UNHEARD TREES

Meanwhile, on alien worlds, millions of undiscovered species go extinct.

What is this noble, narcissistic, self-centered drive to catalog and preserve everything we can observe? The principles are sound, in the same way that the well-tarred hull of a rowboat can be, but what does that matter when we’re tossing about in seas that could swallow us at any moment?

I’ll tell you: it’s all a part of the death diversion. Why fill the hours of a life at all? For the non-sentient it’s almost exclusively about survival. Eat, drink, procreate, sleep. Play. Play is the first level of the death diversion, for it lives outside of the core necessities of existence. The greater a creature’s intelligence, the more complex and potentially enriching the modes of play. Yet all of it, all of the hours that one can spend lost in the ludic mindset, are just there to alleviate the anxiety of the constant dread of one’s own end. It’s not something that most acknowledge, instead choosing to focus on the joy such activities bring, but underneath the thin layer of protective lacquer that we apply to our lives lies the roiling tumult of ever-present death.

In this way, love is classified as a type of play. Science, the arts and humanities, anything that can absorb our attention for longer than a moment and take us away from dwelling on our own despair can be said as such. All of our advances, all of our progress, spring forth unbidden from boredom and fear. They say that “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop”, yet is not idleness the font for all that we’ve wrought? I’d say that it is.

We do our best to hold our ground against the swirling maelstrom of the infinite unknown that awaits us once the light fades into total darkness, and we make all kinds of excuses for it. Isn’t sentience and self-awareness a kind of insanity? To understand one’s own insignificance is both glorious and terrifying, freeing and imprisoning the mind in a single coup, thereafter occupying us until the end of our days. This is the plight of humanity, and it is what drives us to form our realities from what we can observe, to apply names to everything in sight, even if those names disagree with the ones bestowed by previous generations, for redefinition can occupy a lifetime of diversion. To know, to search for meaning in what may very well be an ultimately meaningless universe of stuff, this play that swallows us up and spits out an identity.

And yet, on realms hidden in the vast depths of space, millions of undiscovered species go extinct.

UTILITY

“Some day, all of this will be dust, or obsolete.” He stretched, took a quick slurp of his coffee, and rubbed his eyes.

I waited.

He stood and went to the window. The rain was falling hard at an angle, splattering the glass with an angry sound, forming streaking rivulets. Outside was an assault of shapeless grey forms, roiling clouds of precipitation and evaporation, a milling rabble of early morning mist that amplified the dawn light.

Still, I waited.

There was a look in his pale eyes, a far-off melancholy. I’d seen that look many times before, and I knew he was thinking of a past life. Already well into his fourth decade, he’d had several other existences. Once a carpenter, another time a private courier, five years a stage musician, three a writer of cheap sensationalist articles for a now-dead website. What was he now? A man of leisure? He’d never refer to himself as such, but then perhaps it wasn’t his place to define.

“It’s important not to hold on too tightly to these things,” he said, and sat back down. There was a hard determination in his movements, as though he was fighting to master a chronic pain. He picked the flat black device up from the table and brandished it like a switchblade. “These things we’ve made, especially these ones that so enrapture us to the point of symbiosis.” He dropped the thing. It clattered and wobbled but didn’t break, then lay flat and defiant, its polished surface reflecting the beams and patterns of the ceiling. “Sometimes I despair, because I understand that we’re all just stress-testing the future. Making things safe for the generations to come, and that there’s never going to be any kind of peace in it.”

“How do you mean?” I asked.

“Progress is never-ending. Can you foresee an end to it? Not only in the realm of technology but in all our endeavors, from the social to the political to the romantic. Every field we’ve invented for ourselves has limitless potential, because we as sentient beings have the same infinite heights. A more philosophical person than I would say that the journey is more important than the destination, but how true is that when there is no destination?”

“Would you rather that things had a definite end?” I asked.

“That’s the cruel irony of it, isn’t it?” He snatched the device up and locked it in a white-knuckled grip, as though trying to crush it. “As a species, as a rabble of creatures fucking and producing further generations, out into that misty future, we are a line without end. But as individuals? We lead mean, small, and brutally short lives that have very definite ends. Not a single one of us has managed to escape our eventual fate, have we? We are simply expected, perhaps by cosmic predestination, to embrace altruism as a means to some metaphysical immortality in the form of making a better future for those to come. And yet we are cursed with self-awareness that in turns fosters selfish desires that we must then curtail with complex systems of absolution brought about by introspection, like snakes eating our own tails. Ouroboros all, down to the last of us! And all of that struggle would exist regardless of how advanced our technology was.” He slapped the device down again, as hard as a domino, his scarred hand covering it completely. “Our primitive ancestors no doubt had the same struggle. Perhaps with less overall awareness, but they must have looked into the dark of the night just as we stare into the dark of our future, and asked themselves what it all was for.”

“But you have a choice,” I said.

“Do I? Do we?” He looked at me with those pale eyes. I felt myself falling into them, caught up in the ponderous air he’d conjured with his diatribe. “There are perhaps many paths away from the point you find yourself on, if you find yourself at all. But only a few of them lead anywhere meaningful, and despite all of our deepest desires to keep on serving ourselves, the clarion call of a greater good keeps herding us down a particular path. Usually at the end of a cattle prod.” He laughed.

“It’s the weather,” I said. He looked at me like I was stupid, then smiled.

“Maybe you’re right,” he said, and once more picked up the device. He tapped its surface and it glowed to life. He started to flick at it with his thumb, and within moments he was absorbed. I went back to my reading, and outside the rain continued to try and pound its way inside.

NIHIL

There is a great void, an unknown and unknowable thing-that-is-not-for-it-can-not-be, a colorless and odorless and shapeless senselessness that defies defining. This is true terror, that which by virtue of existing cannot be named.

It is fear, the cold sweat inducing shiverer and shaker that lies in wait in dark closets and in the musty dusty spaces beneath beds and under cellar stairs.

It is paramount, this leviathan of the nothing, for it lives in all of us, and the courageous most of all.