Wednesday, July 1, 2009

If Trees Ring in the Forest and No One is There to Record Them, is There Still Music?

The title to this entry is so precious, so radically funny, that I am quite certain that no one will get it until the end. The word play is outrageous, the puns are painful, and, on the whole, the sentiment is an inside joke of enormous proportions. I will end up killing a dozen birds with one stone.

At first blush, there is the obvious nod at the old philosophical conundrum: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?” The whole of the argument regarding the answer to this question has to do with definitions. Believe it or not, grown adults have spent vast amounts of time and resources attempting to answer the question. Is “sound” something that can only exist when there are humans about, or animals, or other sentient beings? Is there a difference between “sound” and “noise”? Whole nations and kingdoms have risen and fallen while attempting to resolve the issue. What if the sentient being is deaf? What if he “feels” the vibrations with his feet? Is that still “sound”, even though he did not hear it with his auditory nerves? What if, instead of a tree, the thing making the “sound” was a dog whistle? You would not hear the pitch, but the dog would. Was there a “sound”?

Now we find ourselves at an international crossroads. The inhabitants of the British Isles would be inclined, at this point, to say, “This is the stupidest thing I have ever been forced to contemplate!” and they would walk off and never give the chestnut another thought. If they were from Wales or Cornwall and you raised the question again, they would hit you with a cudgel. It is hard to say what a Canadian would do. An American, at this juncture, would immediately want to turn to the dictionary to resolve the problem. As it turns out, the definition of the word “sound” in Webster’s New International Dictionary stipulates that in order for there to be a “sound” an auditory processing organ has to be involved. With that definition in hand, I would ask the philosopher five more questions: “What if, instead of a human being, there were an operating tape recorder in the forest when the tree fell? Would there be no sound at all at that moment, if there were no one to hear it at the time? Would there be a retroactive “sound” if someone chose to listen to the tape? And what if no one ever listened to the tape? Would that mean that there is no sound on the tape? At this point, your brain should be responding to this issue the same way that Tim Burton’s Martians responded to the music of Slim Whitman.

Tree rings are fascinating. Trillium and I went to Fisherman’s Wharf for our fortieth wedding anniversary. We rode over and back on Amtrak (Trillium’s little gift to me) and we did anything and everything that Trillium wanted to do while we were in San Francisco (my little gift to her). We drove up to Muir Woods in Marin County for one of our day hikes. Some of the Sequoias are more than 250 feet high. The redwoods in Cathedral Grove are more than 1200 years old. The park has a cross-section of a giant redwood, showing the tree rings for many hundreds of years, labeled with various historical events. One wonders if that particular tree heard any of the goings on that have been since pinned to its innards. Each ring represents a year and it is possible, with an extremely good magnifying glass, to determine the particular ring that represents the year that you were born. If a ring is thick, the rainfall and weather were favorable for tree growth that year. If a ring is thin, then the circumstances were less favorable. The ring for year of my birth is notable for the tremendous stresses that the environment suffered, particularly toward the middle of July and even more pronounced the closer the tree grew to Pomona, California.

On the night of October 7th, 2007, eight months after we walked by the thing, a 180-foot tall redwood, seven feet in diameter, fell during the night. I assume that someone noted the descent, since they sent me a bill. I wrote back that I hadn’t heard a thing so it must not have happened.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the birth of two of my daughters, Jen and Shy. They were born twelve years apart and they have the rings to prove it. Trillium and I went over to Shy’s house in the afternoon to take a card to her and to wish her plenty of subterranean water supplies and root nutrients. In the evening we went to Jen’s house for chocolate cake and Oreos. The cake was three years old. I counted the rings. They are both doing pretty well, considering how old they are.

How much do I have to say about The Forest for the Trees before the joke finally dawns? We have chosen our music for our next performance. We will begin with Cat Steven’s “Trouble”, followed by “The River is Wide”. The middle will be graced with Shy and Not-Quite-So-Shy singing “Gulf Coast Highway”. Jen and I will render “Long Black Rifle” in order to give the audience time to realize that hardly anything more exiting is going to transpire during our set. We will finish with our best piece, “Bright Eyes”. If no one comes to the party, will there be “Still Music”?


Trillium said...

You must be "rambling rose" --judging by your not so sound treatise.... hehehe

Anonymous said...

Well, it seems to me, if a tree falls, the other trees will hear it. Just because we can't hear it, perhaps trees scream as they fall. :) And, man, that joke was such a stretch it made my hamstrings ache.

Rebecca said...