The Old Man and the We

Those who go down to the sea in boats…

My dad retired after over twenty-two years service in the U.S. Navy. He completed his service as a Commander and served in what I now think of as three wars: WWII, Korean, and Cold. As a result of his service, we moved a good bit for the first 12 years of my life and—very importantly for me—spent two and a half years on the island of Malta when he was seconded (to use the cooler-sounding British term) to Headquarters, Allied Forces, Mediterranean (HAFMED in the strange acronymic language of probably all military organizations everywhere), a NATO subsidiary. To date, I have no idea why he got this plum gig but I think the explicit reasons he took the post were that (1) my mother was dual citizen British and U.S. until she was 18 and this was a way of her introducing her kids to an element of British Commonwealth (aka colonial) culture and (2) he had a much more global and progressive perspective than most of his colleagues in the military. As such, when people ask me where I’m from, I never have a simple answer as I do not have any sense of the place I was born. I was raised in all over.

I actually have a poor understanding of what he did in his day job. What I do know is that on retirement, he used his G.I. bill benefit to return to university and complete his education, started with no great skill or enthusiasm (as he admitted) back in Great Depression era in southeastern Washington state. Apparently, day job or not, he had spent so much time reading during his service years that he was able to place out of much undergraduate coursework and obtained his B.A. with top honors in Philosophy in two years. Anyone who has taken a sophomore or above course in philosophy knows that the stuff is usually written with the eloquence of a legal document without the story-telling prowess usually demonstrated therein. He immediately started work on a History Masters degree, one that required a full-length dissertation (or perhaps he wrote one out of pure bloody-mindedness because he just wanted to), and wrapped that up in a year… with top honors again. This led to employment as an assistant professor of history, which eventually resulted in his advancement to a professorship at a regional campus of a state university.

Now, I provide all of that back-story to place the worm on the hook. I will not be talking about the apparently dull life of the retired Navy officer who becomes a professor and spent most days in his study reading astonishing numbers of periodicals and preparing formal lectures for his classes.

I will be revealing what a very dubious experience (to put it mildly) fishing was with this career Navy man. It is pretty easy to dismiss the idea that he was a sailor in any sense, particularly given the semi-piratical clichés that accompany landlubber notions of sailor-dom. He did not, as might have been true in earlier centuries, spend any time at all running up the mizzenmast or belaying a halyard or battening hatches (well, he might have battened some as this just means to close a hatch in bad weather). I do know he stood by the large guns that pointed out at targets over 8 kilometers distant. He was somewhat deafened by that practice.

But when it came to piloting the 20-foot plywood boat with the 35-horsepower motor, when it came to setting it in the water, running around in the tidal waters that ebbed and flowed around the sea islands he chose for a retirement home, when it came to fishing, it was usually ninety-nine problems versus the fish.

To be analytical, these problems came in two varieties: (1) problems associated with poor navigation and planning and (2) problems of the weather. Neither problem was ameliorated by my father’s inability to convince his kids (my brother and me) into thinking this was all part of the wonderfully complex plan he had intended. Or part of a Robert Louis Stevenson/Daniel Defoe/Samuel Taylor Coleridge/Herman Melville/Nordhoff&Hall/Ernest Hemingway-inspired adventure pitting a man and his sons against the forces of fish and sea. His temperament tended to the choleric, which is sort of antithetical to what is required by fish and fishing.

Although we did fish, usually catching sharks and stingrays rather than what we hoped, we sortied for shrimp more often. The mighty shrimp traveled in schools and spawned in the labyrinth of finger-like inlets and creeks that surround the countless islands of the intracoastal waterways of our new home. To call the complexity of these inlets and islands fractal-like would be doing them a disservice; they were so much more irregular and odd-shaped than even the most complicated Mandelbrot set. The islands in their essence are little more than accretions of silt and long-dead oyster beds festooned at their edges with marsh grasses, building towards the center of any isle of size with yaupon holly, wax myrtle, live oak, and palmetto trees. The shrimp come and go with the tides in this brackish water and as they do, they grow into the tasty question marks we boil, behead, defrock, devein, and dip into a purée of tomatoes and horseradish (I can do without the horseradish bit, thank you!). To get them to the boiling pot, the amateur shrimper must thread their way through the shoals of marsh grass, past living oyster beds and sand bars and submarine ridges of the dark silt the region calls “pluff mud” that lie just beneath the surface of the dark water. Then, they use a circular casting net, weighted at the edges, that can be drawn into form a bundle of sorts. The bundle, if a cast has been successful, contains bunches of shrimp, all of which are snapping their bodies in a seizure-like motion that makes a tiny sound like fingers snapping for attention.

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The next step in shrimping is a less graceful one. It involves removing them, all very busy in their contortions, from netting in which they’ve been snared. You see, pointy ends of shrimp faces are adorned with a rostrum, a sharp extension of their carapace.They also have a scaphocerite, short antennae, chela, long antennae, pereiopods, pleopods, and a uropod, not to mention a segmented abdomen, so they are well-made to get hung up on the interwoven strings that primarily compose a net.


If you pick the shrimp up without gloves or if the shrimp head is not poking out of your hand, you will get punctured, gored much in the same way a rampaging bull might gore you, albeit without the trampling part of that festivity. The fresh hole in your hand will include an injection of whatever microorganisms were living on the sharp shrimpy bit. It will need attention or an infection may set in (note to my adolescent self: bring peroxide and antibiotic cream on the shrimping expedition; you didn’t back then, but now you know). You will be punctured many times and your fingers and hands will feel numb and tingly, not in a good way. The good news is that this puncture wound is much like those delivered by various fish spines or barbs around the mouth of a catfish; the stingray spine actually contains venom, unlike shrimp rostrum and catfish barbs.

Once the shrimp are removed from the net and sitting in a bucket of water contemplating their future in a boiling pot of water and Old Bay®, the net is arranged for the next cast into the murk.

Of course, this glosses over the very important fact that shrimp do not swim around holding dayglo signs above their schools. The intrepid shrimper has a tremendous number of fingerling marshy areas to visit. One drops anchor (it is tidal water and always on the move), casts a few times to determine that the area(s) chosen have no shrimp who are willing to be gathered, weighs anchor, and moves on to the next picturesque cove in search of the elusive decapods.

And this is where the story becomes one of a retired sailor, two kids, and brackish water instead of about tasty crustaceans (I hope the descriptions above have not put you off; they are rather delicious once their rostrum-enhanced carapace has been severed from its abdomen and it has been deprived of its intestinal tract (aka “deveined“)).

For whatever reason, my father was forgetful about bringing along a very important spare part on our waterway adventures. The spare part is known as a shear pin, a short, skinny cylinder of soft metal that ensures that the outboard motor propeller turns when the engine is running and stops turning when the propeller hits a sandbar, mud bar, oyster bed, a patch of submarine grasses, a bit of junk floating just out of sight, et cetera. Basically, anything that exerts more torque on the propeller blades than the shear pin is designed to resist will break the pin so that the propeller stops turning, although the motor continues to purr happily away. The result of the shear pin doing its duty is that your boat will not be going anywhere unless the currents and tides say so. Well, unless you have oars of some description.

