On a River

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
– Thoreau, Walden

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May 30, 1849: Henry David Thoreau self-published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, his first book that was about a boating trip he had taken with his brother, John. The trip had been 10 years earlier. They had gone from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back.

I spent most of Memorial Day weekend in my garden. Sort of in nature but not the “wildness” Thoreau wrote about.

“Gardening is civil and social, but it wants the vigor and freedom of the forest and the outlaw. There may be an excess of cultivation as well as of anything else, until civilization becomes pathetic.”
― Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

If you know Thoreau, it is probably for his book Walden. That comes later and in fact, it took him almost 10 years after his living-in-the-woods experiment to write that book. While he was in that little cabin by Walden Pond, he did the first draft of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. The journal he kept while in the woods would form the basis of the Walden book.

That is a book I believe I read – or was assigned to read – many years ago in college. I barely remember it, but I saw a blog post this week about it. Maybe I should give it another try.

John died of tetanus in 1842 and Thoreau wrote A Week… at least partly as a tribute to his brother. Some critics have thought that living alone in the woods was a way of reacting to losing John.

The brothers were quite different. Henry was introverted and studious. John was gregarious and fun-loving. But they were close; John helped pay Henry’s tuition to Harvard. John helped Henry open his own school when he got fired from his teaching job over his objection to corporal punishment.

It was only a few years after their boat trip that John died in his brother’s arms, unexpectedly, from tetanus.

His manuscript of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers was initially rejected by publishers, so Thoreau was only able to publish it by paying for its printing. Four years later, after paying off the printing debt, Thoreau wrote in his journal that his publisher had delivered the remaining unsold copies to his home. He wrote, “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes – over seven hundred of which I wrote myself.”

Dreams Are Poems. Dreams Are Time Travel.

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In Alan Lightman’s first novel, Einstein’s Dreams, he imagines what Einstein may have been dreaming about in Bern, Switzerland before he published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. I have had a fascination with Einstein ever since I was a teenager. I first came to him because he seemed connected to an earlier fascination with the possibility of time travel.

The 26-year-old Albert Einstein in the novel is in an unhappy marriage. He has a job as a patent clerk that he dislikes and that is far below his abilities. In his head are dreamscapes of theoretical realms of time. Alan Lightman describes the dreams which occur between April 14, 1905, and June 28, 1905.  Of course, all of it is pure imagination.  There is science in the imagined worlds. People’s lives are based on time being circular or flowing backward, or slowing down. The project Einstein was working on concerned electricity and magnetism, but the solution required a reconception of time. When the book opens, Einstein has finished with his new theory of time and, while he waits a few hours for a typist in his patent office, he thinks of his dreams.

To me, many of the dreams seem in their language very much like poems. That makes sense because dreams do seem poetic to me. At least, the dreams I remember and am able to record. If I take some of Einstein’s dreams and do some line breaks, they look and sound more like poems. Found poetry.
For example:

14 April 1905

time is a circle,
the world repeats
births, deaths, a glass falls and breaks,
all is repeated
and then again
nothing is temporary
or permanent.
Some people know
all this has happened before.
They walk the night streets
and cannot unbreak the glass,
prevent the death,
erase one unkind word.

16 April 1905

Time flows like a stream here
and when some rivulet
turns away and connects backstream,
it carries the people back.
Do you see them?
They are the fearful ones.
They know that any change they make
in the past,
will change the future.

Okay, let’s move from dreams and poem and on to that fact that I have wanted to build a time machine ever since I saw the movie version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. I probably read the Classics Illustrated comics version before I read the novel. I had boxes of discarded electronics and machines in my basement that I had culled on garbage collection days. I loved playing with the gears, knobs, and circuit boards. I learned some things along the way, got some nasty shocks, and burned myself on my soldering iron, but I never did get a working time machine. Many years later, watching the movie E.T., I watched that alien build his communicator using kids’ toys in that same ridiculously easy way I had hoped would work.

I have read that Wells wrote his novel partially in response to Charles Darwin publishing his theory of evolution which was the big scientific news of the time. His novel can be seen as a story about evolution, as he tells how we will evolve in the future. It’s not a pretty, but a cautionary, tale.

Can we go back in time? Einstein was not much fun for time travel enthusiasts.  Though we might imagine going back in time and righting wrongs (small ones of our own or large historical ones), he pretty much concluded that if we were to travel back, we would be who we were and do what we had done again. It’s an infinite loop. It doesn’t make for a good story or film. (So much for Back to the Future.) We couldn’t go back before our birth because we didn’t exist.

