The Rules for Falling
I will make an end.
I cannot but weepe.
I know not what to doe.
From the Latin exercise books
of Isaac Newton, age 12
The thing we desperately need
is to face the way it is.
Walking between the ocean and its resident birds is no dangerous thing. Stepping parallel to the wavewash and trying not to make any unintended feints at all the gathered seabirds, I loomed but I didn't. Since I was not moving directly toward them they allowed me to pass within six or seven feet. Most of the bird eyes were upon me. I could have dashed them all helter skelter into the sky with any quick motion. Or I could, with greater speed perhaps, have suddenly thrown myself upon a single Royal Tern, grappled it down and held the sleek thing in my fingers like a white trophy, its heart pounding faster than mine, its fevered birdlife ticking away in fear. I could have looked right in my personal tern's eye, the randomly chosen one, for the specific evidence: the code of the universe glinting somewhere in there like a teaser. But this sort of thing is not in me: thieving through the eye, terrorizing the small and beautiful. Besides, that great orange dagger of a beak could easily tear me open, could wring blood from my hands.
Instead, I just stepped on by as slowly as I could and walked around the Royal and Sandwich Terns, the Ring-billed Gulls and the Laughing Gulls. Most were in their winter muted feathers. Some slept while I walked so close. Others blinked and ruffled peacefully in the wind, giving me just another hint at my insignificance in the world of bird worries.
Isaac Newton, they say, never saw the sea and maybe none of its gulls. Born on an island nation, he may never have gone more than 150 miles from his birthplace in England. A farmhouse, the city of London, Cambridge—it is such a small world, comparatively. Making me recall again a fact of geography that I have learned—one that I forget and recall again, one that still astounds me: there are more square miles in the state of Arkansas than in the country of England.
I’ve seen the tides in Oregon. They are much more evident there on the volcanic rock stacks than in Florida with its white sands and condos and resting terns. I have stopped to wonder if I ever would have tried to fathom the reason for the tides myself. You know, 300 years ago, on my own, staring at the sea. The mystery of the surge and retreat was of interest to many, especially in the coastal world of England. The tides still determine the comings and goings of those who live near the sea. But Isaac made them out in his head without the visual experience. A colleague sent him his expert tidal observations. And the truth is, Isaac never left his room much before the age of 45. His father died while Isaac was in the womb. And for the first half of Newton’s life he was mainly alone. Freud, no doubt, would make much of this.
When Newton was born, London was a city of about 400,000 inhabitants. No other city in England was even close. If I take all the surrounding suburbs around Little Rock, Arkansas the people therein presently comes to around the same number, people endlessly advancing in numbers, if not so much in their social abilities.
Presently the dead (all the dead, ever, I mean) far outnumber the living by many accounts, by the estimates and methods of reckoning we use for this kind of thing. The total number of people ever born is placed at around 85 billion. This puts the ratio between the living and the dead at around fourteen to one. Fourteen thus being the number of souls who may be looking over your shoulder, judging for themselves if what you do with your precious days is really worth your time. This is presuming that once you are dead you have nothing better to do than follow the living around. I doubt the fourteen are always there. We are speaking of averages after all. I hope for the dead’s sake that they are not assigned to specific people. No doubt there is much scoffing over some of my days. Pecking at typewriters, vacuuming, watching the leaves fall from the maple tree in my yard—one can get self-conscious pondering this committee of souls standing behind your chair. And, well, scrutinizing your every move.
Newton’s stepfather wanted nothing to do with him when he married Isaac’s widowed mother. In fact, he required Newton to be gone. They gave the boy away. And though Isaac often wished to be alone for all of his remaining life, that level of loneliness was not the kind one truly wants as a boy. Especially if you are a boy with no confidence in his purpose in life. He went with darkness and light, Isaac watched the sun and the moon like they were his friends. He made sundials to mark the time. He wished for better ways of tracking time. The whole world did—my kingdom for a pocket watch. At age ten the stepfather died and Isaac had his mother back, along with three siblings he did not know. But they immediately sent him away to an apothecary shop close to the school he attended. It was in the town of Grantham in England. Isaac slept in the garret there. And he scrawled things on the walls, including some birds, apparently. I have never seen a picture of these mythic scrawlings which must have been done in charcoal or stone. They are the pictures of a boy's daydreams. How they managed to stay and stay I don’t know. Though, because Newton was very famous later in his life, the apothecary might have been inclined to memorialize the scribblings of the famous boy, the man who described the way the moon works. Tourism could then be said to have saved the birds that Newton drew.
