Fireside Chat I
Exquisite ambiance. That was my initial thought when entering the
Anaxoragas Tavern -yes, that was its actual name- on New Year's eve 2013
at precisely 6:07 p.m. I know my entrance time because I needlessly
checked my watch while striding with imprudent speed across the
ice-layered parking lot. My recollection of that moment is blurry,
apart from the surprising crowd of cars and the interplay of headlamp and moving shadow splayed against the tavern façade that cast out its
own soft ember flame glow into the frigid night. I spied a few bluish
snowflakes darting around the nearby street lamp and nearly knocked into a boisterously happy couple bounding out of the door as I entered. I
mumbled an apology they seemed not to hear. As mentioned, I checked
my watch again, and then found myself In one of those spacious interiors that, with the strategically placed mirrors lining the walls lent the room a sense of infinite regression, as though one could traipse through an endless series of place settings receding beyond the room's remotest corners/
Marking the center was a white rock fireplace, the stones like small polished boulders protruding from the concrete. The chimney extended three stories into a lattice work of rafters hanging below an alabaster A-frame interior where a single ceiling fan revolved lethargically. One might have perceived this excessive space as wasted, but there it fit perfectly, almost as though the elegantly adorned, warmly lit tavern managed to enclose itself in a canopy of open sky.
This loomed high above an array of tables, all varnished oak precisely
illuminated by inverted conical lights hanging above. Each light
perfectly fit the table surface, so that the downward light cone's edge seemed to wrap around the border like a contoured sheet.
There was no background music at all: apart from the sonorous hum of various muted conversations punctuated by snaps and hisses of the flaming oaks roaring up the chimney. Waitresses maneuvered deftly around those tables, often vanishing through the brown double doors which sprayed blindly light into the main room when opened.
I surveyed my surroundings and felt much more at ease that I would have possible during my hasty entrance. This remote tavern nestled in the Lake Region area exuded a calming effect that felt almost like an embrace. I patiently searched the tables until I spied a solitary
figure who was poring over a large text. I couldn't see his face, only
the slightly disordered shock of white hair that shone in a brilliant luster owing to the gentleman's proximity to the fireplace.
Despite the new found serenity, I found myself catching my breath and, after a moment's hesitation, proceeded forth until I stood at the round table's edge. I cleared my throat and spoke.
The elderly man looked up casually. He smiled, more
so with amusement as he noticed that I was suddenly taken aback by his
appearance. Twenty years had elapsed since we last saw one another and
his countenance, though still dignified and, in its own way, strikingly
handsome, showed the wear of the two decades. He was John Forsthye
Vogue in 1993 and an AARP advert in 2013. Nevertheless, he was
perfectly recognizable. I wonder if he would recognize me.
"Edward, don't let thermodynamics frighten you so.
You have aged somewhat yourself. It was good of you to come."
Well, that answered that.
"I was glad to. I have to say I was a bit
surprised to have received that e-mail from you after all this time. I
didn’t think you'd remember me."
"Of course I do. You were an interesting student.
Not a promising one, I must admit, but nevertheless interesting."
He must have noticed a slight twinge as he became
rapidly apologetic. "Oh, forgive me. I never developed an ability to
vanish truths or soften insights. I meant no offense."
"None taken," I replied uneasily, seating myself at
the enormous table. "You know, I think, maybe, you reserved too large
a space for just the two of us."
He laughed, though not derisively. "Oh, I assure you there will be others coming later. Just some tea for now, please,"
he said to the pleasant waitress who had just arrived and was regarding him cheerfully.
"Coffee, please," I asked. "Thank you."
And, then, of course, that pregnant pause when the greetings have ended and one finds oneself seeking a way to initiate a
conversation. This pause was particularly awkward for me, as I well
remembered how intolerant Professor MacGregor was of inanity.
Fortunately, he spoke first.
"You're probably wondering why I invited you here."
"The question crossed my mind."
He grinned pleasantly. "I am sure it must have.
Well, you see, a mutual acquaintance of ours sent me one of your e-mail articles."
"Oh, ah, ok…"
"It was one that featured me."
Though we were quite close to the fire, so close, in fact, that I could hear the crackling and feel the enveloping heat, the sudden warmth on my face was a result of me going flush with embarrassment. I had never contacted the professor to ask his
permission to use his words. It was one of those things that nagged at
me now and then. Professor MacGregor saw my reaction and gave me a
slight wave. "You needn't look so abashed."
"I probably should have asked you first before I included you."
He shrugged, "Why? My words are not copyrighted."
"You're not offended?"
"Why should I be?"
"Well, I know it is only one of countless e-mail article and a rather obscure one at that, but it would have been a courtesy to ask for your permission."
"Nonsense. Although, I must say you portray me as
being something of a bastard."
That time I audibly gulped. Curiously, the last time I did that was during my final encounter with Professor MacGregor when I handed in my last paper and heard him say, "Well, this will test my optimism," as he took it.
At this, he laughed heartily, and I noticed through the slight convulsions in his slightly trembling frame that the
professor was truly an old man. It disquieted me somewhat. "Don't be
sorry, Edward. If anything, I applaud your accuracy. You obviously
improved in that within the last twenty years. Your depiction was apt and the speeches were spot on."
"Well, I taped most of your lectures. I saved some
of the tapes years later and listened to them again when I wrote about you. It allowed me to post a complete, um, well, what word do I want…it means word for word account."
"Yes, that's it. I transcribed them…generally in fragments, as I didn't have all the tapes."
"I assumed you must have done. Nobody's memory is
so prodigious so as to be capable of such precise verbal recall."
"You really don't mind?"
I breathed a sigh of relief as he spoke again. "In
fact, that is one reason I summoned you here tonight. I was in the
area for the holidays and decided to make contact. I am pleased you
consented to see me."
"Of course," I replied, again curiously
discomfitted. The professor I remember was hardly that jocular and
pleasant. "But, what does the e-mail thing have to do with this
"I'll tell you," he said, as the waitress arrived
and set the cups down before us. "Thank you, miss. Now that I have
been comfortably in Emeritus status for these last five years, I have
taken quite to detailed studies in Big History. I assume you've heard
"Allow me to explain. Big History is a comparatively new discipline and, to my mind, represents the magnificent synthesis of varied disciplines, for it endeavors to analyze history
comprehensively, from the Big Bang to, well, this evening. If we
remain here all evening, then this first part of the conversation will
become incorporated into Big History just as all moments will do.
