by Simons Chase @slchase
The lengthening shadow of the seven star Burj Al Arab Hotel stretched out, totem-like, across the waveless Dubai coast. Forty stories above sea level and jutting out two hundred feet from the coast, the hotel’s metal and glass exoskeleton glows amber against the slow-motion rocket launch of daily sunrises. I had been up most of the night, compressed by trading on the New York Stock Exchange, and now had to switch gears by stepping into the tactile reality of the weightless dirt and dust in the wide-open desert. The allure of trading comes from what success can do for you. Operating a venture investment on the frontier is alluring for what it can do to you. This was honest work, cranking cash out of ancient minerals, and I could it prove by the microscopic evidence of travel dust that blasted into my interior spaces – clothes, luggage and even my toothbrush, to be discovered long after I had returned home. Dust, earth’s revenge for aggressive commercialization of her rocks, uncoils upon the slightest grain of disturbance, a fact I learned on regular visits to the actual mine site in nearby Jordan. Jordan’s Bedouin tribes people carry silence. In the desert they stand like tent poles, clean and sweatless, their dust-trailed heads wrapped in red and white utility cloths called keffiyeh. Around them, in their neighborhood, the geological violence from the hammer mill belches plumes of red dust that scratch the heat-shimmered sky, curling out in spindly trails. Physical roars from the torn open earth stir up squalls of curiosity in the Bedouins whose desert fluency compels them to see the fire-swallowing earthen plunderage as a symbol of opportunity, perhaps from Allah, or something like the lure of the smell of cooking. Dubai is different and out of proportion. The language of her textureless geological features can be reduced to two words, sand and sea. People get dirty there, and despite its reprieve from the monotony of sand, the sea represents neither treachery nor bounty. In Dubai, nothing is produced and everything is sold.
I popped the pillow mint in my mouth and steppped out of the hotel’s entrance into the alien heat. Depending on the particulars of the route and the coordinates of our destination, my daily journey beyond the skyscrapers passes by bushels of Sri Lankan workers, their blurred faces impelled into work by obedience, and spastic clouds of sand, tableaus of sound and light and, most memorable, the desert’s most iconic symbol of travel, the camel.
My professional boot camp, the study of developing country economics, transitioned to the theater of actual earth moving in a Middle East mining project after I completed graduate school and joined the senior ranks of a new venture half way around the world. It was likely the only true venture-back mining operation in the world at the time if you consider the high probability of uncompensated risk and the rugged psychic landscape required to survive the depredations of commerce on the frontier. Plus, I was literally stepping into what looked like a National Geographic documentary film. The Greeks called zeolites boiling rocks and the ancient fascination with this quality extended into modern times in the same way science has always eventually filled in for superstition. This special form of volcanic rock belongs to a tribe of hydrated aluminosilicates (more precisely, Phillipsite Zeolite), born out of rapidly cooling magmatic squirts, resting, like unfinished earth, just below the surface in pimple-like volcanic vents scattered like tossed coins across a rocky desert landscape. The sharp elbows of shifting plate boundaries resulted in a vicious Oligocene feud about whether to make Jordan’s rift valley rich in dry sand or rich in water. This went unresolved for millions of years until, suddenly, the east side of the valley lurched up – pushed by Africa – preventing the sea from flooding the area, and produced the lowest point on earth where bible-writing humans breathed, played and walked on water. Israel sits on one side of this split personality and the Arabs on the other. Breaching the normal rhythm of rock and roll land-shaping processes birthed a deep-earth volcanic tantrum and an orchestral blast of little mountainettes where our mine site was situated. The stirring up of these extreme forces no doubt manifested on humanity’s stage in the form of an equally hot theological cauldron we call the Middle East. In today’s venture-geoscience-capital terms, this meant squeezing the right dot could get you a special form of zeolite, possessing not only great water-holding capacity (the source of its boiling quality) but also a mineral endowed with a hexagonal molecular structure and an ionic charge that lends itself to exchanging ions in commercially viable ways – together with the magic of ever-diminishing unit production costs should demand tug consistently towards increasing volume. People exposed to these rhythms tended to exhibit strange behaviors but not necessarily bad ones. A small founding team of three, including myself, formed bonds far beyond professional obligations, as the strangeness of far-off places tends to induce among pilgrims. Abe, who held a doctorate in geochemistry from from a well-know British university, was a Muslim who drank cheap local beer out of a Coke can. And there was Jerry Zucker, a self-made billionaire Jew from the United States, a man on a mission.
