Kissing the Killer

Nevada Fall (Ansel Adams)

Nevada Fall, Merced River

Throughout the lowlands singers sing
of your deep, feminine soul;
How reclining, you roll down your bed
amidst your veils and embankments;
They marvel at your fluent, accommodating ways,
how you slip through the world,
flowing around every obstacle,
rounding every edge, and
polishing every turn.

You compel us, it is true, down to where you lie.
Your eyes are limpid pools—it is true what they say,
and it is rumored far and wide that you mirror
the soul.

But the footing is treacherous around you. Your tender loam
gives way beneath our fingers and toes,
but your glistening bones are more hazard still.

It is true what men say, but I know you better yet.
I know you,
murderer.

The bones of old trees and bush
lie tangled in your arms.
I see your work.

Yesterday you might have been
merely a pool, and another, and another;
hung upon a sparkling, trickling necklace
virtually breathless and still
patient, accommodating
womb of a myriad, humming
vampires;
Algae multiplying,
colonizing your thickening blood.
The next day, you might be only lichen and bone.
Dry, white, crumbling bone, anchored deep within the earth—
or deeper still.
But now—
Now!

You gallop across mountains and vandalize
the sleepy canyons, tearing away the flesh and
leaving more bone drying in the sun,
your locomotive snarl,
your hissing, boulder-cracking roar!
Undulating waves, rolling and smacking,
sucking in air, mist storms exhaling!

Water the tyrant.
Water the destroyer—butcher, leveler,
Fury: skull-smashing and bone-snapping—sinew twisting;
Too murderously quick for suffocation; utterly

ruinous and
Beautiful kiss me.

phone, revisited.

phone (fon) Informaln. A telephone.
v. phoned, phoning. To call or transmit by
telephone.

Please accept my apology
for having stooped so low,
resorting to quotations.
Take heart: I don’t cite authority lightly,
but that phenomenon that’s femi-nine—
ambiguity demands one be specific
with one’s sources of information.

I’m sure it’s nothing there’s just a
minor misalignment between the words
and their intention.

Surely it’s a simple matter of definition.

Rest assured, no sooner had she spoken it was written,
and mapped to every match in Webster’s latest
collegiate edition.

Here be where the visitors
seek advisement in these affairs,
among the natives who—
having heard a word more often—
might be a little more familiar
with words whose sounds are similar,
having only sound in common.

My College Sweethearts

It suddenly occurs to me that I wrote my first love poem 26 years ago. I wrote it in Apple ][ BASIC. I just had to tell her how fine she looked on that low-res green screen. What beautiful pictures that green screen could make of my sweet little Trigah.

Trig! That bitch was the bane of my senior year. All those mysterious identities to be memorized—what for? For college? I wasn’t even finished with high school, and I was already sick of college.

The school counselor had a talk with my math teacher. He had seen me with Trig, and he could tell that we weren’t meant for each other. The counselor told my parents to steer me clear of anything involving Trig, Math, or anyone like them. They just weren’t my type.

But my Apple ][+ showed me her beauty—like the stars: a little coefficient here, or an angle multiplier there, and her sines and cosines suddenly had a beauty—a meaning—all their own.

By the time I met her again in college, I couldn’t get enough of her. How she had grown!

That’s right: college. I couldn’t find anything else to do with myself, so there was no way out of it. So I enrolled in the local community college.

But college had little or nothing in common with college prep. I could finally meet subjects on their own terms—not on behalf of college preparation.

That’s where I met Calculus. She was beautiful too, in a new way, and I loved her too. I wrote little love programs to her, even while I was still writing poems to Trig. Sometimes I would write one poem for both of them. I wonder whether they knew.

Loving them both was more fulfilling than loving just one or the other. Without one in my life, the other seemed—incomplete.

Their charms were so—complementary.

Then there was Diffy Q., and Vectora Nalysis—and Linnea L. Gebra. They were each beautiful in new, refreshing and surprising ways. I loved them too.

I loved them all.

Love, Sympathy, and Value

The September 13 episode of the Philosopher’s Zone podcast really struck a chord with me. I spent most of the episode mumbling non-verbal cues of non-committal acquiescence, but by the end I was slapping the steering wheel, saying, “that’s fucking beautiful” with tears welling up in my eyes. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

The key, to violate the plot line and jump to the climax, is to recognize the sympathetic and value-conscious aspects of love. Adam Smith came close when he recognized the sympathetic nature of human intelligence, and some Stoics seem to have believed in our natural capacity to appropriate others into our sense of self-consciousness (oikeiosis), but neither party, so far as I know, combined the notions of sympathy and value-consciousness as does Australian philosopher Jeanette Kennett:

What I saw so vividly in the most general sense was my son as a valuer.

Her trembling voice, no doubt, may have influenced my reaction, but this thinking has a deep appeal to me. It is not enough to sympathize with the joy and pain of others (please read Smith before you correct me with the word “empathize”). That is fine, but I believe the word “love” means something more, and the idea that we directly experience—or “see vividly”—the subjective value-consciousness of others is about as close as I’ve heard an idea get.

Thank you for listening, that was very brave of you. People have to learn that underlying business, the message of everything is love. Which is why society sticks together. You and I have love. —Jonathan, in Tell me I’m Here by Anne Deveson

If I’m selling Adam Smith or the Stoics short here, please let me have it. I would be happy to give them their due.