This constant accumulation lends history a dynamism and contemporary relevancy that other historical disciplines seem to lack."
"I never heard that term before, 'Big History."
"It was coined in 1989 by David Christian, who is considered its founder. I was perusing his book, 'Maps of Time' before
you arrived. His idea, which I regard as genuinely brilliant, is to
regard human history as being inextricably linked with the geological processes that constantly reform our Earth; the biological imperatives that differentiate the species, and, of course, the cosmic forces that created the Universe and continue to work it through its many
machinations. It is a comprehensive enterprise necessitating the
cooperation of scholars from the humanities, as well as scientists, philosophers, and, naturally, historians."
"And, tonight, I intend to convene a gathering of minds who will devote the last moments of 2013 to contemplations of Big History."
"Here?" I asked, a bit aghast.
"As insightful as ever," he said amused. "Yes,
Edward, right here. I told you that others would arrive, and they
most assuredly will. They will be like the dwarfs at Beorn's home who
arrive separately: the dialog between us will grow to a trinity of voices, then a quartet; quintet; all the way trough octet. A coven of the most cerebral sort."
"And, you invited me?" I said, quite pleased.
"Well, yes, but, heavens above, I don't expect you to say anything. Just record what we say and then write about it in your little e-mail article."
"Oh, I see."
"Yes, well, I would like to think that this conversation will have a pedagogical purpose and recording it for posterity would be beneficial, would anyone care to read it."
I foresaw a difficult problem. "And, how will I remember what everyone says?"
He gestured casually toward the amber-colored candle flickering at the table center. "A device inside that is recording what we're saying and, provided I set it correctly, will capture every syllable anyone here utters for the next twelve hours."
"I don't suspect we'll need quite that much time.
Although, I spoke to Ambrose, the owner and my excellent friend.
He'll permit us all to remain after closing time if we're so inclined.
He might even condescend to join us provided he's in the mood. I
certainly hope he does. His is a mind of the first order. In any
event, you'll have hours and hours of the raw material."
"And," he added with a sudden touch of the old vitality. "You can dispense with any notion that this will involve some deeper undercurrent that will lend the work a compelling poignancy. I have no intention of dying, revealing a hidden sorrow, imploring the world to forgive my previous wickedness as I convulse in a spasm of contrition. I shan't weep, rhapsodize profoundly about existence, lament the passing of forgotten ages that, in my mind, are best left forgotten, or extol the virtues that we assume the greatest historical
figures exemplified when, of course, they did nothing of the sort.
Tonight will be a sharpened, unsentimental retrospective on the appallingly clumsy, foolishly superstitious, incorrigibly horrid, magnificently inspired, stupendously ingenuous, inexhaustibly energetic, ferociously curious, fantastically creative species of wretches who ever emerged from the broth to crack open rocks and erect spires to puncture
the heaven. The hours will dissolve into an all too early dawn as we
engage ourselves fully in the noblest endeavor of which the human mind
is capable: the contemplation of everything. And I want you to record
it and put it in your article."
"Well, if you guys are going to ramble on for that long, I might need to divide it up into many articles posted a different
times throughout the year. I will need the time to form my thoughts
and make the articles seem coherent."
"Yes, I suppose you would need a lot for time for that."
"So, are you interested?"
Well, what could I say?
Now, if I had expected a warm tender moment to follow..
"Good, now, look," the professor sternly said, as he leaned toward me, "Nobody apart from us will know this is being recorded, understand?"
"Yes, really," MacGregor snapped sharply. "Subatomic particles are hardly the only things whose behavior is influenced by
observation. If the participants know their words are to be set to
paper, they will invariably modify themselves. Being conscious of posterity, they'll deliberately impede their natural word flow. They'll cast uneasy glances at the recording device, and the entire gathering will be pointless because there won't be a truly honest moment of dialog in the whole accursed thing."
"But, what we're doing is dishonest."
"Well, of course it is, you fool!" he retorted loudly enough to start a family of four at a nearby table. He answered their tense stare with an attempt at an ingratiating smile. I merely lost a little more color. "One of life's ironies: a dishonest practice yielding an honest outcome. Please don't tell me you intend to back out merely on principle."
"I suppose not."
"Splendid," he replied, casting a rapid glance behind me. "I assure you that you will not regret it at all."
"If you say so.."
"Oh, by the way," he said, after slowly sipping his tea, "brace yourself."
A sudden implosion of Earth, followed by a tumbling collapse of rafters, a crashing descent of the cloud banks and a rapid
falling of King's pines prevented me from speaking the whole word. The
terrified shriek that escaped me before I was even conscious of forming it quieted the entire room's conversational murmur and directed all
glances toward the table. I would have gone flush with shame under
those withering glances had my attention not been arrested by the man who had previously clamped his hands on my shoulders, much to my
surprise. I looked aghast at the well worn visage contorted by a
self-satisfied smile. A aged face half concealed by the shadow of a
hat brim. While I sat there, listening to my heart beating
violently, the stranger who had come up behind me, swaggered over to my
side. "Gave ye a bit o' a shock, I reckon, eh?!"
My senses were assaulted by enveloping fumes of English leather. I watched in uneasy silence while that lanky figure adorned in torn jeans, leather and dangling alligator teeth extended his hand
to the professor.
"''ello, young man! I'd give ye a hug and peck, but I still got me standards!" he stranger greeted him with a booming tone followed by a jarring cackle. (A moment later, the family of four nearby summoned the waitress and requested a new table.)
"It was good of you to come," MacGregor responded, taking the hand.
"Wouldn't miss it, would I? A night swarmin' with
ladies, drink, and revelry, but instead I'll spend it here chawing with
the likes of you. Got to have me head examined, that's what!"
"You had no trouble finding the place?"
"Nah, piece of cake. Ain't many places in the world I can't get to."
