I’ve been talking about zeroes lately, and suggested that a mathematics without zero would be a mathematics of unity. It wouldn’t lead to contemporary technical society or economics, or even the computer I am composing these words on, but it would lead somewhere — somewhere very physical. Like this, perhaps:
Consider this mathematics. Not a representation of mathematical principles but mathematics itself.
There is no zero present in the above image, because it has not been abstracted from the totality of presence which this rowan represents, back through its ancestors down to the creation of the solar system and through the hearts of other suns to the forces of the Big Bang. They are not present in this rowan, but evolved forms of them are. The zero, the point of reference and balance that unites them and that has, arguably, been present since before the Big Bang, is still present here, but not as zero. It is present as the totality of the moment. Here’s how a mathematician might put that (Easy now, this is math so simple that you don’t even have to slip a disc trying to slip it out of the oven and onto a rack to cool while you whip up some icing):
Three Representations of Everything
These are three ways of writing all the whole numbers in the world to come to the totality of the universe. Notice, though, that the first equation has zero, nothing, as the totality of everything, the second has a really big number reaching to infinity, and the third a really big number reaching to a different infinity. Here’s the source for this example.
So, if we are to accept the word of mathematicians, the world is not knowable, because there are three incompatible ways of talking about it. You can’t have them all. You have to make a choice and go with that. You just have to say
Either … This …. or … This
The point is that mathematics does not describe the world. It describes mathematics. Like so many intellectual and social pursuits in contemporary society, it has forgotten to look at the world and looks instead for intellectual patterns behind the appearances of the world. If it looks at this, for example…
… it does not see the Big Bang and everything that is, but something like this:
(1 + (-1)) + (2 + (-2)) + (3 + (-3)) +… = 0 + 0 + 0 + … = 0
Compare that with this:
Staghorn Sumacs in First Snow
Compared to those sumacs, the mathematical equation is only a modern variant of the medieval form of theological meditation in which monks held God to be unknowable. They were such practical men and worked at this idea for so long that they hit on the idea of defining God by what he was not, on the principle that if you could list all the things that were not God (and anything you could list would not be God), then what was left over was God. It was an elegant solution, but not the first choice of a truly technological civilization, and so it passed on into a technique used by creative writing teachers at universities. It’s still a clever trick to sidestep Western tradition’s insistence on physicality long enough for other possibilities to appear. Here’s how that appears in a Renaissance perspective:
Madonna with St. Elizabeth and St. Barbara, Lucas Cranach the Elder
In the above image, the infinite is hidden behind a cloth. In keeping with that intellectual idea (that a veil can be lifted or removed over the infinite), the figures in the foreground can be read allegorically, rather than what they are: women, if you want to look at it like that, one with a child, or patterns of paint on canvas, if you want to look at it like that. That might seem absolutely normal, but actually it’s pretty extraordinary. In Eastern Christian traditions, this is not the case at all. In the Orthodox Church, for example, there are things like this:
Greek Orthodox Saint Barbara Ikon
In this tradition, there is no veil between the observer and the infinite, and the image is not an allegory. It is actually Saint Barbara, portrayed in a stylized fashion in order to insist that it is not Barbara herself or any representation of her in a physical sense. With Ikons, the presence of the infinite is right here, right now, and unmediated.
One consequence of that tradition is that every moment of every day is infinite, and the act of creation that underlies the creation of the universe can erupt at any moment, anywhere. In Christian terms, this means that Christ can rise in every weed growing between every paving stone and in every loaf of bread, but Christian terms aren’t the only way to look at it. In comparison to the Western church, in which creation took place at some point in the past and is leading towards some point in the future, that’s pretty remarkable. I’m not suggesting a return to medieval religion or a switcheroo to the Orthodox faith, but I am suggesting that if there are two completely opposing world views coming out of one tradition, that a little sidestepping of normal ways of looking things can’t hurt a bit. So, so far we have the Western tradition of art, and the Eastern tradition of ikons. Here’s a third, neither art nor ikon, but which fits into that good company:
In this one, energy has not been translated into a human story before it can be used to channel power through other human stories, or stories of the relationship of humane existence to existence itself. Which brings me back to my starting point: zero. If zero is a placeholder that unites all mathematical possibilities, in the language of mathematics, then cannot this image be zero?
