Sunday, November 30, 2014

Kelp Forests of the Galaxy

The buzz of the fan competes with the whirring of the fridge’s motor, drowning out the sounds of insects and birds outside. The sun is bright and merciless on the mountains, but they are bright green in defiance. Apparently leopards lurk in these hills. I would hope they do, the last of the Cape’s big cats, solitary predators that have avoided the reach of man.

Bain's Kloof, where I wrote this post. Life is hard...
I’m more frightened of baboons than leopards, and we have been cautioned to keep the cottage closed for fear they might come in and maraud the kitchen. Cape baboons are terrifying creatures; the males have fangs that would rival any vampire’s.

I’ll be honest with you: I’m not particularly fond of primates in general. This does not mean that I hate them or anything. Chimpanzees and gorillas and orang-utangs should be left alone. I hate that we anthropomorphise them, never mind hunt them in some societies or use them for comic relief in films. And any form of cruelty to animals is horrific. But there is something about the shit-flinging of chimps that annoys the crap (!) out of me. Probably because we did the same, aeons ago. I don’t like monkeys being kept as pets either. Vervet monkeys in KZN are a particular pest as well. And far more dangerous than some would believe. They are wild animals, and wild animals that are not particularly frightened of humans.  Let me not start with vivisection, I am horrified by it and I have to live in a cloud of hypocrisy because much valuable information has advanced medicine from this necessary evil.

No. Just no.
Horses I don’t particularly like either. Actually, it’s not so much the horses as horsey people. I would want them to roam free, not be castigated by high-society, chardonnay-sipping mink-manure types who see fit to trample their muddied and shit-caked boots wherever they like. (Okay, some horsey people are lovely, for example, my niece and some dear friends in Tzaneen. But in my experience they are the exception.)

And horses, also, do not seem to like me: perhaps they sense my inner wolf. I’ve ridden them before, but they always bolt and try and throw me off. And, the smell. No thank you.

No. Give me panthers and wolves and bears, please. Give me dolphins and whales and seals and otters. Even giant squid hold more fascination for me than the fellow members of my mammalian order. I even appreciate bats, particularly fruit bats: of my favourite memories of visiting the Seychelles are the giant fruit-bats with their foxy faces swooping down at sunset to perch upside down in the palm trees.

My favourite spot in the Two Oceans aquarium is the giant tank with the kelp forest that sways to and fro in a hypnotic rhythm. The underwater rhumba is awe-inspiring and calming; I zone out here in the best of ways. It’s a beautifully recreated exhibit of some of the loveliest waters on our planet. Out here, right now, writing in this beautiful spot in a green valley in the Bain’s Kloof pass, one would hardly register that from space the Earth is mostly blue. The Blue Marble, verily.

The "Blue Marble" photgraph in its original orientation,
South Africa is at the top. As it should be.
Interestingly, that famous picture of Earth taken from space, in its original orientation, showed Africa “upside-down” — the photograph was swivelled 180ยบ so that it would look more familiar to us. As I’ve noted before, there is no “upside-down” in space, the only orientations we could possibly infer from a planet is its axis and the plane of its ecliptic around the star which it orbits. But that could be in any direction.

However, stars do form a disk of denseness in a galaxy; the Milky Way is relatively flat, for example. I love the fact that given enough randomness, order often emerge. If there is enough matter around in a local area of space, it will clump together to become spherical. This is one of the prerequisites for being called a planet (major or minor). Our Earth is basically a sphere (okay, an oblate spheroid if you want to be picky) and so is the Moon. A comet or asteroid does not have enough mass to form this shape, so it remains unequally shaped.

Is it a star? Is it a planet? Not quite either...
Notwithstanding the amazing feat that we recently landed a spacecraft on a comet, I was a little sad that we’ve never sent something to Ceres, the only (minor) planet in the asteroid belt. Poor Pluto was demoted to this status recently; it’s not even the biggest of the minor planets. Eris is bigger, as well as an even more distant one (or are there two) with beautiful names of Hawaiian deities I can’t remember right now.

Recent evidence suggests that the largest planet in out Solar System, Jupiter, is not so much a planet as a failed star. Were it bigger it could well have ignited and formed the faintest of stars, so-called brown dwarves. There are many in our galaxy, and they themselves can cool to form proto-planets. They’re just too dim to be observed. The Earth is part of a remnant of a massive star that was torn apart to form our current sun and her various children, the rocky ones (us, Mercury, Venus, Mars), the gaseous ones (Jupiter, Saturn) and the icy ones (Uranus, Neptune). Many people realise that besides being crushed by the gravity you wouldn’t be able to actually walk on the surface of Jupiter, because it’s made of gas. We can only live on rocky worlds, and then only if they are the Goldilocks distance from the sun where we can have seasons with the correct axial tilt and, of course, oxygen and liquid water.

