Davey Dow and Lala
(published 2011 on Wilderness Interface Zone)
Davey Dow was walking down the street a bit earlier and a bit happier than was usual for a Friday afternoon (Friday, usually, being the least halcyon of his days), and anyone on the street who may have known him would have swiftly gotten out of his way with that long and peculiar sidelong glance reserved for the irredeemably weird.
But as it was, no one knew him—this was not his town, though in feel, appearance and size are they not all about the same? The thing about Davey Dow was that every town was the same to him—stiffbilly and overpopulated—even relatively smallish towns such as this.
But while every town seemed the same to Davey, every square mile of wilderness was shingilly unique. Although he had his small farm tucked away into a hidden mountain valley, he took every possible opportunity to visit the vistas far and near. And it was his desires to know the surrounding wildernesses that made his occasional weekend town-trips so unpleasant. But as has been noted, this Friday he was both in town and happy. Someone in possession of all knowledge of Davey (knowledge in terms of court-worthy facts) might suppose he was happy because he was about to buy seed—quite possibly his final seed purchase as he was verging on self-sufficiency. A good reason, but not the reason. Indeed, no real reason existed. He was happy simply because he was. And it was in this frame of mind that he met Lala.
Lala was crawling out of her SUV after another dirty week in the mountains. She walked around to the back in order to dredge out her laptop, which had spent the week converting what it saw of the natural world into page-long mathematical equations. In the neverending search for knowledge and concreteness, Lala and her laptop were something of a heroic pair. In the laptop’s prognosis of nature, Lala saw an example for humanity. “Look at the patterns and their simplicity,” she would say to a classroom of graduate students, pointing at a projection covered in characters Roman, Greek and Arabic, representing a lone pine overlooking a glacial lake, calm as glass. “If only we lived that way.” And she would sigh a long, sad sigh.
“I don’t say anything new,” she would say after a lengthy schpill in that language called the math of science. “Everything I say comes out of antiquity. I look back to our Bacchusses and Waldens, and I know that what I say is not new. Humanity—civilization—should structure itself according to nature! Nature is the key!”
As Lala stretched behind her SUV, she squeezed her eyes shut and pushed against the small of her back. She had been gone all week. As she closed up the back of her SUV, the sudden noise made Davey jump, for he was walking past just that spot as the door slammed shut.
“Oh gosh! I’m sorry!”
Davey just shook his head in an attempt to gain his bearings. As he shook his head, Lala took the moment to notice his rough and undyed dress.
“Hey, aren’t you that mountain guy from up in the Green Hills or something?”
Davey, not yet ready to speak, simply nodded.
“What sort of philosophy for life makes you seclude yourself way up there? What’s to be said for being a recluse?”
Davey had been, as she asked her question, slowly, calmly, methodically—almost sherlockingly—observing her, trying to place her.
“Being a recluse?” he repeated, giving himself a chance to hear the question. “There is much I can say about what may be learned from the simplicity of nature.”
“Oh, I know!” she gushed. “There is such wonderful order in nature! Everything has its role and its time!”
“I study nature incessantly, you know. Made it my life’s work. Thank goodness too, haha; there is so much to know! Maybe someday I’ll narrow in on my grasp on everything, you know?”
“Everything the natural world has to offer. I study everything.”
“Everything! Well! Now that’s impressive!”
“Well, nature is my subject, and that includes everything.”
“So do you plan on knowing Everything?”
“Knowing everything? Well, I suppose study everything at any rate. We can leave it at that.”
“If you study everything, then Everything has yet to be studied.”
“What? That’s illogical. The more you study, the more that’s chipped off that block of infinity we call Everything. The less there is still to study. Wouldn’t you say?”
“I study Nothing, therefore there is nothing left to know. Therefore the world is open and clear—mine for the understanding.”
Lala looked at him. “What?”
“I have been, of late, visiting the Beginning before the Beginning where Nothing’s the only Something, which Something had yet to produce the Nothing that is the Something that became the Beginning which followed the Beginning before the Beginning. While I was there, I saw the Elements which were not yet elements and I watched them be penetrated by Energies that were not yet energy. By seeing things that were not what they were, I did not understand what is understood; but I did understand what no one from the Beginning before the Beginning till now has ever understood.
“This is what I mean when I say that your studies of Everything leave everything to be studied. For I saw Everything when it was the Nothing that was not yet Something and I understood.”
“I see,” said Lala slowly after a rather long pause. Letting another pause go by before she spoke again, Lala said: “Well, be that as it may, I think I have had something of an experience like that. You see, I am a scientist and a mathematician. And to me, the beauty of nature is best understood in this way. Watch!”
Lala sat down on the curb and motioned for Davey to sit next to her. As he slowly sat down and settled his feet into the orange leaves filling the gutter, Lala was opening up her laptop and getting it ready for a little presentation.
“All right, now first of all, look at this tree,” Lala said, indicating a photo of a windshorn lone pine in the top window of her screen. “I call it Jake. Good name for a tree, eh? Now Jake here is something of an oddity. Not only does he have his natural form (whatever that should have been), but the effect of a thousand winds has altered his form substantially.”
Lala looked to see if Davey was paying attention. He was looking intently at the tree and so, presumably, absorbing her ever word. Encouraged, she continued.
“Now let me make this tree a little smaller. Okay, great. Now watch: I’m pulling up . . . . Okay, good! Now, what do you see?”
