22 July 2005

Pervasive doubt

In the short, sheep-cropped grass beneath the Robinias at the edge of the terrace, I notice a small skull. Just a skull, nothing else; even the lower jaw has long vanished. I pick it up. It's perfectly clean, slightly stained from its long rest; there's even a faint hint of green where algae have begun to colonise it, helping it return to the land. I check the teeth—what remains of them—and recognise it as the skull of a rabbit. This small, marvellously formed collection of interlocked, fused bones sits in the palm of my hand, the cranium now containing only the space it encloses; perhaps a few tiny beetles, maybe some mites. Once, a brain lived in there and thought and felt, and looked out at the world through nervous eyes, tested the wind with a soft nose and listened through long ears.

I'm reminded of another piece of bone; one we found at one of our campsites in Mongolia. It, too, fitted in my palm but was clearly a shard of a larger skull. Smooth and rounded; very old; stained brown where it had been partly buried, bleached and pale where it had been exposed; the cranial sutures resembling a wildly erratic ECG. When we rode away from the camp, I reached up from the saddle and placed the shard high in a tree, out of reach of the local dogs. I suppose it will eventually fall, but it seemed like the right thing to do, and I hope its owner understood.

You can dismiss these things as meaningless or as a refusal to accept the reality of reason and (the) enlightenment. You can discount this view as New Age piffle. More generously, you might accept that it can be considered metaphorical and perhaps useful from a sociological, psychological or evolutionary perspective—this kind of respect might have served to strengthen communities and so increase their members' fitness, blah blah, etc... So what do I believe? To be honest, I don't know, and at times I've believed all of these interpretations, from the arch sceptical, rationalist view to the insistent intuition that when I hold a small skull or a fragment of bone in my hand, I'm in touch with a life that still exists in a sense that's at least as literal as metaphorical. Sometimes one of these views seems more plausible than the others; later, I'll wonder how I could possibly have believed that. Faced with that sort of uncertainty—a pervasive doubt that leaves me wondering whether I can know anything at all—I'm tempted to acquiesce to the kind of relativism that says you can believe whatever you like. However, that seems simply too random—I know at least enough to know that some things are wrong. Wrong in the factual sense, but wrong in the ethical sense also.

Photo and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

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