Could we ever be able to colonise another planet? And would we bring with, ark-like, said wolves and panthers and bears? (Or, we could always have the reverse scenario... Planet of the Apes much?)

I was both captivated and frustrated by Christopher Nolan’s epic “Interstellar”. I thought the director and producers captured the relativity physics relatively (no pun intended) well, and though the conception of traveling beyond the black hole’s event horizon was a bit mawkish, from a story arc point of view it worked beautifully. I would have liked Matthew McConaughey to have been less leaden in his performance; John Lithgow outshone him as the grumpy but caring father-in-law and Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain were simply spectacular.

And here you will find me at peace.
If we meet aliens, I hope they are wise and caring like the guardians in the Green Lantern comics or zany like the Solomons in 3rd Rock From The Sun (another area where John Lithgow gave one of the most hilarious performances in the history of television.)

Or, perhaps the aliens are already among us; maybe they are the kelp forests, swaying to and fro incessantly, watching and waiting... watching and waiting.

Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to that exhibit. Maybe the kelp senses my little cosmology-addled brain, and is trying to communicate with me. I wonder what it’s saying. Come swim? Stop polluting the planet before we start colonising you and eat your little soft bodies? Thanks for the sunlight? Aren’t octopi cute? Douglas Adams was right about the whales?!

I’ll let you know if I wake up covered in seaweed, but for now, you may find me staring at that tank on my next post-call weekend... who knows what the kelp might tell me.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Words, Words, Words

We need words, and we need the ocean. In fact, we need an ocean of words to wash over ourselves sometimes.

 We take language for granted. This is necessary, of course. Our constantly beleagured brains habe to process grammar and vocabulary at a breakneck pace, parsing sentences and contexts as we enter our daily streams of speech and text. Nobody needs to know what a noun or a verb or an adverb is in order to use them. 

We hardly remember that vernal time when we just acquired language without thinking about it. Linguists grapple whether there is a language centre and a language instinct (Pinker; Chomsky) or whether it is just a thing-in-itself we can’t analyse. But even as speaking in the most complex of tongues is always going to be an imperfect way to pass our thoughts from one to the other across time and space, it is what makes human life possible.

English is blessed (and cursed) with a fat vocabulary. One metaphor I learned as a child is that the language is a giant Amazon river, born of Germanic mountain streams but fed by so many tributaries that, at its mouth where it connects into the common human experience, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain its source. There are streams from the Romance, from the Slavic, from the Arabic: the list is long and exhaustive.

Sometimes we lose sight of this, so that people baulk when I say to them that Afrikaans is in fact very closely related to English: it even sits on the same branch, West Germanic. English (and Afrikaans), being part of the vast tree that is Indo-European, is even related to Hindi and Sanskrit and Farsi (Persian.) From a single seed sprang forth a forest.

Sometimes we need to look up from the forest floor and appreciate that canopy. There are high leaves on the trees that can delight and inform. Words like syzygy, barycentre, hypaethral, apogee, benthic. They speak of the skies and the oceans. They might not be essential to daily survival, but we need to be reminded of the innate magic of words. When you see a small child speaking for the first time you are watching a magic spell in action, something inexplicable, but necessary, and vital.

We should dream of that time when we grasped words without needing to reach for a dictionary. Fortunately, we always have the friend of context available, and nowhere does it come more to the fore than in books. Something great happens when we place our vocabularies next to those of another, who has exposed it in their writing, and we gaze on the common ground and divisions and exclusive areas.

What astonishes me most is the capacity for learning other languages. When European explorers encountered people from other nations, other continents, whose tongues were completely unrelated to our own, the collision brought initial confusion, but ultimately, clarity. Because French and English are cousins, if not siblings, we can easily understand that “cat” and “chat” mean the same thing, and “travaille” must be related to “travail” and “bateau” cognate to “boat.” Not so with Xhosa. Or Navajo. Or Japanese.

Yet, with patience, we begin understand each other. The easiest, of course, is to place children in a situation where they are exposed to both languages. A child with English parents placed in a German (or Mandarin, or Zulu) school will pick up both tongues and become fluent to the point that it will be difficult to ascertain what is their mother tongue.

