Flashbulbs and Tornadoes and Time Capsules that Grow on Trees
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
“Some people are afraid of the dark. Not me. I like it. When it’s absolutely pitch black, your imagination isn’t restricted by reality. You could be standing in a huge field, in a cave, or on the moon. There are no images or sounds to clutter your mind. The unknown can be liberating. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.”
-journal entry, 11/28/02
Sewn to my clothes, taped to the walls, and scattered across the floor of my room, they each tell a story. Stretched across the reels of mix tapes, cut and pasted into zines, stroked in radiant hues on paper, echoing in the crevices of skeletons from unidentified creatures, they all contain meanings not found in any dictionary. Around my neck I used to wear an old rusty flashbulb filled with seawater, which I found on an abandoned beach. It looked like a bottled potion, and to me the light bulb represented a sudden flash of ideas; inspiration. Wherever I went, I carried a tiny amount of the vast ocean with me, and I wrote a eulogy for my light bulb when it fell and smashed on the pavement.
Besides my sketchbook, I carry my journal with me everywhere. Glued into it are flyers, photos, dried leaves, labels painstakingly peeled from bottles of cheap wine, empty seed packets, newspaper clippings, and numerous other artifacts of my life. My journal contains bits of conversations and pieces of dreams written in sleepy chicken scratch. Hidden between its pages are the blueprints to poems and escape plans accompanied by diagrams of contraptions that will help me carry them out. There are adventure stories and love songs addressing no one in particular, the contents of my day. Each word is like a seed, with the potential to branch out in a thousand directions. I scatter them across the page and sometimes when I check on them later they have sprouted into strange tales and I can wander through them like Alice in the Garden of Live Flowers exclaiming, “Curious and curiouser!” My memory is like a compost pile and sometimes flipping through my journal helps to unearth fertile material. Sometimes I sleep with it under my pillow and I will awake during the night and scrawl cryptic notes that I can stitch together later, or I may find ridiculous stories that will have me in stitches.
One night I started pacing a little too quickly and thinking a little too hard. The next morning I found a few pages of my journal filled with manic rantings and pseudo-scientific observations, all connected with plant metaphors and sloppily drawn arrows. Beneath the empty seed packets from the marigolds and basil I’d planted the day before, I had written, “My thoughts branch off each other so fast it’s hard to remember the roots. Every word is connected to another idea which must be fully explained, giving rise to yet more thoughts, a string of thoughts with no beginning and no end and infinity in the middle, and then I gotta untangle the whole damn thing. Everything is structured in shapes and patterns that follow nature. A neuron has the same branching-out pattern as the delicate roots of a flower, the circulatory system, and my thought process.” I ended up doing some research and found that other people had noticed these patterns and studied them in great depth.
Chaos theory explains how the smallest disruption in a system can result in massive changes. This makes it impossible to accurately predict phenomena such as weather patterns because they are affected by countless factors that interact with each other in countless ways. In the words of Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, “The flapping of a single butterfly’s wings 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.” A minor historical event can impact a language, which in turn can later affect the way humans perceive their world.
A mathematician named Benoit Mandelbrot contributed to chaos theory by moving beyond the three basic dimensions and created what he called fractional dimensions as a way of measuring the degree of roughness or irregularity in a real object, such as a coastline. The length of a coastline depends on the length of the ruler. If you measure it with a yardstick, you get a certain number which does not include all the twists and turns smaller than a yard. If you measure the coastline in feet, you get a larger, more accurate number. Mandelbrot found that the length actually continues to infinity, bays and peninsulas containing smaller sub-bays and sub-peninsulas. There are many forms in nature that contain these self-similar patterns that nest within each other like Russian dolls, and he named these structures fractals. Once Mandelbrot created the language, scientists began to find fractal structures everywhere. Biologists found that the nature of branching blood vessels is fractal. The circulatory system must squeeze a huge surface area into a limited volume.
Branching structures are also present in the evolution of languages, enabling them to fill a limited space (the Earth) with a vast number of interpretations of our world. Linguists call the method of estimating the time at which related languages separated from a common ancestral language glottochronology. Like canyons shaped by water, languages are carved by the continuous flow of history. They are imprinted by human activity, from wars and migration to youth cultures and rap lyrics. Languages also show similarities in human psychology, regardless of culture. In a famous experiment conducted in 1969, researchers collected color terms from speakers of 98 different languages using a chart of 329 color chips. Native speakers were asked to mark all the chips that could be represented by a single color term. The surprising result was that among all the languages, only eleven basic color terms were recognized, with black and white present in all languages. Conversely, humans’ perceptions of their environment are influenced by the languages they speak. Some concepts that can be defined in a single word in one language may be nearly untranslatable into another. The use of “newspeak”, the abbreviated language devised by the government in George Orwell’s 1984 illustrates how without the means to express an idea, such as “freedom”, the idea eventually disappears.
In 1984, history is erased daily because, in the words of Orwell, “Who controls the past, controls the present. Who controls the present, controls the future.” It is a sobering thought that 97% of the media in the US is owned by four men. In an age where the average attention span only lasts long enough to watch a music video on MTV and trends go out of style faster than you can say “Brittany Spears”, the preservation of the past is an act of resistance. Saving things allows me to rearrange events and find patterns that branch chaotically through life. It allows me to cut up time and create collages, to create my own measurements of time ñ subway stops and punk songs and conversations in languages that only exist at 4am, instead of hours, minutes and seconds. It’s the botany time and the mathematics of memory. It is said that one person’s trash is another’s treasure — well, in that case, I’m the most badass pirate this side of the East River. Perhaps it’s because of my upbringing that I feel the need to create records of my experiences; my father collects and studies insects, and my mother is an archivist. The histories of those of us who live outside of society’s norms will never be found in textbooks or on the magazine racks at the supermarket, so we must each be our own archivists, each create our own time capsules.
I have the first issue of my zine, Crack the Sidewalk out. It got a really good review in the last issue of S&L. If you want a copy send some stamps or $ or trade. I’d also really appreciate letters if you wanna write. Crack the Sidewalk!/ 22-52 36th St./ Astoria NY 11105
(this address is from 2004 - ed)