Steven L. Peck is an Associate Professor in the Biology Department at Brigham Young University where he teaches the History and Philosophy of Biology. He blogs on issues of Science and Faith at ‘The Mormon Organon’ (sciencebysteve.net). Nothing he says should ever be taken seriously by anyone, anywhere, at anytime. He is a long time fan of BCC and is thrilled to be a guest blogger for the next couple of weeks, (although he fears they may regret this invitation).
Right now we are all situated in a life. We stand in relation to many things: other people, hierarchies of social power, natural and ecological processes, familial relationships, economic connections with people in a global economy, etc. On top of that we have a historical context that places us in a certain place and time and embeds us in both a cultural setting and a pile of accidental ways of doing things and manipulating the world around us. These things allow us to live biologically and find meaning in the things we do. We also stand in relation to ourselves. This is a weird thing to say I suppose, and I’ve decided to spend my two weeks over here at BCC exploring some aspects of what I mean by this through the use of parables, robots, poetry and prose. (My sense is that while we have done a good job as Mormons of using parables we have vastly underused robots and their metaphors.)
What do I mean we stand in relation to ourselves? There are several ways I might mean this. One way is that as Mormons we believe that we are (at least) duel beings: we have a biological aspect (The Natural Man/Woman) and a long-lasting spirit. Both of these seem to have been situated in different aspects of the universe—one through an evolutionary physical history (look at my other blog for a bunch of stuff on this) and the other through a spiritual history.
Another way we might stand in relation to ourselves is temporally—our current self, with a future or proposed self, a self we want to get to. This relation could stand in a number of ways too: spiritually, vocationally, naturally, etc. For example, the self with a ingrown toenail might want to be a self without one, hence a visit to a podiatrist might be in order. Or maybe I want to be a better neighbor. In all these relationships there seems to be the idea of aligning ourselves to something more harmonious to some other aspect of our nature. I’ve just wandered into a place where it gets difficult to speak about what I mean, so now I’m going to jump to a parable. Take this parable however you want. I meant it vocationally, but I sense there are other levels it might be taken including biologically and spiritually. In the next blog we’ll continue to explore our situatedness and our relationship to our self. If I’m feeling particularly mean-spirited I might punish you with a freighting quote from Kierkegaard about the self. Beware.
The Parable of the Peccary
A certain young peccary (for those of you not of North America a peccary is a pig-like desert dwelling animal) fell among beavers. There he was raised, taught and nurtured as a beaver until finally, after coming of age, he was accepted as a respected member of the community. Because of his industry, determination and hard work he soon obtained a position at one of the finest and most prestigious dams in those parts of the mountains.
Although he worked hard, and did fairly well, he was never quite comfortable in his work. Granted, he could move the biggest log over the roughest terrain, but when it came to felling trees with his teeth, he had a devil of a time. In fact after he had gnawed for a while he would look quickly around, to make sure no one was looking, and would butt valiantly against the tree with his head until it fell over. When it came to swimming, he was awful. He could do it but it seemed to take him forever to get anywhere. The other beavers, hauling trees to the dam through the cold mountain water, passed him with ease. They would ask him if he needed any help, but he was determined to do his best and would politely decline. He was useless when it came to walking across the dams themselves and it was a great source of mirth to the other beavers when he would try. Still, despite these difficulties he worked hard and was able to maintain an air of respectability among his fellows. He never quite felt at home though. Something seemed missing. Certainly, there were occasional moments of joy, and sometimes he would begin to believe that he was a good beaver and that he really belonged there, but then something would happen that would change his mind. Like the time he had tried to bring a load of mud to press between the sticks in the growing dam. Try as he might, he could not get enough on his tail to do any good, and with the little that he did bring he just could not seem to push it into place with his large flat nose.