He detached his hand from Macgregor's and offered it to me. "And, who's your lion-hearted friend, here?"
I introduced myself.
"Good to know ya. And, of course, ya know me?!"
I gulped and shook my head. "Sorry. Afraid not."
He looked over to the Professor and nodded. MacGregor
regarded me seriously. "Let me introduce Saxo Grammaticus."
The leather clad stranger, still standing, clarified.
"The full name is Saxo cognomine Longus, 12th century Danish historian.
You're talkin' to a celebrity."
I looked over at the smirking Professor. "Edward, I told you you wouldn't regret staying."
"He might when he meets some of the others," Saxo added
cheerfully. While he and the professor laughed, I rested my head in
my hands. It was going to be a really long night.
FIRESIDE CHAT II
We quickly re-set the scene: New Year's Eve 2013, nestled within a cozy tavern tucked away in the tundric wilds of the Lakes Region. The quaint drink, foot and spirit hovel was, and still is, named "The Anaxagoras Tavern." One of those cavern0us structures with a varnished oak interior and a pointed ceiling that punctured the stratosphere. I had traveled there at the behest of Professor MacGregor, an astronomical historian who relished his role as one of my alma mater's most feared and formidable instructors. The twenty year lapse since I writhed in his class served to soften his manners slightly: we had conversed for nearly three whole minutes before he exposed his abrasiveness. He told me that he had summoned a group of people to the tavern that night to discuss, "Big History," a curious concept with which I was not familiar. The gist, as I understood it, was that it combined all historical and prehistorical disciplines together into one field of study. He arranged it so that each person would arrive at a different time. I learned later that he does this every New Year's Eve at different places around the world.
He wanted me there to chronicle the conversation and post it on the Daily Astronomer. Professor MacGregor explained that he wanted some record for 'posterity' of that evening. He then informed me that he had concealed a recording device in the candle flickering quietly at the table center, so as to allow me to relate the conversations verbatim. The notion fascinated me so I foolishly consented to remain that evening and attempt to record the proceedings. Besides, our table was close to a roaring oak wood fire which exuded a toasty and welcoming warmth around us.
Soon after the professor and I discussed the preliminaries, I first experienced a nature force calling himself "Saxo Grammaticus," a 12th century Dutch historian. One never actually "meets" a person of his type The word "meeting" implies the gentle insinuation of one fellow human into another one's life. The lanky, assemblage of jeans, leather and tooth-encircled hat introduced himself by slamming his hands down on my shoulders, causing a 100 decibel reaction that nearly set the tavern into trembles. The violent reaction occasioned him great mirth, but, then again, most everything did.
We ended the first entry with him and his old friend MacGregor laughing boisterously. We begin this entry a few minutes later, with Saxo ordering his drink with the waitress. Ordinarily, such exchanges would be brief and hardly noteworthy. But, when you're dealing with weather systems
"Ya know what this is, sweetheart," he said to the beaming waitress as he withdrew a deep green stone from one of his many pockets. She shook her head.
"This is Variscite: a love stone. Take a gander," he offered, handing it to her.
"It's beautiful," the young woman murmured, momentarily entranced by the intricate designs within the emerald tinctured mineral. "Why is this a love stone?"
"Well, ya see, is there some fella what was once in your life that isn't anymore and you'd like him to be?"
The waitress went flush and smiled uneasily.
"Ah, yeah, well, let me tell ya: this here stone was given me in Queensland, Australia by a woman as old as the devil's hills. She told me that it was one of them few truly precious stones that have a bit o' real magic in 'em. You don't find many of them nowadays. Look there," he instructed, "you can see deep within it is a shade of one of them ancient phantoms: a shadow of a wizard who was raised in the time before the mountains."
Professor MacGregor scoffed. "Pshaw! Magic! Variscite is an aluminum phosphate mineral formed by the interaction of phosphate laden water with aluminum rich rocks."
"Bah," Saxo sneered, waving him off. "Pay him no mind. He ain't got an ounce of soul in 'im. Now, this here stone is magic because if you are pining for a chap and he ain't anywhere about, all you need do is clasp the stone in your hand tight like so that it gets no light. Then, you say his name as though it's one of them incantations."
Curiously, the waitress held it in her palm and regarded it closely.
"Now," he continued, "do that and one of two things will happen within four moon cycles. He will re-enter your life and stay in it for good. Or, he'll drop dead for no reason whatever on the spot where he's standin'."
The waitress had started to close her fingers around the stone, but when Saxo finished speaking, she stopped and quite quickly handed the variscite back to him.
"Good girl," he said, pocketing the stone. "Ya see, it's only a love stone because it shows if what you're feeling is love or not. Those who hear the story and then clasp the stone, only love themselves and want to possess the other person. Those who hand the stone back without clasping it actually do love the one they pine for."
Amazingly, he took her hand and kissed it. "Now, that chap is a fool, and I hope he comes to his senses because you light up a room just by being in it. Now, be a dear, and fetch me a lager." He winked. She smiled broadly and left.
Damn, some guys get away with it.
"Now that you've bewitched our waitress," Professor MacGregor said languidly, "perhaps you'd care to direct your attention to the matter at hand."
"Of course!" he answered, slapping the table with unnecessary violence. A couple at a nearby table started and glowered at Saxo, who didn't notice them. "The yearly coven commences in...where are we, again?"
"Maine," Professor MacGregor said.
"What do you think of it here?" I asked.
"A forest grove in Belarus; a hamlet in the Swiss Alps; New Zealand meadow in August chill; a hollow of wield and thickets in Alberta."
Professor MacGregor noticed my puzzlement and expounded. "Our friend Saxo Grammaticus, being the quintessential traveler of time and space, relates all new locations to those he's previously experienced. This inability to assess strange places independently seems a trait particular to seasoned world wanderers."
"Do you like it?" I inquired idiotically.
"Well, I ain't seen much of it except for the town's Life Tree Park.* It's nice, but needs a bit o' sprucing, but I had a happy hour there this afternoon when I was lookin' for things to do before the meetin.'"
"Um, are you really from the 12th century?" I then asked, looking every bit the stooge.
