The grain of prevailing wisdom

[I]n the mid-nineteenth century there was simply no context for such a radical overhaul of geological theory; no other pieces of knowledge with which the theory itself could fit. A mainstay of nineteenth-century geology was a belief in the existence of enormous land-bridges which had at one point joined the world’s continents, but had since then crumbled into the oceans. These land-bridges explained the existence of the same species on different landmasses, and seemed far more plausible than mobile continents.

In 1912, therefore, [Alfred] Wegener was arguing against the grain of prevailing wisdom: if his theory were correct, it would nullify many of the founding assumptions of nineteenth-century geology. Worse still, Wegener was an intruder, a trespasser on the turf of the geologists. For his main field of research was meteorology – he was a pioneer in weather-balloon study and a specialist in Greenland, where he led several successful, and one fatal, Arctic research expeditions. How could a weatherman presume to dismantle at a single stroke the complex and magnificent edifice of nineteenth-century geology?

Robert MacFarlane describes the reasons why Alfred Wegener‘s theory of continental drift wasn’t widely accepted by geologists until the 1950s.

This reminds me of Thomas Kuhn‘s notion of a “paradigm shift.” Specifically, it brings to mind his contention that two scientific paradigms are incommensurable, that the propositions of one paradigm are impossible to understand from the viewpoint of another paradigm.

This clash of world views interests me: when it is impossible to get across your point because a certain world view is so entrenched. Wegener’s approach is laudable: he simply kept explaining his theory, publishing and republishing The Origins of Continents and Oceans three times between 1915 and 1929. But is this laudable only because when know he was eventually proven to be (mostly) right? If he’d been wrong would his persistence seem laudable or simply a bit crazy?

Everyone who disagrees with someone else is likely to cast themselves as the hero, squaring up bravely to ignorance or just plain idiocy. Certainly having evidence to back up your claim helps,

Certainly, this is the ideal of the scientific method (or of a Lean startup): have a hypothesis, test a hypothesis, it either works or it doesn’t. The results of the experiment give us the answer.

Too often, though, this isn’t quite how it works out. A Kuhn points out, that evidence can be interpreted through a certain paradigm. The experiment design is questioned. The validity of the results is questioned. The interpretation of the results is questioned. Someone whose paradigm doesn’t allow for the results will always find something to question.

Getting to a point where we can listen and talk across these paradigmatic chasms seems vital, but perhaps it’s overly idealistic. In Kuhn’s analysis, this never happens. One paradigm eventually replaces another paradigm, but in the mean time two communities work as if in isolation from one another.

I’m idealistic, though. Even knowing that two competing paradigms are incommensurable probably won’t stop me from trying to do the impossible: trying to understand both. Or trying to understand one paradigm although I’m firmly placed in another.

Clearly, it’s time for me to go back and reread Kuhn.

Fugitive phenomena

Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named.

Robert MacFarlane describing one of the disappearing words he’s collected which describe landscapes and the natural world.

I’m fascinated by language, and I’m drawn to these uncanny words that describe something specific by familiar. They have the alienated majesty of my own thoughts or observations captured in a single word, and they often have the power to change the way I perceive the world.

The Japanese word wabi sabi is one example of this. When I first heard the word, it immediately resonated with me. The idea of something becoming more beautiful with use was something I’d been thinking about already.

Learning about wabi sabi helped to crystalize some of those ideas, but also changed the way I perceived the world. It’s a concept I’ve returned to again and again when thinking about how things should be designed. Knowing the word fundamentally changed the way I experienced the world.

MacFarlane comments on this in his article.

Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Not only is smeuse an amazing word, but it’s had the same effect on me. During my walks around our village I’ve noticed smeuses much more often than I did before now that I have a word for them.

It’s this point — naming something means noticing it — that lies behind MarFarlane’s project to collect seldom-used words that describe the landscape and natural phenomenon.

A recently published version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed natural words, such as “acorn”, in favor of digital words, such as “blog.” MacFarlane places his project in this context:

The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.

