The meandering

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The train began one of its periodic speedier stretches, the pseudo-echo of the steel wheels clattering on the runners down the line of following cars now concertina-ing into a nonsensical cacophony.

“Yes,” the alien said after a pause. “Electrons circling a nucleus is about as far as you’re able, a lovely little myth-slash-metaphor. The geometry involved in the states of particles is beyond the natural abilities of your mental picture of the world. Your language is instructed by these abilities, and you, possessed by this language, can’t express it. It evolved long ago, your conceptual wherewithal, to cope with anything in your daily apery. The physics of motion for expectation—zipping from tree to tree. The division of the world into distinct bits—which objects to eat, avoid, dig with or pick lice out of. Colours to detect the ripenesses of fruits, degrees of emotional aspect to navigate socially. And your language has frozen this worldview into place. So that even your most abstract musings are governed by it: the actions of distinct objects on each other, actions limited by a small number of grammatical types, fixed in a temporal schema.”

“Our language has no future?” I asked, and regretted it. I meant theoretically, but knew it was an opening for the alien to rub in our imminent extinction.

He put his hand up to stop me reframing the question, giving me a consoling nod to show that he wouldn’t. But he agreed that there was none. Our languages would never have been able to reach real world-comprehending heights. The alien rebuffed my assertion that, as new words and ideas were always entering the communal pool, anything was possible, and who was he to write it off. Not ‘anything’ he insisted. Just as a fish could evolve into a cheetah, but a cheetah could never evolve into a fish, being too specialised in one direction, so was human language unable to backtrack, being too far down its specialised cul-de-sac: of visual objects in a temporal world; of doers, sufferers and instruments, states and actions, causality, possibility and culpability. Of course that didn’t rule out another style of language evolving from scratch, he offered as one of his small tokens of hope, with the usual clear dearth of conviction as to its likelihood. I tried to pull the conversation out of this particular black hole.

“Okay, okay, take a breath. Suck on this a minute,” I said flipping him a vitamin lolly. But I couldn’t entirely let it go. My initial impulse was to get him back to the business of our extinction, but then was immediately keen to delay that particular topic. “Maths, you mean? As a language to supersede what we’ve got? Because for instance with quantum physics like you say we’ve understood a lot in terms of maths, even if we can’t express it in an easily comprehensible visual picture. The idea of ‘spin’ or ‘colour’ of the particles, for instance, being not too helpful as a metaphor, but its mathematical counterpart, you know, adds up perfectly, showing the validity of the notion without …” I was clicking my fingers trying to keep the babble in motion.

“Without actually elucidating what these characteristics entail. Yes I agree. And that’s exactly why maths is such a poor tool language for plumbing the matter.” He smiled immodestly. “No. Maths is maths—and requires another vehicle language to express it. And nor is it the only one, the be-all and end-all language lying at the primary truth of the universe. For instance, there were some of your kind trying to express quantum physics with a computing language. I think that’s one step smarter to getting it actually.”

I resisted saying what? He thought he knew it all, and any kind of discussion like this would never get beyond his unshakeable sense of his own rightness. Better to get him with the type of question he hated most: hypothetical.

“So what is the best visual metaphor for the states of elementary particles?”

“The best way for you to glimpse into the unseeable?”

“If you’re able.”

The alien stabbed at the window absently with a finger, then, craning his head, searched for something in the passing scenery.

“We’re nearly at Palmerston—something I have to show you there.”


Hills sloped to either side of the train. What had presumably once been farmland, undulating paddocks, was spread with a thick yellow coat of gorse in flower, interrupted here and there by the odd sprouting of flax bushes. McKinnon seemed more intent on the horizon where an occasional peak bobbed above the little hills, the shady blue of distance false-colouring it. He turned back indoors, sought out my map on the table, and pointed.

“There,” he said, tracing the squiggle of the Shag River to its mouth just north of Palmerston. “Why do rivers not run straight—like canals—do you think?”

“This is the metaphor, not the thing you have to show me?”

He nodded. Then wavered his hand like kind of.

“Well, they’re passing from a high point to a low point and have to move around the topography in between. The path of least resistance, right?”

 “True enough. But why over a flat plain does a river meander?”

“You mean wiggle?”

“Meander,” he repeated.

“This one of those things to note? The alien said ‘meander’ not ‘wiggle’? I’d just hate to get one of those important details down accurately.”

“Forget it,” he sighed. “Just the secrets of the universe I’m trying to pass on.”

“Sorry, no sorry go on. Tell me. Why does a river procrastinate around the shortest route instead of getting straight to the point?”

“No never mind. You’ll understand better when you see a river from the air anyway. Let’s just say that over enough time, on average, the river does flow straight. You think on it.”

That I would see the world from the air one last time was a pleasant condolence.


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