Friday, June 22, 2007
Living with Chaos
"In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order."
This week British weather forecasters announced the 2007 hurricane season may be less blustery than predicted by U.S. forecasters. The Associated Press story notes that while this is the first time the Brits have published a season forecast, the British Navy-affiliated office has routinely made hurricane forecasts. Apparently, our cousins-in-English did a better job of forecasting last year's less active season than the National Weather Service or noted State University researcher William Gray.
"Who really knows?" I want to ask, almost imperceptibly shrugging my shoulders with the least possible expenditure of calories in the June swelter. I think we can no more predict a particular hurricane season than I can be certain of the next turn the little green anole lizard on the garden wall will make. These anole scurry about my backyard in seemingly random patterns, like tiny green soldiers mounting an assault on the backyard shed. A time lapse photograph of this little fellow's ramble along the wall would produce something resembling the work of M.C. Escher.
I'm certain that the lizard's trail is anything but random. All around my backyard are patterns, some recognizable and some hidden to me. The symmetry of the spider web I understand, recognizing a net to catch supper. The spread of the Bougainvillea or the lazy patterns the bamboo trace in the wind are more difficult to decipher. Someone less challenged by math involving Greek letters could, I am sure, explain it to me. Or at least try. As for the weather, it's the ultimate challenge for the pocket-protector set, a massive array of forces that on one hand follows simple rules like "red sky at night, sailor's delight" and is at the same time is wildly unpredictable.
It is unpredictable, we are told, because it is a chaotic system. This doesn't mean that the weather is without rules, the formless void of the ancients. If it were, then "red sky at morning, sailor take warning" would never have caught on. The weather appears chaotic to us in part because any particular bit of weather is incredibly dependent on initial conditions, what the meteorologist Frank Lofrenz described in the early 1970s as the Butterfly Effect: the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can cause a tornado in Texas.
That is perhaps a metaphoric exaggeration, but the import is clear. I don't know what spawns tropical waves, those masses of air coming off the coast of Africa and colliding with the warm south Atlantic along the Horse Latitudes: some contours perhaps of the African landscape that send the winds swirling like the dust devils I used to observe in the tiny smoker's corner behind my office building. Many weather systems spin out into the ocean but only one in a hundred, with the chance cough of a camel somewhere in the Sahara, gives birth to Katrina.
The big pattern is clear. I know it. The anole, in some sense, knows it. The bamboo dancing in the wind knows as well. That is why we are all back living here again., sharing this space. Something terrible happened here two years ago, but it was that once in a generation storm that every one who lives on the hurricane coast is raised to expect. We have internalized that risk because we live in that pattern the way seabirds live in the wind and the waves, a world that to an outsider seems untenable but is to us the only landscape that matters, the one that inhabits us as much as we inhabit it.
Somewhere in Connecticut insurance accounts are fretting over forecasts and their columns of numbers, worrying that the pattern is broken. What will we tell the stockholders, they worry. How can we possibly afford the Hamptons this summer if these storms continue? The only Connecticut insurance man who matters to me once wrote: "We live in an old chaos of the sun/ Or an old dependency of day and night,/ Or island solitude, unsponsored, free/Of that wide water, inescapable." Wallace Stevens in Sunday Morning outlines a chaos as predictable as the heat death of the universe and as beautiful as June, then yanks god off the table as a source of blame or comfort like a trickster pulling the table cloth from beneath the dishes.
All that Stevens leaves me, in the end, is myself sitting at a table observing all the order and chaos in the universe in the particular of an anole wandering along a garden wall. It is enough. A flood may come and sweep away this wall and this anole. No matter. I've placed my bet, knowing as the anole knows which way to turn that one hundred years ago and one hundred years hence, someone sits in a patio in New Orleans and looks at a wall, wondering which way the anole will turn. I know this because in spite of all that happened I'm sitting here now, watching the lizard's progress in the place I call home.
Nice post. It did a dance on my head.
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