It was children who invented understanding.

Even adults can obtain astonishing competency, even if complete mastery eludes them. Joseph Conrad, a Polish immigrant, only learned to speak English when he was 19, yet became one of the most important writers in the language. He never lost his Polish accent, but, reading him, you’d never think English wasn’t his mother tongue.

The larynx is an astonishingly complex organ, a master instrument we carry about nonchalantly. A fine network of nerves innervate a nexus of interconnected cartilage, articulating, the tongue in happy tow. We sing notes without needing words, yet when we add words we exalt both the music and the language we pour forth. And in singing, we lose our accents; we revert to a common dialect, as it were. Anyone can be taught to sing. And anyone can learn more words.

Then there is the magic of writing. It is the last of the arts of language to develop, because words and associations must be learned and placed in context. But it doesn’t just draw its energy from here. Roots reach deep into the symbolic, the subconscious, the passion from story, an energy that was witness to ancient hunts, fires, even the protean moments where we were not quite fish and yet not quite furry.

Where and when a group of cells congealed to be able to become aware of itself is a mystery, a beautiful mystery I am happy not to understand. For now. The spread of Christian Empires was partly predicated on the fact that the God at the centre of it all was, ultimately, unknowable to It/Him/Herself.  I have confidence that science has the capacity to discover it, and if I’m privy to the knowledge, it won’t be spoilt, for yet another mystery will open like a nested Russian babushka doll. Knowledge creates fractals, snowflakes out of triangles, casting light as it probes into the darkness that races away to depths still deeper and more shadowy. As I like to quote so often: “the larger the searchlight, the greater the circumference of the unknown.”

It is at the edge of language that we encounter shadow, and our primal need to name things kicks in. We are always forming new words, and we do that partly to assuage our fear. Words like “tweet” and “facebooking” and “clusterfuck” may seem frivolous. but they delineate the fuzzy line between the conscious and the pre-conscious.

So go ahead and read more. Learn a new word. Place yourself on that front wave, and surf the edge of chaos. You’ll be richer for it, knowing that even if a wave knocks you sideways, you won’t drown in the ocean, but, merely catch a glimpse of the yet undiscovered jewels that will one day surface.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

J'Accuse! (Or, The Big Bad Wolf Strikes Back)

He's never been given a fair hearing. Until now.


I am the Big Bad Wolf, and I have some things to say.

I accuse you, Brothers Grimm, and possibly Madame Perrault, and, who knows, even gloomy old Hans Christian, for getting a shitload of things wrong in translation.

(1) The Three Little Pigs were contravening building regulations. Someone had to stop them, or the whole forest would have burnt down. (FYI, the third little pig’s brick house didn’t cut the municipal by-laws either, the electrical wiring was dangerous and wasn't forwarded to me for inspection. Since Pinocchio retired I have to approve all electrical plans, too.)

(2) Reynard the Fox: You’re a trickster and I’m sick of being your fall guy. Wait until I tell all about your dealings with the mob and your affair with Goldilocks. Rumplestiltskin wants his Porsche back. I’ll deal with you later.

(3) Little Red. Oh, how you broke my heart. You told me you loved me, but then you fell for the huntsman, because he was cooler than me apparently. You know he just wanted you as a trophy wife. Before you knew it, you had five children and he dumped you for Cinderella.

(4) Werewolves? Well, it’s not a curse that I can pass on my gift. That first human asked for it. He was dying, you kno, wounded. So I bit him. I would have liked him to control his hunger. Sadly he couldn’t. I was younger then; I didn’t think he’d start a bloodthirsty epidemic. But my kind does keep the vampire population under control.

(5) Oh, yes, the Woodcutter again. Do you know what it feels like having your stomach hacked open and filled with stones? Why bother with the stones in the first place anyway? The abdominal wound would be fatal enough. Anyway, being a magical creature, I didn’t die. Instead I lay for a long time at the bottom of the lake and I did a lot of thinking. After the pain had gone away I realised they were magic stones - your fault for not checking. It took a while to get them out (it’s pretty gross, too, digging around in your guts) but eventually I healed. By that time I had become quite used to lying on the floor of the lake and taught myself to walk under water to the ocean. The dolphins and crabs didn’t judge me which was refreshing; they’d never seen a wolf before. I even met the Little Mermaid and we bonded for a while over Bellinis on her private island, lamenting how fickle humans are. I really admire her, because it takes years to rematerialise from the foam.

