Saturday, July 9, 2011

Man and Nature: A Calculus Beyond My Understanding


I stand on the front walk to my house and look around. I am seeing certain things as if for the first time, and I am awestruck:

Telephone lines (or are they power lines?) slung between tall, slender, unadorned, wooden totems, strictly for the purpose of transmitting information (or energy) all along the little street.

Metal antennae attached to rooftops. A satellite dish.

All of these comprise the infovascular system (if I may) of our species -- an extension of our bodies, as Leonardo da Vinci would have said. I say they are an extension of our minds -- not an alien, unnatural blight on the landscape, but an inevitable result of the advent of the frontal lobe in humans.

Chimneys spring from rooftops as well, venting whatever we cannot use and do not want in our houses. I do not normally see these, rather taking them for granted a hair shy of one hundred percent of the time. They are cowlicks on the structures we have built for ourselves in our image. Two windows and a door make a face. Buildings are large cloaks which we can move around in. Very roomy.

I look up at the birds. The swallows with their pointed wingtips beat the air faster than a fish beats water with fins but slower than an electron orbits a nucleus. They trawl for unseen airborne insects. I imagine these birds closing off their windpipes and throats, catching as many insects as they can -- their flight patterns governed by a calculus far beyond my human understanding -- until the sensation of insect bodies, lodged in saliva, accumulates enough to warrant, ahem, swallowing.

The birds flock together, but individually you can see them ruminating. "Should I follow now? How about now? Yes, now. I will join my familiars. I am my own bird. I miss my familiars. I am my own bird, for my attention wanes." They flit from tree to tree. They fly over my head.

They land on a telephone line. Or power line. Unlike me, they do not question it. The wire is part of their real, natural world.

The antennae and bricks of the buildings are hard -- much harder than tree bark, about as hard as very old rock -- belong here too.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Space Shuttle: Our Tower of Babel

I find myself genuinely mournful of the space shuttle program. I was born in 1980; the program launched in 1981. It was always there for me.

Space travel will continue, but the space shuttle program was more than that. It was a symbol of something strident and hopeful.

The space shuttle program, in my mind's eye, was the white spaceplane, the NASA logo, the American flag emblazoned on spacesuits filled with heroes. My heroes.

The space shuttle program was the televised launches. The countdown, the ignition, the launch, the blinding blaze of rockets, the disappearing of a handful of astronauts into the heavens.

The space shuttle program was our Tower of Babel. We built it for science, yes, but really we built it to reach God.

I was in first grade when the space shuttle Challenger exploded before it could even reach low orbit. It blew up right there before the eyes of hundreds of thousands of people. A teacher had been on-board. A television was wheeled into the classroom so we could watch the coverage. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Lindsay, crying a little and holding a tissue to her face.

Now, as I read the New York Times coverage of the last launch taking place this very moment, I am surprised to find myself crying a little. I will never go up in a space shuttle. I never knew it mattered to me until now.