The physics lesson of Australopithecus


Light travels in red grey sunset angles through the deep trees in the ancient jungle. Tiny Australopithecus rummages underneath his leafy bed and slides into his flip-flops. Strapping on the pith helmet left him by his grandfather, the great great great grand father of the hominid just before us, he walks quietly into the night.

He walks quietly into the night; stealth is a gift we are given by the DNA of our common ancestry with things that need both to be afraid and to be feared. I carry a stick. You carry a stick. Miraculously, the enormous lonely rhythm of the heart running through the carotid artery and out again keeps fear at bay and carries messages through the jungle that we are ant we are anteater we are poodle we are dictator. Blood messages, like time travelers, salinating and desalinating the bitter taste of worry. Quickly, quickly, quickly tricking the heart into believing in the ticking of the bomb that carries away sweetness and the mating of apes and aphids.

The mating of apes and aphids is contained in a module on biological sciences, stored in the library next to a laminated poster of dinosaurs eating swamp grass, heads swiveling, looking for predators. In the courtyard nearby there is a substitute teacher; he is sweating and his eyebrows feel worried. He strokes his face and wishes he had not dropped out of graduate school again. He strokes his face and looks down the hall. He is tall, the hall is long, the bell has rung and he is surrounded by a sea of pygmies, washing around him and he is afraid. He sees a boy and thinks of himself and thinks about sitting out in the parking lot listening to Abba on his Ipod, but today is a strange day and someone would probably call the police to report a strange man with worried eyebrows sitting alone in his car, and at least inside the school he has a known identity. Sub. Subject. Subjected. There is such as thing as too closely shaved; his skin feels raw and shiny like a baby something, a baby something not human, more newt-like or reptilian, and the air feels cold rushing against his naked face as the children open and close the doors on their way to the playground.

On their way to the playground they find a fossil. They find many fossils, and some sticks. Here: I carry a stick and you carry a stick. Put the stick down. Put the stick down. Then later all of them pouring out of the playground like Ovaltine and slightly burned milk, too hot to settle down now. The man is an Australopithecus wandering lonely in the jungle, the desert, the changing expectations, the creased perma-press dockers, the perma-frost largely unmentioned in classroom or cafeteria but ubiquitous nonetheless. Ubiquitous, the melting down of hard to soft, of cold to hot, the disenfranchisement of order. The blacktop is melted, the tar pits are hardened, the hominid hums a little tune and carries a little stick to dig in the earth. He digs in the earth, humming a little tune and then he goes home and sings the song to his son.

He goes home and sings the song to his son and they make a new bed together, out of rushes woven together and this year there are no stinging insects, because the cold that surprised them killed the mites that bit them and the woman who bore the children. They carry their little sticks and pots of water and grow things, and then centuries – thousands upon thousands of them – happen. The waters melt and freeze and someone invents Miracle Whip and pajamas and then they are here, with the frightened substitute teacher and the freakish death of the drummer for Abba, who fell through a window and slit his own throat. He carried a stick, and he hummed little songs for himself and his daughter, his little dancing queen now all grown up but fatherless and the substitute teacher is sad today.

The substitute teacher is sad today, but like the tides will get over it and reach in and out of the bag in which he carries his secrets, the sorrows and those epiphanies that surprise us whenever we find them, no matter how many times we’ve found them before. It’s the scrabble bag, all the letters are the same every time but the recombination of elements makes every moment new. All the letters are the same every time. Origin of species giving us the same dreams dreamed by a tiny man in a timeless world in a spinning orb in the gasses that surround us. Light travels from unimaginable distances to unimaginable distances, light travels like time, light travels like no time, light travels, light travels.


5 Responses to “The physics lesson of Australopithecus”

  1. 1 lollyloo March 24, 2008 at 9:42 am

    Just delightful … I am always amazed how these come out of you so whole and entire. I love the continuity of frightened hominids then and now and now and then. And I love the Scrabble bag of DNA. In that cosmic board game, are we really the triple triple? Hmmmm, maybe not!

  2. 2 Teresa March 24, 2008 at 10:36 am

    Thank you, Lollyloo – I’m currently obsessed with evolution and related themes.

  3. 3 Russ Hall July 2, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Hey, this is really good… your writing style is poetic and musical in its presentation. I just love this.

  1. 1 Apes and aphids « Trees for the forest Trackback on March 19, 2008 at 4:05 pm

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