Letter to a Grieving Friend

I am sorry for your pain and your student's pain. I know only that we are all starlight. We came from stars, maybe even twice, and we ultimately will go to stars again. I do not know what human life has to do with this, except it is some small permutation in the cycles. It is lovely sometimes (and always in the abstract), but it is brief. We see mayflies out for their Day of life; what we don’t realize is that our own Day is as short, or shorter, in the larger flow. One mourns lost potential, lost experiences, and lost pleasures--but one must measure them against the present pains which bring about this shift in the patterns of particles. We are aware of—have consciousness--in this pattern of the moment. We have absolutely no idea if such similar consciousness continues, or is made anew, in other patterns. Stars may have magnificent intellects, and moonbeams may laugh unheard. We just don’t know, and will never know. Life is only one configuration of particles--it is the one we know--but by no means all. Do trees write symphonies? Do rocks ponder? I don’t know, but I don’t know why not, in their ways. I do not think human religions have more than barely grasped what might be--they are very old and simple, and meant for the masses who cannot think very well. But they all share one truth--that the story is not entirely told by just the span of our lives. Death may be a dreamless sleep in human terms--but human terms are ended at death, and some other terms function. We know not what.

Mourn your own loss, and even what you can imagine what might have been in the life of your student, had he lived. But that is really not what matters: his particles are in transition to something else--smoke, humus, fragments, whatever, but simply continuing the same voyage they began with the Initial Singularity some 15-20 billion years ago. We are all that old. We have been here since the beginning, in one form or another, and we will be here till the End. We have nowhere else to go. This is our little universe.

Much love to you, and what sustaining energy I can send. ---Howard


As one of the few anciens who can still remember the distant rumble of Giap's guns at DienBienPhu some sixty miles away, the wind fresh from the east, carrying a sound that was not thunder, I remember also the lean figure on the trail before me --cousin, botanist, snoop, and mystic--
Benjamin Coe. I followed him in the early months of 1954 because anything was better than the boredom of serving on the USS Essex as it cruised the China Sea. He effected my escape from the Essex disguised as a routine transfer, and brought me to Bangkok, where we idled together at a fine hotel with more to eat and drink than I was accustomed to. He talked to French planters, Meo tribesmen, strange diplomats, missionaries, Buddhist monks, and herbalists. I have no idea what they talked about, since it was always in a language other than English. But one day he said it was time to go. We flew to a small field somewhere north of Chang Mai, as I have reckoned, and settled in a tin roofed shed for a few days. My new Palm Beach suit was replaced by fatigues and already rotting combat boots. I was assigned a simple but important task: carry the notebooks, the three bottles of Scotch wrapped carefully in green underwear, and the little Mannlicher with a hundred rounds of ammunition. Locals carried the rest, and Benjamin kept his hands free to examine blossoms properly.

The little brown men who carried more than we did were from Laos. Each had a big, fine blade for cutting trails or taking heads, and I coveted one. But Benjamin advised against it, as I would be tempted to explore and get lost, and that I should leave the cutting to those whose karma had prepared them for it. My work, he said, was to tend to the delicacy of the Mannlicher's trigger, to guard our precious Scotch, and to meditate on the frightening differences between observation and understanding.

As we waited by our shed for whatever it was we waited for, Ben took me each morning down the road a mile or so for a visit and a cup of tea with a small Negrito man whom we always found seated beneath a great tree. He was introduced to me as Louis Aragon of the Andaman Islands and possessor of the only graduate degree in mathematics awarded to a native of those islands. Louis was about four and a half feet tall, very dark, and always seemed immensely amused by the world. He spoke English with an Indian accent, and he and Ben gossiped about the war to the north and what various people were doing, what had been seen in the forests of late, and what went on beyond the Mekong, both east and west. I sipped the tea carefully, and listened. When I asked, Louis told me he no longer did mathematics, and preferred to observe clouds and trees and the footsteps of men, as these were more beautifully complex than any equations.