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Fall 2008, Volume 25.1

Essay

 

John NizalowskiPhoto of John Nizalowski.

Owachomo—Time's Bridge


John Nizalowski teaches creative writing at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colorado. His first book, Hooking the Sun (Farolito Press, 2003), is a collection of interconnected poetry and prose. A second book, The Last Matinée, is due out in 2008 from Embers Press. His writings have also appeared in various magazines such as Puerto del Sol, Bloomsbury Review, The Albany Review, The Listening Eye, Snowy Egret, New Mexico Magazine, and Southwest Profile. Currently he serves as a poetry editor for Pinyon Magazine and is working on a biography of southwestern author Frank Waters

 

He stood before us, a gentle man with short gray hair tinged with silver. His eyes were faintly blue through wire frame glasses. His voice—deep, melodious, and unassuming—did not at all match his words, which were turning the universe upside down. At least my universe.

Most of the other audience members for Dr. Gordon Gilbert’s lecture on Dark Energy were physicists, and so their worlds had been shaken years before when this mysterious stuff was first discovered. But for me, it was all new, and I felt like the hapless narrator of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine listening with a small group of friends gathered in a Victorian study as the Time Traveler says—"I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted"—before taking off for the far future in his marvelous device.

However, the lecture hall of a small western Colorado college is very different from the Time Traveler’s wood paneled room with its leather-backed books, ponderous oak furniture, and cigar smoke. The white walls around me formed clean, unbroken lines. Dr. Gilbert stood at the focus of the room’s wedge next to a small table holding a computer. The audience sat at long arcs of tables as gray as battleships, with electric outlets placed at regular intervals along their lengths. Ranks of these tables ascended line after line to the windowless back wall. Behind Dr. Gilbert, a screen partially covered a large white marker board, above which hung a clock, the periodic table of the elements, and two small black speakers. On the screen, projected from a black box suspended from the ceiling, a pie chart entitled "Recipe for the Universe" shone with uncompromising clarity. It was this pie chart that had started my world spinning.

On this chart were four tiny slivers labeled as follows: "Heavy Elements 0.03%, Neutrinos 0.3%, Stars 0.5%, Free Hydrogen and Helium 4%." Dr. Gilbert explained that these four items comprise the observable universe—stars, nebulae, galaxies, our very own little earth. That’s it: everything we can see or even detect with those wondrous instruments that receive beyond the visible spectrum’s pitifully narrow range is 4.83% of the universe. Less than five percent. I could feel that figure in my bones. It was as if I had been unexpectedly flung over the rim of the Grand Canyon.

Two large wedges remained. The smaller of these, at twenty-five percent, bore the name "Dark Matter." The other wedge, over seventy percent of the universe, boasted the enigmatic title of "Dark Energy." And what is this Dark Energy?

No one knows.

As with Dark Matter, the only evidence for its existence is its effect upon the observable universe, those tiny slivers on the pie chart. Seventy percent of the universe is made up of something not even astrophysicists comprehend.

Dr. Gilbert leaned over the computer and touched a key. The screen changed. Now it showed a list of cosmic revelations and the names of their discoverers. Grabbing a pointer, he leaned into the dazzling light from the ceiling projector, and his body threw a dark, looming shadow while his glasses reflected light onto the screen, like a Newtonian demonstration of a lens’s properties.

"Here are the major observational discoveries in cosmology during the last century, and how they have changed our view of the structure of the universe," he announced.

This is what the screen read:

The Galactic Center (Shapley, 1915)
The Universe of Galaxies (Hubble, 1922)
The Expanding Universe (Hubble, 1928)
The Big-Bang Fireball (Penzias & Wilson, 1964)
Dark Matter (Rubin, 1980)
Dark Energy (Perlmutter & Schmidt, 1998).