When the laughter eventually subsided, MacGregor explained. "Apart from having traveled extensively along every continent, our friend has also retained memories from his myriad incarnations. I gather that the first life you recall is when you were Saxo Grammaticus, though you don't discount the possibility that you had previous lives you simply don't remember."
"About the size of it," he assented. "Been courtiers; jesters; lades in waiting, and soldiers. In fact, I was in both sides of the hundred years' war: died twice, but at least one of me was on the winnin' side." he added cheerfully as the waitress set the lager by his hand and gently touched his shoulder before leaving.
"And, now," MacGregor interjected sternly, "in this latest incursion on Earth you have become a stone circle expert of considerable renown. It is for this reason, of course, that you participate in these Big History gatherings. Although, I use the word 'participate' loosely as you've hardly contributed anything substantive yet to the discussion."
"What discussion?!" he said, sharply. "Ain't nobody sayin' much, yet."
"Well, start, then!"
"Where are the others?"
"They'll be here."
Saxo looked uncharacteristically severe. "Why don't we ever all show up at once for these damn things?"
"Because we don't, and, oh, to hell with it, I'll start. I think, Edward, that all intellectual endeavors are, at base, historical. That is so obvious as to be self-evident. As an astronomical historian, I realized later rather than sooner that our practice of differentiating history was inherently short-sighted. The astronomer's modern investigations are possible only through knowledge of what was previously discovered. No astronomer need concern herself with establishing heliocentrism; just as no mathematician need attempt pi's re-calculation and no physicist should bother himself with disproving that gravity diminishes with the square of the distance. Those bricks have been laid and it is incumbent upon the current generation to build upon it. Everything is historical and Big History incorporates all investigations into itself: to fathom the intricate interconnectedness of the world."
"Can't do it," Saxo said between sips. "I've said it before."
MacGregor raised his eyebrows. "You think not?"
"The world is all connected, it is. But, we can't know all the connections. It's far too big and complicated for us. Give us centuries to play with and we'll end up knowing a smidgeon of it all."
"Saxo Grammaticus' pessimism not withstanding, I assert that developing such a comprehensive model of all hitherto disparate histories is not only possible, but inevitable. And," he continued sharply, "history also quite clearly demonstrates that those naysayers who deride bold aspirations serve only to offer impediment without purpose. Unless, self-serving shows of derision count as a purpose."
"Don't take it so personal," Saxo answered. "I'm just sayin' that I've seen a lot o' the world and it will always be way beyond man's reckonin, that's what."
"Manhattan Island, Edward," Professor MacGregor said, while casting an occasional sharp glance at Saxo, "is a perfect example of this principle. Have you been there?"
"I was it's fourth mayor," Saxo replied.
"Shh! When seen from a distance, Edward, Manhattan Island's skyline describes an undulating curve with two peaks of looming skyscrapers separated by a valley of smaller buildings. One might well wonder what inspired the city's designers to construct it in such a manner. The truth is that they had no choice. Any structural engineer will tell you that a keeping a skyscraper steady necessitates considerable underpinnings. They have to root the tall building deep in the ground in solid rock. Well, such deep reserves of rock are only present in Manhattan Island in places where the peaks of ancient mountains once protruded high above Earth's surface. There, one would find the remnants of a peak that has long since eroded down into Earth. Manhattan Island's very design reflects the contours of a mountain range. Everything is connected in some manner and, moreover, we are equipped with the means of fathoming those connections and employing them to make others."
"Look, mate, one of them structural engineers wouldn't know much about Stonehenge. Them rocks what make them up aren't that deep in the ground. They should have tipped over long ago, but up they still are. Don't know how. Never will. Take it from me, that's one place we won't ever fathom no matter how hard we all try to do it."
"Saxo, you baffle me rather. If you believe that your investigations are unequal to the task at hand, why not abandon it? It seems futile to pursue an aim that you believe unattainable."
The man tossed his hat to the table, revealing an intertwined mess of grayish red hair which he messed further with a rapid series of scratches. "Everythin' is futile, ain't it? Here we are and there we go and here we are again...we're like sparks in that fire there: up and out, and they'll never know the flame that made them. But, we try. We move and labor because we're not that far from the packs of hunters that ran about the land. We know that we live best when we be chasing and seekin'. Centuries pass and we're better clothed, but the same in heart. And, like, them that was here before, we move through impulses we don't know nothing about. So, I'll seek the stone circles because I want to, and I know I won't know much about them for all my wanderings."
"Ho, ho, ho," MacGregor responded darkly. "You see why we invite him to these annual meetings."
I smiled and took a sip of my drink when I noticed a woman approaching. It was difficult not to notice her, for not only was she gifted with rather Earthly beauty, but she was also adorned with an array of necklaces whose intricacies even surpassed that of the love stone shown earlier. These adornments were all the more resplendent when cast against her elegant turquoise dress. Her step was slightly uneven and she even had to grasp an unoccupied chair during her trek toward our table. Despite this impediment, she carried herself with a poise and grace surpassing many of those of unbroken tread.
"I'm sorry I'm late," she apologized with a smile appearing almost luminous.
At this Saxo Grammaticus looked up and promptly put his hat back on.
"Boadaceia, me lady!" he greeted her loudly, rising. "Arisen from the Roman assault, I see. Good to see ye lamentations weren't in vain."
Her countenance brightened as Saxo approached her. "My good Sir Gawain, you are redolent of dragon essence but all more the gentleman for it."
They embraced and shared a quick kiss.
"Part of your annual circle, I assume," I said.
"No," the Professor told me with a wry smile. "This is the first time I've invited her."
"Yeah," Saxo laughed. "I ain't met her before right now."
"Well, at least in this form," she added, hugging Saxo again.
7:15 p.m......still a long time remaining and a lot left to learn.
*A side note about the "Life Tree Park."
