Flame Test

For the longest time, I thought it was about the marble or the coolness of the water, perhaps even the feathered shadows against snow.  Later, much later, on a day both white and hot—a day of endless information about sand—I knew what I knew.

Distracted by shiny colors and flashing flames, I couldn’t fit my teenage self into the precision of qualitative analysis.  I tried to pay attention to my unknown, the solution with its encrypted insides that Mr. Kev gave us in chemistry class.  I was determined to do well, to fill logs with orderly results, to understand the reactions.  I was the girl who memorized Shakespearean characters and Roethke poems, the girl not supposed to do well in this space.  I thought the subjects of school were like the folders in my locker, lined up by class period, the contents kept from touching each other.  But, something thrilling about chemistry drew me—the blue liquid that startled into a sunburst, finding secret passwords that made precipitate fall like snow.  I forgot frequently, though, to record what the cloudy flakes or yellow threads indicated.   I stared into the unknown as my tests shocked another transformation out of the solution, belatedly scribbling notes.  

(Look closely. Here’s where it starts. Quietly, in the deep chemical pools of the brain, an axon fires.  Almost as an afterthought, a dendrite receives. Two neurons barely stretch across the synapse.)

I stared at the notebook, pen poised.  The edge, heavy and square, bit into my wrist as I hesitated.  “Just put down what you wanna be when you grow up,” Kev said, his hands flapping at us to write quickly so that we could get back to lab work.  The deranged scientist in high school talent shows and the head of the Science Department, Kev pinned our ambitions to the bulletin board “because they told me I have to make a damn bulletin board in my classroom.”  I squirmed, unsure of how to name the hints of words I might call “ambitions,” especially now that one modest dream of doing well in chemistry suffered from a surfeit of poorly-kept logbooks.  Formulas made me uneasy, I was discovering.  I couldn’t trust the numbers.  The symmetry of the equations seemed hypocritical.  Balance is like being fair.  How is an equation fair?  Why would I change a sunburst to a clinical line of numbers that didn’t show how I agonized and laughed over lists and charts?  I didn’t see pencil marks on wide-ruled paper as lavender flame or snowy precipitate.  I wanted to see the magic space, the epiphany where the solution lit up.  That was not the purpose in AP Chemistry; ledgers weren’t supposed to shimmer with color and heat.  Nor did I want to be a formula, neatly solved with the equations of my own ambition.  I was seventeen and desired lithium lighting in a white flash as if it wanted to burn.

I dodged the assignment, went on learning lists of cations and anions, finding molecular weights on the periodic table, packing my memory with spinning bits of chemistry.  Yet, somewhere between balancing redox equations and lighting Bunsen burners, I succumbed to the symmetry.  I checked others’ ambitions, on shredded, spiral-bound edges—microbiologist, geneticist, Evil Emperor of the Universe—then I wrote as if the grains of words blowing through an idea could give it mass and meaning.  In a class designed to puzzle out the passages inside a solution, I could pull out one thought kept pressed within to see what happened as it touched air. When I gave my page to Kev, he snickered; heat snapped across my skin.  My ambition was no more preposterous than the enigmas of electrons whizz-banging around nuclei, bonds breaking and reforming in a sizzle of golden fire.  He touched me lightly.  I liked the hand on my shoulder, disliked the gust of laughter and the pinned page.

(Do you see it starting? It begins in the neurochemistry. On the stretching end of a neuron, axons make glutamate neurotransmitters. These spark across a synapse, leap to the snowflake-shaped receptors, the dendrites, of another neuron.  These axons and dendrites are starting to talk to each other.  Starting to like talking to each other.)

In chemical oxidation-reduction reactions—redox reactions—electrons slip and slide through the orbits of an atom, a cloud around the nucleus gaining and losing oxygen and charge.  As electrons shift, bonds break in a cascade; lunatic ions gobble up energy or spew it out as they dance around a nucleus.   Redox reactions happen underfoot and within.  The corrosion of steel into rust.  A fire burning.   Leaves decaying into dirt.  Glucose in cells becoming energy.  In these quantum spaces, bonds snap and reform, releasing energy again and again.  Scientists trace redox reactions with seamless equations:  oxidation on one side, reduction on another.  When coal, pure carbon, burns in oxygen, carbon dioxide emerges:  C + 02 = C02.  The mathematics of redox orders and arranges:  Nothing lost, nothing gained, matter only changing shape.  