(6) But, in all fairness, there are some happy stories. I can’t just be angry. So I’d also like to thank Mr Rudyard Kipling and Mr Jack London for their more positive portrayals of my kin (and, now that I think of it, even Mr Prokofiev, because in his story he at least doesn’t kill me, but takes me to the zoo.)

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I’d like to go howl at the moon and possibly hunt a bunny rabbit. You know, since I have big teeth, all the better to bite with and all that clap-trap. In the meantime, please forward any correspondence to my secretary, Old Mother Hubbard.

Friday, November 21, 2014

On Darkness

I want to talk about darkness. About shadows.

There is going to be a lot of Jung flying about here, and as I am not a Jung scholar, I apologise for taking great liberties with the great man’s theories.

Shadows are things do not exist without light. Yet we all cast them, and the brighter the light, the more obvious they are.

Shadows are dark, by definition. We are programmed to fear darkness, because we usually equate it with evil. Things lurk in there that we probably don’t like. We treat our shadow worlds like dustbins, shoving things we’d rather not face into the black corners. We know that deep down in the oceans exist scary creatures: jellyfish, viperfish, giant isopods and squids, things we don’t want near us when we swim.

We come to the conclusion that the darkness is a convenient place to store anything, like an eveready cupboard we can stuff things into when we need to appear neat and tidy.

But it is only a temporary holding place. Separated from the light that is supposed to probe and unpack them, undesireable things learn to adapt to a new ecosystem. Think of the bleached moles and spiders that have evolved in deep caves. Fungi grow there, metabolisms alter, and colonies of strange creatures form. Then, one day, these altered beings creep out of the cave when we least expect it.

What lies beneath?
And what do we blame, after we have screamed and run away? The darkness. When in fact, we polluted it in the first place.

We forget that evil, actually, is banal. It can exist and thrive during the day or at night. We forget that we hide good things too in our personal caves, to our own detriment. We deny our ability to stand up to unfairness. We indulge in the incessant forgetting of our strengths. We cast aside the vast collection of happiness, of dreams, of moments of joy with the slightest arrival of criticism or slight.

The problem is, how do we see these shadow things for what they are, when our eyes are meant for collecting light? Plato famously said that we plunge with torches into a cave, but are unable to experience the knowledge of the darkness because we have to bring fire. (And, for those of us raised with Christian theology, we must remember that the traditional conception of Hell is not dark, but rather, populated with raging flames where the damned are roasted eternally.)

It took the British psychoanalyst Bion to come up with the confusing, but startling concept of the “beam of darkness” we need to shine into that cave. It is only through it that we can understand the inverse of light. This necessarily implies a descent into the unknown, with the realisation that we carry an internal battery as it were that has been charged, yes, by the sun. Suns collapse into black holes, but they burst forth again in supernovas, brighter than they have ever been after their sojourn into the unfathomable black.

The truth is that dark feeds light, and light feeds dark. Such has been the wont of the Universe ever since its birth.

In the cave with its black light, alone, we can breathe, and sort the wheat from the chaff, so we can bring them into light again. The giant squid that we thought was lurking there to squeeze the life out of us turns out to be an atrophied shrimp. Strings of painful memories evaporate into a sad but soft mist as we coax them out into the sunshine again. And, if we combine the discernment the light taught us with the instinct of the dark, we can exorcise the fake demons we conjured and finally bid them goodbye. (I think now of the sorry debacle of the nineties when ethically suspect hypnotherapists conjured fake experiences of sexual abuse from their patients with highly controversial “regression” therapy.)”

Keeping things in the dark, as it were, is of course vitally necessary to cope with life. We don’t need to remember how we drove to work, or what muscles we used to swallow our bacon and eggs this morning. We can’t remember the conversations we had yesterday. The brain needs to engage in more complex things, so that we remember instead how to sing along to a favourite song, or how to swim when we spot a beautiful lagoon, or make an important transaction or prescribe a patient an essential drug. As for song, it is only because of the silences between the notes that we can appreciate the music. Silence brings punctuation, and punctuation affords understanding.

We could equate our consciousness to stars glowing in the darkness, then, at their coronae, we encounter the membrane of the pre-conscious that encapsulates them. And there they float in the deep unconscious that flows between the stars. Or, to use my favourite analogy which a friend told me: think of an ocean. Think of a kelp forest that sways from side to side, and that at the surface, an island floats. The island is our consciousness, held by the kelp, that sways on the bedrock of the unconscious that anchors it. The bedrock needs no light. Nor does the ocean. But when light shines through it, it is filtered, and becomes even more beautiful. The moon emits no light of its own but is content to reflect that of the sun’s.

