Chapter 7. Third Thoughts

Reflecting on my afternoon, I smile ironically at Jack’s firm belief that the cause-and-effect relation satisfactorily explains time and everything that happens. He knows of course that if a ball heading in a certain direction hits another ball standing in its path head-on, the one that was at rest when struck will be moved in that same direction. Strangely enough though, when a volleyball coming from his place struck my head, it caused me to go in the very opposite direction – over to his place – in the direction from which the ball had come!

The lawn chair discussion over there was good fun. I liked Michael. He has a gifted, independent mind, willing to explore unfashionable ideas. I was intrigued by his suggestion that time itself may be an active agent in all changing. If time is actually “the creative process” that keeps changing the universe, that must be a major part of the ultimate explanation of all that ever happens anywhere.

The really big question is: what keeps generating time?

Back home I saw that the leaves I had intended to gather up earlier were still lying under the maple tree. “If I don’t gather them up,” I muttered, “or if the wind doesn’t blow them off somewhere, they’ll stay right there all winter and smother the grass.” In terms of yesterday’s conversation I was thinking, “Leaves persist.”

Taking the garden cart and rake around to the north side of the house, I spied one more yellow leaf sailing down from high in the maple tree. It was swooping and swerving on its way down like a glider with a drunken pilot. Two steps over and I managed to catch it before it landed. It was broader than my hand with fingers outstretched. A sturdy stem and radiating veins – the usual.

That tall maple had spent its whole spring and summer gathering the substances out of which it had constructed that particular leaf and its siblings. Having invested such a big chunk of its lifetime in putting together all those leaves, it’s a pity that the hard-working tree couldn’t have held onto them longer.

All over the countryside these days, leaves are dropping. Every deciduous tree in the area seems to know that winter is on its way. Lacking brains, how can they know that a frigid change in the weather will soon be coming? Has the bitter experience of countless arboreal generations been recorded in DNA – the DNA of the offspring of the hardiest trees which survived all ancient winters? Do the roots, trunks and branches of trees thus contain an inherited memory bank with instructions telling what to do about leaves when…?

It is conceivable that within each individual cell the DNA can issue instructions which, when taken collectively, will result in a wholesale dropping of leaves. When it is newly born, each cell may possess a preprogrammed “instruction tape” which plays through until it comes to a preestablished signal that automatically triggers something to do with the leaf-dropping process. Or the cell might have to wait for some external signal to trigger that process.

The “preprogrammed time-tape” approach seems to be popular with contemporary biologists, but I’m not satisfied with it. I assume that the DNA “tape” or “time-clock” of each cell starts to run at the time of its birth and that it runs at the same rate as that of any other similar cell. Since the various cells come into being at widely different times, and since they are dispersed throughout the whole tree, by autumn their ages and the readings of their various time-tapes must be as wildly out of synch with each other as their birthdays. If the “prepare for winter” alarm occurred at the same place in every cell’s time-tape, the alarm must surely go off throughout the tree at an uncountable number of different times and locations. How could such a cacophony of conflicting signals from so many scattered sources orchestrate an almost unanimous leaf-dropping time for the whole tree? Moreover, how could the hit-and-miss, here-and-there scheduling of cellular DNA be capable of coordinating the timing of a leaf-dropping program for so many different kinds of trees scattered throughout a widespread district?

Can each tree, as a whole organism, count off a preset number of elapsed summer days before it drops its leaves? Are trees that smart? As the sun moves farther and farther southward, can the tree as a whole somehow measure the declining angle of the light rays? It doesn’t have a brain to coordinate a sensory nervous system. Nor does it have an instrument for measuring angles. It doesn’t possess a “receiver” that might pick up signals conveying orders from some distant “forest headquarters.” Maybe it has a thermostat-like device that controls the circulation of liquid hormones throughout the tree? One or more of those hormones could conceivably produce this all-over leaf-dropping. But I haven’t heard that anyone has ever found a temperature sensor in a tree.

A hormone circulating generally could explain how cells at considerable distances from each other in the tree could unanimously agree that it was time to drop leaves. But how would the cells of one tree know what the cells of another tree had decided to do?

Time is always operating throughout the whole district and is intimately in touch with every deciduous tree. Maybe it is time itself that notifies every tree at once that it’s leaf-dropping time. But that would have to be a highly selective notification, for trees farther south drop their leaves later than northern trees. Evergreen trees anywhere may drop their greenery at any date on the calendar.

Leaf-dropping season certainly poses baffling questions for anyone who wonders about the agency of time.

The end of the leaf stem which I held in my hand was quite swollen. In the swelling, where the stem had parted from its twig, there was a cavity. A bud had been growing in that cavity. Likely that bud had gradually swelled up until it had pushed the leaf off its moorings.

