Vestigial stories

Long time no post.

Last year I set out to write a post a week. It was hard and rewarding and made me a better writer. It also took a lot of time away from side projects queued on my weekend backlog.

This year I’ve set the considerably vaguer goal of writing when I can. As the date on this post indicates, that’s going to be a lot less than once a week. Still, a month-plus of lag between posts is too much time away---from here on out I’ll be pushing for every two weeks.

The end of this blog remains the same as last year: to explore new ideas and clarify my own thinking.

Thanks for reading.

Sometimes when asleep, I get the sudden sensation of being in free fall, only to wake with my head on my pillow, safe and sound.

If you, too, get sudden sensations of free fall whilst asleep, fear not. Its official name is the hypnic jerk, and it’s a type of vestigial response, believed a leftover instinct from when our primate ancestors slept in trees.

While reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek over the holidays, I came across another sort of vestigial response.

From Dillard:

"I wonder how long it would take you to notice the regular recurrence of the seasons if you were the first man on earth. What would it be like to live in open-ended time broken only by days and nights? You could say, “it’s cold again; it was cold before,” but you couldn’t make the key connection and say, “it was cold this time last year,” because the notion of “year” is precisely the one you lack. Assuming that you hadn’t yet noticed any orderly progression of heavenly bodies, how long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end? “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease”: God makes this guarantee very early in Genesis to a people whose fears on this point had perhaps not been completely allayed.

It must have been fantastically important, at the real beginnings of human culture, to conserve and relay this vital seasonal information, so that the people could anticipate dry or cold seasons, and not huddle on some November rock hoping pathetically that spring was just around the corner."

I like this passage because it hints at why we tell stories in the first place. As Dillard mentions above, and as Jonathan Gottschall argues in his book The Storytelling Animal, for early generations of homo sapien, stories were an effective way to pass important information from one generation to the next. For early humans, that meant ensuring that future generations understood seasons and how to prepare for them.

But this passage also presents seasons as a story we still tell today. Dillard continues:

"We still very much stress the simple fact of four seasons to schoolchildren, even the most modern of modern new teachers, who don’t seem to care if their charges can read or write or name two products of Peru, will still muster some seasonal chitchat and set the kids to making paper pumpkins, or tulips, for the walls."

And so the season stories told today (an example I remember from childhood is The Ant and the Grasshopper,) made irrelevant by Doppler radar forecasts and weather apps, have become, in a strange sort of way, a remnant of our distant past. An artifact with waning functional purpose but a lingering place in the human canon of fiction. A vestigial story.