Venus was sitting in the shade of a large, lush maple tree halfway up a hill overlooking a twisting two-lane road far below winding it's way through the tall, rounded green hills. She relaxed in the coolness of the shade after a long stretch of driving. Her tape recorder by her side, waiting for inspiration to hit when she began to unconsciously recite poetic verse. It took Venus by surprise, it seemed to come out of nowhere. No thought of it had occurred to her, she just started reciting the lines. She just let it come. It sounded vaguely familiar too. Then she it struck her; these were the words to the poem she used to recite as she roamed the halls of the Camelot Apartments with her candelabra. She stopped and turned on her tape recorder. Then she began again, slowly.
She couldn't believe she was remembering this. It was a long poem and she wondered how much of it she'd be able to recall. She didn't even try to remember it. Each line seemed to present itself as she came to it. She went on.
Venus almost laughed at
her ability to recite this poem as she was recording it. It was an uneasy laugh,
partly because she thought she'd forgotten it and partly because of the uncomfortable
memories that came with it. Venus couldn't remember where she got the poem in
the first place. She couldn't remember if she wrote it or if she remembered
it from something she had read. She was amazed though at the accuracy of the
poem's predictions, seeing it in hindsight. As she went on reciting, she found
herself reliving the experience that went with the poem, taking her into an
eerie sort of black-and-white dream. She was immersed in the dream state now
but at the same time she knew she was dreaming. She heard herself reciting in
the dream, incanting the verse in a slow, rhythmic monotone but at the same
time she was aware that she was recording it. Venus felt the very sensation
of madness in the dream only this time she knew it was a dream. She knew where
it was going. She knew the ending. Even though there was a time when it was
real, this time it was only a dream.
Lying on her back now in the soft grass, Venus allowed herself to fully experience her former insanity, in this dream space. She no longer heard herself as she continued her monotonous recital. She no longer relived the event as much as she relived the depth of her madness. She felt like a character in a scary movie. She felt the anxiety and confusion again as she ran through the dark corridors of Camelot. She felt the chill through her flimsy, flowing negligée as the pool of candle light danced through the halls with her. Her pulse raced and her breathing quickened. She felt the tears of fear and desperation streaming toward her ears as she ran through the maze. Writhing in the grass, getting twisted up in her clothes and entangling leaves and twigs in her hair, all was darkness, desperation and fear on the other side of Venus' eyelids. Venus wasn't reliving the day she and Mars met. No, this was all the days and nights she spent roaming the halls of Camelot all rolled into one memory. She thought this was what a bad LSD trip must be like. It was terrifyingly exciting.
The whole experience lasted about twenty minutes but it seemed like hours to Venus. She fell fast into a dreamless sleep, exhausted, at the end of her poem. Her tape recorder continued for another ten minutes to faithfully capture the mockingbirds, crows and insects clicking in the grass and little puffs of the breeze on that sunny afternoon hillside.
Mars had been with John
and Karl for about a month now. Longer than anybody else who John and Karl had
met on their travels. They weren't on calendar time anymore. For that matter,
they weren't on clock time anymore either.
They all enjoyed each other's company. That is the simple reason the relationship lasted this long. John and Karl liked having somebody else around for a change. Mars was good company and a good pupil. Mars was glad because he sure as heck didn't know what to do with himself now that his world was pulled out from under him. He had plenty of time to think about it. He enjoyed it here. It was so enlightening. He learned a lot just from listening to John and Karl converse. During the day Mars would spend most of his time with one or the other as they went about their pastimes. Mars would listen with intense curiosity to whichever of the two he was with, occasionally asking questions. At meals and at night around the fire Mars would listen as John and Karl debated and extrapolated on one subject or another.
This afternoon, Mars watched as John fished a pool upstream from the bridge. Backlit drops of golden water glistened in the sunlight as John's line arced backward in a graceful curve and then forward again, landing ever-so-lightly just above an eddy entering a dark pool. John was an excellent fly-fisherman, an artist. Mar's idea of fishing was throwing a line in a river and falling asleep under a tree or having some beers while you wait for something to bite. Fly fishing is a lot of work and practice. You have to tie flies and make lines and practice flinging flies until you get accurate. Then you hunt fish. You have to think like a fish while you operate a tiny fly puppet at the end of a gossamer filament.