The thing marked “11” is the shear pin

But our vessel was a twenty-foot plywood thing with few adornments other than a steering wheel and throttle up in the front bit and some lengths of plywood along the floor that covered its shallow bilge. It may have had a basic windscreen; I can’t remember. Its primary features were that it was blue and white, it floated, and it was very heavy. Wooden boats float when they are not waterlogged, but wood is not as light as fiberglass or aluminum. They need to be hauled around on a boat trailer and the trailer backed ddown a ramp into the water—submerged—before the boat can be coaxed off its resting place. When floating, an oar or two are usually (but not always) included among the necessary ingredients to ensure an error-free day. But these paddles are most often used to push off a dock or a sandbar or a mud bank. They are not persuasive in the “let’s go home” department, particularly against a current or tide that has a mightier master than paddles wielded by an old man and his adolescent sons. This boat did not resemble a canoe, kayak, or rowboat in any conceivable way. I have looked for a picture of a similar vessel and have found none that are as basic in design. The entire catalog of boats posted on the web and available through Googling “twenty-foot boat” are prettier than ours was or simply are very different. Our boat has gone the way of the dodo bird; it has ceased to exist.

Off we go, a heavy blue boat in the arhythmic chop of the river, outboard running, its deep grumble pushing us through the water, going to some set of inlets where shrimp are presumed to be. There are tall creosoted poles in the water here and there, warning the larger boats (no ships in this river—it is wide and deep but not for them) to stay in the center of the passage. We do this, although we will be veering off into the shallower parts as that is the point of the mission.

Waterway Markers

Eventually, we arrive at an inlet, rumored by someone to be a hot place to cast the net, and drop anchor. We cast—and no shrimp come up. We spread our arms in the graceful way a net must be cast again—sort of a prayer to the dark waters and their contents—in another zone nearby, suspecting that another imaginary cylinder of water is the one that contains the delicious question marks with their pointed beaks and snapping tails. None come up. Now it is just a matter of pulling anchor, starting the motor on low, finding another pool between jetties of marsh grass, dropping anchor, casting the net, and seeing what comes up.

Tidal Marsh 2.jpg
The labyrinthine nature of lowcountry salt tidal marshes
(all rights reserved, Christopher Craft, Indiana University)

Now, let me be clear. All of this moving around in the web of water and grass is the fun bit. It’s mostly peaceful, casting is a sort of beautiful zen-ish experience that has a lot of inherent grace to it—it can even be done fairly well by those who have never done it—and whether there are shrimp or not is really secondary to the pursuit (although getting shrimp, barbs and all, is a good outcome too).

What Lies Beneath… (an oyster bed at low tide, just the right height for an outboard propeller)

Problems start when the outboard is on and in gear, meaning that the propeller is turning and pushing water in a spiraling cone behind the boat. When the propeller is turning, it can hit a submerged oyster bed or sand bar or just the thick ooze of the pluff mud. If there is enough resistance, the shear pin will do what its name implies (is there a word “explies,” because that’s really what is needed here—a word that states that something is explicitly indicated in its meaning).

Pluff mud at low tide

As a child on into my adolescence, it was sort of fun to go walking in pluff mud. The stuff smells like sewage, but the chemist in me now knows that this is just the result of deterioration of living things—grasses and creatures—their substance turning into amino acids and other fundamental molecules, some of which contain sulfur (cysteine, homocysteine, cystine, methionine, taurine, s-adenosylmethionine, etc., all the way down to hydrogen sulfide). The good thing about hydrogen sulfide is that we can smell it at very low concentrations. The bad news is that at high concentrations it is lethal to human beings. The mud, outgassing hydrogen sulfide and other volatile sulfur-containing compounds, is not telling us it will kill us outright. It is more subtle than that. If you walk into it and lack the strength to extricate yourself from its powerful ooze, you may need help getting back out. In tidal waters, it is important to get out before the water rises above your head. Death by pluff mud is not common. Fear associated with the sense that you are stuck, your shoes have disappeared somewhere in the sticky holes your legs have made, and your next step will place you knee-deep in the dark clutch of that heavy, smelly sump of life, the fear is real and common, particularly among the senselessly brave people we call “the young.” Pluff mud may hide something far more sinister than suction, though. It may hide old oyster beds or shells abandoned to the waters at some time in the past. Those oyster shells all have edges that will lacerate a foot, ankle, calf, or arm (it is common to try pushing yourself out of the mud’s grasp by giving it your arms to sup on while it is busy with your legs) and open cuts that will bleed into the mud as happily as they will bleed anywhere else.

So, here we are, leaving one shrimp-free zone and moving to another zone, hopefully shrimp-enhanced. We are moving slowly but we are moving under power. The propeller hits something and we stop moving. We try turning on and off the motor. We tilt the motor out of the water, reach down and find the propeller is spinning freely, that no connection exists between it and the driveshaft. We are, in the modern sense as surely as in the ancient one, dead in the water. We will go where currents and tides take us. If there is a wind, it will move us as well, but we are no longer capable of moving on our own.

There are various ways in which this scenario plays out from this point on:

  1. Not only have we sheared the pin, we have beached ourselves on the submerged mass of whatever description we will soon learn when the retreating tide reveals it
  2. We have now learned that we do not have a spare shear pin
  3. We reach for the oars which we know we placed in the boat and find that we did not place the oars in the boat as our memory tells us we did, thus giving us no choice about what to do next
  4. One or more of us exits the beached chunk of plywood, temporarily not much of a boat, and tries to prise it off the mud, sand, or oyster bed, thus losing our shoes and sinking in mud, cutting ourselves on oyster shells, or (and this was the best of the outcomes) finding that we could push ourselves off the sandbar and go on our way
  5. We have and oar, we push ourselves off the impediment without issue but find that we are now simply adrift with an oar, maybe two, in our hands and no conceivable way of using them to “row” our way back whence we came
  6. We have had the good luck of freeing ourselves, absent shear pin, but it now starts to rain in some very exhaustive and punishing way, filling the shallow bilge and covering the plywood that keeps the bilge hidden, thus requiring the use of containers meant for shrimp, which were not caught, to be used for bailing
  7. During the bailing, one of us finds that the fish hooks, being at the ends of fishing lines which are spooled out from the fishing poles we brought with us, hoping that if shrimp were not caught we could catch something with fins, those fish hooks are floating about at the ends of the lines and, against all probability (as they are quite small and the boat is much larger), they skewer my brother’s thumb with the deliberateness of an arrow shot at his finger by William Tell himself
  8. We are drenched, we are oarless, we are pin-less, we are skewered, we are beached, we are shrimp-less, our vessel overly full of murky water, and we are at the mercy of others
  9. Who, somehow and against all probability, arrive and tow us back to our landing and our boat trailer, looking much like a set of freshly washed felines would look if they were leashed up and taken for a pleasant walk around the neighborhood.

So, this is why I don’t fish.

And then there is the toadfish. A picture will suffice:

The Toadfish, nature’s answer to the angler’s prayer

The problem with all of this is that it is now uncommon to find wild shrimp in these inlets; they have been overfished. The shrimp boats once common to these waterways and the Atlantic just off the southern United States, have to go out for longer journeys. Many shrimpers don’t even try anymore. The haul does not pay for keeping the boat maintained, much less running after the increasingly elusive morsels that used to be so common. It’s a problem that affects much of fishing worldwide. For me, for my brief history of fishing and longer history of doing it very badly indeed, it’s not a personal problem. It is very much a problem for all of the people on earth who have survived for millennia on the seas’ bounty. We could all take a moment to care for their future as they have helped us enjoy the fruits of their labor in the past.





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The Crown and Hill Country Summers

Have you noticed that we sometimes inter an idea before it’s actually dead?

