Alfie, Rocks, and The Red Wheelbarrow

Woodstock and Alfie many years ago.

Alfie, our guinea pig of 7 years, a resident of the planet for 8.5 years, died yesterday. My sons and I took him to the vet in the morning , knowing they’d allow him to return to the earth a bit sooner, rescuing him from the pain he’d experienced in the last month or two. A few minutes after an injection to the abdomen, he stopped breathing. We brought his body home.  In the afternoon, my younger son dug a hole for him, and with little ceremony but plenty of heart, we returned him to the universe. That afternoon we also watched the eighth in the Teaching Company’s lecture series, How The Earth Works, by Dr. Michael Wysession.

It was the perfect eulogy. That lecture was about the rock cycle with generous nod to the carbon cycle. The two intertwine, with atoms moving from inorganic to organic matter, then back again, over and over, for billions of years. He began the lecture with a sheet of paper, posing the question of how to return the carbon atoms in the paper to a tree. Bury it burn it, flush it, eat it. Whatever action one chooses returns it to the universe and, often, potentially to the tree. I’ll not relate the mechanisms by which this recycling of atoms can happen, but I found his recitation of ways to be deeply meaningful on this day of sadness and loss.
We’re star dust, the products of fission and fusion, all which began billions of years ago. We’re but a short blink in the existence of an atom, just a stop along the ironically both ordered and chaotic way of the universe. Every breath we take continues this exchange of the matter that makes up our bodies. Stay in the same place for a while, and it’s hard to say what around you is you and what is other.
I find all that immensely comforting and utterly humbling. I am an indescribably small part of the universe, with my body a collection of transient atoms arranged just so in a form that I call me. And yet, I’m part of all of it, the whirl of life and what came before life, along with what comes after it. Awareness of my transient nature and ever-changing collection of atoms could lead one to believe that one doesn’t make a difference here. With all than change and flux in the cycles of the universe, who cares what I do in my blink of a time here?
Along comes chaos theory, ready to lift us out of existential despair.Chaos theory is about finding the order in what looks disordered. Mathematics, physics, economics, biology, psychology, geology, and more all utilize chaos theory, applying the principles to order and disorder. Rather than discourage one further, chaos theory can be encouraging. After all, even small differences can make profound changes to the larger system.
Recall the butterfly effect. Mathematician Ian Stewart puts it this way:
The flapping of a single butterfly’s wing today produces a tiny change in the state of the atmosphere. Over a period of time, what the atmosphere actually does diverges from what it would have done. So, in a month’s time, a tornado that would have devastated the Indonesian coast doesn’t happen. Or maybe one that wasn’t going to happen, does. (Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice? The Mathematics of Chaos, pg. 141)
In other words, little stuff matters. We’re the little stuff, or at least we’re a bit of the little stuff. Alfie’s life mattered. On a biological level, he certainly put out his share of waste that found its way to the back garden off my deck. He also took a fair amount in, creating a small but definite carbon footprint over his 8.5 years. He had an impact on the universe. While beyond the realm of formal chaos theory study, he certainly had an impact on our hearts.
Finally, there’s the  red wheelbarrow:

 

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

William Carlos Williams
It seems that before chaos theory was first a subject of experimentation by Edward Lorenz in 1960, William Carlos Williams hit upon it in verse. His intent remains a mystery, and there is no indication that he was musing about chaos or the purpose of life. But I’d agree with our virtual geology instructor, Dr. Wysession, that one possible interpretation is that the details and seemingly small stuff matters. I’d extrapolate from the poem that if the wheelbarrow and its particulars matter, so do we. As one who doesn’t hold that we’re here with a preordained purpose from a deity, this sense of “mattering” in the physical sense is comfort.  We are made from the stuff of stars, and we’re in constant interaction with the universe, atom by atom.
In our short trip as whatever we call “self”, we participate in the chaotic order of the universe as well as the far more tangible lives of other selves. Our selves in the world matter, and if the flap of the butterfly’s wings effect on the weather a hemisphere away, the little stuff we does matter as well. Between our birth and dying, the living matters. It’s the smiles, encouragement, compassion,  and love that we share that makes a difference far down the road. (The not-so-nice stuff we spread travels just as far.) It’s the care we take today of our planet that changes what happens in the seasons of our children and grandchildren. We do make a difference, whether we mean it or not.
So Alfie, goodbye. Dr. Wysession, thank you for a reminder of our interconnectedness and to the greater web of the universe, from rock to tree to me. William Carlos Williams, thanks for the image of a wet wheelbarrow. Thanks for the little ways you touched our lives, Alfie.  Those little touches have such a far reach.
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