What tiny shreds of chaff and leaves
Were bound by pilgrims into sheaves,
Making something we remember
From the vacant landscapes of November?
How much early April sun
Can the earth’s soggy gauntlet run
Through productive stems to flower
On a bride’s impassioned shower?
Who knows how such scrapings could
Unionize into grown-up wood
Or how this scraggly potpourri
Could organize a single tree:
But listen while forgotten bark
Combines its forces in the dark,
Where roots and needles mess around
Until they metamorphose into ground:
Like us, nature works against the grain:
Blossoms come from too much rain;
The heavier the winter snow,
The more lavish seeds below;
The more that wasted sky is glummer,
The more elaborate the summer;
The more the faded sky is glum,
The brighter later worlds become.
I wrote a poem for Danny Hillis dealing with his somewhat arcane field of “algorithmic eugenics,” a survival-of-the-fittest game played on the computer which eliminates 100,000 generations of false directions in nature to come up with the most utilitarian paths, which are then applied to how computers think in creating more artful intelligence.
A summary of the process is contained in Artificial Life by Steven Levy (author of Hackers, his publishers would like me to tell you). By using one-dimensional cells to predict what the universe itself would do, Hillis’s researches into mathematical genetics underline that big things come from little things, that lightning forks the way a tree branches, that nebulae imitate snow crystals, and that things too big to be seen, such as the patterns of the universe itself, can be intuited by scrutinizing the patterns of little things in nature. Peter Stevens’ Harvard symposium, Patterns in Nature, is a wonderful source of such fractal lore.
If such opposites pertain to a moral world, then good things come of bad things: the harsher the winter, the lusher the summer. Vast seasons leave inconsequential clues. They may even stem from their details, the way a Shakespeare play grows out of the words and ideas contained in its first scene, the way an animal can be cloned from a cell, the way a poem, or a sonnet, contains more than it seems to offer on first sight, or a day is more than dawn suggests.
Science has come so far in the 11 years since I wrote this that what seemed miraculous then now seems obvious.
November 21st, 1994
Rue de Varenne
March 30th, 2005