Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The ambiguities of nature's texts

"Red sky at night, sailors' delight.  Red sky in morning, sailors' warning."  As long ago as Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, we've referenced this adage.  We now have an explanation of why it's true.  The colour of the sunset indicates that the sun's light is passing through quite a lot of dust and moisture, which indicates high pressure, or stable weather coming from the west.  When the sunrise is red, the high pressure system has already passed, given that weather generally moves, in the mid-latitudes, from west to east.  We have probably observed this since time out of mind, thus creating the little rhyming mnemonic.

In a similar vein, D.H. Lawrence has written "Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly, they reveal the thoughts of the skies," in a prose poem he put at the beginning of the bird section of his book of poetry, Birds, Beasts and Flowers, a passage which Jonathan Rosen has used as the epigraph to his fascinating The Life of the Skies:  Birding at the End of Nature.  But we were reading the birds in the skies long before Lawrence.  One of the ancient methods of divination called augury was first recorded among the Egyptians in the 14th century B.C.  Cicero was one of the early augurs.  The augur marked out a templum and then watched to see which birds flew through which part of his space. 

Weather reports are an attempt to read nature.  We all know about how well that goes.  Apparently if weather forecasters say "Tomorrow will be just like today," they  would be more accurate than they are when they try to predict how fast a storm will move and along which path. 

I was reminded of how we read nature when I spent four days with my oldest friend, Liz Read, on Cape Cod.  Liz, who walks on the beach and swims every day, has the tide charts on speed dial.  Two hours either side of low tide is good for walking; two hours either side of high tide is good for swimming--or at least you don't have to walk a mile before you find enough water to swim in.  The picture below was taken from roughly the same place as that above.  You can see two tiny walkers toward the right side of the picture and can imagine how far you might need to go beyond them to find a place to swim.

When the tide was coming in, the sand looked like this:

I am guessing that these poetic runnels are the advance fingers of the surging tide, but I really don't know what causes them.  Perhaps the tide doesn't only come in at the level above the sand; perhaps those waves are preceded by water below the surface. 
On the other hand, when the tide is out, the sand looks like this.  Liz and Istared at these hiero-glyphics for quite a while until we figured out they were the tracks of sand crabs who were looking for a good place to hide out when the low tide made them vulnerable.

The fact that these marks looked like writing in the sand made me think more carefully about how we should read nature as a text.  But unless we're doing scientific research--on bees for example--and study the way their complex dances give other bees clear information about the location of flowers or a good place to swarm--I don't think we see nature as something we need to read.  Recently, though, scientists have concluded that dolphins have a language that leads to conversations.  Listening carefully, scientists could hear groups of clicks that seemed to be words because they occurred in larger, sentence-like structures that came to an end.  After a small silence, the other dolphin answered with her own spaced clusters of clicks.  Uncovering language in animals, in chickadees or among elephants, encourages us to read nature differently.  If we think we're the big guys with the brains that have led to culture, we need to think again when faced, for example, with an elephant attempting to console and feed a sick comrade or to comfort a baby.  (The American election is seriously making me reconsider whether we're the ones on the planets with the complicated, clever brains.  I'd vote for a dolphin before I'd vote for Donald Trump.)

In fact, we don't fully understand the way our own brains work.  My wonderful psychiatrist, Dr. Stanley Yaren, used to distinguish between brain and mind.  Brain was the hunk of meat with all its synapses and hormones like seratonin, dopamine, or cortisol.  Mind contains experience, memory, and thought. We are just beginning to understand the way these two systems talk to one another, resulting in depression, suicidal ideation, ecstasy, and love.  Can someone who has been safe and loved his whole life be depressed?  Do all people who come from chaotic beginnings become depressed or violent?  Well, no.  We're just beginning to study resilient children so we can understand what allows them to remain hopeful even in the face of adversity.  There's a lot of talking going on in your skull between brain and mind that we don't understand.

Much of nature's mystery comes from the fact that we can't read her processes.  We recognize the beauty of fall foliage, but we don't entirely know what causes it.  The planets in our solar system and beyond are all but unknown and lead to a much larger question:  are we alone?  If so, why?   Much of nature's danger also comes from the fact that we are only beginning to learn to read her.  Imagine how much safer we would be if we could read the coming of earthquakes.  Or simply had reliable weather reports that gave us enough time to protect our homes against torrential rains or flooding rivers.

Reading nature is like learning a second language.  Do you remember the first time you tried to read something in another language that was too hard?  You'd read a sentence and grasp onto the words you knew and the syntaxes that made sense.  Then you'd stop before reading another.  Getting half a dozen under your belt, you might go back to the very beginning with a hint about the passage's context or topic, knowing just enough so that you could guess a few more words.  Second languages widen our world view, give us access to whole other ways of thinking and to other experiences.  So too with reading nature. 

