and Douglas fir. Ponderosa pine, thick red trunks and deep, almost black boughs. Sturdy grasses and sagebrush so tall that it imagines itself a tree, so long as it doesn't get near one, which isn't likely, seeing that most trees in North Dakota are in museums. And sandstone caprocks huddled over strata like a child over a cereal bowl; don't touch what's underneath. And we wouldn't for a long time.
Well, the long time came to an end. We exited the age of Enlightenment, enthralled with our own wisdom and might, and took the new found liberty and knowledge and created the Industrial Age, which continues to this day. Now some may say, No, it ended when we entered the Technological Age or the Information Age or the New Age or the Styrofoam Age or the Corn Syrup Age or Sectional Couch Age or whatever it is now, but half the globe has yet to see an industry in their backyard yet. Untapped resources and new markets, my boy. This has to change and change it will.
Sometimes we go to the store and the sign says, "New and Improved", and we put it in the washing machine and the clothes still come out with grass stains and ring-around-the-collar and the mothers look cross and the kids look downcast. All that was new and improved was the lettering on the box, those words New and Improved. So it is with the Industrial Age: We have taken the old machinery from the Dark Ages, the knee screw, the iron collar, the rack, the branks, the garotte, and put a label "New and Improved" and hawked it to nuclear families around the western world. Only this time, we wouldn't dare use them on the heretical masses; they learned to read and write. So we applied them to inanimate objects, ones that can't complain or riot or call lawyers or write great declarations of inanimate object rights. And we applied them to unintelligent brutes, from the great apes on down to lobsters.
As I leave, I can see the hills recede from view, hills brushed red with tussocks of little bluestem and moist valleys of ash and elm and wild plum, with flocks of sharptail grouse bursting from buffaloberry thickets and nighthawks sweeping the skies in the late evening and a luscious full moon, tomato-red from forest fires to the west. I am becoming a dot on the horizon, a distant memory, someday forgotten altogether, like the folks in the prairie cemetery. But today, the long time has come: The caprocks and soil mantle and grassland carpet are being pulled away by medieval machines, the modern-day Brodequin, Strappado, Judas Cradle, Heretic's Fork, and Iron Maiden. The riches are exposed and angry, desperate, confused, trembling crowds gather and plunder them. They light fires to burn what remains.
As I disappear, I look back and I see nothing. It occurs to me that we both disappear at the same time and someday, there will be nobody left to remember a thing.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Circle of Death

There is a loud train outside of my window. I suppose it is filled with hot, steaming coal from some strip mine in Wyoming, but it is too dark to tell right now. It blends into the night. The thing thunders by, the cabin shakes, and it blows its horn. Why blow the horn here? Maybe fifty years ago, when people lived in this town, working at the sawmill, but today, I think the only people left are buried behind a church. The ground behind the church shakes but nobody knows a thing.
As always, I am a moment away from joining in their silent vigil. In fact, sitting here, I am living in a space not much bigger than a coffin. And I don't know much more than they do. So the line between us grows thinner. At least my space has a window, although it is barely large enough to squeeze through. This is an advantage when the thing squeezing through is trying to get into the vehicle rather than out.
A fly fisherman three miles upstream bumped into a grizzly.
This is recreational vehicle life. I think I understand, as I see seventy year old men around me in white knee socks and baggy shorts and feed hats with military slogans and toy poodles and stories about the glories of war. I have no such stories, but being here, I make up stories about life on the open range. The blizzard of '49 that swallowed up our town and we had to dig a tunnel all the way to Texas to find daylight. Branding cattle in a pouring rainstorm with two broken arms, a case of typhoid, all the while fighting off eight wolves and seven rustlers. Mom was too busy tending the milk cows to give birth so the kids all borned themselves. Putting water in the Bank because it was the only valuable thing we had. Going without air for a summer because dad said so, besides, it was too thick to breathe it anyhow. Times were tough but we rode it out. Can't say that for peoples nowadays.
Anyhow, there are fires in the mountains tonight. Dry lightning they call it. Where the storm doesn't send rain, it sends lightning. It's virgo, where the rain evaporates before it reaches the ground. So the lightning hits an old dry log in the pine forest. Pine, just a form of hard gasoline, if you ask me. Then the log smoulders for a day or a week. And then one hot, dry day, the humidity drops as the temperature goes up and at 1:43 in the afternoon, the log bursts into flames. The trees above it catch some of the fire and carry it into the canopy and it races across the treetops like a long haired sunburned surfer. A child of the stylized Sun seen in children's picture books.
