Friday, September 11, 2015

Listening to the Corn

While reading a book on the history of physics, Pythagoras’ Trousers by Margaret Wertheim, I encountered a bit about Barbara McClintock. If you do not know about her, she is a woman scientist who was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.  She lived from 1902 to 1992.  Through her study of corn, she found that the genetic code of an organism is not a static blueprint.  It is a flexible, dynamic code responding to the surrounding environment.  This discovery, called “jumping genes” revolutionized genetics although at the time she was working, her research was rejected.  She however, kept working in obscurity for forty years, believing in her own work even though as a woman scientist, she was often dismissed.  Like many other scientists, she was so far advanced that others could not believe her. She says this:  “If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off…no matter what they say.”

McClintock says that she knew her corn plants intimately and found great pleasure in knowing them.  She also says that she came to her ideas by “listening” to her corn plants and seeing the world from their perspective. 

I have a painted gourd an artist friend gifted me many years ago.  It is Corn Woman watching hercorn kernal grow.   Whenever I look at it, I am reminded of this process McClintock is also speaking about – of listening/observing so closely.  The corn woman also reminds me of time, of the time it takes to observe and listen.  It took McClintock forty years. 
corn grow.

I write this on a bad smoke day from the rough fire.  Perhaps by the time you are reading it, the fire will be more contained and the skies clearer.  In addition to the discomfort of smoke and heat, the fire raises deeper thoughts and emotions around the collective human contribution to a landscape that is in trouble, as we all know and live with all the time.  One thread of that is the drought.  Last April I made a kind of pilgrimage to Cedar Grove to see the many ponderosa pines that are/were dying – weakened by the drought and then overcome by the bark beetle.  As the fire burns through the mountains around and toward Cedar Grove, these dead and dying trees are fuel. 

As far as I understand what I read and listen too, though droughts are a part of California history, this one is made worse by global warming.  I share human responsibility then, in part, for the intensity of the fire even as I am uncomfortable from the smoke. 

And so I ponder the perspective, not unique or original with McClintock, but beautifully articulated by her life, of listening to trees and water and animals – of continuing, as so many have already begun, to attempt to take into myself, my very being, a sense of what something might look like from their perspective. 

Listening in this way seems an almost lost art in our modern world.  While I don’t know that yoga, as it was practiced by our yoga ancestors, saw such listening as an obvious goal, I do think the practice lends itself to the kind of listening I am speaking of.  Asana, though only one of the many ways one practices yoga, does, I believe, begin to develop listening tools.  In the repetition of postures over a long period of time with attention to alignment one begins to integrate the postures into the body on a cellular level.  When practicing asana, one is observing and listening constantly to the body if the practice is done with careful attention. In this way we train our minds toward focus and attending to – toward listening.  We also train out some of the clutter or movement (vrittis) in the mind so that clarity and space are available to observe and listen from.

Barbara McClintock, Bear and Tiger
Recently I was sitting in my morning meditation on my outdoor yoga deck. I heard footsteps in the grass that were louder than the quail I am used to hearing.  I opened I my eyes to find myself looking straight into the face of a bear about eight feet away coming toward me.  I convinced her/him to go another direction with some hand clapping and my loud voice.  But the experience has lingered in my mind.  Over the next few days I learned that after a period of not seeing many bears in Three Rivers, there have been a lot of bear around the last few weeks.  It seems they are coming down from the fire and the drought.  What is the perspective of the bear if I were to be able to listen carefully enough and what might that mean in my own life?

A story comes into my mind about a Buddhist monk who was walking through the forest.  He came upon a mother tiger and cubs. They were starving.  He gave his life to become food for them so that they might live.  Do not worry, dear reader, I have no plans to give my life up to the bear coming down from the drought and fire but I do wonder what it might be like for humans to give up something of our lives for the animals or trees, to keep them more fully alive and healthy. How might we listen to the many species who are dying out every day?