About a week after the chat, I ventured to a local town hall to learn more about the "life trees," which, if not unique to that community, are at least unusual. A philanthropist, with the unusual name of Brigamore Jenkins, had an idea about seventy years earlier. He noticed that, like most New England communities, ___________ suffered no shortage of prominent cemetaries. One was aligned along a main thoroughfare and still another was placed ominously close to the elementary school that Brigamore. himself, attended. In a memoir published locally and available only in the public library, he explained that the school's proximity to the cemetary occasioned him the deepest disquiet. He remembered having seen the tombstones through the classroom window and often shading one side of his face so as not to observe them on his periphery. One day, on fourth grade, he made a sketch in his notebook of trees in a field, each one listing a name of a classmate and his teacher. Each person's name was assigned to a tree that seemed in some way to exemplify that person's character. For instance, Francis, the little girl who was always giggling and a couple times made him go flush with embarassment merely by smiling at him, was an apple tree, each fruit stark red and nearly bursting with juice. The teacher, the elderly Ezra Kellog, was a sturdy birch tree that was bent over and as white along its trunk as Mr. Kellogg was above his wrinkled forehead. Brigamore retained that sketch throughout his childhood and even during the twenty three years of his absence, when he was out of the state making his fortune in software development. When he returned to his home town to enjoy a semi retirement, one of his first tasks was to buy 200 acres of farmland on the outskirts of town. Through arduous efforts, he and a team transformed the land into a "Life tree park," complete with park benches, meandering hiking trails and even a central gazebo topped with a sculpture of Prometheus, bringer of knowledge and fire.
As soon as the park was prepared, each time a child was born to any town resident, a tree was planted for that child at no cost to the parents. The parents, if interested, were even allowed to choose amongst a selection of saplings: oak, pine, sycamore, birch, apple, et cetera . Next to the tree was plaque depicting the child's name and birthdate. His announcement of the park's opening and its purpose excited little reaction initially. People didn't know what to make of it. However, with the help of the town clerk, Brigamore collected the names of each newborn registered in town and promptly sent the mother and father a certificate indicating that the child would have a tree in the park. They were instructed to return the enclosed form if they wanted to select the tree, themselves. Otherwise, a tree would be selected arbitrarily by the Anthony Joseph, the park's one full-time arborist. It wasn't long, however, until the community embraced the concept and it earned local acclaim.
Trees were added constantly and joined the first trees that were growing ever larger. Citizens came to explore the trails, read the plagues and admire the landscape, more than half of which, in 2013, remained treeless. However, each patch within the 200 acres was destined to have a tree take root in it, as the population slowly increased. Traditions developed around the trees in time and, like most traditions, nobody remembered their inceptions. Parents started burying one of the child's baby teeth next to the tree for good luck and, of course, took a photo of the child next to its tree at various stages of its childhood. On the rare occasion that a child passed, a ring of Gypsophilia ("Baby's breath") was planted around the tree, that, at summer's height, produced a luxuriant eruption of white .
The trees remained even after the child matured, of course: a constantly growing tribute.
During the 25th anniversary dedication of the park, the then aged Brigamore told a crowd of 500 hundred -470 more than attended the inception ceremony- that they had created a "cemetary counterpoise." In his speech, he was quoted as having said, "The life tree park answers a cemetary's stagnation with growth; its greyness with vibrancy; the moroseness with joy." When, a year and a half later, Brigamore died in his sleep, the town transplanted a apple tree close to the central gazebo and attached his name to it. A local artist encircled it with sculptures of the nine muses. And, it was said, that the tree produced "muse apples" that would bestow creativity on any who ate them. Again, nobody remembered how that notion came to be.
FIRESIDE CHAT III
Surreal doesn't begin to describe it.
Gathering on New Year's Eve with Dr. MacGregor, an old college professor, his age old friend Saxo Grammaticus, and a newcomer: a boisterously cheerful woman whom Saxo addressed as "Boadicea," the Queen of ancient Briton who organized an unsuccessful resistance to the Roman incursion. When he first spied her, Saxo had leapt to his feet and embraced her as a prodigal lover, only to then admit that they had never met...at least not in their current form. She reciprocated the affection gladly -as I said in the previous entry, some guys get away with it- and then settled into one of the chairs around our large table. As she had a bias in her gait, she maneuvered slowly, but was aptly assisted by Saxo Grammaticus. She was an immensely pleasant lady who exuded a calming cheerfulness.. Oddly, however, when I introduced myself and asked her name, she blithely replied, "Oh, Boadicea works well enough for this evening."
If you've just joined this chronicle, I will quickly summarize. Prof MacGregor summoned me and a host of friends to the Anaxoragas Tavern (Lakes Region, Maine) on New Year's Eve 2013. Such gatherings had convened during many previous New Year's Eve celebrations: always in different locations, and with a slightly different assemblage of people. Although, as I would later learn, a small nucleus of characters attended each one. The purpose was cerebral: a round table discussion about Big History - the expansive, highly ambitious, and comparatively modern (1989) discipline combining all aspects of human inquiry dating from the cosmic inception until a minute earlier. As the boundaries expanded with time, Big History retained a freshness and dynamism that some historical inquiries lack. Prof MacGregor invited me to participate to secretly record the proceedings. He wanted none of the others to know I intended to immortalize their words. By which I mean, of course, putting it in an e-mail, all of which are immortal.
I was dubious about the entire affair, of course, as I lacked the ability to memorize all the dialogue. Prof. MacGregor assured me such recollection wouldn't prove necessary, as he had concealed a recording device within the artificial candle at the table's center. These entries, sent intermittently, are the result, take them for what they are: a disc jockey's memoir of a scholarly gathering.
While Boadicea ordered her drink and Saxo demanded his refill, I once again surveyed the surroundings: a high ceiling tavern comprised of varnished beams ember-tinctured by the roaring fireplace flames. These converged into an high peak where darkening night shone through small windows. The interplay of fire glow and night shadow against timber lent the tavern a decidedly New England ambiance. A place where early American history became almost palpable: the tavern, a European incursion into the untamed and perilous wilds beyond the snow flecked windows. In other words, an ideal setting for such a meeting. Besides that, nothing else was proceeding according to plan.
"What did I miss?" Boadicea asked as the waitress hastened to bring the drinks.