Jerry was a force of nature, something deep and flowing. Electromotive forces emanated from the dense and spiraling coils of his mind. To spend even a small amount of time with him was to witness an impossible thrust of information and a mental vectoring of vast experience, deep intelligence and a fluid imagination. Dots, people, industrial processes, financial statements, cunning uses for trapezoids and an occasional movie script coalesced into rivers of deal flow and intricate little streams of economic possibilities, always meeting at the highest possible points, always thinking at the top of his voice, always flashing from a young inner fire – a Forbes-list industrialist who had earned it by creating one of the world’s largest commercial behemoths. Jerry’s intelligence went way beyond social graces and feats of photographic memory, and if those two qualities were all you brought to the table, the conversation was going to be short. His real passion and unmistakable style was speculation. He thought about and acted on investments and, when not busy doing that, he builds businesses, some of them large and global and some of them fascinating like the Chatterbait patent and a billion fish lures a year. Like the mining business in which we were engaged, opportunities emerge from unlikely places and have potential that is not apparent to a casual observer. He started out his life with virtually nothing. His first invention was his high school science project, a revolutionary phase factor for Colinear Electromagnetic Waves, which was used as part of the first lunar landing module.
Periodic surprises, like the magical rocks residing at our mine site in Jordan, reveal earth’s way of speculating. In fact, the volcanized desert (the kind of desert that does not exist in Dubai) is the Apple store of minerals. There is excellent lighting, ruthless minimalism and a need for imagination. How else could Basaltic rock, heaved up from deep earth pulses, sun-stroked and gravity-entangled, rapidly cool into crystallized minerals and then lie inert in a lifeless, treeless desert, where the sky ran out of water, on a speed of God 100-million-year journey of absurd irony to become a rain forest. Oozing ancient earthfire plus time. Life emerged from this kind of inert matter, from rocks, sand and salt, and through lifeless fundamental processes that relied on atomic level ion selection and purification and an as-yet unknown force shepherding spontaneous self-assembly. At room temperature, with no external force, these chemical processes occur naturally in zeolite through ion exchange, a mockingly simple molecular manipulation. And moving up in scale from the molecular level to the physical level, a hidden depth of tiny cavities produces great internal surface areas with remarkable water-holding capacity. The whole natal package, the basaltic rock that you can crush with your bare hands, contains iron, magnesium and other life-affirming trace elements. Mineralium vitae. If there were ever a avant-garde mineral, this is it.
The threads connecting earth’s geology to our biology remains a mystery beyond the basics, like the parent materials we are made. These elements that give life to all that exists includes carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. Zeolites are just a temporary fleck on the much larger canvas of earthen mineral speculations that have been going on for billions of years. Earth’s early bio-geochemical musings likely relied on ion exchange mechanisms that echo today in neuronal ion exchange, the central mechanism active in human brains, even in the glial cells that make up more than 90% of brain matter and that were once thought to be inert. From early man up until the present time, minerals have been mingling with humans’ daily activity and also telling stories of the deep past. Zircons, crystalline minerals containing silicon, oxygen, zirconium and sometimes other elements, form inside magma and last forever. Their relentless memory goes all the way back. In some cases, their carbon-isotope ratios implicate biological forces at work three and half billion years ago. Another rocky relation is Igneous rock, which forms when molten magmatic material cools so rapidly that atoms are unable to arrange into a crystalline structure. In some ways igneous is the opposite of zeolite’s light and breezy personality. Deprived of its siblings’ sparkle, igneous has a distinctive shiny appearance that gives the a “volcanic glass” quality and is blackened by small amounts of iron and other impurities. Fracturing igneous rock can create sharp, curved edges. Evidence among artifacts associated with Stone Age man show that the first factories created by man were likely a collective effort to produce arrowheads, spear points, knife blades, and scrapers from a special igneous rock called obsidian. Today, obsidian blades are placed in surgical scalpels used in precise surgery settings. Studies indicate the performance of obsidian blades is equal to or superior to the performance of surgical steel. These people too were dabbling with the fundamental earth materials for a specific purpose, to find purchase by shaping rocks to gain an edge, to get above the ruck.
