Wednesday, December 2, 2009

LXVIII: Dr. Bill Remphrey


I'm reeling. I emailed Dr. Bill Remphrey. Here's an excerpt:

Me: I've been interested in the Trees for a while, and I don't know that my own fascination would be so strong if I understood fully why the Trees are crooked. Do you think anything would be lost (or gained) if a clearer explanation emerged for the Trees' crooked architecture?

Dr. Remphrey: I am not sure exactly what you don't understand. We know the trait is heritable and is most likely a single gene mutation. We don't know exactly what is happening at the gene expression level, but the gene is either causing the shoots to have reduced strength or differential growth that causes them to bend over. Ultimately I suspect plant hormones are involved. In any event, once this happens there is a cascade of developmental events that lead to the crooked form.

I now fear that, rather than searching for an explanation, the hours I devoted to poring over those essays were actually an attempt to sustain my belief that there was no explanation for the Trees.

"I am not sure exactly what you don't understand."

Yeah. Damn.

Please, if you haven't already, check out Dr. Remphrey's website.

9 comments:

jonkramer said...

"Understanding" is a multi-faceted thing though.
There's this old guy in my church - he's been playing piano for 60 plus years. Plays with that "old-gospel-bubbly-fingers" style. And the funny thing is that he still can't read a lick of sheet music - but to say that he doesn't understand music - that's just ignorant.
So in one way, I'm sure that Dr. Remphrey understands the trees - but at the same time, by not having a "Roger Shaw" experience, I think it's valid to argue that he doesn't really understand them as completely as he thinks he does.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Jon K, I've been thinking about your post for a couple days now.

What Dr. Remphrey doesn't understand, maybe, is the strange pull the Trees can exert on people. What he DOES understand is the cause of the Trees' crookedness.

I don't know where that leaves me. Am I much like the piano player in your church? I dunno.

joel said...

Always a good time for Heidegger!

Matt, this might be a good place to talk about the ontic/ontological divide.

There is a big difference with wanting to know what scientific causes there are for the trees to become crooked; how it works and what it takes BUT,

The aspect as to why, through all this science and tree-existence, that the trees would become so crooked is quite different. Why there 'are' crooked trees as opposed to there being 'no' crooked trees is an ontological question, and is, what I think drives your search. It is a search of meaning.

Because there are these trees, there can be some kind of meaning behind them. Of course there will be the scientific (ontic) stuff too: hormones, genes etc; but how we decide to react to the trees being crooked is entirely different (our reaction is a projection of meaning in this sense).

Imagine if there was a mountain that made sounds like speech! That would be a wonder, mostly because we could ponder and imagine all kinds of things about such a magic mountain (this, even so, if all the mountains ‘special’ traits were entirely explainable by science). It’s not the science which matters, so don’t get bogged down in that; it is what the trees can mean because they are crooked.

Even scientifically we associate crookedness with a state of being: something cursed maybe. The question: ‘why are these trees cursed?’ is what lies at the heart of your fascination. It doesn’t mean you won’t look into the science, learn it and think it; but the scientific evolution of humanity will not account for existence, because we (the people of existence) are crafting this secondary thing (technically: our ontological rendering of things into meaning as a projection of our Dasein upon the world) in regular terms: it’s how we decide to make things make sense and matter to us.

The trees matter to you, they are important to you; answering ‘why they are so’ is still on the table and won’t be affected by any scientific thing behind causing the trees to be the way they are.

I think the thing you are facing (perhaps if I can be so bold) is that you want the meaning of these trees to be something outside of yourself (perhaps comparable but quite different to a search for gods or God). Jan Patocka says that we are in a crisis because we have lost the proper questions (for History) and gives the example that we have lost the mystery of life. This is what he means by questions: ‘what does life mean’ is a question which is not as mysterious to us anymore. In fact, most of our day to day lives is plagued WITHOUT mystery.

Our proper existence is bogged down in the facts of life; all our questions have ready-made answers we take for granted and never authentically ask. Asking what these crooked trees mean has more to do with who you are than you might think, and being mystified by the question might be enough. Heidegger suggests we need to answer these questions but preserve them as problematics, making life a continual asking and answering of the important questions, as opposed to ‘knowing’ the proper answers and then leaving them at that (taking them on faith or science).