"You missed an entirely aggravating and utterly pointless argument about the effectiveness of the human intellect," Professor MacGregor answered sternly, " and, by extension, the value of human inquiry. Our rather pessimistic friend, sitting here in litigation precipitating admiration of you, persists in his belief that it is all for naught. That our mortal limitations preclude us from truly knowing anything substantial about the natural order of things. I, conversely, insist otherwise. The human mind is uniquely qualified to engage these contemplations and to have them ultimately arrive at definitive conclusions, just as Isaac Newton fused the celestial orbits and descending fruits together into a manifestation of a single force. So, too, will we -collectively, not specifically- inevitably demystify all machinations governing our world and those beyond."
"Ya know," Saxo said wincing, "maybe if I keep one of me ears plugged, I'll only 'ave to listen to 'alf of what you say."
His statement only elicited giggles from me and the Boadicea. MacGregor glowered. "That would be an improvement, as you obviously heard nothing of what I said."
"Oh, I 'eard it all right," Saxo retorted. "It's just that I was disputing it flat. We can't know everythin'. You can't see as much o' the world as I've seen and not know that we don't really know that much. The world's too big, complex, and always changin'."
"Well," MacGregor said, as the efficient waitress arrived with the orders. "I think that our latest guest might dispute that assertion, she being a mathematician of the first order."
"Are ya?" Saxo asked, surprised, as he gave the waitress an appreciative wink and smirk while she handed him his refill.
"You seem surprised," Boadicea replied, beaming.
Saxo shrugged his shoulders. "Well, ye don't look the type, do ya?"
"How am I supposed to appear?"
"Well, different.." he answered, his voice trailing off before he ingested a large gulp of his drink.
Prof. MacGregor leaned forward. "I think Saxo believes that sophistication of mind and elegance of appearance are mutually exclusive."
At this, Saxo narrowed his eyes intensely at the professor and nodded.
"Well, I'm flattered," Boadicea said, her smile unfaltering, "Now, what you said about the world being too complicated to be wholly known sounds to me like a version of Godel's Incompleteness Theorems."
"Two theorems proposed by Kurt Godel in the 1930's. They tell us that we are limited in our capacity to completely formulate a set of axioms for all mathematics. It is essentially impossible."
"Ah," Saxo said, smirking smugly at the stone faced professor. "So, ye agree with me, then."
"Well, to an extent. Godel's theorems are applicable mathematically. Though I would tend to defer judgement for the real world, I would have to say that it seems likely that similar limitations would apply."
"Yet, you cannot state unequivocally that we are so impeded," Professor MacGregor argued. "Merely, you assume the tangible world suffers the same constraints that bind the mathematical one."
"With fair reason," Boadicea rebutted, "as the mathematical world is not merely a reflection of the real world, as you call it, but is intrinsic to it. You can find this connection from the fibula of a baboon* to credit card sequence algorithms. Of course, those are just civic applications. Physics as another example, is inextricably linked with mathematics."
"And enables us to predict behaviors precisely," MacGregor pointed out as he lifted his glass. "I can calculate how fast this glass will travel when it strikes the floor and how much time it will require to descend."
"But, you would be at a loss to predict the size and locations of the glass shards that formed after the impact."
"A computer could."
"Provided you inputted the glass shape, various thicknesses, density, falling distance, initial velocity, impact angle, floor's composition, density, the coefficients of friction between the glass and floor and other material that might be splattered on it. That assumes the floor is unkempt to a certain degree."
"I labor to produce the Versallies porcelains and strive toward church linoleum," a bald man in a soiled apron interrupted. He had been busing an adjacent table and had overheard the conversation. He walked over to us, holding a dish-filled white basin above our table. "Woe betide the one who thinks indefatigable attention can confound timber chemistry to make it assume the aspect of nobler metals."
With a smile and a deep bow toward Boadicea, he swiftly departed.
"Ambrose," Professor MacGregor said to us as we sat in confused silence. "The tavern owner."
"I hope he wasn't insulted," Boadicea whispered, her countenance darkening slightly.
"You needn't be concerned. Even if he was, he'll appreciate it immensely and be grateful to you for it."
"Come," he said, tapping her hand lightly. "he'll return periodically throughout the night. You can apologize to him later, but there really is no need. Now, you were saying."
"Um, yes, well," Boadicea continued hesitatingly. "I was saying you are limited to how much you can know. A computer could model the impact, but only provided it knew a host of initial conditions that you, yourself, could not know."
"The incompleteness theorem doesn't just say that I, myself, can't know...but that we collectively cannot."
"I remind you that is a mathematical theorem and we're discussing if it applies to the real world."
"You think it does."
"Well, to continue your physics example: the certainty of macroscopic phenomena, which is dubious due to the real world's non-linearity, is not reflected on the quantum level. There, one delves in probabilities, not certainties. Although I am reluctant to say more, as I know little about it."
Professor MacGregor looked down at his watch. "Fortunately, I have invited Natalia, a quantum theorist, to join us this evening. She is the next one due to arrive, although I am damned to know where she is."
"But at least you know how fast she's going," Boadicea said. Professor laughed boisterously, while Saxo and I exchanged perplexed glances.
"I get lost in these chinwags," he murmured over to me. And, I was beginning to understand why. Lamentably, the night was still young.
*Later, I had to ask Dr. Jane Bedford (Boadicea) to explain this reference. She told me that the oldest known mathematical object is something called the 'Lebombo Bone," with an estimated age of about 35,000 years. Named for the Lebombo Mountains in Swazilaland where it was unearthed in the 1970's, this fibular bone taken from a baboon contained 29 notches, presumably to track either the lunar or menstrual cycles...or both. As Dr. Bedford pointed out, this artifact suggests that the first mathematicians might well have been African women.
A timeless, non-spatial void bereft of dimensions; devoid of substance. A boundless, imperturbable oblivion that is nowhere, but encompasses everything. At once, a murmur: the slightest disturbance occurring after the passing of a world's age. The stasis broken; an incomprehensible singularity punctures the vacuum. Behind it an unknowable progenitor bestowing physical reality onto the undefinable. A Universe, compressed smaller than a single present day atom, emerges in fierce, unfathomable heat. All that is and all that will be constricted into a volume beneath all fathoming. Relative to the circumference of the youngest cosmos, atomic nuclei would loom as large as planets; a single molecule would extend to the farthest depths. The energy from which all the galaxies and stars; worlds and life forms will ultimately arise, has induced its own birth. Insinuated itself into the vacuum in a manner the self-aware beings not yet born will be at a loss to comprehend.
