Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Altars of unhewn stone

Late December, slanted sunlight, frozen beach.

The edge of the bay is slush now, uncountable crystals reflecting the low sunlight with each wave. Three months ago we were swimming here. Now we climb the frozen ridges defining the edge of the sea.

We walked a couple of miles along the edge of ice, Leslie and I, poking around for seals (we saw none), ghost crab holes (we saw a few), and for light. Back home last summer's tomatoes thawed on the counter, tonight's dinner.

When we got back, I plucked a few Brussels sprouts to go with the tomatoes, maybe the last fresh meal we get until May now.


I'm sipping some peach melomel, brewed last summer, made from local peaches and honey by yeast I bought at a store. Next week I will be teaching my students about NADH, and fermentation, and ethanol, but we won't, of course, be sipping melomel.

We teach science backwards--here are the rules, now go make the experimental data fit them.

When we worship the monitor, the digital, the binary, we will lose sight of what matters.

I think I can teach. I can get kids to bubble the right answers to our state test, I can get kids to parrot the Krebs and the Calvin cycles, I can pacify a couple dozen adolescents with procedures and stories, I can run a classroom.

I went to school yesterday to water the plants.

In our tiny garden in the back of the classroom grow basil and peas and squash and dill. While watering the plants, I saw the golden shoulder of a carrot as it poked through its peat.

On Monday, I will show the children the carrot, and a few of them will be mesmerized by it--bright golden orange erupting from brown peat. Most have never grown anything. It's a powerful thing, growing food.

There's a pot of basil growing as well--tiny black seeds now bright green leaves with an impossibly rich basil aroma, arising from the earth born of our breath. I've been growing things for decades, and each and every plant still amazes me.

Wes Jackson is a biologist, and a good one. He is also a gifted writer.

I lifted the blog title from one of his books, Altars of Unhewn Stone. After Moses came down from the mountain with the commandments, he was to build an altar made of uncut stone--if any human attempted to shape it, it would be "polluted."

Our monitors have become our man-made altars, whole worlds created and maintained by humans. We risk losing our imaginations by limiting them to what we ourselves can produce.

Walking on a 3 foot frozen ledge over a sea that is rising, as it does twice a day, with the sun dancing in a million directions on the liquid icy waves, cannot be conveyed in words.
It cannot be conveyed in pictures.
It cannot be conveyed by sound.

I am inside now, warm, drunk with words, feeling cleverer than clever, while the ghost crab sits in its winter hole, waiting for the tide to rise, so it can soak its gills once again, long enough to stay alive until the next tide returns.

I teach by telling stories of NADH and cytochromes and ATP and DNA, all of which matter, at some level, in some human space.

They do not (and should not) matter to a young human who has never planted a seed, who has never slaughtered a lamb, who has never felt part of this whole whatever it is we are part of.

To speak of altars of unhewn stone makes no sense to a culture feasting on Justin Bieber and Oprah and the NFL, no more sense than speaking of NADH and ATP.

So here's the deal. Put up with the state's biology curriculum, and I will show you a few things your grandparents knew before they were in kindergarten: plants come from seeds, meat comes from animals, life moves in cycles, everything worth anything comes from the ground, and none of this is truly comprehensible.

Or maybe I'm just too simple to grasp how a golden carrot erupts from nothing more substantial than a seed and our breath.

Pictures taken today.


John T. Spencer said...

I know it's not the same magic, exactly, but the moment each morning when the boys find the chicken eggs is better than an Easter egg hunt.

doyle said...

Dear John,

But it is the same--your children are blessed with grounded parents. I love reading your (and Christy's) stories about your kids.