Sunday, November 8, 2009

Forest Fable

The little girl awoke in the deep dark forest. I could tell you that she was pretty and blond, or homely and mousy, or black and sassy but none of those details are relevant. Your imagination must suffice. She was adorable in her way, with bright eyes and two braided pigtails, and a blue pinafore dress that was mildly soiled from her having been lying on the deep humus of the forest floor. Her tiny feet were bare and she sat for a while wiggling her toes in the leaf litter until a big red centipede ran over her left foot.

Then she leapt to her feet with a shriek and a shudder and climbed up on the exposed roots of a big maple tree. Most of the trees were white pine, with a scattering of beech and maple and the occasional oak. It is the sort of forest one finds where mountains are giving way to foot-hills, and the evergreens of the high altitudes are mingled with the deciduous trees of the valleys. This is also good country for finding hungry wolves and bears. The girl was just old enough to remember hearing warnings in school about going into the dense dark wood alone. So she stood trembling, knees slightly bent, balancing on the massive root, gripping with both tiny hands the trunk of the maple tree for several minutes before she looked more carefully at her surroundings.

The sun was still high over the trees, and the little girl could see blue jays and robins flitting from branch to branch in the leafy canopy high overhead. She remembered that blue-jays often follow big hungry animals and screech at them, alerting the forest citizens that a predator is among them. The birds were making their regular noises, so it was possible that no danger was close by…there was a deer path just to her right, thickly upholstered with soft aged pine needles, so she padded off down the path looking for some clue as to how she ended up alone in the dark wood with no shoes.

Though the sun was still bright, the silence and dim depths of the forest began to play a soft marimba glissando of fear up and down her spine. The occasional bee buzzing past her head caused her to duck and swat and spin around more vigorously than she might have in a manicured garden with flagstone walks and the comforting nearby presence of a house. She hurried a little bit and began looking frequently behind to see whether something might be following, say, out of sight just behind the curve of the path. So it was that, looking behind, the little girl caught her small toe in a rootlet and fell face down on a rough old pine log. She was nursing her skinned hand when she noticed that the birds had all gone silent. In fact, she could see a little warbler sitting absolutely still in a bush not a meter away, its eyes glistening with hidden emotion.

The little girl looked ahead on the path. Two enormous wolves stood side by side, huge shoulders shaggy with winter fur in mid-shed, yellow eyes watchful. Was that a trickle of saliva dripping from the horrible jaws? The wolves did not move, did not take their baleful yellow eyes off of the tender, tasty girl on the ground before them. She sat on the soft pine needle tuff, her heart in her mouth, too terrified to think even of the harm that surely attended the whim of the dire wolves. The wolves’ attention shifted to a point beyond where the girl was sitting. Reluctantly the girl turned her head away from the hulking beasts and glistening fangs to follow their gaze. Behind her, about three meters away, stood a small furry red bear.

The bear stood up on its hind legs, waved paws equipped with the deadliest-looking needle-sharp black claws and uttered a surprisingly deep and resonant roar. The two wolves blinked, turned silently and vanished into the underbrush alongside the path. The red bear dropped back to all fours and stalked, stiff-legged toward the wild-eyed little girl sitting by the old pine log. The bear snuffled busily all around the log even to the feet of the terrified little girl. As the girl was preparing to be the bear’s dinner, the bear stood once more on its hind legs, twisted sideways and grew up, up, up into the forest canopy to become a gigantic man with red hair and red beard. He was dressed in a sleeveless vest of red fur and trousers of the same material and he carried a spear the length of his body with a deadly-looking point of white crystal.

“I do not think the dire wolves will be bothering you tonight,” he boomed in a pleasant baritone. “Are you injured?”

“I - I skinned my hand….”

His enormous freckled hand reached down from an impossible height and gently turned her little hand as he bent to examine the bruised palm.

“There is a clearing nearby with a stream running through it,” he suggested. “You could wash the dirt and bark out of the scrapes on your hand.”

The red-haired giant led the way through the forest, treading noisily with much snapping of twigs, until the two came to a very pleasant sunlit meadow full of blue and yellow wild-flowers and tall grass. The hum of bees visiting the flowers was not so menacing here as it had seemed in the dim green of the dense forest. The sun was bright in a pale blue sky, and a delightful breeze wafted through the meadow so that the flowers nodded and danced in the sun.

The giant stopped near a large flat rock.

“Here is the stream,” he said, pointing with the butt of his spear. “The water is very cold, but you can wash your hands if you are quick.”

She knelt in the sand at the edge of the stream and dipped her hands in the flowing water. The cold water did feel very nice on her skinned palm, When the little girl had cleaned her wound, she went and sat with the giant on the flat rock. After the cold water, the sun-warmed boulder was very pleasant. She felt out nooks and crannies in the warm stone with her toes. Bird song rippled out of the trees and across the meadow.

“Would you like a snack?” asked the giant. Without waiting for a reply, he reached into his vest and pulled out a flat object wrapped in muslin. It was several slices of home-baked bread, buttered and carefully wrapped face-to-face to keep the butter from smearing. The two sat side-by-side on the flat warm rock and chewed their bread in silence.

“Why are you being so nice?” asked the girl, munching the fresh bread gratefully. “People say giants are mean and selfish.”

The giant shrugged, like a land-slide on a mountain.

“Once I had a daughter,” he rumbled softly. “She and I used to have picnics in the forest. I miss those chats. Children have a different way of looking at the world.”

“Did she go somewhere?”

The giant sighed, a melancholy wind through the tree-tops.

“She grew up,” he said. “She lived a long life, had children, and got old, and died, long ago.”

“She got old and died?” asked the girl, bewildered. “But you are not old….”

“I am very old,” sighed the giant. “I live long, very long. My curse, not growing old. ”

"Why is it that you are sometimes a small, red bear," asked the little girl, eyeing the giant carefully. The two sat sharing the bread and gazing at the meadow.

The great red-haired giant shrugged his massive freckled shoulders again and picked up a stick to draw in the sand at his feet.

"What letter is this?" he asked.

"M," replied the little girl promptly.

The giant wrote again beside the M.

