Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Julien Colella on Trilobites and Richard Fortey via a Diptych

In Minneapolis, there exists a completely soundless room. The anechoic chamber at Orfield Labs is so quiet that solitary folks can hear the sloshes and groans of their functioning organs. Sleep would be impossible, I imagine, thanks to deafening homeostasis -- a heartbeat more annoying than a pumping subwoofer. Hallucinations begin after roughly thirty minutes of solitary confinement. I've rejected offers to housesit post-college because I can't stand to be alone in my head, but that was fear of five days, not half an hour. No one has lasted more than forty-five minutes alone in the anechoic chamber. Insanity may result, or violent psychotic rage, but nobody knows for sure.

Earthbound fires are inherently predictable: Give them a source of fuel and oxygen, and fire-heated air will rise while gravity pulls cold air downward. Spacebound fires are inherently unpredictable. ISS astronauts have discovered that microgravity produces flames in orbs or domes -- slow flames, which don't lick but move as if sleeping. The fire's more tenacious, too: It can survive with much less oxygen than can a fire on Earth. If I cap a candle as my night descends, it dies at once. But in space the slow fire burns in two states with certain liquid fuels: The first visible stage, and a second invisible stage, in which the fuel has reignited and burns coolly outside of the EM range a human eye can perceive.

Two years ago, at midnight, I saw a house on fire. I looked and I thought: it's large; it's wrong. But I couldn't be sure because I'd already removed my contacts. I asked first one brother and then the other but neither would look and confirm. I put my contacts back in and left through the back door. Hurried; climbed over several fences; ripped my new pants. The fire was almost a mile away, and much larger than I'd supposed. Why hadn't I seen the flashing red-blues of the fire engines? I stood for an hour and watched the bundled firemen. I was alone. No family holding sundry treasures. The trucks hosed the area and the fire consumed the house. I walked home the long way, around the fences. My bedroom's thick glass and my poor vision made the dwindling fire a series of bright oblongs, the last things I saw before I slept.

"Look into a crystal of Iceland spar," writes RIchard Fortey in Trilobite!, "and you can see the secret of the trilobite's vision." Fortey possesses a palpability I can't attain: At ocean bottoms hundreds of millions of years ago, trilobites -- arthropods, like insects or crabs -- possessed focusing minerals for eyes. "The trilobite eye is in continuity with the rest of its shelly armor. It sits on top of the cheek of the animal, an en suite eyeglass, tough as clamshell." I'm covetous only of the trilos' always-sight. But I doubt the clarity of omnipresence.

I have woken each of the past six nights in hot sweating terror. The smart thing to do, a friend says, apropos of not my situation, is to get out of bed; don't bind your terror there. I don't; I remain abed. I wait and hope that my consciousness will suspend. I half-dream of every fault I have ever possessed. In the morning I stare at the kitchen floor, at the place where an ice cube of tap water fell, melted, and left behind a stain of salts and residues. 

"Pearls are chemically the same as the trilobite's unblinking lenses," Fortey writes, "although pearls are exquisite reflectors of light rather than transmitters of it." This difference, between the lack of absorption or the presence of same, is all. A pearl is only a mass, given import via scarcity; but while I am skeptical of an oyster's consciousness, I can anthropomorphize it into excitement at a quick trip from the melancholy of that same patch of riverbed, in the moment before it's pried open for what's within.

Two years ago I agreed to housesit when my biology professor spent a summer in Argentina on a Fulbright. I wasn't sure what his research was, exactly. I knew his doctoral dissertation was on pikas. The day before he left, he handed me a document. I didn't much care: He'd kept me an hour later than we'd agreed upon and I had a barbeque to attend. But I took the papers. I waited for an explanation. In his face, "please accept" became "it's our secret" became "tell me you like it." He had an eight-year-old son with the same face. On the son's highest bookshelf, the dissertation. Inside the private pages of the dissertation he'd hidden it: story, written days or years before.

The story was fantastical, about a man's trip to the Late Triassic seashore, 215 million years before. The method of travel was not included, not relevant; but detail had been lavished upon the beach's soft, red sand and the warmth of the lagoon the particular arc of beach encircled. Through clear water, trilobites hovered and scurried; in the lagoon's middle, a Shonisaurus. Fifty feet long, dolphin-shaped and bus-sized, flippers the size of my prof, eye as big as his head. A fish-eater, but I expected the time-traveler would be an acceptable snack. Instead the traveler swam naked toward the creature and then treaded water, his face to the great orb of its black eye. The story had no denouement; he stayed without equivocation.

I search my email for the story but halfheartedly. There is much about which I could be anxious instead. Anyway, it wasn't the narrative content that mattered. The sand was probably not red at all, and I would like to sleep tonight.

1 comment:

  1. In his 2011 documentary, Living Fossils, Dr. Carl Werner

    documents how fossils of modern animals such as parrots, owls, ducks, penguins, and flamingos are found in the same rock layers that dinosaur fossils are found in.

    Fossils of modern trees have also been found, including: sequoias,
    redwoods, sassafras, walnut and palm.

    Richard Fortey said in an Atheists Talk radio interview (April 29/12): "So yeah, I mean, give me the money to make a brand new diorama and I'd put these animals in with pleasure."

    (around the 18:18 mark)

    See also: "Winged Victory" by Gareth Dyke (Scientific American, July 2010) it's subtitle: "Modern birds, long thought to have arisen only
    after the dinosaurs perished, turn out to have lived alongside them".