Lately I’ve been reading Thomas Hardy. I’d been warned his books were dark in tone, but Far from the Madding Crowd frequently left me laughing with his wry observations and comic dialogue. I’m halfway through Tess of the d'Urbervilles, a book filled with tragic twists and human ugliness, but still delighted by the wit and wisdom that keeps me eagerly moving forward through the woe.
One of Hardy’s gifts is his ability to describe the English countryside, and talk in depth about the lives of simple farmers, showing with a deft hand just how complicated simple lives can be. Oak, the hero of Far From the Madding Crowd, is in tune with the earth and the sky, able to tell the time of night by the position of the stars, able to see the signs of a coming storm long before clouds darken the horizon. In Tess, we get to see the workings of a pre-industrial dairy farm. In one scene, the head of the dairy farm is able to taste the butter produced days earlier and identify that one of the fields the cows have grazed in has garlic in it. All the farm hands crawl across the field that produced the ill-flavored milk to find the half dozen wild garlic shoots that are to blame.
The book left me keenly aware that the roots of modern science are deeply grounded in agriculture. We think of science as the work of people in laboratories, like Marie Curie, or of deep thinkers uncovering the underlying math of the universe, like Einstein. Today, cutting edge science seems to require space probes and supercolliders, with powerful computers needed to crunch all the data. To an outsider it looks sterile, abstract, disconnected from the real world. We’re vaguely aware that, by unraveling genomes and plotting galaxies in search of dark matter, we’re increasing our knowledge of nature. So why does it feel so unnatural?
We’ve forgotten that, long before we figured out the structure of DNA, farmers had already mastered the subtleties of genetics. Most of the food we eat has been genetically modified, not in a lab, but over centuries by farmers paying close attention plants and animals. Careful observation of the visible world led to the discovery of invisible things, laws that nature obeyed, a hidden rulebook we collectively learned in ever-increasing detail. Long before we had space telescopes, over even handheld lenses, we had people who paid attention to the sky and knew that some stars moved in different paths than others. It was a puzzle that was explained again and again with theories that seemed to account for the motion. Yet, with careful observation, discrepancies between the theories and the actual movements always became impossible to ignore. Even today, we haven’t quite figured it out. The laws of Newton and Einstein say the universe should behave in certain ways, yet we find that some galaxies don’t spin at the speeds we think we should. We infer the existence of dark matter, and, from the ever increasing expansion of the universe, we deduce the existence of dark energy. But, we don’t yet have any final answers for the true identity of these dark forces. We make theories, we make observations, we make new theories, we move forward. Our observations require tools that make measurements far beyond the capability of human senses, but, the true heart of science is still the simple act of paying close, careful attention to what you’re looking at.
As a writer, I feel a kinship with scientists. In both science and art, we make observations of the known world to deduce what’s happening in unseen realms. In science, a fossilized bone chipped from a rock might open a window on what the world was like a hundred million years ago. In art, we might look at a person’s eyes, see their faraway gaze, or the way they linger on a loved one’s face, and be led into their interior. We move through a landscape of emotions, navigate down rivers of memories. Like archeologists, we unravel the past of our subjects by studying artifacts. A small scar upon the thumb, a photo buried in a desk drawer, a movie ticket stub kept in a wallet for twenty years… there are hints of stories everywhere. The tiniest details can lead to giant truths.
I often tell people that I’m a professional daydreamer. I spend a great deal of time in my head, imaging places that don’t exist, listening to people who’ve never lived. But making them seem real on paper, making these fictional lives mean something to readers, requires not only imagination, but also a genuine, heartfelt love of reality. The paradoxical best fuel for daydreaming? Paying attention.