Lately his days had seemed long and unrewarding. It was the busiest time of the year and the entire dam was a-buzz with beavers scurrying quickly about their work, trying diligently to finish a large dam before the spring runoff reached full capacity. Despite the commotion and excitement, however, one day the peccary was found sitting next to a slightly gnawed tree high on the top of a small hill staring out across the endless forest that stretched to the horizon like a leafy sea.
“I ought to be happy,” He thought aloud with a sigh, “I have a wonderful situation here. I am well respected. I am well fed. I would be a fool to give this up, you could not ask for a better place to live. Other beavers would give their right paw to be in my place and work on some of the dams that I have worked on… This is really wonderful.” With that thought he began again to gnaw again at the tree, but the attempt was only half hearted and in a few minutes he was staring out across the forest, sighing.
“What’s with the long face, flat nose? Anything wrong?”
The peccary looked around quickly and discovered a hawk perched on a nearby branch. Under one formidable claw a ground squirrel lay limply across the limb. The magnificent bird took a bite of the morsel in his tight grip and cocked his head in anticipation of an answer.
“If you must know … nothing is wrong! This is a busy time for us beavers and I was just resting from my hard labors.” The peccary felt embarrassed having been caught daydreaming during such a hectic and important time.
“Yes, if you must know I am a master builder and am working on THE most important dam this season. So if you don’t mind …”
With that, the peccary attacked the tree with gusto and after several minutes of intense activity had managed to gnaw another quarter inch of tree into oblivion.
“You’re not very good at that are you?” The hawk took another bite of the squirrel and tossed it carelessly down his throat.
“Listen buddy,” The peccary snorted, “You’d better leave before I gnaw down the tree you’re sitting on!”
“I’d better hurry then.” The hawk retorted. “I might have only a few weeks to sit here if you do that.”
With that, the peccary starting gnawing furiously at the base of the mighty oak that the hawk was casually eating in. By the time the hawk had finished his meal and taken a short snooze the peccary had almost managed to get through the bark.
After minutes of this frenzied, fruitless activity, the peccary sighed, sat down, and replied.
“Well, I suppose that I’m not really very good at this aspect of it, but you should see me move these puppies to the dam.”
The hawk looked long and hard at the peccary, which was again staring out across the forest.
“Look, my friend,” The hawk said kindly. “I’d like to show you something. It will take about four days but I think you’ll find it well worth your time.”
“No time. No time.” The Peccary answered quickly. “This the busiest time of the year. There are trees to be cut and after that, we have to get these logs down to the river. I’m afraid that it is out of the question.”
“Well, I think none the less you need a vacation and again: I think you will find it well worth your while.”
The peccary was taken with the words of the hawk. A vacation certainly would be nice and they really did not need him until after the cutting.
“I don’t think the bosses will like it, but, I do believe you are right; a vacation could do me no harm. I have been feeling a little low lately and a vacation is just what I need to perk myself back up. Wait, here while I go ask.”
The peccary scurried down the mountain with a quickness that surprised the hawk. And a few minutes after he disappeared the peccary came huffing and puffing back up to where the hawk was resting.
“They weren’t too happy, but they said I could go as long as I was back in time to move the cuttings to the dam. I must be back in four days- at all costs.”
At first, the vacation seemed more like work than a holiday. It was the same trees that he always saw and after almost a complete day, things did not look much different then when he had started. The hawk continued to assure him however, that if he would just be patient things would get better soon. So on he trudged over the fallen branches and the twigs that crawled beneath his cloven hoof. At one point, he managed to find an abandoned beaver pond that had some water plants still growing that allowed him to swim out for a quick meal. He told the hawk that this would be a fine place to vacation, but the hawk would have no part of it and insisted they go on.
Soon the trees began to thin and as they did, the peccary’s heart began to feel a little lighter. Something about not having to step over small logs all the time or scramble over the large ones made him feel more light and confident then he had in ages. When the trees had finally been replaced with sagebrush, and gorgeous soft, comfortable sand had replaced the leafy loam he felt as though he had entered beaver-heaven.
