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Time and Space, and How to See a Tree

by Fred First

Browsing the web one recent morning, a “space exploration” site displays two images side by side on my monitor. On the left is a region of space viewed with the visible spectrum of light that the human eye can see unaltered but for magnification—what you would see through a very powerful backyard telescope. The image includes a hundred fine points of light—stars and galaxies of various distances and ages–and a dozen more prominent, flaring silver dots set against a pure black vacuum of space.

Then, in striking contrast on the right, the same region is shown as a composite of visible, x-ray, gamma and radio wave days-long exposures.

There, around the very same shining stars and galaxies of the first image appear vast swirling columns and clouds of ruby-red dust, jets of exploded star-stuff and streams of massive energy heating gaseous elements to an incandescent glow. The effect of this image seen through the instrument’s computer-enhanced eye is mind-boggling.

But after my initial thrill at the magnificence of such cosmic grandeur came the thought that this second image was somehow not real, a kind of counterfeit, a bit of high-tech special effects. Through the portholes of a future starship in deep space, travelers would see blackness and white and faintly blue and red cosmic objects—and nothing else. So the seeming something else of the enhanced picture did not ‘really’ exist. And yet, there it was in front of me.

This common human bias—that our perceptions show us the whole of “reality”—makes our universe much simpler and far less rich and complex than it, in fact, is. Our blindness comes from a tacit assumption that only that which our senses detect is real and the measure of “what is.” Seeing is believing, the old axiom holds.

You have only to go on a walk with your dog to be disabused of this false notion of reality. “What is” to his nose is quite undetectable by yours, and therefore, it does not exist for you. So why is he pulling you along so frantically? He would tell you “smelling is believing.”

The animal kingdom is rich with abilities of perception, ways of knowing, that reveal true realities in our shared worlds. There are a multitude of fact-recording abilities among birds, insects and fish that go some distance beyond our own wonderful but limited human-scale senses. Reality with a capital “R” is wider and deeper than we know. We see through a glass, darkly indeed.

But maybe there is hope.

Let’s stand in the midst of a forest where you may at first only see a mash-up of nameless standing timber—so many board feet of inanimate wood–lovely perhaps, but mere shapes. How much richer a walk there will be if we can see a tree as a creature no less alive than ourselves. Let’s momentarily immerse ourselves in the reality of a single oak.

Our perception stops at bark and leaf, even though, beyond our senses but not our knowing, cellular nano-scale chemical factories are at work down inside the living tissue in chloroplasts, cambium, root tips and shoots, ceaselessly manufacturing the substances necessary for life. Our most powerful nanotechnology can not come close to duplicating a plant cell’s abilities.

Now consider our tree in time. It has lived here for 75 years. This tree’s distant kin have dominated your slope for countless human generations. Until the past century of logging, this tree’s ancestors lived as a virgin expanse of massive trees almost impossible to match in today’s fragmentary forests.

Go back far enough in time, the mountain chain under our feet—and the oak’s—was barren rock pushed tens of thousands of feet high, as colliding continents lifted up the early Appalachians. There was a time when “oak” was a future potential not yet present on the earth scene, a tree yet to have a family tree.

But we live with this other human impediment, another limitation that keeps us from comprehending the grandeur of the apparent ordinary. We seldom appreciate the time-lens view of present moments and places because we are burdened with the conceptual blind spot of the perpetual “now.” This peep at the whole of reality through a tiny keyhole of the present moment makes the reality of time’s flow as invisible to us as those cosmic castles of glowing star stuff. But again, maybe there’s another way to see.

For those who are adequately curious to follow this reality thread a step farther, finish this mental exercise at your computer. And you may never see a tree or a moment or a star in the same way again.

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