Before the Cave, part 9

February 12th, 2018

Ilara pondered the conversation she had just had. She hadn’t actually revealed her secret, but she was pretty sure her grandmother had figured it out.

This had been the first real confirmation that her encounter with the mammoth had really happened, and wasn’t just something she’d imagined. But now what was she supposed to do about it?

She suddenly realized how weird it felt walking through the village now. It was the same village she had walked through yesterday, the same people she’d always known, but now everything was different. It was like they were all in a different world. Or maybe just she was.

At last she arrived at the gathering, and was happy to see that she had gotten there just in time. The familiar drumbeats were starting to play, and she could see the men in their costumes gathered on one side of the clearing.

She had always loved this part, ever since she was little. It was the only time she ever got to see grownups wearing silly costumes.

Although she knew better than to tell anybody how silly the costumes looked. Dressing up and acting out these old make-believe stories seemed to be a big deal to grownups, a very serious thing. She once asked her mother why, but the only answer she got was that she would understand when she was older.

Great introductory books

February 11th, 2018

I will from time to time interrupt our ongoing tale to talk about something else. Think of these liminal posts as the breaks between Acts at the theatre.

Today I was at a party, and the topic came up of introductory books by great experts. These books are, by definition, not geared toward one who is practiced in the field. Generally speaking, you can pick up such a book and read it from cover to cover with no preparation whatsoever.

The best of them not only give you insights into some field of intellectual discourse, but also convey the immense love of that field by its practitioners. As far as I know, no systematic compendium exists that lists the best of such books.

At the party today I got to talking with another NYU professor on this topic. She studies neurology, so of course I mentioned Oliver Sacks’ classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It turned out that reading this book had profoundly influenced her decision to enter the field.

We started to list books that have had a similar impact in other fields. There is Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. Anyone reading that book will surely fall in love with Evolutionary Linguistics.

There is Stephen J. Gould’s Wonderful Life for Paleontology, Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting for theater acting, Walter Murch’s In the Blink of an Eye for film editing, and many more. It would be wonderful to create an authoritative list.

We decided that there should be an option for an NYU professor to take an extra semester sabbatical, with the proviso that he or she read twenty books from that list, and then lead an undergraduate seminar on what has been learned.

I think such a program will improve the level of scholarship at NYU. I wonder whether the University administration will go for it.

Before the Cave, part 8

February 10th, 2018

“What can you tell me about talking to mammoths?” Ilara was genuinely curious now. Maybe she wasn’t the only one.

“I saw it with my own eyes when I was just a little girl. My mother would take me with her when she would go to visit her mammoth guide.”

“Her mammoth guide?”

“Yes, that’s what she called it. I think the mammoth thought of her as a human guide. It all seemed to go both ways.”

“Did you speak to mammoths too?”

“Oh no,” Ilara’s grandmother laughed. “My mother had the gift, but I didn’t. The legends say that her great grandmother had it as well.”

“Does my mother have it?”

“No, she doesn’t even believe it’s real. Most people don’t in these modern times. I wouldn’t have believed it myself, if I hadn’t seen it.”

Ilara’s grandmother leaned forward, peering into her granddaughter’s eyes. “I’m guessing you didn’t come here to talk about old legends. Is there something you want to tell me?”

Before the Cave, part 7

February 9th, 2018

Ilara stood outside uncertainly. She could see her grandmother sitting quietly within, apparently asleep. She hovered near the entrance, not really sure whether it would be polite to walk in.

“Well?” she suddenly heard a familiar from inside. “Are you coming in or are you going to stand out there all day?”

Sheepishly Ilara entered. Her grandmother, sitting exactly as before, seemed to be still asleep.

She suddenly opened one eye, then the other, then grinned at Ilara mischievously. “I hear I have been telling my granddaughter tales of talking mammoths.”

Before the cave, part 6

February 8th, 2018

On the walk back to the village Ilara was lost in thought. She was nearly home when she was startled out of her reverie by her mother’s voice.

“Where have you been? Have you been wandering away from the village again?”

“Why would I do that?” Ilara answered innocently. Technically it wasn’t a lie, so it was ok.