Have you noticed that sometimes you stumble into a pattern in your film and television viewing without having a conscious intent to do so? This can even extend to what you just happen to be reading and what music you are favoring as well, but I found myself watching two shows, one on NetFlix, one on Masterpiece Theatre, the U.S. show that mainly imports shows produced in the U.K., sometimes Europe, and packages them as aesthetically and intellectually superior (less true in the realm of contemporary streaming options than in years gone by).

This happened to me recently when The Crown popped up on NetFlix and Indian Summers was running through its second season on PBS. To put reviews to the side, I “enjoyed” them both, although my tastes are suspect in this matter.

(1) I tend to gravitate towards productions that peer into British subcultures (in this case, the ascension and early years of the current Queen Elizabeth’s reign and 1930’s colonialist behavio(u)r in the Himalayan foothills);

(2) I am very interested in how colonialist behavior (“u” implied) continues to permeate so much of how white people behave in their own countries and around the world.

In The Crown, the principal colonialist behavior is seen in how Prince Phillip behaves in Kenya and Barbados, how he speaks about other countries that once were under the none-too-subtle boot of British rule, and how this attitude is seen in other court and government attitudes. Whether accurate or not, it is not shown to be an important aspect of Elizabeth’s thinking, although she is shown to be laughing off Phillip’s boorish comments (and what an ass he is portrayed to be!), which is a complicit form of acceptance in my view.

In Indian Summers, the blatant racism permeates virtually every aspect of the story. Here is a country that has astonishingly deep roots in pre-history (that would be India, or the agglomeration of principalities, etc. that comprise “India”) having to defer to Anglo-Saxons, who started their dominance of the British Isles in around 400 C.E., after the Romans had to end their own colonialist incursions through much of their empire. The British had moved into India, following the Portuguese, Dutch, and others, to establish an import/export relationship in the early 1600s. Once they figured out how profitable these markets could be, they brought their military and seized the whole country. The Indians, when they had to contend with them at all, deferred to the British under threat of imprisonment, violence, and death. The Indians were called all manner of insult to their faces and behind their backs, were treated as less than human, were viewed as incapable of managing their own resources, people, and country. Of course, the Raj ended, India gained “self-rule,” an astonishing concept all on its own, and the grim and unresolved process of partition occurred over the next 30 years (creating Pakistan, Bangladesh, and whatever Kashmir is/should be—no dog in this hunt, just reporting).

The key issue here is this attitude of cultural, economic, moral, national, ethnic, and racial superiority imposed on other cultures. It is this brimming suitcase of beliefs that made subjugation of nations and people possible. The British were by no means the first to do this, of course. They weren’t the last. It’s all too human to come up with a list of rationales for why “some of us” are better than “those people,” and we sort these differences in whatever way suits our needs. We pretend we are better than other family members, near or far. We pretend our family is better than another family, our neighborhood is better than a nearly identical one built one street away, our community holds some superiority to others that are demographically identical, our town is better than another town, etc. When it comes to matters of religion, race, gender, national origin, those of “us” who consider ourselves superior impose a kind of colonialism on anyone we can, particularly if we are reasonably confident that our new “subjects” (use here in the general sense of “those who are subjugated) would not fight back.

What an utterly disgusting and morally bankrupt way for we humans to behave!

In The Crown, it is almost comprehensible how a young lady, raised in the self-aggrandizing hothouse of the British royal family, “destined” to rule after King Edward VIII abdicated to pursue Wallis Simpson, could allow herself to be surrounded by racists, nationalists, colonialists who believed that they were God’s chosen family to rule over the Empire and could tolerate these behaviors. At least until she matured in her thinking.

It is not acceptable in the least how a bunch of expatriated English from non-royal families could settle in the Himalayan hill country and treat everyone around them as inferior. If these people were a hive of bees, they would be the drone bees, male bees whose sole function is to mate with the queen bee (not to be confused with the popular contemporary singer with this nickname). The worker bees, as their name implies, actually do the work, including feeding the drones, that helps the entire hive exist. I have no idea whether drone bees “think” the workers are inferior due to their distance from the queen and their lives of endless labor, but I am sure you get the metaphor here. “I represent the Queen” versus “I work for a living” somehow allows for the superiority of the royal-proximate to those who work.

In the U.S., we seem to be in the throes of embracing this kind of differentiation between our citizens (and non-citizens, for that matter). This morning, I saw the following item in an email I receive from, a website that is predominantly focused on statistical trends (and also sits on

$9.5 billion

Total wealth of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet appointees so far (including cabinet-level positions). That’s more money than belongs to the 43 million least wealthy U.S. households combined. Quartz

The odd thing is that the U.S. chose in the late 18th C. to become something other than a monarchy. It chose a republic system of government, that is a government in which the hopes of the population are represented by elected persons. They chose to break with the non-representative, monarchic, imperialist government of King George III. I suppose it can be argued that we have often elected representatives from our own elite groups to serve as our leaders, but we’ve also elected people from impoverished families who won their battles with inequity and became very effective leaders. In a monarchic system, people from the “wrong” classes do not become leaders… full stop (as the British say). In representative systems, they can and sometimes do rise to the challenge.

A difference between leaders from these two backgrounds—and I’m aware this is a rhetorical difference, as leaders also come from all backgrounds in between—is that the leader from meager beginnings is less likely to forget their past, while a leader from elitist beginnings has no other past than of wealth and privilege. Either can be a great, mediocre, or poor leader. , but I would prefer that I am represented by someone who remembers whence they came.

We are increasingly “represented” by lobbyists for various interests. The more powerful interests wield the most influence in legislation, and so on until we reach the individuals, families, communities, towns, regions, that have no power because they have no resources worth considering, no jobs worth protecting, no money that will buy them a seat at the table. Often, people who have these traits don’t educate themselves to understand how the global economic and political systems work and don’t vote because they believe themselves powerless to make a difference. When they do vote, they often think about what might be, rather than what is. They might win the lottery. A plane carrying money to Fort Knox or a Federal Reserve bank might crash in the woods near their home, making them imaginary billionaires (imaginary because how are they going to spend that money without revealing themselves). A meteor composed entirely of platinum might crash through their outhouse and make them rich.

The odds of each of those happening are roughly the same, give or take a couple of orders of magnitude: for Powerball, the odds are 1 in 292,201,338 (two hundred ninety-two million). If the payout is about $200 million, somewhere around 50 million tickets are sold; only 1 of those people is going to win and have to deal with instant wealth. As the jackpot rises, even more tickets are sold, investing the payout with more “loser’s” money, yet the odds of winning (and losing) remain the same. I actually have no idea about the probability of the plane crash and platinum meteor scenarios, but they are both entirely chance circumstances instead of driven by a particular behavior.

In the 2016 presidential election, about 58% of eligible voters exercise their right to do so; 42% (over 90 million people!) did not, thus deferring their right to the ones who did. Of those who voted, about 48% voted for Clinton and 46.6% voted for Trump. The winner is determined by the electoral system, which assigns exclusive party-designated representatives from each state to cast their vote for whoever wins the most votes in that particular state. Electors are selected through a crazy-quilt of state-specific laws which can be reviewed here, along with other pertinent information. The key factors are that (1) the electors are not given their responsibilities in the popular vote, they are designated by political party rules and are as often as not people with the money/power to get noticed by their parties (i.e. donations, friendships, corporate interests, family interests, etc.) and (2) the electors from each state do not end up representing the popular vote in that state so much as they overwhelmingly represent the internal machinations of their political party.

