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Measures of Loss

by Susan Carol Hauser

I. Things Fall Apart

William Butler Yeats was not the first to notice that things fall apart, though he articulated it more eloquently than most, in 1921 in his poem “The Second Coming:”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world....

Rudolf Clausius was probably not the first to notice it, either, but he appears to have been the first one to name it, some decades before Yeats wrote his poem: “en-” for energy, “-trope” for transformation: entropy. He also shaped the observation into a law, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The first law says that in our universe, overall, nothing is gained or lost. If I burn wood, the fire releases elements that find their place in the air or the ash bin; these elements are different than they were when they were configured as wood, but the burning did not change the overall mass of energy-plus-matter in the universe.

The second law is—if I may take poetic liberties in my definition—about organization. Things tend to fall apart unless something keeps them together. They will not fall together, fall inward, fall into a new pattern. That’s just not how things go, said Clausius, and Yeats. It is anarchy: without order. “Mere anarchy:” just disorder and nothing else. No intent, no passion, no conviction.

If you ask a scientist about entropy you will be introduced to finer and greater understandings than I can offer: forms of energy, transformation of energy, motion of heat (always hot to cold, they will insist), irreversibility, measures of loss, the availability of energy to produce work (the transfer of energy, in the world of physics, and a quality necessary for life). I actually have some understanding of the availability of energy that can do work. If I burn a log in my wood stove, I will get a goodly amount of heat from it, but I will not get 100 percent of the heat that is ostensibly available. The transformation of wood to heat uses up some energy. It is lost; it is not available to do the work of heat. It is entropic.

An adjective. I’m sorry. It does confuse matters. The entropic potential of a stick of wood is slight but is, nevertheless, real. It can be measured. Entropy is a measure, a measurement, a quantitative value. It has a symbol, S, and comes with equations that are a sort of poetry but are not poetic: to the untrained, they are inscrutable. Most definitions and descriptions say that “entropy increases,” but entropy is a negative quality: when entropy increases, it means that less energy is available for work. It is that inverted sense of things that makes my unscientific mind quiver: an increase, to me, means more of something, not less. It does not help when the scientist says, in return, that there is more of something: there is more disorder, more randomness, less symmetry, as in a solar system run amuck or a chair crumbled to dust.

II. Disorder

Once upon a time my husband Bill and I lived in a patchwork house. The living room, built as a one-room log cabin around 1918, was at the center of things. The other rooms—kitchen, bath, two bedrooms, entryway—were added over time by the families who lived there. The whole place was a little miracle of entropy, if you read “entropy” as “decay:” we could not produce enough work to keep it standing, to keep it in order.

We were hampered by the quality, or lack of quality, of the original materials—the house was not an oaken Victorian masterpiece. The window frames were shrinking, their grip on the structure itself tenuous. There was one we stopped opening for fear it would simply fall out of the wall. I even stopped cleaning its sill in the spring, the wood too close to becoming sawdust. The thin barrier the exterior walls offered between us and nature was also eroding to the point of no return and mice had easy access to the spaces between the walls. A half-finished basement—by that I mean cement block walls that went only part way from floor to ceiling, naked earth exposed the rest of the way up—allowed the rodents to come and go as they pleased through the interior of the structure. We could hear them skittering through the maze at night. Sometimes they lost their way and died, the pungent scent of rot seeping into the house for days.

Other creatures also had access and as our efforts faltered, the creatures became more audacious. Red squirrel babies came into the entryway through a fissure in the cement floor. A garter snake also tried to take up residence there, entering through the degraded hole in the wall that held the discharge pipe for the washing machine. A weasel moseyed into the living room one evening. It had climbed the basement stairs and inserted itself under the door and into the room, like a letter being posted. It was winter so it was pure white except for the black tip of its tail. It was as startled by our encounter as we were and quickly retreated from whence it came, but it returned the next night. The next morning I tacked weather stripping along the bottom of the basement door.

Moles started a development along the foundation wall of the pump room in the basement. Earth tumbled down, tumbled in, burying the pump. We hired a man with a backhoe to rescue the room. Hired a cement worker to build a wall up to the ceiling.

