“i hope i die warmed by the life that i tried to live” –Nikki Giovanni
The regent honeyeaters of Australia have been dealing with a serious problem. It started in the usual way––with their massive disappearances, caused by habitat destruction; but this is a different problem, one left to those remaining. Apparently, there aren’t enough mature birds around to teach the young males to sing. The new guys are doing their best, imitating the songs of other birds and sometimes improvising here and there, but the females of the species are listening for some very specific notes. If she doesn’t hear them, mating season can’t go on as usual. The problem is raising alarms among ornithologists worldwide. One solution is to bring some birds in on a sort of contract basis, like visiting professors. Early trials of this method are promising.
Humans have a hard time resisting the impulse toward anthropomorphism, zoomorphism, and most other inclinations toward turning a given fact about the natural world around something applicable to human behavior. As one, I can’t help thinking about all the time we’ve ever wasted teaching anyone anything except with the impulse toward song at the center. Doing or not doing this becomes a matter of species survival. Maintaining protected spaces for development and nourishing of song becomes a matter of fundamental security. Maintaining an ecosystem in order to ensure that an emerging song, when it finally surfaces, will not be drowned in a constant din of noise, becomes a matter of painstaking vigilance, as with the protection of any species of newborn life, anywhere.
The opposite of weed is welcome: meaning, someone is asking for or seeking out the thing. Because someone is always seeking out the thing other than what is abundantly here. As in, there is the prize. Here is the weed. The weeds are abundantly here, but the prized harvest is elsewhere; there are the treasures, there the celebration. To mean something was to be somewhere Far Away, glimpsed for a moment. Invasive species must have looked like such a harvest, in the moments before anyone figured out what they were.
I learned about this the first time I ever picked weeds–– I called them flowers, then; I didn’t know any better–– that were abundant in the yard. I was barefoot, bending down, starting with the delicate yellow petals of mustard, bright faces turned up, offering themselves.
I dropped to my knees at the sight of them, pulled carefully as close to the earth as I could, taking only three ––a round number, my grandmother’s trinity of beginning, now and ever after, and then––farther from the concrete sidewalk, I found the dancing orchard grasses, their wild heads extending like Fourth of July sparklers from their stems.
I laughed to meet them, and they laughed back, waving in rowdy groups, loitering along the neighbor’s wall, telling raucous jokes and cracking roasts about each other’s untamed manes, each one wilder than the next.
There was one group, they could not be separated; when I pulled near the base where they were cracking up, they all came up. They appeared to be willing in chorus, to join the lowly mustard, and me.
There were grasses toward the wildest corner, which were stronger and thicker than the rest. They were very regal and stately, their blades long and wide, slightly furred. I gathered them, too, for balance and symmetry.
I brought them inside, an offering. It is no fun for mothers when they have to break things to their children, like the difference between the world’s leading lenses and their own.
“Those are weeds,” mine told me, quite matter-of-fact. Still, she graciously accepted, filling a dixie cup with half an inch of water and placing my motley bouquet inside, for display at the kitchen table for the remainder of the afternoon.
The import of these words rolled as quickly off of me as anything else. It wasn’t until much later, after at least a decade of school, that I considered them again, as the first lesson in something about established orders.
“What are weeds?” I had asked.
“They are the plants no one wants,” she told me, careful to add that such prejudice did not apply here, where the weeds were proudly displayed, for a whole afternoon, in the water of a dixie cup.
I had so little practice at the time, with rules for the classification of lives. How some were deemed worthy and others worthy of execution by committee and pesticide. School was coming, and I would have many more opportunities to learn how the living, examined under the lens of the machine, could be sorted and separated into categories of prized and rejected, in ways that could indefinitely keep us from ourselves.
Now when I think of it, I am grateful to be old enough to have encountered the sort of living that makes me understand the way that opposing truths may breathe side by side, like the unnecessary and the desperately sought; like salvation and discarded; like the thing that you meant to get rid of, and the thing that was saving your blind and desperate life, all along, with the calm of knowing what was once, is now, and ever would be, in this world of never-ending limits of what may.
Once, studying some recurring questions, I encountered a phrase: Be the hero of your own life.
Correction. He did have a few words; he just didn’t seem to string them together into anything that sounded like a sentence. While we were marching, I could make out something like, “Yes, Success! Yes! Are you . . . ready to rumble?!!!”
He shouted the word “Legacy!” in a similar manner, but with a more elaborate percussive element.
The attempt at – (what was that, anyway? making an impression? branding? was it meant to be instructive?) whatever it was, would likely have landed much differently on someone less porous, less susceptible to wonder about where her body ends and the next one began. It might have been recounted fondly as one of those turning point events so popular in American films, as in: “I was just sitting there, or dancing in a circle with no discernible ambition and then––Whammo! Blinded by the light and a sudden potent animal heat, I was moved to the summit!”
Of what? One might ask, but this is often wasted breath. If so inclined, it’s probably best to step back and simply regain what breath can be had, given the prevalence of such attacks by the spirited and hairy successful creatures, lauded throughout the land for their immense strength and variety of name brand merchandise.
