I’m sorry we all know so little

Mississippi River Gorge
waxing crescent moon; overcast and 21

From the New York Times, obituaries, 12/28/16

Vera Rubin, who transformed modern physics and astronomy with her observations showing that galaxies and stars are immersed in the gravitational grip of vast clouds of dark matter, died on Sunday in Princeton, N.J. She was 88….

During one of those flurries of excitement [created by a potential new discovery], in 2009, Dr. Rubin, who liked to stick to the facts, kept her cool. “I don’t know if we have dark matter or have to nudge Newton’s laws or what,” she said at the time.

She added: “I’m sorry I know so little. I’m sorry we all know so little. But that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it?”

I just heard the ancient, laughing cackle of a pileated woodpecker. Though large, unmistakable, black and white birds with a vibrant red crown, they are more often heard than seen. Commonly referred to as shy, they also have loud and piercing voices that seem to carry long distances. Hearing and seeing one still startles me with sweet surprise and awe.

There is a pair whose territory includes this stretch of the Mississippi River. I have been told that the narrow, four or five mile long gorge, flanked by urban neighborhoods, can only support one nesting pair. Given the size of the territory they have to protect, a large voice is useful in keeping trespassers at bay.

And of course, large body size correlates with the need for a homestead spacious enough to provide the necessary food, in this case carpenter ants chief among its diet, for a family of three or, sometimes, four. It’s difficult to imagine how many carpenter ants it takes to feed a family of three large woodpeckers for a year, or how many insect nests get ripped up, torn apart, decimated, scattered and rebuilt in the process. And that “destruction,” having been intricately and intimately woven into the myriad other process of these woods for thousands of years, has an effect on every other process, being and thing in the forest, right down [or up!] to the layers of ancient sedimentary rock that forms the walls of the gorge: the owls that nest in the newly formed cavities, the mice and voles that feed on the scattered ant eggs, and the return of nutrients in each chip of wood thrown down to the river bottom soil, among countless others. In effect, the destruction of an ant nest, unsettling as it is for the ants, has inconceivably numerous benefits for this stretch of the river and all that is dynamically interconnected with it.

The bird’s large body also corresponds to a big set of lungs. So it all fits nicely together in an evolutionary narrative, linking body size to territory to adaptive physiology and social interactions.

The raucous cackle of a pileated woodpecker
a sound turned into a noun
a noun into a story

All we really know
is the ephemera
rising and disappearing
like brush strokes
in the mind
no beginning and no end
vast and inconceivable
in darkness or in light

I look down at the brown snake at the bottom of the gorge
relentlessly and imperceptibly devouring layers of ancient rock
laid down by imagined rivers and seas

I look down upon a narrow flood plane
with its gray-brown trunks and gnarled treetops
silhouetted against the white snow blanketing the ground

Caw, clink, cackle
a sound becomes a noun
a noun a story
but that’s kind of the fun, isn’t it