Places that we’ve come to trust

 

When I was a child, the world was an even stranger place than it is now. I knew so much less then, and the boundaries of almost every experience were unexplored and mysterious. I suppose that’s to be expected when the menu is large, and the stomach limited. So, with no internet to answer each question, and teachers who, despite their qualifications and zeal, were unable to fill in more than a decidedly modest number of the blanks, children my age migrated to the Delphic Oracle of the era: the library.

Although sometimes an imposing stone-and-pillared structure in the middle of a large city, in more modest towns it was often only a converted cottage, or a tiny building that housed the books. But however it was dressed, it was the library with all those answers on the shelves, all that magic in the musty perfume of the books. And yes, there was the reigning priestess, the keeper of the tomes, who seemed to know just how to organize our questions and then lead us directly to the shelf where the answers lay.

It was an enchanted place, the library, and one we children got to know even years before we started school. A place where we would gather each Saturday morning in a little circle on the floor to hear someone read stories to us of faeries that danced on little flowers, of kings and queens who disguised themselves as people just like us, of bears who spoke, and fawns that cavorted through the woods all day then slept in beds of moss each night.

Later, of course, we began to read things for ourselves, and to decide what made sense and what to believe. We would read a book the librarian recommended, and then another that she hadn’t -just to check. I sometimes thought I’d wandered alone and secretly through the new ideas, but then she’d smile and congratulate me on my journey when I saw her at her desk.

I suppose we’re never really on our own when we have a book, though. It is the world, or at least its a door that opens inwards. The book is the sacred space, not the shelf on which it is forced to sleep. And I have long suspected that many things are similar to that -a school, for example, or a yoga class, a police officer, or a program on the radio -they each represent an expertise we cannot all possess. A knowledge so extensive we must partition it out in little bits to make it work. It is what a civilization does; it is what constitutes a society.

I found an incredibly insightful article entitled Truth is also a place in the online magazine Aeon on the subject that helped me to set things in context: https://aeon.co/essays/labs-courts-and-altars-are-also-traveling-truth-spots  It was written by Thomas Gieryn, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington, who suggests that ‘Some places make people believe.’ He describes the aura of wisdom ascribed to the ancient Oracle at Delphi. It was in a place so remote that even getting there was a struggle, and hence no doubt augmented the reliability of whatever advice was proffered. Other places, he argues, are similarly sacred: law courts, churches, laboratories, and so forth. The very stability of their location, and their often unique and recognizable architectures, lends an almost sacred air to their functions. ‘Ordinarily, truth-spots stay put over time, and those who seek believable knowledge must travel to them – not the other way around.’

But he wonders if the reliability and permanence of the location is still really necessary to perpetuate the authority. ‘[…] is longevity in a particular location always needed in order for a place to make people believe? Some truth-spots travel: they inhabit a place only temporarily. Sometimes a portable assemblage of material objects might be enough to consecrate an otherwise mundane place as a source for legitimate understandings – but only for the time that the stuff is there, before it moves on. But if a church or lab or courtroom can be folded up like a tent and pitched someplace else, can it really sustain its persuasive powers as a source for truth?’

In the abstract, that seems like an unlikely possibility. After all, part of the solace of religion, say, is in the majesty of the venue -the comfort of the pew, the quiet place that is a refuge from the busy street outside. Or, at other times it may lie in the reverberations of the organ, or the echo of a choir singing somewhere hidden in a large cathedral.

But Gieryn illustrates his thesis with examples of how the authority, if not the venue is transportable. Travelling justices can set up a court in the most unlikely of locations -a small village in China, for example, with ducks and geese waddling past. Justice can be fairly meted out to the satisfaction of villagers who might otherwise never be able to travel to a big city courtroom. Religion, too, could be promulgated outside of the boundaries of a church so long as those ceremonial symbols seen as sacred and important, accompany the duly recognized religious official.

But I suppose these things are so common nowadays, with our internet connections and social media flurries, that the very idea of immutability has become a myth. With the possible exception of religious structures, buildings permanently dedicated to a particular purpose, seem anachronistic. Atavistic. Time itself is out of joint.

Surely we are not so shallow that we think that it is the edifice that contains the authority, so naïve that we confuse the vehicle with the driver. It’s not the library that contains the book, nor even the book itself we need -it’s the ideas, the perspectives, and the wisdom travelling in an ever-expanding ripple that we should attempt to grasp…

And yet… I’d miss the smile of that wonderful lady with the dirty glasses, who sat behind the library desk and watched with motherly pride as I carried out an armful of books for another week. Call me sentimental, or just an old man trapped in reverie, but I think there is still something sacred in a place where a person like her could sit and watch -and smile encouragingly- as we struggle past.

