The general pattern, lithe-unfolded, slow, gradual, grand . . .
I used to think “how sad,” maybe even “how pathetic,” our small lives in houses or apartments, with children or not, and each morning everyone putting on clothes, working their jobs, buying their food. That everyone loved their days or didn’t, and kept on anyway seemed a trick, an ambush—a newsreel might have called it the “promise of progress,” when really such living looped like a trolley circling a town, the tracks rounded and bright with wear. Or worse still was a far-off, aerial view of the circuit, showing no seasonal displays in shop windows, no passing faces reflected in glass, surprised by the workings of age or desire. Even before any real sense of routine kicked into motion for me—the kind of routine a child thrives on—most forms of repetition felt like a trap. Everyone’s life precious to them seemed to me a sort of defeat, a placation, the phrase itself a patronizing pat on the head.
Yet a day unhitched from the orderly currents of morning, noon, evening—how silly and vain, makeshift and slight that would be.
In place of accepting a conventional day, or making one up on my very own terms, what did I want? Meaning imparted from somewhere on high, say a steep, backlit cliff with a windy voice that led to an edge where I’d stand and face off with the queasiness?
The vastness of all those lives, self-powered, like emergency generators, seemed to continue on into realms I couldn’t imagine. Or rather, I could very well imagine, I got the gist, I’d traveled and learned the variations, took on new habits as needed—All Soul’s Day picnics in freezing graveyards with vodka and blood sausages, bills folded and slipped into documents at the border for easy passage—and those shades of difference only proved my point, returned me to the initial sensation that the loop, circuit, routine was everywhere pulsing along, ongoing, unending, then ending.
I should say, too, the sensation was more a set of suspicions, a nagging or twinge, than an articulated belief, and that it broke through only briefly, but sharply, like a headache after an icy drink. It’s nearly impossible to conjure up now for more than a second, or reconvene the circumstances leading to this particular displacement. To get back to even this much has taken a very long time, and still, what I’ve gathered up here sounds more severe than I mean to convey, for my life at the time wasn’t harsh-feeling as much as wobbly, the contours uncertain, time baggy, irregular, and taut with desire. My days were marked by a jittery freedom, a vertigo that surged when I thought of how hours came to be filled with the simplest habits of living. All this returned recently though, when on a walk I saw a woman leaving a dentist’s office en route to her car. She dug around in her bag and pulled out her keys. She’ll head home, park, switch on a light as she enters the hallway, I thought. The rattling keys, a hall light switched on—that’s all it took. Just knowing that she moved through her day with practiced gestures (washing dishes, snapping sheets just out of a dryer—or letting everything encrust or wrinkle) led to the old onrush of a world full of others’ inscrutable days, and that thought, like a once-tight crenellation, unfurled fast right there on the street—all the tea-wallahs filling glasses on trays, somewhere the bite of warm camel milk, hickory wood falling in curls from a carpenter’s plane in Vermont, or around the corner, in Istanbul, all the bighorn sheep, manta rays, cities and glaciers, tendrilly vines in empty lots—every hidden or known subject under study, production, resurrection, all vastly worthy, and there, alongside the rush of human endeavors and moments, amid objects stubbornly unto themselves, my own glancing portion, the overwhelm of my own brief day. And that day, though scarily small by some measure (what is that terrible measure?)—mine.
Now when I watch people (through binoculars, as is my habit when I look up from my work and need a break) it’s exactly the boundedness of their lives, the precise sizing down that moves me. How absorbed and unprotected they are. The lavishing of attention comes easily then: across a few backyards and a street, there’s the deep drag he takes on his cigarette, how he flicks the ash deftly (a lifelong smoker), scratches his ear, sweeps a hand over forehead then hair, picks at some paint on the door and smokes down the last inch. Stubs the butt in the flowerpot. Hikes his pants up. Opens the door and stops for a final look at the frame, which, running his thumb along, he confirms needs fixing (sanding, from the way he’s plucking the wood), a job I imagine he adds to the list in his head . . . and then the door closes on my tableau, compact enough to slip into a pocket, to hold, to save—though there’s more to be had, just swing the lenses in any direction—garbage collector spitting into the truck, wandering dog sniffing just-planted tree, neighbor reading a book on her porch, looking up, pausing, alone with thoughts entirely contained. Binoculars make my subjects palm-sized, full of intention, and set in motion by an ordering force.
Then, of course, there’s my own enormous small life, fixed in its own tondo of light. My people, my loves. And also, here, a solid roof repaired last summer, a few new windows replacing the cracked ones. Common stuff touched in the course of a day—each door’s glass knob, cool even in summer; my grandmother’s wooden spoons worn smooth as bone by decades of stirring. All the fierce tethers to all the fierce moments—they all matter. They matter extremely. To me. To the pinpoint I’ve become. And that’s the dizzying thing. The vastness of my singular life does not set me faceless in the ranks of billions—except that it does. I am perfectly speck-like. And my days very like the days of others. That a small portion matters, that it no longer roils with puniness but is measured in units of brevity, of transience, and that I take up my day, my sliver, despite its limited proportions—that’s fearsome.
