A Meditation on Interpreting History

Archaeopteryx dies.
Its feathers impress the lithographic sand bedding the river.
Vesuvius erupts.
A Pompeian mother shields her child from the falling ash,
soon cemented around their ephemeral bodies.
Enola Gay flies.
Below, a bicycle rider in Hiroshma casts a nuclear shadow
before being vaporized.
Rampage disrupts
a Dead Sea hermitage,
orphaning a deposit of papyrus scrolls in a nearby cave.
Petrified vestiges thread through time, creating history.

Water cascades,
always in motion
like time.
First a rivulet, then a gorge, later a canyon.
Niagra Falls moves upstream.
Bones disperse.
Rain sheets down El Morro's cliff face,
refilling a heuco,
and dissolving the inscribed graffiti of travelers who once drew its water.
Moth larvae bore through bound volumes.
Microbes and fungi reduce the edges, nourished by organic fiber.
One culture excavating a parking garage crushes the relics of another,
presumably, in retrospect.
Fossilized past eroding.

Traces on paper—
of interviews transcribed, of news articles based on interviews,
typed memos, handwritten letters, sketches, diagrams, diaries—
archived in file drawers and cardboard boxes scattered across the globe,
xeroxed, notated, woven by a neural network,
channeled through a keyboard to electromagnetic bits
and printed in mass quantities,
soon to be recognized by a Pullitzer Committee,
clarify what no one person in any one place could have known at the time
about the making of the atomic bomb.

Symmetrical bands of magnetized lava in sub-oceanic mountains

tell an astonishing story of sea-floor spreading.
Fragments of molecules from bacteria to bactrian camels, sequences aligned,
map 4 billion years of species branching, and their common ancestry.

A monk scrapes ink from an ancient parchment,

itself a copy,
and inscribes his own holy text.
A chemist, serving a book collector, removes the monk's ink,
to recover the obscured Archimedes.
Johannes overpaints the map in his composition,
leaving light to caress a blank surface.
X-rays from a museum curator penetrate the canvas,
revealing Vermeer's act, but not his motive.

A philosopher of the Tang Dynasty,
signs his own work by borrowing the name of an ancient authority,

who may well be mythical.
Geneticists and evolutionists cast Gregor Mendel as supporting their claims,
which contradict each other.

An envelope postmarked Bombay reaches London.
The reader revels in the distant moment in a distant land
when the writer laid hand to the paper.
She does not know that the writer has already died.
Photons from a nova, en route hundreds of millions of years,
reach human retinal cells on Earth
long after the star is extinguished.

A student of the Tao, humbled by errant memory, transposes several chapters.
Elsewhere, an ambiguous brushstroke becomes a homophonic character.
A master mistakenly believes he has corrected an inherited error.
A line is lost.
Two scrolls are transcribed as one in reverse order.
No lapse interrupts the lineage,

but who can know what lingers from where, when?

New traces emerge.
The gestalt switches.
Documented correspondence echoes a journal entry:
someone else alerted Darwin to the pattern of his own (oft-mislabeled) finches.
An anomalous iridium layer betrays a cataclysmic meteorite closing the age of dinosaurs.
No one in the age of Columbus really believed the earth was flat.
Events that were, change.
What once was, is past no more.

History shimmers,
transient aurora spectacle,
petrified, eroding,
dissolving, reconstructed,
ever fluid.
A stroboscopic image stills the wave,
but who can grasp the river
from whence it flows upstream?

© Douglas Allchin
26 Nov–2 Dec 2001