I’m writing from the basement porch of my parents’ house in Shawnee, Kansas. Our town has a typical suburban history. It became reservation land in 1825. The Indians whose name the town bears held council here, although the tribe spread as far west as Topeka during that time. Their protection lasted just few decades before the area was opened for American settlement, and the land was tilled into farmland. Evidence of that season still exists in old windbreaks, stonework fenceposts, and a sprinkling of hobby livestock enterprises. I still hear the occasional ass’s heehaw or horse’s ninny on my jogging tours across the hills. Wildflowers still mark the passing of the seasons along the fence of a nearby horse pasture. But these pockets are rare. Before long, farmland gave way to the homogenizing flood waters of suburban development. Much of the past is now buried beneath concrete and Kentucky Bluegrass, but thankfully for us the hills have power here. Marginal land is still preserved by steep hill sides, and along creeks where trails have been built. Beauty is best beheld in those places. The grandeur of the hills is best seen from a distance, where the houses are hidden beneath hickory and oak, and rooftops are but a sprinkle of trees in the forest. The land is kind, although we do not treat it well. So why the kindness? Poets say it best:
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff. – As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
– Robinson Jeffers
No oceans here, just gentle creeks, heavy clay, interstate highways, and summer storms. I want to write about nature here because I find it invigorating, and I think it’s too often overlooked. But first, a little of where I’m coming from, some thoughts about the double edged sword that is science, why we were all born to be musicians, and a handful of life-changing quotes.
Education (Paralysis by Analysis)
I studied biology in college, because I wanted to be a doctor. It didn’t work out because I never wanted to doctor. I just wanted to be a doctor, for respect, or something, maybe to satisfy my pride or maybe just because I didn’t know what else to do. I teach about water quality now, part-time, and am trying to learn a thing or two about organic farming. I don’t know what I’m working towards, but I am trying to sing a certain song, not of my own making. I’m motivated by a friend who once told me, “Brendan, if you want to be a man, do three things: plant a tree, write a book, and have a kid.” The first I practice through farming; where I learn how to cultivate life. Also, I’ve planted like a dozen trees, so, check. The second is a workout for my artistic muscles. I’ll learn how to write here. The third will come in time.
After college I moved in with my parents, which is where I’ve been for the past six months. It’s frustrating, like walking in old shoes that don’t quite fit anymore, but I’m enjoying what I can of it. The main thing I’ve learned of life after college is just how little I learned in school. Biology literally means “the study of life,” but often times I felt my schooling distracted from my education:
“for his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance; any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow. Though he never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.”
– C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
This character, Mark, was a sociologist; I felt a similar effect during my own training in biology and economics. Life was taxonomy and phylogeny, capital and labor, Carbon and Nitrogen, all things I could point to, analyze, and define, but nothing I could see.
So, because I want to change that (and in hopes of receiving my second man-card), I’ve decided to learn as much as I can about nature near home, then write about it. I promise you (or maybe, warn you): I was trained as a scientist, but my heart is a novelist, and I won’t ignore it. The blog is about ecology, but is inspired by poetry.
Science is useful, and fascinating. It forces us to “unhumanize our views a little”. It provides meaningful evidence to answer seemingly unanswerable questions. It excites curiosity and shatters egocentrism. Still, it can never answer everything, because where it removes bias it also introduces bias, by leaving behind what can’t be quantified effectively. Science can be pragmatic to a fault, and is slowed down by a dependence on statistics. We trust numbers because they provide logical evidence and visual comparisons, but relying too heavily on numbers to inform decisions can degrade community and stagnate culture.
“To insist that diligent thought can bring about understanding of change is to reduce life to the comprehensible.”
– William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways
I say, to insist that statistical analysis can bring about understanding of change is to reduce life to the quantifiable.
“Phenomena intersect; to see one is to see nothing.”
– Victor Hugo, Toilers of the Seas
“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
– J.R.R. Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
I worked in a lab in college, and liked it. Good lab work requires diligence and care. It forces you to pay attention to everything you do. For this experiment, though, I’m stepping out of the lab. The truth is, you can never be farther from life than when you are in a lab. If you took chemistry or microbiology in college you know what I’m talking about; everything is sanitized and air tight. Outside of the occasional live specimen, the environment is synthetically and intentionally devoid of living things.
For chemists and biochemists, experiments are tightly controlled to isolate singular phenomena and produce repeatable results. For microbiologists, growth patterns are detected by controlled environmental conditions and organisms are identified by chemical treatment and analysis. Neither is as dangerous as the dissection room.