About the phrase “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth,” a friend writes, “depending on a subtle difference in pronunciation, signaling the presence or absence of the definite article, the construct could be different: be’resheet instead of ba’resheet—not “in the beginning” but “in a beginning God created . . .” Imagine each event being tethered to its originating breath, each moment momentous unto itself, each micro-flash hot with insistence, finding the contours it alone wants. Surrounded by time, given its space, its very own immanence, and tuned precisely to the desire of the moment—the darkness over the face of the deep, gradations of morning pinking up, evening’s first empurpled cloud-mountain—each beginning equal in its drive to exist. As John Donne conceived it, and preached in his Sermon xxi in 1628, “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing.” Thus everything composed apart from absence, all creatures, by way of simply existing, stand shoulder to shoulder in the eyes of the present. Or, for Barbara McClintock, who so loved from the start of her work on DNA the many shapes of the smallest minds in all their manifestations, whose affection—“Every component of the organism is as much of an organism as every other part”—measured not parts to wholes, divided and dutiful in their contributions, but parts as wholes, her feeling for the smallest functioning elements not a fussiness but a scope.
All systems have their principles, their signature handholds, paths for speeding or tarrying along, lines to speak, procedures to follow, and when in good order the invitation of one gesture is answered by another. The chartered, the scheduled, the reliance of one part upon its partners isn’t a leaning-on due to weakness, but a cache of singular minds, territories, instincts maintaining a whole, and so well-convened they appear to be one. From every angle and everywhere. As when in the warm waters of the South Pacific, the giant clam (up to four feet across and weighing as much as five hundred pounds) and the algae, zooxanthellae, make together an extravagance of efficiency, a concision of means. Open to light, reddening on the lip of the clam, the zooxanthellae take in sun, thresh it, and offer a harvest of sugars and protein to their host, while in return (or not “in return” but more “as operations go”) the clam (and “host” isn’t right either, since one isn’t homebound and the other visiting) protects the delicate algae and closes the gates, darkens the field in the presence of predators.
Or consider the work of carpenter bees, their holes as exact as those made by a drill, a thing rote with settings that produce the effect we call “perfect.” The holes we have here, on our new back porch, bitten bright and still a little ragged, are carpenter bee specials, the finger-width bores made overnight by patient chewing. The wood is unseasoned, new-grass green, and so young I could press a fingernail in, or leave tooth marks of my own, which, meant for no purpose, wouldn’t be in the least bit beautiful. Like any unselfconscious creation, these holes bear the mark of a maker upon them, a freshness, an order and balance not produced, but thought through—that thought itself a thing shining—a shining hole, the edges dusted with neat, rolled specks that soon, after enough soft-bellied entries and exits, will be burnished entirely away. A few inches in, the path takes a sharp right turn and there the queen builds individual chambers for her young and stocks each pantry with a fat ball of pollen. The holes are precisely centered in each beam, not too close to an edge or joist. How uniformly cool it must be in those rooms. How well the young sleep and grow strong—at least it’s been so in my experience—in dark, cool, quiet conditions.
I saw a video recently about a guy who casts ant colony “sculptures” by pouring molten aluminum into their nests. As the long tongue of metal is tipped from a bucket into the hole, the mound darkens, steams, and sinks a little under the searing, and all the roads and tunnels fill up. When the channels harden and cool, he digs the nest out, scrapes off the ash and clods, and sprays it all clean with a hose. The nests are up to two feet deep and branch off like veins, like any living tributary designed to circulate life, whose handiwork serves its efficiency, whose balances are managed and laws observed. Highways and storage rooms, fungi farms, livestock aphids, nurseries, pantries of crumbs, resting spots for tired workers, loom studios (none of this is fanciful, I’ve used not a single metaphor here)—all incinerated. He sells the vesuvian sculptures for hundreds of dollars (all inquiries must be made privately). Intricate! Amazing! say his satisfied customers. (One comment reads: “I run a home daycare and we are currently doing a unit on ants. Your video . . . is great for a visual while explaining ant ‘cities’ to the children. They thought it was so cool they want to watch it again and again. A three-year-old did ask me what happened to the ants. I told him they packed up and moved away!”)
If the word “sculpture” here requires even a little dissembling, and the appreciation of form a severing of means from ends, I imagine one would begin with the usual excuses, and from a lordly position: but ants are the most plentiful species on earth, or, more simply still, they’re only ants. And fire ants at that. Whom no one likes.
