Surely most people can compile a humbling list of things they do not know. My inventory is mind numbing and often capable of deflating my motivation. For example, I might discover some tiny fact about a subject and offer it up as conversation fodder only to find that ten other people already knew ten times more than I on that very topic. It doesn’t seem to matter what the concept is, either; it could be as erudite as a political ideology or as mundane as the various uses for shovels. Regardless of the subject, finding out that I have been muddling through life with only a precarious grasp of how anything works can be enough to shut down all my engines and make me retreat into a cocoon of self preservation within which my greatest concerns are reduced to basic survival needs: water, food and shelter. These I can manage unless I delve further into the kind of water I might drink, its effect on the central nervous system or the particle physics of water…
Perhaps a concrete example might help illustrate my conundrum. Last week while in Kamloops searching unsuccessfully for great grey owls, we hiked up the trails in Kenna Cartwright Park. After forty minutes of climbing we had seen zero birds; no birds were out and about, even though it looked and felt like a very birdy day. Lacking other subjects, I took a closeup of a ponderosa pine cone, just because it was there, or so I thought.
Back home, I downloaded the photos and when the pinecone appeared, I recalled a conversation wherein I learned that grizzly bears eat a lot of pine cones. This incongruous detail led me to research the amount of nutrition available in pine cone seeds, which led me to discover that it is white pine pinecones that the bears eat and not ponderosa pine cones. Somewhat deflated by this tidbit of information, I abandoned my plan to write about grizzly bears and ponderosa pine cones and instead conducted a search for various uses of pinecones.
My search revealed that children in Scandinavia often make cows out of pinecones and sticks, and there is even a park in Finland with giant pine cone cow sculptures in it. Furthermore, the pineal gland in the human brain is so named because of its pine cone shape. Also, scientists believe that certain dinosaurs ate pine cones. And that’s not all: There is a Court of the Pine Cone in Vatican City; you can make jam out of pine cones; Coulter pine cones can weigh more than seven pounds and therefore have the potential to kill you if they fall on your head-hence their nickname-“widowmaker.”(US edition: The Huffington Post-Thirteen Things You Never Knew About Pine Cones…)
While each factoid I learned was intriguing, the weight of all this new information began to drag me down-especially when I began to imagine that other people probably already knew this stuff.
Then it struck me-not with the weight of a Coulter pine cone-more like with the weight of Ponderosa pine cone falling a couple of centimetres-mastering the deflation brought on by this feeling of ignorance is a life skill that must be developed. Intellectual resilience can be taught and good teachers know how to foster this flexibility.
I’ve had some good teachers in my life; I’ve learned to pace myself and I’ve discovered ways to persist despite feeling shaky about my grasp of the current topic.
Knowing that “knowledge is power” is one thing but knowing that that pursuit of knowledge requires power is quite another.
Never expected that lesson from a pine cone!