After reading the list, Dr. Gilbert explained how in less than a century these discoveries radically changed our conception of the universe. Our sun is 93 million miles away, and its light takes 8.3 minutes to reach the earth. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, approximately six trillion miles. The nearest star is a bit over four light years away. When it was thought that our galaxy was the entire universe, the discovery of the galactic core pushed the universe to a distance of 100,000 light years across. From this already unimaginable breadth, the discovery of other galaxies kicked open its boundaries to a staggering vastness. In a universe of millions of galaxies, the nearest galaxy of comparable size to our own is 2.2 million light years away. The discovery of an expanding universe confirmed that there are no boundaries, that the universe is infinite. Next, the Big Bang gave us our birth. Dark Matter filled in the picture.

Finally, Dark Energy portends our death.

Dr. Gilbert explained that for decades one of the great problems in astrophysics was whether the universe is "open" or "closed." An open universe would, starting with the Big Bang, expand forever, until after billions upon billions of years all the countless suns would die out and the silent entropy of absolute zero—a condition in which there is no molecular movement—would reign forever. On the other hand, a closed universe would eventually reach a magic point when the gravitational force of all matter would reverse the expansion, and the universe would collapse into a new Big Bang—an eternal cycle of creation and destruction. The discovery of Dark Energy has answered this question, for it affects the cosmos by actually speeding up the expansion, and thus total entropy will triumph at the end of time and space.

"So, five years ago we didn’t even know Dark Energy existed," Dr. Gilbert continued, "and along with this knowledge we now realize there will never be a return of matter and energy to a single point, the singularity of the Big Bang. Instead, the universe will keep expanding, and that expansion is accelerating. At time’s end, the stars will fade and the galaxies cool down and die, their nuclear fuel spent. It will be a vast, lightless realm of scattered molecules moving forever outwards."

Faced with the bleakness of this vision, I turned to my memories to try and come to terms with it.

 

We were exploring the ruins of Pueblo Bonito when the rain started.

It was an odd rain for that time of year in northwestern New Mexico, a light drizzle that gradually strengthened, more like a spring shower than the lightning slashed thunderstorm one would expect in early August. After fifteen minutes, water began to drip off the brim of my khaki colored baseball cap. My oldest daughter, Ursula, crossed the ruin’s plaza and came up to me, her blond hair growing dark in the wet air, her blue windbreaker shiny with moisture.

"Hey Dad," she said in her deepening, twelve-year old voice. "It’s starting to rain."

"Yes."

Standing shoulder high to me, she was looking across the shallow canyon at another ruin. Its mounds of stones and broken walls, softened by the rain, looked like the silhouette of some far off city. The rain didn’t seem to concern Ursula, but I could see she was starting to get soaked.

"Where’s your sister?" I asked.

"She’s inside, in the rooms."

"Smart girl. She’s staying dry. Let’s go find her."

We crossed the plaza, past numerous ceremonial kivas that look like the open wells of giants, the grasses in their floors a vivid green in the rain. There were very few people about. I’d never seen Pueblo Bonito so empty. Ursula and I reached the far wall and ducked into a sequence of connected cubical chambers, some with windows through the corners or into other rooms, some with roofs, and some open to the gray sky. As we strode through the chambers, we felt alternating moments of dryness and wet, like being under a great water-fed strobe light. Finally, in a side room with two metates, their grinding stones silenced by the empty centuries, we found Isadora leaning against a wall out of the rain. Whereas Ursula is tall and muscular, her younger sister is diminutive, her head just reaching my chest.

"Look Dad," she said in her high voice. "Here’s where they used to grind corn."

"Yes. Don’t you think we should get back to the car and out of the rain?"

Isadora shrugged.

"I thought we were going to hike along the canyon rim," Ursula protested.

I shook my head. "Not now. Too wet."

As if dismissing the content of our dialogue, Isadora turned to stare at the metates. We joined her and I could easily picture the women bent over their work—the never ending grinding of the vital grain.

"We better go," Ursula, the restless one, said at last.

