Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stephen J. Gould and the Fig Tree


Stephen Jay Gould was on my mind.  And happy I was that I remembered his name.  One of the reasons it was so easy to give up my teaching gig after forty years in the classroom was that I had reached the point where in the middle of a lecture I was unable to withdraw from the depths of my memory banks, kind of like river banks full of the mud of the spring thaw, the names of authors about whom I wanted to share information in class. Gould was one of the many whose descriptions of science I wanted to share as literary masterpieces with my students.  He was no where to be found.  I had lost him in the morass of clinging starchy tapioca invading my brain.

And so in the midst of my morning musing, there was the New Yorker, the editor of Natural History Magazine, along with his evolutionary biology appetite, having morning tea in New York City's Natural History Museum, you know, the museum cafeteria with a blue whale swimming just under the ceiling.  Gould exists today only in his writings and in our memories.   His creative non-fiction science, his undisturbed logic which in a sort of unbelievable morass of slides from one part of his knowledge into another, his awareness of the complications and associations that informed his understanding of the world that which always I found alluring, the reason I still carry at least one paper book copy of his work where ever I travel just in case I find world watching a tad overbearing.  I can always  open to any page and suddenly find myself in another world, his mind.  Kind of like the movie John Malkovich.  Only  Gould’s brain is far  more intriguing and convoluted as it is, still engaging and informative. He has  entertained and transfixed for many years.  I subscribed to Natural History Magazine just so I could read his editorials and then bought the same bound in their own volumes over the years.  If you asked me whose writing I most enjoyed in all of my life, Gould along with Lewis Thomas would be in the top three. I have to admit that Stephenson and David Mitchell make  fine fourths for my bridge table of the mind. I think of them on early mornings when the fruit bats are colliding as they happily munch the tidy, tiny figs from our mammoth  Morton Bay Fig tree and the palm nuts from the front garden Cocos palms. 

Oops, another stream enters the mind. It is my duty when the sun rises this morning to rescue my new winter garden seedlings from the rain of palm nuts the bats lodge from their bundles. A less than tidy overload of green cocos nuts scramble throughout the garden, sometimes breaking the stalks of other native plants eking a living beneath the skinny, swaying palm fronds.

But, what of Stephen Jay Gould?  His words, his complex sentences that wind around ideas as varied as baseball, his favorite American past time, and typewriter keyboards as well as the color of flamingos, dance in my brain sometimes confusing me, always challenging my understanding as well as delighting my sense of how words work to convey associations between evolutionary biology, a figment of Gould's imagination, and the rest of reality.