Simplified, Einstein said that by traveling at the speed of light, you would force time to slow down, then to stop, and finally to go backward. Of course, even if we could go faster than the speed of light, none of us could survive the speedy journey. (Though Superman did in a film in order to save Lois Lane.) Special relativity states that your mass would become infinite in the process. Some proponents of time travel point out that Einstein’s equations for general relativity do allow some forms of time travel, but then we are into science that is not for this post.

If you do want to still pursue some time travel, check into the ten-dimensional hyperspace theory, wormholes, and dimensional windows.

Time travel is a risky business. Personally, I am not a fan of blasting into some other time and finding myself binding into some substance in the space which I or the machine now occupies.

Einstein also warned of paradoxes. Meeting your parents before you are born is a popular one.  (See the first Back to the Future film) But then, that couldn’t happen because you didn’t exist then. Of course, you could go back to when you were 15 and get killed in an accident. Then what? Paradox.

4th May 1905

Time passes
but little happens.
Year to year,
month to month,
day to day,
the passage of events
are the same.
If you have no ambitions
you are unaware of your suffering,
the ambitious ones
know and suffer
but very slowly.

8th May 1905

The world will end
on the 26th of September 1907.
Everyone knows it.
Schools close the year before.
Businesses close the month before.
People are surprisingly unafraid.
They think over their coffee that
now there is nothing to really fear.
On September 25th
there is laughter on the streets,
neighbors who never spoke
greet each other as friends.
We are all equal in the world of one day.
One minute before the end
everyone in Berne gathers together.
No one moves or speaks.
It is like leaping off a mountain.
They hold hands as the end approaches.
They are weightless,
cool air rushes by,
the whiteness
of snow fills their vision.

Read On:
The Time Machine
Einstein’s Dreams
Back to the Future – The Complete Trilogy
The Time Machine

Through the Eyes of a Child

“Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will.” – Baudelaire

Isaac Newton saw his world-changing discoveries as something he did when he was “like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Yesterday, I spent the day with my two grandchildren, ages 3 years and 9 months. Those times are when I often come closest to recovering from my childhood moments of discovery and a different way of seeing the world. We use the word “wonderful” for many things that are not full of wonder – or perhaps, they are filled with wonder but we fail to see it. Think of looking up at the night sky, or at a wave forming and crashing or a plant blooming or making fruit, or a young bird testing its wings. Wonderful.

I came to these thoughts from our play time yesterday and noted them because of an article on The Marginalian (a website often filled with wonder). It was mostly about observing as done by John Steinbeck. He is an author that I read very intensely in my teen years, but have read much of late.

The book that was quoted is his non-fiction The Log from the Sea of Cortez which I had not read. This somewhat forgotten book of his (as compared to his Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden) is about one of his marine biology expeditions in the Gulf of California, but in some ways, it is a book on how to observe and how to think.

Here is one excerpt:

As always when one is collecting, we were soon joined by a number of small boys. The very posture of search, the slow movement with the head down, seems to draw people. “What did you lose?” they ask.
“Then what do you search for?” And this is an embarrassing question. We search for something that will seem like truth to us; we search for understanding; we search for that principle which keys us deeply into the pattern of all life; we search for the relations of things, one to another, as this young man searches for a warm light in his wife’s eyes and that one for the hot warmth of fighting. These little boys and young men on the tide flat do not even know that they search for such things too. We say to them, “We are looking for curios, for certain small animals.”
Then the little boys help us to search.

Though it seems like the boys and the adults were searching for different things, they really were searching for the same things.

My title makes me think of the dreamy Moody Blues song, “Eyes of a Child.” It is on the album To Our Children’s Children’s Children. Those will be my great-grandchildren who I don’t expect to ever meet. That concept album is mostly about the world we leave the generations after us. I also think it is about how we see the world and the idea of observing it through those childlike eyes that see wonder and are full of curiosity about the what, why, and how of so many things.

I do sometimes think that my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond might one day read things I have written – on paper or online. Some of those words are about me, our family, their grandfather, their father, and even about them in my imaginings. Although many of those words are through the eyes of an adult and now an old man, I hope some of them came from the place that I once was as a child too.

“We dismiss wonder commonly with childhood. Much later, when life’s pace has slackened, wonder may return. The mind then may find so much inviting wonder the whole world becomes wonderful. Then one thing is scarcely more wonderful than is another. But, greatest wonder, our wonder soon lapses. A rainbow every morning who would pause to look at? The wonderful which comes often or is plentifully about us is soon taken for granted. That is practical enough. It allows us to get on with life. But it may stultify if it cannot on occasion be thrown off. To recapture now and then childhood’s wonder, is to secure a driving force for occasional grown-up thoughts.”Charles Scott Sherrington

Lying in a hammock

Photo: S Migaj

It isn’t summer for another month, but it only takes a few hot days and things growing in the garden to put me into summer mode. Today I was lying on the couch outside in the Sun, feeling lazy and feeling good, and thinking about this poem by James Wright where he is “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.”