I launched the yellow glider once more and watched it complete its first and last flight.

With the rake I pulled down a branch and examined some buds on the twigs. Although they were not yet fully developed, they already contained the beginnings of next year’s leaves, flowers and seeds. I could see that for many weeks before the first frost, our maple tree had been preparing for next spring’s growing season. All the while, under cover of the summer’s leaves and with their help, the tree had been surreptitiously developing a new crop of buds. That slow process had commenced long before the days had become significantly shorter or colder.

So much for the simplistic belief that it is the year’s first frost or cold spell that causes the leaves to drop in the autumn. A tree doesn’t merely wait for an external physical signal from weather conditions to tell it when to discard its leaves. For months it has been preparing to do just that.

Time’s three modes

Raking the leaves near our garden, it was easy to understand how people adopt widely different attitudes towards time in general. There in our yard, time had been and was operating around me in three different modes: constructing, maintaining and destroying. Any one of these modes could resonate with the temporarily dominant emotion which might be flooding someone’s life at some given moment.

In the spring, dormant grass and shrubs awaken, green themselves and stretch their twigs. Hidden bulbs assert their continued presence by flaunting glorious flowers. Fruit trees once more begin to raise sap from their roots up to their tallest tip-tops, defying the downward pull of gravity. Intent on reclothing their bulk with a new layer of wood, they celebrate the opportunity with spectacular outbursts of blossoms. Children too will be trying to run up the “down” escalators and do sensational leaps on their skateboards.

Here in the cool, rainy northwest, when spring starts “bustin’ out all over,” nearly everybody feels reinvigorated – unless they are miserably sick, severely stressed or deeply troubled. What a delightful world it is when everything around is being renewed. I wonder what it would be like to live in a part of the world where there is no springtime or any new seasons.

At any time of the year, however, happily optimistic attitudes are possible. Every day brings its own gratifying aspects. Any interval of free time can be filled in all sorts of different and productive ways. Any existing form or theme can be developed and reexpressed in countless creative variations. There are always new things to be tried, done or developed. Time always carries a full bag of projects yet to be launched.

Time as sustainer

Through more than half a century of dismal fall and deadly winter seasons our maple tree has lasted. Although every autumn it loses its leaves, it is still a going concern. It has always managed to replenish the energy it lost. It has repaired any wounds and fought off decay.

The ground in which that tree stands has also lasted. Those gritty particles in the soil are bits and pieces eroded long, long ago from primeval rock. Although the soil is still eroding and leeching out, it has endured for ages. Time has never ceased to sustain planet Earth and a night sky full of stars.

Nonliving material things such as bolts and rocks tend to retain their forms and stay the way they are unless something else moves them or causes them to change. Yet at and below the molecular level, matter is in various kinds of perpetual motion. Those vibrating atoms with their spinning and orbiting particles not only ordinarily retain their own peculiar forms but enter into combinations which stably persist for a considerable time. They make up the various kinds of matter.

I’m truly thankful that time allows duration and stability to persist in so many things on which I depend. Having to interact with unpredictable writhing, dodgy, come-and-go objects all the time would be intolerably stressful. Time has kept me in existence long enough to have gained this appreciation of the measure of the stability around me. But how do I account for so much lastingness? Who balances the accelerator and the multi-wheel brakes to control the universal change-process well enough to produce apparently solid objects, steady forms and enduring systems?

In its sustaining mode time appears to be quite conservative, maintaining a good deal of the familiar status quo. This provides the slower-changing background against which we can sense and estimate all rates of change. Knowing we can count on some things to remain much the same and “at rest” for a fairly long time, we can generally feel comfortable, confident and secure.

Time as destroyer

Although time sustains some things in existence for countless years, it never seems to be permanently satisfied with the present form of anything it has produced. Over in Jack’s place there is a rotting stump – the decaying remains of a tree which had survived through many years the onslaughts of storms, insects and disease. In our garden the marigolds of summer are shriveling into gaunt and wrinkled wrecks. Like the leaves I was raking this afternoon, even those decrepit remains will soon collapse and rot away.

It seems that time eventually ceases to recreate and sustain most things. Having played their part and done their thing, they sink into obscurity. Glitter tarnishes. Colors fade. What moves will slow and come to a halt. Though conserved, energy tends to disperse into uselessness. Sooner or later what is organized will disintegrate.

Time, the sustainer of steadfastness, can also be viewed as a fearsome destroyer, responsible for the tragic aspects of transience. People whose world seems to be falling apart, going from bad to worse, can readily become cynical pessimists about the passing of time. Alone in the night, one who is chronically ill, suffering and miserable, is apt to view time’s relentless ongoing with dread.

