Friday, May 15, 2009

Nightmares For Sawyers

  My favorite bookshop prices everything three dollars.  The place is a bit of a danger to me.  I must enforce a browsing mode that is normally active in the usual commercial habitat of a book, but seems to become confused by plenty.  Sort of a risk of intellectual obesity (or is it ostentation?)  Anyhow, I was there yesterday as I am a number of times a week, and I spied on one of its shelves a book that concerned itself with the subject of  communication between birds and primitive cultures.  At the moment I looked at the book I was thrown back to this philosophy book I read a few years ago, Passing Strange And Wonderful, wherein its author spoke of many aspects of the ecology of habitat, various modes of human behavior, and their interactivity.  So then I put the book on the shelf, and realized for the (counting...) time that I could not agree with the promise of the book, though its premise is exciting.  

One thing that I wholeheartedly agree with, nevermind the absurd illusions of some researchers, is that human beings and the natural world share a mutual will to communicate.  As to the terms of the language and the intentions of both parties, I think I need not pretend an opinion.  Clearly birds do not indicate to me, in their manner of greeting the human animal, a heartfelt hello, that if only I could understand the chirps, I would instantly recognize (and chirp back?)  Clearly the ecosystem, whatever your desire to name it something erotic, does not lovingly regard its inhabitants as "part of it all."  I was sitting at the Hardware Store, and staring out of my windshield thinking about all of this today, such that when I exited my car I realized that all the people within eyeshot of me, were startled to see that that guy finally decided to DO domething.  And what I was thinking was this:  the specific manner, and the quality of the data therin, of other cultures between species communications don't matter so much to me, as the teaching moment feeling that the seeming fact of their claims gives me.  There exists a ecological utilitarianism in the theory of these phenomenons. The idea of their claim of communication between bird and man is as potent as its proof to me. And useful.  But why?

  I recall accounts of Inuit having the ability to somehow read in the clouds and sky at certain times of day patterns that suggested very far off landscapes in some kind of fata morgana/atmospheric lensing.  In any case, this gave certain Inuit an advantage for survival and certainly a form of information that I wouldn't otherwise have heard or dreamed of.  How in the world could you see over the horizon by looking into the sky?   My sense about such phenomena (unproven) is that they are possible.  A mirage, after all, allows you to see very far through some kind of hot air lensed by the scalding desert floor.    It does not matter specifically whether such abilities could be relearned by we moderns or not, just as it does not matter that we are all not fire walkers, or monks with the ability to do the mamba with our heartbeat.  The fact of the human potential, and fruit of human focus, is the talking point here, and that's my rather unscientific take on the Inuit thing.  In situ, Alaska, all respect due to Mr. John Wayne, there COULD exist a fairly provacative atmosphere for the production of desperate measures in human behavior, and especially that paticular human favorite: the extension of the senses.  How then, in other circumstances of the human condition, are things favorable for the stopping, and smelling of roses of a different name?  For example, some kind of geographical information that birds may give to one another and therefore give to you, if you needed that information.  And some kind of verbal aknowledgement one might give a bird that he has something it might like to eat, or fair warning of a hawk that could kill it.  Necessity might mother something along those lines.

What occured to me at that Harware Store, that stopped me in my tracks, and literally seemed to be pulling at the edges of my brain was this;  just as a tree makes its space in the forest that it simultaneously constructs, the elements of the natural world conspire in their ecology to enrich the humans experience and respond in kind.  This is a somewhat necessarily clumsy way of saying that the world talks to us, and we it, in a language that is not necessarily conscious, and that the plants and animals constantly inform one another in ways that go beyond even evolving, scarcity, habitat creation and population change.  There is a language between species, of form and meaning, if not syntax.  

