Sunday, April 12, 2020

Quantum Jesus

“…in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection into eternal life”

No sooner does inquisitive universe explain itself to 
itself than – BANG! – it’s back to square one.
Did you know that your place in the universe is just a matter of probability? That’s right. Maybe you're where you are and maybe you’re not. Like all matter, you have what’s known as a quantum wave function that reflects the odds of your being at any particular place in space at any particular time. 

This idea – that matter has wave-like as well as particle properties – was first proposed by the French physicist Louis de Broglie in 1924. Two years later an Austrian, Erwin Schrödinger, published an equation describing how matter waves – de Broglie waves – should behave.

Matter waves, moreover, are not merely theoretical. They’ve been confirmed experimentally for subatomic particles (electrons), neutral atoms, and even molecules. But they’re a property of bigger stuff, too, like you and me. It’s just that mathematically the odds of your being anyplace in the universe other than where you are, are astronomically small. So don’t worry about waking up on the far side of the moon unless perhaps you stowed away on the Chang’e, the Chinese lunar probe that recently landed there.

Aunt Effie’s kitty gets an assist from frame 
dragging (distortion of spacetime due to earth’s 
rotation) and quantum superposition (existing in 
different places at the same time).

Still, your exact location in space does remain theoretically unknown, open to a universe of possibilities, until it’s actually observed – which is no doubt why good parents keep such a close eye on their kids. This fixing of a thing’s position – when its location becomes a matter of  observation, not just probability – is known as the collapse of the wave function. 

And it gets weirder still. Not only is your position unknown until observed, but theoretically you could be in different places at the same time. Such is the idea of quantum superposition – which has likewise been demonstrated experimentally, albeit only for subatomic particles.  

Taken together, such observations would seem to spell doom for the philosophical idea of the Absolute. Indeed, German philosopher Georg W.F. Hegel’s (1770 – 1831) concept of the latter, “the sum of all being, actual and potential,” today sounds more like an unwitting description of quantum wave function than anything else.

The demise of the absolute, however, got perhaps its biggest boost from the publication in 1927 of German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. This states that it’s impossible to know at one and the same time both the position and momentum of a particle. In other words, there’s no such thing as absolute knowledge, only Absolut Vodka. 

Cheshire cat, ubiquitous quantum state-shifting 
nuisance, revels in news of Schroedinger’s cat. 

All of which led Schrödinger in1935 to pose his famous thought experiment about a cat in a sealed box where conditions are such that the cat is both alive and dead at the same time – until an observer opens the box, collapsing the wave function to one state or the other. Although there’s much that’s perplexing about this fickle feline of his, Schrödinger was on to something. And cats aside, you wonder if he's not hit on an allegory of faith for our times.
Which brings me to Jesus and resurrection.

Physical resurrection of the dead is an idea that predates Christianity by at least seven centuries and probably much longer.  Ancient religions of the Near East and Greece offer multiple historical examples. That these ideas influenced later Christian beliefs, moreover, is not in dispute.  

Argued Justin Martyr, a 2nd century Christian apologist: 

"In saying that the Word, who is the first offspring of God, was born for us without sexual union, as Jesus Christ our Teacher, and that he was crucified and died and after rising again ascended into heaven we introduce nothing new beyond [what you say of] those whom you call sons of Zeus."
Schrödinger’s cat, said to be alive and dead at the 
same time, might have simply gone missing.

In other words, if you believe Zeus’s dead sons could spring up alive like jacks-in-the-box, why not believe Jesus could do it, too? During the 2nd century, such an analogy probably made perfect sense even if by modern standards recruiting old superstitions to bolster new ones seems a bit dubious. How many Christians today believe in Zeus?

Nevertheless, contemporary examples of persons rumored to be alive after death keep cropping up. Rapper Tupac Shakur (d. 1996), comedian Andy Kaufman (d. 1984), and rocker Elvis Presley (d. 1977) are among the more recent. 

And then, of course, there’s Jesus. According to the Gospels – although accounts vary considerably as the story has morphed over time – the deceased Jesus was buried in a tomb hewn from rock and sealed with a large stone. After three days, he arose from the dead in his original human form as celebrated during Easter. At which point, various of his followers, including his mother, showed up to find the tombstone rolled back, the tomb empty, and angels proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection. 

The Serendipity of Saint Thomas
Over the next forty days, Jesus put in appearances at various venues so that the disciples would know of his comeback. But one of them, Doubting Thomas, famously reserved judgement until he could not only see Jesus in person, but poke a finger into Jesus’s wounds. Thomas then exclaimed “My Lord and my God!” Anyone witnessing this painful, unhygienic act on the part of Thomas probably expressed the same sentiment.

For orthodox Christians, however, belief in this narrative as literal endures as a tenet of faith.
Quantum uncertainty spells big Easter surprise

Yet you wonder if for a lot of modern minds, such a conviction has become a bit much. U.S. church membership has declined sharply over the last two decades. Near-death experiences and Elvis sighting aside, someone back from the dead just like that after execution? It seems quite a stretch. 

