Note: I wrote this little essay about a month ago, when New England was still under a thick shawl of snow. I lost the essay, and just found it again. So here it is.
The day after New England’s first blizzard of the season, I saw tracks on the snow. The snow was 2-3 feet thick, and except where I’d ploughed a canyon through it, was smooth as a blanket. Looking carefully, though, I saw a single line gouged in the smoothness, from the elm tree all the way to the covered porch. There is a space under the porch that is home to a mysterious animal, which may be a possum. (When my dog was alive I always knew, from his excited sniffing, when our tenant was home). There were rabbit tracks all the way to the front door, and a more delicate tracery of bird footprints. These spoke to me of recent histories almost as explicitly as if each track, each footprint, was a letter or pictogram of a language inscribed on the featureless white page of snow.
That Nature speaks – that animate beings and inanimate things communicate – is perhaps no mystery to the scientist or artist. The world is full of stories, although we humans seem to be disproportionately tuned to the exclusively human ones. But animals, trees, protons and stars are always telling stories, and it is our loss that our selective deafness shuts out these other tales. To the naturalist, the nibbled tips of a wild plant, or the change in flow of a stream, hint of certain animal presences. To a geologist walking through a canyon, the colors, striations and textures of rocks tell a story of the earth’s past. To a particle physicist looking at particle tracks, the intangible mysteries of the sub-atomic world are, for that moment and context, revealed. There is an aesthetics of science that is missed by most non-scientists, and sometimes by scientists as well. Ultimately what pure scientists do is to listen to, and interpret through mathematics and conceptual structure-building, the stories Nature tells us.
The stories told by inanimate things is truly fascinating, and is part of my work on creative new ways of teaching physics, but that is a whole other post. Today, while snowbound during yet another storm too soon after the last one, I want to think about communication and language in the context of our non-human fellow earthlings.
I’ve seen cartoons about the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, on the “Are We Alone?” theme. A human looks through a telescope at the stars, wondering if our species is an anomaly in the universe. What I’ve always found ironic about this trope is that we are surrounded by other beings that are constantly communicating. I am a fan of the search for life beyond Earth, don’t get me wrong — I think that the huge numbers of exoplanets discovered on a near-daily basis indicate that life, (‘intelligent’ or otherwise according to our standards), may be rather common outside of our little rock – but my point is that we are so arrogantly or ignorantly unaware of all that is being spoken around us that it would be laughable if it wasn’t also sad.