Morning Musings/Afternoon Anticipations/Consuming Experiences (Week Eight)

Anne Dalke's picture


The sound of a leaf blower is in the foreground (I can see it operating in the yard just through these trees), and another automated sound--a chain saw?--is in the background. I wish them, as always, to be silent, so I can hear.

But what would I hear? Knowing not the names of the birds, of these leaves falling, of the wind that blows them….

I return to "my" woods  this morning with the acute awareness that I will return here in a few hours for an experiential class led by froggies315, rachelr and srucara. Having done my homework, I am also now acutely aware that I know the names of almost nothing that surrounds me here. What a sharp contrast to my insistence, in each of my classes, that we learn one another's names--how can we speak w/ one another if we don't? And, so, I wonder: how much am I "speaking with" the plants around me here, if they are nameless to me?

Perhaps names would get in the way--perhaps, if I knew the categories each of these plants occupied, where they came from originally, what genus they have been slotted into--I would dismiss them, assume stereotypes, know them less well individually. Perhaps, being nameless, they could come to me more directly.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps they would come not @ all.

I bring with me also this morning an awareness of a debate emerging on our forum, among graham, smacholdt and ekthorp (who want to go to the Fairmount Waterworks, to learn about the urbanization of the Delaware watershed), srucara and hira (who want to explore the diversity of wildlife, preserved by the government @ the Tinicum Refuge), and froggies31, who does not want to hear someone talk about water, but come to know it more directly, build her own relationship with it (and feels it's too late in the year's cycle for us to do this safely).

I wonder about this notion of knowing things directly. Am thinking here of Walker Percy's piece on "The Loss of the Creature" (which I teach frequently), and which argues that the "preformed symbolic complex" of a category, an abstraction, a preconception, prevents us from perception. If you see a postcard of the Grand Canyon, before traveling to the Grand Canyon yourself, Percy says, you will only compare your looking to what you saw before, measure it against what you expected to see, rather than seeing it directly. Or if you want, afterwards, to have your experience certified by an expert (someone who knows about Mexican tribal culture, after your visit there; or a prof reading a paper about ecological education, after you have written it), then you will have sacrificed your own sovereign knowing:

I wish to propose the following educational technique....at irregular intervals, poetry students should find dogfishes on their desk and biology students should find Shakespeare sonnets on their dissecting board....we notice two traits [in this situation:] (1) an openness of the thing before one--instead of being an exercise to be learned according to an approved mode, it is a garden of delights which comes to one; (2) a sovereignty of the knower--instead of being a consumer of a prepared experience, I am a sovereign wayfarer, a wanderer in the neighborhood of being who stumbles into the garden.

But, I wonder: Is our knowing sovereign? Should it be, rather than shaped by what others have seen? Can it be, really? Do we ever see anything directly? Isn't all perception mediated….by what we have seen before? If your first encounter with a sonnet isn't framed by your English prof, if your first encounter w/ a dogfish isn't in a lab, guided by instructions on dissection from your bio prof--what does guide your seeing?

Well, what guides mine here, now?

Clearly, all the concerns I catalogue above, plus the still-present, lingering experiences of a busy weekend, traveling to Pittsburgh for a wedding, now seeking solace in silence (that is not: that leaf blower!) and sitting still.

But not really: I am still traveling!

So much of this present, trying to be present, is filled with the past and the future. Always moving, never still.

…which also puts me in mind of the queries about invasive species, on the lesson plan for today. To identify what "invades," there needs first to be a concept of borders, marking off a site that is fixed--and then assaulted by that which is newly arrived, and a threat to what was there first. But if one's sense of the world is of constant movement, of borders always crossed, negotiated, moving themselves…what invades where?

And now I'm remembering a passage from Ursula LeGuin's wonderful novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, about the absurd limits of patriotism, of drawing a boundary around what one loves and hates:

How does one hate a country, or love one?…I lack the trick of it. I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls not on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all that, of giving it a name and ceasing to love where the names ceases to apply? What is the love of one's country; is it hate of one's uncountry? Then it's not a good thing. It it simply self-love?…one mustn't make a virtue of it, or a profession….Insofar as I love life, I love [these] hills…but that sort of love does not have a  boundary-line….

Hm...so I'm back where I began, but with the left hand of difference: from naming as an entré into another, to naming as a boundary between….

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