Mars asked John why he went to so much trouble, especially when he was fishing for his dinner. John answered him confidently, "If I'm a good fisherman, I deserve to eat".
Mars was sorry he asked. He had already begun to feel like he was mooching off of John and Karl. He felt kind of useless. John and Karl were so efficient at everything that there was little left for Mars to do around the campsite. Mars felt like he wasn't pulling his weight. "Should I collect some firewood or something?" he asked.
John didn't hear the question, he was stalking the wily trout. His sharp eyes scanning the ripples and eddies below rocks for signs of his quarry. Crouching at times as he approached certain pools, flicking the delicate line over rocks. Slipping occasionally, but never clumsily, he walked sideways working his way upstream. He never fell and he never made much noise as he danced with the stream's currents and rocks. John thought of fly fishing as a kind of dance with the water and fish and rocks. He would, at times, go on and on about how our relationship with nature, one on one, is a dance. We are, by the nature of our immediate environment, and our movement through it, in a constant dance with it. We dance through the woods differently than we dance through the water or down a city street. Mars was dancing with a pack of flies at the edge of the stream. John was dancing with a trout, his third fish-partner today. "We'll eat well tonight, Mars. Come over here in the sun, the flies won't bother you. You've got to expect some insects here at the edge of the woods and the water." John got that look in his eye like he was going to extrapolate on his current thoughts. "You know, most life takes place at the edge of something. Creatures tend to dwell at the transition points between different geographic features. These fish swim at the edge of the eddies in the stream. Other fish tend to collect at the edge of different temperature zones. Certain creatures live only in the tidal zone. Deer stay near the edge of the woods. Foxes hunt near the edges of fields where the rodents live. Cities form at the edge of bodies of water." John looked a Mars and smiled, "And we live on the edge of Western civilization".
"So, we're all dancing at the edge of something?" Mars asked facetiously.
"I guess so," John laughed, "Whad'ya say we dance back to camp and cook up these trout?"
Back at camp, Karl was sitting on a rock in front of his calculations scratched onto the bridge abutment. He had a pencil clenched in his teeth and was absorbed in a bunch of papers he had on his lap. He lifted his head with a look of resignation as John and Mars entered camp in a jolly mood. Noticing Karl's disposition, John apologized if they were interrupting anything. Karl, with a sigh, said "No, it's this calculation I've been working on."
"Tough nut to crack, eh?" offered John.
"Yes, but I've worked it out. I've solved the equation. I've worked it over and over, a hundred different ways. The result is always the same." Karl said as he shook his head.
"Why're you so bummed, if you've solved it?" asked Mars.
Karl proceeded to tell them he was working on a problem dealing with quantum theory. It had to do, he explained, with sub atomic particles and how they behave. He started by saying that physics is the science of describing our physical universe. Quantum physics is a branch of physics that deals with describing sub atomic particles and their behavior. He explained, mostly for the benefit of Mars, that we and everything else in the universe are made up of atoms. "Scientists ask themselves, 'Well, what are atoms made of?' Electrons, protons, neutrons. Then what are those parts made of, and so on. They ask themselves, 'When can one not break a particle into smaller particles?' Now, no one has ever seen a sub atomic particle. There's no way to look at them. They are smaller than light particles; photons. In fact they are so small that we can't use any of the artificial ways man has developed to observe things. We can, only with very expensive and highly specialized devices, see the results of some sub atomic particle interactions.
Mars was rapt in attention. He'd never even thought about stuff like this. John, over by the fire was beginning to prepare the fish and was listening with interest as well. What he heard was a defeat in Karl's voice that was not like him. He'd never known Karl to get depressed about his calculations. Delighted or frustrated maybe but not like this. He was interested in hearing what led up to this.
