Friday, August 24, 2012

Throw Them Out: They Are The Wrong Sort of Map

Watching (2009, M.A. Reilly)
I. Watching

In "The Naturalist" Barry Lopez talks about his habit of visiting the McKenzie River in western Oregon on a daily basis.  Lopez writes:
Almost every day I go down to the river with no intention but to sit and watch. I have been watching the river for thirty years, just the three or four hundred yards of it I can see from the forested bank, a run of clear, quick water about 350 feet wide. If I have learned anything here, it’s that each time I come down, something I don’t know yet will reveal itself.
If it’s a man’s intent to spend thirty years staring at a river’s environs in order to arrive at an explanation of the river, he should find some other way to spend his time. To assert this, that a river can’t be known, does not to my way of thinking denigrate science, any more than saying a brown bear can’t be completely known. The reason this is true is because the river is not a thing, in the way a Saturn V rocket engine is a thing. It is an expression of biological life, in dynamic relation to everything around it—the salmon within, the violet-green swallow swooping its surface, alder twigs floating its current, a mountain lion sipping its bank water, the configurations of basalt that break its flow and give it timbre and tone.
Rereading Lopez always gives me pause: much like the river he references.  There is so much to not know and watching opens us to these possibilities. How different might formal education be if emphasizing not knowing was seen as keenly necessary as knowing. 

II. No Standardized Codification

Complex matters refuse to be understood fully, codified neatly, presented completely. And so the last few months I have tried in earnest to see a positive light in relationship to the new national standards, the tests that accompany them, the curriculum and professional products that are streaming into classrooms and teachers' hands daily, the packaged curriculum and I keep coming back to Lopez who offers us this insight about ways of knowing and although he was not writing about the Common Core and other such documents, the insights nonetheless can be applied:
I would like to tell you how to get there so that you may see all this for yourself. But first a warning: you may already have come across a set of detailed instructions, a map with every bush and stone clearly marked, the meandering courses of dry rivers and other geographical features noted, with dotted lines put down to represent the very faintest of trails. Perhaps there were also warnings printed in tiny red letters along the margin, about the lack of water, the strength of the wind and the swiftness of the rattlesnakes. Your confidence in these finely etched maps is understandable, for at first glance they seem excellent, the best a man is capable of; but your confidence is misplaced. Throw them out. They are the wrong sort of map. They are too thin. They are not the sort of map that can be followed by a man who knows what he is doing. The coyote, even the crow, would regard them with suspicion. (from Desert Notes) 
III. Thinking

It is tempting to hold in one's hand the ready made map and think I hold all I need.  There are many types of map we are seduced by, fall victim to, yes?

Ready made maps, especially the slickest, are unauthored.

We would be wise to follow Lopez's advice and "throw them out. They are the wrong sort of map."


  1. Looking forward to all we can learn from the Hudson when we meet there!

    What beautiful passages. I have reread them several times.