March 31st, 2014
So… a little less than a week ago I finished my revisions to Goldfish Rising and sent the mansucript off to the publisher of the first volume of the series, To Join the Lost. (Which, if you haven’t bought it, you should, in preparation for Goldfish Rising. Not from Amazon. From this site, or from this one.) I am old enough to remember when that would have meant packing a neat stack of pages into a special box, wrapping it with bubble wrap and butcher’s paper, addressing it in permanent marker, and taking it to the post office for the ceremony of buying stamps and handing it over to the clerk and watching it disappear into the mysterious rooms in the back of the building or (with some detriment to the sense of occasion) get tossed into a big bin. Now it was just a matter of clicking on a “send” button. I am no luddite, but that is definitely less satisfying. I clicked the button, stared at the screen, and let the inevitable feelings of emptiness and “what do I do now?” sink in.
What I do now, in the evenings at least, is not what I intend to be doing for much longer. Someday in the not too distant future, the publisher I like to think of as “my” publisher will respond to my manuscript, I hope and expect with acceptance and, if so, also with a list of possibly as many as several hundred comments, questions, and recommendations for change, which will keep my evenings happily occupied for weeks or even months. Right now, however, I’m at loose ends. Used to be, for the past several years, most evenings after work would consist of making dinner, eating dinner, washing up after dinner, an hour or so of brisk walking, and then working on the book. Take the book out of the equation, add in weather that is not very conducive to walking outdoors, and you get some long hours to fill between dinner and bedtime. So, being a good American, I watch TV.
I want to tell you about two shows I saw last night. Channel surfing, I happened across the series Nature, and enjoyed an hour-long episode about recent research into the social life and behavioral characteristics of plants. Anybody remember that movie Steve Wonder did the film score for back in 1979, The Secret Life of Plants? It was about plants’ responsiveness to stimuli and was generally regarded at the time as highly woo-woo and far out there. Well, apparently not so much. Plants engage in highly specific forms of communication among themselves and with other classes of being, engage in foraging and aggressive behavior, exhibit aspects of self awareness, create social networks for mutual defense and assistance, and even, it appears, nurture their young in some cases. What I particularly liked about the show was the careful description of the experimental and observational bases for the scientsts’ conclusions. We got images of scientists washing the dirt off seedlings’ roots and looking at pictures of rootlets in action and holding geiger counters to baby douglas firs. Not only did we get to hear what the scientists thought they were learning, but what led them to think so.
After that I watched Cosmos, the remake of an old Carl Sagan miniseries. Very flashy visuals, lots of special effects, and constant reminders to the audience of how “incredible!” it all is. It was very unsatisfying. I am sure that Neil deGrasse Tyson, the genial and soft-spoken physicist who hosts the extravaganza, did not intend it this way, but the only real compelling element of the series is his evocation of his own personal relationship with Sagan, who was something of a mentor to Tyson and started him on his scientific career. Oh, and Tyson’s occasional slaps at fundamentalist religious dogma, such as that the universe is 7000 years old, are amusing if disheartening when one realizes that in America in 2014 this is rather daring. Other than that, it is all “gee whiz! look at this!” and incoherence.
The real difference between Cosmos and the Nature program, I decided, is that Nature told us as much about the process of arriving at a new perception, as it did about the new perception itself. Cosmos presents us with a jumbled bunch of Revealed Truths. At the end, I found myself thinking about what I had seen on Nature, and finding my worldview subverted and transformed by it. Plants and the forest are not what I had thought they were, but they are much more like what I had dreamed and suspected. I have not thought much about what Cosmos presented to me, at least not substantively, because Cosmos did not give me much substance to work with. Again, I am sure Tyson did not intend it this way, but it is the difference between science reporting and scientism; between new perceptions of the world, on the one hand, and something that can take the place formerly occupied by Holy Writ, on the other.
Unsurpisingly, Nature is brought to you by PBS, and Cosmos by Fox and the Koch brothers. The one show teaches us something about science, how it works and what it’s like to do it and what kind of humble but startling understandings it leads us to. The other teaches us a new wowie zowie mythology suitable for use by workers and consumers in a technologically sophisticated oligarchy.