Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Who Knows?


In a couple of weeks the bar tailed Godwits will leave Alaska to make a journey lasting about 9 days, across the Pacific to New Zealand. Some will be adult birds who have made the trip before; they will return to precisely the same beaches they left from some time in March. Some will be juveniles who will, for the first time, find their way here across 12,000 km of empty ocean. This is astonishing enough, but a recent study by the University of Groningen, which involved implanting tiny transmitters into the abdominal cavities of some birds found something almost beyond comprehension. Last year the overwhelming majority of birds set off, from their various departure points, so that their flight paths would take advantage of a weather system 1500km to the south, and which the birds would not encounter for several days. How does something with a brain the size of a thimble do that?

The cop out answer, "by instinct" just won't do. (So what, exactly is instinct, and how, in this case does it work? See? We're right back where we started.) Neither will postulating some sort of spooky action at a distance, such as "they are in touch with the spirit of the Earth", perhaps or "God tells them." Attributing things we don't understand to God is a lazy explanation reducing "God" to a sort of gap filler - and one who will obviously get smaller as knowledge increases. The word "God" thus becomes a portmanteau synonym for "Gosh, that's a tough one, I'll have to get back to you on that". This approach also diminishes God's universe, making the universe into some sort of machine separate from and empty of its maker. The universe, in other words, works by explainable processes but God is in the other bits, the mysterious ones. Yeah right.

Godwits must have a perfectly natural way of doing their weather forecasting. The fact that it is natural does not make it one whit less holy or less Godly. They must have some way of sensing things that we don't. Perhaps the small variations in pressure associated with distant storms. Or the smells on the air. Of the tiny fluctuations in the earths magnetic field which, unbeknown to us, affect the weather. Or some sort of light phenomena in parts of the optical spectrum invisible to us. Who knows? Indeed, that's precisely the point. Who knows?

We see the world by virtue of a limited number of senses acting on a small range of the possible information available, and processing that information in a number of biologically, culturally and personally restricted ways. The world is a great deal more vast and mysterious than the limited version of it we construct inside our heads and label "reality". In the first week of September the first tired and thin Godwits will plonk down in the Estuary near Sumner, the Firth of Thames and in one or two other places before dispersing throughout the country. They will arrive because of sensory information that, to a godwit, is entirely unremarkable, but which should make us quake at the mystery and wonder of it and remove our shoes. The world is charged with the grandeur of God and we would see it if only our little certainties didn't obscure the view.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Following your entry "Be reasonable" you lead us with the most extraordinary vision humility and awe... into the natural- unknown - and the holy.Thank you.

Anonymous said...

What?! – I’m sure we all see the grandeur. Isn’t this one of the reasons why we write music and poetry and indulge in endless other navel gazing activities precisely because we DO see the grandeur and want to know, understand and get closer to the source?

VenDr said...

We ALL see the grandeur? You move in different circles than me, and your circle obviously doesn't include me, most of the time.

I wish more of the people you know were on our city council which pumps our city's effluent straight into the Pacific.

Anonymous said...

I think the councillors do see the grandeur, they just lack the moral imperative and courage to do anything about it. Reasonable people use their reason to bring to bear on these problems and act accordingly.

Your council sounds like a bunch of unreasonable people lacking in moral fibre, or am I being too harsh?
Perhaps they just lack imagination.

VenDr said...

They would tell you they lack the money. It's an interesting case in point.

At the moment, just when the future of large numbers of people jetting around the world to watch sports matches seems limited, our small city is in the process of building a new sports stadium at the cost of several hundred million dollars. To do this, we have to put aside projects like an ecologically sound transport system or a new sewage system. The councilors are all rational people - folk who have by and large had successful careers in business or the professions. The basis on which the decision was made is on the grounds of things like "progress" "not allowing Dunedin to become a backwater" "becoming a centre for sporting excellence". The council commissioned a $2 million report on economic feasibility, and its findings were in line with many overseas studies, all showing stadiums in small cities are not economically viable. This did not stop them giving "the future economic well being of the city" as a reason to proceed.

That is, the stadium is justified almost entirely on non-rational grounds, but opposition to the stadium is derided as "reactionary" "emotive" "anti progressive" "greenie".

It is being built very rationally however, and no doubt will be rationally administered. And all the while the sewage continues to float away off Tomahawk Beach

Anonymous said...

I think you need someone like Brian Turner for mayor. I will send you a newspaper piece about him I read here last week. He has the ability to use applied reason well mixed with imagination, liberally sprinkled with creativity. Another prophet without honour in his own backyard (I'm talking here of backyard NZ and its GDP driven ethics).

Anonymous said...

So, a commission for you, Kelvin, in your desire to see the charged grandeur of God through Her Godwits (how else?!). Take your camera to Warrington when the first of the bar-tailed pilgrims arrive there - and show us...that we too, may see anew, that the world can contain both a stadium-obsessed council and these messengers of holiness on a clean, sandy, wind-ruffled strand....Will you accept?
J

VenDr said...

I never knew that Godwits had a meeting point at Warrington. I was Vicar of Sumner for a while, and was familiar with them there. At the appointed time they would turn up from all over the country, gorge themselves on cockles and then, again at the appointed time, all disappear together.

OK. I'll go and take a look. Bird photography isn't really my thing, as it requires very long and very expensive lenses but I'll see what I can arrange.

Anonymous said...

watch for the sign welcoming them at Blueskin Bay. Handpainted job in Maori and English. We watched them at the far end of the beach at the last church camp!

Kathryn said...

I would have thought that
'decision was made is on the grounds of things like "progress" "not allowing Dunedin to become a backwater"'
was a very good reason to ensure that the sewage of the city is dealt with efficiently and effectively, and not polluting the ocean nearby and its inhabitants (which some of these wonderful birds will no doubt be feeding on eventually).
On the one hand we are marvelling at your wonderful story of these fantastic birds, and their incredible journeys; and on the other we are disgusted by the human mentality of bigger and better 'things'and of not taking care of our world and its creatures.
Politicians are often such a disappointment.

Katherine said...

The few politicians (extending the term to local body councilors too) I have met have been, frankly, not very bright. But I am far too much of an idealist. Fancy me thinking the people who run the country should be clever.