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. 

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