+ Literary Series
The Nature of Things
I can’t change the nature of anything. I can affect behavior
or outcome to some incremental degree, but for the most part a dog will
be a dog. I can pull a weed but it has either already cleverly propagated
or will activate its underground network and work subversively despite
all my efforts to stop it. I stood on the prairie this morning under
grey skies in a light rain watching dogs be dogs and weeds be weeds.
I felt insignificant and clueless and liberated for another day. I continue
to be reminded of all this because I keep forgetting how small I really
After those planes plowed into the World Trade Center, I carried
a book around in my bag for many months written by Annie Dillard
called "For the Time Being," the pages of which
were already dog-eared-exhausted.She follows a French Jesuit paleontologist,
describes in painful detail variety human malformations, like a
two-year-old child in a polka-dotted dress whose face is horrifically
deformed but has been cursed (?) blessed (?) with normal intelligence,
and flayed rabbis who sacrifice themselves for what they believe.
She drags the reader through China and Israel, historically well-worn
pathways, under dated clouds with a natural history of sand beneath.
Dillard, a self-avowed Christian, shakes her fist at her God while
she tramples barefoot through only a few ragged atrocities, which
is how we perceive them, leaving a trail of unanswered questions
behind her. I left religion behind long ago, but this book comforts
me because neither she nor I can turn away from what we see regardless
of what we believe in or eschew. I have to look, but I might be
just another gawker.
All I have to date is this: things are what they are and there
is nothing to do but roll with events as they arrive. If I fight
the inevitable, I get my ass kicked and the irony is that I’m
the only one throwing punches; whatever has happened just
squats in the grass staring at me, like my dogs, waiting to see
what I’m going to do next.
Lately, I’ve been intrigued by chaos theory. Instead
of feeling frustrated by the fact that I don’t have a Ph.D.
in physics (which I covet), I gaze at the equations and symbols,
appearing like works of art in and of themselves, and then seek
out what returns to nature. Mathematicians are simply attempting
to understand and put a definitive language to the natural order
and disorder of things, and that’s what exploration is about.
We want to know—something, anything, everything.
We can’t deny our nature, destructive and regenerative as
we can be.
I often forget that numbers are really an alphabet, a way to communicate
what happens in the world. Since I’m not fluent in this particular
language, I gravitate visually, to the nature-bound sources, blooming
like metaphors. For example, when chaos theory is graphed,
the shape resembles a butterfly, extrapolated in 1972 by Edward
Lorenz (“Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s
Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”) into what is
commonly known as the “butterfly effect,” loosely
translated as sensitivity to initial conditions. This
delicate creature seems too fragile a mascot. But the butterfly
represents the tiny motion made in an enormous system, setting
off a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. My fretting
and spinning in place is smaller still.
“Bad things” happen. People die—even children,
lots of them. War is hell and warlords continue to be born and
rise to power. Heroes are assassinated and criminals go free. Love,
that mysterious seducer and predator, delivers bliss and agony.
The best-laid plans fall short and the undeserved go long. We are
brought to our knees and lifted to safety. Millions are slaughtered
in the hands of dictators, and millions more slaughtered by the
indiscriminating sweep of a massive ocean wave or a contagion
unseen by the naked eye. This is not tragedy, people. This is just
how it is—this is the show. No one gets out of here
Back in the 1980s, I penned these lyrics in a song entitled “Real
Life Drama:” how you live is how you’re gonna
so many lyrical moments, it felt as if someone else wrote those
words, moved my hand—but I am far from the first and will
surely not be the last. I’m not unique. I am only one brief
moment in a vast, incomprehensible universe. Still, that line keeps
returning to me, day after month after year—a gentle warning,
which has become a mantra—a mother humming and smoothing
my hair in the darkdark night, lowering me ever closer to the fragrant,