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Solastalgia and the asynchrony of fall

In the last days of August, I was hammered by the blues, by the sense--created by a vacuum where my diaphragm should be--that all was not well.  I took the usual inventory:  relationships?  All seemed well.  Work?  Well, I was feeling stymied by all the reading I was doing for the Literary History of Saskatchewan essay on creative nonfiction I needed to write by the end of September.  And I wanted to get to my own work.  But that didn't seem enough for the near-grief I felt.  Was I getting enough exercise?  Yes, in addition to trips to the gym with Bill I was also walking.  Fun?  I was into a rhythm with the applique I was doing for a quilt Nikka wants.   

(Here it is with the first two borders; I have two longer borders to do, and am half done with the first of these.  The blocks are called "country crossroad."  The applique is my own design.)

So I did what I do when my mood is at the bottom of the well and there is nothing I need to fix:  I distracted myself.  When the cold water surged over my head, I would look up and find (as I do now) the squirrel hanging by his toes filching seed from my bird feeder, or the chickadees and nuthatches zooming in for their afternoon snack.  I'd see six sparrows hiding from the rain in the lilacs outside my bedroom window in a stillness I didn't know they could assume.  I'd see a whole landscape in transition:  leaves losing their suppleness and transparency, then some of them bleaching ever so slightly while others took the plunge and turned gold almost overnight.

And then I had an odd suspicion.  In one of those moments that makes readers believe that cosmic irony and paradox are an integral part of the human condition, I suspected that the sometimes austere, sometimes brilliant changing beauty that I looked to for comfort was also what was causing my depression.  I found that for the first time since I retired I actually missed the energy burst that comes in early September--the real new year for academics and other life-long learners.  Despite challenges with parking, I found two excuses to be on campus yesterday, and walked through the halls with the eager students, listening to the little snippets of conversation that I have often found were part of my belief that the human race is actually okay--at least when we're not jockeying for power or money. We're curious.  We're excited.  We're making human connections.

But by then the depression had lifted as mysteriously as it arrived, and as I thought about the preceding couple of weeks, I concluded that in part I was not ready for the seasons to change.  Maybe I felt solastalgia--the word that attempts to capture our nostalgia for the way weather and planet used to be.  We hadn't had a couple of dry August weeks that often prime us for the turning year.  It was as if we'd gone from July to September in a breath.  We were outside place and time.

But I also suspect that it was simply change.  Change in the weather and the landscape that I wasn't in tune with.  I still have quite a bit of my essay on the nonfiction written by Saskatchewan authors, and I've realized how complicated Soul Weather is going to be.  I had wanted to start serious work on my novel by now, but circumstances were conspiring, and I felt out of step and frustrated.

Yet change in the weather is one of the things I love.  What keeps us here, with Saskatchewan's weather extremes?  Why don't we move to Florida, where it's hot and hotter?  Or to Vancouver, where it's rainy and rainier?  I find that the changing seasons challenge my visual paradigms or my expectations or my sense that I know the world I live in.  In full summer, we are surrounded by the lushness of trees, particularly in Regina.  The green world embraces us.  In the winter, we need to come to terms with a more minimalist world--with an architecture or a blue print for "tree."  The spareness of our great prairie landscape is inescapable.  The changing seasons, by defamiliarizing our daily world, by challenging assumptions, keep our minds and souls supple. 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

September Miscellany

The light is changing.  It's not only that the days are obviously shorter, but that light comes into my house in places I had forgotten it reached.   It is far enough south that it peeks in under the large pine trees in my front yard and streams through my south-facing living room window, irradiating whatever I'm reading for a few minutes every sunny afternoon.  The trees have changed as well:  gone is the supple transparency I wrote about in mid-July.  Now their leaves are a dustier green and they susurrate and whisper drily.  Perennials have nearly finished their second blooming and are no longer using their energy to make seeds or attract pollinators but to store it underground in dark root caves.  We see senescence all around us, as if the summer's sunshine were suddenly translated into the trees that are turning golden.  It is a time of transformation.

For the first time since I retired, I regret not getting back into the classroom.  This is partly because I worry about becoming an old fart without each generation of new students helping me grasp their view of the world.  It is also because (in spite of my tremendous poetry group) writing is lonely, and at the same time you are engaged in making something that is as close to your vision as possible.  That's really the only way it can be, for the first couple of drafts.  Unless you have startlingly generous friends who will read and reread a 450 page manuscript on Woolf's aesthetics, you send the third or fourth or fifth draft off to a publisher for judgment.  The first two years of my retirement were incredibly productive:  Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement and Visible Cities have both gone off to publishers.  I have no idea what readers will think of them.  Yet in that uncertain frame of mind, I'm supposed to start another couple of projects, my next novel, Soul Weather, and some poems that are slowly cohering around a couple of themes.  In the classroom, I got feedback straight away, and if it wasn't enthusiastic I had many other strategies in my pocket.  Teaching, I knew where I was; writing, I have no idea where I am.  But that's the point, isn't it:  that terror and exhilaration of parachuting your mind into new territory. 