And is that zero not the Big Bang? And within the potentiality of that zero is not the entirety of the universe present, right now, seeing itself at this point for the first time?I think it is. The challenge is not to see and not to create a mathematics that represents this unity, but to do it in such a way that it is not a mathematics of numbers, with reference to itself, in long chains of logic. To put that another way, contemporary mathematics is a powerful tool that, nonetheless, creates results (such as computers or Pixar animations) that draw on a long tradition of ascetic contemplation and the contemplation of the world as an intellectual pattern in the mind of God. Whether one is secular or religious, that history can’t be shaken. What can be done, however, is to put the wholeness of the world into the language and to use the world as the zero point, the reference point, or the “I”. Let’s all look at that tomorrow. Until then:
Yes, there are millions of individual plants that go by this name, but they all pass themselves on through the seeds in these black cones. They all have to go through the seed to come back out again as the plant. And what is the seed but a cloud spread across time and space? What is it but an opening out, a blooming, a plant becoming itself in time?
From one, millions, but all those millions together are still the one. It’s not that there are millions of individuals out there, but that the time of the universe is opening. This is what it looks like when it opens.
If you could fold it back up into an equation, into a form of mathematics, even a physical mathematics, it would all be one plant, one genetic string, one folded and refolded hydrocarbon molecule. And all of this is repeated in the millions of other species of plants that have all descended from the same single folded and refolded carbon molecule.
You don’t need the Hubble telescope to look up and see time become space and space become time, in a universe in which the farthest distance the Hubble can see is the furthest distance back in time. Most of the stars that Hubble picks out died long ago. On earth, though, we have this:
… but that is to see with a very specific technology called the individual self. It was invented to create a reference point for scientific inquiry, because without a portable, flexible reference point that could instantly be used by any observer, science would collapse. Its precepts would just not make sense. With it, however, this becomes a romantic scene, flowers dead in the fall, waiting for rebirth in the spring.
Mathematically, “I” is the zero that turns arithmetic into the geometry of the universe. Before that transformation, there was still a geometry of the universe. It looked like this:
It is an image of the observer, not of the world. That it does not appear that way today is what the invention of a zero and an “I” will do to you. Goethe said there is no rainbow of colours within white light, that that is a bias given by Newton’s experiments with prisms. What he meant was, everything is one, everything is alive, everything is individuating out of one thing, everything is present, everything is, now. In such calculations, zero is a way of cheating at cards.
So, the birds come to the local sumac bush, chitter, chitter, cheep cheep, chirp…
I dunno. Does this look random?
There would be no absence. And it’s not just the sumacs. The same applies with these yellow dock seeds, catching the sun and using its heat to sink themselves through the snow to the warm ground beneath.
Zero is vastly important in mathematics, for sure, but what if there were an alternate mathematics, that it obscures, one without zero, like this:
It might be that, just like literacy, the invention of zero opened doors but closed others. I remember very well the world before I learned how to read. It was not like the one full of written words. I love written words, but I love that one, too, and I love this:
The immense wealth of colonial Brazil made Lisbon into the first modern city. The money for all the lavish spending was laundered through British banks, who used it to build an empire. The immense wealth of New Spain was laundered through Italian banks. Spain went broke. Italy got the Renaissance. Ten million citizens of the Petro State of Canada go to Mexico every winter, out of a population of thirty-five million. Millions more go to Florida, New Mexico and California. Why, when they could stay for this?
Ah, there you are…
Maybe it’s because they spend their winters in cities designed for summer. I don’t know. I just don’t know why anyone would step away from such beauty.
The cranberry carageenas have lost their glowing orange leaves. Their berries are on the ground now, picked over by chickadees.
And it has been cold, too cold for summer tricksters.
Ah, for the stinkbugs of summer, slipping behind a stem, faster than a moving eye.
