Moor, moor, moor: Learning leads to exciting paths

Imagine a narrow beach bordered by high, ragged cliffs, a gray sky, cold and whipping winds, and pounding breakers from the North Sea. A ragged band of men dressed in skins and furs wades ashore. Their wild hair and beards are blowing in the wind that sweeps out of the cold skies.

The men carry swords and spears and are wary as they enter the new land that is untouched and untrodden. The first band finds a way up the cliff face and there they find open moors. Farther off, there are dense forests. In the days that follow, more men wade ashore from the waiting ship and small parties fan out to explore their new home.

The moors seem endless, wild and featureless. The inland forests are pristine and, at times, impenetrable. But these men have known the featureless sea, and they come from a people at home in the forests. They plunge ahead in their explorations. In the midst of large expanses of endless trees, occasionally there are clearings. In these, the sunlight seems more intense and striking to them, in contrast to the expanses of dark and ancient forest. Their name for such a brightly lit clearing is “lea,” derived from “leocht,” their word for light.

The plains, in their sameness, and the forests, with their obstruction of sight, present unique challenges. As they range farther from their beach establishment, they sometimes become disoriented and finding their way is difficult. But there is an advantage to the land that the sea does not possess. Their passing leaves a mark on the land: a footprint, a broken branch, a scratch on a rock. By carefully following the tracks that they, or their fellow explorers, have left behind, they could find their way again to distant places, or home.

Of course, as they follow one another’s footprints through the forests and meadows, the trail soon becomes clear, then worn, and eventually it is a depressed path, almost a furrow, marking the way to travel. Their word for footprint, track and furrow is “leis,” taken from the previously mentioned “lea,” the word they used for the forest clearing. A track provides information, similar to the shedding of light on a subject.

They also developed a special word that means to follow the track, to benefit from the knowledge of those that came before, to memorize the way, to figure out the way to go. They called the process “leornian,” or “lernen,” the word that has become our modern word to “learn.”

As the paths became established, one who had traversed the way many times could describe them to someone else who had not been there. Of course, they wouldn’t describe every step. That would be too confusing. But the experienced traveler could tell about the major landmarks, where to turn at branches in the trail, about how far to go before you would expect to see the next landmark.

Eventually there have come to be many paths in the land. They are worn into deep furrows. Some tracks are visible only to the sharpest eyes. Some go to one place and some to another. But, of course, hearing about the trail isn’t the same as walking the trail. Knowing where you want to go is the most important step in the journey. In the end, if you really want to know, you have to go.

Isn’t it interesting that our word for learning comes from the ancient concepts of sunlit meadows, of tracking previous footprints, of following a trail, and of listening to the tales of those who have traveled before us? Is this the story of society or science?

Perhaps exploring new lands and ideas sounds more romantic than it is. I suppose it is sometimes cold, dangerous and frightening. It is too much to claim that science, or our lives, are ever this exciting. Yet there are similarities.

Welcome to 2012!

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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