There is a relationship between our experience and the words we use to describe it. It works in both directions. As our interactions with nature decline, so too will our our use of words that describe specific natural phenomenon. Those “fugitive phenomena” are less likely to be noticed, so why would we need words to describe them?

I worry that we’re spending less and less time in nature. I worry that we’ll lose more than just words. I worry that we losing the lessons that are learned when you spend time climbing a tree, buiding a den or losing yourself in the woods: self-reliance, cooperation, close observation of your surroundings. I worry even more because these skills aren’t prioritized by our current education systems.

I’m not convinced that collecting these words will necessarily change this on its own, but I believe that MacFarlane’s project is worthwhile as a part of a larger project to reverse this trend. Collecting these words takes a stand for taking the time notice these things that are rarely noticed. If they spark the curiosity of just a few people or change the way they view the natural world, then it’s well worth it.

Cartographic omissions

The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented. It is indifferent to its pictures and to its picturers. But maps organise information about a landscape in a profoundly influential way. They carry out a triage of its aspects, selecting and ranking those aspects in an order of importance, and so they create forceful biases in the ways a landscape is perceived and treated.

It can take time and effort to forget the prejudice induced by a powerful map. And few maps exercise a more distortive pressure upon the imagination than the road atlas. The first road atlas of Britain was produced in 1675 by John Ogilby. It was a six-volume work, which claimed to be the only ‘Ichnographical and Historical Description of all the Principal Road-ways in England and Wales’. Ogilby’s maps showed a scrupulous attention to landscape detail: they depicted not only roads, but also the hills, rivers and forests that the roads ran round, along, through and over.

In the centuries since Ogilby’s innovation, the road atlas has grown in ubiquity and influence. Over a million are sold in Britain and Ireland each year; twenty million are thought to be in circulation at any one time. The priorities of the modern road atlas are clear. Drawn by computers from satellite photos, it is a map that speaks of transit and displacement. It encourages us to imagine the land itself only as a context for motorised travel. It warps its readers away from the natural world.

Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, pp. 8-9) discusses how maps can impact the way we perceive a place. This goes well beyond the map not being the territory. A map, like any good model, is wrong, but useful. For driving one place to another, a road map is a useful model. But maps are also a sort of language, and the language we use can influence the way we think.

Road maps are designed to be task-focused. They allow you to plan a route from Point A to Point B. Turn-by-turn navigation does this job even better. Road maps and turn-by-turn navigation are successful because leave out a great deal of information, but what is left out changes our perception. Instead of being aware of the surrounding landscape, we’re aware only of our own route through it, focused only on the blue line that draws us forward toward our destination. Everything else drops away.

The road map is only one way of representing a landscape. For the traveller who merely wants to move through the landscape, it is probably the right tool. For the traveller for whom the journey is the landscape (perhaps this is an explorer, not a traveller), there are other maps that show what road maps have left out: the topography, the history, the ecology, the geology. Of course, there is also everything that no map shows, and that’s where things start to get exciting.

Between two frames

The speed of a cinema film is 24 frames per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past our daily perception. But it is as if at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for — night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales… Perhaps it was destined not only for animals but for lakes, slow-growing trees, ores, carbon…

Our customary visible order is not the only one: it co-exists with other orders. Stories of fairies, sprites, ogres were a human attempt to come to terms with this co-existence. Hunters are continually aware of it and so can read signs we do not see. Children feel it intuitively, because they have the habit of hiding behind things. There they discover the interstices between different sets of the visible.

Last night before bed, I read John Berger’s essay “Opening a Gate” in Why Look at Animals? This section struck me, perhaps because it was so similar to what I was trying to get at when wrote about the idea of the beyond-world. I like the idea of multiple beyond-worlds, not destined for us that we occasionally catch glimpses of, perhaps out of the corner of our eye, perhaps head on.

When I wrote about the beyond-world, I mentioned Shoal Creek in Austin. It’s right in the middle of the city. There is a sidewalk that runs along it. Once evening, I was walking on that sidewalk and came upon an owl sitting on a branch. It was directly in front of me and staring right at me. I stopped in my tracks and stared at it for a moment. Perhaps longer than a mere moment, it’s hard to say. The world around me and the bird seemed to shift: colors changed and there was an electricity in the air. It may simply have been that the sun was going down. In fact, whenever I see the word “gloaming” that moment comes back to me. It alone captures the sudden shift of colors and texture that came so suddenly and just as suddenly disappeared.