So Karl went on, divulging that the way scientists talk about and experiment with sub atomic particles is with mathematics. In fact, it is possible to describe anything in terms of mathematics. We describe the way something behaves with mathematics, that is, how the thing exists in time/space, how it moves and how it changes, how it interacts with other things. At a sub atomic level a complex battery of mathematics and theories come into play. With the work being done in the field of quantum physics, we are, with our mathematics, coming up with theories that sound remarkably like Eastern mysticism. We are finding that the way the parts that make up atoms behave defies the laws of Newtonian physics and even time/space. The clincher, Karl informed his companions, was that he has now proven, at least to himself, that none of this really exists. At a sub atomic level there is no real matter. At a sub atomic level we can prove that reality really is an illusion. Reality recurses ultimately to nothingness. It's all an illusion. "I've proven it mathematically. Yet, how can this be? Am I your illusion? Are you my illusion? Could we each be illusions of the other, interacting? Is that possible? Or, is there a mistake in my calculations? I don't think so. I've check it again and again. Besides, I'm not the first one to come to this conclusion. Better minds than mine have worked it out."
Mars fleered uneasily, and lifting a finger, broke into Karl's monologue. "Wait a minute, let me get this straight. You somehow figured out, mathematically, that reality is an illusion? What, you got an equation that came up with a zero? Reality damned near killed me a couple of times recently. Are you saying that was an illusion? If I were to hit you in the head with this rock, it will hurt and you will fall down. How real do you want to get?"
"Precisely!" Karl cried, "This is just the sort of dilemma I was referring to. You see, how can things like you and me and all the stuff in the universe which do adhere to the laws of Newtonian physics, be made up of things that defy all the laws of Newtonian physics? You could take that rock you referred to and as you look at it with a magnifying glass, you might see crystals or grains. Under the world's most powerful microscope you might see molecules, maybe a large atom. But as you looked closer, at an atomic level, things get smaller and further apart. As you look at the parts that make up atoms things get even smaller and extremely far apart. You get to a point, eventually, where there is mostly empty space and where there is something, it is only energy. There is a force; an energy, but there is no thing. How can this be?! How can a thing be made out of parts that are made out of nothing?"
John laughed. He had an onion in his hand. All he had to do was hold it up so Karl and Mars could see it. Everybody knew what it meant. They all laughed. John cleared his throat. "Karl, I would've thought you'd be excited about something like this, not depressed."
"I am excited about it," Karl replied. "It's the philosophic implications I'm having trouble with. I'm profoundly introspective over this and I'm grappling with my beliefs. It could be that Mathematics is the illusion."
"Is it possible" Mars queried, "for an illusion to be aware that it is an illusion?"
John joined in. "You've said, Karl, that you've proven that reality is an illusion. Well, what if it's your proof that's really the illusion. I mean, think about it. You are as much a part of nature, that is, the universe, as the rocks and trees and all the creatures, right? So then, what you're saying is: Nature, observing itself, discovered that it is an illusion. How can something that doesn't exist observe itself?"
Karl corrected John. "I didn't say reality doesn't exist. I said reality is an illusion. I mean simply, that reality isn't what we think it is. For the last 300 years Western Science has been breaking down, describing and cataloging the components of our physical universe. Now we're discovering that what we thought, just isn't so."
"So, now I guess you guys will try to find out what the illusion is made out of." Mars said with a friendly smirk.
"Don't give him any ideas, Mars." John added.
Karl, hearing Mar's friendly faceciousness, smiled. "We think we do know what the illusion is made of. Let me see if I can put in layman's terms.
Our eyes can detect certain wavelengths of light. Our eyes are 'wired', if you will, into our brains in such a way that we can interpret the light bouncing off things and into our light receptors to determine shape, color and distance. If our eyes were 'wired' to pick up only some other wavelengths of light, say microwave or x-rays or infrared, we'd view our world much differently and perhaps come to different conclusions about it than we have. We would have a hard time explaining some of the things that are in our world that we couldn't see. We'd have to invent ways to observe the world that our eyes can't. At some point we would eventually arrive at a time when we had a lot of sophisticated equipment to observe most of the known immediate environment but there would still be some things left unexplained because they are beyond the ability of our equipment. We would then use some other means of describing what we think is there but beyond our ability to observe. We would come up with theories to explain what we think about the behavior of these unobservable things. As long as our theories don't contradict reality, the theories will stand. However, that doesn't make them true. The theory may be the illusion. The Theory is not the Reality."
"Well," John cleared his throat. "This fish has ceased to be a fish. It is now a meal. Come and get it."
