Blurred reality: a monologue with a few interruptions
From the LabLit short story series
29 September 2016
I didn’t want to look at reality from a different angle, but dig into it. I wanted to uncover the world through the eyes of science
Adry desert. Eric walks into the scene holding a watering can with both hands as if full of water. He seems disoriented but soon gets hold of himself.
When Isabella was with me there was a defined line. You could easily distinguish up from down. The picture she took is vivid in my mind: the surface of Lake Titicaca forms a sharp line and the reflection of the trees is so clear.
We loved to travel, and we did it a lot. Our plan was to travel along the Andes and hit the major cities from Colombia all the way down: Bogotá, Quito, Lima, La Paz, Santiago, Punta Arenas, Tolhuin. A straight line to the end of the world. We travelled 4000 miles in a month, moving south till La Tierra del Fuego, where it’s so windy it’s difficult to take a piss straight.
Isabella enters the scene with a reflex camera, wandering all around the scene and taking many pictures. Her attention is not directed to Eric, who keeps on with his story.
Now that was not part of the plan, you see: it happened during a stop between La Paz and Santiago in that weird strip of land which is Chile. Our guide, José, kept telling legends of the regions: of dwarfs living in caves, giants of the desert, lovers turning into flowers. Isabella was fascinated, while I was rather bored. It seems like the more you move south the more people need stories to get along. It isn’t obvious that miners come up with stories about birds that bring them gold and all that sort of crap? I mean, if Eskimos start telling legends about miners, that would be something.
One night we stopped over in Copiapó, a backwater in the Chilean region of Atacama, right in the middle of the driest desert on Earth. A shithole of a city, with mostly miners living there. That winter 20 millimetres of rain fell. A flood if you consider that usually they get a couple of millimetres per year.
At dawn our guide woke us up.
José burst on the scene abruptly, almost shouting out of excitement. Isabella notices him, but not Eric.
“Señor… Señor! Wake up, señor y señorita, the Añañuca is awake!”
Eric ignores him and keeps on.
So off we went with José. And on the way through the desert he tells a crappy legend of a miner and his beautiful girlfriend named Añañuca who dies of heartache the day that he doesn’t come back from the mine. So they bury her in the desert, and the people of the region believe she comes back from time to time to show herself. Bullshit, right? Good enough for miners who live in shitholes in the middle of deserts.
José drove us into the desert – only that it wasn’t a desert. I mean, not anymore. Thousands of flowers covered the earth. Down South they call it desierto florido. It was –
Isabella takes pictures wildly and shouts enthusiastically.
“It’s magic! Look at them!”
Eric seems to notice Isabella for the first time and is bothered by the interruption.
The Añañuca has a scientific name, all right: Rhodophiala rhodolirion. It’s a perennial bulbous plant common in Chile, with specialized subterranean organs which store water and allow the plant to go into dormancy and withstand dryness. And, on rare occasions, the plant might bloom. The phenomenon is not fully understood yet.
No wonder that folk tales say there’s a girl who died of heartache buried in the desert, turning into a flower to pay homage to her beloved miner. I guess that the year the legend was born a lot of rain fell.
Isabella was a photographer; I am a scientist. So for me, too, there was a kind of magic involved in the blossoming of the Añañuca. The magic of questioning and understanding. Because understanding a flower scientifically can only increase our appreciation of it.
How it is that some plants can become dormant while others die? How could cells withstand dryness for years or even centuries? Which genes are activated during the blossoming? What triggers the signal, except for water itself?
Because you see, water is crucial but the amount of fallen rain itself is not the only cause of the blossoming and –
Isabella talks over him, bothered in turn to have been interrupted.
“Who are you, Thales of Miletus? Keep talking about water. Keep thinking about the roots instead of looking at what’s in front of your eyes. And watch out not to fall in a well! In the meantime, I am going to admire this. It’s magic! Maybe it was magic, too, what awakened the Añañuca. Maybe it’s this fog, the Camanchaca. Isn’t it a fascinating perspective?”