""What letter is this?" he asked.

"W," replied the little girl, after a pause. "But you have written it funny."

"Yeah," agreed the giant, "the points are curvy, because it's an upside-down 'M'. See? And if I write it sideways…"

"Number '3'!" replied the girl.

"A lot of magic is like that," said the giant soberly. "It depends on who is looking and from where. If I were to take the number three and turn it so you could only see the right side of it, what would you see?"

The little girl thought for a minute,

"Just a straight line?" she ventured.

The giant laughed with delight.

"Yes!" he boomed, filling the forest with laughter. "or some might see the number '1'."

"So I see a kindly giant because it is me seeing you now ," said the girl thoughtfully, "but a taller person worried about bears might see me sitting beside a red bear."

"Exactly so," nodded the giant, sombre again. "One must be careful in these woods not to get stuck with pointy things, given that most people in the woods ARE worried about bears. It is most inconvenient."

"Are you really both a red-haired giant and a small red bear," asked the little girl, crossing her eyes to see whether she could see him as both, " or are you something else? And you just look like these different things?"

"You mean, could I really be the number '1'?" the giant was amused, “That is an excellent question”

"Yes," said the giant finally after a period of silent reflection. "I am something else. I am a forest guardian. My true aspect is sort of like a spider in a web.."

"Ew…" said the little girl drawing back ever so slightly.

"but I am NOT really a spider," he continued as the little girl relaxed, "it is just that magic shines out from me and tells me, the same way a fly landing on a spider web warns the spider, when a person of a particular type comes into the forest."

"Like me?" the girl was becoming apprehensive.

"Yes, especially like you." sighed the giant with mild regret. "I have been on the watch for you ever since you blighted the apple orchards at the three valley gap.”

“That’s a mean thing to say!” cried the little girl, her eyes brimming with sudden tears. “I did no such thing!”

“Oh but you did,” replied the giant, gravely. “And worse, I imagine, on your way up-river. News travels slowly when the birds are on their way north. But your signature is all over the apple-blight.”

“Do you mean to say that I am also something different from what you see?” asked the girl, her eyes flashing indignantly.

“Oh, yes,” nodded the red-haired giant. “Everyone is something other than what we see. Some very nice people with whom one might frequently have a friendly conversation can be horrible monsters with a cellar full of human heads.”

“UGH!” cried the girl, with genuine horror.

“Or,” continued the giant, “others, like the troll of the hollow tree by the cross-roads, are hideous to look at (unless one is also a troll) but perform selfless acts of constructive kindness. Everyone has an aspect that cannot easily be discerned. Even sweet little girls who mysteriously find themselves in the green dark forest. I have been enjoying sitting in the sun and having a snack with a small girl-child, but that is only the form you took when you first entered my forest, a sort of instinctive protective colouration."

"But I don't remember being something else," protested the girl. "I've always been who I am."

"Do you remember the winter of the blue snow, in the Clear Mountains?" asked the giant idly.

"Do I ever!" responded the girl fervently. "I nearly froze my toes in the great blizzard before I found the cave!"

"That was 10000 years ago," smiled the giant. “And yet, here you are, apparently no more than eight years old. You remember that, because it happened to you, but your protective instinct forces you to remember mostly only that you are a little girl lost in the forest. In reality you are an elemental, an immortal creature with a rapacious hatred for all that lives."

"But I remember going to school! I remember my mother and father! My mama kissed me good-night just last…" her voice trailed off uncertainly.

"Well, it is possible that at one time you had parents who loved you," replied the giant sadly. "But immortal creatures eventually become estranged from normal life. Their loved ones die, again and again over the centuries, and eventually immortals either create a bulwark against normal human emotion or they go kind of crazy or they become angry and destructive to all they touch."

"Hold on!" replied the girl crossly. "That’s silly! If I can't die, why do I hide from other supernatural creatures by becoming a little girl?? Surely I would have nothing to fear!?"

"There are worse things than death," said the giant. "Most elementals resist being trapped for all eternity, even in the nicest traps."

Instantly the girl leapt to her feet and ran pell-mell to the edge of the clearing, exiting down a deer path only to immediately re-enter the clearing via an opening on the opposite side. She uttered a shocking obscenity and twisted in on herself to become a ferret racing across the meadow. The ferret dived down a ground-hog hole and reappeared out of thin air, falling toward the greensward. The ferret spread out like a pancake and became a merlin hawk. The hawk winged up and away toward the trees ringing the meadow, only to reappear in the air on the other side of the meadow. After rapidly crossing the skies of the meadow several times, the hawk uttered a piercing scream and dissolved into a whirlwind of snow and ash. The whirlwind sprouted arms and legs composed of vortices of dry bones and rotting wood. The creature of death advanced menacingly on the red-haired giant. The clearing was immediately encased in ice and the blue sky was replaced with a grey overcast from which sleet fell in blinding sheets.

The giant smiled gently through the frost caking his red beard, leaning casually on the shaft of the crystal spear.

"My webs are very strong," he chuckled, although he did not sound amused or happy. "You might eventually escape, but time passes differently in here than it does outside. By the time you DO escape, the world will be very old indeed, and long past any harm you can do to it."

The whirlwind resolved again into a forlorn little girl with braids and a rather soiled pinafore. The sun came out in a soft blue sky and the snow and ice melted rapidly away to reveal a carpet of wildflowers. Birdsong echoed from the woods beyond.

"So long as you maintain your chameleon form," continued the giant in a rather severe tone, "the sun will shine, the birds will sing, the posies will kiss your bare toesies. The fruit trees will even bear fruit that will taste sweet and fresh every time you choose to indulge. As soon as you take your elemental form, winter will return and bring famine as it has wherever you have settled your curse upon the earth. Your choice…."

The giant stood erect, twisted sideways and inside out, shrinking and compacting into a small furry red bear. The bear ambled to a gap between two oak trees, two remarkably similar oak trees, two identical oak trees and squeezed between them. The last glimpse of the bear was its black snout as it turned to look back, as if to confirm that the prisoner was still in the trap. Then the two trees merged into one with an audible snap! And, except for the occasional wintry temper tantrum, eternal spring reigned in the clearing in the deep green wood.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Filling the Cosmic Disk

It seems counter-intuitive that the Universe, infinite in Space, is finite in Time.