Mars and Karl joined John in a nice trout dinner, served with baby potatoes and string-beans which he boiled in a frying pan.
"Maybe," Mars said adding his two cents to Karl's mini-lecture. "the reason you guys can't tell what's really going on in physics is because it's constantly changing. I mean even while you're watching it."
"That's exactly why!" cried Karl. "At a sub atomic level things are constantly in motion, constantly changing, and they're changing at the speed of light!"
Venus found a quiet spot
to camp just off a county two-lane near a clear-running stream. She was about
a mile from a farm in one direction and about two miles from an old feed store
in the other. She'd gathered some wood and made a camp. She didn't use a tent.
Venus slept in a hammock when she could find something to string it between.
There were two trees just the right distance apart so the hammock wouldn't swing
too much. By the time she got settled into camp, made a meal and cleaned up,
it was dusk.
With the setting sun shining almost horizontally into the campsite, Venus, in sunglasses, eyed her tape recorder. She hadn't yet played back the tape she made on the hillside that afternoon. She still wasn't ready to listen to it. She was itching to listen to it but felt she should wait for a better time. After that experience on the hillside she didn't think it was a good idea right now. She speculated that to relive her insanity was to invite it's return. It was amazing, she thought, how different her life is now. From where she sat now, it seemed impossible that she could have ever been insane.
The stream next to the campsite was shallow and not very wide. On the other side of the stream there was a cliff almost a hundred feet high overlooking a bend in the waterway. Venus thought she'd climb up there and watch the sunset. She crossed the creek and climbed the cliff where it wasn't too steep and made her way easily to the top. From the top Venus had an impressive view of the rolling farmland below her. She stood on a huge, sun-warmed sandstone slab, glowing golden orange, jutting out over the babbling brook and trees at the base of the cliff. It was supremely beautiful and quiet up there. Venus filled her lungs with the thick warm air. It felt good. Facing the setting sun, and raising her arms above her head, she drew another long breath and let out a loud, long primal bellow. That felt even better. Again, she repeated the performance, another primitive cry. Venus pulled her T-shirt off, waved it around over her head before throwing it to the ground and letting out another howl. It was wonderfully cleansing. Dancing on the edge of a cliff wailing some forgotten ancestral ravings at the sinking sun. Venus continued until the sun sank finally below the horizon. She put her T-shirt back on and made her way uneasily back down the cliff trail to her campsite.
After a meal cooked over a fire and a couple of beers while watching the fire burn down to embers, Venus went to her hammock to bed down for the night. Swaying slightly in the hammock, she watched the stars through the canopy of leaves overhead and thought about how real her life had become. Her world had always been filtered through panes of glass or through some form of technology; TV's, telephones and radio. Now she was seeing the undiluted colors and smells and sounds of the real world. She was excited by the fascinating newness of it all. She pulled a blanket over herself and let her thoughts drift until she fell asleep.
Later that night in the quite stillness, a car pulled into Venus' campsite. It made no sound except that made by it's tires in the gravel. It didn't make much noise but it was enough to awaken Venus, however slowly. Two figures got out of the car and quietly walked slowly toward the hammock. There was enough moonlight to allow Venus to see the figures approaching but not enough to make out any features. She sat up as the figures drew near. She felt no fear. She thought maybe she should. There was something odd about them but she couldn't put her finger on it. Pulling the blanket up around her shoulders and squinting at the two silhouettes, Venus asked them, "Can I help you?" As soon as she said it she thought it was a stupid question but her sleepy mind came up with nothing better so that's what it spit out. The two shadowy figures gesticulated and looked at each other as if they were having a conversation only they weren't making any sound. Her eyes were getting used to the moonlight and Venus could make out her visitors a little better. She wasn't sure but . . .
"My apologies." The left one began. "Please pardon our rudeness and trespassing. We do not wish to frighten or offend. Do not be alarmed.
"Yes, please," said the one on the right. "We are new at this."
Venus gasped and jerked upright. "Who are you guys? What do you want" she whispered, head cocked sideways, eyebrows raised.
(to be continued)
Way Out West ©1993 Martin Scherer. Venus & Mars © 1995 Martin Scherer. E-mail: Scherer@tesserak.net