So we passed through corridors built from intricately placed flat stones, a maze, an elegant mosaic of rock reaching five stories high to form a shape like a bow at rest, the "string" or front wall running alongside a sandstone cliff carved by deep time into caves and phalluses and skulls.

Back at the car, I started the engine and ran the defroster at full blast. While we waited for the windshield to clear, we decided we could manage to visit one more ruin despite the weather. Putting the car in gear, I drove a short way around the blacktop loop that traverses Chaco Canyon National Park and came to the trailhead for Casa Rinconada, the village of the Great Kiva. No one was there, and I was thrilled. In the half dozen times I’d been there, I’d never had the Great Kiva to myself.

Once outside, we noticed that the rain had strengthened. Quickly, then, we headed up the low hill towards the Great Kiva, ignoring the ruins of the modest Anasazi village a short ways away. While we climbed, the Great Kiva didn’t look like much—a low stone wall at the top of a sagebrush covered mound. But when we reached the ruin, it opened out before us, a large circular chamber in the earth 63 feet wide and 15 feet deep. Formed from thousands of small flat stones and great ponderosa vigas, it had once held magnificent ceremonies, with chanting priests, drums, and fires redolent with pinion smoke thick as incense. Along the walls, above the niches for the storage of scared objects, priests had painted murals of star spirits, plumed serpents, and stylized dragonflies. There had been large rectangular resonator drums of hide and stone and the smaller altars topped by sinuous snake fetishes carved from cottonwood. The focus of everything was the sipapu, a hole in front of the main altar reaching into the previous world, the one from which humanity had emerged in our age-old quest for reunification with the Sun Father.

But in that moment, as my girls and I peered down into the kiva’s ghost realm, all was empty and silent, open to the soft rain. Time, like a deep layer of fine sand, had covered the powerful ceremonies of the 12th century, and we could only see the kiva’s great walls stripped of their murals, the stone outlines of the drums on the bare floor, and the nearly perfect circle of empty niches. History had not been kind to these amazing people.

During the 10th century, at the dawn of what anthropologists call the Pueblo I period of Anasazi Indian culture, Chaco Canyon was already a flourishing center of religion and craftsmanship. By 1100, helped by decades of good rainfall and an elaborate agricultural supply system, it became the heart of a Meso-American style theocratic civilization stretching across the northwestern quadrant of New Mexico. The Chacoan culture depended heavily on trade and its reputation as a ceremonial Mecca, so its people built over 400 miles of roads linking 120 "great houses"—multi-storied dwellings consisting of hundreds of rooms—and tens of thousands of small farming communities spread across its vast area of influence. The Great Kiva at Casa Rinconada is a prime example of Chacoan architecture at its climax, as is Pueblo Bonito, which, when completed in 1115, boasted 33 kivas, 700 rooms, five floors, and a surface area of almost five acres. In North America, nearly 800 years would pass before a residential dwelling of comparable size would stand.

But the Chacoan culture was doomed even before it reached its height. From the start, Chaco Canyon did not possess enough arable land to support its burgeoning population, so the mystical rituals that were its basis for trade were absolutely vital to its survival. An elite class, living in the great houses, controlled both trade and religion. As long as the farmers, who made up the sizable under-class, believed in the power of Chaco’s elaborate ceremonials to preserve the universe’s harmony and with it the rain, all was well. But when the rains failed and the crops withered in the harsh desert sun, the faith died too, and the farmers starved or abandoned their far-flung lowland homesteads for a semi-nomadic life in the mountains, leaving Chaco in desperate straits.

The first drought, in 1090, actually strengthened Chaco, as the people turned to its priests for intervention with the spirit forces. This explains why there is a great burst of construction at Chaco in the late 11th century—it was a desperate attempt at placating the gods and their priests. But when a second drought struck in 1130, the system could no longer take the shock. By 1140 Chaco was largely abandoned—its farmers, priests, warriors, craftsmen, and traders scattered across thousands of square miles of the Colorado Plateau and Rio Grande basin like dying stars drifting from a galaxy’s heart at time’s cold end.