My own heart problems as a child turned diseases like measles into life-threatening menaces. I was well acquainted with the dim-out of fainting spells, the roiling terror of delirium, and prolonged periods of lonely, isolated bed-fastness. At university, drawing on my vivid memories of such desperate occasions, I wrote the following:

And Darkness Shall Be Upon the Face of the Deep

Up from the kitchen a sudden rattle of plates,
a stage-whisper voice from below:
let him sleep!

No! No! No!
Rattle the plates!
Throw a tray down the stairs!
Shatter the stillness and keep sleep away from me.
I want to stay here with bedclothes, table and candle,
not wandering, lost in unmarked immensity,
not fighting the swirling currents of darkness
that sweep me through the underground caverns,
dragging me under,
rolling me over and over,
to struggle up through the welter,
aching up to the air again,
crawling out to the light.

From the east to the west of this planet
I can see the great shadow advancing,
absorbing the five-o’clock sunlight,
waning the glow in the snow-crests.
Its vanguard detachments creep out from the hollows,
stealthily stealing ahead in this dusking time.
They hide behind relics of forests,
gaunt and thin and long.
They will smother all light but the street lamps
down where there once was a village.

Here I lie in this dim room,
a heap alone by a table,
with night peering in at my window.
It taps and taps at the shutters
until it is time…

The dark is kept out by my candle,
one single candle
whose flame is staggering smokily.
The dwindling wax melts at the flame.
It overflows and runs down the side
like a sweat-drop.
One candle, alone, beating back the shadows
that hide from it behind all the bottles,
capering, taunting and gloating.
They know every flame will die
if they wait.

O God!
God of light!
They are in here!
Right under my bed-sheet
they are spearing my nerve-cells!
Shrieking twitches flinch and flicker
then throb off into numbness.

Now the Shadow of shadows is holding me,
heavily holding my arms and my legs down,
pressing the last glimmer of light out of me,
smoothing the rumpled quilts out
as if they had never been slept in.

Is there no one,
no one at all
to drop a tray on the stairs?

Although eventually time does bring death to all humans, it doesn’t always give rise to terror. All religions have ways of dealing hopefully with death. The peaceful confidence of a dying saint, a true believer, can even be beautiful. In some cases death seems preferable to living in inescapable intolerable conditions.

A particular death can sometimes evoke general rejoicing, as when a cruel ruler dies or a notorious war criminal has been put down. People in positions of authority have too often exploited, oppressed and enslaved those who were powerless. This heartlessness has usually provoked a groundswell of anger and rebellion. In such circumstances downtrodden people have drawn consolation from remembering that none of the high and mighty – whether monarch, noble, bishop, general, or greedy landlord – will be left standing when the Grim Reaper comes to cut them down.

In Europe between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries the underlings, the dispossessed, the peasants and such, used a gruesome but dramatic means to remind their “betters” that Death is the Great Leveler.

In the immensely popular Danse Macabre, Lord Death, proud and invincible, from his throne in the public square reviewed a circular march or ghastly procession of costumed pairs. One of each duo was dressed to represent a person of high social status. He or she would be dragged along in the procession by a lively skeleton, corpse or mummy who mocked and taunted the captive while prancing to the sprightly music of cadaverous musicians. With grim irony all exalted stations of life, whatever their rank, wealth, learning or gender, were thus portrayed as heading for death. The slogans which were sarcastically shouted by poverty-stricken people along the march made it clear that the prevailing social inequality was only temporary. Just you wait!

All over Europe this macabre theme was expressed in poetry, legends, stained-glass windows, frescoes, sculpture, embroidery, tapestry, wood block prints, even playing cards. The hourglass was usually prominently displayed in such representations to symbolize the alliance between Time and Death.

Time as builder

The destructive aspect of time, however, does not appear to triumph completely. The bits and pieces that weather tears from mountains may become farmers’ fields and beautiful beaches. When organisms die and disintegrate, their remnants may later participate in the organization of something else. We use manure of plant and animal origin to fertilize our garden. From babyhood I have lived and grown to my present height, girth and weight by chewing up and metabolizing the tissues of deceased plants and animals. If they had not died, I would not have lived. By now the cells of the body which was me as a child have all ceased to exist, but nevertheless here I am. Life may seem to be a prolonged process of saying goodbye, but living moves onward by means of a process of dying.

People profit from the work of the generations who lived and departed this life ahead of them. Young people go on to invent new devices, make new discoveries, improve services, paint new pictures, draw new cartoons, compose new music and write new books. The legacy of accomplishments left by the past, however, strongly influences the course of the future, even though it does not entirely determine what will come.