There are 538 electors nationwide, which is the number of U.S. senators and representatives BUT senators and representatives cannot be electors. So, in 2016 when roughly 129 million people voted, their votes will be “represented” by 538 people, none of whom received a single vote.

Finally, back to my overall point here, we will have an incoming government “elected” by 538 people who did not receive a single vote but who are supposedly representing the 129 million people who did vote (for those of you who enjoy percentages, (538÷129,000,000) x 100 = 0.0004% of the voting population) PLUS (one could argue) the 96 million that chose for reasons only known to them to not exercise their right to vote AND all the other folks who, for whatever reason (and there are many, including youth and various levels of conviction, depending on state) could not vote.

The U.S. population has a lot of that colonialist superiority vibe going on at the moment. “We” elected Trump (although “we” most certainly did not!) because he promised to do all sorts of stuff that pretends to a superiority that just doesn’t exist in the real world. We are all, quite simply, human beings. There are →7.4 billion of us. We all have the same general list of problems because we all live in the same neighborhood. Those problems are health, shelter, livelihood. Sure, a very small number of our fellow citizens have insulated themselves from one or more of these, but they are still affected by those who have desperate issues with one or more of them. There is no U.S. There is Earth, upon which a huge number of biological entities do something called “life,” which varies in its scope so enormously that it fills shelves and shelves in museum warehouses and on overburdened journal shelves at academic libraries around the world—and we still don’t understand it all!

It is a little mind-boggling that all of this thinking came out of watching a couple of dramas on television. For me, though, I watch stuff that MAKES me think, MAKES me consider the world in which I live. What I thought was that our world is still rife with colonialist thinking. Corporations, who still attempt to alienate resources from various countries, who still pay their foreign workers the least they can manage, who still object to the unification of workers whenever they can hire other workers at cheaper rates, are running a colonialist scheme on us all. In this country, they are powerful due to their profits, wrested from foreign soil and foreign labor, and the influence those profits purchase from our government.

The attitudes on display in The Crown and Indian Summers are those of people who believe that everyone who is not them is inferior. Is this who we are? Is this who we are becoming, are we already there, or have we always been this way in spite of our pretenses to being otherwise?

I fear that we have always been this way and that it is not getting better.

Featured image: For no particular reason, the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, except that it looked misshapen, gaudy, and had a rather unsubtle cross sticking out of its front. By the way, you can rest assured that it is worth quite a bit more than the miners who found the gold and gems were paid for their labors.




Young John and the Farm

In open fields between several small villages, the earth was thick, black, and fertile.


In open fields between several small villages, the earth was thick, black, and fertile. It was always moist with night mists and brief, frequent showers but the sun favored it as well, even in the cold months. A family had purchased their freedom from serfdom and found this patch of ground and told a few friends they could trust. They had all had saved and garnered favor from their stewards and gained freedom as well. Those friends passed the message to a couple more. A few modest huts rose at the ragged edge of the land just where the young yews, hazels, rowans, hawthorns, hollies, and birches spread their roots. Older walnut, chestnut, poplar, elm, and oaks grew denser as the forest spread in all directions, regularly interrupted with a spruce or pine, favoring the forest with dense foliage throughout the year. Flocks of redstarts, robins, and warblers fluttered in, calling each other by name and singing praise to the trees which kept them safe. Butterflies flitted about, helping the bees keep the flowers well-tended each season of every year.

At the far edges of this mysterious realm were other villages, a day or more by foot along shaded, lightly rutted roads down which carts could barely pass. Several men had lost their hats to a branch plucking them bare-headed as they rode to market. Continue reading “Young John and the Farm”

Fire! I Bid You To Burn!!!

When did fire become a thing? Poor old Prometheus… Probably not his fault at all….

When did fire become a thing? No one knows the answer to that question. Fusion certainly occurred before fire—it happens in suns, along with nuclear fission (radioisotopes exist in the sun)—but this is not fire. It appears flamey. It is hot. It radiates through varying segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. But I am going to limit the definition of “fire” to “combustion,” if you don’t mind.

The simplest combustion reaction occurs when pure hydrogen (H2(g)) and oxygen (O2(g)) gasses are combined in a 2-to-1 ratio and given a little energetic push called activation energy (i.e. hydrogen and oxygen will hang out with each other unless they are provided this energy). Diagrammatically, the activation energy looks like this:

Activation energies Ea(X->Y) or ‘Ea(Y->X)’ need to be supplied to initiate the reactions X-> or Y-X, respectively.

The reactants (hydrogen and oxygen in our example) start on the left side of the hump, an appropriate (or excess) amount of energy is provided, and products result on the right side of the hump. The “ΔH” thing on the right side is beyond the scope here but represents a positive, negative, or neutral amount of energy released in the reaction.

The amount of activation energy varies widely from very small (e.g. some explosives) to “no reaction will ever happen regardless of energy input.” Here is what the most basic combustion reaction looks like in chemical reaction shorthand called “stoichiometry:”

2H2(g) + O2(g) → 2H2O(g)

And now, an entertainment of limited scientific value:

Combustion is generally thought to involve hydrocarbons (e.g. octane in the “gasoline” or “petrol” you use in automobiles) or their oxygenated friends the carbohydrates (e.g. cellulose, a polymeric carbohydrate used in paper and present in wood). The simplest combustion reaction is between methane (CH4(g)) and oxygen (2(g)), again resulting water but also resulting in carbon dioxide (CO2(g)) when the reaction occurs efficiently. When it does not occur efficiently or when it occurs in the presence of other substances (e.g. most of the time) it produces by-products including carbon (elemental symbol “C” aka “soot”). Here is the stoichiometry of that simple reaction:

Combustion of methane in oxygen(with appropriate activation energy added) results in carbon dioxide and water

Methane is commonly known as natural gas, although natural gas is not pure methane when used as a fuel. What the stoichiometry tells us about this reaction is that each molecule of methane uses two molecules of oxygen and produces one molecule of carbon dioxide and two molecules of water, along with an amount of energy released in the process. The energy is used to heat various processes, including home furnaces and water heaters, and used to drive steam and gas turbines to produce electricity.

When octane is used as the hydrocarbon, the balanced equation is as follows:

2C8H18(g) + 25O2(g) → 16CO2(g) + 18H2O(g)

In common English, this means that each molecule of octane requires 25 molecules of oxygen (and that activation energy thing, typically supplied by spark plugs) and results in 16 molecules of carbon dioxide and 18 molecules of water, along with a good burst of energy that drives the pistons, drive shaft, and wheels; the wheels have tires that turn and exert a force against driveways, roads, dirt, mud, water, etc. and the automobile moves forward—or backward—at various speeds as allowed by the transmission.

A transverse internal combustion engine with the drivetrain for a manual transmission

Candles (if you were wondering where all this leads) are made from paraffin wax, which is a varying mixture of hydrocarbons typically with between twenty (C20) and forty (C40) carbons in their structures. A C20 hydrocarbon like eicosane can have up to 366,319 isomers (isomers all have the same chemical formula of a chemical compound but differ in physical and some chemical properties), while tetracontane (C40H82) has 62,491,178,805,831 (that’s sixty-two trillion four hundred ninety-one billion one hundred seventy-eight million eight hundred five thousand eight hundred thirty-one) isomers (somehow, it seems like more isomers if you spell the number out). The C(xy) compounds between C20 and C40 have numerous possible isomers as well and they increase logarithmically (see chart below) as the number of carbons increase. Not all of these hydrocarbons are in paraffin but these numbers should give you an idea of how chemically complicated a simple candle may be.

