Words and Experience

On my back fence a vine grows, with fairly large heart-shaped leaves, light green in the sunlight and a deeper shade in the shadows. The leaves are spaced alternately along the stems, and each one has a serrated edge or margin. A central vein grows to the tip of the leaf and smaller veins branch off and extend to the margins. The veins make a delicately embossed pattern on the plain green leaf. 

At least for today, I don’t care what the vine is called or to what category of plants it belongs. It is enough to see the green of the leaves and see the vein-embossed, saw-toothed little hearts that they make. If I knew the name, would I have walked over to look closely at the details? Maybe. But I might have thought, “Oh, that’s what it is,” and my curiosity could have ended with the name. I could have remembered that the leaves are alternate and have serrated edges and bypassed a few moments of beauty and symmetry.

After a lifetime of nature study, I’m not likely to swear off an interest in the names and classification of species. I’m just trying to guard against a preoccupation with names and concepts that can pull me away from directly experiencing the living thing itself. I’m trying to remember that the words are no substitute for seeing form and color, feeling texture and thickness, and smelling the sweet, musky, or other aromas of nature. The words and the experience are two different things, each of them valuable, and neither one a substitute for the other. 

I’m not one of those who dismiss “book-learning” in favor of real-world experience. I really value the verbal concepts we use to understand the world and I love books (and have even written a few). When it comes to the natural world, the people I know whose intellectual understanding is the most thorough are also people who have spent countless hours immersed in nature. They embody the idea that both intellect and experience are of great value.

What I really mean is that we should be able to fully experience nature, opening ourselves directly to it in its raw form before chopping it into fragments that fit within conceptual boxes and covering it with a verbal interface so that we can only contact it through concepts like “turtles of the family Emydidae” or “saprophyte.” In my own wandering outside, I don’t want trees, butterflies, wetlands and sunsets to be less vivid because they are filtered through my intellectual understanding of them.