Essays


 

The Ten Power Eye        


Distance:

Remember all

that land

beneath the

plane;

that coastline

of dim beaches

deep in sand

stretching

indistinguishably

all the way,

all the way to

where my

reasons end?

 

                        From “Argument

                        Elizabeth Bishop

 


You know when

you’ve found it

Because you feel it

when they take it away

 

                        From “Amie”               

                        Damien Rice

 

 

 

From the corner of my eye I catch a Monarch floating by. (The opening line to the fall poetics.) They often fly like paper airplanes, all tilt and balance, float and catastrophe, orange weightlessness. It is hard not to admire them. I glance up from my line of trees and see more and more of them circling. They appear to be coming up from ground level somewhere nearby and moving higher and higher to begin the day’s further motions toward Mexico—the place where they will eventually sleep the sleep of the very, very weary. I would not trade my own skin for the delicate lifeline of these butterflies but I can admire them anyway. The day before today these same creatures had passed over my backyard by the hundreds and hundreds in several hours time. Now, in this field in early morning I plant my feet and cock the binoculars up to count for comparison and find 250 of them from just where I stand. This in about as long a time as it takes me to roll through all those numbers in a rapid roll call. I have never seen so many so fast.

 

Someone sent me a site recently that tours you through the ten power eye, through the logarithmic distances by the powers of ten (in meters) starting at the impressively faraway 10 to the 23rd power. That is ten million light years away from the Milky Way. Our galaxy from there looks like a white snowflake that has slightly thinned at the edges. It is a fuzzy pinwheel of stars. It is enough of a “place” to keep one busy for many lifetimes just wandering through the starforms and planets in its own small whirl, if one could wander so. Drawing inward from that magnificent waywardness, at 10 to the 20th power we are there (finally) in the gassy crowds of stardust around the edge of our galaxy—a hard orientation. We are nothing really, we learn, a wink of dandruff, a corpuscle on the eye of God. This is even when we use the word “us” to mean our whole solar system. Really, we aren’t even stardust. We are indiscernible mist inside the stardust.

 

Makes me think anew of what the word “home” means. For now it means a block on a street in a small town. In the real traveler’s world, in the lightspeed oneday when one answers the query “where is your home?” we will have to say Andromeda and maybe stop there, check the questioner’s eye, see if he knows our neighborhood stars. But how then to define our place within it when the whole known universe is the map? Which way is up and which way is down? Which way do we dial the clock on the galaxy to tell someone we live on an edge of the Andromeda system at three o’clock or nine o’clock? What meaning has a clock face among a universe of different turnings, of so many different suns? We will have to pick the lay of the known universe and force it around in our heads for guidance. Everyone will have to agree on an up and a down. What are the chances, I wonder, of that?

 

I can tell the direction of the nearby lake by the periodic groanings of the egrets and herons as they lift and relocate for fisherman, by the scree of the Wood Ducks that waft and pick through the receding lotus and lilly leafings. And, of course, also by my natural sense of west and east on this, our local planet. The nearby treeline is alive with migrant warblers and their traveling companions. In September and October one can find the traces of these feeding birds by listening for the whistle of the titmouse and the chatter of the chickadee. Chase the familiar: those birds will guide us to everyone else. With them go the juvenile Parulas with their golden throats, the late gnatcatchers, the new kinglets. A Pewee sings his song softly on a treetop limb. The Pine Warblers make their vibrato tailing of notes—each one different. Pine Warblers sing no matter what the season. A few late Fiery Skippers zing among the asters and the coreopsis. I flush a Green Darner that does not want to go.

 

At 10 to the 8th power the earth is a marble and at 10 to the 7th we are making out the shape of North America. We’ve moved out of the vastness and into the local system of green and blue. Begging the question: are we special? We can only hope. Ours is a green system. Are they all? What’s a tree anywhere else? We will have to be prepared to define the basics: new words for trees, assuming nothing. And these things drifting over my head? Winged migratory insectoids in orange and black. We are from a water and chlorophyll system in sector 8. We will lose the word September, except among our closest friends. But surely seasons occur commonly in our universe full of ellipses? Please let other worlds have fall. What if there are systems of double stars with eight seasons or even ten? What are the tide tables like for a world with nine moons?