The bat guano that had been building in the crawl space above my studio—our own addition to the patchwork—finally reached maximum pungency. I had to move out in the summer when it heated up. We hired a bat excluder to come in the fall after the bats had migrated away. He caulked and wedged the siding, the soffits, the eaves.

It was time for a new house.

III. Work

The new dwelling was on the same land as the old one, just north of it a hundred feet. As the contractor and I finished tweaking the blueprint, I made one request of him: that the new structure not accommodate bats, snakes, or mice. I was told the bats would not move over with us, and after eight years, that seems to be true. Snakes also have not found their way in except for one harmless, baby red-bellied racer in the garage, and one hapless garter snake in the porch, both evicted without incident.

Mice, however, are not so easy to thwart. I wonder sometimes if they are immune to entropy. Perhaps they are even instruments of its evil ways. They have made successful incursions into the new house—into the garage, of course, and into interior walls. I don’t know how they get into the walls, but they must have to work at it, as only twice have I heard them there, both times in the wall between my office and a bathroom. One of them died there, and the familiar odor of mammalian decay seeped out for days. It was summer and hot. For a while I abandoned my office, writing on the porch instead, though nothing is at hand out there. Finally, the odor waned and I was able to return to my den. With the door open wide on the east and both windows open on the west, the last wafting smell of that little death moved out of the house and into the larger world where it lost its power to distract, marginalized by fresh air and by larger losses too many and too grand to catalog.

Their invasion of the garage was more successful and is ongoing. They cannot be kept from running in and out when the door opens or closes, and I often see them, so swift in motion that I wonder sometimes if I saw them at all—perhaps it was a leaf blowing in or out, or the shadow of a bird flying by. The evidence, however, is indisputable, their little, black, rice-like turds distributed randomly throughout the garage: on the tool shelves, in the sink, along the top of a storage cupboard.

I approach the mouse problem with clarity and simplicity: I kill them. I will not allow them to cohabit with me, even in my garage. They multiply relentlessly. They carry germs and ticks that carry germs, and if I do not banish them from the garage, they will continue to gnaw at that tenuous buffer between their living space and mine.

I use old-fashioned spring traps that I learned to set, to hold on the side away from the bait, so my fingers would not be crushed if the trap slipped my grip while I set the trigger. And I have devised a methodology that protects me from the more gruesome consequences of my choice. I buy traps by the dozen. I use a short piece of lath as a base. I set the trap on it. I open a large paper grocery bag and roll the opening down a turn or two so it stays open, turn it on its side, and insert the lath and trap into the bag, making certain that the trigger side faces the opening. When I check a bag, I have only to lift it to know if I have been successful. If I feel the weight of a few ounces of flesh and fur, I do not second guess myself with a look inside. I tilt the bag back, letting lath, trap and victim slide to the bottom, then roll the bag closed and take the whole package out to the trash. I get a fresh bag, a fresh piece of lath, a fresh trap, and set the chamber in place again.

Perhaps I am over-zealous. This house is tight, not like the old one where I found mouse tracings in the cutlery drawer, the towel cupboard, along the back of the sink, where a mouse once ran across my keyboard while I was typing. I know they are mammals. I know the traps crush their skulls. I know their bright blood spatters out. I know that nests of babies might be left untended.

Yet, I have done worse than set the traps. The second winter in the new house, I drove into the garage one day and noticed a flickering on the pipes on the wall straight ahead of the car. The pipes run from the boiler on the lower wall up to the ceiling where there was a small gap in the sheet rock at the top of the wall. Had I really seen something there, or was it a shadow, or the light on the garage door opener glinting off the windshield and glancing off the wall? The next time I drove in, I slowed my entry and watched. A mouse came out of nowhere, climbed the maze of pipes, hoisted itself into the hole and disappeared.

I was astonished. I imagined the civilization up there: communities, cities, rural areas. There were 2,000 square feet of territory for them to colonize with no predators to stanch their reproduction. On my next trip to town I purchased packets of mouse poison and duct tape. Back at home, I did not allow myself to think about the family pageants at play over my head. I nudged several packets of the poison through the entrance hole, then closed it over with layers of duct tape. Over the next few days I had to stop myself from thinking about them, their lives collapsing, their bodies overcome by the mechanism of the poison, whatever that was. I did not want to know. I wanted to live in a clean house.

