Sunday, October 23, 2005


Fallen magnolia seed pod

Free-writing is writing off-the-cuff in answer to a prompt. For more on the process and the group, go to this entry.

At our most recent weekly meeting, the prompts included "Past" and "Volcano", which led me to produce the following:....


Astronomers explain retrograde motion in the language of passing lanes. The Earth, a Ferrari, circles the Sun, the center field in the Solar System 500; or, in this case, 93 million miles times 2 times pi, to get the approximate circumference of our orbit, our particular traffic lane. I forget our speed in miles per hour, but our 365-and-a-fraction days of whizzing a lap outpaces Mars, and Jupiter, Saturn, and the other outer planets. Such that, when we pass them, they seem to move backwards in the sky.

I think not of race cars but of seagulls on the Verrazzano Narrows, flapping their wings furiously but moving backwards as the Staten Island Ferry chugged doggedly ahead. A comical sight. They were trying so hard, beating the air like a feathered Sisyphus.

Twenty-five-plus years ago I gazed upon my first retrograde loop, watching Mars skirt the constellation of Perseus in the wrong direction. The other planets maintained their slow troll forward while their red brother flew against the tide. And then, in a matter of days, seemed to change its mind, pause, and then revert back to forward motion -- bending, it seemed, to peer pressure. I could almost hear the sigh.

In truth we had moved past it in our respective orbits, the Earth's inside lane tighter and quicker than Mars's outside track. We hardly thought of how we might look to Venus or Mercury, just as silly as the gulls, dropping behind as the inner planets passed us. As loopy in our orbit as the next world -- a ballet Ptolemy had choreographed as actual loops, like beads on a thread. Loopy for a thousand years, when we thought we were the center of the universe instead of a planetary Ferrari on a well-worn track, racing toward the inevitable checkered flag of stellar decay.


The news article reports on a rising mound in the northwest -- the beginnings, perhaps, of a volcano. No ominous vents, no warning temblors. No hue and cry to evacuate.

Just a mound, growing like a pregnancy, the gestation of lava. Geologic time will determine its own speed on this one. A whippersnapper of a formation, called young by scientists perched on the surface of a four-billion-year-old infant.

A year after Mt. St. Helens blew I walked on lunar terrain -- the ash still thick, rivers choked with gray. Matchstick trees blown down a denuded mountainside.

And yet through the ash rose bright green shoots, the persistence of ferns. And a young doe stepped daintily, shyly among them, bending to munch tender tips.

Illusory, this concept of solid ground, terra firma. Our planet's veins run as hot as our own. Its iron heart pumps, hellish vents on the sea floor a mere soak in a warm tub to bacteria that are more survival savvy in a single cell than we are in our wildly-differentiated bodies.

Like the mound rising out west, we are young, a species still trying to find ourselves, still surprised when the earth shifts. We want permanence and guarantees, creatures of habit in an environment of changing protocols.

We pride ourselves on our highly-evolved intelligence, on our propensity for breaking the rules. Then we squawk when our planet does the same -- as though the rules had ever been ours, quantified and straitjacketed.

Perhaps, in a billion years or so, whatever we may have become will know better.


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