This website represents output from one method of addressing the number of isomers per number of carbons but it provided a nice Excel-friendly list for my charting purposes. The reference at the bottom of the referenced web page is in German; additional approaches can be found at the link provided at the “discussion” link provided below.

While this already seems like a brain-damaging subclause to our proceedings, the estimates for number of isomers for each number of carbon is actually more complicated than I am representing here. If you have further interest, you can take a look at this discussion. If not, let’s proceed.

There is a standard equation for calculating how much product results from combustion in oxygen of any hydrocarbon; it is:

where z = x + y/4.

This means that in cases where there are 20 carbons as for eicosane, the carbon dioxide and water molecules result in the following way:

2 C20H42(s) + 61 O2(g) → 40 CO2(g) + 42 H2O(g)

or… for each two molecules of n-eicosane (one of about 366 thousand isomers of eicosane) are consumed by combustion, sixty-one molecules of oxygen are consumed, thus producing 40 molecules of carbon dioxide and forty-two molecules of water.

The thing is that it is rare that anyone burns a candle or anything else in pure oxygen. When hydrocarbons are consumed in air, a messier equation obtains to the problem:

Note that carbon monoxide is produced, along with hydrogen gas and the more familiar carbon dioxide and water. This version of the equation is why it is critical to ensure adequate air supply when using a kerosene (or other hydrocarbon-based) space heater in a closed space; the amount of carbon monoxide goes up as the amount of oxygen available goes down. Carbon monoxide, a colorless and odorless gas, causes humans to fall asleep and die due to a special kind of asphyxiation caused by very strong binding of carbon monoxide to the iron atoms in your hemoglobin and myoglobin. Once that happens, those proteins cannot carry oxygen through your arteries and your body is “starved” of oxygen.

Carboxyhemoglobin is formed when carbon monoxide is present; when this happens no more oxygen can be carried by hemoglobin (or myoglobin, a related protein)

Okay, so hydrocarbons burn in air (n.b. there is also lots of nitrogen in air and that produces problematic by-products as well) and that means carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water, and hydrogen are produced, along with a substantial amount of particulate matter (e.g. particulate carbon and other solid carbon by-products), which ends up in our shared atmosphere (n.b. there is no “U.S.A. atmosphere” or “China atmosphere,” there is one planetary atmosphere). The most common liquid fuel currently consumed is octane but that is not consumed as pure octane, so there are other hydrocarbons and “stuff” consumed at the same time… in air… which produces problematic by-products.

Here’s a chart of how much world liquid fuel has been consumed and is projected for consumption PER DAY over the listed time period:

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Yes, the chart does indicate that we consume between 94 and 96 million barrels of liquid fuel per day. One barrel of liquid fuel is equivalent to 0.1172 metric tons and a metric ton is 2,200 pounds (for the non-metricized readers). One barrel is 257.4 pounds of liquid fuel. If we are consuming (let’s be modest) 94 million barrels of liquid fuel per day (and let’s be factual) there are 365 days in a year, we are consuming 8,846,490,400,000 pounds of fuel per year. If we were to pretend that all of this were octane (which it isn’t) and all of that octane followed the simplest hydrocarbon-to-carbon dioxide equation provided above (which it doesn’t), we say that every two units of octane produces sixteen units of carbon dioxide. These don’t have the same mass, of course.

To make this simple, a gallon of gasoline weighs about 6 pounds. Each gallon of gasoline produces about 18 pounds of carbon dioxide (idealized as stated above). If we divide the number of pounds of liquid fuel consumed annually by 6, we will have an estimate of the number of pounds of carbon dioxide produced. Well, the number is:

(8,846,490,400,000 pounds of fuel per year)/(1 gallon/6 pounds) =
1,474,415,066,666.67 pounds of carbon dioxide/year

To do our numbers-into-language thing, that is one trillion four hundred seventy-four billion four hundred fifteen million sixty-six thousand six hundred sixty-seven (let’s round up, given the decimal figure) pounds of carbon dioxide produced from the aforementioned pounds of liquid fuel. Pretty incredible, right?

The bottom lines are these:

  1. we can’t breathe carbon dioxide (it chokes us)
  2. actual combustion produces lots of other by-products that are also not useful for human respiration and cause various respiratory illnesses (cancer, emphysema, asthma for starters)
  3. these numbers don’t include gaseous fuel like methane, ethane, propane, or butane (starting with pentane and going up to heptadecane (C17), the compounds are liquid at 25°C), which are also used as fuels.
  4. these numbers don’t include non-petroleum fuels such as ethanol, which is an oxygenated hydrocarbon but also produces all the by-products listed for hydrocarbons
  5. Our global economy is heavily dependent on consuming something that
    1. is finite in quantity and
    2. produces harmful by-products
    3. is going to go up in price as the amount available nears complete consumption
  6. We have not solved the equation for producing less carbon dioxide and less harmful by-products while maintaining our current lifestyles.

Okay, end of lesson. Talk amongst yourselves. This all needs to be solved.

Burn a candle while you’re at it. Couldn’t hurt (much).

Featured image: Catano Oil Refinery Fire

Origins of the Human Mythos

There are as many origin stories as there are early regions on earth.

There are as many origin stories as there are early regions on earth. They all describe processes that resulted in one version of life or another.

Here’s one from the Bakuba people who flourished in the southeastern part of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo:

“Darkness was over the earth which was nothing but water. Mbombo ruled over this chaos. One day he felt a terrible pain in his stomach and vomited the sun, the moon and the stars. The sun shone fiercely and the water steamed up in clouds. Gradually, the dry hills appeared. Mbombo vomited again, this time trees came out of his stomach, and animals, and people, and many other things: the first woman, the leopard, the eagle, the falling star, the anvil, the monkey Fumu, the man, the firmament, the razor, medicine, and lightning.” –Knappert, J. (1977). Bantu myths and other tales. Leiden: Brill.

In this version, Mbombo had a dark earth covered in water to work with and it was the rest of the universe that he (it’s a “he”) brought into being. Whether they were all causing a pain in his stomach (why wouldn’t they?) or whether vomiting was just what one did during the process of creation is not clear. This single act of emesis wasn’t sufficient, so the rest of his stomach’s contents populated the now-illuminated mix of dry hills and water that composed the planet. He also had an anvil, a razor, lightning, a meteor/comet, the discipline of medicine, woman (apparently emitted first), a few animals, and man causing his distress. The myth goes on; you can read it, along with some other myths of Africa at the link.


Mask of the Bakuba people used in religious rituals to represent their earliest ancestors


The Bushmen or San people of southern and southwest Africa have a different view of how it all began. Here’s a nice video that shares one version of the story (virtually any of these differ in some details as they were all told to a western ethnologist by whoever was willing to share):

It is interesting that people and animals were all present but living in a paradise beneath the earth. The creation involved growing a tree, digging a hole to let all of them out, and warning them not to play with fire. Their punishment was that they no longer were able to communicate with their previous under-earth cohabitants. I am certain that if Prometheus heard this story he would beg Zeus for relitigation of his case.

Ethiopians, in the central eastern section of Africa, had a different take on how it all began:

It seems that Wak was a caretaker god for the skies and earth but was not an angry god (a cool feature for a god to have). We get a foreshadowing of the “rib of Adam” bit, although there was no clay involved and animals and demons were all progeny of the first marriage.

