I Had No Idea! (in Two Essays)
Bill Long 8/21/07
Reflections on Guilt, Mortality and Human Blindness
When I was teaching at a small Kansas college I befriended a most amazing scholar (first name Abraham), a man who went on to become the Dean of a theological seminary after leaving Kansas. He had an "international" resume, having grown up in the Old City of Jerusalem, studied in various countries, translated ancient texts from obscure languages (like Armenian and Syriac) and, generally, been a productive Biblical scholar for years. On one occasion we roomed together at a conference, and I remember him telling me in a late-night conversation,
"Bill, I think it's true that life is so wonderfully diverse and our lives so comparatively short, that all God has given us in this life is simply a glimpse of the world. That is all we get here; just a glimpse of life."
He didn't say this with any regret or wistfulness, as if he wished it were different. He stated it with an air of mystery and somber quietness.
At first I was inclined to doubt him. After all, I was in my early 40s at the time and had just published my first book, was full of energy, and had committed myself to "getting to the bottom of" loads of things before I checked out of life. And so, I smiled courteously to my older colleague, and shifted the topic of the conversation. But even though I could shift the topic, I couldn't get rid of his words. They have stayed with me through the past fifteen years, silently watching me as I calmly and sometimes frantically have studied, written, and tried exhaustively to explore things. The burden of this and the next essay is to say that I am more and more believing my friend's words. Why? Not because I suddenly have an insight into human mortality, but because of the strange experience of late of discovering things about people from my past and myself. The "short" of the matter is that I haven't really spent much time "listening" to life but have, under the influence of various ideologies, pursued an agenda that may have seemed attractive at the time, but led to more blindness than insight. This may all sound very general, so let me be specific.
On Noticing Things--Two Stories
Georgia O'Keeffe, the most prominent female artist of 20th century America, emerged in the American consciousness in the mid-1920s through a photo-shoot of her in sensual poses by her lover, and future husband, Albert Stieglitz. Stieglitz, the owner of a prominent gallery in NYC, was really the one who put the "glitz" in "glitz." It took O'Keeffe several decades to get beyond this simple characterization of herself and her work (i.e, every flower had a feminine sexual part secretly displayed). On one occasion, when asked why she painted the intricacies of flowers, she said something to the effect, 'We rush through life so quickly and tend to ignore so many things around us. I just had to stop and look closely at the flower, and I painted it to help me 'see' it better. All I have done is just stop to look closely at a flower.'
Her words are also reminiscent of words spoken by John Updike in an interview I remember reading or hearing more than 25 years ago. In answer to the question of how he learned to describe things so carefully and precisely, he said that if he really did that, it was because he was in general a rather slow learner and unobservant person. He had to slow himself down to look at things carefully in order to be able to describe them.
My Attempt to "Notice" Things
In the past few months, as I have been researching my latest love (trees), I have had occasion to return to Reed College in Portland, where I was a professor (1982-88). Why? Because Reed has put together a series of 33 online maps and descriptions of the trees on campus. Many American colleges and universities have brochures or brief online tree tours, possibly identifying a dozen to three dozen trees, but Reed's guide identifies all 1400 or so trees growing on that campus. The University of Oregon has a book guide to its 3,900 or so trees (University of Oregon Atlas of Trees, revised in 2006), but it tells us nothing about the "stories" behind the trees. Stanford Professor Ronald Bracewell, recently deceased, has written the best book I have seen on the trees of a campus (Trees of Stanford). His 30 pages in that 250-page book describing 35 different species of eucalyptus are worth the price of the book itself.
Back to Reed College. So, I have used the Reed maps to acquaint myself with dozens of species and genera of trees. About twice a month I go up to campus, and work through three or four maps. Eventually I hope to have "worked through" the whole campus, but then there will be the allure of trying to explore the "canyon" in the middle of campus. Well, maybe you are starting to understand the truth of the statement made by my faculty colleague in Kansas...
Thus, instead of returning to campus to see the people, which is what normal people do, I go to campus to look at the silent and immovable living things that live there. I go to learn about life from them and try to fill in my knowledge of the world by learning their names and habitats. Once I know something's (or someone's name), that thing/person enters into my consciousness in a much fuller way. It becomes a person of sorts, with its own habits and seasons of life. The place, too, becomes more memorable. I now no longer just see the general place in my mind's eye, but I can often go "line by line" down a row of trees in my mind, stopping and greeting them as I go. It provides lots of hours of delight.
A gentle irony emerged in all of this. Once I began to explore trees, I began to meet people of all kinds who are fascinated with them and have knowledge and stories to tell about them that I don't have. Thus, I have become an eager learner again, mastering Latin words and names, learning leaf patterns and growing habits.
But as I began to learn more about the natural world, I realized that I have spent most of my life not noticing things. The next essay spells that out.