Ask your average five year old to look into the sky and read the clouds and she will happily do so with you without thinking twice.  The fact that cloudreading has no possible connection to anything but an honest appreciation of pleasure and delight, the imagination if you will, is well understood by most kids (if not so much those adults who can be said to not understand kids.)  The fact that clouds do not keep their shape for periods that allow for a scanning of the sky, and and the subsequent construction of a "cloud phrase" should be obvious.  Finally, the simple to understand fact that you would not have a very useful message if you took it to the authorities and let them know that the sky just told you something, is best told by a circumstance every five year old knows best.  The mirth and laughter of people reading the clouds is the best guage by which to measure the seriousness of their intentions as readers.  And yet the molecules of the sky arrange themselves by turns explicable and inexplicable alike.  Information theory, statistical analysis, high math, complexity theories, and systems theory all have grandfather clauses in their dealings with the weather, the wind, the heavens.  The butterfly effect is so well known as to be almost mythic in its particulars as a fable.  The notion that the beating wings of a butterfly may create changes in a system of the weather around the other side of the world is a powerful one because like all ideas that become with usage, story and myth, it is scaled to the human imagination.  The reason the scale of the butterfly and the thunderstorm its wings beat to life is important, can be appreciated when one looks for analogs to the concept of a system (lets call it a butterfly) affecting another system (a storm) but at a different scale.  Well, at first, it seems impossible to imagine any such analogs, until a person asks themselves:  how big is an enzyme?  So how big is your lauter tun?  In a batch of beer, a mere handful of enzymes accomplish, to the clockwork like delectation of yeast molecules, a multimillion dollar catering gig.  The incomprehesibly tiny enzymes cut into shreds molecules so large that they are literally inedible to most bugs and micro organisms (starch).  The net effect of the amalase enzymes is that a huge quantity of nutrition is made available that was previously only cognitively food.  Before long the "environment" of the brewing vessle changes entirely in many different ways.  Its fluid becomes thinner by far, at first syrupy with sugar, then filled with gas bubbles, then watery.  These changes are a direct and predictable outcome delivered in every case in nature where starch is consumed by enzymes.  The human stomach is a somewhat relevant example.  The laughably tiny-- and completely overwhelmed in the sense of size mattering-- enzyme "amylase" can, and in fact every single day in most spots on the planet does, drive enormous systems of the world.  I personally believe the prosaic amylase is more astonishing than the fluid dynamic/ thermodynamic based butterfly effect could ever hope to be.  But only rarely do our human leaders, teachers, and entertainers feel the power of amylase.  In fact, it might be argued that a good portion of them don't even realize its contribution.  In these terms amylase might be thought of as almost undiscovered, except that the terms of discovery in our era are so liberal as to allow for the knowledge of one to stand in for the knowledge of all.  In the popular imagination nobody would admit that "we know nothing", and yet the terms of knowledge in our modern world allow for the specialists and experts to act as ritual vessels by which the knowing gets done.  This is a frankly bizarre circumstance to think through head on, and yet seems to in fact be the case. All of this last paragraph would seem to be the ballad of amylase, except that it is  meant only to illustrate that the human desire to understand the world can be disguised and repackaged so thoroughly that we as the participating agent and consumer of a specific and measurable question can find ourselves fooled even as we delight in our sophistry.  Surely someone is out there making sure the truth is understandable and doled out in portions that can be easily digested and stored away for when needed.  That is simply and ultimately not the case.  