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

by James Wright, from his Collected Poems

Quarks With Charm

Back in 1964, the quark model was independently proposed by physicists Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig. They proposed that hundreds of the particles could be explained as combinations of just 3 fundamental particles. Gell-Mann assigned the name “quark” to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon. Quarks are any of a number of subatomic particles carrying a fractional electric charge, postulated as building blocks of the hadrons. Quarks have not been directly observed but theoretical predictions based on their existence have been confirmed experimentally.

What is interesting is that “quarks” was a nonsense word used by James Joyce in the novel Finnegans Wake

Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

“Quark” (which means several things to Joyce including the cry of a gull) rhymes with “Mark”, but Gell-Mann wanted it pronounced as “kwork.” He thought that since there are other phrases in the book that are used to call for drinks at the bar, so perhaps “Three quarks for Muster Mark” might mean “Three quarts for Mister Mark”, which gives him the pronunciation he wanted. The number three also fits the way quarks occur in nature. (Zweig actually wanted the name “ace” for the particle he had theorized.)

There are six different types of quarks, known as flavors: up (symbol: u), down (d), charm (c), strange (s), top (t) and bottom (b). Up and down quarks are generally stable and very common in the universe. The other quarks can only be produced in high-energy collisions, such as in particle accelerators and cosmic rays.

I’m rather fond of those charm quarks. The particle was named J by one group and ψ by another group, and, since a decision couldn’t be made (What’s with these physicists?) the compromise J/ψ was adopted. This particle has a “charmed” life – a half-life a thousand times longer than had been predicted theoretically. A charmed life sounds pretty good.


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Something described as holistic is characterized by the belief that the parts of something are interconnected and can be explained only by reference to the whole.

Holism is the interdisciplinary idea that systems possess properties as wholes apart from the properties of their component parts. The concept of holism informs the methodology for a broad array of scientific fields and lifestyle practices.

You may have heard of holistic medicine which is the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of an illness.

I knew the term from my years in education. Education with a holistic perspective is concerned with the development of every person’s intellectual, emotional, social, physical, artistic, creative, and spiritual potential. It seeks to engage students in the teaching/learning process and encourages personal and collective responsibility.

I have seen the word appear connected to religion. Holistic ministry views persons through God’s eyes, as body-soul wholes created to live in a wholesome community. That means you must minister to every dimension of human need – spiritual, financial, psychological, physical etc. A lofty charge to take on. It also means wholeness at every level of society – individuals, families, communities, nations, and the global human family. Some people refer to this as “natural religion.”

I thought about this the past week because I was rereading (via the audiobook – and No that’s not cheating since much of Adams’ writing began as radio plays) Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams which is the first book in his Dirk Gently series. Adams is a clever and funny author best known for the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, but the books take on some big and serious themes too. At Dirk’s Holistic Detective Agency, they solve the whole crime. Adams has Dirk promote his business by saying that “We find the whole person. Phone today for the whole solution to your problem (Missing cats and messy divorces a specialty).”

In this first book, there are ghosts, time travel, eccentric computer geniuses, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the end of the world, and some missing cats. Dirk uses “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things” to solve crimes, so his investigations sometimes follow seemingly irrelevant paths.

Dirk is psychic, though he refuses to believe in such things. He says that he has a “depressingly accurate knack for making wild assumptions.”It is depressing because he doesn’t seem to be able to use it to win money gambling.

My favorite of the three Dirk novels is The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. That phrase appeared in his earlier Life, the Universe and Everything. It described the horrible boredom of being immortal. It is also a kind of punning allusion to the theological treatise Dark Night of the Soul, by Saint John of the Cross.

You may not see the connection but in my post yesterday about missing the Full Moon, I waxed a bit philosophically and holistically about how celestial events, happenings in nature, and many very human events around us, go unobserved by most people. I do believe in the interconnectedness of the universe. I have long believed in synchronicity. It has been suggested that Ying and Yang may be a way to explain synchronicity. I used as an illustration here a Yin and yang symbol. It represents a Chinese philosophical concept that describes opposite but interconnected forces. Yin is the receptive and yang is the active principle. It can be seen in all forms of change and difference. For example, the annual cycle (winter and summer), the landscape (north-facing shade and south-facing brightness), and even sociopolitical history (disorder and order).

We are all trying to figure it out.


If you are more of a watcher than a reader or listener, there is a 2016 BBC TV series
with Dirk Gently played by Samuel Barnett, and his reluctant assistant Todd played by Elijah Wood. I watched the two seasons on Hulu. There had been a 5-episode series in 2012 with another cast.