Perhaps the whole notion would benefit from an update – a quantum of paradox or ambiguity, so to say  (pace, Saint Thomas).

Why not revise the biblical account – it’s happened before, after all – to better align with modern sensibilities? For example, after three days the angel could say “Lo, He is risen and unrisen – both ways at once mayest thou have it. Yet roll ye back not the stone lest the wave function thou collapseth and a conundrum of certitude beset thee.”
For the first time ever, despite his genius, 
Professor Krauseleiter hits personal confidence 

Even if you’re skeptical about tomb curses such as the one that guarded King Tut, you should have no trouble with a headed-up like this, covering as it does contingencies both actual and potential. What’s more, compared to the old-fashioned plank walk into the Tiber — the lot of the traditional  believer — it seems like a bucolic dip in the Jordan. 

For the faithful of, say, a Latter Day Church of the Quantum Christ, it ought come as glad tidings indeed.

                                                                                       Happy Easter

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A Turn in Sedona

Boynton Canyon
Sedona, a funky little Arizona town of about 10,000, has for years been famous as a pilgrimage site for New Age seekers, aging hippies, hikers, and the simply curious. But until 1987 when its popularity exploded, the place had been largely unknown. 1987 was the year of the Harmonic Convergence when hopeful souls traveled to places around the planet expecting the emergence of global harmony and love. In Sedona, hundreds stood before a rock formation know as Bell Rock, waiting for its top to spring open and reveal an alien spacecraft. (Like advent religionists everywhere, some may be waiting still.)

It was about this time that one Page Bryant a Sedona psychic and metaphysician, dubbed the town’s “energy centers” vortexes (sic). Indeed, the notion is thought to have originated with her, at least in the case of Sedona.

But what is a vortex?

A vortex à la Sedona is imagined to be a swirling funnel-like center of terrestrial or psychic energy emanating from the earth in specific locations (Sedona has four.) Many believe that visiting a vortex can confer all sorts of benefits, such as amplifying spiritual awareness, balancing chakras, assisting in the release of traumas, or connecting to mystic realms. You may feel as though you're breathing deeper, that your thoughts are clearer. There may be a rush of energy or a feeling of peace. Some say that because vortexes are spinning whirlwinds of energy, people who visit them can be “a little unbalanced at times.” (If you were all in a twirl to begin with, that might be most of the time.)
Boynton Canyon

Around the globe there are purportedly only a handful of these vortex centers, the strongest being in Sedona; Cairo, Egypt; and the Bermuda Triangle. Renowned Swiss psychologist Carl Jung found the mere idea of visiting the city of Rome so overwhelming that he fell into a faint simply buying tickets for the trip. So perhaps Rome should be included as well. The same might be said of Jerusalem – for millennia, the scene of so much exuberant fantasy and violent extremity you’d expect a vortex the size of a miles-wide Kansas wedge twister.

Who knows? There might be a vortex right in your own back yard!

Of course, apart from drain plug whirlpools, aircraft turbulence, and the occasional dust devil or tornado, there’re no actual vortices in any of these places – energy being only a measure of the capacity to do work, not a thing in itself. The term vortex has simply been borrowed from fluid dynamics to describe the effect that Sedona’s magnificent landscape has upon the visitor, a sense of being swept up and carried away by the region’s stunning natural beauty – the Stendhal syndrome gone pastural, you might say. A few years ago, USA Today called Sedona the most beautiful place in America.

Vortex at Kachina Woman rock formation, Boynton Canyon
Maybe space aliens enjoy the scenery, too – UFO-spotting parties are common in Sedona. You  can also partake of drumming circles, starlight fire ceremonies (of divers types), sage cleanses, channeling lectures, yoga retreats, past-life consultancies, Reiki healing, Tarot readings, and the like. All sorts of paranormal phenomena have been described in and around Sedona.

Unfortunately, the Sedona experience isn’t always benign. Several years ago during a makeshift sweat-lodge ceremony, an ersatz affair that had nothing to do with Native American practice, three people died and eighteen others were hospitalized for injuries. Hikers periodically fall from heights, suffering injury or death. At 4,300 feet above sea-level, some falls might conceivably be related to light-headedness on account of the altitude. If you arrive from sea-level, full acclimatization to a new elevation can take days or even weeks.

Recently one fine autumn morning, I set out on a hike up Boynton Canyon, home to one of Sedona’s four major vortexes. Since Boynton’s is a vortex of “balanced energy,” I anticipated no problems keeping my, well, balance over the rocky path. And indeed, at first the going was smooth.
Peyote Pete all in a whorl

If the altitude wasn’t breathtaking (I live at sea-level), the scenery certainly was. Interspersed with sculpturesque rock spires, buttes, and mesas, the canyon walls of rust-colored Coconino sandstone rise up some 1,200 feet into the turquoise Arizona sky. Winding over dusty orange-red terrain, and flanked by oak and pine, the trail passes through stands of manzanita, yucca, opuntia cacti, and Arizona cypress. Here and there can be seen Utah and one seed junipers whose twisted trunks add imaginative fuel to the idea of vortexes. In places, even the landscape looks twisted. The deep red color for which Sedona is famous is due to the hematite or iron oxide – literally rust – in certain of the rock strata.

