Birds, Butter Cookies, and Night Blooming Cereus

color range

From Cool Green Science; smarter by nature By Joe Smith

Sometimes things just come together.  The other evening, as I was savoring one of my wife’s delicious butter cookies, a setting sun illuminated the west face of the hill to our east with a pink pastel wash.  At that moment Vermont Public Radio filled the air with the first notes of Ravel’s String Quartet in F major and, simultaneously, our night blooming cereus decided to open the blossom it had been working on for the past week or so, immersing me in its ambrosial scent.  Ecstasy!   Had it not been for the fact that my five senses were all aquiver, I would say that the experience almost knocked me senseless.

It got me thinking.  Each of those senses bring me but a sample of the reality which surrounds me. Chemical analyses of the air I inhale and the stuff I put in my mouth.  Mental reconstructions of the wavelengths of light bouncing off my surroundings.  Same thing for the vibrations in the atmosphere around me.  But mind you it is just a sampling.   There is so much more to it than that!

For example, I don’t see the ultraviolet that guides hummingbirds to nectar sources.  http://blog.nature.org/science/2015/08/17/field-guide-wrong-birds-eye-view-world-color-vision/ My infrared camera can tell where heat is escaping from around my windows but I can’t.  My friend’s dog’s nose can tell which way the woodcock that recently crossed in front of us was going when I don’t even know there is one in the vicinity.  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/dogs-sense-of-smell.html  And what about those fish that can sense electromagnetic fields radiating from prey buried in the mud?  http://www.pelagic.org/overview/articles/sixsense.html Just because we now know birds and dogs and fish have this expanded awareness doesn’t mean there isn’t even a lot more going on that we don’t have a hint of.

Before going any further, let’s recognize that the word “reality” has its problems.  For most of us, “reality” is the way we reconstruct our surrounding environment from the data gathered directly but there are some inadequacies in that concept. We know now that there are some very “real” qualities in the world around us that escape us entirely.  We know they exist only through indirect evidence.  Radio waves and x-rays are in the same boat.  To a red-green colorblind person, so are those colors.  So from now on, in an attempt to disambiguate, I am going to use “reality” to mean the world as we perceive it directly through our senses and the phrase “all of creation” to mean all of the qualities of our surroundings – our full context –  whether or not our senses sample them.

While I was eating that cookie, and experiencing all that other wonderful stuff, my mind wasn’t really focused on the cookie,the hillside, the music or the scent.  It was immersed in the whole integrated experience.  And that’s the way things go most of the time.

When I fell a tree, its crashing to the ground has both a visual and an auditory component which I experience as a single event.   The experience of a nearby lightening strike when the flash and boom are simultaneous is forceful and immediate and visceral. When I regain my wits I have an impressive concept of a lightning bolt.   Our senses are sampling the image of the tree falling and the sound of the crash: they register the photons released by the electrical discharge and the atmospheric tsunami of the air around the bolt.  Suppose we were endowed with those electrosensing organs that are believed to exist in sharks.  Wouldn’t  we have an even more intense understanding and appreciation of a lightning strike?

Some years ago we raised a few beef for our own consumption. They had their priorities.  Food.  Tender green shoots if possible. Hay was satisfactory. Molasses-laced grain was heaven.  When they weren’t resting, their noses were buried in the field unless they heard the grain bucket rattle.  Then they came on the run.  Their world was defined by the pasture’s fence but that didn’t matter as long as there was enough grass and a bit of grain now and then.

Getting to know those cows and thinking about their lives raises some provocative questions.  Might our own lives be similarly constrained, though on a larger scale?  After all, cows and we are both on the same evolutionary tree – way out on the branch labelled “mammals” though on slightly different twigs.  Their survival pressures got them horns, lots of muscle and the ability to meet their nutritional needs with grass.  Ours got us this big brain and some pretty complicated connections within it.  (There probably is a lot more to it than that for us children of Adam and Eve but that’s a matter for another essay.)  For now, let’s just imagine that our world view, though a good deal richer than those cows’, also has its limits, cutting us off from what is actually out there with as grand a chasm as the one that exists between their grain bucket and my listening to a Ravel quartet.  What if those limits didn’t exist?

Imagine our current senses expanded in range so we could hear the rumblings of the subsonic vocalizations of elephants and  the superhigh squeaks of bats.  Toss in an ability to see well out on both the ultraviolet and infrared light spectra.  Now add in those non-human senses found in other creatures – electromagnetism in sharks, remote vibrations in other fish. Let your imagination really run wild – Dr Seuss style.  Imagine us with the ability to sense weakness in tilting structures (“swooerp”), tension in a bent tectonic plate(“vroing”), the moods of others (“sympativity”) – that kind of thing.   Suppose when we entered a room we could perceive the intensity of the social connectedness between the people present (“cadbuster”). Imagine a couple entering a crowded room and one of them perceiving a powerful connection between her apparently faithful spouse and another woman that neither supposedly knew?  And finally, give us  the mental integrating power to resolve all that into a single awareness of the creation we presently inhabit.

Why bother with this odd exercise?  Well, first off, who can argue with the idea of appreciating how much more miraculous all of creation is than what our current restricted senses can take in and our mind can reconstruct?  More importantly, complicated issues written off with glib explanations can cause a heap of trouble.  Charles Darwin, in his introduction to The Descent of Man, cautions thatIgnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”   Those early Mayans, confident that droughts were the result of angry gods demanding sacrifices, caused a lot of suffering. The conviction that dying as a martyr in jihad guarantees an afterlife enriched by scores of devoted virgins has wreaked plenty of havoc.   And clearly, believing that everything will be fine if we just put our faith in the invisible hand of the marketplace has caused its share of suffering too.  Though humbling, sometimes it is much preferable to admit one’s profound ignorance than to act confidently on the basis of flawed superficial beliefs.  For me, it is just as misguided to be confident that the bible or the quran is God’s truth as it is to be confident that everything – even our sense of self – can be explained by the current laws of physics and chemistry.

The creation we inhabit is incredibly rich; no doubt far richer than we can ever imagine.  Through painstaking observation, unforgiving peer review and many corrections along the way the scientific method has helped us delve a bit deeper into understanding our universe and our place in it.   But I suspect we have only scratched the surface.  Newton’s and Einstein’s laws are pretty amazing but I bet there are many – perhaps even an infinite number – of others waiting to be discovered.  And some may even be undiscoverable but operative nonetheless!

Direct experiences, like those butter cookies or the scent of a night blooming cereus are one thing. Why we are here, how we should live and what happens to us after we are no longer, well those are tough ones.  No doubt the possibilities exceed our imaginations.

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