Friday, May 4, 2012

The Folklorist: Imponderabilia

I am burdened by an obsession with the bewildering patterns of the mundane: a fallen branch of oak lies far from the nearest oak, and I am bothered the rest of the day trying to figure out how it got there. Perhaps a wagon moving tree cuttings dropped it as it passed. Perhaps a hiker picked it up elsewhere and discarded it here. Perhaps a great wind....

There is an archaeology to this, discerning events by their effects. How did that big tree with a Z curve get that way? I imagine some hunter bending a sapling as a sign to a cache of meat, that the sapling survived and now has a turn to its trunk. Might be a buffalo stepped on the root. Who knows?

On the walk today the dog and I were in the forest near our neighborhood and she shat uncustomarily close to the path. I brushed her dirt away into the duff with a fallen branch, then hurled the branch even farther. This is what got me on the idea of a branch being far from its source.

What if where I’d tossed it was beyond where it might have fallen? What if some passerby noticed the branch, saw it couldn’t have arrived there on its own, and wondered how it got there?

What sort of archaeology would uncover answers to such trivial puzzles? How often do items found at real archaeology digs, investigating much more important matters, get explained by the force of context, though they were anomalies, accidents, the consequences of indifference? A branch falling in the wood is not random. More haphazard. A function of complex factors: age of tree, lay of land, weather, insects, birds spreading seeds. Human willfulness. Thoughtlessness. The toss of a branch into a wood just to get rid of it.

And then there’s the matter of who cares? That’s me and my obsession. I’m much more interested in these sorts of nonessential questions that seem, however, essential to me, revealing as they do how life is actually lived, without some overarching telos.

There’s all sorts of drama that occurs just there, and there, and there in the backyard: a squabble of birds, a safari of ants, a web of spiders and flies, a symphony of leaves quivering each a little differently in the breeze. One needn’t travel half way around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. There are plenty of cats stalking birds right here.