Changes in Latitude

March 3, 2012 5:30 PM HST

One of the things I found when I first went to the southern hemisphere is that things I didn’t think I noticed actually had been imprinted. If you had asked me if I knew the stars in the northern sky I would have said I knew a few constellations if I looked for them, but otherwise, no. The first night I had a chance to be under the stars, I immediately found that I was looking into the sky for something familiar. There was no Big Dipper, no Polaris, but a new signature constellation, the Southern Cross. I took a while to get used to it, but then I started to notice some familiar constellations faint in the northern sky.

When I got here, the doves in the morning were familiar. As I hiked up the Waihee Ridge Trail, a whole new set of bird songs were audible. As the trail climbed out of the meadows and into the woods, those songs changed. As I climbed further out the woods and into the clouds, the songs disappeared altogether.

Henry Lickers, a Mohawk scientist at Akwesasne (and the head of the Environment Division of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne) has developed a theory of natural knowledge. Essentially the idea is that we learn things about our natural environment that help us survive. Those things aren’t necessarily learned consciously, but sometimes they go directly from our senses to our judgment centers without passing through language that converts them into the symbols that our rational mind processes.

When I visit a place, I start that process of accumulating natural knowledge. It doesn’t progress very far—I don’t have survival needs that depend on it—but some of it stays with me. Some of the bird songs in Hawai’i stick with me. I have learned that the rocks aren’t as sticky and I have to be more careful walking on them (although it sometimes takes a fall on my keister to remind me). There are a myriad of things I know rationally about the area—Centipedes give a painful bite, lava comes in different types—but it’s all very cerebral. I am a babe in these woods.

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