You can know them by their talk: by their obsessions with legacies, their playbooks of endgames, their hostility towards doubt in all forms.
For a carrier of other bodies, the points of endings, like the points of beginnings, were equally irrelevant and often not even on the map, if there was one, which started either in the branching alveoli, or the ventricles (Which one? Right, left? Upper or lower? And which came first, arteries or veins?) or in the sound of a mother’s heartbeat, or her own, or her child’s, and if most of this is water, where would I find the source? Do I go back to Eden, the four rivers, or further, to some original droplets of cosmic condensation?
There were good reasons to struggle with the question of beginnings, which naturally impacted the question of focus, and, regarding various inquiries around one’s own life, where exactly it was.
A better suggestion, in my case, might have been, Come here. Look ––for example, at the aspen, to notice the unseen roots. I might have been instructed to sit and listen, in good company, which I did ––and I was, eventually, and there wasn’t a hero among us, only a song in the distance and the waiting, and everything that mattered
This is for the quiet behind your words, the songs vibrating in the back corners of your silences, for the shapes you have been noticing in the ceiling after dark; how they move in your nameless mystery. This is for the impulse to close your eyes when you’ve had enough of looking, to find the shadows just as present as the bursts and squiggles of colored luminescence spiraling across the eyelid-curtains after you stop watching.
This is for your still-seeing even then, for the way you knew you could fly like you knew a mailbox could morph into a griffin; a streetlamp into a vine, from which you might swing across a rising river and drop safely on dry land — to wave at your enemies, scratching their heads.
This is for the rippled reflections over water when you touched it for the first time — really touched it — feeling it as babies do: Now it’s a boundary, now you’re breaking through; now it’s a horizon; now it’s swallowing your hand, your knowing screams of “Aaaaaah! Ha! Oooh!” against each splash. This is for your hand — the speaker of the moment, do you remember? Chubby and sure of itself without even fine motor skills, already fluent in an ecstatic dialect, intimate with joys of pressing itself against what it cannot hold.
Considering how you beheld, before your teeth had grown in, the wide embrace of infinite above you every time you looked up, how you wondered about the possibility that someone on an invisible and hypothetical planet, orbiting a just-visible or hypothetical star, in a possibly habitable zone, might at this moment or in a parallel twin moment, light years away, looking back with its parent, asking, Are we alone?
––and, suspecting not, how you looked and kept looking, sought and kept seeking, ransacked the monochromatic track-lit waiting room where the tired skeptics sat in comfortable clothes–– arms crossed, smirking; reminding them how when you started looking, no one (not one!) had even found a planet ––yet!
–– around any of these other stars; considering the calm with which you pointed out the problem of certain assumptions that the over-confident doubters were always making about the impossibility of your life’s work; about its wasteful utter futility, how you pointed out their blindness to life beyond the water we are so familiar with because it is in us, and the fallacy of assuming that what is not in us may not exist as a viable life, pointing to the wild, raucous late-night parties of extremophiles bubbling over in other impossible places like the cooling liquid of nuclear reactors; how, speaking of stardust and star stuff, we are part of a billion year lineage of its nomadic essence;
how you wandered after and in it, recklessly grounded against the leering jealousy of the waiting-room skeptics waiting for your failure, waiting for your infinite motion to stop, for you to decide to finally let the limits of your present reach preclude your future reaching or to deny the fact that a stretching embrace of what you could not possibly begin to hold was always and still the essential orientation of your organism, and finally admit your discouragement; how, with both feet beneath you, you observed with the same calm how, in a billions-year legacy of wandering out, out, and into this human-ness, your arrival––our arrival–– had happened only a blink ago;
and because you saw fit to remind that if someone looking for proof of the existence of ocean fish were to come up fishless on a first attempt to harvest one, using a twelve-ounce glass, from any of the world’s seven oceans, one attempt per sea, only to decide that fish were nothing more than myths we invent to feel less alone against the ocean’s expanse, that this would be a premature decision––not to mention, a poor survival strategy;
for highlighting the tyranny of light speed regarding the length of time it takes for a signal emitted by one body to reach the perception of another, reminding us that, after all, some of us just read the Antigone of several millennia ago, and what about the aurochs on the caves of Lascaux; what about what we knew before assuming this always-assuming human form, this particular constellation of ancient dust,
assembled just so in this moment, right now; as if to imply that the way to balance your urgency is with equal parts empathy for the speed of the living, for the devastating wait, slow and deliberate as any melting ice cap, of living on a planet that spins a thousand miles an hour;
the vastness of your patience with what you call a primordial mixture of hydrogen and helium that evolves for so long that it begins to ask where it came from and how you manage to understand that now is no time to stop looking, now is no time to stuff our have-beens into our ears, dulling our is-nows and forestalling the conception of our ever-shall-bes
––Thank you, because sometimes I need to be reminded backwards and forwards, and welcomed back again, into a space where I remember how to look, when I am meaning to see.
Jill Tarter is the co-founder of the SETI institute. Her life inspired the character played by Jodi Foster in the 1997 film Contact, an adaptation of Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel of the same name. I was inspired by a wonderful interview with her, in a recent episode of the On Being podcast Krista Tippett.