A fog starts coming into the stage. Eric keeps on.
Now, that wasn’t fair. Thales of Miletus? For me, too, the blossoming desert was fascinating. It’s just –
It’s just that you need something to hold onto, right? You need rationality in science as much as you need it in life. Otherwise you live in a dream; a foggy world governed by magic and legends; a blurred reality. Or so I thought.
When we got back home, our luggage was full of Isabella’s pictures and our discontent for not understanding each other’s views. Isabella printed out the picture of Lake Titicaca and hung it on the wall.
Only, she hung it upside down.
She said that the whole landscape had another perspective that way. The shore and the trees seemed slightly out of focus, but then you realized that a sharp line cut the blurred landscape from one which is clearer and reflected below. For her it was magic to see reality through a different angle. And so to Isabella the blossoming desert was magic because it was unexpected, because it scrambled up perspectives.
And I believe that was the seed of our discontent. Because I didn’t want to look at reality from a different angle, but dig into it. I wanted to uncover the world through the eyes of science. I wanted to measure, describe, dissect. Which can seem like a cynical, cold approach from the outside, an approach devoid of magic. But it isn’t, in my opinion. Science is just magic without the lies.
And yet I also remember her saying that she loved to be in the desert with me. That what she liked about us that we could look at a picture with different eyes, like we were on a shore and she could walk in one direction and I in the opposite, and we could still be looking at the exact same thing. She said that I was always her rational side. Well, she also said I was her fussy side, to be honest.
Well, one day she took a long walk in that direction and didn’t come back, all right. Her reality was blurred then, no need to put the lens out of focus or see a picture through cloudy waters. She got dementia.
She only took blurred pictures then. You need sharp pictures to appreciate the blurred ones. She probably wouldn’t agree with that, though.
And you want to know what was most painful? Not the facts themselves that she forgot who I was or that she started to lose control of her bodily functions. We felt the most pain when she had her lucid moments, and realised together the sadness of the situation and of her sickness. When we realised that we’d been spending our lives standing on the side of a lake looking toward each other, while both shores were in fact not so different. Because scientists are also driven by a push to be creative and see reality through new perspectives. I understand that now.
Isabella starts speaking over Eric, quietly and barely audibly at the beginning then increasingly faster, loudly and incoherently.
“Añañuca … Rhodophiala rhodolirion … fog rain water? … 20 millimetres a flood … could you please bring me a fresh diaper, Eric … bulbs specialized subterranean organs dormancy it might bloom … water … it’s my pleasure sir, and you are? … piss your pants without wind Eric … water, Eric … … … water.”
Eric keeps on, sadly.
What was painful was to see her cross the border between sanity and dementia, like a picture turned upside down, up and down, up and down. But it’s not that the picture is simply turned back and forth. It takes one turn, and another, and one more, getting faster and bigger all the time. And you are trapped in a faded capture, a huge spinning pixel.
A lake, a shore, some trees … a branch, a leaf … a – cell? … xylem, phloem … cellulose a stoma the vacuole an organelle … chlorophyll? … a chloroplast thylakoyds grana … water carbon dioxide, glucose oxygen water … water? … a molecule … few … … … atoms.
You can go crazy, if you think about it.
Now I’m tired of seeing the world blurred through my own tears; I want to see the desert again. So here’s my plan.
Eric moves the watering can as if to emphasize a movement from top to bottom.
I’ll travel south, and when I say south I mean it: I’ll go till La Tierra del Fuego. I’ll make every single soul I meet me tell a legend, and if they don’t know any I’ll tell them one.
He turns the can upside down and leans it on his pelvis.
I’ll drink as much as possible, and even without wind I’ll piss every inch of my pants.
He takes the can away from his pelvis but keeps it turned upside down.
I’ll print out the way from Bogotà to Tolhuin and turn it upside-down.
I’ll follow the map as little as possible and stop at Atacama.
He turns the can straight.
And I don’t care if it rains or not… I’ll bring along a can full of magic.
Dedicated to S., my change of perspective, and to my grandmothers.