Brook Trout and Banyan Trees
Last summer, I was seated on a bench. Not any bench, but my favorite slab of abandoned lumber located beside this little rill where I spend much of my time playing tag with native brook trout while at my fishing camp in western Maine. With a fine cushion of brilliant green moss, it’s just the right size and shape for my skinny ass to rest comfortably while contemplating a bit of this or that. Having no knowledge of quantum physics, I was ruminating on the absurdity of this rock-and-roll planet’s inexplicable ability to spin within a galaxy that like so many others in space has been expanding through the millennia. I’d been wondering too, how in an infinite universe with so much stellar junk floating around we haven’t bumped into anything larger than a chunk of space-rock astronomers call meteorites. Something like, say for instance, a British police box containing a shape-shifting time traveler. But no, it seems our only visitors may be those the government has been hiding away in the New Mexico desert.
The temperature, in the mid-seventies, was quite pleasant. A woodpecker hammered against the trunk of a distant tree. Not far away, a crow cawed from somewhere deeper in the forest, another calling back. A harrier hawk swept low over the contours of the marsh surrounding the little stream. With the sun on my neck I interrupted my cosmic wonderings while staring down on a set of familiar riffles. I was hoping to catch a sign, perhaps a rise or subsurface flash that would reveal the presence of a fish. After a while, my mind resumed its rambling, stopping to examine what might be the opposite of infinity. At first, I decided it must be zero. But if infinity has no end why would its opposite be any different? I mean, if a number can be combined over and over again, then I suppose it can be divided into smaller and smaller bits, however infinitesimal, never actually reaching zero.
As my head began to ache, I heard a rustling of leaves along the far bank. A mink stood on its haunches. Its little head popped above the tall grass, between its jaws dangled the limp body of a garter snake. I remained still when the mink’s beady eyes shifted in my direction. Although I didn’t move, the carnivorous mammal hadn’t survived that long by taking careless risks. Rather than drawing closer, it slinked down the bank and swam to the far side of the brook. A red squirrel, who had been watching from the branches of a spruce tree, chattered a complaint as the member of the weasel family vanished downstream.
The first law of thermodynamics states the principle known as the conservation of energy. That is, energy can change from one form to another, although the total amount of energy does not change, making the cosmos an enormous recycling plant—Mayfly becomes trout, trout becomes mink, mink becomes man, man becomes…You get the idea.
The second law of thermodynamics states that all natural systems tend toward disorder, a characteristic called entropy, which means that every system, including our bodies, our social groups, the very atoms comprising the universe, the earth, those galaxies I’d been thinking about earlier, are gradually dissipating.
It’s hard not to argue that everything from the tiniest sub-atomic particles to the universe as young as it may be, must someday come to an end. But to admit that we are mere stardust, poof and we’re gone, is that a bridge too far? Is the mayfly, the trout, the mink, the bear, and even the angler, nothing more than a collection of molecules that are constantly expanding, dying, changing, comprised of flesh and bone, mere containers to hold a mixture of bodily fluids?
What about that other part of us? You know, the part that while standing naked in the shower worries about what the day may bring or over previous mistakes. The part that curses when we miss a strike on an exceptionally large fish or dances with glee when we bring that fish to the net. The part that strikes out in rage or falls helplessly in love. The part of us that hums, even sings from time to time, the part, like Siddhartha Gautama, who decides to sit in thought for seven weeks under the shade of a banyan tree or an aging angler seated for an hour on a makeshift bench waiting for a brook trout to break the surface of a little stream in western Maine.
The snow melts, the rain dries, the rivers flow, the mayflies hatch, the trout spawn, our bodies shed flesh, our stomachs grow fat, our hair turns gray, (worse yet, we lose it altogether), the earth warms, the universe expands, and yes, we all die.
Rising from my bench on that early-summer afternoon, I came to the conclusion that when it’s all said and done, I’d continue to play tag with the occasional fish. Taking the advice of my favorite singer-songwriter, Iris Dement, I decided to “just let the mystery be.”