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Jim: Entre percepción y cognición

June 5, 2010

My dead hero is the German botanist aristocrat meterologist Alexander Von Humboldt. He died in 1859 and I read his journal in 2008. Among the things in his journal is an account of his travels around the Carribbean, into Venezuela, and to the top of present-day Pico Humboldt in the Cordillera de Los Andes (which overlooks Mérida, Venezuela) to measure the air pressure and wind speed. (He also would have gone to Brazil but there was a warrant out for his arrest there because of the closed door policy at the time.) During his trip he collected over 3000 plant samples as well as thousands of insects and fungi in small vials.** He took all these measurements with highly crafted instruments (each one with its own special box) to develop unifying concepts about the atmosphere, geology, and biology of the earth. His style of observation, called “Humboldtian science,” is the model for modern science. He bridged the past method of inference and the contemporary style of computer-based statistical analysis.

He was also involved in European politics, music, and literature. I guess the most important thing is that he lived well. And although he saw many things, he also dug into it all and found connections. He had a solid grasp of the distinction between perception and cognition. So he was sane.

On to my weekend… A brief summary: on Friday I went to the botanical garden and walked around the city. Saturday I went to a design fair, had lunch with new Venezuelan friends, met Simón Bolivar, and went to a football game. Sunday I went to an organic farm, a barter market in Tabay, and a violin concert of Bach soloists.

Ceiba tree

The botanical garden is still a place of wonder for me, although I’ve taken the guided tour and volunteered there as a janitor. At a glance, the garden represents a mix of life zones and plant families including dry forest, cloud forest, desert, bromaliads, medicinal plants, fossil plants, and food plants. When you go on the tour you get an appreciation of why every plant is there. But it is a controlled habitat. It’s a museum of plants. The “cloud forest” is maintained with small sprinklers. A trio of men in heavy suits constantly weed wack the four feet tall grass to an eighth of an inch high. I came back today to go to the library at the garden and wondered if a garden could be made that encloses all of the plants but that, with help from the soil and climate, maintains its community structure. We live in an era of systems thinking and the concept of botanical garden as I have seen it is one of compartmentalization. I can imagine that is unlikely in an established garden but in any garden what would the opposition be? Is it because the attempt to do so would, by the limitations of space, create representations of plant communities that are misleading? Or must there be institutions that are so reductive?

Saturday I was reminded of the great entrepreneurial spirit of Venezuelan clothing designers and vendors. There are dozens of dozens of small shops around the city, where the clothes, jewelry, and everything were designed and made in Venezuela by Venezuelans. I’ve been tempted to buy a particular well-designed hoodies at a store where a friend works. The I LOVE DESIGN fair was a small event held in the courtyear of a house at the end of a dirt road. There was a lot of jewelry and a suprising variety of bag designs. I was hoping to go to see my former host sister, who is also a designer. I later learned that she has been too busy trying to open a store in Caracas and a new one in Mérida, which I’m excited to see in about two weeks. More on that later…

Basically, the rest of Saturday was spent with Venezuelan and American friends. In the evening there was a big game of the Venezuela team (“vinotino” or winecolored in English) and the Canadian team. Soccer is the big deal in Mérida, in part because the enormous municipal stadium is just outside the city and tickets are only about $7. Although the game itself was missable, we did have some interesting escapades being given a ride by the father of one of the players and being interviewed about the teams. What happened was that we were walking on the bridge to get to the stadium when this older guy decked out in vinotino gear pulled up and asked if we wanted to jump in the back of his truck for a ride. We naturally agreed because the stadium was near and he didn’t have a gun. We rode past the crowd of vendors that heckle you at the entrance, and I decided to jump out when he stopped to turn around. The guys followed me and as I was walking away the driver called me back and said he wanted to tell me something. He said he was the parent of one of the players, and that we should root for number eight. Now, at that moment I should have jumped back into his truck and rode with him to the VIP seating to meet the team, but instead I just smiled real big and shook his hand like an idiot. Alas… But our next big break was to come.  We were standing around after buying some wine-tinted clothing when a reporter and a cameraman jogged up and start asking us questions in Spanish. Like “What do you think of the vinotinto?” “Why is the vinotino your favorite team?” and “Who is your favorite player?” Of course, with my limited knowledge of Venezuelan soccer, and my friends limited knowledge of Spanish, our cover of love for the vinotino was quickly revealed to be nothing more than a sham of a love for the vinotinto. “Who is the head coach of the vinotinto?” “Who is the striker for the vinotinto?” “Who is the most famous soccer player from Venezuela?” Now, I could bullshit that I love the vinotinto because it’s the best team in South American. And I could bullshit that I love number eight. But I can’t bullshit that I had absolutely no clue about Venezuelan soccer. (I have to admit that the story actually goes on. The reporter, unfortunately not sensing an overlap in reality and vocabulary skills, asked us what we did to prepare for the game. While she began to gesture as if she was stretching, one of my friends volunteered “Tomamos…mucho!” Go. America.)

