The shape of energy

March 24, 2014 · 8 minute read

Hot, bright, and dancing, the surface of the sun is an explosion of energy hurling visible flares of incandescent plasma millions of miles into space. While these flares and other gaseous prominences flicker like flames at the surface, advancing and retreating, invisible photons of energy are launched on one-way, far-reaching trips to the ends of the universe. The electromagnetic radiation identified as “light” emitted as the sun’s immense mass of hydrogen is continuously fused into helium moves as fast as our conception of motion will allow it — 186,000 miles per hour.  The universal speed limit.

In the deep vacuum of outer space the light-speed travel of these wave-like streams of energy can be intercepted only by larger fields of energy or by chunks of matter. If the chunks of matter are just the right distance from that ball of nuclear fusion, if they are just the right size and rotating at the appropriate speed, and if some of the elements on the chunk of matter have gathered together as water molecules, the energy of the star we call “sun” is not merely intercepted. Having travelled 93 million miles or so to reach us, these streams of universal magic are captured, transformed, and take on new life as mass, form and visible motion. When not used immediately or reflected, the light energy is stored either as plant tissue or as the digested energy for “life” in the animated bodies of an immense population of creatures who consume raw plant tissue or other plant-eating life forms.

2014's new solar panels emerging.

2014’s new solar panels emerging.

On our own special chunk of matter, the sun’s portable energy, no more visible to the naked eye than a bright thought, is re-formed into a complex, beautiful, and quite confounding work of physical art. It becomes all the life forms found on the surface of our planet today.     

I can’t believe the temperature will drop into the 20s tonight!  Shivering slightly I run out to the woodpile in the dark and begin kicking and scraping the ground for scraps.  My firewood pile is usually a fairly reliable hourglass, tilting in harmony with the tilting of the earth’s axis and measuring out the two major seasons in Richmond– “cold” and “not cold.”  During the summer and early fall the reserved space under my silver maple tree gradually fills until I have split and stacked two and a half cords or so of wood waiting for the tilt. Sometime in October or November, maybe the first time the breath escaping my mouth looks like a faint wisp of smoke, the timepiece is tilted and this pile of stored energy begins draining or burning through the small throat of my fireplace.  If this were an average winter these scant scraps and oversized knotty pieces I rummage through in the dark, clumped together along the fence like unchosen girls waiting hopefully at the side of the gym for dancing propositions, would indicate the arrival of spring. Usually, before I find myself asking these awkward chunks of tree to the winter dance of flames inside my house, winter has become spring, and it’s time to re-tilt and measure out the “not cold” season again.

Not this winter! And now I’m shaking the hourglass, really, to make every bit of burnable material tumble through the fire.  I find an old chunk that was holding up a wooden bench three or four years ago. Splitting it open reveals burnable wood on one side and a massive community of living creatures on the other. Having learned to use what this tree stored, these creatures are invading it from the side that remained in contact with the earth.  Mostly termites, and some grub worms.

Termites: creatures of decay.

Termites: creatures of decay.

I throw the whole thing into my blaze, not sympathizing enough with those strange, white creatures gnawing through the darkness of decay to value their lives more than my evening’s warmth. They’ve so recently stolen the energy of this wood that they must be mostly wood themselves, anyway. Right? I justify the extermination, and then watch the hesitant, lethargic burning of partially decayed wood. 

What about this nicely edged and cornered piece under the treehouse? It pains me to consider this piece for the fire. A small hunk of tree trunk with such a storied past. The energy that became this tree was flung from the surface of the sun sometime around 1940 and reached the earth 8 minutes or so later.  The tree grew well, shouldered up with only others of its kind as it continued capturing newly arrived energy and converting it into mass, and form. Your 3rd or 4th grade teacher told you a little about how this is done, but at that age it may have been difficult to separate and appreciate the particular magic of photosynthesis in a world otherwise full of magic and play. Later, perhaps, it was taught to you as a scientific formula. Do you remember?

CO2(carbon dioxide) + H2O(Water) + Sunlight(really!?) = CH2O(organic matter) + O2(Oxygen)

Pure magic! Day in and day out during the growing season this red oak lived by this formula, using its ornate green solar panels for the hocus pocus of building and storing energy as matter. Much of the stored energy became the wood of its trunk.

But then there was the buzz saw of human progress. Somehow this tree escaped one of those feverish human plunges into the forest to find itself isolated alongside one of many neatly-lined human habitations seven miles west of downtown Richmond near Patterson and Three Chopt. Conditions worsened for the tree. The earth nearby was covered with asphalt. Each year all of the regenerative droppings and leaves were raked up and hauled away. The fertility of the soil waned.

beams2I just happened to be the one called in 2002 to remove it from the sky. It had become old, weak, and untrustworthy as a companion for humans. I asked a friend with a portable saw mill to make me some long “4×8” sections. My father and I were building an addition on my house and I wanted to mount these rough-cut sections at intervals against the ceiling of my new fireplace room as decorative beams. My 68-year-old father and I had three of these ridiculously heavy, 14-foot hunks of tree to lift up 12 feet into the air on the short end, and 15 feet on the long end

I was still physically cocky in those days, but my dad was gradually giving up cockiness in the interest of longevity, and in this case was apprehensive about the beam raising. I talked him into trying and completing the first one, nearly killed him while barely completing the second one, and in a rare moment of lucid prioritization decided it was better to have two beams and one dad than it was to have three beams only. The unselected third beam became a multi-use bench near my outdoor firepit for a few years before I found uses for smaller truncations of its length. The one I’m holding in my cold hand, the one I find while rummaging through the darkness of yet another winter night of 2014, is one of the last remaining. It’s only one and a half feet long and just on the edge of succumbing to rot and decay. Being a borderline hoarder of any shape or form suggesting usefulness, the only way I convince myself to position this perfect cuboid of tree on my dissection table is by insisting to the closet hoarder within that it’s either one more winter night of heat and dancing light for us inside or it will be an all summer party of dark decay outside for another death-eating group of albino insects. The violent pop of my splitting maul is followed instantly by the tearing sounds of tree tissue. I carry the last shards of the once 14-f00t-long beam of northern red oak to the throat of the    

Hot, bright, and dancing, the fire created when the sun’s energy is released again after being stored for many years in the form of a tree trunk is beautiful and hypnotic.  I remember something from a book I read long ago. On a tree trunk formed into the shape of a bookshelf I find the book, and on a tree trunk crushed and pressed into paper I find the energy, stored in this case as language, of a man I have never met but greatly respect:

Staring into the blaze had been a tonic for me. Even as a young boy I had been in the habit of gazing at bizarre natural phenomena, not so much observing them as surrendering to their magic, their confused, deep language…The surrender to Nature’s irrational, strangely confused formations produces in us a feeling of inner harmony with the force responsible for these phenomena.  

                                                                                    -Herman Hesse,  Demian

Hypnotized by dancing flames and white noise on a cold March 12 evening, I surrender to the realization that gazing into the fire is the nearest I can come to gazing with naked eyes into the primary source and mover of all life on earth. I am gazing at my source. In the fire I see the energy of the sun performing again as light and heat. I see my past as pure energy, I see my future as pure energy, and I can more fully appreciate the borrowed, fragile, burnable shape I assume today.

Above my head in the fireplace room are parts of a tree trunk formed into two long beams. For now, those two beams and I hold our shape as this other piece of the red oak trunk flashes brightly and returns to the formless realm of pure energy. Presto!