It was upon my approach to a rock formation known as Kachina Woman, a stone spire that skirts the Boynton vortex, that the drama began. As I broached the energy field, my eyes seemed to bug out like yo-yos, my fingers curl into magnetized loops giving off sparks. What’s left of my hair stood on end and flared rust-red. Overtaken by a sensation of floating, I grabbed a convenient tree branch to keep from spiraling aloft. For a while I just hung there bobbing in the breeze like one of those helium-filled Mylar party balloons.

Table top feminine energy, Enchantment
 Resort, Sedona
Slowly coming to my senses, I at last recalled stepping down hard from a low drop-off and impaling myself on a Peyote button – resulting in an untimely contagion of mescaline. The drug had taken a while to wear off.

In the end, psychedelics and all, it seemed well worth the trip. At least I hadn’t fallen off a cliff.

But with three million tourists visiting Sedona yearly and movie stars keeping homes there, you wonder how it can last. Will the New Age vibe endure, or will the vortexes be short-circuited like power lines downed in a rain storm – becoming nothing more than a marketing meme? Will the crystals go dark, the pyramids collapse? Will Sedona’s shamans and soothsayers find themselves yearning for alien abduction?

Only the future will tell. For answers right now, though, you could go here. Or here. Or here. Or here.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Digital Revival of Solvay Tubize

“The way I am now, how will I ever find my way?” despaired  Solvay Tubize out loud to the sparsely furnished parlor of his posh suburban townhouse. 

Tubize was a man at frazzled lose ends, a wayfarer on the road of life who’d strayed from the path and now found himself, bereft of meaning and goals, awash in an ever widening tide of angst.  Yet even in this hour of his despondency, there germinated within him an answer, an insight that would come as an epiphany: AMWAY – “The way I am, verily I am the way.” Happy transformation of lament into purpose, the words spoke of a novel path to enlightenment, an idea that would bear witness to the founding of an institution, the AMWAY Centre for Cloud-Based Self-Realization and Fulfillment – Tubize’s crowning achievement.  But more of this in a bit.

Tubize, slight of build and a bit overweight, was a picture of well-healed dissipation. At the age of thirty-nine, balding with a scraggly beard and striking rictus, crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes, and traces of grey about the temples, he was beginning to look more than a little shopworn. His crowned teeth, in need of bleaching, were yellowed with tobacco stains, as were the thumb and index finger of his right hand. He managed to trim his scrubby beard only about once a week and wore the same rumbled Tom Ford shirt and slacks for days at a time. A pair of smudged Cartier Panthere eyeglasses hung precariously on his beak of a nose in close proximity to the Dunhill cigarette that habitually dangled from his lips. With his house undusted or vacuumed for months, and his Bugatti Chiron wanting new tires and a brake job, he was in urgent need of both housekeeper and mechanic. When not indulging in self-pity and TV dinners, he ran with louche women, drank twelve-year-old Scotch to excess, and though not in the least an oenophile – in order to emulate celebrity wine connoisseurs – dined only at restaurants with certified sommeliers.
Black Hole

Yet he thought of himself, not as a wastrel, but exceptional, a sort of rara avis – a view, albeit, not widely shared by associates.

A scion of Big Chemical, Tubize had grown up much indulged. As with many trust fund children, his parents had lavished upon him things that were unimportant whilst stinting him of things that were, such as nurture and guidance. As a result, he’d learned, after a fashion, to fend for himself, especially when it came to hedonistic diversion. 

At twelve years of age he’d been packed off to boarding school, the first of several he attended. Unfortunately, profligate consumption of cannabis and a dearth of academic interest spelled failure at all of them. Assigned  to read Catcher in the Rye, a prep school English class standard, for instance, he’d tossed it aside without cracking the cover, presuming it to be about nothing more than a ballgame in a grain field. During a class in the Classics, he’d made similarly vague assumptions about Homer. (To him, baseball was an ineffable bore.) He blew off Latin as a superfluous tongue of Latin America and saw no reason to learn French unless one lived in France. Mathematics, he thought, was largely for bank tellers, check-out clerks, and the administrators of his trust fund.

Station Four
Nevertheless, he’d somehow managed entry to university on a baseball scholarship where in due course he acquired a dilettante’s interest in fine art. Halfway through a degree in art history, however, he dropped out, resolving to live off his inheritance. From thence, for the most part, he dabbled in chemistry, landing in rehab again and again.

Now here he sat in his parlor, slouched on a vintage Mies Barcelona, all in a funk, wondering what to do with the rest of his life.  

“High time you read the tea leaves on the wall, Solvay,” said a voice in his head, mixing metaphors. “You’re a savvy guy – you weren’t born on a turnip truck. You can do this! And let’s face it, you’re not getting any younger.” 

