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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

KNOWING AND NOT KNOWING

 
        sonia delaunay
 


Fall is gradually coming on. The leaves that yellow are the first to turn. We haven't had a cold snap yet to turn the orange and red ones. My understanding from a biology class was that a night below 32 degrees closes a membrane between the twig and the leaf's stem. It shuts off nutrients; the leaf dies and falls away. Last year and this year I am wondering why the yellow leaves turned and are falling when the temperature has only touched the upper thirties. That explanation does not hold up for me anymore. About all the leaves fell last year before temperature went down to 32. I won't dispute the explanation from biology class, because I believe there is something to it. After a night when the temperature drops below 32, leaves start changing that day. Now leaves are falling with temperatures in the 40s at night. The explanation that the membrane closes at 32 degrees probably has something to it. But something else is happening too.

There is an interesting zone between thinking I understand a process in nature and not understanding. Like I think I know about why leaves change colors, but it doesn't hold up completely. I think I know the sound of a chickadee when it is making clicking noises. When I hear a chickadee, I see one in my mind's eye, and often look for it in the trees. When I hear a song I can't fit with a particular bird, I see nothing in my mind's eye and wonder what the bird is, but not enough to investigate. I learn a process that has to do with the changing colors of the leaves in autumn, and I think I know something about it. Then a winter comes along where the rule doesn't apply. Like the saying, Rain in May makes good hay. It's true. I remember a year when there was little to no rain in May. The hay was still good. So rain in May is not the source of good hay. It's just a saying that holds true, because it almost always rains in May. Then it doesn't rain in May and the hay is still good.

I find a kind of comfort, like recliner kind of comfort, in not knowing what might be behind certain behavior or how rocks absorb water like sponges. I didn't know rocks absorbed water until a sweat-lodge experience where the leader recommended not using rocks from a creek to heat in the fire. The water in the rocks turns to steam and the rocks explode like grenades, shrapnel in all directions, pieces of sharp-pointed rock flying through the air like free-range bullets. Pretty much the same as tossing a handful of bullets into the fire. I saw some rocks explode and felt I understood the principle. Not understanding why rocks from a creek explode in a fire would be the same as nothing to me. It would make me curious about why. I learned long, long ago never to ask anyone around me for an answer to such a question. I don't know why a crow is a corvid and don't care enough to look it up. If I'd remembered it from biology class, if it came up, I'd feel like I had a little bit of understanding about a crow that I wouldn't have without it. But what does it matter? Not at all. But for some people it is simply enjoyable to feel like we understand certain processes in life. Those who don't care miss nothing, even feel good not knowing, not wanting too much useless information floating around in the head.

I have a mix of wanting to know and not wanting to know. Some things pull me to understand them, while other things do not. I'm satisfied I understand hydraulics well enough to to get it that pushing on the brake pedal uses fluid in the line to make the brake work at the other end. Incredible. I think that is a lot more interesting than just knowing you push on the pedal the car stops. Hydraulics is a very amazing principle, like controlling steam. It only matters to know it if I'm a mechanic. But one day I pushed down on the brake pedal, heard something snap, and the pedal went to the floor. Rust in a bend in the brake line weakened the line and pressure punched a hole in it. I didn't understand where the leak was, but knew enough about the principle of hydraulics to understand something broke and the fluid drained out when I pushed the brake pedal. It doesn't help anything at the time, but I could see in my mind's eye an approximation of what happened so when I drove into the mechanic's place I could give him an idea of what happened, instead of brakes-don't-work.

I look out the window at the birds around the birdfeeder, the birds scratching on the ground around it. This time of year mostly the rufus-sided towhees are in abundance. I call them the calico bird. Good coloring to be scratching among the leaves on the ground. Standing still, they're hard to see. I know nothing about them but their song and their coloring. That doesn't diminish my enjoyment hearing them and seeing them. It would probably be very interesting to do a little cyber research to see what I can learn about towhees. Feel like I know a little bit about them. But when I see one, what I have in my mind about them is nothing. The bird itself is the most interesting; information about the bird in my head is the same as nothing. It's almost like the more I "know" about the bird, the less living the bird can be for me when I see one. If I can see it as a soul in a lifetime with wings, that's when I feel like I'm getting to know the bird. Watching the bird's behavior tells me more about the bird than a paragraph in a bird book. The Indians knew the various life forms by their behavior. Civilization mind is more concerned about genus, Latin names, details about bone structure, details learned from dead birds. The Indians studied living birds.

It's a major difference studying a species of bird, say the chickadee, by watching its behavior closely over a period of time, and by its bone structure, it's beak, etc. A latin name does not help my understanding of the bird. I'm more of the line of thinking that wants to know a bird by its behavior instead of its physical characteristics, yet I see both are valid ways to know a bird and together are better than one of the two. Maybe. Indians didn't bring the earth to the climax of having to reject the human infestation on its surface. Civilization did that. Understanding a bird or a mammal or another human being, my personal preference is to observe behavior. On the psychiatric couch we talke about behavior not bone structure, vocal chords and guts. In behavior is how we know one another and the world around us. It's interesting to know why one car will go up to 140mph in a few seconds and another car could never go that fast. Interesting things to "know," but not essential. A lot of people can get through life never reading Faulkner and never miss it. Some people need to know. I've an idea we all live in the zone between wanting to know and not wanting to know. We take what we want to know for our "interest." Like I love Constantin Brancusi's art, so I want to read a biography so I can learn his behavior for insight into the spirit behind his sculptures.

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