Life seems chaotic at the moment. Yet as I sit on my beloved porch at the cabin in the Coast Range, late autumn nightfall begins its orderly progression, a weighty silence sifting in around me. This deepening hush is part of a larger seasonal progression of noise. In late fall, there is no raucous winter ribbit of Pacific Chorus frogs from the darkening wetland below, no spiraling early summer calls of Swainson’s Thrushes, no stridulating chorus of September crickets. These earlier auditory hullaballoos were created by animals obsessed with an evolutionary mandate for making more of themselves. Each din bloomed and faded in a predictable sequence I have come to recognize and embrace in two decades of porch-sitting, watching and listening and smelling and feeling the withering light at this deteriorating cabin. Now the only sound is the jangling of my own neurons.
My internal chaos comes mainly from a level of social discord beyond my previous experience. The current maelstrom is even more heart-rending because of the contrast to four blissful weeks on an artist residency at the Playa Institute. Thank goodness for those two days before returning to work and social obligations. The first Saturday back, I puttered around in my home garden. The following Sunday I took the cider press to the apple orchard here at the cabin where I now sit. The early October morning was like warm milk and brandy, and I drank alone for several hours, picking apples and pressing juice, a cider day experience completely different from boisterous family events of past years. Memories slid over me like old jeans. I was wistful, but not sad. Change is, after all, ever after. In the afternoon, my friends Jerry and Martha came by for the more familiar community cider jam. But along came Monday and work and deadlines and 300 emails, a bipolar election process, a four-day trip to southern California, and a damaging December ice storm. I began to pull my head into my shell like a wannabe turtle.
Despite the orderly progression of nightfall, despite my well-tended garden beds and linear rows of garlic planted earlier in the afternoon, despite the organized organismal systems of chanterelle, Douglas fir, chorus frog, and my own body, I am not inclined to become too Pollyanna-ish about order in the universe. There is plenty of chaos beneath these orderly systems. Imagine being a single molecule in the company of other molecules experiencing Brownian motion, tumbling and gyrating and spinning and bumping at the whim of thermodynamic forces over which you have no control. Evolution would not be possible without a little genomic chaos in the form of random mutations, glitches in the replication of DNA molecules that otherwise reproduce themselves faithfully. Chaos is so important that the field of chaos theory has arisen to study how small fluctuations in the early development of orderly systems can caused huge differences in the final character of those systems.
Yet order is also widespread and obvious. We live in a solar system that exists because of rules imposed by gravity. Life persists because it has developed the parlor trick of harvesting energy to increase organization and complexity, thumbing its nose at the disorder predicted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Even though evolution requires random mutations, change could not proceed if a replicating DNA molecule were able to become any collection of nucleotides rather than a DNA molecule that is mostly, if not entirely, the same as the parent template. Likewise, organisms develop in orderly ways through predictable developmental pathways. Without these orderly systems, biological chaos would ensue.
There is no need to aspire toward disorder—chaos will occur without any input on our part. Soil scientist and musician James Cassidy says that everything will go “back to normal.” What he means is, back to a normal state of chaos. Organization and orderliness are abnormal states because they require energy to sustain them. Living things can acquire enough energy to keep their orderly juggling pins aloft only for a finite amount of time. All organisms die. Over the longer haul, 99 percent of all species that ever evolved on this watery green earth are extinct. Eventually gravity will cause this solar system to be engulfed by the collapsing sun, Earth will be gone, and this version of life will end. Period.
So what exactly is bothering me as I am enveloped by this very polite, very quiet near-winter nightfall? Nature has underlying chaos but is also highly organized. Human social systems can also be organized but are clearly fraught with chaos (and right now the level of social chaos seems to have risen a notch). As darkness progresses and the air chills, I turn up my collar, shiver, and realize that I suffer under the illusion that social progress should proceed with no underlying chaos. Moreover, I suffer because I think that my particular ideas for organizing society are the best way forward. Don’t get me wrong. We don’t need to all hold hands and agree. Pronouncing all ideas equally worthy would be even worse. Some ideas are better than others. Look at all of the death and destruction, some of it human and far more that is not, that has been wrought in the wake of bad ideas. The paradigm of infinite economic growth has been particularly damaging.
In these turbulent times we cannot look to Nature for order without also acknowledging the disorder seething below the surface. My future as a transcendentalist is not bright. I don’t believe that Nature reflects back to us some higher manifestation of order, some perfection that can be transposed onto human society, providing an enlightened way out of our predicaments. If anything, Nature shows us who we are: a species that has evolved in a constrained but disorderly process, a once wild animal who persists by capturing energy and imposing organization on this disorderly earth. If order and chaos are tattooed on the arms of our chromosomes, how could we possibly expect human society to proceed decorously at all times, especially with the added constraint that society behave in ways we think it should?
Wrapped in the cold arms of a winter night, I think about my grandson with his gleaming white hair, his rollicking basket of smiles. I hope we find a way to make things work for a little longer. I hope we maintain enough order to continue to fly in the face of chaos. I hope we can persist.
[An earlier version of this essay was published in the December issue of Nature Trails, the monthly publication of the Eugene Natural History Society.]