We, humans, are meaning-makers. (Okay, I borrowed this phrase … meaning-making … from a seminar title on my roster of classes at Harvard. But it feels, today, exactly true.) We read and interpret signs seen in our environment, whether rural or urban, outward or internal.
We impose emotion, logic, and purpose onto observations that might otherwise seem simple, random … predictable but elemental at their core … occurrences not moved by intention, but simply by innate laws of physics or nature of being.
Humans are storytellers: pattern-finding creatures. We discover rhythm and significance in every billow of wind, bluster of clouds, curl of sea, rise of flame, furrow of soil, concavity of stone. We see it in the dappled knuckles of tree roots or the dusty tornado of discarded paper and old city dirt whisked into storm shapes by blasts of air on an urban street. We read it in the spiral of our own fingerprints on a foggy surface, the span of our own toe and heel prints in the sand.
Perhaps not everything is ordered or ordained. Perhaps not everything is intentional or layered with deeper truths. I leave you to draw this conclusion in the context of your own belief systems.
Yet it is part of our human nature to find tales and explanations all around us. For instance, as people raised in a time of science that looks below the surface, we know that even when everything seems still, on a cellular level, particles are always in motion. Nothing is quite what it seems.
Everything around us and inside us is apt for our harvest of tales, of interpretation. One friend, Miranda Updike, reflected on the empty corner where the towering elm has been removed from Ipswich’s landscape. It had long shaped her childhood home, and been a character in her father’s writing. After it was gone, and we sat at Zumi’s mourning it, she said, “The absence of the tree is loud.”
Even the lack of something, its own passage, can be a story.
At first, we see only bits and pieces. Shards and remnants. The raw cut-down stump of an ancient elm. Or uglier things. The doggy-bag abandoned on the corner lawn, refuse in its sweaty folds. The bullet hole in a stained glass window. The canted spin of a too-small rusty bicycle, tossed to one side. The torn inner section of a week-old Sunday newspaper, its news already irrelevant.
Then, as we walk, collecting such detritus in our pockets, but also in our minds and hearts, this age-old magic happens. Something else, something more emerges. We find a line of meaning in it. A pattern.
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
— Mary Oliver