The Planck Wall, an impossibly brief time span after the Big Bang, conceals the machinations preceding it. A fraction of a second: a decimal point, followed by 41 zeroes and then a one. Comparatively, a solitary second passes as the lifespan of a galaxy. Here, physical models permit scrutiny, showing us the flicker when three of the four now distinctive fundamental physical forces were conjoined as one. The electromagnetism governing the conveyance of light; the weak and strong nuclear forces presiding over the subatomic; shown in this extreme heat and pressure to be manifestations of a single force. This force fractures abruptly, precipitating a rapid inflation within less than a picosecond. The infant cosmos, initially expanding to the sizes of balls explodes to a billion light years in breadth. Space assumes itself: expands its bounds inexorably in all dimensions as its superheated interior cools through gradual dissipation.
The inflationary epoch ends and the newly engendered Universe seethes hotter than a stellar core. Still, after all that has transpired, the cosmos is a minute fraction of a second old. We proceed to the baryongenesis - the predominance of baryons over anti-baryons - matter over anti-matter. Humans have yet to explain this stark imbalance, for the Big Bang should have generated equal quantities of baryons and anti-baryons. As mysterious as it is, the unequal distribution is fortunate, permitting the formation of our world. Had the balance been equal, the mutually annihilating counterparts might have cast the physical Universe asunder in a flare of gamma radiation.
Yet, the physical Universe was not destroyed. We enter the photon epoch: the dominance of radiant energy. Then, within minutes of the big bang, the simplest particles form: the protons, neutrons, the fundamental constructs of our tangible cosmos. Then, the nucleosynthesis: the rapid, 17-minutes in which the Universe fuses the protons and neutrons together. The strong nuclear force, long since frozen out of the unified forces, binds its components together in atomic nuclei. The result, a material Universe dominated by hydrogen and, to a lesser extent, helium.
The fusion does not persist, but the cosmos is not cool enough to permit the formation of atoms: nuclei bound with electrons. More than three hundred and seventy thousand years would pass before the Universe cooled enough for atom formation. The protons all become incorporated into neutral atoms. With the electrons similarly captured, photons are no longer constrained and can propagate freely. The cosmos is no longer opaque. The Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation is formed: the 3K field that now permeates the Universe.
Though comparatively frail, gravity, a property of space-time, itself, gathers the expanding material into clouds, at first diffuse but, through gradual accumulation, dense and ultimately powerful. The largest agglomerations spawn myriad pockets: the hints of the first galaxies and an array of Population III stars. Bloated and overly massive, as they all have to be in this metal deficient haze. The Population III's are the first stars: the Dantean furnaces that through nuclear fusions transmute the lightest elements into heavier nuclei. These monster stars burn through their material rapidly and in so doing fashion the first smatterings of carbon, oxygen, phosphorous, and the other essential ingredients that would ultimately conspire to create life. In time, these first stars explode with tremendous violence. These detonations serve a dual purpose: to craft all the elements heavier than iron and enrich the young galaxy's dust fields with its metal-laden remains.
These remains, dispersed through a dissipating nebula, traverse deepest space through countless millennia. In time, a portion of these metals encounter a cold, dark nebula suspended in stasis. It revolves lethargically through the galaxy, visible only as a shapeless silhouette against the diffuse galactic luminescence. Left undisturbed, this cloud would have likely remained inert, save for the ceaseless molecular and atomic motions within: residual activity from the earlier more ferocious epochs. Yet, this cloud shall not be undisturbed. The supernova remnants perturb and compress its gases. They spin and twist, like a fog in fierce winds, and slowly merge. Replicating the actions of the infant galaxy, the assaulted nebula spawns various pockets of higher density: these evolve into spheres and then larger bodies. As matter collects around them, they grow hotter and under their gathering shrouds pulse ember-red. Proto-stars building heat reserves through gravitational contraction: their cores growing ever denser, and their internal temperatures soar. Particles originating from both the dark cloud and the supernova become incorporated into the new stars and the retinue of minor worlds gathering around their peripheries. Star and planet systems emerge from their nebulous cocoons: far away in the intergalactic void the same scenario is repeated in all directions. A profusion of solar systems alighting the unbounded dark.
One star ignites its internal furnace: the prodigious nuclear reactor exploits the primal energies inherent in all matter. Hydrogen fuses into helium and in the process some of the original material is transmuted into radiation; radiation that migrates slowly by inexorably toward eventual liberation beyond the star's outer layers into the vacuum beyond. The star reacts with a fiercely powerful T-Tauri wind: propelled through the inner solar system, scouring the proximate planets, and cleansing itself of the nebulous filaments.
The third world, little more than a molten globe coated by a fragile dark layer through which red-hot veins remain clearly visible, shutters against this T-Tauri onslaught, just as it buckles and quakes under the impacting planetesimals. This armada of errant boulders flames through the sky, brighter and grander than the innumerable lights taking form in the brilliant star-adorned firmament. The bombardments slam into the crust, rupturing the membrane, releasing eruptions of displaced lava back into the airless sky.
Amongst the debris a solitary planetesimal, innocuous enough at a distance; indistinct from the others. Yet, as it approaches, we sense it true proportions. This before us is neither boulder nor mountain...but a world entire. Like the molten sphere that will one day be known as Earth, this approaching entity is far grander than all surrounding bodies. Unfortunately, though still mostly molten and young, the Mars-sized interloper is doomed. Under the influence of their mutual gravitational attraction, these new worlds collide. The interloper body is obliterated, the young Earth nearly so. The vaporized material from the destroyed body and injured Earth blasts into space, enveloping the battered Earth. As the cloud congeals around it, Earth sustains a barrage of impacts more numerous and violent than any it had previously experienced. The unleashing of all humanity's atomic weaponry followed by the complete exhaustion of its entire artillery stores, multiplied by a thousand thousand.
