Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fencing with Feynman

It's not an ugly place to work.  There is dirt, pine trees, manzanita shards, the new steel building, and in the distance the air over town.  There is coiled steel wire, blue sky, poison oak, filtered sunshine. There is urine, mud, sweat, and blood.  There are even such things as determination and fatigue (and, on the part of the poison oak, malice).

I lift and ram the digging bar, jabbing jerkily at the unyielding earth.  It's a rod of steel with a rather dull edge, meant for breaking up ground.  It is heavy, and to dig a single hole one might lift it a couple hundred times.

I suppose the dirt is locked together in some atomic structure and it requires energy to break it apart.  Actually I don't suppose that second part.  It's a little easier when you can get a void opened up and break the dirt off into it, but this is a rare luxury with holes because you have to keep going deeper in a contained cylinder.  Hacking off the edge of a bank - or even digging out a trench - sounds like a vacation.

Once another layer of dirt is broken up, a post-hole digger lifts it out of the hole.  If you've ever used one (or seen one), you know how they operate: spreading the handles (squeak! crack!) brings the jaws together, and bringing the handles back together (screech! thunk!) opens the jaws and releases the bite.  As the hole gets deeper, it gets harder to spread the handles wide enough to grab the dirt at the bottom tightly, and that soil that was just moments ago stubbornly resisting separation now streams out of the jaws like so much sand out of a sawed-off hourglass.

I wish John McPhee were here; he might have something intelligent to say about this dirt - how it's the disintegrated crust of some ocean floor from deep time that was tectonically somersaulted two hundred and fifty miles inland one afternoon when the planet had indigestion.  To me it's just an enemy with no face and no anger, which is the worst kind of enemy there is.

The work is elemental, and not in a satisfying way.  There is satisfying elemental work - splitting wood, for instance - and there is maddening elemental work.   Thirty-four inches, and you hit hardpan clay at eighteen.  The two-cycle auger balks when it reaches the clay and just bounces around its rotation, not intending to do any more work and simply waiting for you to lift it out of the hole.  Sometimes technology dominates physics; sometimes physics dominates technology.

The formal definition of "work" has always bothered me, so I try not to think about it much. There must be some mathematical advantages afforded by defining it this way, because any day laborer working for cigarettes and a milkshake can tell you that it's a bunch of hooey.  If you carry a sack of concrete up a 100' hill and down the other side, you know for certain that you worked the whole time, no matter what your snobby physics professor says.  How would he know anyway?  He's certainly never done it.

Feynman is cut from another cloth.  He's one of those people who touches the world - tentatively at first and then in a full-on fight, a knock-down drag-out brawl with the cosmos.  (Fighting is an excellent way to get to know someone.)    Feynman inspires an almost military respect, a respect that he is oblivious to like a decorated general who keeps all the cute little buttons in a drawer so they don't weigh him down.  That is not what he cares about.  He cares about the mission, and the mission is finding things out, otherwise known as being alive.

For Feynman, knowing mattered.  It is an intellectual creed that becomes almost physical.  You can go out and try to understand how water flows through a pipe and die, or you can stay at home and lay on the couch and die.  Turbulence is so foreign and so hard to understand.  Are we going to remain cavemen?

Out here on the line, I think of Feynman to help me focus.  Breaking up this dirt is a physical process.  (clank, thud)  It's me and my puny steel bar vs. a few quadrillion muscular electrons.  (clank, clank)  I'm a pile of atoms, but I'm a pile of atoms to be reckoned with. (thud, clank)  I hope I don't get poison oak.  (clank, thud)  Why in blazes am I doing this?  (thud, thud, clank)

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