Saturday, February 28, 2009

What We Know

What we think we know is not something. Or it is more idea than thing but thing as well. Maybe. The river thinks as we think. The river knows what it comprehends. It contains what is in it, and so it knows whatever it contains.

So one might say the brook trout and their habits are what it knows. What the Fox River knows. The many downed trees, straining its waters. Budding in spring even after they have fallen. Straining, which is to say purifying. Slowing. Injecting air. Straining, which is to say shadowing the depths with their trunks and many evergreen or deciduous branches stretching like the hands and arms and legs and feet and toes of so many prone, unlikely personifications.

The quick and beautiful brook trout. Evening horizon in its belly. The planted augmentation fish. Raised artificially. Raised in concrete containments, fed artificial air and water through jets in the side walls. Raised on grain delivered in pellets. Raised like so many ideas fed with artificial food.

And now transplanted here. Trucked here from the nursery. Delivered juveniles. Delivered young into this semi-wild world. This unstatic universe. This coursing. This eddying, pooling, streaming, dreaming, pouring, upwelling, many-stranded space-time rivery consciousness. Unconsciousness. Supra-consciousness of water, earth, and sky. Of images floating as clouds and pictures of upright trees passing. Passing on along.

This is the water as it falls down the earth. Through the earth. Over the earth. Strains down the sandy, loamy, ferny, deer-dotted, beaver-befuddled, ospreyed earth. As it courses, carrying the very earth in it. As it cuts and grinds and drains and tumbles the sand-grains of the granitic earth. The buoyant granite of the continents that float on the ocean streams. Continents that float all about the spheroid place like so many sticks on a river in the sun.

And yes. The sun is in it in the daytime. Dropping down to discover. Well everything. The trout and the nymphs. The twigs and the rising flies in spring. And the dying flies in spring. And the crayfish. And the eggs. And the quick detritus. And the blue.

And at night the dark and the stars and moon. The white brightly silver light of night. And the splashing of the coyote or the wolverine. Or skunk. Or weasel. Many come down into these waters and make their way. And move about. And move on.

And in it also are the native fish. The naturally reproducing fish. The fish that arise from adults here. Very much here. In these quick tannin waters. Fish that are the outworking of the place itself. The waters themselves. The heterogeneous multi-toned thrumming of these waters we happen to call the Fox.

What does it mean, though, one wants to ask. What does all this come to? In the end? Well that’s easy enough to say. The Fox River comes to the Manistique and then to Lake Michigan. It slows into the cold dark blue of that. The depths so dark they are introspective out a ways, opaque to the naked eye on the surface, and remain so for many miles.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Importance of Endings

So as I say, endings will give you a clue as to genre. A movie or a novel or a short story or a play or a narrative poem may not be particularly funny, but if the ending is characterized by restoration, the affirmation of love, redemption, or forgiveness, what you are likely to have is a comedy. A story with a comedic structure.

We get the feeling we are actually in one—in a comedy, I mean—because, in part, of the humor. The humor is there to let us know it is okay to laugh. That the ending won’t be all that bad. That we are in a universe here. The universe of this particular story. In which the structure is comedic. We are in the kind of universe that—no matter how grim or terrible or sorrowful things get sometimes along the way—the ending will affirm the values of love and gentleness and kindness and generosity.

What the constructed narrative does then is to end in such a way that we are given hope. That we are given permission and encouragement to love. Yes, we will all of us—everyone—die. Yes, we will all of us grieve over the deaths of loved ones. Yes, we will grieve over the oppressed. But the end of the big universe—by implication, by metaphor—will somehow. And we have no idea how. Will somehow preserve the possibility of love. Will affirm the saving nature of love and kindness and generosity and forgiveness.

The other day was the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Wednesday, February 12th. Charles Darwin has been a figure of some ambivalence for many of us. On the one hand, here is a guy who pokes around for awhile, collecting data. Specimens. Then he spends decades trying to decode what he’s found. Tries to construct a pattern.

To imagine a story. A narrative. In which these data. These bones and geological strata and just then living specimens that he has found. Would make sense. Could make sense. Should make sense.

He uses the data of his experience to construct a story of times and places and beings and forces that are today largely unseen. Are invisible to the naked eye. Except for the few bits that as I say. He has picked up as a young man on a young man’s journey. A young man’s adventure to the still accessible ends of the known world.

What is so frightening about Charles Darwin’s story? His theory?

I wonder why so many of us react so emotionally to his theory? His story? It seems disproportional. Here is a scientist, after all. A mere scientist. Hypothesizing. Wondering. Trying to fit the data to a story that would comprehend the data. That’s all.

What if we think about natural history this way? he says. What if we suppose these relations? What if we suppose this sort of sequence? This kind of duration? These kinds of forces? What then? Doesn’t that make a little more sense of things? Doesn’t this new story accord a bit more faithfully with the information we have?

Well, I don’t know. Why isn’t there as strong an emotional reaction to black hole theory? Or string theory? Or quark theory? Or the germ theory of medicine? These play as much a role in our everyday lives as the theory of evolution. In fact, the germ theory plays a much more prominent role, I think.

Why don’t we get as emotional about market theory or game theory or chaos theory? What has happened here, to poor Mr. Darwin? Why do we come down on him in particular? What has he done, after all? Isn’t he merely doing what scientists do? Isn’t he simply trying to fit a particular data set to a theory? To a story that would help us understand the data?

I think maybe it has to do with endings. Our sense of an ending. And what we imagine, if we follow Mr. Darwin’s story out. If we follow it along and out several millions or hundreds of millions of years into the future.

I personally think it scares the willies out of a lot of people. To think of the world—this particular world right here—one hundred or two hundred million years from now. And where we humans might be then. At that point in time.

I think of Gulliver’s Travels. Jonathon Swift’s brilliant satire. (A funny book. A funny story.) And I think of the Houyhnhnms. Serene rational creatures. The perfection of nature. Ruling over the Yahoos--monkey-like creatures who look a great deal like us--who take great delight in defecating on others from the trees.