Saturday, March 03, 2007

Don't Think About It So Much

The problem with diversity is that there is just too much of it to keep track of. If everything were the same than it would be much easier to identify the differences.

For example the other night at my men's garden club meeting we had a speaker talking about our state's native trees. She presented a slide show to illustrate her presentation beginning with a photo of the new growth in a previously denuded area. They were pine trees - White Pines in fact. We could tell they were that species, she said, because the needles appear in groups of five.

The picture clearly showed us that. And to help us figure out these firs in the future, we should remember that five is also the number of letters in the word "white" - even though other pines have quinta-clustered needles, and all of their names do not have five letters. Nor do all pines with five letter names have that number of needles. And needles of the Red Pine - another picture - which has three letters in its name, appear singly, i.e. in groups (?) of one. There are apparently no pine trees with single character names - not even hieroglyphic ones to replace "The tree formerly known as..."

My mind meanwhile was still back on the very first snapshot - the one that showed, from a distance, short evergreens with a few other start-up bushes and trees along the periphery of a weed-infested field. I was busy congratulating myself for being able to pick out the conifers in the crowd. And thinking that all of the distinctions that would be pointed out during this talk would be interesting and informative - for the duration, but not much beyond it.

It's sort of like the squirrels that Mars and I see on a daily basis - some (seven at the moment) in our own yard. Others as we go about our day. We both assign them names ("Oh look, there's Carlotta") - the joke being that since we really can't tell one gray rodent from another the names are totally arbitrary, with the same name undoubtedly being assigned to a different animal every single time. And each squirrel probably receiving a different epithet whenever we see him or her.

Occasionally a tree rodent will appear with a blatantly obvious identifier. At the moment, for example, we have one with a tail from which a three-inch chunk of fur is missing. Still I at least don't peruse the nether quarters of any critter before I proclaim, "Here comes Geno. Or Allison. Or Clytemnestra." The consequences of misidentifying "Chunky" are nonexistent, for us and, more importantly, for him. Or possibly her. (I really mean it when I say that I haven't scoured the hindquarters of our yard-guests that carefully.)

The whole squirrel name thing is, in fancy terms, a "distinction without a difference":
"...a type of argument where one word or phrase is preferred to another, but results in no difference to the final outcome...In legal terminology it means a change in definition which does not change the set which is defined. For example changing 'unseparated married men' to 'males who have a non-separated spouse' is a distinction without a difference."

Our relationship with the squirrels obviously does not depend upon our ability to distinguish one of the animals from another. It is instead contingent upon our continuing to supply them with nourishment in the form of sunflower seeds, kernels of corn, and cakes of suet - just as we have to generations of their equally misnamed predecessors. And will furthermore to their successors - ad infinitum (I know, wishful thinking).

And likewise the squirrels' interconnection with us requires as little awareness of differences in us as they demonstrate daily in their indiscriminate ingesting of our offerings.

This lack of a need for drawing distinctions obviously does not apply to everything in our world. Reminders that "Leaves of three, let it be!" and "Red touching yellow, dangerous fellow!" help keep us away from both poisonous ivy and reptiles.


But in general both Mars and I have tended to under-analyze rather than agonize. That is pretty much the way we selected our house, our cars and (probably) each other.
Our gardens are filled with perennial flowers whose shade or sun preferences we know, but little else (including their names) other than from whom we got them.

Maybe it was because our academic backgrounds (both Philosophy majors) and our former careers (Information Technology geeks) required such extreme attention to detail that we didn't have the energy to devote that same level of focus to the "real world". From our successes in both of these areas it is evident that when we need to be discerning and fastidious we definitely are.

But now Mars and I retired. And therefore free to pick and choose when to turn our perspicacious abilities on or off. We realize that if we don't use it we'll lose it - so total intellectual abstinence is not an option. Currently we are developing web sites for two of the organizations in which we volunteer. As well as writing ruminations like this one.

And that is pretty much about all of the thinking I plan to do on this subject. Besides I've got to go now. Mars just told me that Roberto is appearing at the sunflower seed feeder, and it has been long time since I've seen him - at least by that name.

(Roberto in repose...or perhaps Rachel.)

1 comment:

monica said...

"Leaves of three — makes great TP!"