Where do we find our beam of darkness?

Perhaps the eyes glow only because
they need to lead the way.
It is difficult. It is a primal thing, animalistic, a night creature unhindered by rational thought. We fear it, thinking it will bring destruction. But it will only bring destruction if we shear it off from our beam of light with scorn. We forget that we gestated for nine months without light in our mother’s womb, or that in sleep, our eyes are closed, melting into an internal night.

We do not need to tame this creature, we merely need to meet it at the mouth of a cave and let it show us the way. Native Americans speak of a totem animal; in visualations and dreamscapes they descend to meet it. My totem animal, fittingly, is a wolf of course. But it could have been an otter, a fish, or a starling. The physiology need bear no resemblance to the container of the darkness, it merely needs to be able to enter it. We trust this animal, guiding us past the rush of our thoughts, leading us, until we realise we are carrying a torch, our beam, that can shine either light or dark. And there we will find the subconscious has brought forth castles of quartz, stalactites of diamond, conflagrations of jewels.

What will happen when our beam shines? What will be illuminated? What will we be able to bring back? Hopefully, our cave will be neater, freer, with room to breathe. For new things to be stored... temporarily... to cool perhaps, under a sun that has scorched them.

We try too hard, of course, to integrate things. I think we should feel liberated that there are limits to what we can know. That these things are shared and nurture us. Millions of molecules are assembling and disassembling in our cells right now, but we are not aware of them, instead, we can read, kiss our loved ones or admire a sunset. And as carbon is essential to life, arsenic is toxic, yet they are made up of the same fundamental particles.

Carbon, of course, is black in the light, while arsenic is silvery-white and lustrous in its elemental form. It would be very dangerous to assume their actions based on their colour now, wouldn’t it?

Let us examine the night now, the most tangible darkness we know.
Who are you, and why are you here?

I was afraid of the dark as a child. I needed a night light, except when the full moon shone. I regularly checked for monsters under the bed and kept the cupboards closed in case ghosts decided to take up residence there. Is this perhaps because we unwittingly teach children that the dark is bad? Certainly, it is disarming when we cannot see. Up, down, left and right become completely arbitrary (forgetting gravity.) The normal layout of maps is a hangover from Western dominance of the seas; there is no reason that South shouldn’t be at the top. (There is, in fact, an upside-down map of the world available, and it is refreshing to look at.) It took my cat to disabuse me of this: a night-creature himself, he purrs and lies at the foot of the bed, his eyes engineered with rods that make maximal use of the scarcity of photons.

Then my bed would becomes a spaceship. Here I’ve learned to float, not to fear.

There are many ways we can acquaint ourselves with our nocturnal shadows. (Often we are forced to here in SA with out rolling blackouts, thank you Eskom.) We can drive to Sutherland where the Karoo sky is at its blackest and see the galaxy the way its meant to be. We can go to the Bushveld and sit around the fire until it dies and then lie in our huts and listen to an African night at play. We can get up early and walk to the ocean before sunrise and see the daily birth of our star.

But most of all, we can close our eyes and wait for the dreams to come.

Cruelly for me, I struggle with insomnia. I’ve tried meditating, medication, warm milk, banishing electronic devices from the bedroom. Our current regimen of eight hours of sleep followed by daily activity is in fact artificial. During pre-electric days, humans would alternate sleep and activity during the night, dozing for a few hours, then becoming productive.

Electricity not only illuminated, but scarred our pineal glands forever. And so we reach for melatonin, for zolpidem, for yoga classes and B-RST free milk. It is perhaps a fitting irony that we are forced to confront the dark when insomnia hits.

The dark illuminates, too.
I’ve formed a relationship with my insomnia. I don’t fear it anymore, I let it guide my thoughts as I lie in the darkness listening to the rustle of the wind and the soft breathing of my wife. Clocks tick, the dog settles herself in her sleep, the foundations of the house creak. Night birds sing and far away the odd car revs its engines. The night is as alive with life as the day. Eventually, I do fall asleep. I only wish civilisation would make allowance for those us whose clocks are wound differently: I would happily start work at ten and work through till seven in the evening. Then I could potter around at midnight at my laptop and let the words flow, and do their magic in the darkness, and let the shadows speak.

But I digress.

The very pixels of the words that form on the screen right now are black: where the light is turned off. And yet I read.

As Zukofsky said: Come, shadow come.