Consider a man walking through a meadow.  Now surely a silly ole meadow can't present surprises to a normal educated man.  At the center of the meadow stands a huge burr oak, resplendent with leaves just turned brown, and acorns, each wearing a delightful cap encircled with curly cues. Edging one side of the meadow can be seen a row of sycamores and hickory, along a tinkling creek.  And along the other side hedges of mixed scrub, with tangled vines and cane recognizable to anyone who has crossed the midwest in a car and stared at the interstice of woods and pasture for most of a trip of days.  The man walks upon the sod, looking down at the plantain and lambs quarters, dandelion and clover, timothy and alphalfa, plants the English bravely named "Grass".  The network of grass, actual grain Kentucky Bluegrass, extends across the entire basin of the meadow, into and in some portions of the intermittently dry creekbed, and pretty much as everyone knows: everywhere--God bless it.    Crossing the meadow the man notices a rubbery white structure sticking out of the grass that as he gets closer he realizes is a mushroom.  He is surprised to discover that a faint ring of such mushrooms is moving out in a arc about the oak at a distance of over fifty feet.  The man looks up at the oak and wonders if it was the tree that attracted the mushroom, or if the mushrooms had feasted on a parent of the tree now long rotten into the meadow hundreds of years later.  The delicate wet flesh of the mushrooms refuses the patterns of form that age and experience cling to, and so seem the harbinger of freshness, much like the grass, not death or centuries old rot.  Thinking of the majestic and perfectly shaped oak as having ever been something so vulnerable as a sapling fills the man with a confusion of tangled feeling.  For some strange reason he likes that silly tree!  He runs his eyes along its familiar muscular limbs savoring their seeming probity into the very subtance that whistles in his lungs.  He hears the crickling paper like sound of the not yet dry leaves and faintly (he thinks) smells an almost oaky smell when near the seeming ecosystem of the giant.  Closer now he looks again into the crown and realizes, he isn't sure (for the first time? better not really resolve that question) but did he see both the limbs before, behind and to both sides of the tree when he looked before, from a distance at the tree.  Or did he just mush it all together and brook no great notion of its shape beyond the classic parabolic crown that can only be an oak.  Looking along the tight grain of its bark into and around the crotches of its limbs the man gazes at the decisions of the network of branches stretching all the way to the tip of each branch from---literally, the trunk to the top.  All along the intersections of the branch the burr bristled with twigs, which themselves bristled as well.  Was every twig the result of some terminal bud in years past?  Were the coldest of winters the deciders in the shape of the tree, as some buds froze?  And the midspring thunderstorns and gusty windstorms that strew the meadow with twigs just as it now is strewn with acorns, which of them decided the shape of this branch that the man followed with his eyes until they stopped with a realization.  The light, the wind, the thunder, and sun, the force of gravity and mysterious alchemy of a genetic heritage (oak!) all had pruned and fed, watered, and stewarded that tree, and each coaxing of heat, ice and wind had awarded each branch and twig a path.  Those paths had been, when the oak was but a stick in the mud of the meadow, shooting out in time and space, a spectral function of consequence and gentle habit.  But now, the man realized, now he could see why the thought of that huge tree as ever having been a stick in the mud had faintly depressed him.  Here before him stood the confluence of a hundred years of experiences in the oaks life.  Before him stood tens of lightning strikes hidden in the wood beneath the bark, and the consumed cut branches beneath the meadow and across the tinkling creeks floodpath.  Here before him a tree, looking exactly like an oak, yet indeterminate (as the botanist would say) at the same time.  Somehow, like the body of this paragraph on this page, the oak looked simultaneously like any other oak, and like no other oak.  As words resolve into units that resolve into pages and resolve into books, it is no surprise to a reader, but rather depended upon as a sacred rule of the craft that what looks almost identical, can vary to a shocking degree.  And so was born the literary critic.  And so upon the grammar of the language the rules of the words allow for a variation in the content of what is expressed.  And so it is the charm of the unknowable grammar of the oaks' physicality which embodies those paths that grew to these branches.  Yet each can be distinguished and described by no tongue of man, without so lengthy a description as to destroy the sublime experience that it is to stand before an oak.  This tree, the man realized, is telling me the story of its life, in a language of signs, and with limbs that represent only as they shoot through their grammar of experience, and phrasing of embodiment.  It is a language like a paragraph on a page.  A language like a score for a symphony, or rather "it" was that language before it became itself, as too, the score is not the symphony and neither is the performance.  The man stood dumbfounded.  Standing in the meadow to which he had returned for a pedestrian solace so many times in his life, he wondered, considering that burr oak now, he wondered why he had never seen before this impressive semblance of the mastery of God.  He had never considered a tree a collection of board feet of lumber, in fact considered himself something of a tree hugger.  Still, while driving he passed large vaguely green and brown objects constantly, and was frequently unaware and uninterested in their particulars.  To that extent, he now realized, he had believed the evidence of the tree itself straight out of its presence in and of his world.  This is the first time, the man told himself without the slightest trace of irony, that I have ever seen a tree. 


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