I spent most of yesterday on rereading a Ph.D. dissertation in German on the acoustic communication of chinchillas, and then spent time in the afternoon with a colleague and a student of his who is starting to work in this area and needed access to the results of the dissertation. I was going through with her, for instance, the acoustic description of what happens when mother chinchilla comes home to her brood after foraging for food, and gives the position call which indicates “Here I am!”, which is followed by the babies’ uttering another call which means ”Suckle!”, immediately getting down to business. The dry descriptions of the behavioral context of these acoustic productions have inescapable charm, although they are completely factual. Since all mammals have roughly the same numbers of heartbeats and breaths during a healthy lifetime, the lives of these small Andean rodents presumably have the same subjective length as our own; although chronologically their lives are shorter, their hearts and respiration function proportionately more rapidly than ours. That is part of the phenomenon called physiological time, an application of biological scaling which is sometimes used in order to generalize scientific findings across species.
During a break in my work with the student, I checked my e-mail and found a message forwarded by my former wife, a note from her college roommate describing the ongoing last days of the life of her husband of forty years, to whom she was introduced by my mother, who had an uncanny and embarrassing knack for such things. He is a fine man, a logician who somehow found a place for himself in aeronautical research, and produced an able son with his new wife in addition to the two beautiful daughters whom his departed wife had left to his care. Their long life together was happy, and they were the only mutual friends of my former wife and myself who maintained positive interactions with both of us after the divorce, for which I was deeply grateful. His present situation is such that I was reminded of Ms. Kitty’s recent discussion of theodicy, the issue of how an all-powerful and just God could allow such things to happen (I am not claiming that he does).Yes, the Job problem, and many others, of course. I do not weep often, but I wept last night.
Earlier this fall, I came across an old Loeb edition of the major Latin works of the Anglo-Saxon historian Bede (about 673-735 AD) in a Toledo bookstore, and since then I have browsed in it. Last night I was reminded of a passage in his treatise on the early history of the English church, which I found after a little searching. In it, Bede describes how the Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria consulted with his advisors and chief pagan priest to decide whether his kingdom should convert to Christianity, as urged by the Christian bishop Paulinus (d. 644). The events described took place about 627 AD or a little before. I have revised the published translation of the comment of one advisor of Edwin on the basis of the Latin text:
“King, for the comparison of our uncertain time to live, the present life of men on earth seems to me such, as if while you were sitting at table with your captains and thanes, in the winter time, for instance while the fire had been lit in the middle and the dining room being made warm, but outside everywhere there were raging storms of winter rains or snows, and one of the sparrows entered the house and flew through very rapidly, which when it entered at one doorway, it soon exited through another one. Which only during the time that it is inside, it is not touched by the storm of winter, but however once the brief time of good weather has passed in a moment, soon from winter it returns to winter, and escapes your eyes. Thus the life of men appears briefly; but of what will follow, or of what has gone before, we do not know at all. Wherefore if this new doctrine has brought us something more certain, it seems worthy to be followed.“
Of course, neither do I know any answer to this question, but I do know that we must value the birds, and beasts, and friends that we have, at Christmas and at other times. Have a good holiday season.