Now that we know that the Universe is expanding, creating Space as it goes, and that all the energy in the Universe will eventually be transformed into heat and get colder and colder, Mankind is forced to admit that the Universe will eventually end. The process of everything becoming heat is called Entropy, defined as the tendency for things to uncomplicate, fall apart, decay and unravel, right down to the very atoms of matter and the protons that hold them together.

We also know, from repeated attempts to create the Perpetual Motion Machine, that you can't beat Entropy. It is the ultimate City Hall, a cosmic bureaucracy so rigid in policy and practice that, although you might be able to side-track the process long enough for life to evolve, intelligence to exist (so as to comprehend Entropy) and civilizations to arise, ultimately Entropy will reassert itself and everything will continue on the downward slide to the cold-dark-universe model.

The question is, philosophically speaking, WHY does Entropy always win? Why does time only run in the direction of decay and darkness? Why was God able to create this whole fantastic wonderful profusion of glory simply by speaking it? The answer lies in some very complex and uncomfortable mathematics. I won't insult you by pretending I actually understand the mathematics...I am trusting that the baffling equations do in fact say what people claim they say!

Entropy can be described mathematically. Alas, the equations which define Entropy also define the accumulation of information. In Mathematics, things that are mathematically equivalent are the same. Entropy = Information. Therefore, systems that are running down are also running up. Greater simplicity in terms of energy = greater complexity in terms of information that could potentially be extracted from that system.

This has a great deal of support from recent research on noise in the measurement of periodic phenomena. If you are measuring a repeating phenomenon, a heart-beat, or the price of cotton stocks, occasionally values sneak into the data set that are so confusing as to appear random. Played over a speaker system they would sound like noise, a hiss or a howl, like feed-back or the electron hum from alternating current. There is now available an equation that allows one to compare the "relative entropy" of the noisy bits with the "relative entropy" of the other clearly-defined sections of data. If the relative entropy of the noisy bit is high, that means that there is information hidden in that data set of which we are not yet aware. Using more sensitive equipment may extract the information. If the relative entropy of the noisy bit is low, then it truly is random fluctuation or decoupling of the measured phenomenon from the main function of the system.

So, if our universe is undergoing entropic run-down because of an accumulation of information, where is the read-head, and who is watching the monitor??

And another thing: If we could reduce entropy throughout the aging universe to make it younger, wouldn't that make it dumber, too??

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Gods Must Be Thirsty

In a Naples grotto narrow,
Is the shrine of Saint Genarro
Where a flask well sealed with lead
Contains a powder rusty red.
When shaken by the proper priest
A foaming fluid is released
And, fresh as from the living marrow
Flows the blood of Saint Genarro

Apt iconoclasts declare
The miracle is far from rare:
A gel made from hydrated rust
Will duplicate the trick in just
The way the priest performs.
Alas, though this gives rise to storms
Of rage and disappointment
Naples has not lost anointment

In chapel niches ‘round the globe
Stands Mary, dressed in royal robe:
The Queen of Heaven, carved in rock,
She doesn’t move, nor breathe, nor talk,
But those who faithful vigil keep
Have sworn they’ve seen some statues weep.
When human lives are cheaply priced,
Fresh flow the tears of the Mother of Christ.

When the Madonna’s tears are caught
And analyzed, there’s often not
A hint of water or of salt
But this discovery does not halt
The veneration of the stone
Virgin standing there alone
Her marble cheeks, it now appears,
Wet with manufactured tears

From Montreal to Uttar Pradesh
Are statues of the god, Ganesh:
Protector of the Hindu home
Enricher of the Hindu loam.
Whom would the elephant god adore
Milk on his stony feet may pour
But see! Through some arcane device
Ganesh now drinks his sacrifice!

It’s sadly true that money haunts
The halls of God, and in response
To Ganesh drinking up his milk
Profits soared for merchant ilk
The merchants claimed, with shameless fraud
That milk is now fit for a god.
While children starve with stomachs shrunk
Ganesh has milk shoved up his trunk.

What lack of faith or hope or vision
Would drive someone to a decision
That God would want his folk misled
By simple sleight-of-hand, instead
Of truth, and joy and wonder?
So demagogues from pulpits thunder
And Saint Genarro’s blood flows fresh
As milk poured out before Ganesh.

Christ, whom many folk revere
Made Yahweh’s policy quite clear
When asked to give a demonstration
Said:”A wicked generation
Asks to see a wondrous sign
To prove the Son of Man divine.”
Yahweh to Himself suffices:
He needs none of our devices.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

That Fading Glory

People call it doubt
But it feels like disappointment
When knowledge of the way of things
How things work
How they happened
Winnows away frivolous doctrine
And only unarguable truth remains

People call it wisdom
But it feels like weariness
Having lived long enough to see
Transcendent bliss revealed as neurosis
While real wisdom is ignored,
To painful to be spoken, or believed.

Is it corporate worship,
Or mass hypnosis
When sentiments are repeated until
They become Canon
When music is programmed for effect
Not according to the guidance of God;
When grief hides in shame behind a smile?

I have seen genuine joy give rise to dancing,
Genuine obedience result in healing
Genuine knowledge give fruit in contrition
Genuine worship refresh the anguished heart.
Discomfort with liturgy is fleeting.
Genuine communion is eternal,
When it happens.


He does not mind
That fellow-workers use up his peanut butter
Though he provides it out of his largess (which is not large)
And they are better off than he.

He does not mind
The coarse language of the workshop
Nor the demeaning labour of humility (which is humbling but not edifying)
Nor the lack of recognition

His love for them
Though it flows not from his heart
But through his heart from God
Compels him to smile
To laugh at their poor jokes

His compassion
Which arises not from his understanding
But from his submission to the will of God
Compels him to listen
And to murmur encouragements

Not that the doors of his heart
Do not swing almost shut
On the colder days
And not that his small pride
Does not sometimes raise the hope
That one day his incorruptible corpse
Will smell of violets.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Larry the Lemming Finds Christmas

Larry the Lemming was sick of the dark. He longed for the lovely green light of the fair grassy tunnels in which the Lemming family conducted their business safe from foxes and owls. He missed the sunny warm rock where he used to bask all comfy and toasty. He even missed the dangerous bright sun-filled open spaces where an unwary lemming could get scooped up by a hungry wolf. He missed the long red Arctic sunsets with the sun playing midnight peekaboo and the stars just barely visible overhead. Even the thought that midwinter feast-day was soon upon them failed to raise his spirits.