Angle of Repose
Twenty years past seventeen, I drove across silica grit at the White Sands historic site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, the largest gypsum dune field in the world.  To the south, the cracked hearts of bombs pulsed against the earth from nuclear experiments.  To the west, the Salt Trail wound around the playa of Alkali Flats.  To the east, the Sacramento Mountains; to the north, badlands of a long-ago lava flow.  Here, I stared at dunes the color of ice in the Tularosa Basin, climbed out of my car into a landscape built of wind and sand:  cottonwoods buried to the crown; rosemary prickly and sparse; soaptree yucca fronds pushing up while the root-spike dives through the dune and into the ancient bed of Lake Otero.  People had lived here, camping on the shores among the grasslands left by receding ice.  The Jornada Mogollon made spear points, dug pit houses, built pueblos in which they ate maize and agave while the desert crept closer, inch by inch.  They had been gone for centuries when the Apache came, but the water had been gone for millennia.  These crests of sand and feathers of gray-green form habitats to the species existing atop, within.  Sere.  Silent.  Wind presses, lifting the dunes slow centimeters at a time.  I was here, at the bottom of a lake, at the heart of a world, walking through sands under a sky of blue beyond blue.   

(It’s already happened.  I’ve skipped to the end.  Did you see it on the dunes just now?  Axons fire because of “tetanic stimulation.”  Call it an overload of input.  Axons send neurotransmitters swim-sparking across the synaptic breach.  They flood the synapse; they’ve had twenty years of practice.  The dendrites have perforated, grown doubled receptors to receive the crowd of glutamate, “induced lasting cellular changes that adds to their stability,” says Hebb, the architect of neurophysiological learning theory.  The neurons have been at this a long time; they’ve altered for each other.  They’ve learned to remember.)

To get to the dunes, I shifted orbits, moving across rivers and highlands.  Driving the rift between the Sacramento and San Andreas mountains, I saw the interstate continue on my planned route, saw a small brown sign leading somewhere I had not intended to be.  I flicked my wrist on the wheel and spun myself into a world where sand and wind carves survival into its peculiar shapes.  I came, I realized, to walk across ancient sands.  Wandering away from the sunset hike with its litter of tourists, I found a dune and began to bend myself into different shapes, pressing fingertips into hot grit.  In a yoga pose, upside down and nose to proboscis with a stink bug, I decided that nature requires certain choices of its inhabitants.  

Bird tracks, bug scuttles, footprints of foxes the size of kittens:  each made their homes in the tassels of yucca and cottonwood at the top of a dune.  These fragile habitats, brushed by wind, visibly unbuilt themselves.  I pushed my hands deeper, breathed.  Plants stretched thirty feet to keep the tips of leaves unsubmerged.  I leaned in the scouring sand, able to see for a moment their twisted, cording belief in the interior.

(Pay attention.  It’s close.   Consider Hebb’s postulate while you wait:  “When an axon of cell A is near enough to excite a cell B and repeatedly or persistently takes part in firing it, some growth process or metabolic change takes place in one or both cells such that A’s efficiency, as one of the cells firing B, is increased.”)

The mineraled mountains disintegrated around me; winds migrated the dunes to Mexico on their ten thousand year journey across the Chihuahuan Desert.  The glaciers left millennia ago, the sand had followed ever since.  On Barchan dunes, crescented like a waxing moon, saltation moved gypsum crystals up a ramp of sand rippled in white on white, caught in a Pleistocene tide.  Grains tumbled onto the dune’s edge, balanced at the crest in the angle-of-repose, that space between thirty-two and thirty-four degrees.  Equilibrium.  Waves of sand hung taut on the crest of a liminal moment.  Until.  The dune fell from this tippy-toe stretch, these spread wings—until the dune tilted, collapsed, and sand avalanched down the  slip face.

Life shaped itself atop a falling surface.   Faultlines ground one kind of knowledge against another, then another, sending shocks and quakes through matter:  facts slipped sideways, and I leapt, fascinated, to the objects shaken free in those collisions, the unuttered, the out of focus.  

The dune, unapologetic, moved on, moved with the single-minded slowness of earth, an hourglass trickling grains.  And I was here, on this frozen, searing crest, in the heat of summer, the icy hush of winter.  I balanced on the dune balanced on itself.  I wiped sweat, I shivered.  Temperature, season, time frayed.  Only the creep and crawl and lift of sand mattered here, grains perched on the lip of a dune until, with a sigh, they tumbled like feathers around me.

(Neurons remember; they become more sensitive to particular inputs.  The touch of sand connects to knowledge of Barchan dunes.  The tumble of grains recalls angles of repose.  Skin and books, matter and numbers.  Long-term potentiation:  “The efficacy of a synapse can change as a result of experience, providing both memory and learning.”  As the neuroscientists say, the cells that fire together, wire together.)  

Flame Test
One afternoon like any other in the chemistry lab, I dipped what looked like the eye of a six-inch needle into the solution then held the eye in a flame turning lilac and teal.  I marveled at the flame until another process pulled my attention tight.  Through some magic of Bunsen burners, a tiny ball formed in the eye.  I tapped the needle against the sink’s edge and watched the ball, the detritus of chemistry still steaming from its creation, plunge into the basin where we washed away messes.