When the petals of springtime blossoms fall from our fruit trees I am always saddened. But I notice that I don’t object to eating the plums, pears and apples which develop from those lamented flowers. Maybe, overall, time works with a balanced budget.

Having a tree that would never drop its leaves on my lawn would, I suppose, be one change I might not complain about. But the leaves which were lying there today will, with the assistance of time, cease to be worthless litter. They will become compost and nourish our garden.

Occasionally this afternoon when I was raking, I would pull out a tuft of grass with soil still clinging to its roots. Substances derived from that soil had been combined with water, air and sunlight to produce blades of grass. Those same materials had entered into the making of our maple’s leaves. Those leaves did not look at all like the dirt, water, air and light whence they had come. Green, not brown, they lacked the transparency of air and they never flowed like water. Unlike the sunlight which had powered them, they didn’t glow in the dark.

Something really wonderful was happening when the tree and grass were gathering and melding those elements from the atmosphere and the soil, transforming dead substances into living beauty and functional, life-giving efficiency. All summer in my own backyard an authentic miracle was actually taking place. Without any education, blueprints or formulae, the maple tree succeeded in silently and skillfully building all those elegant gliders. The most “ordinary” blades of grass out there on the lawn deserve respect rather than the insult of mowing!

Some famous writers with a reputation for wisdom have maintained that there is never anything new under the sun. The various kinds of things do generally continue to be much the same as they always were. Three-headed creatures still don’t occur. Examined closely, however, no two particular samples of any species of one-headed creatures are ever exactly the same. As time goes by, even identical twins never remain as “identical” as they once were.

Although the number of audible sounds is limited to a finite range of frequencies, musicians can interpret a piece of music in many different rhythms, tempos and intensities, with different attacks, transitions and effective pauses. Performers may sing the same song, but their renditions are always discernibly different from each other. Surely no one would ever seriously maintain that there are never any new songs “under the sun”!

Creative emergence

Speaking of putting things together, here’s an interesting phenomenon. Suppose I have three straight lines of equal length and (by geometrical definition) of no width. Other than length, each line possesses two sides and two ends, and that’s all. I can join the three lines by their ends to form a triangle. Suddenly, instead of three separate lines, I now have one enclosed figure. Instead of lines with no width at all, I now have a triangle with an area. In addition to having right and left sides of lines, I now have inside space and outside space. Instead of having line-ends, I now have angles. And I know that those three internal angles will together add up to exactly 180 degrees. Moreover, with my one-dimensional lines, I have defined a two-dimensional plane which can be rotated to describe a three-dimensional conical figure.

The three original lines are still there, but where did all those additional features come from? In books on geometry, trigonometry, crystallography, engineering and architecture you can discover the host of sophisticated properties and potentialities which reside in triangles.

Instead of arranging my three straight lines to make a triangle, I could have used them to form letters such as H, N, Z or a 4. How about Roman numerals IV, VI or IX?

When something more or different appears after a rearrangement or reorganization of parts, elements or components, the phenomenon is called “emergence” or “the composition effect.” An organization is composed not only of its separate component parts, but also of the relations between those parts. Changing the relations between the parts can make a great deal of difference. A shopful of car parts is by no means the same as a car in running condition made from the installation of those parts. Hard transparent diamond and the soft black graphite in pencils are two very different products which come about by carbon atoms joining together in two different configurations.

How many different words can be formed from the twenty-six letters of our alphabet? How many different tunes can be played on the same instrument? How many complex chess games can be played with the same pieces on the same board? The same ingredients can often be brought together, fitted, mixed, joined or consolidated in a prodigious number of different ways, producing novel forms which make possible entirely new functions.

When someone unexpectedly gets “something for nothing” for the first time, the experience can be surprising. Not many children would expect that making a spark in a perfectly transparent mixture of hydrogen and oxygen would set off a startling explosion and leave a residue of water. After that emergence has happened again and again, however, it is simply expected, taken for granted and accepted as “the nature of things.” Some people can even get used to springtime. I hope I never become one of them. May I never cease to marvel each spring when time combines showers, nutrients, air and sunlight with bare-limbed maple trees and, forthwith, the buds which were secretly prepared the previous year burst into millions of broad leaves – like green flags waving to celebrate the spring. Throughout the summer, time can put the same ingredients together with seeds and get gardens full of vegetables and flowers. Autumn will splash the hills with glorious colors and fill our baskets with ripened fruit. The winter will turn water into snow and ice – a time for beautiful scenes, vigorous sports and warm indoor evenings. Throughout the whole year, time sees to it that a worldful of wonderful new things is always emerging. I hope to be always a man for all seasons.