In barely a moment, however, self-reproach  had proved evanescent. Abruptly forsaking introspection for self-indulgence, Solvay began surfing the net for porn on his Android cell phone, not for a minute suspecting what was about to occur. 

Thanks to a device hack by a mischievous 14-year-old nephew of his, rather than ogling acrobats in flagrante delicto, he found himself staring at an altogether different sort of website, one that would prove most consequential: VoodooCharlie.onion – on the Dark Web, no less!

At first irritated by this redirection of his browser  – he’d really been “up” for a dollop of porn, you see – Tubize was on the verge of rebooting when, drawn in by some inexplicable attraction, he began instead to tap through the website at hand.       
Even for the Dark Web, VoodooCharlie.onion was something out of the ordinary. It featured “enhanced versions,” so-called, of otherwise familiar smart phone apps. Its descriptions of said apps, meanwhile, were as nebulous as they were weird, claiming exceptional features while at the same time hinting at mysterious risks of the sort some might associate with, say, fiddling with a Ouija board. Moreover, there was a puzzling caveat. Upon clicking the download button, a banner popped up that read “By downloading this software, you agree not to disclose its contents or source.” 

Bemused but undeterred, Tubize forthwith installed a re-engineered version of Google Maps. Captioned VooGoog Maps, it was – perhaps tellingly – the first app that had caught his attention. Nor was he long in discovering its features. Tapping it up, he found travel directions already awaiting. In Street View, pairs of little blinking chevrons, like the parade of lights across a theatre marque, highlighted the route. 
Intrigued, Tubize followed the directions to a men’s hair salon in an obscure part of town where the staff, which seemed to have been expecting him, rendered him clean shaven, shampooed – and even with the beginnings of a hair transplant. 

Next, he followed VooGoog to a dental clinic, one not listed in the Yellow Pages, where his teeth were whitened and a few more crowns installed. Then, still guided by the app, he made his way to a gym specializing in weight loss and “wellness.” 

Some little time later, as VooGoo Maps steered him to an AA meeting (he’d resolved to get the better of Scotch), a banner ad extolling a particular online dating service caught his eye. And through this he took up with Elaine, a self-styled public relations person and, curiously, the estranged wife of his newfound dentist and hair stylist.

During the brief liaison that followed, Elaine – half  den mother, half disciplinarian – undertook to restore Solvay some sartorial respectability and improve his diet. Nor would she brook any push-back. Even a velleity of resistance to her efforts on his behalf brought forth a stern remonstrance: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Tubize!” 

“I’ve never received a gift horse before,” Tubize shrugged to himself, “but I reckon I’ll do what she says. Her husband can check her teeth.”  
And there was yet more to come. When a VooGoog-inspired financial advisor suggested Tubize donate to his former schools, he established a baseball scholarship at his university alma mater and funded a new line of research into sports of the ancient world.  On behalf of his first prep school, he endowed the J.D. Salinger chair in English.

The pièce de résistance, however, was his AMWAY Centre for Cloud-Based Self-Realization and Fulfillment, for which he coined the inspirational mantra, “The way I am, verily I am the way.”  By now – extraordinary turns of events having become more or less ordinary – it made perfect sense that establishment of the AMWAY Centre might have come about as the unforeseen outcome of a Ouija board session gone akilter. 

Tubize had been bating Elaine mischievously by jiggling the board’s plastic planchette with his fingers – as though he were somehow the principle focus of the spirit in question.  

“How’m I doing?” he asked with a smirk.

Elaine was not amused. “The way you are, Tubize, you are in the way,” she coolly relied.

But through a prism of derelict self-esteem, what Tubize understood was something quite different:  the way you are, you are the way! Seizing upon this, he saw in a flash, not only the outline of a new philosophy, but with it the inspiration for the AMWAY Centre. 

And so it all came to pass.

In its heyday, the AMWAY Centre played host to all sorts of New Age fancies – theosophy, angels, masters, channeling, astral projection and the like – but mainly it served as a conduit for Tubize’s message of self-enlightenment through random exploration of the world wide web. 

Through AMYWAY’s offices, he espoused the idea that Descartes’ famous maxim, Cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am.”) ought give way to Surfito [sic], ergo sum (“I surf, therefore I am.”) For one’s true self, Tubize contended, was only to be discovered by means of an internet search. 

“Think of your Inner Being as a compass needle magnetized in the Cloud, pointing you in the right direction,” he said. 

Naturally, there were skeptics. Some cautioned that Tubize had “crossed the event horizon of a rabbit hole.” Others less charitable derided him outright as an “unfeasibly gormless idiot.”  Yet for thousands of devotees, from IT nerds to fans of the Banzai Pipeline, Surfito, ergo sum became a clarion call to self-discovery. Tubize became a sensation.

In the fullness of time, however, Solvay Tubize grow restive, yearning to share the true nature of his epiphany. Like St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, he thought, the story of his own experience would only lend clarity to the nature of his beliefs. Finally succumbing to temptation – disregarding entirely the disclosure proscription of VoodooCharlie.onion – he published a full account of his internet journey on the AMWAY website, complete with instructions on how to access the Dark Web with Tor (The Onion Router). 

