The Infinity of the Small

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Alan Lightman in Harper's:

It is the end of June, and I am wandering about my small island in Maine. I’ve been thinking about the materiality of the world. Today, I just want to experience the fleshiness of this island. I run my hands along the bristly branches of a spruce tree. I could identify that prickle blindfolded. My bare feet sink into spongy moss. On the rocks lie mussel shells dropped from on high by crafty gulls seeking to break them apart and liberate the food within. The shells feel smooth and cool even in the sun. This tiny island in Casco Bay is shaped like a finger, half a mile long and a tenth of a mile wide. A high bony ridge runs down its spine, a hundred feet above sea level, and my house lies on the north end of the ridge. To the south, there are five other cottages, cloaked from one another by a dense growth of trees — mostly spruce, but also pine, cedar, and poplar, whose leaves in the wind sound like hands clapping.

As did Thoreau in Concord, I’ve traveled far and wide on this island. I know each cedar and poplar, each clump of beach rose, each patch of blueberry bush and raspberry bramble and the woody stems of the hydrangeas, all the soft mounds of moss, some of which I touch on my ramblings today. The tart scent of raspberries blends with the salty sea air. Early this morning, a fog enveloped the island so completely that I felt as if I were in a spaceship afloat in outer space — white space. But the surreal fog, made of water droplets too tiny to see, eventually evaporated and disappeared. It’s all material, even the magical fog, like the bioluminescence I first saw as a child. It’s all atoms and molecules.

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