“Well, just don’t go wondering off. Especially now. The Elders say a herd of wild mammoths is passing this way.”

“What do you know about mammoths?” Ilara asked, trying her best to sound casual.

“Well, they are good to eat, but very hard to catch.”

“Do they ever talk?”

Ilara’s mother gave her a strange look. “Has your grandmother been telling you stories?”

Before the Cave, part 5

February 7th, 2018

Before the mammoth could reply, there was a loud rumbling in the distance. Ilara could just make out a cloud of dust. As she strained her eyes to get a better look, the cloud grew larger, and the rumbling became louder and more distinct.

“They will be expecting me I suppose,” the mammoth said.

“Expecting you?”

“The herd. They don’t like when I go missing. Particularly mother.”

“My herd doesn’t like when I go missing either,” Ilara nodded sympathetically. “Particularly mother.”

They looked at each other with a look of quiet understanding. Then the mammoth slowly turned and lumbered off.

Before the Cave, part 4

February 6th, 2018

“You mean we read each others’ minds?” The mammoth looked intrigued.

“Yes, and no. Only the stuff that we would say to each other if we were talking.”

“Well that’s good. I wouldn’t want my privacy invaded by a lower creature.”

Ilara was too excited by this new development to be offended. “You think of humans as lower creatures?”

“Well, yes. As a rule you are puny and small, you have tiny ears and feet, no tusks, and no noses to speak of. It’s a wonder you survive as a species. I expect you will all die out soon.”

“And yet here you are speaking to me.”

“I suppose I am, in a manner of speaking. You as an individual seem pleasant enough. There may be hope for your species.”

Ilana found herself oddly pleased by this. There was something satisfying in being the hope for one’s entire species. She bowed ceremoniously. “The hope of my species, at your service.”

Before the Cave, part 3

February 5th, 2018

“You’re the one whose mouth isn’t moving,” Ilara pointed out, trying to sound polite, and knowing she was not doing a very good job of it.

“My mouth isn’t moving,” the mammoth replied, “because I am not eating. I do not eat when I talk, and I do not talk when I eat. Besides, your nose isn’t moving. Of course with such a tiny nose, like whatever that little thing is on your face, I am not surprised.”

Ilara was starting to get very annoyed. She was about to respond with a really great insult when she had a thought. “Do you talk by moving your nose?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” The mammoth sniffed, eyeing her suspiciously, and paying especial attention to her tiny nose, which had not moved even once during this entire conversation.

“I don’t think,” Ilara said, “that this has anything to do with my nose or with your mouth.”

“You mean,” the mammoth replied, “with my nose or with your mouth.”

“Yes, that too.”

“You mean that either.”

“Yes, that either, um, too.” She didn’t see any point in quibbling. “I think we just sort of can tell what each other is thinking.”

Before the Cave, part 2

February 4th, 2018

“Hello,” said the mammoth.

This puzzled Ilara. As far as she knew, mammoths don’t talk. It seemed to her that this mammoth was breaking some fundamental laws.

And what’s the point of having laws if you’re just going to break them? In any case, the mammoth clearly wasn’t doing what it was supposed to.

Still, the would try to be reasonable about this. “I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be talking,” she said. “You’re a mammoth.”

“And I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be talking,” the mammoth replied. “You’re a human.”

Before the Cave, part 1

February 3rd, 2018

Ilara knew she wasn’t supposed to wander too far from the tribe. But then, she did a lot of things she wasn’t supposed to do.

In this case, the whole idea of “supposed to” seemed unfair. After all, it wasn’t as though she really had a choice. This was where the sighting had been, so this was where she needed to be.

And right now what she really needed to be was very quiet. The tall grass was dry, and easily rustled. If she made any noise that would ruin everything.

She was so busy being quiet, and trying very hard not to move, that she didn’t realize she was no longer alone. Until she felt, more than heard, the giant presence behind her. Startled, she whirled around.

She knew she was supposed to be afraid. But oddly, she felt no fear at all.

The mammoth was looking at her curiously. It didn’t seem afraid either. That was a good start.

“Hello,” she said.