Tuesday, January 03, 2006

On judging barks by their covers

As you ponder this image, consider what my father-in-law recently said about this species of tree, which grows in profusion on his place: "How can something called a honey locust have thorns like that?"

What prompted that comment was that, before this Christmas, he had known that tree only as a "locust." But then we gave him the Audubon Field Guide to North American Trees: Eastern Region, and he just about disappeared into it for the next few hours. Success.

Trees have been much on my mind of late. I'm still getting used to the fact that I live in an area where, except for cottonwoods and the occasional "cedar" (actually, a kind of juniper), I recognize almost no trees here as being common to where I grew up in Central Texas. I have mentioned before that my in-laws now live on a heavily-wooded (for Kansas) piece of land with a rather bizarre mixture of indigenous and transplanted species--hence the tree-identification book. But it's taken Raminagrobis's two most-recent posts, tangentially about trees, to prompt this post.

Incidentally: What to call someone whom one has never "met" in the traditional way or exchanged even a phone call with but, because of the wonders of the internets, one still feels as close to as one's own flesh and blood acquaintances? The best I can do this morning is "blogo-friend," but that almost sounds like something to be cleared from the sinuses upon rising in the morning. No matter, I suppose: I have known Raminagrobis in this way for almost three years now; and should he ever find his way across the pond to Wichita, he'd be just as welcome here at tea-time (or any time) as my colleagues from school would be.

Anyway. Grobie needs to post more because he's so damned smart and, thus, always worth reading when he does, as in his most recent one, the self-deprecatingly-titled "Rambling On". You can (and should) read it yourself, of course. But the part I want to dwell on a bit is this, his response to something he read in Suzane Langer's book, Philosophy in a New Key:

If the passage from visual perception to mental image is not a straight line, not a simple case of copying (and it is now widely acknowledged, of course, that the notion of pure perception, a pre-conscious seeing uncoloured by individual experience and expectation, is a fiction), but a much more delicately calibrated process in which metaphorical associations play a primary role that is spontaneous and concept-forming, then aesthetic experience is something absolutely fundamental to language and to how the human mind works. It is something irreducibly complex and inaccessible to definition in language, but at the same time it is something real and true. And I suppose it is possible that not knowing what trees look like might actually enrich that experience rather than diminish it, because it opens up new vistas of thought ungrounded in concrete sense experience, by establishing new and unique neural sub-networks for thinking with. And I suppose that shaping of thought in turn might colour our perception of trees when we do finally encounter them in reality, so that our experience of walking through a wood becomes not a seeing of shapes and forms and colours but an act of intertextual reading of the great Book of Nature.

Incidentally, the Latin word for 'book', liber, is also the word for 'bark' [of a tree].

What a trigger to thought. Two thoughts, actually.

Grobie's phrase "Book of Nature" reminded me of Jonathan Edwards, specifically this passage from his book Images or Shadows of Divine Things:
The book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature two ways, viz., by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified and typified in the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances.

While Edwards makes clear here that it is the Bible which interprets Nature, there is no doubt that those phenomena had to exist in nature before they could be read (and recorded in the Bible) as "signs and types"--that, thus, Nature helps us interpret the Bible. Surely this is an instance of the imagination's leading the observer of nature to some deeper understanding of the Divine.

The other thought I had is one that has been lingering for a few weeks now. These are the leaves and fruit of what appears to be the most abundant tree on my in-laws' property. Here in this part of Kansas, I've only heard people call them "hedge apples," and a drive into the country will soon show you why: farmers often planted these trees close together along the boundaries of fields to form windbreaks (N.B.: Those fruit are the size of softballs and twice as heavy. It is risky to be under these trees in late autumn when the fruit are falling, as Mrs. Meridian can attest). So, while I was trying to find a suitable tree book for my father-in-law, I used this tree as a test of the books' ease of use. The Audubon won out because it provides various regional names for species in addition to their more common name. In the case of this tree, I learned that its more common name is "osage orange" (and is actually a member of the mulberry family). Another regional name for it is "bowdarc," not only a transcription of the French bois d'arc but also a recognition that the wood of this tree was prized for bow-making.

I find myself pondering whether calling these trees "osage orange" or "hedge apple" makes me see them and their landscape differently. The former is a sort of nod to the presence of indigenous peoples on this land; the latter conjures images of the settling and domestification of the same land. I know I cannot push this idea too far--both names are settlers' names, after all. But at the very least I am glad to know these names, for it is with names that the writing of history begins. They both serve as reminders of this place's history as surely as any historical marker and, in their proliferation, a far better reminder of the general truths of that history than the precise particulars of those "on this spot" markers. What we make of this tree's book will depend on what we call its bark. The more names we have for that bark, the larger the library, the deeper our reading.

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1 comment:

Raminagrobis said...

Aw, shucks.

As I mentioned on f_s's blog, I don't have an internet connection at the moment, so I haven't been keeping up with your blog (I'm ashamed to say).

I'm hoping to have this abominable state of affairs rectified fairly soon.

Till then.