Wednesday, 13 August 2008
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.