Leaves turn color in the fall, they told us at Wiley Junior High 8th grade biology, because they were dying and the green chlorophyl was no longer being produced to nourish the tree from sunlight. I was not paying much attention, the biology of life and death being all about what already is and my interest was in what wasn’t but could be – what I learned to call engineering. Colors were other materials in the leaf now visible in the absence of green. Without makeup, the leaves were at the end of their lives to be not what they had led us to believe
Space is empty, they told us, hence black and cold, but with the advantage one can travel through it at incredible speed – no air resistance, nothing to bump into, no gravity. A very modern philosophy – space was useful, fast, sleek, efficient, but cold and soul less.
Considering that we have plenty of leaves available for close examination, and we swim inside the ocean of space, how to explain how completely wrong we were about them? And wrong in ways that reflect so neatly our view of the world – the obligation since expulsion from Eden to cover ourselves so long as we live, and that to become modern we shed the baggage of warmth, love and soul so that we can travel light and fast and everywhere instantly. Photons travel at the speed of light and they never age. Unless they slow down, exit the vacuum and travel outside it (in air or water) or encounter an absorbing atom, they are immortal. I want that.
But what I hope is we now have leaves right – green chlorophyl is useless in winter’s weak sunlight, better to build other chemicals to protect the plant during its hibernation, chemicals that are brown, orange, red, not our stereotypical color-of-life green. Before their death, leaves provide something else, not life, not nourishment, they have a final critical role in the survival of the plant beyond death. in death they ensure the life of the whole world.
Faced with my own vacuum, I filled it, unable to live up to that ‘60s sleek ideal of aluminum jets and V8s, of cold efficient vacuum. With energy – writing, racing, commuting between my two countries 6 times a year, teaching, studying Italian, even breaking bones is a sort of welcome distraction. Like priming a pump with water, pain pushes pain away. And space? Apparently also the vacuum doesn’t love a vacuum. It fills itself with energy, with massless particles rushing around at the speed of light, with pulsating electromagnetic fields. People talk about harnessing the energy of the vacuum. Maybe we’ll never make gold from that lead, but lead is not nothing. There’s a lot less of that vacuum than we thought – all of a sudden 90%, maybe 95% of the entire universe, that thing we are immersed in and which surrounds us all our lives and we see when we stare up and when we look down, that we call space implying that it is empty space, has 20 times more stuff in it than we thought a few years ago – mostly dark matter and invisible energy.
If it works for the cosmos, it works for me. A vacuum is the absence of everything. I imagine, still when I stare up at the black winter Rhode Island sky with its diffuse dust of stars punctuating the expanse of apparent nothingness, Nancy existing among that black cold vast emptiness. The idea scares me and makes my psyche shiver in synch with my freezing body. I want to be surrounded by the warm wet atmosphere of the earth, with warm sunshine, wind, salt air, sounds of birds and cars and people. Summertime at the beach. That she is now a part of this infinitude of absolute zero is impossible to reconcile.
Now we know, and I hope we’re right this time: that imposing infinity of space is vulnerable. Because a vacuum is the absence of everything, the tiniest amount of energy fills it, the efforts even of one person fills infinity and destroys that vacuum.
The idea is not new – energy and dark matter did the heavy lifting for the cosmos, leaving me to fill my own personal vacuum with my own personal energy. Three years later, summoning energy, launching myself into the world to fill my vacuum has become a habit. Is our role to repair the world, Tikkun olam? That’s what religious school taught me, when the lack-of-religion school taught me that colored leaves lacked chlorophyl and space was empty. Or is the business of life to fill vacuums with energy?