Because I believe love to be an innate inclination, I cannot use this line of reasoning to endorse Christian love, because Christian love is founded on a narrative of divine love. The dominant idea taught by the Christ-myth is that God loves us, therefore we ought to love one another. This sounds nice, but I believe that it undermines one aspect of love that I value most: its innate character. I would rather associate with the Stoics, who likely wielded a great influence upon Christianity, and came very close to speaking what I feel to be the truth.

Still, it seems to me that all classical western models miss an critical ingredient: value. Perhaps they left it out because they took value for granted. Perhaps it went without saying, but I believe that, in this age, it needs to be said. Plato came close in his near-deification of Beauty, but he didn’t develop that theme enough to convince me that he acknowledged the fundamental importance of value. I know that sounds rather circular: of course value is important! But I don’t mean to say that our sense of value is tied to what we find important; rather, I believe that our very existence is value-laden.

In looking for a classical symbol of this point of view, if not a philosopher or a kindred spirit, I cannot think of a better example than Zoroaster (Zarathushtra) for his essential intuition of a value-laden world, though the insights of the Stoic theory of oikeiosis and Smith’s theory of moral sentiments are crucial. … And let’s not forget Kennett!

PS: At the risk of sounding elitist, I’m not sure that I would have ever appreciated such discussions on love had I not become a parent.

Watching Whales in the Sink

Much of my childhood was spent in the towns of Hanford and Tulare, in a region once called the Tulare Basin, not far from the dry bed of Tulare Lake. This name “Tulare Basin” might have had more meaning before Tulare Lake was drained for wheat and cotton, but it’s still got that “basin” feel to it, or perhaps “sink” is a better word, with the way the heavier air settles down into it. It’s more than just the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

At about the time I became a teenager, I bicycled from Hanford to the brink of the Sierra Nevada, and watched the ghostly hills emerge one-by-one out of the Valley haze. I remember the sense of wonder in coming so close to something other than table-flat. I remember the soft, round foothills jutting suddenly out of the Valley floor like whales breaking the surface of a sea of orange groves.

Whales in the sink

Whales east of Cutler, California

There’s a remarkable story behind those whales that I had not heard about until quite recently.

I was taught in college that the earth’s crust is thicker under continents, and thickest under mountain ranges. Think of it as a characteristic of any floating object: the more that you see floating over the surface, the more there is under the surface; only there’s much more under the surface, as with an iceberg.

It turns out that this is not the case with the southern Sierra Nevada. This mountain range is more like a catamaran than a conventional boat. Under the highest portion of the Sierra, the crust is thinner than 30 km, and the crust doesn’t exceed 35 km in thickness under most of the crest of the High Sierra, as well as the Great Western Divide. All this is thinner than the crust is under Fresno.

The Sierra Nevada is hence thought to have lost its root. Layers under the range are thought to have separated, or “delaminated”. If this occurs to an iceberg, one would expect the iceberg to settle down into the water a bit, but that all depends on the relative density of the ice and the water. What happens when a mountain range looses its root? What happens if chunks of crust are dropped into the upper mantle? Some geologists appear to believe that delamination under the Sierra may have created a deep convection cell that led to even more uplift, and possibly an ancient supervolcano. What’s more, that convection cell appears to still be around, and very much alive.

Root loss, mantle drip, and the Moho hole.

Root loss, mantle drip, and the Moho hole.

Let’s take a conceptual hike. Start at Long Valley Caldera, where one of the world’s great volcanic events occurred 760,000 years ago. Walk across the Mammoth divide, past Devils Postpile National Monument, and down the San Joaquin River to Fresno. For much of your hike across the western slope of the Sierra, you will be waling over another anomaly: there is no clear boundary between the crust and mantle beneath your feet: you’re crossing the “Moho Hole”. You’re also walking over a gigantic “high-velocity drip” convection cell. In some areas, the convection cell presses up on the crust; in other places, pieces of the crust are dripping down into the mantle.

So what does all this have to do with whales?

Look at those whales east of Visalia, then look at the foothills along other parts of the western Sierra Nevada. The latter emerge gently from the plain, but the former shoot right out of the Valley floor like sinking ships, and that’s just it: they must be sinking, and there’s more than thirsty farms at work here. As they sink, sediments from Sierra streams settle in around them, burying the the foothills themselves. What we see, then, are not foothills but mountains.

The Tulare Basin is more than just a stagnant basin that happens to be adjacent to the Sierra Nevada: it is part of the Sierra, and not just because it sits on the low end of a great granitic incline. Likewise, the southern Sierra Nevada is much more than just a giant slab of granite. When realizations like these dawn upon us, so too are we reminded that science is more than an accumulation of knowledge: it’s a thing of beauty.

Don’t take my word for it, of course. No doubt I’ve read some of the science wrong. Read it for yourself and let me know what you think:

George Zandt, University of Arizona, 2003:
The Southern Sierra Nevada Drip and the Mantle Wind Direction Beneath the Southwestern United States


George Zandt, Hersh Gilbert, Thomas J. Owens, Mihai Ducea, Jason Saleeby & Craig H. Jones, in Nature 432, 2004:
Active foundering of a continental arc root beneath the southern Sierra Nevada in California


Jason Saleeby and Zorka Foster, CalTech, 2004:
Topographic response to mantle lithosphere removal in the southern Sierra Nevada …


Elisabeth Nadin and Jason B. Saleeby, CalTech, 2005:
Recent Motion on the Kern Canyon Fault, Southern Sierra Nevada, California … (link broken)