By the following day, two things of consequence had occurred. First, no one, not even the cleverest of hackers, had been able to find VoodooCharlie.onion. Second, Tubize himself had vanished without a trace. Elaine, who by now had reconciled with her husband, stoutly denied any knowledge of the matter but nevertheless hinted darkly at the hazards of Ouija boards.

Lurking on the Dark Web, however, like the temptation of Christ – awaiting the next errant soul –  was an ominous new web address. VoodooSolvay.onion.

Friday, September 6, 2019

The Last Mammoth: A Tale of the Pleistocene

"In the long view, extinction seems normal in the history of life. Indeed, most species that ever lived are extinct."  

It was a coolish afternoon toward the end of the Pleistocene epoch. The Wisconsin glaciation, the last of the epoch’s eleven ice ages, was drawing to a close. Its egress would be dramatic.

During two millennia beforehand, a great ice sheet, the Cordilleran, had formed over much of Canada, the Rocky Mountains, and the Idaho panhandle where it episodically dammed up hundreds of cubic miles of river water. In the midst of warm spells when the ice dams collapsed, there were floods of biblical proportions. The rushing waters carved out huge coulees and sculpted the butte-and-basin topography of southeastern Washington’s Channeled Scablands. There were other signs of the glaciers, too –  polished and striated basalt bedrock, glacial erratics, drumlins, eskers, moraines, meltwater channels, glacial till, and glacial lakes of all sizes. 

High up on the Okanogan Lobe, a sort of outcropping or peninsula of the Cordilleran that stretched far into central Washington, a lone mammoth named Woolite picked his way downward through jagged ice flows toward the permafrost at the glacier’s base. He had been on a pilgrimage with the rest of his tribe, the Anodynite woolies, to celebrate the summer solstice and appeal to serene Nuccynta, goddess of tranquility, that no more great floods might threaten. Sadly, the journey had ended in catastrophe when, save for Woolite himself, the entire herd had been flash frozen in a crevasse.

"At least they’ll be preserved for posterity," sorrowed Woolite. "Someday, creatures from the future may discover them entombed in the ice and prize them as valuable artifacts. Or perhaps just serve them as frozen dog food. Who knows? Either way, it’s beats drowning in another big flood."

Whatever store Woolite might have set by supplication to Nuccynta, there were indeed more floods to come – as perhaps he had already divined.

Having traversed the permafrost or frozen ground at the base of the Okanogan, Woolite set out across tundra dotted with scrubs and sagebrush. After a day’s march, tundra gave way to prairie covered in bunchgrass, buckwheat, buttercups, spearworts, and patches of coyote mint. Then followed forests of conifers and deciduous trees – pinyon pine, artic birch, and alder – that afforded protection from the chill northwest winds. 

One night, Woolite slept fitfully on his feet under the spreading branches of an Osage orange. In the morning, it’s bumpy, bright yellow-green fruits make him a hearty breakfast before he set off again. 

Around noon that day, off to his left in a copse of juniper, he spotted Donovan the saber-toothed tiger – "Smilin' Don" as the baleful beast liked to style himself on account of you could always see his pearly whites, especially the two scimitar-like ones in front – ripping into the carcass of a long-horned bison. The big cat bit in with the sides of his mouth using his razor sharp carnassial (molar) teeth. This avoided interference from his impossibly long canines.

Woolite gave a shudder and quickened his pace, childhood memories flooding back to him.  In school, the students had teased Donovan mercilessly about his big front teeth, calling him a buck-toothed
Later still...
pussy. There'd been no end of it. 

Then one day Donovan snapped – went postal. “I’ll show you overbite!” he roared, and slaughtered half the 6th grade. He’d been like a one-man charnel house ever since.

"It’s a shame he couldn’t have consulted one of those enamelback dentodonts from the Pliocene and had those teeth shortened," regretted Woolite. "Things might have evolved differently otherwise."

But dentodonts had gone extinct by then, and Donovan remained a committed carnivore, thrall to his own predacious impulses. 

A pack of baying dire wolves loped by in pursuit of some Pleistocene camelids. Woolite watched as they passed and silently rooted for the camels, fellow herbivores.

Much later...
After a trudge of several more miles, in the lee of an esker or glacial sand bank Woolite spied Slocum the giant ground sloth methodically munching branches from a quacking aspen. A hulk of a fellow, Slocum used his huge foreclaws like knives to cut through the tree limbs. He and Woolite had been classmates of saber-tooth Donovan and witnesses to Donovan’s murderous rampage. But even as 6th graders they’d been too hefty for any paleo-cat to tackle and came out of the melee unscathed. Despite this shared ordeal – or perhaps because of it – however, he and Slocum had drifted apart. 
Woolite gave him a polite wave of his trunk and moved on.

Late on the fourth day, Woolite at last reached home – ten square miles of browsing range abundant in trees, flowering herbs, and grasses. There were also a number of glacial lakes wherein dwelt many of Woolite’s aquatic friends. Chief among these was Fin Tso Fong, an Asiangian grass carp of moderate dimensions (as grass carp went at the time) who’d known Woolite since calfhood.