Some of the people whose job it was to prosecute the rules of childhood conformity were also my gateway to the thinkers who rejected the safety of neutrality and who understood the possibilities in the idea that calamity is what defines people best – or the best people – in a world where everything cannot be calculated, predicted and understood like a periodic table. These thinker-writers could be trusted to mean what they say and would never fear a thirteen-year-old would lose his sparkle at a funeral but would instead gain it.
Nostalgic curiosity about the gold rush, combined with a poem’s powerful words and imagery, was probably my first experience with language’s power to scaffold a bridge between the actions that happen in the physical world and the energies and confusion of my emotional inheritance during unsheltered times. Canada’s Yukon region was the setting for an epic migration of men and animals propelled into feverish speculation during a period of gold rush in the late 1800’s. The world’s newspapers screamed, “Stacks of Yellow Metal!” The “shack towns” of Skagway and Dyea overflowed with novice prospectors unfamiliar with extreme cold. Until tramways were built late in 1897 and early 1898, the prospectors had to carry everything on their backs. The White Pass Trail was the animal-killer, as prospectors overloaded and beat their pack animals and forced them over the rocky terrain until they dropped dead. More than 3,000 animals died on this trail – many of their bones still lie at the bottom on Dead Horse Gulch. Robert Service, an English poet, became the voice of the region and an interpreter for a period that was marked by death more than by riches.
The first and last stanza of Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee”:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
“Midnight sun” is the first visual spark hinting that that the work is alive with meaning. The irregular rhyme scheme approaches free verse, and a child can easily be enticed with all the action happening on the surface. But there is a deeply embedded narrative underneath Service’s story as the poem reaches through the fog and tinkers magically with language and imagery. The first stanza is a handshake with the reader, a salutation that is repeated again at the end of the poem as if to say GodSpeed: the words may drift out of range but the questions will remain. The poem’s internal stanzas approach the boundary line of reality and chaos – in a slow progression. The jurisdiction of the poetic form sustains the mystery of the ballad that seems to roll along with sing-song levity. There is contemplation (“promises are debts”) and writerly craft (“cold stabs like a driven nail”) that at once isolates the narrator’s voice and escalates the tension against the backdraft of a winter squall and men enraptured by a furious Yukon gold rush. The debt in this case has to do with a curious promise the narrator makes to an expiring Sam McGee, whose mania can rest only in the licking flames of a funerary fire. “Sizzle,” inserted fang-like near the end of the poem, describes the macabre sound of the cremation, and it is here that the plodding tale is thrust off the two-dimensional plane, right out of Service’s molars, out of the dark. With an ease of expression that belies the risk taken with such a poetic twist, the narrator’s lens snaps its focus on the secret locked within, in search of an understanding ear, and puts a demand on the reader to listen to the dead. This is where the ligature between what’s real and what’s “queer,” as it becomes flesh, as if to remind the reader of where the poem’s vital detail is lodged, in open possibilities and emotional extremities. With a sorcerer’s wit, Service chops down death with the tip of his pen.
Once ascended into the realm of pure fire, Sam McGee is more real than ever:
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”
Service’s poem is carnivalesque, winter-demented, volcanically summoned, monstrous with fire and wild energy and, for me, unburdened by empty reactions like treating bleak childhood calamity with a glass of warm milk. His cosmic lottery of destruction was looking for a way to get in, and the doorway fit us both.
The mine development plan was simply to get 100 million tons of phillipsite zeolite reserves under the yoke of human commercial creativity, one ton at a time, for the first time in history. I fanned out like the trade winds on a map, spreading indiscriminate fingers of commercial potential across vast distances, four continents even. The long haul to market started with samples of various sizes sent via air freight for purposes of testing. Next we stuffed 30 ton shipping containers with zeolite in one-ton bags for large-scale in-situ evaluation. When crushed to a size or 1 to 2 millimeters and inserted into a bag labeled “Desert Rose,” zeolite delighted thousands of English cats in the form of a premium cat litter. The huge facial expression of a cat-loving child on the label betrayed the violence that was required to produce the stuff. This was my first and only experience with the $200 billion pet care industry. When mixed with manure, it became a whole soil system whereby large patches of desert had youth and possibility inserted, and what came out was fierce green grass, and money potential.
