Friday, November 02, 2007

Totem


Walking home yesterday, I startled a heron at the Plank Bridge. I have written about an identical experience, in the last chapter of Skeptics and True Believers:

One morning not long ago, I walked to college through meadows made misty by the heat of the rising sun. As I rounded a stand of trees and stepped onto the footbridge over Queset Brook, I startled a great blue heron that stood not ten feet away. The heron startled me. It heaved into the air with bedsheet wings -- push, push -- I could feel the whoosh of air. Neck crooked, pennant head-feathers flying, legs dangling behind like loosened mooring lines. The size of it -- our biggest bird! The fierce eye. The pterodactylian beak. The effect was prehistoric, like a scene from a movie -- Dinosaur Island or Jurassic Park. I stood on the footbridge and applauded.

I'm no ornithologist, but I know certain things about herons that anyone might know, things accumulated by generations of ornithologists working patiently in the field, and by zoologists, anatomists, paleontologists, DNA experts and aeronautical engineers. I know things that have been compiled in popular books by nature writers and field-guide authors. I know, for example, about the bird's feeding and mating habits, its voice and call, its relationship to the European heron and the Japanese crane. I know that the heron, like all birds, is a close relative of dinosaurs, and that feathered birds first flapped their wings in Jurassic times. There is nothing esoteric about any of this knowledge, nothing that requires special training in science. It can be found in places like the National Geographic magazine, the Audubon Society's magazine, the science pages of the newspaper, or television nature shows. In the best of all worlds, it would be taught in the schools from an early age. It would be part of every child's intellectual inheritance, like nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Reliable knowledge, public knowledge, knowledge that enhances experience and increases wonder.

Everything I knew about herons was subsumed in that epiphanic moment when the bird lifted into the air, trailing its toes in the black water of the brook. The heron was feathered by knowledge. Its six-foot wings spanned continents; their beats marked eons of geologic time. In every cell of the bird's great body, coiled strands of DNA performed a dervish dance that can only be imagined in the mind's eye -- spinning, unraveling, copying themselves -- the kinetic miracle of life. In earlier times, myths and totemic religion would have provided the bird with a context, a human meaning. But the ancient myths and totemic religions no longer command our belief. Today, only scientific knowledge can weave the heron into a tapestry of larger meaning. For better or worse, science is the defining public knowledge of our time.

And what knowledge it is! Grander and more God-struck than our ancestors' anthropomorphic and self-idolatrous myths. A story of sublime dimension. Tentative, evolving and not always comfortable, carrying us in our imaginations to the furthest reaches of space and time, but hedged about with death and oblivion. Scientific knowledge enlivens our every experience and tunes us into the deepest mysteries of creation, the hidden rhythms of a world that evades our limited senses. Science cannot nor should not be a religion, but it can be the basis for the religious experience: astonishment, experiential union, adoration, praise. And so it was with the heron. I stood on the footbridge and gaped as the dinosaurian relict pounded the air, seeing deeply into a world not altogether my own, totally skeptical, completely astonished.