The oldest creation myth from the Rg Veda, one of the four scriptures on which Hinduism is based, is complex:

“Thousand-headed Purusha, thousand-eyed, thousand-footed he, having pervaded the earth on all sides, still extends ten fingers beyond it. Purusha alone is all this—whatever has been and whatever is going to be. Further, he is the lord of immortality and also of what grows on account of food. Such is his greatness; greater, indeed, than this is Purusha. All creatures constitute but one quarter of him, his three-quarters are the immortal in the heaven. With his three-quarters did Purusha rise up; one quarter of him again remains here. With it did he variously spread out on all sides over what eats and what eats not. From him was Viraj born, from Viraj evolved Purusha. He, being born, projected himself behind the earth as also before it.
When the gods performed the sacrifice with Purusha as the oblation, then the spring was its clarified butter, the summer the sacrificial fuel, and the autumn the oblation.
The sacrificial victim, namely, Purusha, born at the very beginning, they sprinkled with sacred water upon the sacrificial grass. With him as oblation the gods performed the sacrifice, and also the Sadhyas [a class of semidivine beings] and the rishis [ancient seers]. From that wholly offered sacrificial oblation were born the verses and the sacred chants; from it were born the meters; the sacrificial formula was born from it. From it horses were born and also those animals who have double rows [i.e., upper and lower] of teeth; cows were born from it, from it were born goats and sheep. When they divided Purusha, in how many different portions did they arrange him? What became of his mouth, what of his two arms? What were his two thighs and his two feet called? His mouth became the brahman; his two arms were made into the rajanya; his two thighs the vaishyas; from his two feet the shudra was born. The moon was born from the mind, from the eye the sun was born; from the mouth Indra and Agni, from the breath the wind was born. From the navel was the atmosphere created, from the head the heaven issued forth; from the two feet was born the earth and the quarters [the cardinal directions] from the ear. Thus did they fashion the worlds. Seven were the enclosing sticks in this sacrifice, thrice seven were the fire-sticks made, when the gods, performing the sacrifice, bound down Purusha, the sacrificial victim. With this sacrificial oblation did the gods offer the sacrifice. These were the first norms [dharma] of sacrifice. These greatnesses reached to the sky wherein live the ancient Sadhyas and gods.” – The Rig-Veda, 10.90, in Sources of Indian Tradition by Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1958), pp. 16-17.

This is an entirely different level of complexity than we see in the above myths or in the one most westerners know. One observation is to notice that Purusha is both the everything and is offered as a sacrifice and is born of Viraj, who was (of course) born of Purusha. To make it even more complicated, another version of this occurs in Manusmriti, another scriptural text of many but this one designating Hindu law. In this version, Purusha creates time and also designates the duties of the various castes.

(n.b. Purusha is the Featured image for this post.)

From southern China, the story went like this:

“In the beginning , the heavens and earth were still one and all was chaos. The universe was like a big black egg, carrying Pan Gu inside itself. After 18 thousand years Pan Gu woke from a long sleep. He felt suffocated, so he took up a broadax and wielded it with all his might to crack open the egg. The light, clear part of it floated up and formed the heavens, the cold, turbid matter stayed below to form earth. Pan Gu stood in the middle, his head touching the sky, his feet planted on the earth. The heavens and the earth began to grow at a rate of ten feet per day, and Pan Gu grew along with them. After another 18 thousand years, the sky was higher, the earth thicker, and Pan Gu stood between them like a pillar 9 million li in height so that they would never join again.

“When Pan Gu died, his breath became the wind and clouds, his voice the rolling thunder. One eye became the sun and on the moon. His body and limbs turned to five big mountains and his blood formed the roaring water. His veins became far-stretching roads and his muscles fertile land. The innumerable stars in the sky came from his hair and beard, and flowers and trees from his skin and the fine hairs on his body. His marrow turned to jade and pearls. His sweat flowed like the good rain and sweet dew that nurtured all things on earth. According to some versions of the Pan Gu legend, his tears flowed to make rivers and radiance of his eyes turned into thunder and lighting. When he was happy the sun shone, but when he was angry black clouds gathered in the sky. One version of the legend has it that the fleas and lice on his body became the ancestors of mankind.

“The Pan Gu story has become firmly fixed in Chinese tradition. There is even an idiom relating to it: “Since Pan Gu created earth and the heavens,” meaning “for a very long time.” Nevertheless, it is rather a latecomer to the catalog of Chinese legends. First mention of it is in a book on Chinese myths written by Xu Zheng in the Three Kingdoms period (C.E. 220-265). Some opinions hold that it originated in south China or southeast Asia.

“There are several versions of the Pan Gu story.

“Among the Miao, Yao, Li and other nationalities of south China, a legend concerns Pan Gu the ancestor of all mankind, with a man’s body and a dog’s head. It runs like this: Up in Heaven the God in charge of the earth, King Gao Xin, owned a beautiful spotted dog. He reared him on a plate (pan in Chinese ) inside a gourd (hu, which is close to the sound gu ), so the dog was known as Pan Gu . Among the Gods there was great enmity between King Gao Xin and his rival King Fang. “Whoever can bring me the head of King Fang may marry my daughter, ” he proclaimed, but nobody was willing to try because they were afraid of King Fang’s strong soldiers and sturdy horses.

“The dog Pan Gu overheard what was said, and when Gao Xin was sleeping, slipped out of the palace and ran to King Fang. The latter was glad to see him standing there wagging his tail. “You see, King Gao Xin is near his end. Even his dog has left him,” Fang said, and held a banquet for the occasion with the dog at his side.

“At midnight when all was quiet and Fang was overcome with drink, Pan Gu jumped onto the king’s bed, bit off his head and ran back to his master with it . King Gao Xin was overjoyed to see the head of his rival, and gave orders to bring Pan Gu some fresh meat. But Pan Gu left the meat untouched and curled himself up in a corner to sleep. For three days he ate nothing and did not stir.

“The king was puzzled and asked, “Why don’t you eat? Is it because I failed to keep my promise of marrying a dog?” To his surprise Pan Gu began to speak. “Don’t worry, my King. Just cover me with your golden bell and in seven days and seven nights I’ll become a man.” The King did as he said, but on the sixth day, fearing he would starve to death, out of solicitude the princess peeped under the bell. Pan Gu’s body had already changed into that of a man, but his head was still that of a dog. However, once the bell was raised, the magic change stopped, and he had to remain a man with a dog’s head.

“He married the princess, but she didn’t want to be seen with such a man so they moved to the earth and settled in the remote mountains of south China. There they lived happily and had four children, three boys and a girl, who became the ancestors of mankind.” – China Creation Myths

We are the descendants of a dog-headed god who was also the source of heavens and earth… well, after he broke open the black egg with a broadax. The dog-headed bit explains a lot but why did the princess marry him? That remains a mystery to this day, dear readers.pangu


Pangu (Attribution)


Here’s a story from the Lakota Native Americans:

“There was another world before this one. But the people of that world did not behave themselves. Displeased, the Creating Power set out to make a new world. He sang several songs to bring rain, which poured stronger with each song. As he sang the fourth song, the earth split apart and water gushed up through the many cracks, causing a flood. By the time the rain stopped, all of the people and nearly all of the animals had drowned. Only Kangi the crow survived.

“Kangi pleaded with the Creating Power to make him a new place to rest. So the Creating Power decided the time had come to make his new world. From his huge pipe bag, which contained all types of animals and birds, the Creating Power selected four animals known for their ability to remain under water for a long time.

