Recently, on a plane, I remembered the moment when the plane began to descend beneath the clouds. One moment, I could see the brightly lit and expanding city unfolding out below me, a brilliant landscape of lights and systemized movement. Then the plane began to dip below the clouds, and in that stretched-out moment of time, it felt as if everything slowed down and expanded around me, crushing me with the expanded density, the suffocating largeness of it all, the claustrophobic realization of space and height and my place on that plane, with all the other people sitting in their seats around me. My eyes locked only with the dismal and thick, thick white outside the window, looming and full; the momentary lapse in sight that was, in its own way, a kind of opening of vision, a revelation. When the apocalyptic moment passed and the city burst forth again beneath the clouds and the familiar brightness reminded me that no time had passed at all, not really, but also knowing that I had lived an eternal purgatory in that moment, as if alone and shivering and quivering in the corner of a tiled shower, the water pouring down and myself a body that could only shake and absorb the water through the skin as the tears rolled out my eyes. And when my feet were finally on the ground again, I thought only of the immensity and magnificence of the sky.
In these strange and sensitive moments when my anxiety flaunts itself as a determined and reverential haunting of sorts, I remember what it was that I really learned from my mother, what I really know through her, because of her, and after her.
I think about a particular individual, perhaps a rare bird, one who has been exiled for documenting facts and archiving flight patterns and creating maps and observing different species of trees, this bird who sees value in concretizing memory to outlast one’s own life and trajectory. This bird is also capable of being homesick, of longing for a home that exists or could one day exist, because language, diagrammed and phantomized and stricken, is also capable of forging a threshold between this world and the dream world, and so that in-betweenness might be construed as a concrete space, and there might be new language vociferated to articulate all that does not yet fit into the confines of the current restrictions of what is known.
That is, there are so many different types of knowing, and we have so many words to describe all these forms of knowing that privilege certainty and fact and truth, so that everything else becomes relegated to the dismal categories of feeling or intuition, as if there is a hierarchy predicated on certainty, though we know of course that certainty is an illusion and a framework for control, for cutting down trees, for carving out swaths of land to be territorialized on maps as evidence, for allowing some categories of living beings to have hope and for others to never glimpse the possibility of future beyond tomorrow.
When I was a little girl, my mother taught me the the Korean concept of nunchi (눈치). When I was older, I came across more official definitions that defined nunchi (a combination of the Korean words for “eye” and “measure”) as an unspoken social intuition, an awareness of the feelings of those around you, or the ability to sense another person’s mood. Growing up, though, I felt this concept more eminently. It is about survival, my mother would repeat to me. That friend of yours, 눈치 없다. (She doesn’t have nunchi.) Without a dictionary definition of the word, I inherited a feeling of this concept and its importance through the way my mother would use it to describe other people and in the ways she forced me to pay attention to invisible gestures, details, resonances, feelings. Essentially, she taught me to feel at a distance.
This, of course, is the definition of telepathy. Coined by Frederick W.H. Myers in 1882, telepathy essentially means “feeling at a distance.” In English, we only have words for “intuition” and “feeling” to describe all the kinds of knowing that aren’t grounded in logic, rationale, fact, or certainty. And we tend to dismiss telepathy as an interesting but unprovable concept. For many reasons, our culture has privileged scientific types of knowledge and deemed feelings and emotions as unreliable, uncertain, unpredictable. The thing is when we think of humans and other animals, much of the genetic code for what we’ve labeled “feelings” or “instinct” is some of the oldest code that is shared between humans and other lineages of living species. Evolution has modified and built off more primitive versions of “instinct” or “feeling,” but not only are feelings not unique to humans, I’d also like to consider them one of our most ancient (and therefore reliable) ways of knowing. (For example, there are studies showing how our brains often make decisions instinctually several seconds before we are aware of them, and then we actually spend the remainder of our time rationalizing and justifying the decision that our unconscious has already made for us.)
I have often felt imperceptible shifts in the environment around me, different resonances that resound on frequencies that don’t seem to be visible to a rational frame of mind. Is it so terrible to be irrational?
Life is a series of breaths: to see a perspective only when the seer and the seen are perfectly aligned. That is, to be in a position to be able to see and to want to see. For example, a lunar eclipse occurs only when the sun, earth, and moon are aligned in syzygy, our home planet’s shadow creeping across the moon until the moon appears red because our atmosphere acts as a filter for the sun’s light.
How often we forget the scale of the universe: That is, as Carl Sagan famously declared, we are only a pale blue dot in the vast landscape of space.
How often we forget to look: That is, to look past the mundanities of rational and privileged life and see the worlds exploding between our feet and inside weathered cracks.
How often we forget about the arrogance of finality: That is, with cultural concepts like the apocalypse, we lean toward narratives with grand endings, ones that promise linear time, resolution, and redemption and therefore attempt to secure our role as a worthwhile species in the overall scheme of things.
How often we forget about the constructedness of language: That is, though we articulate what we know using the limits of language, the limits of language are not the same as the limits of knowing.
How often we forget that position and perception are related: That is, we study the gravitational effects of, on, and between planetary bodies but often forget that human bodies, animal bodies, bodies of water are also affected by these same forces and that we are not uniquely immune to any of them.
How often we forget that our future stopped existing a long time ago: That is, our ability to speculate on a future beyond the constraints of the present involves a larger and different vantage point than the one we have limited ourselves to; that because the past and future intersect in the present moment, it is in this present moment that we must learn to see differently.
Witnessing the apocalyptic (not final, but catastrophic; not singular, but simultaneous; not biblical, but unseen) devastation that seems to have become a static reality, and sitting here, feeling the invisible embers of cosmic tremors, it’s hard not to see how we’ve simply deferred the future so many times that we can no longer see where the present ends and where the future begins. For me, this is a question of hope. To be blunt, shit is fucked up on a very large scale, and I think there is little left to be learned from humans’ forms of knowing. And so I have turned to the trees, the moss, the birds, all the other and synchronous forms of knowledge that we have largely ignored or buried.
Let’s consider trees. Standing in an immense forest still induces feelings of awe. This isn’t just about sheer size or power, but how a forest, a community of towering trees, affects our perception of interconnectivity and intimacy and breath by reminding us of the forces of life, the impossibility of presence, and the obviousness of influence.
The oldest trees in the world are thousands of years old. These trees have seen the births and deaths of nations, the migration of human populations, the evolution and extinction of life. How could we not benefit tremendously from the knowledge of trees? How could we not listen?
I first learned truly about the generosity of trees from my friend N.R., who reminded me, as I pressed my palm against the trunk of a huge oak tree, how trees absorb so much for us, not just carbon dioxide and other harmful gasses, but also our pain, anxiety, suffering; how trees gladly extend their wisdom if you only might ask. Always leave an offering, she reminded me. Always remember to express your gratitude to the tree. I lifted my hand away and obeyed her instructions by pouring out the remainder of my water bottle over the tree’s massive roots.