 

A few bumbles bumble, still collecting pollen. Several varieties of fly are moving in the flowers. I do not know them. They are still strangers in my head, unsorted, though a few do look familiar. I see something dark in the grass and move over to find a lovely young snake, a racer coiled there. He seems to be ignoring me. So I lift his back half and this gets his attention. The dark eye expresses sudden interest, the neck and head whip around. I hold him gently up to see him better. Wondering where he will go in the next few weeks. Must he hope to stumble on some warm pit in this hillside? Does he have a place picked out for shelter? Should he go home with me? My daughter would love that. But somehow I am not sure about this young snake’s feeling toward this kind of translocation.

 

At a favorite flower field, this species of late coreopsis has virtually taken over the prairie. An astounding number of Monarchs nectar there. They must have overnighted nearby. Now they are fueling and soon they will lift to join the thousands already overhead. They hang from bloom and bloom like a harvest of triangular fruit. They bounce and resettle as I move. Above me, they are at all levels. Some move though the trees, others pick their next flower and drop and fold. High above they swirl and turn and fall like the wind tailings of a colored ash from some great paper fire to the north. There are few other butterflies around. A few Painted Ladies linger, looking overborne by it all. They have nowhere in mind. You’d think a few would follow the Monarch masses just to see, just to see if there was something to this southering ruse. “Mexico, Mexico,” I want to whisper in a Ladies ear. Or would I have to vibrate that message against their spindly legs?

 

A young hawk breaks from a tree and turns and turns over me. It is a hatchling Broad-winged Hawk. It is likely four months old or so. Here is the wind; here is the sky. This is what I think—my attempt at the hawk mind. I could be the first biped this bird has ever seen up close. I in my hat, my binoculars, my field clothes, my gangly limbs—the startling (and startled) ambassador for my race—one of the rulers of the earth, I stare. The hawk moving through the distances from 10 to the 1st and 10 to the 2nd. Perhaps the hawk’s thought is more in the line of “what could that possibly be? If it lifts after me with those preposterous wings, there is no God.” When I look back from the truck a few minutes later, the hawk has been joined by three other birds. At my 10 to the zero station, I watch the hawks move toward 10 to the 4th.

 

By 10 to the 4th we are over a particular city. By 10 to the 2nd we are over some trees and a lake. It is someone’s favorite place, no doubt, a spot for sitting. If the actual eye were overhead we could see it hovering in whatever form it would take. At a lowly ten meters we are gazing onto a single fine oak crown—one on one with your choice of tree. And then beyond this the world grows textured and darker. Through limbs and leaf to veins and cells, it is like diving into the wet engine of the world.

 

I walk out into the field above the Nursery Pond and I have the world as my own. Near the water the juncus stands up with the broomsedge, with a here and there golden bloom and with the panicum that blankets the spaces. The little dragonfly, the Calico Pennant hovers and gently lands again on a stem top. It is the dainty red and black insect that would make insect lovers of the whole world if we could show each pair of eyes one delicate dragon at a time. It is October and this calico gentleman still waits. He looks pretty fresh. I see no females anywhere. A single grebe floats out on the water and one egret exits to the north, heading for bigger water. A few frogs call. It is an abbreviated song, a quick and choked burp. A few more frogs pop up in the grass when I go.

 

I walk over a low arc of mud to a hummock of plant life that is never submerged. Oh, the deluge it would take. It is a rich tuft of marsh growth, the deep thatch produce of all summer long. The panicum is so thick it is like a comforter that I can stretch back on. And I do.

 

Jays call; a distant wren speaks. (Where do I go that Carolina Wrens don’t speak when I stop to listen for them?) Close to the grasses, I see things are busier than they seemed a moment before. A few Forktails, that most delicate of the damselflies, float and perch nearby, greener than I remember them. But then they are always greener than I last remember them. A wolf spider carries its white capsule of eggs over the grass near my hand. With practice, I’ve learned not to jump from them. They have their qualities. And another wolf rides up afterward with its load of tiny spiders clutching to its back. This is the highest calling of a mother. Can there be two hundred, three hundred children or more? Has someone estimated the hatch of a wolf spider or stopped to truly count them? Surely the great Fabre must have. They ride on the mother’s back for months and months, these perfectly formed spiderlets, not eating. They are not there for the food. They are just there to watch. It is the long piggy back lesson that launches one into life. It is a mother’s life and its sustained audience so intensely watching for the evidence.

