September 2013

In Praise of Pyroplasticity

Edward A. Dougherty

     I love this word not because of what it means but what it means to me and what it contains. You can see inside the very word itself that the city is in a spastic panic because of the fire lover loose in its streets.

     It also reminds me of another highfalutin word that is a favorite, this one because of what it indicates. Neuroplasticity means that our nervous system, our very brains, are plastic which in this sense means they can change shape. My generation grew up with the notion that once the brain develops, it’s done; in fact, it’s on a slow and steady decline. Oh, the dimming of the fire… But this word, and all the brain imaging and experiments that are active behind it, shows that theory to be false. If we drive a taxi in London for long enough, for example, the geographic region of our brains that deals with spatial relations will enlarge. If we meditate long enough, if we play Scrabble long enough, or if we learn music theory, then different areas of our brain will develop.

     Pyroplasticity also contains in it the sound of a Pi Row, a boat race pitting one string of numbers against another. It goes on and on. Pi is like a magic figure, a number that needs its own abbreviation or symbol, the Greek letter, pi: π. In one formula that I recall from school is how we can determine the circumference of a circle:  π R2 = circumference. If you measure the radius—the half a circle going from the center to the outer edge—and multiply it by pi, that’s the measure of the round bit. But pi goes on and on, so if you multiply it by 3.14 you get one size, but if you use 3.141592635, you get a slightly different one, which means that the value of R also changes, which changes the circumference….

     Does this mean that every circle is expanding, growing ever wider?

     I learned pyroplasticity from my friend, Fred Herbst, who is a potter. It means a great deal to me that an artist so knowledgeable about clay bodies and firing temperatures and the chemistry of glazes also delights in the elegant dimensions of a single word. And this one reminds me of him. And so the meaning of the word expands by being social.

     It also reminds me that it could contain a Pie Row, perhaps at a county fair, where home-made desserts are lined up waiting to be judged. And each one of them is round. And each one of them is on a round plate, also made by hand and fired in a wood kiln, where fire, too, shapes clay.

Edward A. Dougherty is the author of Pilgrimage to a Gingko Tree (WordTech Communications) and Part Darkness, Part Breath (Plain View Press) as well as five chapbooks of poetry, the most recent of which are The Luminous House (Finishing Line Press) and Backyard Passages (FootHills Publishing). The project of writing micro-essays in praise of the unlikely is an ongoing project he’s having great fun with.

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