Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Choice

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of
the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finish
ed, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.


We just came back from overseas in a matter of hours, hurtling in an aluminum cocoon. It is easy to wax philosophical when staring at the Earth several miles below.

If you do not know all that grows within a yard or two from where you are sitting, and none of us do, then contemplating "life" while staring out a window 6 miles over the Earth is a mere conceit. Ireland does not exist in the sky.

Leslie and I walked a couple dozen miles on Inis Mór, part of the Aran Islands in the Galway Bay off Ireland. Each step was different. Each of hers was different from each of mine.

Walking in the the late blue dusk not long before midnight, surrounded by stone walls built by men long dead, the air thick with a blend of sea mist and pollen, we watched a black slug generate from the shadows, its presence daring us to mention Darwin.

I am, mostly, rational, and being rational, will let go of it when it is no longer useful. I am not going to pretend I heard crows talk, but if I had, I would not have been surprised. (And if I had, I would not mention it here.)

I teach science. I love science. I do not, however, idolize science. A choice.

Walking through the west of Ireland through muddy fields holding the kin of animals we ate for breakfast, under barbed wire and over electrified fence, stepping over (and occasionally into) shite, edging along cliff edges, the crashing breakers below called me like Sirens. A choice.

Ireland is an old country. The mist rolled off the hills a thousand years ago, and will a thousand years from now. Someone else saw it then, someone else will see it later. The Irish and their land tell the story again and again, in many forms. We are mortal, we make choices. The Irish know what bad choices may bring.

Poets and painters, musicians and priests, story-tellers all, producing nothing more than the black slug emerging in the Irish summer night, when measured by the rational.

When all that story's finished, what's the news?

Rationality is a tool, an effective but jealous one; we present it to our children as something sacred, and I suppose it is. That is not our mistake.

Our mistake is ignoring the other side--the lure of the cliffs, the stories of the dead, lives worth living that do not contribute to the gross domestic product.

The black slug serves a purpose, as we all do--
it eats pretty much anything in its path, including shite.
It's useful even without knowing a lick of advanced algebra.

The photo of the slug is by Paul J. Morris found at the Encyclopedia of Life, released under CC license.


lucychili said...

Our mistake is to consider a gross domestic product as a real metric. Especially using an equation which requires growth, despite its foundations in a finite and intricate diversity.

The slug would probably contribute to gdp anyway, but is not currently measured. Economics is myopic and is crafted to value only things which humanity can engineer, own and measure.

How would other species measure the sustainability of our fancies?

What kind of thinking/action profits the whole?

doyle said...

I think tha the GNP (close but not the same) was originally developed as a metric in the 1930s to get some handle on economics at the national level, and was never meant to be a single indicator of economic health, but I'm trusting that at least a few folks out there will straighten me out on that.

Economics does not have to be myopic. It's has an interesting etymology--oikos:house, nomos: managing--with an interesting history. The word has been twisted from managing the home to managing a nation's resources, and managing our resources has been corrupted by a view towards short term gain.

At least one slug did, indeed, contribute to the GDP--we took pictures, we used power from a battery charged using the cigarette lighter in the car, which required a drop or two of gasoline, carried over from the Middle East. We may print pictures of it, using paper (a penny to Kodak) and ink (hello Dell), and more power (this time via Atlantic City Electric burning coal from West Virginia).

But that's not why the slug matters to "the economy." The true economy of the Aran Islands benefits, though--dead vegetation and cow crap get consumed--which contributes to the money economy--folks don't want to trudge through an island knee-deep in shite.

I ramble. Life here on Earth works. It worked before we arrived, it will work when we're gone.

I just hope we realize this soon.

paul c said...

'Our mistake is ignoring the other side--the lure of the cliffs, the stories of the dead, lives worth living that do not contribute to the gross domestic product.'

Well put. The challenge for teachers is to illuminate that other side. Not always easy...

Kathryn J said...

I love this post esp. the meandering consideration of life - existence and meaning. Your vacation sounds wonderful. I hope you found it to be restful and relaxing.

doyle said...

Dear Paul,

Thank you the kind words. Illuminating the other side, even just making choices apparent, is what teaching requires us to do. We don't always do it well, but it's what separates us from the machines.

And sometimes it is hard, especially when wandering from your own comfort zones. The more I teach, the less I know.

Dear Kathryn,

Restful it was, and I'd love to go back. I resisted going for years, not sure why--I suspect I internalized some version of Ireland from seeing so, so many pictures of it.

The Ireland I internalized, though, was not true. Pictures cannot capture it, and memory cannot, either. I knew as I was sitting on the edge of a cliff, surrounded by wildflowers and the earthy sweet air, that I would not be able to remember it fully, and I can't.

Some things are too grand to wrap a brain around, at least my brain.

Thanks for your kind words.

John Spencer said...

I remember reading an essay by GK Chesterton about the danger of modernism. He warned against the physical, intellectual and spiritual aspects of "globetrotting." (I realize Chesterton might be a bit too conservative in general, but this essay was great)

I remember he said that you can start to believe you've seen the world by catching a bullet train. He mentioned that someone could easily try to see "more of" humanity by visiting tons of cultures yet a spending a lifetime in one area would actually allow us to see the diversity and commonality of what it means to be human.

doyle said...

Dear John,

The sad thing is that people do believe that they can "see" the world just that way.

Sometimes the science curriculum reinforces the same kind of logic--I would love to spend a month or two on a single topic that interests my kids so that they can get a better feel for what the senses can show us and what the mind can create within the discipline of science.