Half of all the dead on earth are babies and children. They still die in large masses, making the trailing committees of souls rather diverse if not deeply sad. And setting us to wonder if the soul of a six month old is allowed to advance after death or if they just blissfully goo and ga-ga for eternity. Let’s not even go into what may constitute heaven and hell. And many of the present souls would have to be watching the lives of the living children—children watching children. We can only hope the adult dead are allowed to read a good book or at least have some altered sense of time. What with observing all those sleeping and chattering children. Ah, just imagine the disappointments: following the six year old until it dies in a house fire or a tragic bicycle accident. Then going to stand in the soul reassignment line and drawing the straw this time for a gangster or a bricklayer, a nightwatchmen or, worse yet, that sorrowful man who tears open the new graveholes with a backhoe. Perhaps heaven and hell can indeed be defined under this system.
I saw a Cooper’s Hawk sitting on a fence recently. Several of us did, in fact, while we chased birds for a Christmas count. It was that pristine kind of Cooper’s Hawk, the back feathers a skyish blue, the belly barred with a fine layer of repeating creams and reds. It held one talon up in readiness or rest, a posture of poise, waiting for us to declare our intentions toward it. We loomed in a van nearby, staring and focused, no doubt, like a committee of dead souls. And since there were six of us I guess we were actually eighty-four dead and six living (our souls having no say in whether they wanted to go birdwatching or not).
This great gathered audience was all waiting for this one bird. The hawk had no idea, of course. But it did launch itself west with surprising speed over the nearby field where it whirled and dropped suddenly. We all stared. It sat for only a moment and then it came off and away after a frightened sparrow that it overtook and dispatched with no evident trouble. It was a mere flashpoint of a chase. No burst of feathers, the sparrow just seemed to dissolve into the grass. It was a quick bird death, it looked like an unexpected thing for the hawk, a happy happenstance for a meat eater. We, the living, caught our breaths. My own local orbital, observational dead, I hope, applauded. If there is justice, I decided at that moment, the dead would be allowed to follow such birds when they are encountered by us less-than-entertaining humans. They can reassign themselves, so to speak. Now there is a law of the universe: the dead may trade off in the subjects of their attachment, brush like bright shadows from me or you to a hawk in a field on a clear winter day. The souls of the dead can spark across the eyes of all the living organisms in the world like beams of light. It has a beauty to it.
Emperor Qin, the self-proclaimed first emperor of China, who ruled two thousand years ago, killed 400,000 prisoners after one battle, wiping out a population the size of 17th century London in one post conflict clean-up. Imagine the soul assignment line that day. Where is Qin now I have to ask? There would be very few places for such a soul to go without running into some of the other souls he’d dispatched originally. What are the weapons of a vengeful gang of souls? Qin, you may remember, is the one who had all the clay soldiers built and buried near him in the deserts of China. Perhaps he had a foreshadowing of the crowded world of the dead, inspiring this misdirected but beautiful army. Surely the angry souls who find him now laugh at these broken soldiers as they strike the Emperor’s soul with their remonstrative static. Ah, the politics of the afterlife.
Newton often wrote for himself, careless of food and sleep, noted his recent biographer James Gleick. He filled pages and pages of notebooks and scrapbooks pondering the nature of the infinite and bringing order to the rules for the motions of light, to the rules for falling. He pondered taking his own life. He guessed at the molecular nature of matter and, as I said, described in detail the wobbled symmetry of the moon’s motions. He predicted the shape of the earth (it is, indeed, not perfectly round). I don’t think he spent much time pondering nature directly. Not the close and visible nature. Not Cooper’s Hawks and such. But what an impressive screen he must have had in his head.
