The Re-Enchantment of Entropy


    Two pyramids of logs stood at the end of the driveway; the bodies of loved ones cast coldly upon each other in climbing layers like concentration camp victims. Our beloved trees had been extracted from their roots, counted and transformed from entity to commodity. Their disembodied limbs and splattered viscera littered every corner of our farm. I wondered what I was supposed to learn from this.

    We had done it to ourselves. Rising taxes and anemic income had made logging seem like a good idea at the time. The "forest management" program would reduce our taxes for years to come, but now I couldn’t see the trees for the forest. The ferny depths were flattened, the sylvan spirits evicted.

    Turning away from the depressing scene out my kitchen window, I flopped on the couch and hugged a pillow to my chest. In my sadness, it was easy to imagine other parts of my life being cannibalized in the same way. I could spend a lifetime rearing my children, only to see their lives blighted by illness, accident or destructive influence. I could create a cozy, inspiring home, and it could burn. I could start a friendship and watch it wither just as my heart bloomed in its warmth. I could start a book and die with my pen hovering over the last words. So much investment so easily squandered.

    Matter and energy

    What was the word for such waste and uncertainty? I found a definition for my despair in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: "…The general trend of the universe toward death and disorder." Ah, yes, entropy, "…the ultimate state reached in the degradation of the matter and energy of the universe." I couldn’t recall where I’d first heard that word, but lifted it with care from the archives of memory. Oxidized, but still admirably precise, this reference to the second law of thermodynamics perfectly quantified my feelings.

    Just before the logging started, I went for a walk in the woods to say goodbye. I ran into the forester.

    Seeing my sadness, he tried to explain, "We have to cut down the old ones so the new ones can grow."

    I stared at the trees marked for harvest by a swath of red paint and thought, "It took a lifetime for them to grow." Would I live long enough to see the woods look like this again? I pictured myself 30 or 40 years from now, standing defiantly at the end of the driveway to block the path of the logging trucks. A stooped crone, I would shake my bony fist at the forester and shriek, "You’re not coming back!" He would think I was a foolish old woman and would tell me that I didn’t understand.

    "We have to cut the old ones so the new ones can grow."

    But he won’t understand. It takes a lifetime to become an old woman.

    Meaning and context

    Entropy captivated my imagination even as it haunted my heart. So, I set out to study its true meaning and context. At first glace, it seemed to be an inevitable "law of nature" that disassembled anything that made the mistake of assuming itself. Was Nature merely a series of interlocking physical principles that ground us up in its machinery and recycled us? Maybe so, but there had to be more to it than that. In a closed system, entropy increases as form and function burn themselves out. It carefully wraps the remains of delicate, complex fulminance in the burial cloth of simple, durable randomness. Here they lie serenely decomposed until their resurrection to new expression, for our Mother, Nature, is not a closed system. She is relationship.

    I thought of the day I gave my grandmother’s eulogy. Looking out at the faces of her siblings, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I saw Grandma’s life distributed to those she loved, like the elements of communion. In the shapes of eyes and noses, in dialect and tone of voice, in lifestyles and philosophies she reappeared over and over again. She was not a martyr, but had willingly and, sometimes, unwittingly broken off pieces of herself to nourish and consecrate the lives of those around her. "This is my body which is broken for you. This is my life, a gift to you." In the context of physiology, entropy is known to work in the breaking down of food to forms usable by the body. The saying, "You are what you eat" is true in part. But it is entropy that makes it possible for what you eat to become you. In each person my grandma had touched, her gift had been rendered and re-mixed. We were made of the same stuff, but we were not grandma.

    The broader views

    The October after the logging, I went hiking up along the ridge trail again. I tried to find beauty in the broader views revealed by the missing trees, but was distracted by the littered foreground. I stumbled over withered tree tops and sections of trunks left behind, because they were too small to be marketable. It was then I noticed dozens and dozens of waist-high bushes poking up through the debris. Clusters of sprouts had grown from the stumps of fallen maples. Clothed in throbbing Pompeiian red, they held hands in circles around their mothers, and danced in worship of her and of their own fresh lives.

