Walker

Another fisherman who’d overheard his question and could overcome the oddity of seeing adult twins together on the river might’ve thought today’s question related to death. After all, the phrases of Walker’s concern were most often spoken as a part of a eulogy. But it was obvious to me that it wasn’t, for although Walker devoted his career to delaying death, he never spoke of it directly.

No, today’s attack was on the figures of thought and speech by which we try to approach one familiar thing by way of another familiar thing, and thereby come to see that thing in an unfamiliar way: on the metaphors and analogies by which lives become roads, sometimes not taken; memories become food, sometimes bitter; and bodies become dust and ashes. In Walker’s view, these likes and ases and similar-tos aren’t means for learning truths about the world, but merely ways of imposing our desires, confusions, and self-deceptions on that world.

Standing on the fortress of his Initial Position, Walker views the knowledge of the world presupposed by bioengineering—the concepts and calculations of mathematics, physics, and biology—as discoveries of fact, not impositions of meaning. For some reason he’s always thought I disagreed with him. I didn’t and I don’t. Or at least not in the way he thought.

Which is to say, we often talked past each other.

A STEELHEAD ROLLED under the surface. Just a ruffle, a hint of silver under the gray morning. Walker stood and began to work out line, releasing more with each false cast as precise as a metronome until with a brilliant level reach he sent his gold-and-orange streamer to the far side of the slow-moving current. We both watched his heavy line settle into the depths where steelhead rest before fighting through the next rapids on their way upriver to the spawning grounds.

Tired of waiting for my response, Walker looked at me again.

“Why don’t they just say from atoms in one configuration to atoms in another configuration?”

We both watched his heavy line settle into the depths where steelhead rest before fighting through the next rapids on their way upriver to the spawning grounds.

I knew I should’ve remained silent, inwardly cringing at his lack of poetic sensibility and treating his question and his answer as rhetorical. But I didn’t. I couldn’t, because he never did.

“Atoms first existed for the ancient Greeks.” I realized I was sublimating my annoyance into lecturing. “They didn’t exist for the wandering Hebrews. They’re the ones responsible for from dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return. The thought, atoms to atoms, couldn’t have occurred to them. In any case, it wouldn’t have made things any clearer. Atom is from a Greek word meaning indivisible, and atoms aren’t indivisible. So how can atoms be any more accurate than dust and ashes?”

Walker’s face flushed. “You’re being obtuse.”

“You set the terms.”

As I said the words, it struck me how familiar they were, how many times I had used them over the years to encage him inside his topic, to try to prevent him from expanding the universe of our conversation or taking us down the wormhole of another restatement of his Initial Position.

“I’m not talking about what wandering storytellers in the desert wrote but about what people say now.” Walker pasted on an accommodating, even gracious smile. “But I’ll meet you halfway. Since you don’t like atoms, how about we say from quarks to quarks or maybe ‘leptons thou art, and unto leptons thou shalt return’?”

“I’ll go another half. How about from God particle to God particle?”

He snorted, this time without the laugh. “Assumes a fact not in evidence. You mean the Higgs boson. From Higgs boson to Higgs boson.”