A Fall Walk
I took my dog for a walk on this fine fall day, and while we shared the journey, we were soon lost in our own worlds. My attention was grabbed by the endless variety of leaves — even in my own neighborhood — all differently exhibiting the effects of a turn to colder weather. Meanwhile my dog was more interested in the smells that lay at the base of the trees, so much so that she often resisted when I tried to urge her onward when she wasn’t finished.
Each tree had a different response to the change of season. Some were already quite bald, while others were still relatively green. Some trees seemed to lose their leaves as if they had contracted a disease, the leaves developing black splotches. Others turned brown at the edges, as if slowly being overcome with rot. Still others turned riotous colors, determined to go down in a blaze of glory. Some trees were dressed in red, others orange, still others a most definite pink, fragile yet angelic like memories of my grandmother.
And then, while indulging my dog in her particularly intense sniffing session, I chanced to gaze upon a single leaf. It contained a black spot, surrounded by brown, edged by orange, then going into red and finally green.
The thought struck me suddenly that there was more complexity within that single leaf than ever I could hope to understand with my intellect. It had a personal history that made it the size it was, had a more recent history which caused it to be the colors it now was. It had a variety of veins bringing nourishment from branches, even as it transformed the sun’s light into energy for the tree. Millions of cells composed of billions of atoms, each placed in their proper position to do their job, each encoded with genetic information distinct to the tree it belongs to.
If my mind was incapable of truly understanding this single leaf, how then was it expected to make sense of the billions of leaves I saw on my walk, not to mention everything else I encountered? How was I expected to know not only a small thing in itself but its relationship to the myriad other pieces of the universe that are constantly interacting and affecting each other?
Then I glanced at my dog, who was still exploring the world around her in her own fashion. She was absorbing information through her nose the way I was with my eyes, in a way I could never hope to understand. She perceived the universe through her dog senses in a way completely different than me, and yet it was enough to permit her to function within it. Her search for information was as important to her as mine was to me, if perhaps a trifle less reflective. Each scent told her something useful, provided her clues that might alert her to potential food or danger. But she, like me, was living in her own little bubble, no more aware of it than most of us are.
I couldn’t help thinking that if there was any lesson to be learned that it was how much we do not know. If we ever hope to be even slightly wise, the most important thing to remember is how lacking our intellects are. Intellectual humility must be our defining guide in life. To be proud of being smarter than another is like a child who brags about having captured more of the ocean’s water than a child with a smaller pal.
Meanwhile my dog continued to sniff, indifferent to my thoughts. I realize that perhaps the nose can tell us more about our world than our thoughts can. A person surrounded by pleasant smells is usually happier than one who is not. I trust my nose far more than my intellect, trust my ability to smell spoiled milk more than I trust the date listed on the container.
But beyond even my sense of smell, beyond the accumulated information my collective senses provide, there is the internal sense of well-being that is more important in explaining to us our relationship to the world. Define it how you will, philosophically, psychologically, or spiritually, there is a way of perceiving the world that leads us to life, health, and happiness that is far superior to the intellect. It is more than time we quiet our intellects and listen attentively to whatever information that sense is providing us.