Notes from Away: Ignorance
Thursday, August 04, 2016 11:23 AM
ROCKPORT. The other day, around mid-afternoon, I went outside without my watch.
Stephen Harder is a resident of Rockport, teaching for part of each year in China, and home for the summer.
It was one of those beautiful days we have had so many of this summer, and I found myself without anything pressing to do, and no one else was home, and so I just went outside, without any electronic device, without even a book, and — I think I had left it upstairs when I took a shower — without my watch.
The lawn had been cut the day before, so the grass was short and dry, and I padded around the yard in bare feet, looking at some things as if for the first time.
The house sits on a small rise above the street, probably on a dome of rock covered by a few feet of soil, and there is an area where the rock is exposed. I am not sure what kind of rock it is, but you can see parallel layers in its structure, and those layers are canted some 45 degrees or so from the horizontal. Evidence, according to modern geology, of eons of sedimentation in some silent sea, and then eons of pressure and the contortions of continents, careening at speeds of inches per century over the earth’s drifting crust.
I recently happened to hear John McPhee, author of “Annals of the Former World” and other books on the geology of the American continent, interviewed on National Public Radio by The New Yorker editor David Remnick. They were talking about the geological concept of “deep time” in McPhee’s books, and how McPhee had received letters from readers who were terminally ill, saying they had found the concept of deep time “strangely comforting.”
I must try to read those books, since I know almost nothing of geology, and it is all around us. And then I think how little I know about so much else as I walk around the house.
I know that one tree is an oak, and one is some kind of pine, and those are cedars by the garage, and those are white birch down by the stone wall. But looking deeper into the woods, my ability to name trees is soon exhausted.
And the garden, tended by others, is full of faces of flowers whose names I don’t know. My wife can name many, as she totes the weed basket, and my gardener mother seems to know them all. But here again I am ignorant. I could identify a rose, as against an iris, but that is about it. It would be nice to know at least their names.
Though I often think of what his Brooklyn-born father told the great physicist Richard Feynman when he was a boy: that just knowing the name people call something — the name for a bird, a flower, a stone — doesn’t tell you anything important about it. It doesn’t tell you the how, or the why, of anything.
This political summer, so often we hear someone “label” an idea or phenomenon or person, and then act as if that label, that name, settled matters once and for all, as if it were the end of the discussion.
And of course “calling names” (as children do on playgrounds) often does cause all thought and real conversation to end the moment the name is uttered — before the how or the why of something important can be looked at fairly, held up to the light, fully considered.
Having walked around the yard, I settled down into a chair of plastic and metal, thinking how little I understood of how it was made. And how little, if our civilized world had to be re-invented after some catastrophe, I would know of basic things like agriculture, or metallurgy, or how to make plastic from petroleum.
Then I lay further back and had the illusion that the earth was sailing to the west toward the setting sun, as wisps of cloud above my head made their weatherly progress to the east.
A chipmunk (I know that at least!) visited the top of the wall very close by, panting hard, considered me there, and then darted between the stones. A bird sang somewhere in the oak tree but I wouldn’t have known its name even if I could have seen it. A breeze came and went. Five geese flew honking by.
These events, the breeze, the clouds, the geese, the chipmunk, were the only things that distinguished the time, as the sun changed its place among the branches. Once or twice, without thinking, I glanced at my left wrist, to see only a band of pale skin surrounded by tan.
Finally, I got up and went inside the house to get a book, and to find my watch.