The midnight sun had set weeks ago, and even the dim twilight that passes for noon in the Arctic winter had mostly been obscured by heavy clouds and falling snow. The snow had piled up night after night, layer after layer, until the green-lit tunnels were cold, shadowy grey-blue corridors that smelled too strongly of stale lemming.

“It’s OK, though” thought Larry the Lemming, “Many lemmings become despondent at midwinter feast time. It’s probably just un-met unreasonable expectations...”

A fruitful summer had meant a lot of scurrying after seed heads and dried berries, a lot of digging and storing and building of compartments. The fruitful summer had also meant a time of great fertility, such that many, many baby lemmings were now reaching maturity. Larry the Lemming missed the sun, but he also missed his privacy. Despite the long summer of expanding the lemming-lair, it was impossible to move about without stepping on toes, squeezing furry bellies against walls or happening on embarrassing intimacies in darkened corners. It was frustrating. It was distracting. It was depressing. It was hard to even sleep, even though lemmings unlike marmots only sleep for part of the winter. There was just too much snuffling, and grunting, and squeaking and poking. There were, in fact, too many lemmings.

And yet, thought Larry the insomniac lemming, staring into the squeaky-stinky dark, there seemed to be fewer of some animals than usual. The foxes had seemed very few, and rather threadbare when one DID see one. The owls had been very busy, but their predations were far between. It was one of those winters that Ptosis the old ptarmigan had spoken of, when some animals did extremely well and others seemed not to benefit at all. Weird...he drowsed off with his little front paws crossed over his plump lemming tummy and dreamed of his sun-warmed basking rock.

It was the warmth more than the noise that awakened Larry from his nap. It was VERY warm, even though he could still feel cold snow at his back, and the air was heavy with moisture and a stench that he only later identified as extremely concentrated lemming, and rancid lemming at that. Larry the Lemming could tell by his reduced girth that he must have slept for several weeks. His fur felt grimy, as if hundreds of lemming toes had tweaked and trod on him while he slept. The corridor outside his sleeping den teemed with lemmings.

Lana Lemming hurried by, her cheek pouches fetchingly distended with seeds.

“Lana!” called Larry, scarcely daring to venture out into the noise-some crowd., “why is it so warm? What’s that awful smell?”

Lana shifted her burden to clear a path to speak past the seeds.

“Have you been asleep all this time?” she shouted over the din. “It’s all this body heat. There’s been a third litter. The burrow is bursting with lemmings. We’re all going to go insane if something isn’t done...” She stopped to pick up some seeds she had accidentally spewed from her distended cheeks, and was carried away by the flood of rodents.

But what was there to be done? It was midwinter, and lemmings have no social hierarchy, no leaders to take charge on behalf of lemming-kind. Mole rats, thought Larry the Lemming, would not have such a problem. He thought about the situation for a while, but finally he could not be distracted from the burgeoning crowd streaming through the once-spacious and sweet-smelling tunnels. His heart sinking within him, he made a decision to burrow up through the snow-pack and away from these crazed and fetid fellow-creatures, up and into the danger zone where foxes and wolves could pick out a lemming from the protecting snow. He didn’t care. This was torture. He needed to be alone. He needed to curl up and nurse his sadness. Larry morosely cast his fate to the blizzard winds and dug upwards into the dimness of the snow pack, his mind filled with dark and comforting thoughts of oblivion.

When his questing whiskery nose poked through the frosty crust into the biting cold air above the snow-pack, Larry was dismayed to smell the odour of hundreds of lemmings even up here. He shook the snowflakes from his beady eyes and stared around at a scurrying hoard of Lemmings, mostly of his own generation. A black lemming with a white streak over one eye nearly ran over Larry’s head.

“Lucifer Lemming!” said Larry, “I haven’t seen you since elemmingtry school! What in the world is going on?”

Lucifer Lemming rolled a wild eye in Larry’s direction.

“We all came up to get away from the crowd,” Lucifer gasped, his breath seeming to freeze in great clouds around his head, “ but the crowd is up here, too. I have”

Lucifer broke away in a wild run, streaking off into the pearlescent twilit noon. Several other lemmings saw him and broke into the same frenzied scamper, following Lucifer Lemming into the unknown. More and more lemmings followed, and Larry could see others that he recognized, Lucy Lemming, Lois Lemming, Lance and Link Lemming, several members of the SouthSide Lemming Lynch Mob, Professor Laroquette Lemming, all streaming pell-mell hell-bent toward some goal none could define nor even visualize. They only knew that they must run.

“Wait a second,” called Larry the Lemming as Lothar Lemming tumbled by in a flurry of flying feet, “the lemming migration is a myth, an urban legend perpetrated by the Disney Corporation for their TV series on the North. No...wait...where are you going?....this is madness!”

“Yesss,” cried the fleeing crowd, “Madness! Terrifying, empowering, fulfilling lunacy! Can you not feel it? That drive to escape, to flee from the burrow, to abandon child and mate and home and flee into the wilderness? Ah, peace! Peace! Shall we not find peace?!”

“But...” Larry could indeed feel the twinges of a terrible hope that somewhere in the darkness there was a place where the air did not smell of left-over lemming, where the sounds of the burrow were soft and comforting, where the edge of madness did not lurk just beyond the next outburst of temper. He began to run, but the madness did not propel him carelessly through the dark as it did his classmates. He ran to keep up, to warn, to see what would happen next. And as he ran, the dark seeped into his tiny lemming soul. The sadness became a burden too great to carry, his weariness became a palpable weight on his little lemming back..

