Tuesday, January 28, 2014


British robin

American robin

Humans cannot help interpreting what they don’t know in terms of what they do know, which is why the English on the North American continent named everything improperly:  “robins,” “elk,” and “Indians” -- all of which are no such thing.  (Robins are a kind of thrush, elk are closer to what in Europe is a stag, and Indians have nothing to do with India.)  

One of the most common of this misappropriations is to think of some entity as though it were a person.  (Personification.)  So the newspaper letters to the editor a few days ago insisted that “if I have to shovel my sidewalk, the city should have to shovel its street.”  This leads to the inaccurate and “moral” obligation on a whole system and its policy of deploying big machinery with all the consequences of cost and inconvenient side-effects, like snow berms against the street-side of cars, making it the same thing as one guy going out with a shovel and making a path for fifty feet on his own lot.  The letter writer projects his own physical exertion and resentment of requirements onto a snow plow.

Personified black bear

The effective recent mayor of Valier said that she had noticed how many people who were angry would say that “The Town” had done something bad to them in past years, therefore they would not comply with anything The Town wants and, in fact, would do their best to defeat the interests of The Town in order to punish them.  This is what I call “high school thinking,” though it is also characteristic of Afghanistan tribal chieftains and certain American politicians.  It is highly emotional, blind to processes and large forces like climate change, and based entirely on the interests of the person or his affinity cohort.  "High School Thinking" does not look for options, does not value cooperation or coalition, and cannot take in information that is not already known.  (Notice that I just “personified” high school thinking.  This is a courtesy to spare the humans who do it.)

The great break-through of science that has given us the quality of life we have today DOES look for processes that were previously unknown, it DOES change procedures to accommodate new knowledge, and it constantly asks for options, research on unseen forces, and a vision of a better life.  But even science tends to personify, speaking of diseases which are simple molecular mechanics as “wanting,” “seeking,” having goals and desires as though they were malevolent and even immoral.  They are only chemistry.

Scientists cannot decide whether a virus is alive or dead since it has only part of what a creature needs, only a bit of code, no cellular need to eat or excrete -- simply an an ability to replicate that unintentionally, as a side effect, makes human beings vulnerable to the bacteria and parasites that ARE focused on consumption of human cells.  Yet a virus is spoken of as “wanting,” having “desires” that motivates its "hooking up" with cells. (THERE’s a high school phrase!) 

Someone sent me a list of English teacher irritations, one of which coincided with mine, the parroted definition of a noun as a “person, place or thing.”  A noun is a word.  It CANNOT be greeted, entered or sat upon.  It is a NAME.  Any word can be a NAME.  Anything can be assigned a name, even “nothing.”  But naming is the first step toward personification.  Which is a form of anthropomorphism -- seeing everything as though it were a human being.  

So the grizzly biologists made a rule for themselves never to name individual bears, because bears are NOT human beings and don’t act like human beings all the time, just sometimes.  They referred to individual bears as numbers.  Soon the numbers became names and irresistibly were thought of as people with human motivations and understanding.  When a mother bear was mistakenly shot, we attached, bonded, became concerned and craved information about the mother bear and we worried about her cubs.  Thus, when a big male bear killed and ate one of the cubs, it was a shock.

Fishermen think of fish in a personal way, as though they had a personal relationship with the fish on their hook, as though the line were an emotional “heartstring” of connection, but an adversarial one that make the bonding and attachment into a kind of ownership.  Some feel this kind of "hooking up" is a sort of artistic achievement, to be praised on the basis of the size of the fish and its wish to live, which it indubitably has, and the struggle it puts up, which is strictly a matter of reflex rather than thought-out strategy.  A fish responds to its environment.  The most successful fishermen know that.

The best fishermen do not study the fish -- they study the water.  Where are the pools, where the ripples, which is deep and which is gravel-bottomed.  Where are the boulders, where are the sun-warmed spots, where do the insects hatch, where do the grasshoppers fall in.  Beyond water, they study time, climate, season, all the cycles of the creatures, all interacting processes.  Success is a matter of participation in that complexity, that evolved dance, and it includes eating the fish.  Eating fish was one of the first mammal successes and took humans around the planet on their small boats.  Halibut is one of my favorite meals.

A day or so ago a comic strip played off the myth of Charon ferrying the dead across the River Styx that divides this world from the underworld of the dead.  At the back of the boat is a fisherman who asks,  “Any good trout in this river?”  The joke is obsession with one’s own racking up of acquisition in a situation of death when that’s all over.  A parallel metaphorical genre of jokes is about the idea of heaven being entered through a gate, because heaven is like a walled city.  There is no gate to hell -- one crosses in a boat, there is a toll to be paid instead of a book where deeds have been entered.  Writing down, accounting, is a skill historically coincident with the advent of walled cities.  An agricultural invention, not for growing but for storing grain.

So this is not personification, but rather the projecting of a known place (walls, gates, bookkeeping, rivers, dark/light) onto an unknowable mystery in terms of what we like (good is a safe defended place where only the good can enter.  But hell is a dark and endless wilderness that requires a toll and has no fish.)  These are the realms of the poet, the storyteller.  

The poet Theodore Roethke was good at understanding this in vegetable terms, which some say is the source of Jesus as God of Resurrection, who makes the crossing from the world of the hunter (a sacrifice) to the world of the gardener (a diligence).  This celebrates the poet -- not as a fish, but as a participant in the process of water, so tightly linked with seasons, so basic to life, so flowing through all of us.

Cuttings (later)

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet,
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it --
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last.
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet.

A town is not a fish.  A town is a moving, living, changing stream in which we the fish live.  If it dries up, there are no more fish.  If the fish get snotty and storm around, it makes no difference to the stream.

This link is a fascinating time-line showing the streaming of a county in West Virginia as it shrinks.

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