How Fin Tso Fong had come to be in central Washington from Asiangia was as much a mystery as his encyclopedic knowledge of paleontology. Some believed he’d had rode in on an ancient tsunami or cyclone; others, that he’d somehow hitched a ride on continental drift. In any event, he was old and wise, a living fossil, and Woolite had long relied on his advice.

Now Woolite stood at the edge of Fin’s pond peering down at him in the water while he sucked in a trunk-full to drink.

“Where have you been?” asked Fin.

“Up north on the glacier sacrificing to the goddess, beseeching there be no more floods,” slurped Woolite, squirting water into his mouth.

“And what did you offer in the way of a sacrifice?”
And finally...

“As it turned out, the entire mammoth troop except for myself,” replied Woolite with uncanny matter-of-factness. “They were flash frozen in a crevasse, every one of them – surely a sacrifice befitting any goddess.” In this last there was a tinge of bitterness, too.

“Well, your supplications were answered then,” observed Fin, “or at least your troop’s were. In as much as they’re now deceased, they won’t be suffering any more floods. When it comes to beseeching the gods, it pays to be careful what you ask for.”

“But what about me?” wondered Woolite. “I was a supplicant, too. Would I be covered by the sacrifice even though I escaped the quick freeze?” He sounded factious by half yet also half serious.

“Did you lure the tribe into that crevasse?” asked Fin, “or was it an accident?

“An accident, surely!” gasped Woolite, aghast.

“In that case, you’re not covered,” adjudged Fin. “It’s like insurance. An accidental sacrifice doesn’t count unless you’re somehow laid low yourself or otherwise harmed. For all the good the pilgrimage did you, you might just as well have stayed home.”

“But I sustained a great loss – my whole tribe!” objected Woolite, “Why wouldn’t I be indemnified?”

“In a way you have been,” countered Fin. “You’re still here, aren’t you?”

“That’s true, conceded Woolite thoughtfully. I hadn’t realized the gods were so dialectical, so juridical. It’s astonishing!” 

“You have no idea,” Fin went on. “A lot of folks rely on soothsayers or mystics to apprehend divine will.  But soothsayers aren’t like CPA’s. If they screw up, the gods blame you, not them. Back in the Jurassic, there was a coelacanth seer named Ichthyolon. A flap of pterodactyls consulted him about the best places to fish – odd, you’d think, because Ichthyolon was a fish. Ichthyolon thought it odd, too, and steered the pterosaurs to a school of leptolepides sacred to Mukyumm, god of the ocean floor. The pterodactyls were never seen again, whilst Ichthyolon fared better than ever. Mukyumm, it seems, believed the pterosaurs to be a burnt offering (albeit, he ate them) sent by Ichthyolon and rewarded him accordingly. Goes to show how treacherous this business can be.

What will you do now without your tribe?” Fin continued.  “Do you have kinfolk hereabouts?”

“Minus the Anodynites, there are five other tribes of wooly mammoths – the Dolorites, Malachites, Mizrelites, Amorites, and Gelignites – who live hither and yon. They’re all bad news, unfortunately. Take the Dolorites. They’re forever wailing about something or other. The Mizrelites are, well, relentlessly miserable. The Malachites go about wishing ill upon others, while the Gelignites explode into violence at the slightest provocation. The Amorites are all about free love and fairly peaceful but otherwise completely amoral. The Anodynites were the only ones who saw things in a positive light and came remotely close to behaving themselves. If those parvenu hunter apes, the homo insipiens, were to thin out the rest of the mammoths right now, it’d be no great loss.

For my part, I’m going to stay put and get on with my life. And I’ll start by molting my winter overcoat. Do you need any hair?” 

Woolite plucked at the course hair of his top coat, pulling out a few large tufts. 

“Um, I think not,” demurred Fin, lunging at a careless dragon fly. “I’m not planning too far in advance these days, anyway. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from paleontology, it’s that nothing lasts forever, not even the gods. Remember Mukyumm the sea floor god I mentioned? While you worship Nuccynta, he lies fossilized in a stratum of Jurassic silt. That'll be the fate of Nuccynta, too, one of these days.”
“I need hair, though!” panted Trichophilant the wooly rhinoceros, galloping up all out of breath. “I’m proclaiming myself king of the Pleistocene woolies and have in mind to construct a throne made entirely of winter overcoat hair dyed blond – the Cutex Regialis, as I call it – and it’ll take loads of hair, all I can get.” 

Woolite rolled his eyes and with a perfunctory sweep of his huge trunk, skewered a clump of shed hair on the rhino’s horn. “There,” he sighed wearily, “knock yourself out.”

With that, the three of them parted company and went their separate ways.

The sun sagging in the west heralded day’s end – and what might have otherwise been a quiet evening. But from somewhere afar came the plangent roar of an immense wall of water racing southward faster than a Pleistocene cheetah.