Davey looked at her a little askew, then back to the cascade of numbers tumbling across the screen. “Black on white,” he said.
“Right! It’s the tree! See? This is one equation which captures the essence of the tree! I wrote the program that does this myself, and it’s so incredibly amazing what it’s teaching me! Now, as soon as I get this back inside, I’m going to contrast this bewinded tree with all the other trees of its kind I’ve collected. Now that will really say something! This is sort of like your nothing out of something, see? Do you see?”
“These numbers,” said Davey, “are like footprints. The footprints of a tree.”
“Yes!” said Lala excitedly. “Exactly!”
“Well, first of all, trees, not having feet, don’t have footprints. But even if they did, what would that mean? Footprints in the dust are temporary and fleeting. And even in the rare case where a footprint turns to stone and can be read millions of years later, it is still a footprint and not a foot. A footprint can never be a foot. Just as numbers black on white will never be a tree. Writing down numbers taken from the tree is as foolish as writing down every word as it falls from the mouth of an echo.”
Lala blinked at him.
Davey gestured at the small picture of the tree on her screen. “Look! You have captured a tree!” He reached out to touch it, and as his hand hit the display he seemed surprised. He tried to touch the tree twice more with the same result. He tapped it with his fingernails.
“Tell me,” he said, “is that a tree?”
Lala narrowed her eyes. “No, not really. It’s a picture of a tree.”
“Ah! A picture of a tree! But it looks so real! So lifelike!”
Lala smiled. “Yes, yes. Well, I’ve got a really high resolution, you know.”
“Oh really? And what is your High Resolution?”
Lala started to tell him some numbers but he interrupted her. “Ah-ah! Those are numbers! Are even your goals and desires shrunken down into simple numbers?”
“Do you see numbers when you climb a mountain?”
“Not exactly, but the numbers are easy to find. Like the six sides of a snowflake. Or Fibonacci numbers.”
“Yes,” said Davey. “Snow is beautiful.”
“Yes, but that’s not all it is! Like everything in nature, Beauty is just the surface; there is so much more to be seen! So much more underneath!”
“Why do we have eyes?”
“Why do we have eyes? To see, I guess. We couldn’t see without our eyes.”
“If our eyes were made for seeing, is not then Beauty its own excuse for being?”
“What? Say that again . . . .”
“Oh, tree!” exclaimed Davey, not looking at the tree exactly, but somehow through it. “I never thought to ask, I never knew to know, but in my Simple Ignorance supposed that the Nothing that caused me here, caused you there.”
“Hang on. I’m sure I—”
“I think that I shall never see a Something lovely as a tree.” Davey abruptly turned to Lala just as she was again opening her mouth. “Can you show me in numbers?”
“Can you show me in numbers?”
“Well, my stuff’s all designed for trees—especially pines.”
“But can you show me in numbers?”
“Well, yeah. I guess so. But it’ll think you’re a tree.”
“And I am a tree more that numbers, am I not?” asked Davey, nodding at the laptop. “Have you ever done yourself in numbers?”
“What? Me? You want me in numbers?”
“Have you ever done yourself in numbers?”
“Um, no . . . .”
“Ah, I don’t know. I guess I just haven’t.”
“I guess because right now I’m interested in trees.”
“How many trees do you have in numbers?”
“Oh, several thousand I suppose.”
“Oh, yes. I have a great deal of them. I think I have enough to establish normalcy. So now I’m collecting deviants for comparison”
“Such as me. I am reminded of the tale of the Grasshopper and the Chicken. They were sitting together relaxing when a Frog hopped by.
“‘Hey there, now, Frog!’ called out Grasshopper. ‘From where are you coming?’
“‘From the Lake,’ said Frog. ‘It is a stretch of water so far I cannot see the far shore, just the mountains beyond.’
“Grasshopper and Chicken looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Every time Frog hopped by he had a story as ridiculous as this.
“‘Oh really,’ said Grasshopper. ‘And what did you there?’
“‘There,’ said Frog, ‘I met a creature called Swift. It is larger than you, friend Grasshopper, but smaller than you, friend Chicken. Swift told me how each year he would fly a thousand miles and then back again.’
“After frog left, Grasshopper and Chicken took to discussing Frog’s story. They both agreed that flying a thousand miles was impossible.
“‘Why,’ said Grasshopper, ‘it is all you or I can do to fly up to the first branch of that stately elm there. To fly a thousand miles—! Impossible!’
“‘Indeed,’ agreed Chicken. ‘A thousand kernels of corn I can imagine, but a thousand miles? I don’t know that there are a thousand miles.’
“Knowledge such as yours of trees gives no true understanding of the boundaries between fact and falseness. You may know a Something, but something is no more Everything than nothing is Nothing. You accuse me of being a recluse from people by living among nature, but you are a recluse from nature by living among numbers. Your knowledge, such as it is, is as substantial as the footprint of a tree, and trees do not have feet. The task of understanding Everything is utterly beyond your powers.”
Davey Dow stood up and stretched his back. “Much as your Something is not more than it isn’t, so is this town and the all of all towns everywhere. Much as it has been pleasant being with you and your numerical trees, I must be going.”
So saying, Davey turned and headed deeper into town, the town he knew as the nothing that never was a Something, to buy seed and to never return.
Author’s Note: I owe a great debt to Arthur Waley’s translation of Chuang Tzu included in his book Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China. And, of course, to Chuang Tzu himself.