Thursday, September 1, 2011

In Irene's aftermath

The sandpiper did the unthinkable--it strolled. Then stopped. Then sat at the edge of the ocean. I was sitting a yard or so behind it. It did not matter. This bird is done.

Hurricanes are exhausting.


We're more intricately tied to nature than we care to admit. We do a pretty good job denying death and denying age, our little pleasure machines adept at creating the illusion of a perpetually orderly universe.

I write out a word--say "maple"--and the branch I swung from as a child still feels as lithe in my hands, though that branch turned brittle and broke decades ago, its essence long turned back to carbon dioxide and water, gone long before the most recent hurricane, but still vivid in a word.

I do not know how much fear a sandpiper feels sitting exhausted by the edge of the Atlantic, a sandpiper that may only exist now as a word--"sandpiper"--forever etched in my brain, "forever" itself a human conceit. It's carcass now lies just below the tide line, nibbled on by crabs and snails.

When we teach science, we must be wary of our worship of our words, our models, our abstract representations which become more real than the ground under our feet.

The point of science is just that--to look at the ground beneath our feet, for whatever it is, as it is, or as best we can tell what that is is.

If our feet leave the ground, and we chase our conceits instead of the dirt, we lose a chance at something bigger. Scientists know this. So do good poets, of course. Neither get a fair hearing in schools.

We spend so much time deflecting what's true we lose our grip on what matters.

There are a lot of ways to get there--John Steinbeck was a better observer than I'll ever be. The point of biology is not to learn vocabulary any more than the point of reading Steinbeck is to learn sentence structure. The point is to get to what matters.

You might see it in the fading light of a late August sunset a day after a hurricane watching a sand piper rest its weary body on the wet sand. You might hear it in the dying voice of Johnny Cash singing "Hurt." You might smell it in the decay of an early September breeze.

You'll know when you get there.

Your students will, too.


Kate said...

When I crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a sailboat, a little land bird - a sparrow - found the aft cockpit on our last day before landfall. We were still a ways from land and he or she had been blown out to sea. Who knows how long it had been flying.

It sat, exhausted, for hours, not caring that I kept coming back to look at it. When I came back that last time, it was dead. Still sitting, but now still. I consigned its body to the ocean, sadly, knowing that we had provided at least a restful place to expire.

I still see that little bird.

My garden is producing tomatoes and squash, and my youngest children began high school. I know that autumn is upon me.

Kate said...

and if I may:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Section 52 - Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

Your story made me sad. The bird is now real in my memory. Odd critters, we humans.

And thanks for sharing Mr. Whitman. I have not read nearly enough of his words.