IV. Forms of Energy

My determination to maintain order in my new house is driven by a personal experience 15 years earlier, when we lived in the old house with its great rodent subways. I was stricken by an unidentified virus of undetermined origin. For six months, my immune system and the virus duked it out. For the first two months, I was bedridden, a term that befits the way I felt, pain in my bones, joints, and muscles radiating outward, damped only by various medications that lured me into fitful slumber. Eventually I had an allergic reaction to every one. Each time, my doctor moved on to another, and then another. I had episodes of pericarditis, inflammation of the sac that holds the heart. It feels like the rib cage is trying to flatten itself—the way a weasel does to slip under a door—squeezing heart and lungs, leaving no room for breath. I asked my doctor if people died from this. He said, “not usually,” and I was grateful to him for honesty.

Eventually, my immune system prevailed, working harder or more successfully than did the virus. In the third month I started to renew myself. I got out of bed in the morning and dressed. At first my weakened muscles could not lift my arm long enough for me to brush my hair, or keep my legs going for the 200-foot walk to the mailbox. I could not do real exercise so I sat on the floor and did simple stretches, reaching my arms out, reaching my arms up, bending at the waist, twisting side to side. By the fifth month I could stay up all day. Six months after my first symptoms, I was mostly myself.

Throughout the event, I had dozens of blood tests. It was not Lyme disease or mononucleosis or any other identifiable microbe. There was nothing in the lab reports that indicated any kind of disease. Instead they implied normalcy and health. I asked my cardiologist, brought on board when the pericarditis recurred and then recurred again, where I might have acquired this virus that had brought down no one else in the county or even the state. She waved her hands in the air: they are everywhere, she said.

When I could care again about such things, I banished mice from the old house. I had no proof that they were the intermediaries that brought the virus to me, but rodents in general were guilty enough in the human history of sins of contamination, a perfect symbolic as well as actual carrier of pestilence, and were sufficient unto my need to reestablish the illusion of control of my life.

I bought my first mouse traps. Bill helped me with the eradication. The creatures turned out to be voles as well as mice. They lived in the crawl space above the kitchen and living room. We could hear them scuttering there. Bill stood on a stool and pushed open the trap door access to the quasi attic. I handed him a box with a trap set in it. He placed it on the rafters and pulled the door back into place.

Within ten minutes we heard the trap snap. I climbed onto the stool, opened the trap door and retrieved the box. Bill emptied the trap and re-set it. Again it snapped within ten minutes. We put two traps in the next time, then two boxes with several traps each. For a week we trapped and re-set, trapped and re-set. We lost count of the carnage. Finally it slowed and we started checking the boxes every few days and then every week or so. We caught something now and then, but we had ended the reign of the filthy little bastards. Even now, years later, I stand vigilant against their insidious nature. I keep two paper bags in the garage of the new house primed with traps that I set with intent, passion, and conviction.

V. Transfer of Energy

We transferred our life into the new house on a bright, mid-October day. When I walked through the old house a few days later, it felt inert, corpse-like, the spirit taken away from it, highly entropic: no energy available for work. The rooms seemed small. How could our capacious life have fit into them? They seemed dark. How did we find our way there? What happened to the affection Bill and I had for the old place? We had thought it came from the place itself. Now that did not seem possible. Even memory of that affection seemed not possible.

We settled easily into the new structure. Our affection for the old house was, I think, our affection for living together, and that came over with us and with our belongings, the things that belonged to us and with us. I dedicated weekends and Thanksgiving to unpacking, to filling the walls with art, mementos, family photographs. I worked at it. Bill did not do much. He was 84; I was a mere 57. He did not feel well, had not felt well for some time. Something was working against him. He knew it and I knew it.

We had seven months together in the new house. He loved the radiant heat in the floors: they were warm underfoot. He liked the windows that opened every wall to the outdoors, their high-tech qualities keeping the cold winter at bay. When he started using a wheelchair, he liked that every room was accessible. When he stopped getting up every day, I stopped going to work, started working at home. I stayed in bed with him most of the time, even during the day.