One of Dubai’s more pizzazzful projects in which I supplied product was Plantation Dubai, a glamorous equestrian community concept built literally on sand and colossal extravagance, like desert estates with grand chandeliered dining rooms and adjacent air-conditioned horse barns and eighty million gallons of annual irrigation. From the single satellite image, the earthen patch pops out of the desert like a private garden in the fast lane of Dubai commerce – hope mixed with precious desert water. I later learned that the quick-witted Arthur Fitzwilliam, a stern-looking expat cut from proper British cloth, was evicted from the desert while angling the treacherous landscapes between prosperous and preposterous. Before there was a single horse or human resident, he was arrested and vigorously questioned by some sweat-soaked forensic bureaucrats about the whereabouts of more than $500 million missing from company accounts and owed to Dubai Islamic Bank. I am unsure where this guru of the grass-for-cash desert operation tipped into madness but these words, a “world full of fun and adventure,” are as good a meridian of his ambitions as any, a wild mouth on a word safari suspended on dust.
When zeolite is mixed with potassium nitrate, it fed thousands of Costa Rican banana trees until the trial ended upon Chiquita Banana’s bankruptcy filing, the day I arrived to access the trail’s performance, November 13, 2001. On that day, the company signaled doubt about repaying $862 million in debt, with the crashing of several Saudi-flown planes into the World Trade Center in New York City apparently decimating banana demand. Hope flared anew on the putting greens of many British Ryder Cup golf courses when our zeolite, reacted and mixed with ammonium nitrate, was inserted into the surface wholes created by a machine that excavated tiny pellet-sized aeration vents. And when crushed to a fraction of 30 microns (like talcum powder), it was demonstrated by a researcher at North Carolina State University, at the 95th confidence interval, our zeolite bound toxins (ie. removed toxicity) in animal feeds, thereby improving bovine yields. Tubes of zeolite powered intensive cultivation of strawberries in Saudia Arabian greenhouses, the output of which made a brief layover at the Athens airport to pick up EU-origin phyto-sanitary certification that I later learned was acquired illegally. There were bigger ideas too. Set against the mustard yellow haze of Earth’s lowest sunset and the mercurial waters of the Dead Sea, Abe, Jerry and I constellated fantastical applications for the zeolite. It even had trailblazing geo-engineering potential. Poured by the thousands of tons into the sea, in the gentle wake of lumbering container ships, a resulting algal bloom may have been capable of sequestering some of the world’s over-abundant carbon dioxide as the algae consume carbon dioxide, die, and fall to the sea floor with the gas permanently sequestered for some future epoch to discover.
None of this would happen. Concurrent with those sleepless nights at the Burj Hotel was the special angiogensis of tiny vascular pathways that were forming to supply cancer cells with oxygen and nutrients like meet hooks in the living bodies of Jerry and Abe. This ticking machinery would soon pay off in near synchrony. They would evaporate from my life. The cold gray-blue gunmetal sky coalesced with the hot red earth to produce the darkest clay for me, again.
Before I knew Abe or the action of industrial earthworks or securities trading in far off places, personal fulfillment meant stirring up emotions in the people and friends of my neighborhood. My chronological story began there, in the moist, temperate woods of the Southern United States, behind my childhood home where I experimented with upward mobility by mixing small amounts of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate. The organic boundary between subdued American suburbia and untamed forest seemed to me a natural place to speculate about chemistry. The peak of my early infamy coincided with lighting fuses. To the horror of the adults who were familiar with the schemes, I used the resulting detonations to bend the surroundings into conformity with my sensibilities. My senses swelled at the wild pulse of light, the amplified throb of earth, and the smell of sulfur mixing with the ripe organic decay of a forest absorbing my ambitions. What could be better than to blaze with all speed – and wild delight – away from the deep, primal vowel sounds breaking through the woods and then to see smoke plumes, mushrooms even, twisting up through the gloomy moss and the thick canopy of majestic water oaks. With some luck, the police would arrive to quell the grief of a neighborhood briefly shattered. I heaved air into my stinging lungs, hiding out on the fringe of the action after a bolt of muscular propulsion. There were other forms of unbridled mischief, harmless spectacles that symbolized my angst with standing still too long. Then, I was more attracted to incubating innocent violence and placing sensitive elements next to each other, unaware of the risks. I only wanted to pull out of people and me some authentic spark, a sliver of Midnight Sun. I was creating my own earth out of the psychic geographies of my young mind and with it I got in touch with some interior place with sounds I could understand. I hammer-stroked into existence, with childlike lack of awareness, the people they themselves didn’t know. Rammed through the center of my childhood were nightfalls, funerary ambiguities, landscapes, plowed entanglements and indifferent ant armies dismantling fallen trees – together with a depth of feeling that I could not have known was connected to the force that would snake its way into my father’s DNA and provide the genesis of his leukemia. I would wander into the edge of the woods where giant-eyed summer Cedecas wailed with metallic urgency in a chorus of high-pitched undulating chirps against the infinite silence of the stars.