Sunday I met my botany professor and her two-year-old daughter in Plaza Bolivar, the main plaza, and took a bus to the nearby town of Tabay. We went to visit an organic permiculture farm that was featured in a video that my professor narrated. The trip to the farm involved a hilly taxi-bus ride and was only 10 minutes long but it was a first look into organic agriculture in Venezuela.

The basic idea of the farm is to avoid all chemical imputs and use plants as fertilizer. The edge of the road leading to the farm was covered with piles of compost that are turned into soil amendments and to help protect the soil from eroding on the steep slopes. Everywhere on the ground was plant litter of old crops or weeds that are also meant to help protect the soil. The owner wasn’t there but I was with my professor’s sister who knows him, so we walked to see his nursery, some aromatic plants, and his corn patch. There were chickens in the corn.

So we went back and met my professor at the barter market, or “trueke.” It was housed in La Casa de Diversidad, which is a government museum in the hills of Tabay that has an ample courtyard. As I later learned, the organization of trueke markets is a new project funded by the government and it is has been held in other parts of Mérida state and there are other markets in other states. My professor had been once before and brought baby clothes she hoped to exchange for food.

In Venezuela, there are no thrift shops or second-hand stores. According to my host mother, there is just one store in the center of the city that will buy and resell used clothing that is in really good condition. For the most part, people use things until they are unusuable or they keep them, or they give them to friends or neighbors.

At the trueke I exchanged a bike light, a bottle of hand sanitizer, a bag of 0.5” screw-in ceiling hooks and a Sharpie for a mounted photo of a mural of South America. I also traded a pen for a laminated bookmark. The crowd was a mix of unusually-dressed people, a number of whom could be called “hippies” by American standards. According to my host mother, these people live in the hills of Tabay and typically come in to the center of the city of Mérida to sell jewelry. According to my host mother, President Chavez has announced that everyone should participate in the trueke and they should bring silver to exchange for food, like one hundred years ago. The trueke system has a form of currency called the “condor” but you have to come to three trueke to be able to get it. Personally, I don’t understand why the trueke has money because the money is worthless outside the market but I did enjoy trying to exchange things.

I was writing about Humboldt earlier because I am trying to negotiate between my personal life and my life as a student. I feel on one hand I have been having a number of bohemian experiences. On the other hand, I feel like I have a great interest in the rigorous material I’ve been studying in class about literature and botany. And it always seems to be one to the exclusion of the other. After six years I am still trying to learn how to think and trying to figure out what is really most important for me to learn and think about. So I did do all these cool things, but I missed out on doing hours of school work or researching online. The other thing I’ve been missing out on is answering the questions I’ve been posing for myself. For example, I’d like to know more about the nature of food shortage. I want to understand the recent property reforms in Venezuela, as it affects food production and home construction. I also want to learn how to be an ecotourist. Granted, I have done research into all of these questions, but I have not constructed knowledge about which I am definitely sure. So it is unsettling to me to be too busy to know things for sure. So I have made time to make time to rest, gather myself, and go get it done.

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