 

The room was empty.

It had once been a kitchen. In essence it still was, even with the stove and refrigerator removed. Yet all that remained were a set of cupboards with antique brass knobs, a Formica countertop, an old style ceramic sink, and a built-in wall clock with Roman numerals perpetually stuck at seventeen minutes past ten. The other objects that had dwelled in this room were gone, replaced by hollow echoes and a stack of real estate cards scattered across the counter like dry leaves.

At one time this space had been alive. There had been the smells of cooking pasta, frying onions, and dashes of paprika. Sounds had also found a home in this place—the laughter of a young girl, the mournful calls of a dove from beyond the open window, a stereo gently playing John Coltrane, and voices raised in domestic sparring that ultimately blossomed into the verbal cuts and jabs of betrayal, hurt, and confusion.

Before the emptiness, a stuffed armchair had rested between the refrigerator and the north wall, and I had often reclined in it, reading, looking up occasionally to glance out the windows at juniper branches and the blue sky beyond. Or, if it were nighttime, the darkened windows acted as mirrors, reflecting the white kitchen interior and the incandescent glow of the ceiling lamp that hung over an old wood table.

But there were times when I didn’t read. With notebook on my lap, I might work on a poem. Or my wife would tell me of her day at work, before the resentments became so strong that such conversations died on the tongue before uttered. Occasionally, I would just sit there and imagine the vast wild lands only a few miles away, out where the last ranches wash up against the sandstone bluffs that mark the edge of the Uncompahgre Plateau, which rises tier after tier to attain finally the high realm of aspens, ponderosas, and a great tableland summit the equal of many mountains.

Then there were the nights when Ursula would get the croup, her coughing so bad and deep and filled with a frightening bark that I would sit up in that chair all night, holding her in my arms, her head on my shoulder, so she could sleep. On the stove boiled pots of water generously laced with eucalyptus oil, its redolent odor causing me to dream of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in my half-awake state, the steam rising and filling the room with warm, moist clouds that eased Ursula’s lungs and allowed her to dream too.

But in the implacable arc of time, all of this was gone.

The kitchen, indeed the entire house, had become a white cave, a vast space where the molecules that had once formed sofas, books, socks, an electric train set, a TV, crayons, white mugs, candles, an ivy plant, plastic blinds, a scarred wooden desk, and many other things had been rendered and tossed elsewhere in the universe by a marriage that had soured and died.

As I stood there, the place’s desolation washed over me, and I wondered if this was what those Anasazi farmers had experienced as they abandoned their small homesteads in the horribly dry Chaco Canyon, heading out in the drought years for the unknown.

 

Shunryo Susuki, the Roshi who was instrumental in bringing Zen practice to America, once wrote a tesho, a Buddhist sermon, about El Capitan, the great waterfall at Yosemite.

The Roshi imagined that the water pouring from that thousand foot height would feel great difficulty doing so—not in the actual falling, for gravity, like time, overcomes any fear—but in the experience of falling, of being torn from the wholeness of the river to be thrown into space as a separate drop of water until it finally reunites in the river’s wholeness at the waterfall’s end.

He called this tesho, "Nirvana, the Waterfall."

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the Roshi states, "When the water returns to its original oneness with the river, it no longer has any individual feeling to it; it resumes its own nature, and finds composure…. Our life and death are the same thing."

Soon after my mother died, I took a winter journey west from my Colorado home, past what the Utes call Sun Mountain, Tukuhnikivatz, and named the La Sals on Euro-American maps. I traversed the Grand Valley into Utah to arrive at Moab, where I turned south through expanses broken only by wind eroded buttes, lost ships in a surreal sandstone sea. Past Blanding, I turned west, crossing Comb Ridge, an ancient ocean bottom that the earth has heaved up to form a rock spine like the backbone of a whale so huge that only the oceans of Jupiter could conceivably hold it. Finally, my car climbed up onto the Grand Gulch Plateau, and I arrived at my destination—Owachomo Bridge in the Natural Bridges National Monument.