Advertisements

Sweet Flowers are Slow

 

 

It never ceases to amaze me what unfettered minds can discover. Sometimes I wonder how they do it. How they set out 180 degrees from the target and still end up hitting it. Of course, the world is full of answers scattered like flowers in a field, in plain sight for anybody who has learned to see them. It’s not the answers that are hidden, just the appropriate questions. But maybe that’s the point –questions are often like detours pointing away from where you think you want to go, and yet arrive you do, having learned unexpected things along the way –Frost’s Road not Taken.

Socrates, although he initially disavowed the Delphic Oracle’s apocryphal pronouncement that he was the wisest man in Athens, knew that Truth, like Wisdom, was slippery. He realized he didn’t possess all the truth and so he asked many questions, whereas others -those who never thought to investigate- were complacent about their knowledge, unpuzzled by what they experienced, content with their grasp, however tenuous.

Maybe that’s just the way we’ve been taught to interrogate reality, though: if A equals C, and B also equals C, then we need look no further –A, B and C are equivalent, or at least interchangeable and otherwise individually uninteresting. Perhaps it takes a Socrates to ask why that is –or at least why we are satisfied with our assessment.

An article in the BBC News about an unusual approach to decreasing the spread of malaria brought this to mind: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-40495958  While researchers are trying desperately to engineer a vaccine, there have been many interesting attempts to ameliorate the prevalence of the disease. Some are relatively high tech –like genetically altering mosquitoes to produce genes to prevent the development of the malarial parasite within themselves and therefore stop its transmission to people when they bite; some are more humble methods, more attainable in the short term -such as pyrethroid-treated mosquito netting around beds. I suppose the boundaries between discovery and invention are fluid, but even so, either of them can lead to uncharted territories. New possibilities.

Still, until we do have an effective and safe vaccine, we need to use as many other methods to decrease the ravages of the female Anopheles mosquito as possible –however indirectly they may achieve this. Sometimes you just have to try stuff. Sometimes, you have to think inside the garden.

‘Gardening could be a powerful weapon against malaria, culling mosquito populations by cutting off their food supply, say researchers.’ The idea is to starve the mosquitoes before they get a chance to pass on the malarial parasite. A pilot project in Mali, West Africa, found that ‘Removing flowers from a common shrub appeared to kill off lots of the older, adult, female, biting insects that transmit malaria. Without enough nectar the “granny” mosquitoes starve, experts believe.

‘These Anopheles mosquitoes carry the malaria parasite in their salivary glands and pass it on to people when they bite and draw blood. The infected person can then infect other younger, biting, female mosquitoes – which are looking for a rich blood meal as they become fertile and make eggs – because their blood now contains the parasite. It takes about 10 days for a newly infected young female mosquito to become contagious to humans. By the time she can transmit malaria, she’s pretty old. Although she will feed on blood, she also relies on flower nectar for energy to stay alive.’

So, ‘Experts in Mali, along with researchers from the Hebrew University of Hadassah Medical School, Israel, and the University of Miami in the US, set up a horticultural experiment to see if removing the flowers from this plant might help kill off local mosquitoes. […]Villages where they removed the flowers saw mosquito numbers collected in the traps fall – the total number of mosquitoes across these villages decreased by nearly 60% after removal of the flowers.’

Admittedly, as the researchers concede, although it was an appropriate technique in a place like Mali, ‘it might not work so well in lush tropical regions where nectar-rich plants are in abundance.’

I suppose one of the reasons why this approach intrigued me so much, was that it seemed like a rather simple –albeit laborious- technique for mosquito control. Much like removing standing water that has collected in puddles or old tires where the mosquitoes can lay their eggs, it could be a community-led project that requires no additional external resources. But even more than that, as Professor Jo Lines, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has observed, ‘”It appears to show that by changing the landscape, not using insecticides or drugs, we can make a difference.”’

What a thought –changing, not destroying something to achieve an aim. Being clever and asking the right questions about what was already in front of the eyes of anyone inquisitive enough to actually notice. Curious enough to ask ‘what if…?’

So, back to Socrates who, in the end, conceded that perhaps the Delphic Oracle had been right all along about him being the wisest man in Athens. He was still searching for knowledge, still questioning the completeness of what others had already decided was necessary for them to understand. He was still unprepared to pretend that he knew something he didn’t. To the end, he refused to accept that there weren’t always more questions to ask.

After all, it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see; it’s not what you hear, so much as what you understand… The rest, as Hamlet said, is silence.