“He sent each in turn to retrieve a lump of mud from beneath the floodwaters. First the loon dove deep into the dark waters, but it was unable to reach the bottom. The otter, even with its strong webbed feet, also failed. Next, the beaver used its large flat tail to propel itself deep under the water, but it too brought nothing back. Finally, the Creating Power took the turtle from his pipe bag and urged it to bring back some mud.

“Turtle stayed under the water for so long that everyone was sure it had drowned. Then, with a splash, the turtle broke the water’s surface! Mud filled its feet and claws and the cracks between its upper and lower shells. Singing, the Creating Power shaped the mud in his hands and spread it on the water, where it was just big enough for himself and the crow. He then shook two long eagle wing feathers over the mud until earth spread wide and varied, overcoming the waters. Feeling sadness for the dry land, the Creating Power cried tears that became oceans, streams, and lakes. He named the new land Turtle Continent in honor of the turtle who provided the mud from which it was formed.

“The Creating Power then took many animals and birds from his great pipe bag and spread them across the earth. From red, white, black, and yellow earth, he made men and women. The Creating Power gave the people his sacred pipe and told them to live by it. He warned them about the fate of the people who came before them. He promised all would be well if all living things learned to live in harmony.

“But the world would be destroyed again if they made it bad and ugly.” – Lakota Creation Myth

In this one, we have a cataclysmic flood that kills the initial people and destroys nearly all animals but is replaced by people made of mud brought to the water’s surface by a turtle.

There’s no need to go into the western version and it is beyond the scope of any decent post to provide every story that I’ve found in doing this research on the web. You can do the same, of course, provided you have the curiosity. It is rewarding to read as many of these stories as you can, particularly if it results in some humility in the face of all the imaginative metaphors for creation that coexist with the western versions, evolving out of the Middle East as they did (hint: there are more than one version of how creation occurred). There are many shared elements in the stories but there are many elements that are unique to their cultures.

Why should we put aside some of these stories and glorify others? I would propose that is nothing more than western cultural chauvinism to do so. We celebrate what we know and denigrate that which we do not.

So let’s not do that so much. If you’re interested in learning about humankind, learn as much as you can about the huge number of disparate cultures that have evolved and don’t marginalize one or another because their source was “primitive” or not in “The Bible.” We were all primitive once. Our antecedents share that. As should we.

I think I’ll stick with more modern versions…






Something is Going Well Around Here!

The 1,000 “like” road marker disappearing in the rear view mirror…

The WP auto-post function just told me that I have accumulated 1,000 “likes,” which are all because the imaginary “you” have been appreciating what I’ve been pouring forth since June 22nd. It hasn’t been four months yet and I have so many “likes!” Who knew?!?

I’ve logged 87 posts (one was a repeat, so doesn’t really count and one was a reblog in respect for a new WordPress-induced friend) in 111 days, meaning that I’ve hit about 78% of the days between start and present. Not bad. Could be better. Let’s see if I can pick up the slack.

Thank you, everyone!


Another Slow Day in Paradise

It was another slow day in paradise.

It was another slow day in paradise. A and B were flitting about the huge meadow with its vast and varied flowers, shrubs, and trees, all of them spaced perfectly so every flower, shrub, and tree got the perfect amount of sunlight, the perfect amount of water sipped from the fertile earth. Every kind of beetle, fly, bee, ant, butterfly, and spider floated about in the gentle breeze, while every kind of bunny, mouse, cat, dog, horse, goat, sheep, pig, lion, giraffe, elephant, and gazelle pranced about, munching on all of the good things there were to eat, which sprang back up as soon as they were nibbled. A stream ran through the center of the meadow but then again there were streams with stepping stones every so often all over the place. Some had waterfalls and some had pools of just the right depth in their centers, causing the stream to widen a bit more than usual, then tighten back up after the pool was behind the coursing waters.

Theit (that’s what it liked to call itself when it came down to check in with A and B; it wasn’t a real name, sort of a joke—”the it”—you see?) had just wafted in from everywhere and coalesced in the form of a fluorescent tapir. Theit had tried subtler appearances but had to spend too much time convincing these two that it was it. Theit did it gently as the last time it at coalesced, A and B had run off screaming and it took precious seconds to find them cowering behind a baobab tree. This time, Theit found form behind a yew bush growing near one of the streams and strolled out to talk to “the experiment,” as it called them in its mind.

“Hi A. Hi B. How’s it going down here?” The fluorescent tapir spoke in a perfect East African accent, which sounded startlingly like many of the sounds A and B heard on a daily basis, except shaped more carefully and regularly into sounds that made sense to their minds.

A and B stared at the tapir and knew what it said. This sort of thing had happened before and while it had been confusing and a little terrifying at first, they had grown accustomed to unexpected creatures sauntering up to them and having a chat. After all, they spent a good deal of any day doing the same thing with squirrels and horses. Walking up, having a chat, the creatures chatting back. Why not this oddly-hued beast with truncated snout?

“Hi Theit!” they said in unison. It was like they shared a brain. Not always in a good way either. “It’s going the same as always. Nothing new to say, just having a nice day speaking to everyone and enjoying the sunshine and streams and fruits. Did you want something in particular?”

“Well, yes. It’s lesson time.” Theit noticed that both of them shuddered. Theit was aware this was not their favorite activity, which was exclusively wandering about bothering their fellow creatures and picking an excessive number of flowers, which it had warned them about on numerous occasions: “They’re for the bees and butterflies, you two. All you’re doing is taking beauty out of the ground, sniffing it, then throwing it down. Just lean over and do your sniffing on the living thing, please!” he had said. They went ahead and picked flowers as if they had no memory at all.

“Do you remember what we talked about yesterday?” Theit had a really confused sense of time as it meant nothing to it at all, while still being this counter-function it had implanted in the world so that stuff might eventually get done.

A and B shook their heads. No surprise. And, to be fair, it may have been more than a day. Theit needed to work out how to be more regular in lesson-giving.

“Well, we worked through addition and subtraction. Remember those? I give you two fruit, then I give you two more. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” they said in unison.

Theit breathed in slowly and then let the air escape from the tapirs lungs. “No. I first gave you two fruit. At that time you had two fruit. Then I gave you two more. How many fruit did you have?”

“Two” they said in unison. Then B said “Two two.”

“Good, B! And how many is two two? What do we call that number of fruit?”

“Fruit” said A. “Two two” said B.

“And what do we call “two two,” B?”

“Four?” said B. “Fruit” said A.

“Very good, A! I can hear that you remember the word for two two! That is very nice! Please teach that to A so he remembers, okay?”

“Yes” said B.

“Okay, let’s see how you remember subtraction. If you have four fruit and I ask for two fruit back so that I may share them with other creatures. How many fruit do you have?”

“Two” said B.” “Fruit” said A. At this point Theit thought A’s time might be better spent smacking himself in the head with a rock but Theit didn’t make him do that. Although that made sense. That would have been beneath Theit’s mission with this experiment, which was purely about creation, observation, data, and outcomes.

“B, could you help out A with this subtraction concept? There are bigger numbers to add and subtract and even different ideas that are not addition and subtraction and we must talk about them as well.”

“Okay” said B. A said “fruit!”