The smoke today looked like the wall cloud of a thunderstorm. But it wasn't blue or black, it was orange, brown, like dust; it could have been mistaken as dust by a homesteader. All day long the smell of rich roasted pine was in the air, sweet, like pipe tobacco, and at this intensity, as alluring as fresh coffee grounds. Maybe it is nicotene in the air. Maybe it is instinctive hunger, the sense that there is a porterhouse steak somewhere out there on the spit. The legend is that buffalo would follow the smoke in the air to find, after a few weeks of walking, fresh green grass where the fire had been.
The moon is red, filtered through the combustibles of a million Douglas fir and lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine. Too quickly they died, if they had only waited a few eons, they might have turned up in a coal mine.
The train sounds a bell as it crosses the highway. The horn fades in the distance, the horn descending in pitch as the sound waves stretch out. Like firewood, coal heats us twice: Once when it is burned for fuel, twice when it burns the planet.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Reach for the Stars

They say if you were to save a penny the first day and double it every day after that, you would be a millionaire in no time. Flat out millionaire. Like pennies from heaven.
Today, I look up and the heavens are like a rope, clouds braided ahead of a storm, and rain is falling out there 20 miles away, you can see the gust front pushing it like bristles on a blue broom. There is a white streak in the rain; it's hail, penny sized hail rushing down like a mob of shoppers in December, outstretching each other to grab that limited-collector's-edition-styrene-based-children's-entertainment-device, wiping out some man's cornfield, stripping away the cobs, turning it to poor silage. Funny thing, the fellow prayed for rain a few days ago, that day he forgot to renew his crop insurance, and now this. Now he is penniless, scouring the fields for a few edible ears to feed his livestock. He looks at the porch, rustling with his untamed children. They chatter like racoons. He looks at a battered cob in his hand. Hey, what if? The insurance man shakes his head, calls it an Act of God and walks away, dusting off his hands. The children watch him walk until he disappears over a hill. The youngest begins to gnaw on the railing.
The farmer looks up at the sky and closes his eyes for a moment, letting the sun wash it one last time. Clouds quickly intervene and his face darkens.
"Maybe it's time to quit," says his wife. Her yellow hair stands straight on end, like husks from shucked corn.
"I never thought..." He picks up some dirt in his hand and tosses it into the wind. The dirt blows it back in his face.
The insurance man walks along the damaged fields and notices that the division between the damaged crop and the undamaged crop is a clear line, maybe a foot wide. Centuries ago this was grist for rumor mills; the man sold his soul, the wife is a witch, the children are possessed. The insurance man thinks, "I could have made a killing back then." He laughs to himself.
They say that while walking in dangerous neighborhoods you should carry the bulk of your money in your shoes and a few dollars in your pockets, to give to robbers. So, after the fall harvest, the neighbors cut down the shelterbelts and planted larger fields. Hiding corn in their shoes, I guess. Years later, their children crossed numerous strains of corn and fielded larger plants. Then they sought out the robber to get all of this stuff out of their shoes because they couldn't walk. After a while the robbers started to grow too, and in a few decades they had gotten so big that nobody had enough corn to satisfy them. This brings us up to date.
Off in a laboratory the farmer's grandchildren are splicing the genes of corn with crocodiles or coelacanthes or axolotyls or scrappy dockworkers or hamburgers. Fine. There is a pounding on the roof and the technicians look up. Asbestos filters down from the ceiling. They shrug. Looming over the lab is the shadow of a 900-foot tall robber hungry for his next meal. Same one that crushed the church down the road.
So, what lies ahead? It's this: First we planted simple native corn. Then it was hybrids, the Green Revolution. Then it was gene splicing, the Gene Revolution. Exponential growth in yields. Still not enough. Life is not fooled by life; it always recognizes its own kind. Like the grizzly that can smell the chocolate bar inside the wrapper inside the sealed container inside the ice chest locked inside the car with the windows rolled up, we just can't outsmart this biosphere. It knows what we are doing and tells us to reach for the sky and empties our pockets and strips us clean, even taking our shoes.
I mean, are you sure that those are your shoes?
Enough of this. If the biosphere cannot be fooled by its own kind, then the only alternative to introduce a truly alien life form to the human menu. A synthetic crop, inorganically engineered. Hail problems? Engineer a hail-resistant crop, with hardened cellulose and lignin, something developed under controlled laboratory conditions, something with atoms of sulfur or chlorine bound to the native molecules, hardening it like body armor. Field test it in the Midwest. Fire buckshot at it. Run the tractor over it. Thrash it with a bullwhip. Then set it loose. It can rain, it can hail, let it hail, go ahead, come down hard, the Weather Militia, like cluster bombs, cheap nail bombs with gasoline, let nature throw everything in its arsenal and watch as the clouds clear and the rain passes to the east and there, the cornstalks stand tall, glistening and glowing in the sun. A triple rainbow forms a backdrop.
