Pretty sumac leaves, huh.
Look again below. Culturally, in Canada, people have the right to cut sumacs down like this and stack them up beside the street so they look like this the whole winter through, to be hauled away in the spring time and chipped up into a kind of sawdust called “mulch,” which is mixed with sewage waste, fermented, and sold back to gardeners and landscapers. This is called “green thinking” and “dealing with weeds” and, look, it is green, isn’t it!
I think the cause of such behaviour is just the inherent gap between clear thought and the kind of populist thinking that passes these days for science. Here are some other sumacs, male like the ones above, up higher on the hill, and like them gone feral.
The first step of populist scientific thinking is a kind of triage: value assessment. It could, perhaps, be put like this: “What can I do with those things?” Most of the effort in considering sumacs these days goes into research into spraying chicken breasts with sumac juice in slaughterhouses and butcher shops, and measuring how much longer the things stay fresh (i.e. don’t smell baaaaad) on a supermarket shelf. Important, for sure, but, please, don’t tell your chicken friends about it, ‘kay?
The first step of true scientific thinking, however, is observation. Notice how some of the leaves below are one colour in the early Autumn and some are another. The second step should be asking if there is a pattern. Perhaps you could compare the colour differences to the patterns of shade that the leaves produce, and then compare that to the patterns of shade over the years that these bushes have been growing? A painter would, so we know it can be done. You are now, I trust, ready to move to the third step of scientific thinking: asking an answerable question. It might be this: is there a relationship between the two? (Well, yeah, there is, sure. Anyone who has observed trees over time knows that. The female stag horn sumac around the corner knows that.) See? Look at her, with her multiple years of branches and fruiting structures. Last year, the dead twigs here at her crown were sprouting leaves, but time marches on, wood ages, and, look, that’s a spider web way up there, isn’t it. Why, yes it is. All of these relations gets expressed in the leaves (well, maybe not the spider; she’s not there very long), and look at them! They’re very fine.
But the scientific game is a little different than just experience and observation: it wants to be able to demonstrate, in a yes-no question, one step of that process, and then another single step, and then another single step, and so on, so that, eventually, all the steps can be put together, and a process, or flow, can be known: not observed, because observations would then have to be proven, but known, textually or figuratively or in tables and graphs and data, and a simple statement that says precisely under what conditions, at what time, chemicals are laid down, or stripped out of, leaves to produce these effects, under which other specific conditions. A tall order. Now, a tree person might just say,
yeah, look, dude, I know that already, eh,
but that’s not the point. Those are different forms of knowing. The point, though, is that “science” is just a word. It stands in for “a process of rigorous, ordered thinking”, but it is a little different than that. Here’s it’s pedigree:
science (n.) mid-14c., “what is known, knowledge (of something) acquired by study; information;” also “assurance of knowledge, certitude, certainty,” from Old French science “knowledge, learning, application; corpus of human knowledge” (12c.), from Latin scientia “knowledge, a knowing; expertness,” from sciens(genitive scientis) “intelligent, skilled,” present participle of scire “to know,” probably originally “to separate one thing from another, to distinguish,” related to scindere “to cut, divide,” from PIE root *skei- “to cut, to split” (cognates: Greek skhizein “to split, rend, cleave,” Gothic skaidan, Old Englishsceadan “to divide, separate;” see shed (v.)).
In other words, it is a process that began with shedding information deemed excess, like cutting apart a corpse to see how it was put together. At heart, science today is just what it’s popular image takes it to be: “a process of determining the use of things and practical applications of materials in the world,” with the caveat that “practical applications” means “technological or material applications” or, in a more modern sense, also “psychological applications.” The selection process, the cutting away, has cut away everything but “usefulness,” however that is defined. That’s cultural. That’s not the other side of what is taken to be science, which is: “life, the universe and everything, as it really is, not how people see it to be.” In this popular conception, this is science:
No, it’s a moose in the sagebrush. To science, the art of shedding personal information, how a sumac makes Harold feel in the fall can be psychologically measured, and then put to use to help Harold feel better or worse or make him buy a camera, maybe, eh: planting more sumacs, perhaps, or having a sumac festival or something like going down to London Drugs and plunking down some cash. Cheating is allowed. In fact, it is encouraged, because, let’s face it, there’s no way that all of the trillions of connections between those leaves, space, light, gravity, water, air, insects and times are going to be worked out into a complete system, especially when Harold is involved, sheesh! You have to let some things go. For example, in the images of sumac (and a sagebrush moose) above, the bias is, well, contained in the apparatus that made the image. Here it is:
Here’s the cheating: instead of measuring all of the different light and chemical values, displayed by the colour differences in leaves, to work out a pattern of a tree’s life and how it interacts with the person holding the camera, that discussion is temporarily set to the side, the camera takes an “image” of the tree, which can then be passed around as if it were the tree or as if it were all the trillions of connections contained with the colour patterns of the tree and even with the observing human, looking through the lens, like this…
Ape Up to No Good
The photographic process exists because it has a “use”. Sumac trees have traditional human uses, too, such as (depending on species): tanning leather, making sumac tea, flavouring and preserving food, making medicinal teas and smoke (yes, medicinal smoke…that’s why it’s called a “smoke bush”), decorating gardens, making wax, creating ultraviolet light (fun for kids and 1970s black velvet painting aficionados) and so on, but a sumac tree? In and of itself? We don’t know, because our science doesn’t look at that. That has been sorted out and “shed” before we even began. Instead, that data set is what is called an “existential” question, a question of “being” or “is-ness” or, if you like, “identity” or “self” and is left to philosophy, religion and, especially, to art, which are, in and of themselves, also processes of rigorous, ordered thinking. Well, except in the romantic conception of science, which sees all of this hard thinking as “the world” when it’s in science and “personal values” when it shows up anywhere else, with the caveat that “personal values” have only personal uses. Poets aren’t even as romantic as all that, but that’s the world we live in in 2015. Now, hey, maybe, you might think that all of these kinds of thinking might easily fit together, into a system in which an artist (let’s say) could look at this sumac…
… note the colour patterns and, because of observation and experience (the first steps in science), and skill at “reading” colour and pattern, (the second steps), make an image of the tree’s “being”, or the totality of its presence. There’s even a word for this, as you probably know, a German word, because, well, Germans worked all this out first: “Gestalt”. An artist will claim the completeness of the pattern (its gestalt) as proof of its authenticity … and then pop culture science steps in, and instead of working out a system of questions and experiments, integrating, perhaps, some of the artist’s patterning processes, asks a few questions to sort out the worth of this investigation: does it have a “use”, can I get funding to study it, and how is that not just an emotional response, and since the mythology of science says that “emotional responses” must be shed, to get at the true, underlying forms of things, that’s that. The thing is, this “use” thing is a cultural bias. If “science” really does have to shed information, to make itself possible, and to build up a body of knowledge, that’s not necessarily the shedding that has to be done. In fact, it biases what follows in terms of technological processes, and that’s all fine and good, but an earth that can support humans well is dying, which is to say, that a conception of the earth that doesn’t include non-technical values is dying, and making it difficult for humans to survive.
We can do better. Let’s.