Doug Elliot’s Swarm Tree has been sitting on my desk for a couple of weeks now, and the other morning I pulled it out and started flipping through its pages. It’s illustrated with funny little sketches and photographs, like a letter you’d receive from a good friend, and the pages from which I began to read were illustrated with tiny paw prints that curled around its paragraphs. Skunk prints, as it turned out; Elliot was tracking them through the snow, forgetting in his excitement what might be at the other end of those tracks. He writes, “I forgot to consider the teller of the story, the creator of the tracks.”
I’ve been following tracks myself lately, and thinking about how those tracks are shaped by what I hope (or fear) at the other end, how quickly my attention can be hijacked by expectations. Like anyone, I see what I expect to see, despite my best efforts to free myself of those preconceptions. The other day, I was sharing this with a friend. Because it was that kind of conversation, I asked her how she made decisions herself. She’s someone who follows her own path, someone whom I’ve always admired. We hadn’t talked in a while, since she accepted a job on the other end of the state, work that she’d hoped would satisfy her passion for bringing about community sustainability. In addition, she brings to everything she does a language of “deep ecology”, sustainability that isn’t merely based in quantitative measures. Our time together was filled with questions, of each other, and of ourselves.
“I don’t know that I make decisions,” she said, slowly. “If I’m honest with myself, I already know what my decision is.“ She paused, took a sip of tea, and sat quietly for another moment, before admitting softly, “What prevents me from realizing my decision is fear.”
I was thinking about our conversation a few nights later, listening as a funny little man in an oversized cardigan regaled us with his experience learning to fly a plane, using this as a metaphor for understanding human experience. “When flying, you have to aim above the target,” he growled, flapping his hands about in exasperation. “Otherwise, you’ll never get there.” With humans, he said, you have to expect more than what is immediately visible, otherwise you’re expecting too little. You have to, in a way, see more than the visible evidence suggests, and build expectations accordingly. I believe this point of view would be considered optimistic, and that it’s deeply engrained: in our educational system, in our understanding of human development, and of ourselves.
I also think it’s the wrong metaphor. “Aiming the plane”- even if we’re aiming higher than we can see – encourages believing what we want to know of the world, rather than accepting the wild mystery of what is. If what we can see through our senses is partial, what we understand through our expectations, even our best ones, is cramped and distorted when compared to the limitless possibility of what might be. A news story on the radio yesterday revealed new information about planets in our galaxy; new evidence exists to suggest that they are even more plentiful than stars. And yet the best available knowledge for thousands of years claimed that stars, sun and moon, revolved solely about the earth, our island home; to claim otherwise was considered, by widely respected authorities, heresy. What we claim to know for certain is always partial; as a friend of mine has said, “Don’t make god small.”
And so, within this framework of uncertainty and desire, how does a person make decisions? My friend and I continued to ask. Some understanding of what might be the result of any given decision is bound to be included. That’s how you chart your course; that’s how you fly the plane. Some rendering of the truth has to function in our minds for us to make sense of the world around us. It’s always going to be a partial truth, based on belief, both cultural and individual. When we’re ready to see something new in the world, we will. When, for whatever mysterious reason, we’re granted a temporary reprieve from fear, we’ll be ready to pay attention. The attention Doug Elliot teaches is minute, detailed – this is, after all, the man who created an entire book of illustrations of wild plants by their roots – but in the skunk story, he’s laughing at himself for failing to consider the larger picture.
Maybe knowledge is a matter of not asking the next question; maybe what we call knowledge is just a plateau of understanding that’s hardened into a solid shape that can be passed back and forth between people amidst conversation, rather than something that stands objectively apart from the fray. Wherever I pause in my attention, I’m only seeing a partial truth. I can follow the dainty tracks through the snow, and still be surprised by the skunk on the other end. Elliot writes, “One cannot know the forest without knowing the trees. If you thoroughly and carefully study the trees, you will come to know the forest, and likewise maybe if you carefully study the tracks – those imprints or impressions left by the Creator – you will indeed learn much about the one who made those tracks. If you choose to follow the tracks far enough, you will eventually arrive at the One who made them.” If we’re open, we’ll be in a place unlike anything we’d imagined, even if we find ourselves at the mystery’s hind end.