Despite recent snowstorms, the day was bright and clear. Before me stood the massive stone arch of Owachomo, framing the white cliffs and blue sky beyond like a gateway to another world. Atop Owachomo’s flat top, a patch of snow was melting, and the water was dripping off one side. Standing beneath, I could watch the individual drops falling a hundred feet in perfect spheres until they joined the shallow pool growing on the bedrock at my feet.

As I gazed at those spheres plunging past me, I thought of Shunryo Suzuki’s waterfall, and of souls being born and making their life’s sojourn in perfect free fall, like the drops from Owachomo, until death reunites them with the expanding universe. I remembered my father, long dead, with his strong hands, his short-cropped gray hair and moustache, bundling Japanese lanterns to sell at a florist shop in a nearby city, working under the yellow light of the nighttime garage, the wood cabinet radio playing the World Series, the plants’ bulbs looking like the delicate paper lanterns of a Kyoto temple. Then I pictured my mother, round of face and body, curled gray and brown hair, cooking supper in the kitchen, surrounded by maple cabinets and glass figurines of birds and angels, the steel pots steaming with smells of green beans and roast beef, boiled potatoes and sautéed garlic—the nightly feast.

And I thought too of a blanket wrapped body lying in the New Mexico ground amidst pinions and junipers and stone slabs—my son, my first born, who had already merged back with the river, the empty space, the hole in the earth.

 

The lecture was over, and Dr. Gilbert and I stood together out in the hall. The rest of the audience had dispersed, and the white corridor only held a few students scurrying to their next classes. Beside us, there was a glass covered display case with a chart of the electromagnetic spectrum, a vast eye with great arcs broken into multicolored bands and lines called X-Rays, Gamma Rays, Cosmic Noise, Radiation Caused by Lightning, Atomic Emission Spectra of the Elements, and the like. Beneath the chart, on a small shelf, sat an array of prisms—concave, convex, cubiform, and triangular. Beneath these, on the final shelf, sat two devices made from various lenses and tubes attached to metal boxes. The blue one was labeled an interferometer, while the black one was unlabeled, a mystery, as was the roll of silvery duct tape beside it.

"As the universe winds down," Dr. Gilbert said, pulling my gaze back to his gentle smile, "Dark Energy will finally tear apart the very molecules and atoms themselves. There will only be isolated subatomic particles distributed in an emptiness without shape or limit."

I glanced from his kind blue eyes to the chart of the electromagnetic spectrum and imagined a universe devoid of its colorful eye. The concept’s nihilism deeply troubled me, and my memories were little comfort. Is everything simply going to dissolve into nothingness, I wondered? Or is there still a chance for redemption, be it from God, the Universal Mind, or even an outpouring of energy from another dimension? Is Dark Energy itself the key? Might there be some creative aspect of its nature we don’t yet understand? After all, when the Chacoan civilization collapsed, the Anasazi resettled along the Rio Grande and established the vibrant Pueblo Indian culture that thrives to this day. While my marriage ended, I fell in love again. My Buddhist faith tells me that the souls of my father, mother, and son will reincarnate again and again in an immense journey towards enlightenment. Could the universe really end as a meaningless spray of subatomic particles across infinite space? Instead, do not birth, death, and regeneration shape the great pattern of existence?

I posed some of these questions to Dr. Gilbert, who shook his head before answering. "We don’t know. As it did at the turn of the last century, physics has entered an era when so much has been thrown into uncertainty. It’s really a very exciting time to be a cosmologist. But at this moment, our understanding of the data tells us that, yes, the universe will expand forever, and ultimately all motion and form will die."

At that moment, a door slammed, and the echo, traveling hollowly down the hall before fading altogether, called up images of atoms scattered across an eternal sea of darkness, final farewells in an abandoned Anasazi city, a desolate man crying in an empty house, and drops of water from Owachomo, time’s bridge.

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