Saturday, February 13, 2010

Another bird story

I never saw a wild thing

sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

D.H. Lawrence

I regularly check on Patrick Higgins' blog, Chalkdust101. He writes well, consistently. His latest got me brain roiling, and here's the result.

But first a bird story.

Most people, if pressed, would tell you that birds, at least the wild ones that go mostly unnoticed outside, instinctively fear humans.

Now I do not doubt they fear us, and with reason. I do doubt, though, that it's instinctual. You don't buck instinct.

I spent most of today digging out the driveway. We have almost three feet of snow that never happens down here. While rescuing what's left of the rosemary bush (with its ridiculously optimistic purple flowers looking bright against the snow), I exposed a tiny patch of earth.

A robin hovered nearby.

I turned around to grab another shovelful of packed snow, then when I stepped to throw it over to the side, came this close to stepping on the robin snooting around the dirt. It flew a few feet away, not far, and waited for me to grab another shovelful.

Had you seen us from a distance, you'd have thought I had brought my amazing trained parakeet outside to help me shovel.

Higgins' most recent post has a brief TED talk towards the end. You can tell its a TED talk even without the video--the speaker has the bright, bouncy voice of someone interested in their subject yet educated enough to tailor it just so for the audience. TED talks are the Chautauquas of the net--content matters, of course, but performance matters more.

Jump to 2:40:

We now have a generation or two of children (and not nearly all of them, to be sure) who value the recording of an event more than the event itself.

One sad scene in the clip shows a young woman taking a picture of her kissing her beau. Sad because she's wasting the use of a perfectly good hand. Even sadder because she is removed from the moment.

If you're going to share, really share, a passionate kiss, you're eyeballs should feel like they're going to twist inside out. Time drifts away. Touch blends with smell and warmth as self-awareness melts. No time. No self. Just. This.

The only reason a kiss is worth photographing is because of the stuff we cannot see--we can only hope to imagine the infinite moments. If you're multitasking during a kiss you've missed the point.

My robin may not have much self-awareness; really no way to tell. He did have, however, a splendid understanding of his situation. Hunger refines interests and awareness of the moment.

If it had instinctual fear, it would not have weighed its hunger over the large mammal carrying a shovel no more than a foot or two away.

So why do we record anything? Why write?

There's a danger when we let the story, the picture, replace the moments when we lose self to a broader sense of awareness. Humans have only recently mastered the written word, a Faustian bargain.

We create stories to help explain our (in a broad sense, not the limited ego factories we've become) place in the world. It's a confusing place. Even a simple walk outdoors overwhelms our imaginations when we pay attention.

And, of course, we die. Words and photos do not. We place an awful authority on the things that we think define us beyond our lifetime. Alas, we think wrongly.

I've lived a charmed life--flying off motorcycles, working on the docks of Newark, in Athens right after the earthquake, practicing medicine in the projects.

I have many stories in a clan that of folks who all lived charmed lives. When we get together as the sun sets on a late June evening, we share our stories, reframe them, shaping them for the next time we share a sunset.

But the stories are not the lives. They are reminders that we all live charmed lives, that none of truly grasp what the world brings to us, and that we like sharing the sound of our own voices.

At the end of the ferry jetty, the waters swirl in a large eddy as the tide ebbs. Cormorants seek fish tumbling in the odd currents. I see them surface briefly, occasionally with a writhing flash of silver in their beaks, and imagine what they know.

Imagine the cormorant as it plunges into the gray-blue shadows looking for flashes of silver, then feeling the writhing of muscle in its beak.

But, of course, we cannot--if we create the story as we live it, we lose it.

And when I find myself outside putting together stories, I stop. I am not the story. My death will not be unique. My clan will continue to live, and tell stories, hopefully for thousands more years.

And when I start to put the stories ahead of the living, I stop telling stories until I remember what matters.

I teach science. Science is all about creating myths, in the broad sense, to help explain our universe. For science to work, we must pay attention to the universe, or else it's no longer science. That's not to say other kinds of stories are pointless, but it is to say that stories can (and do) get in the way.

The hardest thing about teaching science in a public school under a curriculum dictated by committees is that many of those in charge of science education act as though the stories themselves are what matter most.

Memorize this theory, that equation-both are special kinds of stories that help us grasp what we see. Too many children, even (or maybe especially) the bright ones, confuse the story for the universe.

The universe is ultimately unknowable to creatures like us. A good story gets us closer to the truth, but cannot replace it.

The amazing cormorant shot through the Seafloor Mapping Project.


Kelly said...


And Doyle - can you help a sister out? Is this right?

Paul Cross said...

Look how the behaviour of a group changes when a camera is produced. This is the scociological equivelent of the "obsever effect" in quantum physics...We cannot record or observe an event without affecting its outcome. As you suggest, it is now the observation of the event that is improtant not the event itself. In a recent class discussion, I was amused to hear that my pupils did not consider themselves "in" a relationship with a boyfriend/girlfriend until it was announced on Facebook and commented on by one of their peers! So please observe my comment to your blog or I might not have written it.

doyle said...

Dear Kelly,

Thanks for the link in your latest post's comments.

And I will help a sister out, gently, I hope. Would like like me to post in the comments here, or over at your blog?

Dear Paul,

I love the analogy!

It's frightening (to me, anyway) how electronic media have come to define what matters to many of our kids.

lucychili said...

perhaps the robin thought it had a human to help him dig =)

doyle said...

Dear lucychili,

Leslie and I were joking about that--"Dang, no arms!"

The bird did, in fact, behave as though it was waiting for me to dig some more.

Birds aren't stupid. Few things are.