Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Beyond our ken

My last post was about tapping trees for sap, to make syrup.  It was a good productive year, with good weather , but what else might account for it? It got me to thinking about nature's patterns, and how out of tune we are to noticing all the harbingers and cause and effect relationships all around us. Some are easy, and we still recognize them, but how many others are more subtle, or of a time scale we aren't able to follow?

An example: I know that the mast crop trees ( nuts, acorns) have an odd cycle, some years with lots of crop, others not so much. It seems like weather is not the only variable affecting the output, but even scientists aren't sure, thought they have some theories.

Are there some signs for the cycle that we just haven't picked up on yet?

Layman speculation alert: someone probably already knows this, but here are my thoughts on how we got here.

Our big homo sapiens brains have the ability to store a lot of memories, and maybe that was our Darwinian tradeoff for loss of keen senses. Maybe our compulsion to find patterns, coupled with the big memory, enables our forebears to remember locations and timing of food, anticipate fruiting, and in general survive even better than if they still had the ears of a deer, or eyes of a hawk. I know the big brains are also thought to have evolved to enable managing complex tribal relationships, but you still have to eat!

In fact, we got so good at it, we figured out the life cycle of certain plants, patterns of a few animals, and ended up doing agriculture, complete with seed saving and animal selective breeding. So recognizing many of the natural patterns in the "wild" became less important.

I usually attempt to keep science front and center,  so I think we need to distinguish between harbingers and causative agents. There is folk lore that wooly worm's color can indicate how severe the coming winter can be. While I don't think this is a real correlation, it would be considered a harbinger, as I doubt wooly worm color can make the polar vortex shift south! Other things would be more like a cause and effect, if we can only notice the patterns that repeat and hopefully understand the mechanism involved.

The Fox Fire series of books collected lore from pioneers and settlers in the Appalachian mountains, and much lore like that of the wooly worm sign existed, but how much of it was based on real cause and effect, and how much was coincidence or bunk?

Maybe there really are deeper senses, other species tune to a vibration we will never sense, or have grown deaf to. We now know that some birds and insects actually navigate for their migrations by sensing the earth's magnetic field. Wow. What other signals are we blind to?

One challenge for us is that some patterns are long in playing out. Long time span pattern recognition would really require good memory and patience. We know that some cicadas go 17 years between emerging. Good to know if you like to eat them and can count ( and don't starve in the mean time). What other long term or multi step patterns are there that we haven't recognized yet?

What might the application to sustainable food production be? Well, if we are to try use less fossil fuels, to work more in concert with natural systems, then tuning in to the various cause and effect patterns will be very useful.

This past year, a large ( I thought) healthy black cherry tree died. Over the course of several months, I saw where woodpeckers began to chip off the bark, obviously going after insects. Was there an earlier sign of disease that I didn't notice or even recognize? Did the insects infest and kill the tree, or were they opportunists, bypassing the normal defenses that waned after a disease was already killing the tree? If I had the habit of actually looking at all the trees and plants around me as part of my daily routine, might I be able over time to catch the patterns, the signs of disease, of changes important to me and my farm?

I think I need to pay more attention.


  1. Lovely post. I really like the idea that humans gave up a lot of their sensory sharpness to get stuck inside our own heads instead, and not just that our physical sense organs are withered but that our attention is often inside our own minds.
    On reading landscapes- when I did my studies I was collecting a particular genus of plants all over the Australian continent, driving long distances between recorded collection sites. After a while I could look out the car window travelling at high speeds and just know the particular plants were growing in a spot in the landscape. I was right much more often than not. I cannot describe what it was about particular places that seemed promising in words, I just felt it after seeing them so many times. I wonder if people lost that kind of instinct in reading landscapes when we stopped travelling long distances in search of food and started farming a small patch instead.

  2. Thanks Shane;
    While I think the basic wiring is still there, the full use of our pattern recognition and memory abilities is underutilized, or often idled away on beating video games. Our lives just don't depend on it anymore ( for now).

    When searching for mushrooms in the woods, after a while I kind of know what looks like a promising spot, though I also would find it hard to set to words.

  3. I like your article and agree with many parts of it, but thats boring. Devils advocate - what if I suggested an aspect of science and communication is the cause of this problem?

    That aspect is 'definitions'. In order to explain the world around us to others we must put things into definitions. The problem with definitions is that they are limited and the thing they are describing is not. The most volatile example of this is currently with personal identity. By your photo I can define you as a man, but that definition does not cover what you are. Buddhists and Taoists (I am neither) teach that these are the source of suffering, that by clinging to a certain definition we become blind to others (you are possibly a father, a farmer, left or right politic, religious etc).

    Very wide philosophical arc but speaks to the same point, by focusing on our knowledge, we lose focus on nuanced details.

    We have to relax our minds a little to alternative possibilities, even in pattern recognition. This is one of the major causes of loses on the stock market, humans have a tendency to over estimate our abilities (check out the dunning-kruger effect) and put stock in patterns which either dont exist, or have a lesser impact then expected.

    Also remember correlation does not imply causation.
    While your wooly worm may not be able to shift the polar vortex south, said wooly worms color may be reacting to a myriad of minor climactic conditions we are oblivious to.

    While we have continually improved what we can measure in this world, remember that we don't know what we don't know, and science cannot measure or control unknown variables.

    1. I'm comfortable with the thought that there are realms beyond what science can describe or verify, but I still think we could consciously try to improve our attention, and reconnect with the natural world around us, instead of all the intermediation we lean on (like the computers we are tapping away on).

      and as you point out, the map is not the territory, so definitions are only a shorthand reference to the full reality.

      Some things will always be beyond our ken.

    2. Alan watts described it as 'seeking the fixed'. Humans are inherently afraid of their own mortality, so we try to create some semblance of permanence around us to comfort us at the usually frightening rate of change around us. Whether it is a god with unconditional love or a city with solid foundations.

      Science is a precision implement, but if you grip it tightly like a sledge hammer it will not yield the intended results. To me, we must accept our (fleeting) place in this world, only then can we relax enough to see the trees as part of the forest.

      All life is balance, tiny portions of poisons have therapeutic effects, drink too much water and it could kill you.