Monday, July 15, 2019

A Casualty on the James (Or Life in the Colonies)

In grade school, Virginia kids of my generation were taught a bronzed and hallowed version of the way Great Britain colonized the New World beginning in 1607 with Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. In what today would sound rather like Jacobean propaganda warmed over, America, we students learned, was an empty continent with but a few scattered indigenous inhabitants awaiting the advent of civilization (read dominion), commerce, and, of course, Christianity.

Consider in this light the words of Richard Hakluyt, an English writer and ordained priest, published in 1585:

The ends of they voyage [to America] are these: 1. to plant Christian religion, 2. to Trafficke, 3. to conquer.

And so, it began. In 1606, three ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery, were dispatched by the investor-owned London Company bearing mostly noblemen who couldn’t so much as light a campfire, along with a few sailors, to discover gold and found a colony.
Scale model of early American gunboat. Birch bark cladding reliably lulled opponents
into Trojan horse complacency. Yet as its native crews succumbed to imported English diseases,
small pox and measles, the vessel did little to turn the tide of British colonial expansion.

And discover they did! Within a few short weeks of landing at Jamestown, Christopher Newport, captain of the Susan Constant, set sail for England laden with a cargo of “fools' gold” and other “precious” minerals. Imagine the investors’ consternation when the good captain fetched up in London with a boatload of worthless rocks!

Gold was never found in Virginia.

Historical marker on Virginia Route 10 near the headwaters 
of Powell’s Creek. Captain Nathaniel Powell was acting governor 
of the Virginia Colony for all of ten days between the sudden departure 
of Governor Samuel Argall on April 9, 1619, and the arrival of Sir 
George Yeardley on April 19. Powell was among the first English 
settlers to arrive in Virginia in 1607. His map of Virginia, now 
preserved in the British Museum, was the first one ever. Unfortunately, on 
the morning of March 22, 1622, Powell, his family, and retainers of 
his Powle-brooke plantation reportedly became the first victims of the 
Jamestown Massacre, an Indian attack that took place over an 80-mile 
front killing 347 people, a quarter of the Virginia colonists. Powle-
brooke plantation, later Merchant’s Hope plantation, is now the James 
For the fledgling colony, the upshot of all this was a debacle. When the winter of 1609 finally came to an end, only 61 of 400 settlers remained alive, and at least some of them had resorted to cannibalism. One worthy killed and salted his pregnant wife for food and was executed for his trouble – the ultimate price for groceries, one supposes. Besides starvation, colonists succumbed to malaria, scurvy, and dysentery. Hardly anyone guessed obesity in the land would one day become such a problem.

Not surprisingly, the settlers were from the get-go sharply at odds with America’s indigenous people, the Indians, who realized in due course that the English had come to seize their lands – and exterminate them in the process as needs be. Adding insult to injury, the settlers also relentlessly sought to “Christianize” the Indians who cottoned to this about as readily as they did the seizure of their lands. Perhaps they simply preferred their own pantheon to the Christian trinity. Or maybe they sensed a subtle disconnect between what was being preached and what done. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
Matthaeus Merian's woodcut (1628) depicting the Jamestown Massacre of 1622. Dots
on the map represent sites of the coordinated Indian attack that destroyed at least 31 English
Over a span of thirty-odd years from 1610 through 1646, there ensued a series of three intermittent conflicts, the Anglo-Powhattan Wars (interestingly, during the same time period, 1618 to 1648, the internecine Thirty Years’ War was raging in Europe – for the English, a largely missed opportunity for diversion closer to home). The first of these wars began as a result of settler demands for – indeed, habitual theft of – corn and other foodstuffs from the Indians. The two subsequent major encounters came on the heels of repeated smaller scale attacks and reprisals by both sides, with the colonists systematically destroying Indian villages and crops, and Indians ambushing colonists.

For their part, the Indians did enjoy some military successes – in 1622 and again in 1644 when they managed to kill, respectively, some 300 and 500 of the English. Unfortunately (for the Indians), they failed to consolidate these victories with mopping-up operations to dislodge the invaders once and for all. Instead, they’d fade back into the forest, assuming that the colonists had gotten the message and would pack up and head home to England. But alas, no such luck – the colonists stayed put, re-grouped, and mounted counter-offensives.
Throughout the 17th and 18th century, tobacco – disease-causing and more addictive than heroin –
was the cash crop of the Virginia Colony. Used as currency, it was referred to as “brown gold.” With
slavery firmly established by 1660, large scale production and export became feasible. The resulting
commercial boom may well have spared the colony economic collapse. Today, drug and human
trafficking would be seen in such doings. 

Even so, you wonder if in the end, follow-up strikes by the Indians would have made any difference. For it was the colonists’ alien germs, not their primitive, unwieldy firearms, that proved more lethal for the natives. If you nicked yourself scalping an Englishman, who knows what you might have picked up and passed on to your tribe? There were no latex gloves. Or condoms.