Real life is lived through a dynamic search for the right questions; finding them, preserving them and then answering them again and again (like opening a Christmas present and then wrapping it up again to open it later on).

If you remember from long ago in Calgary, we both decided there were things you cannot ‘get behind’ like morality and beauty in art; this is a simple version of what I am talking about here. We can never get behind the question of life, the question of meaning or the question of the trees; and we shouldn’t. That doesn’t mean we don’t answer these questions, only that we recognize that our answers are our answers and never THE answer.

I’ll leave it at that.

jonkramer said...

Hrrm...
I think I get (in part) what Joel's getting at.

Getting back to the question you asked Dr. Remphrey:
"Do you think anything would be lost (or gained) if a clearer explanation emerged for the Trees' crooked architecture?"
Maybe the key to your relationship with the trees is to forgo the "either/or" and to embrace the "both/and".
I don't think you have to decide one way or the other if the trees are purely supernatural "or" 100% scientifically explainable. There's a tension there you can choose to embrace. It's tough to live in the tension, but back to your question - I think there's something to be gained from it.
It's like music. One doesn't have to approach it purely technically/mathematically "or" purely soulfully... and with music, some of the best artists emerge from the tension of the two.

Also, keep writing this stuff. It's golden!

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Joel: what to say?

You wrote,
"answering ‘why they are so’ is still on the table and won’t be affected by any scientific thing behind causing the trees to be the way they are."

Really? 'Cos I was hoping the science might be able to conclude things for me. I think I'd prefer a conclusion, a resolution, a completion, a (insert your "an end" synonym here), to all this "continual asking" stuff.

But I think you're probably right. Damn you. Ha!



Jon K:
You wrote, "I don't think you have to decide one way or the other if the trees are purely supernatural 'or' 100% scientifically explainable."

You're probably right.

Although, I don't think they're SUPERnatural. Somehow that's never been a consideration for me. They've always been very very very natural in my mind. And that's the part that gets to me.

Boyda said...

Wow. I just have to say something here, especially since jonkramer mentioned the false dichotomy between technical and soulful approaches to music, which has been a major debate on my blog lately.

I think what this debate helped me realize is that there is something about art and science which is beautiful, especially when synthesized - when a technical masterpiece finds a truly artistic place beyond expression, perhaps just in the observers. This cannot be explained - we cannot attribute the divine stirrings of art to purely scientific reasoning, even if we feel like we have all the answers. But it is this mystical synthesis which takes us beyond ourselves at the same time as it tells us about ourselves, or teaches us how to be confident and strong.

But these beyond-scientific effects need not be 'divine' in order to be...divine. That is, Matthew, you said the naturalness of the trees is what gets you, and perhaps that is because they are closer to you as a human, and not unattainable somehow. Science and religion can be inaccessible and serve to alienate us - but things which are recognizable, and grow and die, are close enough to our personal experience for us to have to recognize (perhaps fearfully) that we might actually be able to relate to them. And that intimate experience may be as effective as the beyond-expression effects of technical artistry.

I was also really taken by Joel's statement: "Real life is lived through a dynamic search for the right questions; finding them, preserving them and then answering them again and again (like opening a Christmas present and then wrapping it up again to open it later on)."

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Boyda:

You said,
"the naturalness of the trees is what gets you, and perhaps that is because they are closer to you as a human, and not unattainable somehow."

Exactly.

Tom said...

Matthew

Hi. Of course, I'm reading your blog now.

I just don't think he tells us anything that we didn't already know.

rockellea said...

I am not a writer or a poet or a philosopher and I certainly do not have a really gifted way putting things... but in my opinion there is a science to everything. On the flip side there is simplicity and emotion to. We grow attached to things weather it be people, pets, objects whatever. I have a an old white plastic cup of the kool-aid guy that I hold very close to my heart. Now this may sound strange to many, but it is sentimental to me because it belonged to my great grandmother whom I don't even remember. I do remember getting that cup though, after she passed away I remember being in her house and there was a box of odd things that had belonged to her, junk really. And I picked the kool-aid cup out of the box and was allowed to keep it. Somehow I feel a connection to her with this cup? Odd? Maybe, but maybe not. She likely got the cup for one of her grandkids to use and thought nothing of, but to me it is truly a treasure.

Sometimes we just need enjoy things for just being :)