Room for chaos

Dozens of species of sparrows live in DC, all with different bird feathers and songs (in my backyard, my favorite is white-throated sparrow, with a yellow spot on its forehead, who whistles a song that sounds like, “Oh-oh, Canada, Canada, Canada”). Hundreds of tiny weeds of various shapes and textures are sprouting through the bricks of my driveway. Seven different types of native woodpeckers call DC home. The sleds hanging up the alley fence are red and blue with neon pink. 

Our planet is impressive because it is so various, and not just for the sake of beauty or fascination. It is huge and variable enough to account for chaos, to soak in aberrations; if one species of sparrow should go extinct, there are dozens of others to take its place. Often nature is considered pristine or perfect, with every bug and bacterium contributing an important role. This isn’t true. Nature isn’t perfect, it’s embedded with chaos. Nature simply has a way of soaking up the chaos to manageable levels, and importantly, if one species or sub-ecosystem fails, theoretically there is always another species or sub-ecosystem to fill in the emptiness, because everything, always, wants to grow. 

I just finished a book called Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson that explores this idea. The book is fantastic for many reasons — it covers the impossibility of space colonization, the edges of artificial intelligence, and other nerdy things, and it covers everything with scientific rigor and beauty — but I want to talk about the ship. It’s a “generation ship,” a massive spaceship travelling over centuries to find another planet to terraform and colonize. The ship itself is engineered to perfection, with every biome of planet earth given a ring-shaped ecosystem and hundreds of important plant and animal species brought on board, along with two thousand people who farm, distribute, and compost everything in a closed loop. But nature can’t be perfectly engineered, so the ship’s comparatively small size eventually, inevitably, has limitations, and things break down and can’t be recovered. 

I finished this book on audiobook earlier this week. Then I finished another audiobook. Then, Sunday, today, I couldn’t think of anything to write. 

Yesterday, I took a writing workshop about the I-Ching, or the “Book of Changes.” When consulting the I-Ching, you flip coins to get random numbers, which are then ordered into hexagrams, which provide answers to a problem or question. Specifically, it’s the change between two hexagrams that is supposed to provide the answer. The workshop taught us how to use the I-Ching in fiction. To put aside an engineered plot and allow randomness into the story. To soak in the chaos and find meaning. 

Why didn’t I think of that today, when I told myself nothing interesting happened this week? Why didn’t I think of the raccoons I saw making babies in a tree? The woodpecker I finally found in my backyard? Why was my brain dead, after a week of hard work? 

I’ve been trying to control my time like a spaceship: every moment accounted for and utilized for productivity. I have an intense writing schedule and reading schedule, and also make time to study Spanish, participate in writing and reading groups, listen to lectures about the craft of writing — as if I can beam in “be a great writer” like a computer upload — and volunteer… and now I’ve rediscovered audiobooks. With all the running and writing I do, I can get through two books per week!

But I lost something important: time to think and wander. 

When I went on a walk this evening, I told myself I wasn’t allowed back home until I thought of something to write about. No podcasts, no audiobooks, no lectures. Just the sunset and the flowering trees. I bumped into Seth a few blocks away, who was coming back home from a run. I told him my conundrum, but he couldn’t help me. The writing lectures couldn’t help me. The only thing that could help me was silence and time, the space to listen to my own mind. 

The beauty of space lies in the expanse. Silence. Limitlessness. But these are only our ideas of space. These ideas are also right here, on earth.


Elliephant of the week: Cat becomes oblong sphere

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