“Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.” Ann Patchett, State of Wonder
I love the winter season at Stony Brook. The stark landscape seems to magnify the mean and particular, the overlooked and the transparent, while heightening the impact of all that startles and amazes. Today, as I walked the trails, I found myself tempted to go off-course in search of spiny serpents, ungainly reptiles, and a few scrambling arachnids. Not the living species variety, but those frozen in time, caught in a moment of anticipation, sudden regret, or instant folly.
I didn’t know it until later, but I have a ready case of pareidolia (and anthropomorphism) which has been with me since my youth and has stuck by me in old age. I see the familiar in the inanimate. Not just faces, but shapes and forms which seem fundamental to design in nature and myth. I freely acknowledge the humanity in the most mundane of things. It’s a curse… and a blessing.
I invite you to play a game with your children or grandchildren the next time you come to Stony Brook. See who can discover the most amazing dinosaurs in the trunks of trees. The most unusual creatures, real or imagined, forever stuck in a seeming tar pit. An animal body, face or look-alike that is tantalizingly real but merely the product of an advanced imagination. It’s fun and sometimes educational to play this game, but more a source of story and laughter. Such is my good fortune on this day.
First case: dinosaur remains
Who would have thought that creatures so large once roamed the woods and marshes of Bristol Blake?! Here the spine of a stegosaurus surfaces from the depths of mud, rock, and alluvium, its head still buried for other generations to unearth. Perhaps in reaching for some savory wetland plants to feed upon this creature died content with his stomach full and his tail still twitching. For me, he (or she) is an ever-present reminder that creatures of great stature, whether menacing or uplifting, lie always just beneath the filmy depths of the unconscious ready to inspire.
Second case: a snapping turtle no more
Caught in mid-scurry, its carapace seemingly blown away by an errant meteorite or shotgun, this snapping turtle screams at the inherent unfairness of Nature where chance can often times trump reason or morality with respect to survival.
Third case: Maslow’s cobra rising
Though certainly not native to this area, this cobra clearly obeys some local snake charmer’s flute, or better still, his pungi. Are we similarly hypnotized by nearly imperceptible music streaming from within? What notes are being struck by primal fear or longing, as yet unrecognized? How much better to rise up to a deeper music whose source is the Self and whose aim is actualization?!
Fourth case: the moment from reptile to bird
No longer content to roam the messy confines of the marshes, the stability of terra firma, this terrible lizard wanted to fly and seems now to be struck with the thought that such freedom is possible. Who knows whether even now our limbs are similarly aching, our bodies busily preparing for transformations unknown?! Perhaps we will become what we imagine, or more likely what we don’t, whether a product of some spurious gene manipulation or the victim of some machine that we create.
Fifth case: Medusa redux
What angry next of serpents are these that rise out of the bowels of the earth?! Does Medusa lie buried here, her wandering and suffering complete? Surely we can see beyond the horror to the once golden locks that were so alluring to Poseidon and not be turned to stone!
Sixth case: a hummingbird’s beak, a medieval cudgel?
Some ancient tribe seems here to have snapped the beak off a prehistoric hummingbird and used it for a cudgel? What cleverness! What power! To think that anything so harsh and threatening could have evolved millions of years later into a delicate tool by which to sip sweet nectar from the brightest of flowers!
You, of course, will play this game better than I. My pedantic musings will pale in the face of your children’s creations which, no doubt, will be a source of joy and wonder, and maybe a little laughter. There is more to play than sitting at a computer or laptop, or in front of a tv. Change the rules in any way that seems to work and be open to surprises. Not a bad New Year’s Resolution.