Saturday, April 9, 2016

April 9: Skunk Cabbage, Untying Knots, Negative Capability

The point I want to make about the snakeskin is that, when I found it, it was whole and tied in a knot.  Now there have been stories told, even by reputable scientists, of snakes that have deliberately tied themselves in a knot to prevent larger snakes from trying to swallow them--but I couldn't imagine any way that throwing itself into a half hitch would help a snake trying to escape its skin.  Still, ever cautious, I figured that one of the neighborhood boys could possibly have tied it in a knot in the fall, for some whimsical boyish reason, and left it there, where it dried and gathered dust.  So I carried the skin along thoughtlessly as I walked, snagging it sure enough on a low branch and ripping it in two for the first of many times.  I saw that thin ice still lay on the quarry pond and that the skunk cabbage was already out in the clearings, and then I came home and looked at the skin and its knot.

Annie Dillard is trying to explain a mystery.  It could be titled like a Hardy Boys' book--The Mystery of Snakeskin Knot.  The question with which she is wrestling is how a snake ties itself into a knot and then sheds its skin, leaving behind a dried knot of epidermis.  It seems like an impossibility.  Along with this mystery is a larger question of why the snake would coil itself into this physical state in the first place.  Protection against larger snakes and other predators?  Dillard doesn't know.  (Of course she figures it out in the next paragraph.  It deals with the act of shedding--the snake peeling the skin off like a sock peeling pulled off a foot.  The skin turns inside-out, and then, for some reason, the skin turns itself right-side out again in one place.  The result is a lump of wrinkled skin that, when dried, resembles a knot.  Pretty cool.)

The reason this paragraph appeals to me is because of its sense of wonder.  Dillard has no reasonable explanation for what she has found, and, for a while, she walks around thinking that snakes do something unnatural, magical even.  I appreciate her ability to embrace the unknown and revel in it.  Of course, being Annie Dillard, she has to reason out an explanation.  But the explanation itself is still a little miraculous.  The creation of an artifact that confounds even scientists.

I have no problem living in a state of Negative Capability.  There's something about mystery that appeals to me.  Poet John Keats said that great thinkers and artists are "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Now, I'm not saying that I'm a great thinker or artist, but I am saying that I don't always have to untie the knot in the snakeskin.  Sometimes, for me, it's enough simply to admire the knot.

For example, my kids are kind of a mystery to me.  Sometimes, I can see myself or my wife reflected in them.  Recently, I watched Michael Moore's films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 with my daughter and her friend.  My daughter loved the movies.  The irreverence and humor of them.  Also, their questioning of social mores and expectations.  I like to think that I had a little to do with that kind of intelligence, but I know that it's a little more complex than that. 

My son is even more of a mystery to me.  I am not an outdoor person.  I don't particularly enjoy fishing.  I've only gone hunting once or twice in my entire life.  Yet, my son loves being outside.  He likes finding things like anthills and spiders.  He gets excited when he finds dead animals.  (He once discovered a dead deer in a neighbor's backyard.  The poor creature ran through the yard during a snowstorm, tried to leap over a fence, and broke its neck.)  Those are the kinds of things that excite him.  I don't know where he got that from.  It's like there's some little piece of primeval DNA squirming around in him.  The hunter/gatherer neanderthal.  It's not anything that I taught him or that he observed me doing.

Another example of Negative Capability in my life right now--my daughter and boys.  Today, she has two teenage boys visiting.  Both have traveled a good distance to see her.  Over one hundred miles for each of them.  Through a lot of snow and ice.  Now, teenage boys are not a mystery to me.  I used to be a teenage boy myself.  However, seeing my daughter interacting in a group of peers with penises is a little disconcerting.  She's moody and mercurial.  Maybe that's what attracts the boys.  I don't know. 

So, this Saturday is Negative Capability day for Saint Marty.  Uncertainty all around.  A blizzard of unanswered questions.

Mathematical Negative Capability

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