“This is wonderful!” He exclaimed, running this way and that, kicking his back legs high in the air and bolting back and forth without a single tree to crowd his way. He had never felt this good. He did not even know it was possible to feel this good… this alive … this free.
Suddenly he stopped and looked at the hawk smiling on a branch nearby.
“Wait, I haven’t seen any water, except these little puddles, since we left the forest. How are we going to get any water plants to eat- and I must add I am getting a bit hungry.”
The hawk laughed aloud. “There is food all around you.”
“Where?” Said the peccary turning circles.
“Try the roots of that plant there.” The hawk replied nodding to a large leafed, succulent plant.
The peccary grabbed the plant with his mouth and gave a mighty pull. The plant broke at the base.
“Well let me try another. I goofed up on that one.”
The hawk smiled at the beast’s frantic attempt to find another.
“No, don’t bother. Look, these are not cattails; you are never going to pull one out like that. Come on, use you nose and root that baby out.”
The peccary looked at the hawk quizzically. Shrugged and started to try to dig around the root with his nose. He was surprised at how easy it was. In just a few minutes, he was downing the most delicious meal he could remember.
“You know, that was much easier than diving underwater and pulling up a mouthful of those water weeds- and this tastes so much better!”
“I’m going to leave you now for a while. I’ll meet you here around noon tomorrow and I’ll take you back to the pond.”
At the thought of the pond, the peccary sighed. He would not let the thought of going back ruin his vacation and straightway he set about to find another of those delicious plants.
It was the best day of his life. He was living in paradise. Food grew abundantly everywhere. The aroma of the sagebrush and cactus seemed to clear his mind. The smells were so vivid and bright that it seemed out here that he could almost see with his nose. His memories of the forest seemed heavy and oppressive and he tried to think of it as little as possible. He could run so freely here he quit walking. When he ran, he felt as though nothing could stop him, as if he were a falling tree that would crush every thing in its path. That night when he was finally able to settle down enough to rest, the cool dry air played delightfully across the course hairs of his back and he realized for the first time in his life he felt like he was home.
Following the hawk home, he did not say much. He picked his way gloomily across the fallen trees and branches and when he reached the pond, he sat sadly and stared at his comrades swimming up and down the busy stream.
“Didn’t you enjoy your vacation?” The hawk asked.
“Never anything more…”
Just then, a beaver down the slope hailed him.
“Friend, it’s good to see you back. Did you enjoy your break? Well come on, come on, look alive. The trees are all felled! Let’s put this baby together!”
He nodded a thanks to the hawk and then moved down the slope to join in the bustle of activity going on around the dam.
He threw himself into the work. Moving logs, pushing them into their place with his mighty head, and helping to dig out mud to patch the break all helped him to forget the peace of the desert. Few had seen the peccary work so hard and so silently- and few admired him more.
He was indeed an asset to the team.
When it was all over the headmaster-beaver gathered them together.
“Friends,” he started, “This was the greatest accomplishment that beaverdom has ever known. Indeed this is a day of honor, and it is fitting on this day that I announce that we have been given the greatest task ever contemplated. Indeed, this team is going to build the
Spring River dam…”
The voice droned away as the peccary stared off into space. He could not go on… not after being there.
Suddenly he noticed the hawk perched on a branch behind the headmaster’s head. The hawk motioned his head toward the desert.
“…. In fact once that is built; it will be the largest dam ….”
He thought about the soft sand.
“… We’ll need a crew of at least a hundred, on the cutting…”
He thought about the delicate flavor of the roots.
“… these special problems with the rapids will best be addressed by a committee of ….”
He thought about the cool, clear smells.
“… Now the quality of trees is such …”
He glanced again at the hawk. It motioned that way again…
No one could remember seeing the peccary leave and they were all very sorry that he was gone. The building went on without him, although moving logs was much harder than before. Someone even wrote a song about the “mighty mover” which was sung to small cubs when the cold winter ice kept them locked tight in their warm log homes.
The peccary, however, never looked back.