Larry the Lemming slowed to a trot and then to a brisk walk, and was about to stop when he saw that the lemmings at the vanguard of the migrating mass were beginning to disappear. It took Larry a few seconds to realize: the crowd of lemmings was running over the edge of a cliff!!!

“No-no-no!” shouted Larry. “This simply does NOT happen. Lemmings do NOT migrate to their doom in the Arctic Ocean. Such a thing has no evolutionary advantage! It’s a myth! A legend! A pile of crap!”

He paused to take a breath, and, seeing that his words were having no effect shouted one last salvo: “You are perpetuating a meaningless stereotype!!”

But the hoard of lemmings continued to disappear over the icy edge of the cliff, to make little ripple-less dents in the heaving salt-water below.

Larry watched in dull grief as the crowd dwindled, every little rodent wildly flinging itself into the dark water below.

“And why not?” sobbed Larry eventually, thinking of the dank and stinking warren that had been his family’s cozy burrow.. “Who could go back to that wretched hole?”

He gathered his resolve and followed his generation over the edge of the cliff, twisting and tumbling through the bitter air.

He came to a sudden stop on a very cold, wet and slippery but solid surface. His feet tingled with the force of the landing and it took Larry a while to get his breath back. Then he realized that the surface was moving through the water at a considerable rate. He had fallen on the broad head of an enormous fish, swimming at the surface of the arctic waters below the cliff.

“Excuse Me!” cried Larry, embarrassed. “I did not mean to land on your head.”

“Not at all, “ replied the fish pleasantly. “When I saw your brethren falling into the salt-chuck I determined that I would save at least one, and apparently that one is you!”

“I am Larry the Lemming,” said Larry the Lemming.

“Of course you are,” laughed the fish. “And I am Crispin Carp.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” replied Larry.

“Oh, I doubt that,” chuckled Crispin. “I have thwarted your spectacular end. Were you not just now trying to take your own life?”

“That is a baseless stereotype,” replied Larry the Lemming, a tad sharply. “Lemmings have NEVER really taken part in the Migration O’ Death. It’s a myth straight out of ‘White Wilderness.’”

“Nonetheless,” said Crispin Carp, very seriously, “Your friends simply ran off the edge. I saw YOU stop, look, consider and then fling yourself over.” He bubbled his gills a bit in the freezing salty water. “Suicide is a mortal sin, you know. Suicides go straight to Hell.”

“At least the glowing Hell-fire coals would give off some light,” retorted Larry. “I am so sick of this eternal darkness!”

“That’s no reason to end your own existence,” reproved the carp. “The darkness is NOT eternal. Spring will return, and sunlit days, and fresh seed-heads and blessed dew.”

“I suppose...” mumbled Larry. “I’m just so tired...and the burrow is chock-a-block with lemming pups, and lemming teenagers, and retired lemmings trying to sell Amway products...a lemming can’t get a moment’s rest. And this time of year is hard on some people.”

“What? Midwinter?” cried the astonished Crispin Carp. “Why this is the best, the very best time of year. It’s a time when people have leisure to consider the blessings that have taken them through the fall and winter safely, to remember family and friends, to give of our abundance to help others. It’s the heart-warmingest tradition of them all.”

“I see....” said Larry the Lemming. “Tell me, Crispin Carp, of what abundance will you be blessing those less fortunate? You don’t seem to be carrying any luggage.”

“Ahhh...” replied Crispin Carp, “I have the honour of the best charity of all.” He was silent for a bit as if cherishing the holiness of the moment. “I do not live in this arctic bay. I am swimming half-way around this great Earth to the Black Sea. There I shall be caught by a fisherman, beheaded, eviscerated and boiled, to provide nourishment to a large Croatian Orthodox family.”

He paused again as if contemplating.

“I shall be their Christmas Eve dinner,” he said quietly.

“I beg your pardon?” cried Larry the Lemming incredulously. “Beheaded? Eviscerated. BOILED? You are swimming half-way around the earth just to DIE? On PURPOSE?? How is that different from me flinging my sorry self off a cliff? Dead is dead, don’t you think?”

“Well,” replied Crispin, kindly, “No, because your death would have been despairing suicide, and mine will be Joyful Sacrifice.”

“It is a fine point of differentiation,” replied Larry uncomfortably, “and you are creeping me out. Can you let me off at the next flat rock?”

Crispin Carp angled through the icy water to a relatively dry flat stone and waited for Larry the Lemming to hop off safely.

“Do give some thought to our conversation,” said Crispin, easing away from the shore. “Service to others is much more fulfilling than selfish escape.” He turned and churned off into the foaming black. “Farewell, little lemming. A blessed midwinter to you.”

Larry waved his paw to the receding back of Crispin the Christmas Carp and turned to make his way inland. Perhaps he could make a new, clean burrow, with just a few friends and family for company. Of course, they would need resources, food -

Larry the Lemming’s musings were cut off abruptly as a pair of white-fanged jaws snapped his neck, tossed him into the air and swallowed him down. The rather threadbare fox then made his way back up the cliff-face to where a squat musk-ox stood gazing out at the sea.

“Thanks, Musky”, said the threadbare fox. “I wouldn’t have looked there on such a night, but there WAS a fat little lemming down by the beach. YumYum!”

“It is a Midwinter Miracle,” said Musky the Midwinter Muskox mysteriously.

The threadbare fox carefully picked his way through the crusts and banks of snow to a small cozy den. Inside the den were waiting a painfully thin vixen and one tiny pup. The male vomited the partly-digested remains of Larry the Lemming in front of the vixen.

“Oh Mummy!” cried the pup, rapturously. “Christmas came, after all!”

The Kitten Ball

Kate’s daddy is an animal doctor, a veterinarian.

He helps animals stay well, and he helps sick animals get well.

Sometimes, animals get hurt, and Dr. Baker helps them get better. Animals don’t always know they are being helped, and some don’t like being poked and stuck with needles. Kate sometimes helps with the animals.

Sometimes, strange things happen and people call Dr. Baker to find out what happened, and how it happened and what to do.

Late one night, an old friend called Dr. Baker on the telephone.

“Hello,” she said, “This is Marion. I have some very strange kittens.”