Indeed, the losses suffered by the Indians were staggering. When the English first arrived, the region was occupied by about 14,000-21,000 Powhatan inhabiting some 200 villages along the rivers. By 1669, Indian numbers had fallen to around 1,800 and by 1722, many of the tribes that made up the Powhatan Confederacy were reportedly extinct.

As scientist and author Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs, and Steel: “For the New World as a whole, the Indian population decline in the century or two following Columbus’s arrival is estimated to have been as large as 95 percent.” And, adds Diamond, “The main killers were Old World germs to which Indians had never been exposed, and against which they therefore had neither immune nor genetic resistance.”
      "Again, all in favor of bringing back powdered wigs…"

Such were the circumstances during Virginia’s colonial era as, in a sort of plot reversal of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, it was the invaded, not the invaders, who fell victim to alien microbes – in droves. The fact that no one knew about the germ theory at the time seems a poor excuse for genocide.

Ironically, perhaps, the colonists of 1607 had been able to occupy Jamestown island without displacing a single native – this because the Indians knew better than to set up housekeeping there. The place was swampy, brackish, short on game, and ridden with malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Thus, in 1699, Jamestown was finally abandoned in favor of a new capital in Williamsburg about seven miles distant. Whereas big-sized Native Americans had failed to rid Jamestown of settlers, tiny ones – mosquitoes and other flying insects – enjoyed a bit more success.
During the 18th century, one of these contraptions is said to have stood at Ducking Stool 
Point on the James River.

Amongst these arthropod foes of colonialism – although escaping historical notice – is a particularly vicious and noisome one, the deer fly. These blood-sucking pests are especially prevalent in marshy estuaries and creeks along the James River where they breed, sometimes in numbers large enough to clog a car radiator. Undeterred by insect repellants, they shelter in shady, wooded areas awaiting a blood meal. Swift, strong flyers, they'll orbit your head and shoulders in haphazard circles looking for a place to alight, bite with scissor-like jaw blades, and sop up your blood with a spongey mouthpart. What’s more, they’re extremely persistent, even if occasionally you can wave them off or even nab them in midair. An encounter with one usually ends with the prospective blood meal fleeing, taking shelter indoors (where deer flies won’t follow), or the fly getting squashed. If you’ve ever dealt with the little buggers and felt their painful bite, you know full well how exquisitely satisfying is it to squash one.
"Let’s propose to her. Between the two of us, we could still make
a functional husband."

Recently one sunny afternoon while plying the James at Tar Bay with my friend Fred in his outboard skiff – about thirty miles upriver from Jamestown – a deer fly suddenly appeared and began circling me. This was surprising because we were quite far from shore. Either the little delta-winged nuisance was out on long range reconnaissance, or she’d (it’s the females that bite) stowed away. She’d circle me for short spells, then alight on the bow deck for a breather.

This foray of hers, you see, would have been quite taxing. The boat was doing ten to twelve miles per hour, so she’d have had to fly something like a trochoid pattern in quick step (the green line represents her flight path; the traveling circle, my head) in order to buzz me while keeping up with the boat.

Time and again I tried to swat her when she landed on deck. But too quick she was, and the dance went on.

At last, she made a strategic blunder. Instead of the deck, she alit on the underside of the bowline which completely shielded her from view. Was she trying to hide? Trying to find shade? Who knows? In any case, I was now as invisible to her as she to me.
"Nothing’s perfect!  At least I don’t have to carry a cane anymore."

WHAM! I swatted the rope. Prizing her off, I flicked her overboard for the channel cats – which is more or less what the Indians might have done with the English if they’d had measles vaccine.

These days, we legacies of the colonists, interlopers from hither and yon, go right on pushing our luck in Indian territory – “rez” casinos where the game is now rigged in favor of the natives. It must be satisfying for native gaming hosts to watch us suckers play the slots to the tune of dice shaken in the cup and the little white ball rattling around the roulette wheel.

“So, you’ve come to shoot craps? Come a cropper as yet? What comes around, goes around – this you’ll learn at roulette. Still trying to get rich off us?  With the croupier, place your bets. You’ll wind up at the cleaners. We’ll have no regrets.”

The moral of the story is merely this: whether for purposes fair or foul, sometimes it’s better to pursue your objectives in plain sight.

Powell's Creek, James River, Tidewater Virginia

Maycocks Point, confluence of Powell’s Creek and James River, Tidewater Virginia. The
stowaway’s (inset) attempt at stealthiness proved her undoing. 

Estuary of Powell’s Creek, James River, Tidewater Virginia. Mats of Pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata),
aka., tuckahoe, black potato, wampee, or wampi, flourishing in the shallows give the creek a primordial
look harking back to prehistory. The plant, with its heart-shaped leaves and blue inflorescence, is common
from Nova Scotia to Florida and Texas. Though it played little role in the Native American diet, the seeds
and young leaves are edible and nutritious. The Montagnais tribe of North America and Canada considered
pickerel weed an all-purpose remedy, whereas the Malecite and Micmac are said to have used it as a
contraceptive. Efficacy as the latter might explain its absence as a dietary staple, though modern evidence for 

this is lacking.