(Remember.  It started here.  Tetanic stimulation.  Long-term potentiation.  For the longest time, I thought it was about the stretched wings or ice, perhaps even the tiny foxes burrowing in dunes.  Later, much later, on a day both white and hot—a day of endless experience with sand— I saw chemistry and wonder fused in an object, each entirely part of its making.

Fascinated with the green-veined and smoky-blue marbles we spit like seeds into black-hole sinks, bits of color fallen out of liquid and seared into pearls, I veered from the science of colorful flame and rushed at the end of class to scoop up globes.  I was seventeen; I wanted flicks of melted glass.  Kev didn’t get mad, instead created space for me, the student who strayed past flame, determined to touch the discards of chemistry rather than its center.  I wanted to understand the solution, but it was trapped in a notebook.  In front of me rolled glittering marbles.  

Picking up a still-hot piece of the universe, my skin seared, thumb and first two fingers a tripod, tips turning to chalk.  Kev scattered desks as I yelled.  He grabbed my wrist and smacked his hand on mine so that the world clattered away.  I watched it fall, saw how it settled on the cusp of the drain.  Kev held my singed hand under water, and I smiled at him until he smiled back.  He left me there, water pouring over my burns.  Alone, I followed the faucet’s tides and fished out marbles, the remnants of what once-had-been until fire found them other shapes.  

Slip face
Somewhere between seventeen and thirty-seven, I penned the bulletin board’s frayed page in truth, living a few handfuls of months on the edges of a northern wood, writing each day.  I traced geometries—sun and moon, pine-edged river, a million stubbled cornstalks coated in ice.  Turkeys, wild and awkward, gleaned seeds and kernels from the ground.  I watched from my window.  On the winter road they lurched with heads thrust out, crossing the ice together, always together.  In my walks on the squared, settler roads atop Anishinabek land, I often paused—contemplating the shapes feathers make in a snowbank.

One morning, snow fell lightly across the road, crystalline in a coating of ice.  I started the car, drove slowly, slowly.  In the blurry distance, I saw the turkeys—over a hundred of them, a deep line stretching from one cornfield to another, clambering down one snowy ditch to clamber up another.   I felt that breath, the one that comes as the body realizes its shape and weight in the air.  I could not stop on the glass road, and the turkeys could not move from their line.  

(Here.  This is the moment:  My axons flood with glutamates, dendrites stretch and perforate.  It only takes minutes for a neuron’s physiology to change.    Tetanic stimulus.  I catch my breath at a lavender flame, I write an equation.  I test a blue solution, I pick up flecks of glass.  Do you see the connection?  I learn of the slip face angle; I fold my body into the shapes of a dune.  These axons and dendrites have talked so long and so deeply, they only need a hint.  A test tube, a marble, an open flame, a needle of any size.  The work, then the art, then  workart, dissolving, fusing.  The marble is proof.  In a flashing snap of the wrist, the shock of epiphany, we made things.  They were pretty things—swirls of color like miniature planets, like smoky river pebbles.  I walked along the edges of chemistry, one foot in the experiment, the other searching out marbles, dunes, wings.  I slid down the slip faces of numbers to find yucca growing through the decimal points, stinkbugs prowling the angles.  Not just entwined, not just embedded, but chemically changed—shimmering within, around, through.  My neurons make it so.)  

Neither the turkeys nor I could change what momentum had started.  My mind abacused with all I knew:  the size of the birds, their number, the feel of tires against ice, the parallel heights of birds and tires, the  slipping speed of the car, the ungainly movement of birds.  I calculated variables based on observable phenomena, and I waited, hands tight on the wheel, for the thumps and snaps against the car, a redox of metal and blood.  

Then, the flock made a choice I didn’t know could be made, tumbling calculations into a moment of absolute lyric.  The line lifted in flight from the road, its ends still anchored in the fields, and I slid through a tunnel of feathered shadows.   

Once, I chose my own bones over hollowed avian ones.  What I did not do was curse the turkeys or the ice.  Once, I picked up a burning marble.  I did not feel shame standing under the water while the next class entered and whispered.   Only, I felt a little anxious that the marbles might disappear before I could get them.  Once, I followed a sign into the sand.  I did not get angry at a sunset walk interrupted by tourists.  I held my own session on the dunes, feeling hamstrings flex and loosen as terms found places to attach.  Drowning in the sands of an ancient empty lake, I stayed still until alchemies piled up grain by grain.  The turkeys rose because they were always already poetry.

A photo of Rochelle Harris, author of "Flame Test"

Rochelle Harris

Rochelle L. Harris is from Northwest Georgia where she currently teaches writing, rhetoric, and literature at Kennesaw State University. Her essays and poetry have appeared in such journals as Pedagogy, symplokē, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Writing on the Edge, Crab Orchard Review, and Fourth Genre. She lives on a smallish mountain in the foothills of the Appalachians with four cats, a big garden, and a fledgling vineyard.