“They must be VERY strange,” said Dr. Baker, “Because you have seen a LOT of kittens!”

And it was true, Marion was the lady to whom everyone brought orphan kittens. Marion had seen lots of different kinds of kittens. Marion knew things about kittens that even Dr. Baker didn’t know.

“They are just born,” said Marion, “but their mother is gone away. And they are tangled in a ball. A ball of kittens.”

“That IS very strange,” said Dr. Baker. He was writing things down so he could remember what Marion had said.

“I think it might be ONE kitten with six heads and many, many paws,” said Marion.

“I don’t think the Mama Kitty could give birth to a kitten so big,” said Dr. Baker. He was thinking. “It must be six kittens.”

“Then they are all stuck together,” said Marion. “I don’t know how that could be.”

“Let me come over and see,” said Dr. Baker. “I will bring Kate as my nurse, and we can take some pictures. Maybe we can help.”

Dr. Baker went to Marion’s house with his special veterinarian’s bag, his little girl Kate and a camera. There were cats everywhere in Marion’s house. Some of them hissed at Dr. Baker, but none of them hissed at Kate.

“Kate has a way with animals,” said Marion.

“I call her ‘Kate, the Jungle Queen’” said Dr. Baker.

The kittens were wrapped in a green towel on the table. They were wiggling and mewing little kitten mews. They were mostly grey with black stripes, and were so new that their eyes were not open yet. There was a neat pile of folded smaller towels beside the kittens.

“They are VERY cute,” said Kate. “But they are rolling around like a big ball. All the kittens together, like a big ball.”

Kate patted the kittens on their tiny heads and they stopped rolling around. Some of the kittens sucked on Kate’s fingers a little bit.

“The kittens are hungry!” said Dr. Baker. He took some pictures of the kittens while Kate patted them.

“Someone found them under a bush in the park,” said Marion. “The Mama Kitty must have gotten sick. I don’t think she has fed any of the kittens, and she has gone away, now.”

“Hold the kittens to keep them from wiggling so much,” said Dr. Baker. Kate and Marion each held onto some kittens. Dr. Baker took another picture. Then he poked very carefully at one kitten’s tummy.

“They are all tangled together in each other’s umbilical cords!” said Dr. Baker. He was very surprised.

“Is the umbilical cord how the kitten was fed inside the Mama Kitty?” said Kate.

“Yes,” smiled Dr. Baker. He put on a special light that fit on his head The light would shine on wherever Dr. Baker was looking. “The umbilical cord goes where the belly-button would be on a person. The other end goes to something called a placenta inside the Mama Kitty.”

“I’ve never seen a belly-button on a cat,” said Marion. “Why is that? I have looked at a lot of cats.”

“I think it is because the Mama Kitty usually bites through the cord when the kitten is born, so the kitten doesn’t stay stuck to the Mama Kitty,” said Dr. Baker. With the light on his head, Dr. Baker looked closely at each kitten. “But she didn’t do it for these kittens, and they got tangled together.”

Dr. Baker got out a bottle of disinfectant, a bottle of brown soap, a shiny pair of scissors and some sticks with cotton on the end. Then he put on some rubber gloves. Kate poured some disinfectant on Dr. Baker’s rubber gloves and he spread the disinfectant all over his hands. He picked up the sticks with the cotton and Kate poured some brown soap on the cotton tips.

Kate held the kitten ball while Dr. Baker spread brown soap onto the places where kittens would have belly-buttons. Soon each kitten had a big brown spot on its tummy. The soap stung a little, and the kittens started to push with their feet and mew loudly.

Marion helped Kate hold onto the squirmy kitten ball while Dr. Baker carefully snipped off each umbilical cord where it attached to the kitten. One by one, Kate wrapped the kittens in little kitten-sized towels and put them one-by-one in a basket Marion had brought for them.

Soon there were six kittens crawling around in the basket, NOT tangled together.

“Shall we feed them, Kate?” asked Marion. She was smiling at Kate. Kate was smiling at the kittens.

Kate picked the first kitten up while Marion put some special kitten milk in a tiny bottle. Kate peeked under the kitten’s tail.

“I think it’s a girl,” said Kate. The kitten mewed a big mew, and Marion put the nipple of the bottle into its mouth. The kitten sucked milk from the tiny bottle. “A hungry girl, too,” said Kate.

Monday, May 11, 2009


A fox came to my yard last night,
A black and russet ghost who slid
Around the garbage cans, between
The close-packed houses by the light
Of garish street lamps. There he hid
Some moments, then out on the clean
Crisp crusted snow he stole. He thrust
His black and russet muzzle through
And pulled a struggling morsel out.
Over the ice-thick winter crust
His black paws pranced as if he flew,
Tossing with black and russet snout
The hapless mice snatched from their world
Beneath the crusted roof of snow.
As he danced and killed and ate
A winter mist around him swirled.
A biting breeze began to blow
And mist and fox blew out the gate.

Last fall, deep in my tulip bed
Among the sleeping bulbs and bugs
I found a hand-forged horse-shoe nail,
A sharp obsidian arrow-head
And shards of some wood-fired clay jugs.
Perhaps here once there was a trail
(Where recently my house was built)
Where Hurons came to make their pots
And trade for goods from far away.
Perhaps on this site blood was spilt
And soldiers fled from cannon shots.
Years pass, and on this ancient clay
The people come, the people go,
Raise kids and crops and fight their wars;
And generations pass away,
While patiently the rivers flow,
The restless lake frets at its shores
And joyful foxes come to play.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rebirth of the Last Former God

The Phoenix arose from the boiling sea
The spray from its wings
The great metal wings
The spray from its wings like liquid desire.

The pitiless eye in agony clenched
The pain that can never by pity be quenched.
The breath that reeks of the flesh of men
The splendour that makes the peacock a brown hen.

Smouldering still from the pangs of birth
It beats the air to escape the earth.

The vortex surrounding the great molten bird
The flames of its death
The fire of its youth
The choking ash cloud of its funeral pyre

Lay waste to the islands and mountains beyond
The sea in its agony rocks like a pond
As waves from the ocean and thunders in air
Dissolve away men and their world of despair.