Because I'm missing teaching, perhaps, I've been tuned in to thoughts about that radical act.  (At least, it ought to be radical.)  So here's my September Miscellany.

Soul Weather is starting slowly after the revision of the first handful of chapters I wrote in 2011.  Fortunately, I have a lot to learn about my young characters' intellectual lives, so in a sense I am creating some classes for myself.  One of my young characters is writing her honours paper on Simone Weil, so I have begun by reading her biography.  Yet there I ran into another reason I miss teaching in Francine du Plessix Gray's description of one of Weil's favourite teachers whose pen name was "Alain."  Alain thought that doubt was the most direct route to enlightenment.  Part of my job at U of R was to teach "critical thinking."  The first step in the process was always to define what we meant by this oft-touted practice.  It doesn't mean simply to be critical.  Perhaps Alain's belief is helpful:  critical thinking means keeping doubt nearby.  If  doubts don't arise, by all means move onto the next step in critical thinking: figuring out how an argument has been built and what its consequences are.  But starting with doubt is no bad thing--in a classroom or an election year.

Alain's view of what education is is also helpful: "Alain's high-minded view of education... was to turn schools into 'centers of humanity' that could fight against prejudices, violence, and injustice.  The conversations sometimes lasted until the bistro closed down at 2 a.m., and occasionally the friends moved on and saw dawn come up at a cafe in the Halles market" (27).  Only in Paris, perhaps?  If I didn't actually tell my students that their imaginations were their most powerful ethical organ, I at least taught that way.  Our task in reading almost any text is to teleport ourselves into the mind, attitudes, and experience of the writer in order to enlarge our own perception of the world and the myriad humans in it.  One hopes that this experience implicitly fights "prejudice, violence, and injustice."

Education also finds its way into writing about the economy.  As I have said to anyone who will listen, the often discouraging group of students who inspired me to retire came of age in The Great Recession, when their parents told them not "You go to university and get an education," but "You go to university to get a job."  In a parallel response, universities have been emphasizing and giving more support to faculties that turn out "job-ready graduates," like Business or Engineering.  As a result, Faculties of Arts are finding that they are barely holding their programs together.  But not so fast.  The flexibility you learn in the Faculty of Arts is not useless.  It gives students a couple of advantages they might not find elsewhere.  They can frame and solve problems; they can do research; they can write clearly.  And they have learned how to live.

Last year about this time, Atlantic Monthly published an article written by Derek Thompson entitled "Technology Will Soon Erase Millions of Jobs."  Thompson describes the closing down of factories and the cultural breakdown in communities like Youngstown Ohio.  He suggests that the age of union-protected, high-paying industrial jobs is over.  The group of affected people, mostly young men, need a couple of "skills" taught by Arts.  They need to know how to live.  They need to have an idea of what the "good life" is.  When their pay cheque no longer guarantees their status, they need to know how to create meaningful lives, volunteering, or making something.  He witnessed those skills in Youngstown, where one of the factories was turned into a "makerspace":

"You don’t need any particular fondness for plasma cutters to see the beauty of an economy where tens of millions of people make things they enjoy making—whether physical or digital, in buildings or in online communities—and receive feedback and appreciation for their work. The Internet and the cheap availability of artistic tools have already empowered millions of people to produce culture from their living rooms. People upload more than 400,000 hours of YouTube videos and 350 million new Facebook photos every day. The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers. Such activities offer virtues that many organizational psychologists consider central to satisfaction at work: independence, the chance to develop mastery, and a sense of purpose."

Karen Schubert, a writer with two master's degrees now working as a cafe hostess, describes the disappearance of traditional work this way:  "The evaporation of work has deepened the local arts and music scene, several residents told me, because people who are inclined toward the arts have so much time to spend with one another. We’re a devastatingly poor and hemorrhaging population, but the people who live here are fearless and creative and phenomenal.”

To end my nostalgic miscellany about education, let me simply tell you this.  People who read books live on average 23 months longer than people who don't.  First, that figure already accounts for things that affect health outcomes like gender or socioeconomic status.  Second, that's books.  Not blog posts.  Not FaceBook.  Not newspapers or magazines.  Books.

You know the writer's fantasy:  that he or she will change a life or save a life with a book.  Now I can!  So back to the loneliness of writing.