It’s hard to believe that just a couple months ago there was such colour in the world! Dismay not. Like humans in their warm houses, stinkbugs exist in an unbroken chain of cell division going back to the first organism in the earth’s first sea. Just as the bushes live on in their berries, the stinkbugs live on in the eggs they laid in Autumn, ready to take their place in the sun. Not only do they look like leaves, but they act like them too. Let us raise our voices to the beautiful stinkbug!
I’m used to walking up into the hills, and I usually see amazing things, because that’s the kind of world it is. Now that I have pneumonia and have the breath to manage three hundred yards, with rest breaks, I’m finding beauty in small things, like colour: … and pattern …
That’s the kind of world it is, too. How easy it is to forget to stop, to really stop, and to walk through doorways in the air. That, too, is breath. Look at the complexity of edges lying within this image:
Random? No, I don’t think so. I think it’s a mistake to look for the edge of the universe, the outer bubble of the Big Bang, so to speak, at some distant point in space. I think it’s bound in every object and every ray of light.
I think there’s not only a mathematics for this, but a physics, a biology, and a language. We are hunters, we humans. We track game. We also know how to stop and read the signs. I think the signs are there, and here:
After the first snow has come and gone.
Contemporary cultures are good at producing more of the same. I don’t think we need more of the same.
Peppermint goes black with the first frost, and is likely way past its prime as well, but look at this catnip, that has happily survived Minus 11 degrees Celsius.
Forget genetic manipulation, shouldn’t there, like, be a breeding program? I offer this image on this day of light snow, as a reminder to us all that there are many crops that can be harvested right through the shoulders of the winter, leaving the rest of December, January and February for the greenhouses in this valley, before the winter spinaches are ready to bring on an early spring. Cabbages, mesculum, parsely, catnip, mustards, carrots (with some leaf mulch), and many other salad greens don’t mind the cold one whit. Forcing dandelion roots in greenhouses in January ought to break that up nicely, with fresh January salads. We do not need to truck this stuff from California or fly it from Peru. That’s just why our governments are in massive debt. There’s no need for it. None. At. All.
Many reasons. Nitrogen gas storage, dwarf rootstock related sap restrictions, sugary varieties with all their flavour in essences that evaporate within two weeks, water system delivered petroleum-based fertilizers, excess size, continually re-created juvenile wood, and hormone manipulation, such as below:
These leaves have survived minus 11 Celsius. Talk about being out of season!
Summer pruning to force light onto the apples is making use here of the midsummer cell differentiation period, which should be laying down fruit buds in high hormonal areas and leaf buds in areas requiring branch renewal. Here, encouraged by high nutrient levels and cunning timing, the poor tree is confused by it all and threw out a spring shoot with flowers, instead of a replacement branch for the one that was cut off. The flowers did not develop normally, and came to nothing. They’re usually sterile when this happens. So, now you know, too.
This is the Columbia River as understood by American wild west mythology:
Hauling the last of the white sturgeon out of the radioactive sludge, to release it again.
It takes 4 or 5 hours. Cut the line off the hook. Repeat. Two mothballed weapons grade plutonium reactors, sealed in stainless steel shells, in behind.
This is what the Columbia River looks like within the B Reactor complex, immediately before being run through the reactor. The valves are partially dismantled and open to Russian inspection as part of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.
This is the spot where the military industrial complex was invented in 18 months beginning in 1942. The scheme to dam the Columbia at Grand Coulee (and destroy the salmon) to provide water in order to settle 100,000 poor black families as free holding farmers was sidelined in order to generate the electricity to run this machine. It produced the plutonium for the Trinity Test and the Nagasaki Bomb. When the irrigation scheme was finally initiated, the land went to large industrial farmers instead, at a subsidy of billions, originally intended to settle the poor. It was here that the American agricultural dream ended.
These cliffs are the glacial silts of the Okanagan, lying in a twenty mile curve where the river breaks out of the mountains into the Columbia Basin.
This is the river as seen by the citizens of Richland, Washington, the residential area of the plutonium manufacturing project:
Totem Salmon in a Childrens’ Playground
There are virtually no salmon left in the river. The dead are honoured as if they are still alive. That is how important the notion of hunting wild animals is to US American culture. Meanwhile, because of a treaty signed downriver at Celilo Falls, more money has now been spent trying to bring back the Indigenous Salmon Fishery than has ever been earned by the technology that replaced it.
