Reflection 258: Being There III

April 24, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Some time ago (December 21, 2009), Fen Montaigne wrote a piece in the New Yorker about Bill Fraser’s research on the Antarctic Peninsula. He quoted Fraser saying:

It was completely remote and absolutely wild. The rawness and beauty of this place just cannot be described. It was a place where you could still feel inconsequential. You were part of a working system that paid you no mind.

I perked up when I read that because it struck me that Fraser was really present to the place where his body was, unlike so many of us walking around with ear buds or cellphones directing our attention far away from where our bodies are.

Montaigne goes on to quote Fraser further:

It always seemed intuitive to me that the only way to really understand something is to live in it, to spend a tremendous amount of time in the field, collecting the same data year after year. . . . You develop a sense for what the rhythms should be, the flow of things. And that’s what has allowed me to pick up things that don’t make sense, the anomalies. The anomalous years really cue you in as to how this system is operating.

Those are the kinds of things that happen when you truly engage a place with all of your senses. You open yourself to that place, and slowly, slowly, it reveals its secrets to you. You begin to understand how it works as one event flows into another and another. Total immersion, that’s what it takes to understand a watershed, landscape, island, habitat, or place of special interest to any singular human being.

Being there. I don’t think it is—or even can be—taught in schools. You have to figure out how to do it on your own because you have to do it to become part of the scene and be who you are in that place. That is exactly how I learned everything I know about Taunton Bay, Maine, by being there with eyes and ears open and mouth shut. Not looking for anything in particular but keeping watch on everything that’s going on. In sun, snow, or rain; daytime or nighttime; high tide or low; drought or deluge; at all seasons under any and all conditions.

Total engagement, that’s what it takes to know a place. To answer your own questions because you make yourself into the only person qualified to do so. Passion is the driving force that leads you to keep track of whatever comes. By opening yourself to experience and not just data of one sort or another, you trust your whole being—the most finely tuned instrument you have—to show you the way. If you can truly give of yourself, then your surroundings will eventually provide the understanding you need to be yourself in that place.

That is, you learn biology, say, by being a biologist—someone not only interested in how living systems work, but committed to finding out through employing your muscles and bodily senses toward that end. By engaging whatever systems both fascinate and challenge you where you are.

Yes, you can learn biology from books, videos, classes, and experienced biologists. But to know any subject inside-out, you have to engage it with your own actions and senses so it becomes your personal understanding and not something someone else relayed to you from their experience, not yours. Each of us being unique as she is, we will all find something in a discipline that attracts our attention in particular. It is that special interest that leads us to discoveries others will never make because they lead other lives driven by interests of their own. To contribute to world understanding, we must be fully ourselves by grasping the engagements we are compelled to experience for ourselves, and then share what we find.

Henry Thoreau, for instance, wrote in his journal on November 21, 1850:

I saw Fair Haven Pond with its island, and meadow between the island and the shore, and a strip of perfectly still and smooth water in the lee of the island, and two hawks, fish hawks perhaps, sailing over it. I did not see how it could be improved.

He continues:

Yet I do not see what these things can be. I begin to see such an object when I cease to understand it and see that I did not realize or appreciate it before, but I get no further than this. How adapted these forms and colors to my eye! A meadow and an island! What are these things?

That’s what it’s like to be truly engaged with your surroundings. Boundaries get fuzzy and you can’t tell what’s your contribution and what belongs to your sensory environment. The paragraph ends:

Yet the hawks and the ducks keep so aloof! and Nature is so reserved! I am made to love the pond and the meadow, as the wind is made to ripple the water.

There he stands, reaching out with love for the scene before him, the scene reaching in to him. Not in understanding, but with an undeniably attractive force that hooks him and holds him fast. That’s what being there is all about—engaging your surroundings so you feel their force inside you, and at the same time know they are separate from your own being.

In this example, Thoreau learned more about himself than about the hawks and the ducks. But in sensing that he and they were coequals, he came to see them in a new light, and himself in a new light. That is true learning because the change is in the seer who accommodates to his personal experience, his grasp of his world now larger than before.

May Sarton’s poem “Now I Become Myself” presents somewhat the same message.

Now I become myself. It’s taken

Time, many years and places;

I have been dissolved and shaken,

Worn other people’s faces,

Run madly, as if Time were there,

Terribly old, crying a warning,

“Hurry, you will be dead before—”

She considers Time’s possible warnings, then continues:

Now to stand still, to be here,

Feel my own weight and density!

/ . . . /

Now there is time and Time is young.

O, in this single hour I live

All of myself and do not move.

I, the pursued, who madly ran,

Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun.

It’s that ability to stand still amid the onrush of worldly events that is a sure sign of being there with the ability to take it all in from the center of your being. That is precisely when questions arise about the true nature of things, and answer are felt as soon as the issue is raised. Those answers turn into a series of further questions, and true learning begins.

Being there gives us purchase on the immensity of our ignorance, which is how each of us makes his or her way into the future.

I will leave it at that for now. Y’rs truly, –Steve

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