Mergansers and the Space of Meaning

Leah drops into the hole with Gigi

When I taught kayaking, I frequently gathered my students in an eddy in the middle of a rapid to investigate a hydraulic. We watched merganser families navigate the waves and holes. In the front of the procession, the mother would have a perfect line through the rapid. The fuzzy little chicks close behind her followed perfectly. But soon the line started to break down. The chicks in the middle would be a little off course, perhaps even clipping the edge of the hydraulic. A few of the last ones who had drifted off the line more considerably dropped into the hydraulic and popped up further downstream.

It is easy to learn something practical like navigating a rapid by watching nature. Examples are all around if you watch for them.

We mimicked the mergansers almost identically. My students and I would peal out of the eddy and I would have the perfect line for them to follow. The students closest to me were the most likely to follow that line accurately. Then line would break down in the middle of my procession, and kayakers at the end occasionally dropped into the hydraulic. A one-to-one correlation becomes more difficult to exemplify when what you are learning isn’t as direct as watching mergansers navigate the same rapid.

Reflection at Watershed 2

Reflections at Watershed 2 for Solstices & Equinoxes

What do I learn from climbing a tall old-growth tree many times? What can I glean after sitting in one place from sunrise to sunset every season of the year? I can tell you small things. I learned that the light quality really does appear differently as you ascend from the forest floor pop up above the canopy. I can also tell you about the scarce direct light that reaches all the way down to the creek running through an old growth stand in a steep canyon. I can tell you about the different way the air felt, and the sounds.

But I can’t tell you about many things I learned. I’m not even sure I can articulate what they are. I do know I learned myriad things because of the way I respond to changes in the forest when I am in it. I can anticipate certain things without thinking them through. Things I know are sometimes labeled intuition, but intuition needs a backdrop to know how to act.

The background is knowledge known in a semiotic context. It’s the stuff that gives meaning to discrete events and change. When I am climbing, or sitting for hours in the forest, it’s not the change, or a discrete event I am tuned into. It’s the thing that makes the change noticeable and what gives space for a discrete event to exist.

Poise Between Something and Nothing, oil on wood panel, 40 x 50 in., 2011, Leah Wilson

Poise Between Something and Nothing, oil on wood panel, 40 in. x 50 in.

The background meaning is a very quiet hum and vibration. It’s so subtle that it’s not noticed unless you decide to sit in one place with the intention of being aware of it, and even then it’s almost impossible to do. It’s almost so invisible it seems it doesn’t exist.

But it does.

It makes me ponder the differences between actively or passively receiving information. Climbing a tree is a rigorous activity. But I don’t know if I would call doing this active information collecting. I think it’s in fact, passive.

Tim Reading - Summer Solstice WS2

Tim actively and passively receiving information

Reading a book, although many would say that it is a passive activity, is actively collecting information. So is sitting in an eddy watching a merganser family. Explicit knowledge is learned in both instances and the answers can be seen or known by discrete events like when the chick drops into the hydraulic, or by discrete pieces of knowledge found and highlighted in a book.

Since the discrete events are notable and can be distinguished from others, they are easier to work with. Words and images can be associated with them. A story can be built around it or it can be used like a particular medium in art. You can declare that the art is about some thing.

Driftwood and Rock at Cape Perpetua

Driftwood & Rock at Cape Perpetua

The space holding discrete events and objects is more difficult to work with. It doesn’t easily allow itself to be described by words or images. But this is the important stuff to know as a part of you and your relationship to a place. This is the space allowing the intellect to make sense of, or even to recognize, change or discrete events and objects to arise.

Is this implicitly known place of meaning a thing art can point to, or does the art need to arise out of it?


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