This is the Columbia River as seen by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation:
Outflow of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project
The pumps at Grand Coulee Dam lift 45 cubic metres of water per second into the system. This is what is returned to the river.
This is the Columbia River, as seen by industrial fruit farmers employing Mexican workers, who are housed behind razor wire, in military compounds guarded 24 hours a day by armed guards.
Since the climate is not conducive to apple growing, Italian poplars have to be fed with Canadian water to break the wind, and overhead irrigation, with over 50% evaporation loss, has to be sprayed over the trees in order to produce edible (but tasteless) apples. Frank Herbert wrote Dune in this climate.
The American way is to have all of these rivers existing at once and to manage the tensions between these irreconcilable visions on a partisan political stage. That is a questionable way of managing people. In terms of the river, it is abusive. Choices must be made, not between competing human demands, but in the name of the river. Choosing between human demands leads to short-lived solutions — a generation at best — that then lead to poverty and debt.
These are the Orchards of Hanford Town
They were abandoned to build B Reactor. The trees were abandoned and the apples left to fall to the ground. 50,000 workers housed here in 1942 begged to pick them up. They were forbidden.
The engineers at Hanford have now spent a decade trying to clean up the leaking storage tanks of radioactive waste on site, before contaminated ground water reaches the Columbia. They have spent upwards of 15 billion dollars. They have built a machine. It does not work. I present these images to you as a suggestion that the work of rebuilding the earth cannot proceed using past intellectual, social and political tools. This is where they lead:
Evening Sun Above the Richland Strip
During the Vietnam War, this was the image of American prosperity and power. Now the sun is pink because the overgrown sagebrush west of here above the Yakima River at Ellensburg is on fire. The pink is the colour of a century and a half of bad range and grassland policy. Effectively, 12,000 years of wealth have been mined down to this since 1860
They lead here, too:
Waterskiing on the Impounded Columbia in Richland
In the smoke of the sagebrush fire.
And maybe worst of all to this:
Personal Water Craft and Impersonal Hellish Racket
These offensive stupid machines were invented here. It is this culture of dammed rivers, extirpated salmon, nuclear engineers, subsidized industrial agriculture, boredom and entitlement that led to the invention of these toys. The world’s greatest salmon river has become a toy and a playground. As for machines, they are the modern image of the Cold War, the Manhattan Project, the Atomic Bombing of Japan and the dislocation of the people from the river and the earth.
What we are left with, with which to rebuild the earth, in a Kafka-esque maze of competing government and private interests, is this:
This nature preserve at the confluence of the Yakima and Impounded Columbia Rivers, beneath the freeways that serve as streets in this self-professed Atomic Age City, is composed almost entirely of weeds. All the nature you see in the image above is weeds.
This is not nature. This is wilderness. In American terms, this nation, that began with fundamentalist Christian settlers and their image of Eden, has created wilderness out of lived, loved and livable space, the very wilderness that Adam and Eve were expelled to. It is an image of what those early puritan settlers saw when they arrived at Plymouth Rock. To this date, this has been the purpose and achievement of the American state. Like Adam and Eve, it is up to us now to walk out into that wilderness and make it again a rich and life-giving space. To do this, the river has to be a part of every conversation, on her own terms.
For perhaps 150 years we are going to have to give to the river, rather than take from her. The time of the taking will lead only to increased poverty.
Only a few thousand of these fish spawn in the Hanford Reach today, in a system that once brought home 30,000,000 salmon a year. Men like this, intent on killing them before they spawn, are operating within their cultural and political rights. They have, however, no ethical rights at all.
Killing the earth doesn’t end with the tar sands of Canada, shale tracking, chemical plants, or the deadly Basa fisheries of Vietnam. It is entirely part of the culture and infiltrates almost every act. Humans have the capacity to kill and to give life. It is time for the life-givers to call things as they are: killing is not a sport for humans. It is a sport for beasts. Let’s stop the nonsense and call things by their proper names. This nonsense of human ownership and superiority has gone on far too long.