This time of year, we usually look back on what has transpired, how we felt about it, and what we learned. Yeah, let’s not do that. I’m not ready. So I’m going to focus instead on what I haven’t learned.
This year, many of the books I’ve been reading have stressed the importance of pondering and the “aha” moments that come from non-focused rumination – ie, daydreaming. So this year, I ask: What is fascinating me so much that I would rather soak in the mystery than do a Google search? What is haunting me? What questions won’t let me go?
1. How can flying halfway across the world twice a year possibly be worth it for geese?
Yeah, I know there are some phenomenal wind currents around but let’s face it, they’re not the most aerodynamic of birds. Geese are units! It astounds me they can even get their asses off the ground and up on the Burger King sign, let alone all the way to Baja. I cannot comprehend how it could be calorically worthwhile to fly that far, even if the tacos are better. Says the woman who once flew from San Francisco to Yellowstone … for the weekend. Not under my own steam, though!
2. How do coupling rods work?
Writing a poem in the summer, I compared the ligaments behind my knee to the long socket-jointed rods on locomotive wheels. A quick search revealed they were called coupling rods. Good enough for the poem but how do they work? Why that strange tuning-fork shape? Are they sliding as well as rolling the wheels forward? Don’t they catch on things? What else do coupling rods run? Are they patented? Are they an invention or an adaptation? Can I get a tiny articulated pair as earrings?
3. Is my cat really a bear?
4. Should we feed hummingbirds?
My friend bought her first hummingbird feeder last winter and has been dutifully doling out fresh weekly nectar in it since. Visits from the iridescent darters have become a source of abject joy for her. Recently, she found out that hummingbird populations naturally thin out in the winter and it’s our human meddling that is keeping them alive and in our yards, addicted to the sweet stuff.
My friend has become deeply ambivalent about the feeder, recognizing that she is contributing to an unnatural cycle but also knowing that every second porch has one. And the birds! They are so happy. More importantly, they make her happy. She didn’t create the problem, nor would she singlehandedly end it by taking down her feeder. If our impact is so small as to be insignificant, why should we act? And if we already messed up their habitat, is it possible that feeding them is minimizing the harm? What about other birds and their ecosystems? Throw in the doubt that comes from not possibly being able to know and you have the recipe for inertia. I’m sure there’s a sociological term for this, and it has already been related to climate change inaction or Amazon shopping addiction but I’d have to look it up to find out and honestly, I’d rather watch the birds.
5. How do we judge the age of stars?
I watched with interest the preparations for the James Webb Space Telescope launch this year. It launched on Christmas Day and is currently in position above the earth, unpacking itself like a deeply impressive IKEA lamp. I read an article that said its job was to study a couple of very faint pinpricks that might be the first stars to form after the Big Bang. That’s right – it is doing nothing less than peering into the distance at the birth of the universe.
I understand that these stars are so far away that the light from them is very very very very old, giving us an opportunity to watch what might be their very formation. But surely there are stars stacked on stars out there? I don’t understand how astrophysicists can tell a closer star that’s teeny or dull from a far-away star.
Triangulation? Oh, that’s probably it. Well, I guess I did figure something out today. Here’s to pondering! Aha!