Saturday, April 26, 2014

May, Part 1

May, Part 1

IF WE pick up a pebble and look at it, we see one thing. If we pick up another pebble, and look at it, we see one thing. Without an observer, these things would lie there, until moved by wind or water, or diminished by these, and by the action of sunshine, until they become sand. They are not appreciable as two things of the same kind unless observed by an entity capable of categorizing.

Plants, and relatively simple animals such as hydras, do seem to be capable of categorizing, though we don't tend to think of this (when they do it) as intellectual activity.

Plants, and animals lacking a central nervous system, categorize by means of immanent statistics.

Some survive, some don't, and those that survive may pass on their genes, with the result that the continued existence of those genes is in itself a record, passively, of there being sets of circumstances favorable to such passings on.

It's not that the fittest survive. It's that those whose circumstances did not happen to finish them off survive. You may not be the fittest, but if you're still here, well, cool.

But a common denominator for a lot of survivors is the utilization, whether accidentally or purposively, of something like set theory: the successful organism found or avoided "like" things, such as a certain species of predator or annual temperature extreme.

The next stage beyond passive information gathering is active information gathering. A trout can experiment with sensory data; the object fluttering on the surface of the water, refracting light as it goes, may be a protein-rich insect. If, however, the object, in a number of instances, proves to be a small wad of chicken neck feathers wrapped on a sharp-tipped bit of wire with thread and glue, the trout, if it successfully shakes these off, may in time come to be an old and wise trout.

So, as I am a creature with active information-gathering systems, and the ability to compare, I look at the pebbles and see them as two pebbles.

I categorize.

I note differences, which is what senses are for, and if the differences are sufficiently minor I take the intellectual leap of concluding that for my purposes the pebbles are "the same."

I can gather like pebbles, bore holes in them, and string them on rawhide to make a necklace. I can draw a face in the sand, put the pebbles in the face on either side, and mean them to be taken, by another observer, as a representation of eyes. I can count them: "one, two." These are complex activities, not easily described in all their implications.

Without this capability to recognize, no complex animal would live long enough to pass on its genes. There would be no language, no speech, no writing, no art, no political process, and none of what we call spirituality.

And yet, at its root, recognition embodies a bit of falsehood.

This pebble, after all, isn't that pebble.

"There are no 'generals'," asserted William Blake in the margins of a copy of Reynolds' book: "only particulars!" The leap of metaphor is a momentary fiction, which is the fiction that makes possible for us all the discovery of what we call truth.

As I sit for a moment, watching the mists (which I "recognize" as mists) clearing away in the light of a rare sunrise from Jasper Mountain, I wonder where this speculation leads. Many conclusions are possible. One of them is that I could probably stand to be a little more tolerant of the fictions others live by, having so thoroughly rummaged through my own myths, and discovered their so tenuous hold on verifiability.


The eight tomatoes didn't pan out. I hovered over them with the mister till they keeled over, no doubt with damping-off. I shall have to go to the garden store and surreptitiously acquire replacements.

I put out peas and then got sick and couldn't cover them during the heavy rains, and they rotted.

I put out corn -- I know, it's early -- some people never learn -- and it's been snowing in the mountains and hailing here, and I'm sick again and didn't go out and cover the corn beds, and now I can hear the seeds drowning even as I write.

Gardeners are a masochistic lot -- or sadistic, depending on whether you consider their feelings or those of their seeds and transplants.

I stood by the window and howled, or rather croaked: "my seeds are rotting! My garden is drowning!"

Beloved looked up from her easy chair, smiled beneficently, and replied ever so sweetly. "My garden is in the greenhouse, safe and snug."

It's true; that's where her whole garden is, including the pumpkin patch and the sunflowers, waiting for real spring, which as anyone around here knows, starts sometime between June 1 and the 4th of July. She can do this because she's mastered the art of repotting.

Even in this weather, the greenhouse, which is nothing more than three sliding glass door panels mounted on frame lumber along the south side of the potting shed, is cozy during the day.

She kneels on her feed sack pillow, trowel in hand, and repots from two-inch pots to four-inch, from four-inch to eight-inch as needed, while her garden grows. I always manage to wait too late to do this; eventually I'll unpot a veggie only to find that the roots have grown about sixty feet long, or maybe a mile and a half, winding round-and-round the soil plug like thread on a spool. The effect on the growth of the plant is not unlike that of creating a bonsai tree by removing its taproot. I can produce little teeny tomato plants and little teeny zinnias this way, and probably should enter them in the County Fair -- in the contest about how not to garden.

Take a tip from Beloved and repot early.

She takes up, say, a flat of broccoli, thirty-two of them in two-inch pots, and makes sure she has nearby not two but four (try the math!) unoccupied flats and thirty-two four inch pots. A sack of potting mix rests close at hand. It has been mixed in a wheelbarrow at the rate of three sacks potting soil to one of steer manure and a bit of powdered limestone. A number ten tomato can makes a fine cheap scoop.

She takes up a canful of mix, slings some into the bottom of the first four-inch pot, turns a broccoli upside down, taps two sides of the two-inch pot, lifts it gently off the soil plug, rights the plant into the four-inch pot, shakes mix in on all four sides, and tamps it down a bit for a snug fit. (Roots abhor two things: air and light.) The top of the soil meets the root collar of the broccoli and is bear a quarter inch from the top edge of the pot. She sets it in the new flat, and on to the next one.

This is much faster and simpler, really than the description, and the rhythm of it all is quite relaxing. I prefer doing this with Mozart or Bach in the background. She's more a Golden Oldies girl, but I've never heard Herman and the Hermits in the greenhouse; only the chuffing of the tomato can as it bites into the rich brown surface of the mix.


Abner, our White China gander, watches her angrily through the "lights" as she works, and when she reaches for the pots nearest him, tries to nip her through the glass, with a thump that's kind of pleasing to hear if you've ever been bitten by a goose.

The glass is stout enough to resist anything that Abner might contemplate, but there are situations that it was not built for. George, a sheep that lived with us for a while, made this point very clear by escaping from his pasture one fine day. We got him surrounded, and he retreated into the greenhouse, from whence we thought to lead him on a bit of rope. He had other ideas, and sailed through the double-paned safety glass as if it wasn't there, scattering rainbow shards twenty feet in all directions.

Not a scratch on him, either.

And all this time the greenhouse had faced into the pasture. Made us think long and hard about which animals to put where. (The freezer, for example, turned out to be the best place for George.)

Working in the greenhouse pays dividends, though, in opportunities to watch the critters that we own and some we don't own. I've looked up from potting to see a mallard drake and his mate looking in on me from the goose pen, and I enjoy watching the swallows zipping up under the eaves to their nests not three feet from my head. And beyond, in the yard full of dandelions, there are the goldfinches.


Many people in our area prefer the word "lawn" to "yard" and every year they wallop their dandelions with a herbicide-laced fertilizer. So we're a kind of dandelion island in a sea of miniature golf courses. Goldfinches seem to love dandelion seeds above all else at this time of year, so we get to have all the goldfinches as our guests.

They descend upon the yard in troops of twenty, fifty, a hundred, eating, arguing, making love. A goldfinch will land on the seed stalk of a dandelion, barely bending it, and sweep the head clean of the tiny white parasol seeds in moments, then on to the next one. The males are dazzling, and I find myself moving from window to window to get a view of their plumage from a few feet away, empty pot in one hand, chard seedling held forgotten in the other.

It's a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon, it really is.

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