Did he ever really ponder apples? The apple question has always intrigued me. He did, in fact, have an apple tree in his garden. But it is unlikely that he began his explorations into gravity and interplanetary forces from the bounce of one apple. Let alone one that careened off his heavy head. The experts argue. They like to argue about such things.
In greater Tokyo there are currently over 26 million people. In Mexico City: another 20 million. New York: 19 million. “Oh Tokyo,” Bruce Cockburn says in his song named for the city, “I never can sleep in your arms. Mind…keeps on…ringing like a fire alarm. Me and all the other dice bouncing around in the cup.”
Ted Bundy, the serial killer, famously was astounded at all the attention at his trial. He could not understand how his pitiful activities at thinning the human ranks could possibly matter. “There are so many people,” he said, like he hadn’t even taken the legal limit. I bet the soul of Emperor Qin may have been buzzing around Ted there somewhere.
Cross wind at the southwest end of an almost endless field, recently I watched as a black cloud morphed and shifted, settled and reemerged. It was a great single thought of nervous blackbirds feeding and buckling, resolving into a flat black mirage at rest and then bursting back into a floating orb whenever one of three feeding Harriers dive-bombed the whole dark mass. A metaphysical leviathan, restless against gravity and invaders, ignoring the shears of the wind, it was an image that caught and stayed on my mind, like a lovely but ominous thought. Nearby an eagle and another eagle chased and curved up to an apogee of interaction where dark feathers burst and settled slowly to the green field as they angled away in the wind. If it wasn’t for the cold I would have gone out to find them and stuck them in my hat. Reminders, as always, that standing among the living is good.
The Hubble telescope has revised our estimates of the universe’s star numbers. We now believe there are over eighty billion galaxies, more then ten galaxies for each of the living. And each of these galaxies contains at least 100 billion suns. You do that math. Newton had no idea. But you can see why it is a fact that it is far more likely that there are sentient beings on other planets than that there are not. It is tremendously unlikely that we are alone. The Carl Sagan maxim, we should call it. Of course each of those living planets would have their own dead. Assuming even souls are limited by the speed of light. Sadly, each living place probably has its own version of Emperor Qin as well. Hell is a box of darkness and silence with no visitation rights.
Supposedly Isaac Newton was seen to laugh only once in his lifetime. It was when someone asked him, somewhat irritatedly, what the purpose was in reading all that gibberish that Euclid wrote. Newton reportedly became very merry indeed.
Personally, I think Isaac hoped to see the ocean but never got around to it. That mechanical and almost digital mind may not have been interested. But it is odd that he famously paraphrased Milton when he said: “I don’t know what I may seem to the world but, as to myself, I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
If there is justice in the system, then any number (no limit) of dead souls may cloud around the very best of beings. And Newton would have been allowed to peer over the shoulder of Einstein and Feynman in his serial turns, in some special protocol of assignment. Perhaps his soul would have just headed that way, toward the first rumors of Einstein. Newton then sparking from robin (the REAL English robin as Cheryl would say) to gnat to beetle to ballerina to seamstress to blackbird until he finally found Einstein and then stuck with him. Einstein scribbled a lot too. Surely there was some joy there. Joy in watching anonymously as Einstein weighed out the power of light, penned the elegant recipe for the ungodly energy that sits inside the mote in one eye, inside one sandy grain. Newton’s joy in seeing that even modern geniuses remain puzzled about the true nature of gravity, about the deepest reasons for all the falling, about those beautiful curves in the other dimension—this I think would bring Isaac some needed happiness, some true laughter in whatever form that laughter takes in a soul.
Maybe Isaac whispered numbers to Albert in his sleep. And hopefully afterward and more recently, between the heavy mathematical gigs, Isaac left the rigors of human life and latched onto some bright bird winging away out there. A tern, perhaps, that would carry him out over the deep water, show him the ocean in that wondrous view: the one where the white bird falls into the sea like an arrow, making Isaac and ten thousand other souls (infants, accountants, gravediggers) catch their collective breaths as they became brief daggers straining toward the fertile green dark, flashing in the sealight before they broke back up again and flew towards, well, nowhere in particular, a farther sea, the empty horizon.
How many lifetimes would it take to dull that kind of magic?