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  "The Nature of Things"
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Wendy Lewis
  Wendy Lewis

Rūs + Literary Series
The Nature of Things

July-August, 2008

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 am.

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 alive.

Back in the 1980s, I penned these lyrics in a song entitled “Real Life Drama:” how you live is how you’re gonna die. Like 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, unemotional earth.

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