Theit was a little worried. It seemed that B was slowly understanding the information being shared but A was not. And both of them, to be honest, seemed more concerned with playing with the creatures and picking flowers than they were in learning. How was multiplication and division going to go if adding and subtracting up to four was proving this difficult? Theit let a rare shudder ripple through the tapir’s frame, although Theit was the one shuddering. Was this another failed experiment like the bacteria that ate all its own young and didn’t multiply? Or the lizard that popped off its own head when it was caught by a predator? They seemed like good ideas at the time—bacteria that controlled themselves, lizards with an escape mechanism—but those had gone wrong.

Theit didn’t really know how long that thought lasted. Was it brief or was it really long? In any case, Theit looked up and A was chasing a bunny through the meadow grasses and flowers and B was chasing A. Neither A nor B were catching what they chased but they laughed as they ran. You couldn’t really hate that.

“Come here, you two” said the fluorescent tapir. “More studying to do!”

A and B took their time but came over looking a little petulant with the tapir, which was an odd look as tapir’s usually provoke giggles rather than petulance. Theit didn’t care. It was time for lessons.

“Okay, let’s try something. It’s a trick I use all the time and it works on stars, planets, galaxies, and universes. I even used it here to make all these grasses and trees and flowers and bunnies. You like all these things, right?”

A stared and B nodded. A looked at B and noticed the nodding thing, which he had seen before, and nodded as B took the time to stare.

“Now, I’m going to talk about multiplication. It’s a way to make big numbers of things out of small numbers of things. Just listen and see if you get a pattern. We’re going to start with “one.” One multiplied by one is one. You can say this more simply just by saying “times” whenever you would say “multiplied by,” okay?”

“Okay” they said in unison. Theit had no idea if they were mimicking him or understanding, so he went on.

“If one times one is one, guess what one times two is?”

A said “one” and B said “two.” Perhaps there was some hope for B.

“Next. One times three is what, B?”

B said “three.”

“A. Anything?” asked Theit.

“One” said A, looking quite determined. Inside, the fluorescent tapir sighed a little sigh.

“B, what is one times four?”

“Four” replied B. A rubbed his leg and looked at a flower.

“Let’s try it something, B. What is four times one?”

“One” said B. Theit’s brief snout wiggled a little. It was confirmed. This was going to take a long time. Whatever would happen when the discussion turned to algebra? The snout wiggled ferociously at this thought. Theit sent a calming wave of thought through the tapir and got it to settle down. No one liked a condescending teacher, even if the teacher was a loveable tapir in bright colors.

Theit had a thought. There was a lot to do. Although Theit was coalesced in various forms all over this universe and every other universe doing this same kind of stuff, Theit thought that it might be time to pay attention to some of the more curious experiments and leave these two to their own devices. Their meadow too. It was a nice meadow and was perfectly balanced to live without dying and replenish itself without looking too sad. That took a certain amount of stamina from Theit’s other projects, which were infinite in number and completely manageable but still….


Theit visited A and B, this time as an enormous paramecium with lots of undulating cilia. A and B knew it was Theit because they had never seen this thing before. Although they found it sort of horrible, they also knew that it was okay to approach it as it ciliated its way over to them.

“A. B. How are you?”

“Good” they said in unison.

“Getting enough to eat?”


“Finding enough playmates among the squirrels and bunnies?” Theit asked about these because it seemed that A and B had a particular fondness for them over the larger animals or the ones who roared, although they all lived well next to each other. As was planned.

They both nodded. That seemed like an advance. Perhaps B had taught A the nod thing.

“Okay. Well. I have good news and bad news. Which would you like to hear first?”

“Good” they said again, although perhaps they meant that they would like to hear the good news first. That’s how Theit interpreted it.

“Well then. The good news is that all of this stuff you like is going to stay here. You can play with it all and eat fruit and drink from the streams and have as much fun as you like. Would you like to hear the bad news now?” Theit asked.

“Good,” which Theit took as a tacit understanding that they would now like to hear the bad news.

“Well. Hmmm. The bad news. Erm. I’m not sure how this is going to work out but I’m going to be away for a while. I’m not going to be able to perform maintenance on this place. Instead, you’re going to have to start doing it yourself. What does this mean? Well, it means that I’m going to give everything the power to multiply and divide but I’m also going to give everything the power to add and subtract. New stuff will come alive and old stuff will die. Bunnies and horses and trees and flowers and bees will all multiply but their cells—the little bits of life inside them that make all of this stuff work—will divide. That probably makes no sense to you at all since you haven’t really graduated from basic addition and subtraction (and I really don’t want to think about algebra or calculus, Theit said internally) but I’m hoping that if you see it happening it will make sense over time. It may take a while.”

A and B stared at Theit and didn’t move. They really had no idea what Theit was talking about. This was often the case and sometimes if they remained really still for a sufficient amount of time, Theit was quiet and loped off into the trees. It didn’t seem like this thing was going to lope but they could hope.

“It’s been nice, A and B. You’re the only ones I’ve made that are as hairless as you are. Really, you’re just a variation on a theme. See the hairy ones over there? The ones chasing after a zebra? Yeah. You’re the hairless—relatively speaking, of course—variety. And you walk on your back legs without using your front legs. I’m pretty sure that’s going to have consequences, by the way, but that’s beside the point. I do like you. Don’t take any of what’s about to happen personally. It’s not. Really. I just have a lot to do.”

With this statement, Theit coalesced a giant chunk of wrapped paper blocks out of the air and opened one to a middle page.

“See these? I’m going to call them “books” because they don’t have a name. They don’t have a name because I’ve been thinking about them and it’s come time to make some, so here they are. If you look at this page (it’s called a page, guys), you’ll see black squiggly marks. That’s called “writing” and this writing is in the first language of your creature-type. It tells you stuff. But I can’t wait around for you to learn what it says. I’m going to call this “homework” and you have to worry about what it says or you’re going to be a little out of luck for a long time. Okay?”

“Okay” said A and B.

“Okay” said Theit. Then he made the paramecium lope off into the woods.

A and B stared at the “books” and then stared at each other and then sat down.

Then they got up and ran after the bunnies and squirrels.

After a while, A and B noticed that the grasses changed colors and were replaced with other grasses and other flowers and that when they picked the flowers, they didn’t grow back. They noticed that when they picked fruit from the trees, the fruit didn’t grow right back. They noticed that the beasts who roared stopped other creatures from moving and tore them apart and that the smaller creatures kept away from the roarers. Some of the larger creatures were none too thrilled with the roarers either, so a lot of creatures moved away from them and lived in trees. A and B moved along with them. After they ate all the low-hanging fruit, they climbed trees to get the other fruit. After they ate those, they started to look at the bunnies and squirrels sort of like they saw the roarers looking at the bunnies and squirrels. They caught a few and tore them apart but then the bunnies and squirrels got smart and stayed away. And then the streams dried up, so A and B had to start walking. Their hips hurt. Their feet hurt. Their lower backs hurt. And they learned to feel pain, which led them to cry. Then they learned to say mean things to each other, which made one or both of them cry more.

Then one day, B got fatter and fatter and eventually a new creature popped out. B took care of the little creature until it grew. A wandered around playing with animals and flowers and leaving B to do all the work of raising the creature, which was as hairless as they were. And they kept walking until they found a place to call “home,” which was not much like their old place and had less fruit and the creatures stayed away. But it was home and they raised their creature and then another.

There was only one thing they had forgotten. They left the books at the place where Theit made them and had no idea how to get back there.

It took a long time for them to figure anything out. They remembered Theit fondly now and made up some stories, almost none of which were true. And they left out the bits about the fluorescent tapir and the enormous paramecium. They had a difficult time believing those themselves. So who would believe them?

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Paramecium caudatum