Abe was an admired teacher and geochemist, a gravelly-voiced narrator of earth’s history, born into the landscape, but he was gone, or I could say he was part of the earth, no longer a rock slinger, his biology now inserted like dust into the earth. On other trips to Jordan I would drive out to see Abe at the Mars-scape mine site near the border with Syria and get into mechanical sympathy with the dusty production team: lumps of friable volcanic rocks, excavated by bulldozer from a two-million-year slumber, forced into the steely mouth of a hammer mill the size of a house. But today would be my last day in Jordan. I glided up the rutted driveway with an exaggerated slowness to show respect for the occasion.
Abe’s home is an artful, informal melding of concrete and wood that is a rare sight in a country with only one forest. Darting lizards, grinning dogs and far-off chicken sounds mingle in the breeze: cluck, crow, cheep, chirp. I had become so familiar with the feeling of permanent abundance surrounding the house and the garden and the orchard that the harvesting processes seems to betray the sense that the house now felt emptied of vitality. Inside I could see the many weathered, funerary faces of Abe’s Bedouin family seated in the large room overlooking the fertile orchard scene. Inside, invisible lines of respect determined the seating positions of most of the mourners and revealed the social scaffolding I had only seen previously as faint signals among this family. Tertiary members stood in the rear. The oldest members sat in what can be described as the front row seats. In the center of the room, a large upholstered chair with hand-carved adornments and dense embroidery waited for me to undergo what looked like an examination. The seating arrangement seemed too formal for these people, and I speculated that they too were unsure of protocol. This gathering was not the main event after cancer had liquefied Abe’s chest cavity, but it was special given the distance I had traveled and the measure of familial closeness in our friendship.
Outside a worker labors against the weight of a cart full of olives. They must have just harvested from the olive tree orchard, a sign of things not stopping. A goat wonders in the yard, the tiny bell around its neck tinkling in rhythm with the animal’s pre-slaughter indifference. Abe’s wife meets me at the entrance and, as we embrace, the tears flow, her wet eyes still smiling from the joy she believes Allah had gifted to her in the answered prayer of Abe’s love. For years I referred to her as Mom and she always treated me warmly, closer to something like a brother-in-law or first cousin, looping me in on the important decisions that involved Abe’s career and our project. For her this is the end of a life partnership, a gentle vice of earned love that emerged in adulthood after the blanket of a parent’s gift of love recedes. It’s quiet in the room except for the clanking of earthenware pots participating in the olive operations just outside the open window. The house was filled with the familiar smell of garlic and olive oil and baked bread. Mom, the world needs more people like Abe – Abe’s son translates my words for benefit of the mostly non-English speakers in the group. Forty pairs of kind eyes look at me with approval and with the concreteness of operating room lights. I slowly make my way over to the appointed chair, shy about the evidence of my man tears, wondering whether Bedouins accept public male crying. There was a moment of long silence and hand staring. I tried to force relaxation by recalling that there were no complicated areas in my relationship with Abe and his family. Simple questions were always met with direct answers. I could hear the whisperings of private, Islamic prayers, the treads of unity weaving through the room. Then I am addressed by the eldest woman in the room. She had a permanently turned out lower lip and deep facial lines that were baked by decades of sun exposure. She gave off a counter-intuitive energy of being fully alive at 100 years old – and infinite calm. In Arabic, I discerned her kind welcome for me after my long journey to Jordan. She says she has one question. Abe’s son translates again. I nod in approval. Do you see this man next to me? She points to her equally-ancient husband. Not sure what to think, I acknowledge with a slight head nod. He won’t stop complaining, she says,…will you take him back to America with you!? I’m stunned, what am I missing in this comment? My eyes probed back and forth looking for answers in the faces of the others sitting next to her. Without warning, a silent, gaping laughter peels down the old woman’s slender form like the ocean seizing the bow of a ship in a furious wallop of froth. Then the pulse of her words, a huge, wild invitation, detonated an eruption of riotous group laughter that shook even the goat. When I tasted her words, they were like a sweet, deep-earth pyroclastic flow, and I cried with laughter with Abe’s spirit and soul dimension still finding the wells and the ground we shared.