My work has me swimming in numbers. I’m pretty sure I was one of those kids in high school who complained about when they would “ever use this stuff.” Today as I close in on 50 trips around the sun, I am comforted by the purity and the aid that arithmetic brings.
For instance, on this job in the Caribbean, far from home and on a time schedule, I have been leaning on my high school math to help me out. I have five mirror frames to make. They each average about 200 pieces of wood and I usually need 25% more pieces than I’ll use. So I’m here on a beach counting one, two, three pieces of driftwood up to 1,250. I jot down my take for each beach: Argyle 150, L’Anse a Coit 20, Shark Bay 100, Hope 107 (on the first trip).
By now counting in my head is starting to become downright compulsive. I count 1,300 steps to get down a rough path to Hope Beach. My stride hovers around three feet on level ground. I remember through the din that there are 1,760 yards in a mile. I calculate that it’s roughly a mile and a half roundtrip hike. My materials are free, but this is the calculus of my sweat equity.
The math is actually useful, too. I’m making chandeliers with rings four, three, two and one feet in diameter. On each ring I will hang bangles made from sea glass, tumbled bits of dead coral branches and equally tumbled bits of the interiors of conch shells that look like elongated spirals. To find out how many of each element of the bangles I need, I look up the formula for determining the circumference of a circle: It’s c = 2 π r or two times pi times the radius. I determine the circumferences in inches and divide by two because I want to place bangles every two inches to come up with the number of each element I must search for. These things are hard to find. I don’t want to find too few and keep going back and back nor gather too many and waste precious time. In my mind, I thank Mr. Bolstridge for making 10th grade geometry so understandable and memorable.
One day last week, I stopped my counting and collecting and simply sat on a beach and watched the waves roll into the rocks. Maybe the seashore is such a great place for contemplation because it is the junction of the four mystical elements: earth, fire, water and air. I don’t know, but I sat there astounded by the motion of the sea and my mind was led to a thought that this world has been and will forever be in perpetual motion. This quickly led to a side thought that the inventors who have tried to make perpetual motion machines were in fact trying prove, in a sense, that there is a God. If a perpetual motion machine is impossible, and the world around us is perpetually in motion, then there must have been some gentle push to start it all. And that implies a pusher.
Now, for this somewhat-committed atheist, this thought struck me two ways. The first was, “Well, modern scientists explain the initial push as the Big Bang.” But the second idea resonated and crystallized my attraction to the worn-down spirals of the conch shells. A spiral implies no beginning and no end. I love how the spiral illustrates the Fibonacci sequence or the Golden Rectangle. I wanted to hang these shells from the chandeliers so as you look up at them you would think about the perpetual motion of nature, to see that these recycled materials represent us and our connection to the infinite. The shells, initially made by a microscopic being from calcium and protein it ingested from the vast sea system that surrounded it. And now, its life over, the same sea was slowly grinding its shell back into essential elements all the while revealing in its shape an eternal truth.
Photo by Douglass Lea.