 

Henri Fabre, that great French naturalist, did watch two mother wolf spiders come into contact once. He saw the moment when they encountered each other. And he saw that even more impressive moment afterward when both loads of spiderlets jumped off the wolf mothers and went over to get into their stand-by position. The two little crowds somehow smelled the smoke, felt the rage before the battle in their toes, in the tips of their tender spider sensory hairs. It is an instinctive moment that makes you shake your head, that makes you want to shake the creator’s hand. Or ask him some significant questions.

 

Fabre then watched as these wolf mothers fought as they often do—to the death. Afterward it could have gone two ways. (Or three, I suppose, if we consider a battle where both mothers die.) But he watched as the children of the defeated mother and the children of the victorious mother all traipsed over calmly to take up their new position in a denser and perhaps wiser crowd atop the back of the surviving she-spider. She then headed off like the day was just another normal day. It is a lesson for every watcher who thinks they know the aftermaths of the dogs of war. Later, at some critical moment, the long piggyback ride suddenly comes to an end and the young wolves all run off the mother’s back. This only occurs on days of perfect weather and then the wolflets scatter and send out the long, individual weblines, the ballooning threads as they are known, that carry them God-knows-where-and-the-devil-may-care. (Yes, that is a place.) Into the blue, wind tinsel sifting toward the ten power eye.

 

At 10 to the negative 8th we are looking at the double helix and then the nucleotides that bind the DNA chain. Deeper still we are in the electron cloud and the spaces between the nucleus and the cloud. It is the telling interstitium in everyone and everything—mostly, in the end, we find we are made of spaces. We are great lattices of emptiness.

 

Deeper still, we enter the nucleus with its jittery quarks and energies. But it is too deep; it is too far. Beyond the beauty of the leaf vein I am lost. I have a macro eye. I must pull back. I want to gasp again at the galaxy spinning. I want to pull back to the spider and the hawk feather, the scales on the Monarch wing, take comfort in the narrower world, in the grass that holds us up, in the surfaces that can actually take our fingertips. Or, I do anyway, on this particular day.

 

A Sharp-shinned Hawk lifts over the pond and makes its way towards the treeline. It is truly a busy day of goings in the hawk world. The Monarchs still spin around me and around this rising bird. The butterflies seemingly bind the whole world up with their crazy orbits. I put my hands on the juncus stems and the panicum. It feels like heat. But I know it is fade and sputter. It is spare dragonflies and the caverns where spiders go, the fluted homes of crayfish, the slow stall. A Sedge Wren says something near me and I stand still to watch her shift her fragile stems. I whisper a rough and sibilant imitation of wrenspeak and smack the back of my hand until she comes up to see me. She has the magic color tones, the creams and reds that time has painted into a perfect camouflage. It is always a privilege to see her here and to speak her name this close.

 

A single Slaty Skimmer wheels around me. In dragon years he is one hundred and five (or something like that). Still gliding and turning—damn impressive. I’m 4000, I guess, in dragon years. I’m somewhere between the youth I knew and the wisdom that I pray truly does come one day to the man who rides the big ride for twenty thousand turnings of the sun. Some days we feel like pure speed; some days speed is that thing we used to have. Alone here, I see the cold coming again.

 

I see the winters I have known and I am suddenly unsheltered: blue roof, white cloud, Monarch, Monarch, Monarch. The sparrows will come soon and fall upon the broomsedge and the ice. Inside all this greenery now, it seems like waste, like the constructs of ash, though it still shelters the wren, though it still nectars these Monarchs. The cool is coming and I should be more of a master of this condition, of this knowing, this certainty, but I am just a man in a field and, whatever I may want to say, to the hovering eye or to myself, the cool is coming and, unlike the Monarchs and the hawks, I dread it like surgery, like the long slow ache in a festering tooth.

 

        HR