Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Learning from the Lake

One morning in late July, on the East Coast of the States, I stride off into a forest made by men. I am going for a swim, heading from the ‘wrong side of the park' – with its plexi-glass bodegas and strip of tacky beauty bars – to the plant strewn chic of the Slope; that sweep of mellow brownstones and organic-yoga-coffeeshops that effortlessly exudes the eternal form – the blessing and the curse – of inner-city gentrification. It is not yet hot. The air is barely moist. My footsteps strike the asphalt in the dark iron-lined tunnel where, in the afternoon, the blues of people's voices will echo from the walls. And, as I hurry round the curve that swings out of the tunnel I am suddenly so struck I have to stop.

The lake, folded in a fine mist, spreads itself before me. The shore is fringed with mallow, pink blooms nestling in the mass of green. The trees extend their morning-arms towards the sky and glitter. And, as the thick duckweed water breathes out slowly, on the far side of the shore, where shadows gather in the wood, an explosion of activity, and black birds spill out against the blue. Sometimes, in these rare moments, the resonant silence seems to speak and, even here, in the centre of the city, my bones hum to the heart of the earth. Two swans, four gangly-grey adolescents in tow, glide – as only really swans are able – out from below the bridge. All thoughts of getting to the pool in time are gone. My laps can wait. I walk down to the water.

I find myself a place to perch among the knotted roots and watch. Right at the water’s edge, sunning themselves on semi-submerged peninsulas of concrete, are tiny turtles. Their tentative heads break the water’s surface and, after spending something like an age examining their options, they earnestly embark on their advance. It is clear their time is not like mine. Each lunge forward is punctuated by a pause of statuesque proportions, one limb awkwardly extended, the slightly craning neck, all entirely motionless for minutes. And then, a single stride…a reckless burst of will, which is, once again, almost instantly suspended. The soft morning light congeals around their progress, while, almost mockingly, the sparks of darting dragonflies flash blue and gold across the surface. A heron flaps, low and stately, as it describes a line over the rippled lake and somewhere, on the far-side shore, an echoed caw. The tiny terrapin decides to risk a blink.

By now the birds have accepted my intrusion. The mallards, unperturbed, disembark upon the beach, all waggle-ass and quack. They fuss and preen, while on the ground around me, several tens of fluffy sparrows, alight to bathe. They shimmy in the dirt, the rapid pulse of small birds, scratching as their wings unfold part-way against the earth and flutter. The mallards bob their tails, while along the shore, a mute-brown pair of mates decide to take a turn. They waddle up towards me and the sparrows scatter while they settle down. It is time to take a snooze, the female keeping watch while her partner folds his head against his back. He stills, but the drowse of sun mid-morning makes it hard for her. She droops, her closing lids and softening long neck snaps-back suddenly awake, like so many weary workers on the five-fifteen from Penn. She gives him twenty minutes and then the boredom or frustration is too much. She wakes him with a soft cascade of quacks and they set off. It turns out they are just in time.

From the tunnel's mouth, disgorged onto the lake's slow swoon, comes a horde of humans. They are wearing matching tops, bright yellow shirts that tell us where they’re from, a summer-camp of teenage-kids from over on the Slope. Their instructors shout, waving clipboards as they try and herd them into circles. By the water’s edge, the ducks are braced. The leaders pass out implements, sheets of paper and a pile of plastic tubes, a cry of experimental instructions shreds the silence. Having worked-out their procedures they descend, en masse, onto the shore. The ducks and turtles scarper. The sparrows are, of course, by now, nowhere to be seen. Trudging on the beach the kids bend down towards the water, unscrewing plastic tubes which magically convert small slices of the lake into their samples. They retreat and wait in gaggles on the bank, while instructors distribute among them strips of paper. They are measuring pH. I wonder what it is they want to find. What they hope to learn about this lake by making it a number. What we are telling to our children when we take them to a place as thronged with life as this, and show them only how to quantify the ions of hydrogen within the water.

I am quite annoyed. I ask an instructor passing by what it is (he thinks) they’re doing. I am told, in authoritative tones of self-explanatory importance, that it is ‘Science.’ He starts to turn away, so certain that this single word has settled all and any questions. But I'm not done. What, I want to know, does the pH of the water tell the kids about the lake? What about the birds and animals which have just been scared away? When and where was it decided that 'Science' would not include turtle-observation or the finer points of ornithology? Could the kids have been encouraged to diagram instead the food-web of the lake? He looks at me, of course, as if I'm totally deranged. I persist, and in the end, extract from him some half-arsed story about photosynthesizing duckweed. It’s just his summer job, poor guy. He does not know or care, what the pH says about the lake, or what unreflective calculation says about the world. He, just like the kids, is merely acting-out instructions, a protocol decreed by 'Science' of such power and evident utility that it needs no explanation. Teaching mastery of pure and, in this case, almost purposeless, technique.

Backing carefully away from the crazy-question-lady, the young man rounds up all his charges. And, after shrieks and whistle-blows the clipboard-waving creatures clad in yellow fade away. They leave me vexed. I am vexed by having had my love-in with the lake disturbed, but I am way more vexed by what this snapping of the silence has revealed. That the exercise of measure, and the mastery of method, is now deemed of such significance that when we teach our kids, we don't even wonder what the numbers mean. That were this not the case, we would still be showing them that the nature of this place is most meaningfully engaged by extracting out of it a whole plethora of figures. And that, even when the data does convey, say, the respiring of the lake, or the rate at which it transmutes sunlight into sugar, it will still, and, at the same time, nonetheless conceal. It will not show us sparrows bathing in the dirt, or the gliding of the swans. It will not demonstrate the turtle’s halting progress. And nor will it reveal, that all the while that we were measuring this lake, the life around it stopped. And it was only several minutes after we had gone away, that the turtle’s head appeared again above the water, and, in the resonating silence, the lake exhaled.

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