I had thought that when he stopped breathing I would cradle him for a while. I did not. I could not. He was inert. Corpse-like. An empty house. He was fallen apart: I could no longer hold him. I went to a side door across from our bedroom and opened it and opened the storm door and stood half in and half out. It was mid-May. The lakes had started to let go of their ice and the loons were back. Now, in the first hours of that morning, they broke the winter silence. They sang and sang, chortles, hoots, wails, moans, tremolos, arpeggios—a loon concert, we call it here in the north. It went on, it seemed, forever, and I stood, chilled, and listened until it stopped.

VI. Equation

We had one dog left when Bill died. We’d had three just a few years before, all of them salukis, but the two old ones had passed on. Just Roger was left. He did not like change. When we moved from the old house, he refused to come over on the first night. He stood outside the old back door and when I called him he barked for me to come over there. Finally, when Bill and I were going to bed, I called one last time, then turned off the outside light. He loped over and came into the house and never looked back.

After Bill died, Roger could not abide being alone. When I went to town even for a few hours he went out in the dog yard and wailed until I returned. I understood. I went to the Humane Society and brought home another older dog, part German shepherd, part black lab, part who knows what. Unlike salukis, she was all dog and she gave us just what we needed: an infusion of energy into our equation, a third presence in the house. Roger stopped crying when I was away and he never looked back. I understood but, even now, eight years later, I am called to look over my shoulder, and I do.

VII. Measures of Loss

The First Law of Thermodynamics posits a “closed system,” one from which nothing leaves, and into which nothing enters. Our Universe appears to be such a system. Energy and matter may transform, but their numbers always add up. If they do not, you do not have all of the numbers. Metaphorically, this can be a comforting notion on a personal level. When someone dies, that which they were, body and spirit, may be lost to us in the moment, but elementally, their content and energy still exist in one form or another. Dust to dust; before and hereafter. This is not religion speaking; it is science. It is interesting to note that the metaphor (Genesis 3:19) came long before the First Law of Thermodynamics. That realization, too, is comforting: it is sweet to think that humans can intuit a scientific law of the universe before they can articulate it.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics with its notion of entropy does not offer comfort: it implies that some day all matter and energy in the universe will be dispersed in such a way that work, including life and even fire, will not be possible. We are told by most scientists that this state, though billions of years away, is inevitable and irreversible. Even the poet Emily Dickinson, with her cold vision of eternity, could not have imagined how utterly dead things could be.

What, then, are the metaphoric possibilities for the second law, for entropy? We use it to explain why systems fail—governments, societies, buildings, families. However, the metaphor fails if we try to extend it, for we are thereby led only to inertia and, for the human spirit, to despair, a violation of a law of human nature: that of hope. We hope for a better, more just life. We hope to stay warm in winter, comfortable in summer. We hope to extend our lives, each one of us, for as long as the single-serve shells of our bodies will let us. We hope that the energy field of one sentient being, such as a dog, can step into the symbolic—and perhaps actual—void when a person we love dies. We hope that the work we do—in the garden, the office, our fields, a relationship—will come to something.

Without denying the inevitable failure of the human body, in exercising hope, we deny entropy as a force in the life of the human mind because metaphorically it does not hold. We do not live or act in closed systems—not as individuals, societies, or governments—and our mental, emotional, and spiritual work cannot be quantified—numbers are not relevant, whether they add up or not. Science offers analogies for this kind of discrepancy: matter behaves differently at the quantum level than at the molecular level, just as people behave differently in small groups than they do in crowds.

Part of the lure of metaphor is the safety it offers us: if life is a river, we can understand it as we understand the river and we can make decisions based on the comparison. However, metaphor always breaks down because, in the end, one thing is not another and, in the end, we must look at something for what it is and not what it is like. To do otherwise is to risk falling prey to entropy, to life without conviction, passion, or intent.


Susan Carol Hauser s an essayist, poet, and freelance writer. Her most recent book is My Kind of River: Seeking Passage on the Mississippi (Center for American Places, forthcoming fall 2011). She is a 2010 recipient of a McKnight Artist Fellowship. Catch up with her at www.susancarolhauser.com.
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