Amidst this terror, another world takes form in space. With astonishing rapidity, it collects itself from the gases and assumes a spherical shape. Like Earth below, it pulses ruddy red, its interior molten and its solidifying surface a smoldering inferno. Yet, being smaller and far less massive than the planet that fathered it, the Moon would cool rapidly and, in a brief geological time period, would become dormant: Earth's barren, geologically quiet sibling.
"And, that," Cassandra continued in a tone so soft and melodious that her speaking voice entranced us like music, "is a passing history of the Moon."
Cassandra had arrived at our table about a minute after Saxo Grammaticus leaned over to me and confessed that he often got lost in "these chinwags," as he called them. You see, like the violent disruptions precipitating the Moon's formation, a group of people were gathering together on New Year's Eve 2013. Every New Year's Eve, an old college tormentor, Professor MacGregor, convened a Big History forum somewhere on Earth. He chose the Lakes Region area as the meeting place on December 31, 2013. He invited me to attend, though, as he hastened to point out, I was not expected to contribute to the conversation. Instead, he instructed me to be the secret chronicler. With the aid of a recording device concealed within the artificial candle, I was to relate all that transpired amongst the participants. These aforementioned participants had not all arrived at once. Instead, Prof MacGregor explained, they were like the dwarves visiting Beorn in "The Hobbit," and were due to arrive separately and at different times.
At first, the large, polished wooden table next to the blazing fire in the Anaxagoras Tavern was occupied only by me and the Professor. Then, an Earth-wanderer adorned in leather and jeans insinuated himself into the conversation with tornadic subtlety. He called himself Saxo Grammaticus, the medieval Dutch historian who was one of the man's previous incarnations. Soon after, a cheerful mathematician showed up: one whom Saxo Grammaticus kissed and embraced, though, as he later admitted, he had never met her before, at least not in his current incarnation. Recognizing her as a kindred spirit, Saxo referred to this lovely, good natured lady as Boadicea. The mathematician, pleased by the appellation, adopted it for the evening. So, brilliant chronicler that I am, I had yet to learn the actual names of the first two visitors.
The next visitor, however, proffered her name at once. Unlike Boadicea, who exuded a welcoming warmth, the woman who approached us next was a formidable presence. She seemed literally radiant. The woodfire flames made her luxuriant blond hair lustrous: a stark contrast to the midnight black garments covering her from the neck to ankles. Against this featureless clothing a solitary crescent moon hung from two intertwined leather laces around her neck. She smiled politely at the professor on arrival. He charmed her immediately.
"You're not Natalia."
"Alas, not," she calmly replied. "Cassandra, Natalia's friend."
"Where is she?"
"Otherwise detained, but will be with us presently. She invited me to attend this evening, as she assumed I would find this exchange stimulating. I trust you don't consider her invitation to have been impertinent."
"Not at all," the Professor assured her, gesturing to a seat between me and Saxo. "We are glad to have you." Remember when Saxo bounded up to exuberantly greet Boadicea? When Cassandra sat herself next to him, Saxo clasped his hands tightly and nodded, gulping a bit. She beamed at everyone at the table. As Saxo was curiously quiet, Boadicea introduced herself first.
"What a curious name," Cassandra commented, obviously intrigued. "the sovereign of ancient Briton who resisted the Roman incursion."
"Unsuccessfully," Boadicea added sadly.
"No matter. She is one of history's most resolute women and the name is a noble one. I am pleased to meet you. And," she said, turning to Saxo, "you are?"
He introduced himself with a tremor. I dined on my knuckle for a few seconds to prevent laughter.
"Saxo Grammaticus, is it? He immortalized Amleth and his father Horwindil: the base for Hamlet and the slain king."
"Yeah, he did..."
"You mean, YOU did." Cassandra corrected him with a faint laugh. Saxo blushed. When Cassandra turned to me I had my knuckle covered by a napkin to stem the bleeding.
"And this is..."
I introduced myself.
"'Old guardian,'" she informed me. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
"I am afraid I don't know anything about your name," I sheepishly admitted.
"The daughter of the Trojan King Priam. Gifted with prophecy, but when she thwarted Apollo's advances, he cursed her so that her prophecies would go unheeded."
"Um, of course," I answered authoritatively. I, and likely the others, found her voice to be so soothing as to almost make one lapse into a stupor. She could have reduced Cerberus to cooing adoration had she ever resolved to infiltrate Hell.
"Are you a historian, too?" the Professor asked, his tone strangely hopeful.
"An astrophysicist," Cassandra said.
"Oh, are you, indeed? Well, I am delighted Natalia thought of inviting you to our little soiree. You shall prove a fine complement to our circle. Saxo and I are historians and Boadicea is a mathematician."
"What do you do?" she asked me.
"Ah, he works at a planetarium," MacGregor answered dismissively.
"Oh, a colleague."
"Hardly. I'm a disc jockey and no academician at the University takes me seriously. That doesn't matter, though, when you love what you do."
She smiled. "You are indeed fortunate, then."
"In any event, Cassandra, did Natalia tell you what this meeting entails?"
"An annual symposium on Big History."
MacGregor seemed pleased. "Oh, more of an informal discussion."
"It's been my experience that they're the same thing."
Boadicea and MacGregor laughed appreciatively. Saxo and I managed to laugh to get along.
"At the close of each year, a group of us find a place and discuss everything, which is what Big History encompasses. How everything fits together and relates. Before you arrived, we were discussing the limitations of human knowledge. I assert it is limitless. The testosterone torrent quivering next to you took an opposing view."
"And, ah still do," Saxo retorted. He apparently took no offense at the description, but it did snap him out of his reverie.
"I regret having missed the exchange," Cassandra said softly. "though I trust that subsequent discussions will prove similarly enthralling."
"In your field, you likely have dealt with Big History though you might not have called it that," Boadicea interjected.
"Yes, one finds that the disciplines are ultimately interrelated and the separations we impose between them are often arbitrary. We know that these divisions have arisen in the course of time."
"Intriguing," MacGregor said. "Perhaps you can elucidate that principle with an example. Explain to us how it is all related."
"Which example would you prefer?"
The professor pointed to her necklace. "Why not that?"
"With the necklace or the Moon?"
"Entertain us with a passing history of the Moon."
And, so she did.