Creation with chaos obscenely blends
As rising through thunder the Phoenix ascends.

Kali Mantis

At work my parking spot is near a big field full of wild-flowers.
Sometimes at lunch I go out there just to see the flowers and birds and bugs that live there.
It is under some big towers that carry electricity, so there are no buildings and no tall trees. There are lots of insects. They sing and fly around. It is very pretty.

Next door to my office is a school for teenagers. They are usually standing around the door first thing in the morning and they are pretty friendly, even though they must think I am very old.

One day, when I was walking in from the parking lot, a girl came out of the school with a strange look on her face and her arm held out stiff in front of her. There was a bug on her sleeve, a BIG green bug. She went to shake off the bug into the air, but I ran to her and said:

“Ooohhhh, give it to me!”

Really, what I said was “OOOOOHHHH, gimmee gimmee gimmee”, because I find making a joke helps people to stop what they are doing for a moment and think.

She let me take the big bug. It was a “praying mantis”. People call it that because when it is hunting or eating it holds its front legs together off the ground as if it were saying a prayer. When it is resting, the mantis folds its front legs up and looks as though it is thinking. Praying mantids (“mantids” means insects like the praying mantis, since there are more than one kind of mantis) eat other bugs, but they don’t hurt people.

I put the back of my hand close to its middle feet and nudged a little. The mantis turned its triangle head toward me, and then turned its eyes toward its feet and then climbed onto my hand.

The girls smiled at me in a funny way. I think she was glad not to have a three-inch-long praying mantis on her sleeve.

“It was in the office,” she said. “It must have been in there all weekend.”

“Perhaps it rode in on someone’s gym bag,” I said.

“That makes sense,” said the girl. “Well, have fun with your new friend.”

The girls went back into the school.

I was looking at the mantis to see if it would try to escape. It didn’t seem to be able to see, and it was feeling in front of itself all the time with its lo-o-o-o-ong front legs.

When bugs feel about with their legs in the air it is called “questing.” When bugs are questing, they are sometimes smelling the air! They don’t have noses in their heads like us. They have patches on their legs that let them taste and smell and sometimes hear.

But the mantis seemed also not to be able to see, because it moved very slowly on my hand. It moved so slowly that I was able to take it to my office and place it in a terrarium for the people in my office to look at.

Ralph is a man in my office who knows bugs. Ralph always seems to know the things that I don’t know, and sometimes I know about things Ralph doesn’t yet know.

“That’s a nice mantis,” said Ralph. “Why is is green? It should be brown.”

“I think it has gone a long time without eating,” I said. “It was in the office next door all weekend with no food or water. I think it can’t see.”

A man from my office went outside and came back with a fat grasshopper.

“Here’s a big breakfast for our new neighbour,” he said, and he popped the grasshopper into the terrarium with the mantis. The mantis moved VERY fast and ate the grasshopper. This is a thing I like about my office: no-one thinks it is strange to have a bunch of grown-ups clustered around a plastic terrarium watching a mantis eat a grass-hopper.

After eating the grasshopper, the mantis looked fatter, but also turned a little bit brown and started looking at everything. Her triangle-shaped head was turning every which way.

“See?” I said. “She is looking at things. I think she was so thirsty that her eyes didn’t work. Now she has had a drink of “grasshopper juice” , her eyes are working better.”

“Why do you call it “she” instead of “he”?” asked the man who had brought the grasshopper.

“Female mantids are bigger than male mantids,” said Ralph. “I have seen bigger ones, but this one is big.”

“What will you do with her?” asked Ralph.

“I will take her home with me,” I said. “And I will set her free in my garden. I have lots of bugs n my garden for her to eat.”

“Why not set her free under the electricity towers?” asked the grasshopper man.

“Because,” I said, “I am selfish, and I would like to have a big praying mantis in my garden.”

Everyone smiled.

“Perhaps she will lay her eggs in your garden and you will have many mantids,” said Ralph.

We let the mantis rest for that day and over night. In the morning I brought her a dozen “wood-lice”. Some people call them “roly-polies”, and they are easy to find under rocks. Through the day the mantis ate a few wood-lice. Her brown stripes got darker, and she spent a lot of time sitting upside-down under the lid of the terrarium.

After work that day, I took the terrarium with the mantis in my car and drove home. As I was driving, I thought it might be a good idea to give the mantis a name.

Mantids remind me of different kinds of creatures from legends or other religions.
  • Because they have long bodies with four legs on the ground and two legs in the air in front, I sometimes think they are like centaurs, from Greek legends. Centaurs had men’s bodies with two arms on horse’s bodies with four legs.
  • Because they are often green, and big and eat other bugs, and are useful to us, sometimes I think that mantids are like dragons from Chinese legends.
  • In Turkey, the mantis is imagined to be very holy, able to predict the future and to always know which way points toward the Holy City of Mecca
  • In some countries the mantis is called ‘the Devil’s horse’
But then I thought of the goddess Kali from the Hindu religion.

Kali is like two different people:
  • sometimes she is Durga, a beautiful warrior lady that rides on a tiger and brings blessings to people she meets
  • sometimes she is Kali, the Destroyer, the bringer of justice, very dangerous and yet necessary for the survival of the universe.
Both Kali and Durga have many arms with which they dance and wield weapons.

The mantis has ‘many arms’, is beautiful and dangerous and is a blessing to the garden because it eats harmful bugs. When mantises are hunting, they sway and dance to make their prey think that the mantis is really a twig blowing in the breeze: beauty, blessing and destruction, all at the same time.

In the Greek language, ‘kali’ is also the first part of many words that mean beauty or good luck.

While I was driving home I thought how ‘Kali” would be a perfect name for the mantis. But then I worried that my Hindu friends might not like me calling a big insect after one of their gods.
As I stopped at a red light and was looking at the mantis in the terrarium on the seat beside me, a BIG truck stopped beside me. The side of the truck was decorated with a beautiful and very big painting of Durga, riding on a tiger and shooting arrows from her bow. Perhaps my Hindu friends wouldn’t mind, after all.

When I got home, I took the terrarium to the garden and let the mantis go. She crawled out onto the leaf of an iris plant.