The other thing that Berger’s description of a different perception found between two frames reminded me of was a lot of the writing of Haruki Murakami. He describes this as combining objective language and personal language. Murakami’s personal language feels like a beyond-world, something seen by—perhaps destined for—one person only. It’s the interplay between the world everyone agrees on and one individual’s beyond-world that I enjoy so much about Murakami’s writing.

In some some sense, this feels like what much fiction writing and some non-fiction writing, like the writing of Rebecca Solnit and Robert Macfarlane. Perhaps this is only true of the authors I love—such as Calvino, Borges, Carter and García Márquez—who take their queue as much from folktale and mythology as they do from science and reason. I return again and again to the writers who are able to communicate the internal life of a character or themselves.

The beyond-world

Baker became, during those years of chase, an explorer of what he called the ‘beyond-world’: the wild world of birds and small creatures that existed in hedgerows, in woodlands, in the air, and out on the coastal borderlands of the mudflats and saltmarshes. This ‘beyond-world’ was always occurring, mingling with our world of tarmac and cars and pesticides and tractors, rarely more than a turn of the head or a turn in the road away. Most people were entirely blind to this world, but Baker saw it wherever he looked. In his eyes, the Essex landscape—never more than 150 feet above sea-level, only fifty miles from London, heavily farmed—was as inspiring and elemental as the Pamirs or the Arctic.

Robert MacFarlane, writing in The Wild Places (p. 279), about John Baker’s idea of the ‘beyond-world.’ Baker spent an entire winter tracking peregrine falcons in Essex. Essex, for those of you who don’t live in the UK, is one of the least wild places I know of, aside from a city.

The idea of the ‘beyond-world’ immediately struck me. I love the idea of looking just beyond what is immediately before you to see something else: a plant growing up through a crack in the sidewalk made by the root of a nearby tree, a ruin giving way to nature in the middle of a giant metropolis or an insect you’ve never seen before just outside your door.

In the idea of the ‘beyond-world’ there is something of Rebecca Solnit’s grandmother sources, of listening beyond the single story to the endless stories unfolding around us.

When I lived in Austin, I twice had the experience of seeing the world before me fall away and reveal something else. I was once walking on 12th Street towards the ACC campus, when I reached the top of a hill. At the bottom of this hill was Shoal Creek. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there. Suddenly, I could imagine the entire area covered in trees with just a dirt track winding its way down to the creek. It stopped me in my tracks and lasted only a moment before I went on my way, back in a city on my way to school.

The second encounter with a ‘beyond-world’ was a very different kind of imaginative rewilding. I was walking down 6th Street, when I looked at the buildings around me, just past the neon signs for clubs and bars. In that moment, 6th Street revealed its origins as a pioneer street, something from the Wild West. The architecture was still there, just barely covered over.

I now live in Hampshire, but work in London. London often has this effect on me, often when I’m crossing them Thames at night. There is a flood of histories, but also the strange, simple realization than I’m in London. That I’m living across the world from my home and that I know London better than anyplace I’ve ever lived.

Hampshire is not unlike Essex in some respects. It’s not terribly wild, at least not on our end of Hampshire. We live in a village surrounded by farmland, but we don’t have to go far to explore. My morning run takes me through two different woods and a holloway. On the weekends, we’ll often take an Ordnance Survey map and find a place we don’t know to go explore. These aren’t wild places. They are for the most part ancient rights-of-way, marked on the map in broken green lines. We’re often on these paths alone, and are surprised to come across other people. It gives us time to look at the world, to find a plant or insect we’ve never seen before, to discover interesting stones that may reveal something about the underlying geology or to find scattered hints of other people who have passed this way before.

I believe these mini-adventures are a way of making time to see the ‘beyond-world’ and make us all better at seeing it at times when we might otherwise rush past it.