To learn about a living thing in a lab, you first have to remove it from its environment. Previously a component of an interdependent community of life, it is now an individual. Without place, it has lost vital connections which are essential to its identity. Already, more information is lost than what can be found by looking at the individual alone. Then, to explain its anatomy and physiology, you break it down further, identifying individual organ systems, organs, tissues, and cells along the way. Each reduction breaks connections from the larger system (which is continuous, not discrete; the distinction is important), and the relationship of the individual part to the communal whole is forgotten. The knowledge gained in the dissection room is and always will be incomplete. The danger occurs when this incomplete knowledge is taken to be complete.
As a boy, I knew life was sacred. I didn’t have to remind myself about it, I knew it. I felt it in my bones, but I lost that certainty somewhere, and I think I can point to that moment.
The first cut was clumsy. I still felt nauseous, struggling to stifle an innate repugnance the innards of a formaldehyde bathed frog, but the desensitization occurred quickly, and without my notice. Each successive slice into the delicate viscera felt more natural than the one before. Soon, guts were all about me. Labelling the sprawled contents of the dissevered frog felt so enlightening it became addicting. In forty-five minutes we were done and the frog was trashed. I put my backpack on and walked to history class, unaware of the magnitude of what had just occurred.
I didn’t know it then but I would never see living things the same way after that day. I was detached from them. By the time I cut into human flesh in college, desensitization was complete, and the sacred world I saw a child had become so distant I’d forgotten it existed. I was an instrument of progress, and the living world was doomed to suffer my analysis.
Music, and Mindfulness
“..for the Spirit shall not descend without music!”
– Cornel West
When I worked in a lab, two things made me feel connected to life: my coworkers, and music. Tolkien knew the power of music. His world was conceived in music. As was ours, I have to believe, because of the universal effect it has on our souls. Musical inspiration transcends race, religion, age, and gender, and if you listen, you can hear it playing, everywhere, all the time. The raw material from which music is created is at the heart of our existence. The creation of music is the expression of emotion and culture, and the music of Creation is the origin of both. It’s the rhythm of life, the eternal song we were born into. We used to sing along to it, until we started trying to play our own tune. We lost the count but it still hangs around us; it’s in us in fact, and we can still play it if only we listen. We are only instruments, made to play a tune that was never ours.
I want to become a native of my homeland. I want to sing the song of the those who’ve walked this ground across millennia. I must turn my own voice off in my head, and sink into the voices around me. I am trying to hear the song I heard as a kid, when life was so special, and living in the moment was so easy. I am always cultivating a child-like sense of wonder about the world.
Jesus taught us:
“unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
He didn’t mean for us to think and act like children, but to embrace their delicate sensitivities. It’s the child’s “humility” we must emulate, which means thinking of ourselves less, so that we can pay attention better.
Dr. King (about God):
“He is tough minded enough to transcend the world; he is tenderhearted enough to live in it.”
Dr. King (about which drumbeat we will dance to):
“We must make a choice. Will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and respectability, or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum, move to its echoing sounds? Will we march only to the music of time, or will we, risking criticism and abuse, march to the soulsaving music of eternity?”
The drum may be distant, but only because our minds are focused elsewhere. The music of Creation dances to the drumbeat of eternity, and we can too, if we can learn to tune in to each moment, because it plays around us, here and now.
“There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
“And may I add, nor any more creation than there is now, nor any more miracles, or glories, or wonders, or immortality, or judgment days, than there are now. And we shall never be nearer God and spiritual and transcendent things than we are now. The babe in its mother’s womb is not nearer its mother than we are to the invisible sustaining and mothering powers of the universe, and to its spiritual entities, every moment of our lives.”
“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
Ecology means “the study of interactions among organisms and their environment.” With childlike sensitivities, I plan to study the interactions between my own environment and myself, with the moment as my guide and the land my teacher.
The bench is facing east; it’s old, worn and weathered. Shoeless, you walk to it. The soggy soil is a sponge, and the sharp grass has dew on it. At the bench, you sit carefully to avoid splinters. Now, you listen…
Nearby trees tell the story of a soft wind. The chill of night excites your skin in the blue pre-dawn mist. Each second is full. The tangible quiet is pierced by an island of birdsong in the black forest behind you. Soon the birdsong becomes an archipelago, and the winged prelude crescendos into sunlight as the horizon strikes its first chord across the western-most sector of sun.
The mist is lifting, and the voice is saying:
This land is made for you and me.