    I was struck by the size of the leaves on the sprouts. They were oversized, as if to get a firm first grasp on life. I spread my hand over one of their palms and marveled that it matched mine in size. It made me think of a painting by the surrealist, Rene Magritte. An unusual grove of trees is depicted in his work called "The Search for the Absolute." While some of the trees take the traditional form, others are simply oversized, single leaves representing a single part of a tree, yet standing as equals to the other trees. Are the parts considered "tree," or only the whole? Had the seeds of both kinds of trees been the same?

    A persistent breeze mounted and pushed its way over the ridge just then, interrupting my reverie and calling me from the circle of scarlet dancers. Further up the trail I could see the tall trunk of a dead tree, debarked and pocked with woodpecker holes. It looked like an enormous flute, and I could almost hear it whistle as the wind circled it. I thought, "It’s going to take me a while to learn the words, but I’m beginning to hear your music."

    Crystal cymbals sounded in my heart the day I read an article by Frank L. Lambert, in which he described how entropy built snowflakes. Energy ripples out through matter, changing everything in its path. A drop of water that started as raindrop or a tear could be transformed into a delicate snowflake. I felt such wonder and liberation from grief. How creative entropy was! I had not thought it possible. Entropy (according to Webster’s)is "the measure of the efficiency of a system (as a code or a language) in transmitting information, being equal to the logarithm of the number of different messages that can be sent by selection from the same set of symbols…." The symbols crash and leave behind a tantalizing, invigorating echo.

    Ancient incense

    In the spring I made a final pilgrimage up to the ridge trail. At the top, I threw my gaze over the hills, down into the next valley, and back up the distant hills beyond. This time, an ancient incense breeze stirred me to travel and find its exotic origins. It had taken a lifetime to get to me, and just now it was on its way home. I caught its hem and it carried me over into other years, some behind, some ahead. It seemed to know its way. I saw the roundness of the earth and the cycle of life. When it stopped, I kissed it and thanked it for the ride. Before leaving, it reminded me to stay lithe-spirited, to sway and dance with the new music I had learned.

    It was a casual glance at a gardening magazine that ultimately provided the words to the music. "I prefer the effects of time to quick solutions," the wise gardener had remarked. Invest, nurture, dig, and bury, with the refrain: "…wait, wait, wait…."

    I could never restore my farm to the state it was in before the logging. The old trees were gone, but I could plant, and hope, and carry a vision of new groves with different paths through them. Once planted, the trees would grow their own way. Some trees would arrive unannounced. I had already been surprised by volunteers, and I had even invited some to grow in my yard for daily fellowship. But I realized that I would have to keep going about my business, not letting my expectations over-shade what I plant, and not digging it up to make sure it is still there. Short of ignoring it, I would busy my life around it and keep the sky clear above it. The same strategy might work for my children, friendships, home, writing. Perhaps unconscious, joyful humming would coax life back into my life. But it had to come out of its own accord.

    Descending from the ridge-top, I sat down on a stump in the valley by the horse pasture. Moss-muted whispers and lingering lichen touches absorbed me. I finally let myself melt and seep into dark loam to follow the secret trail of rootprints left by memory and matriarch. In my absence, I knew that fungal fingers were leafing through the log-book of my life. They would pull out the pages they liked and save them to quote elsewhere. But I have no copyright, no title of ownership. Entropy can use them as she will. I am honored that she would want to. But entropy is like that. She is the "wild magic" that pilfers from us and creates something we couldn’t have planned for ourselves. She mesmerizes us with an "otherness" created from our very selves.

    Entropy has vision, but does not always plan where she is going. She is scavenger and curator, collecting found objects and creating new art. If we pause to study her work, and are willing to listen, Entropy can tell us where each piece came from and what went into its creation. She can make us excruciatingly aware of their fragility, inspiring us to preservation. And she can help us trust unpredictability and thrill at the expectation of something novel.


    Entropy is Simple – If We Avoid the Briar Patches! by Frank L. Lambert []

    Obstructions to the Second Law Make Life Possible. []

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