I’ll use whom—not which, not things—and let’s call the grammatical case the direct indispensible to help snap the ants’ fate back into focus, or, according to the rules of grammar, into the subject position in a sentence. Yes, a minor corrective, I know. How fussy-sounding and secondary to concerns about swarming and stinging, which centralize human comfort. How weak the argument in favor of fire ants, that they beautifully aerate miles of soil, control boll weevils, corn worms, and sugar cane borers, eat fleas, ticks, termites, mosquitoes, and even scorpions.
If beauty’s understood as a form of order, its elements perfectly self-regulating, then an orderly day is not a mere circuit, a worn route, or rote, but a haven and a habitat. And the work of those mapped to their tasks, shifting as one like a bright sheet of sloughed mica, like flocks in a thermal or schools in a river, like beings dedicated to wind, hunger, scent, laws entirely their own—that work, if stepped back from, held out, beheld, fires into awe, which silences or causes a sudden erasure of self, that internal, unbidden stillness.
Often, however, the most intricate systems are identified first by way of their ruin. One comes to know them only briefly in their magnificence, before news of their loss takes up its platform, then overtakes the conversation—and rightly, since the conversation is finally urgent.
The snowshoe hare once lived by a system perfectly emplaced, a fluent method, ardent, elegant, brimmed with muscle, cunning, and flight.
Stay with me now. I’ll slow it way down.
We’re in Glacier National Park in Montana. As soon as the days begin to shorten, the hare’s meadow-brown fur, triggered by changes in the length of daylight, whitens up to meet the snow. Linger exactly here, in this moment, so the present won’t grow suddenly steep, break off, and slide. It’s autumn. A hare’s exchanging one coat for another, brightening as the afternoon dims, as evening kindles a new thought in the body. The hare’s moving like snow, its humped back is a soft, blowing drift as it runs. In stillness, the hare is a snow-covered rock, the new white prickling like early frost.
Now, having been with, having seen, you can shift.
As you must, so we can go on.
As a result of rising temperatures, the snows are coming much later these days and the hare, leashed as it is to the light’s firm hand, is exposed too soon, its whiteness loud, its dialect wrong, making it too easily found, and so, overhunted—a situation that affects the lynx as well, whose primary prey is the hare. Pushed to move to higher ground but without a new corridor for migration (since the land is too dense with fast-growing pines, a species easily adapted to warmth) the lynx vanish, too.
And so on it goes.
This isn’t news to those who study the behaviors of snow hare and lynx, or the lives of meadows and populations of trees, but hearing about it for the first time—how quickly the functioning system can be summed up and presented. The once-perfect latitudes and population cycles, the booms and busts keyed to hunger and need, temperatures, light, seasons, the animal tasks and animal knowing—I had to work hard to stay with these, to imagine the micro-links in the food chain. Food chain, an inelegant phrase, one that hardly expresses the sensitivities involved, the stalking and crouching and held breath all around, chain showing none of the fine calibrations of hares taken in accounted-for ways, weakened by age or cleanly startled, or hares not giving up and deftly escaping, those balances of luck, stamina, circumstance, adaptation, mutation, the whole range of live possibilities that make up the health of a system abiding. And in this way, nest too, hardly speaks to vast ant cities, ant wainwrights and coopers, nannies and farmers, and (stay for a moment underground now) neither does grass reveal the conversations of meadows, the plans worked out for distributing water, the rhizomatics by which need is met and decisions made in times of want. And fire—whose heart is regenerative, whose scorching of seeds, whose searing releases the dead hangers-on—seems merely destructive unless full cycles are called into being, tracked and known from the distance of centuries.
How late we are in coming to this, systems that were and no longer are, or, chafed by ruin, are barely recognizable, are a flash of brilliance in operation, before a cascade of fresh bad news overruns. It’s work to hold, to come to love the parts and particulars of a meadow, nest, day. Slow work. Investment—not “money down” but the older form, “the act of dressing to encounter the holy.” It’s work to track a field of white moving up a hare’s back—and, too, how the lengthening evening minutes give snow its white paws for swift passage over the land. Work to still the parts of a day. To keep the parts close as they welter and dim. Are overcast, siphoned, root-cut, or blown.
To understand ruin, know first what it is that’s being ruined. It’s exactly the minutiae, the ant-shoved twigs, folded sheets, and wooden spoons that matter. Stay with them. All the balances, orders, adaptations, transpositions that do not withhold a thing as they go, that urge themselves forth or retract in disguise, or swarm, or concentrate, that make up a day. Sheering, burnt, cinched-in—and not wholly gone. Those delicacies. Those radiant systems. Hold them.
The author wishes to acknowledge Christopher White’s The Melting World for its lucid illustrations of systems awry which informed this essay.