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Getting to know the world

It's no an easy job, getting to know the world. You think you've got an approach all set up -- and something comes along to jar you, juggle you, perplex you once again.

This world calls for theories. It's too quiet for most of us just to look at. I, for example, have found myself theorizing about pine trees lately. "What ism a pine tree?" I ask myself; and I find that I cannot answer, "It is a pine tree." I must examine its bark and needles for color, texture, length, weight; I must watch the way it leans in a wind, how it holds the light in droplets after a rain, how it holds the quiet on a still day. I must come to know how it differs from deciduous trees -- how its needles are like and yet unlike leaves, how its seed-laden cones ripen and open like flowers. Learning these things, and more, I still remain at a distance from the real tree. I cannot answer, "It is a pine tree."

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In some ways my desired answer may seem foolish. It does not appear to define or explain anything. Yet to know a pine tree -- or anything else -- as it is,m without having to think about it, would be to know one's secure connections with the fluid essence of life.

I'm not even sure how I would go about "knowing something as it is." The very statement contradicts the idea. To "go about" something suggests the passage of time, and a method of action. But the kind of knowing I mean is instantaneous, unmethodical, not formulaic. It's something like holding up two fingers, and knowing "two" without having to count.

Can you imagine such a way of knowing as a way of life? I scarcely can. I'm too self-conscious. It seems to me, in fact, that it's not the world that calls for theories so much as our self-consciousness. I don' mean mere shyness, or fear of embarrassment, but selfm -consciousness -- an awareness of one's isolated identity, one's life apart from the superrational unity of the world.

This is not a new idea. It gained great stature in the 19th century (as seen in the influence of William Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode"), while its antecedents can be found centuries earlier. More even than Wordsworth, though, I think of Emily Dickinson and her poem "Further in summer than the birds." Ostensibly a meditation on the "minor nation" or crickets in a late summer evening, the poem presents the problem of human inability to know -- really knowm -- the world. No ordinance be seen So gradual the grace A pensive custom it becomes Enlarging loneliness.

This second stanza, for example, confronts the problem of grasping the identity and variety of life apart from merely human perception and opinion. We see, or rather hear, the crickets' outward show. We do not know what "ordinances" or impulsions -- divine, natural, or otherwise -- propel the minor nation of crickets into the life they lead. Their "grace" is "gradual." The grace, or blessedness, by which they receive life, is not vividly affirmed; it is obscure, hard to pin down, creeping up with all the suddenness of dusk. This obscure grace, according to Dickinson, leads us to think aboutm the odd mass, the odd ucstoms of the crickets. As we reflect, muse, do everything but know,m we find new evidence for our loneliness as a species. The fact, for Dickinson, is human-kind, conscious of its separation from the world, striving to realize knowledge that it does not have.

Who can answer such a lamentation? In a sense a rational answer is hardly any help, since reasoning tends to sharpen the distinction of self and world. But there are answers; there are directions away from self-consciousness which yet preserve the integrity of the knower. I think of Theodore Roethke's poem "All Morning," in which the lives of the creatures he describes take on an uncanny clarity, a reality beyond analysis. Roethke's subject -- the birds on his lawn -- becomes a vein of communion between his inner world and the world at large. Combining straightforward observations with astonishingly distant yet appropriate metaphors, and with crisscrossing references to time and cultures present and past, Roethke achieves an effect at once quite concrete and unearthly. While the poem must be read in its entirety to convey its knowledge, even a single citation offers some of this insight:

A delirium of birds!

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Peripheral dippers come to rest on the short grass,

Their heads jodd-jodding like pigeons;

The gulls, the gulls far from their waves

Rising, wheeling away with harsh cries,

Coming down on a patch of lawn.. . .

It is neither spring nor summer: it is Always,

With towhees, finches, chickadees, California quail,

wood doves. . .

Roethke's birds are hre and now, there and before, everwhere, unique, and arrestingly vivid. The exist, not as objects to be investigated, but as clear communications to the mind of the poet: they blossom from inscrutable facts into fluid yet discreet beings. Roethke's poem, in fact, is not merely an accretion of disparate details, but a blossoming -- a fulfillment of knowledge achieved through the common spirit of created beings.

But progress is a matter of degree. I still do not know pine trees as Roethke knows birds. I am wary of losing my sense of self. Whatever its value, I cling to it as a known quantity. As Emily Dickinson realized, that pondering, theorizing self is both a comfort and a constriction. It comforts by loudly proclaiming its own existence; yet it constricts by declaring itself a purely finite "knower", distant from the object of its contemplation.

Sure knowledge comes, I believe, as the self begins to quiet its claims of separateness and finity. The spirit of life is, to our senses, both an informing and a transforming spirit. As physicist Fritjof Capra has noted, the information that the "ah-ha" of knowledge provides seems to transform both the observer and the observed, revealing a reality at once more profound and more radiant than we usually experience. This transformation is freeing and exalting , lifting the human estimation of life closer to its grand domain. Dickinson herself evidently came to this idea, for she has the last word: in a late peom she concludes, "What liberty a loosened spirit brings?"