“You may call this your home, if you like,” I said. “And if you don’t mind, I will call you Kali.”

The mantis turned her triangle head toward me, and then looked ahead of her. Something was moving in that bushy weed, just in front of her leaf....

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Swine Flu Over The Cuckoo's Nest

We have been TOLD by several authorities that it ISN'T the SWINE flu.

Despite the tendency of pigs to get a strain of influenza that is genetically similar to this particular strain, we are going to call it ( as we really should have anyway) "Influenza A: H1N1". Not nearly apocalyptic enough for a good media footprint, but scientifically accurate.

And it isn't the "Mexican flu", either, thank God, even though across Latin America people of Mexican origin are being refused service in restaurants and refused rides in taxis. Solidaridad por siempre!

Well....the truth is, it shouldn't REALLY be INFLUENZA, either. The "scientists" of the Reformation (God bless 'em, operating on what training and what little information they had) decided that the epidemiology of the disease matched the passing of the seasons, so the sickness must be due to the influence ("influenza" in the dialect of old Florence) of the stars.

OK, so it was the BEGINNING of an appreciation for the origin of the disease, and after a thousand years of use, the word has taken on a different meaning. Another disease name, malaria, literally means "bad air disease", since people postulated that Spring-time swamp-gas emissions were causing the symptoms. Closing your windows at night seemed to reduce the incidence of the disease so obviously if one did not breathe the bad night air ("malaria")one was more-or-less protected. The strategy sort of worked because closing the windows kept out the mosquitoes that carry the plasmodium of malaria. It they had tried using screens on the windows, they would have seen that the gas, which could penetrated the screens, was not at fault. At the time, people did not correlate bug bites with systemic sickness.

Back to "the flu".

Influenza follows a seasonal pattern because it incubates in populations of migratory birds. On their way north, they encounter bodies of water contaminated with human sewage and pick up viruses that are shed in human poop. These viruses gradually spread through the bird population, killing some, sickening others and mildly inconveniencing most. Most importantly, the virus mutates and stabilizes under physiochemical pressure from the new host population.

(The virus doesn't do this on purpose; it's just that the really virulent mutants kill their hosts before they can be transmitted to new hosts, and the moderately virulent viruses make their hosts too sick to interact significantly with new hosts. It's a mathematical thing. The virus "adapts" to the new population by selecting for the mutants that keep their hosts moderately healthy, even at the peak of viremia)

When the birds fly south in the Fall (or Spring, if you are south of the Equator), they again encounter human poop, picking up another form of the virus, but the birds also poop in the same bodies of water thus passing their modified virus to the human population. Pigs and people exposed to the contaminated water acquire the virus and pass it on to other people by coughing, sneezing and sharing saliva.

In parts of the world where people and pigs live in blessed harmony together, there is a magnification factor: pigs, once infected, become "virus factories". Any respiratory virus in pigs is exhaled in astonishing numbers. Flu viruses don't live long in the open air. We are usually infected by transferring virus to ourselves by rubbing the virus into our eyes, picking our noses or eating with unwashed hands. Occasionally we will pick it up directly from the air, but the flu is spread by "large droplet transmission". The droplets are large enough that gravity sorts them out of the ambient air. If you sneeze or cough into your sleeve, the viruses are trapped in the fabric, where they will quickly dry out and die. Pigs, having no sleeves into which to sneeze, spread these viruses into the air and onto nearby objects where people encounter them.

"Small droplet transmission" diseases, such as "foot and mouth disease" in animals, are spread by wafting of the droplets on air currents, so the droplets are very small, indeed by comparison. There was one case where hardy viruses were wafted in small droplets across the English Channel! (We think this is what happened: no-one wants to admit rowing across the Channel with a diseased pig.)

(Generalizations are dangerous: SARS which terrified the world briefly in 2007 and nearly ruined Toronto tourism, is usually a "large droplet transmission" disease. In the hospital, though, once the patient is hooked up to a respirator, it is spread as a "small droplet disease", being aerosolized by the high-pressure air from the respirator and thence into the air-conditioning.)

It turns out that Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 is less virulent than was expected. The initial panic derives from the resemblance of this bug to the one that killed as many as 50 million people in 1918. That one was dangerous because it somehow tricked the immune system of the patient into attacking the patient's own tissue with a biochemical disaster called a "cytokine cascade". In the lungs, that is a Bad Thing. Death by pneumonia was VERY quick. Out of the tens of thousands of recent cases in Mexico, there have been a few tens of deaths attributable to the "cytokine cascade" phenomenon. For the most part, even our unfortunate friends to the south have at most been miserably sick and many of them not sick enough to stay home from work (thus spreading the virus more efficiently!).

Even if the 1918 virus was released on today's population, it is unlikely that the death count would be as high. The world was thinly populated by comparison in 1918, and there were vast numbers of folk who had never been more than 50 miles from their house. The "herd immunity" of humanity to that particular virus was very low. In 2009, the population density is such that your probability of encountering influenza virus during any year is pretty close to "1". We may not have been exposed to THIS particular mutant, but we have seen its brother or first cousin. Our immune system is primed. We are like a community who, having bought encyclopedias from one travelling salesman, are unlikely to be conned into buying a marching band from the next one.

Rational thought doesn't prevent bureaucrats, politicians and media flacks from trying to build careers on public anxieties. The World Health Organization (WHO?) declared that Influenza A (H1N1) was a "pandemic", a disease outbreak of global proportion and importance. The mildness of the outbreak has people asking whether WHO actually has any value in the preparation of the world for plagues and pestilence, to which WHO reponds "well, the influenza of 1918 began as a mild respiratory syndrome, then returned five months later as the most virulent pandemic in recorded history". I am reminded of millemialists who, on the deadline of the End of the World having passed without incident, recalibrate using a different calender and say, "well, the world will REALLY end in 18 months...oogabooga....".

Meanwhile, books, and TV programs, and potentially a feature film, flood the public with dire warnings and misinformation. Should the Real Thing come along in this generation we'll be sitting ducks, having had our "danger antennas" worn down to nubs by constant bombardment. "Flu-ga booga", we call it.