Tuesday, April 24, 2012
The eye of the beholder
I'm only about halfway through Moby-Duck (The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search with Them) by Donovan Hohn. I'm reading it slowly. It's a great read for a beachcomber like me. It's funny and smart but not sarcastic or condescending. It's fascinating. Even the footnotes.
And it's complicated. What starts out in the author's mind as an appealing image of thousands of bright yellow rubber duckies riding the waves all over the world soon becomes a journey into chemistry, politics, literature - from Eric Carle to Herman Melville, psychology, economics and his own frailties and fears. His subject is both science and myth, as it says on the jacket cover.
Since I'm not finished reading, I hesitate to say much about any overarching theme for the whole work, but here is a question that Hohn asks on page 136 that made me put the book down for a while and think: "How do you measure the value of a place?" He points out that the Transcendentalists, Emerson et al., would say "beauty." One looks at the intricacies and beauty of nature in order to perceive the mind of God. But Hohn notes that he often has found paintings, or writings, of a place more beautiful than the place itself. And anyway, who gets to say what is beautiful?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? We can't all agree on what is beautiful, or what is valuable. One man's trash is another's treasure, right? Which is one of Hohn's frequent activities - picking his way through all sorts of debris (Japanese glass fishing floats, Nikes, nurdles (look it up)) to find the thing he most wants to find - a world traveling polyethylene bathtub toy that has adsorbed (look it up) a bunch of PCBs.
But then he brings in the zinger. He uses a word close to my heart. Imagination. "[H]ow we imagine a place determines how we value it," he says. "And how we value a place determines how we allocate our tax dollars or charitable donations - what actions we choose to take, which places we chose to save and what it means to save them." (p 137).
How we imagine a place determines how we value it. Think of the things we imagine - not "dream up out of nothing" but hold in our mind's and heart's eye: Home. Parents. Children. A cherished vacation spot. My church, my school, my neighborhood. A celebrity's house; a childhood friend's home. Whales. Yellow rubber ducks floating on the ocean blue. Our imagination can both spur us on to the most wonderful action in the world - and it can help us live in a state of utter delusion.
Well. Food for thought. Like everything, any force can be used for ill or for good. Even my dear word "imagine." But I think Hohn is right. How we imagine something determines how we value it.