I can see the advertisements now: After supper, a farmer steps outside to admire his fields. The sun has set long ago. The porch lights are off, the house is dark. But the field is lit up - the corn is still glowing. A smile forms on his face, and his skin cracks along his chin; he will be shedding soon. "Yes," he thinks, "Crops. Provide food for my livestock and light for my neighborhood." Then cut away to the Corporate Logo being held in the hand of a furry, three-toed child. Voice over: "A better world. Imagine that."
Sure, double your pennies every day. Exponential growth. Pennies from heaven. Problem is, we would end up eating all the copper for food because we used up everything else making pennies.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

You Read It Here

I watch the setting sun drop into the Pacific ocean and the sky burns red and the ocean begins to boil, sending off plumes of steam that will bring hot rains tomorrow. It is a straight line across the horizon, but I know it's not flat, it is bowed by the moon into tides and it slopes gently toward the edge of the earth where whiskey barrels full of men tumble over the falls and drop into outer space. They say that the space junk is from satellites, but we know better; it is just millions of whiskey barrels accumulating over time. Once in a while they fall out of orbit and burn up as they enter the atmosphere. The Leonid Meteor Shower is just the debris from the Age of Discovery. I am sure, up there somewhere is James Cook, Vasco da Gama, Barentz, Torrez, Elcano, Urdaneta, Balboa, Cabot, Drake, Hudson, Magellan, and even Columbus - plus their ships and briny crews. Swaggering, swashbuckling men swinging swords, strapped into barrels of salt pork, losing altitude, losing confidence. They say you can count hundreds of them in the night sky in mid-November. From here, one can trace a direct line to a very modern idea: Recycling. Somewhere I read that the earth spirals downward and catches the falling waters and it appears in the heavens as a thing we call rain. Sort of like a cistern that catches the rain that runs off of the roof of a house on the Great Plains. This is recycling. But the rains stopped coming, and the cistern never did fill up and the people fled for their lives and I read somewhere else that it was because they were being punished for the intemperance, sloth, and vanity of their ancestors. Now they recycle guilt from one afterlife to another. This is in the same paper that talks about the flat earth.
So, I turn the page and it says that a large raft of aged surfers is swirling in the south Pacific and threatens to alter the delicate ocean chemistry. They float away from shores along the Pacific rim, like coconuts. I quote one researcher from Wayfare University: "The surfers cover an area as large as the state of Kansas." And we all know that Kansas is nowhere near the ocean. Wait a second, I think I see a whiskey barrel falling in the western sky. A streak, copper colored, and it splashes into the sea like an Apollo module. A plume of steam goes up. Then nothing.
Now, persistence is the main concern. The researcher, Lemkus Boulough, stated, "We see that the inorganic and organic solids in the raft are resistant to biodegradation and ultraviolet light, and the corrosive effects of saltwater are rebuffed by the lipid sheen found on the outer laminates of most of the debris." He held up a large block of yellowish wax. "This is what we find forming in the oil sheen around the debris field. We think it has a half life of ten-thousand years." He lit a match under the wax. "But does it burn!" The paper said that the news conference was called off in order to allow firefighters to gain access to the building.
And byproducts are another concern. From his hospital bed, Boulough stated, "Once decomposition occurs, we see that the byproducts are highly toxic. We find bisphenol A, styrenes, and PS oligomer in alarming concentrations. And we are finding that there is secondary kill of scavengers and predators that cruise the deep ocean waters. Poisons are not discriminating."
So the giant raft of surfers slowly spins in the Pacific while pale, white predators and scavengers bob on the surface between bits of polystyrene, polyester, and epoxy surfboards and the expanding oily sheen on the ocean surface. This can be seen from high above, a kaleidoscope of colors, spreading into estuaries, mangrove swamps, tributaries, deltas, and over low lying coral atolls, coating birds and sawgrass and alligators and spawning fish. Everything is flammable now. Recent photos show that the sheen can even be seen from the Barrel-o-sphere some seventeen miles above the earth's surface where men losing altitude and confidence face the grim reality that all of their exploration has rewarded them with one thing: They will descend in a ball of fire.
But the marvels of ecology are at work. We stand in awe of human nature. Errors recycle between generations, are preserved, and are given protective status. No, we won't deplete our supply of barrels any time soon: recycling is at work and the downward spiral of the earth regenerates the atmosphere with barrels each summer, so the earth's expanding rainbow-colored chemical sheen and annual spectacle of failed expeditions can be enjoyed by all for many, many years to come.