It's That Vibe! Why We Need Our Poet Scientists
“The bell rang. The dog barked. Dillon, shush! I opened the door. I had been expecting him and here he was promptly at 3 as we agreed. But when I opened the door he did what I wasn’t expecting. Not even a hello. Of course, we had never met. This was a Meet and Greet. Though I certainly don’t subscribe to a lot of formalities, he left me momentarily speechless. A place I rarely find myself. He put his right hand upon my right shoulder and gently but firmly shoved me aside and moved deliberately forward. Dillon too was speechless, an even more rare event. He quickly dropped to his knees about 2 feet in front of Dillon and allowed him to approach, which he did quickly and silently. His left hand softly on the stem of Dillon’s right ear, the other hand flat against Dillon’s chest. And that was it! There was just this vibe. I had already met several other dog handlers that day and it wasn’t there. I had a vibe. No doubt. This was the person I could trust with my boy.”
That’s the way she tells the story. It is not at all the way I remember it. I consider myself very formal and polite with strangers, but I’ve decided not to resist this narrative. I’ve long been fascinated by the collision, and sometimes collusion, of science and poetry, of “fact” and “fiction.” Sometimes the gist of an event is revealed best with a little bit of poetry, a little fiction. The “truth” is sometimes revealed with a little fiction to reveal the mood. I’ve long considered myself a poor story teller because of some need to adhere to the facts. My sis-in-law once chastised me after telling the story of a dramatic car chase and crash I had witnessed, using just the facts. She said, “Whoa, Andrew, back up. How would Uncle Jimmy tell that story!? There must have been fiery explosions. Decapitations? Something.” In that same vein of storytelling is this notion of a vibe. When does a feeling carry more credibility than the “facts”? I’m not talking about fake news, or outright lies per se. I’m thinking about big blanket words like energy, and feeling, and intuition, raised hackles, aura, spirit, chi. These words typically frustrate me because of their imprecision; they are used to label or define something that lies beneath the consciousness of our words, something deeper than a simple observation might reveal. Sometimes we know things about this world and our fellow beings but we don’t know how or why we know them.
It’s not magic.
It’s not mystical (another abstract word).
The assessment that comes from this vibe or feeling may in fact be True, scientifically speaking, but we may not be able to track how we drew this conclusion. Very recently at another Meet and Greet for dogs, I had that term presented to me again. “I just had a vibe about you.” She said her husband laughed at her for saying that, but there were most likely some practical and factual things about me that created that vibe.
As intriguing as a vibe between humans can be, I am especially interested in the vibe that seems to exist across species. Until fairly recently, there was little scientific evidence that dogs dream. But anyone who has spent time with dogs has little doubt that dogs dream, scientific proof or not. As sure as I am that my 2-year-old human child has dreams, dogs dream. A lot of us have some rapport with non-human animals, especially the ones who live in our homes. We have very little communication that involves the exchange of words, though certainly intonation and volume play a role (and certainly body posture plays a huge role in communication, but that’s a blog for another day). We often have great understanding of the other’s needs and wants. There is a vibe, a feeling that binds us. We observe and actually mentally process huge amounts of activity without processing it into words.
Last fall, like a lot of folks during the 2020 pandemic, I acquired a puppy from the Boulder Humane Society. 8 weeks old and bubbling with life and quirkiness. Billy The Kid. Some mix of Pitbull, Shepherd, and whoknowswhat. He is now 8 months old, all bone and muscle, and a lot of face. We have established many routines, one of which is early morning time. I’m typically the first one up in my house (well, actually our 2 cats, Markus and Lil D, are technically up but just continuing the whine that started at 4am about how starved they are). I feed all 16 legs (2 cats, 2 dogs) and then settle into the couch with a book and my oatmilk latte (don’t judge me!). Billy does a quick sniff of the kitchen floor for one possible scrap of anything to ingest. My old dog, Gracie, goes back upstairs to bed. Then Billy grabs a chew toy and snuggles on the couch next to me, eventually falling back to sleep with his head on my lap. It’s a mostly silent affair, except maybe a loud yawn from BTK and a few sweet nuthins from me whispered into his perpetual 5-o’clock shadow. I suppose there are a lot of dogs or cats I could have this relationship with, but right now it’s this guy. In that early morning moment as the sun is trying to rise, we are bound together, seemingly doing our own thing yet very well aware of the other’s presence. There is nothing said, nothing to say, but there is no doubt a lot of blissful energy.
It’s as if we humans each have two brains: one that works on a verbal level and another that works on some other level that I cannot write concisely about here because I don’t have the words for it. And therein, I suppose, lies a vibe, a feeling, a sense of loving (or loathing, or some other emotion) someone’s energy. When put into words, it can seem pretty hokey, but many of us have come to trust that vibe or feeling (that something or someone is good or bad). I think of it as songs without words, meditating to the inhale/exhale sound and feel of your breath, some sensation that leaves you speechless. I rely heavily on words, but I absolutely love when I can let them go for a while.
Most of my favorite science writers have a style that is akin to a poet. No rhyming words or stanzas, but they have the ability to sew feelings and emotions in between all the science and data stuff! (Alexandra Horowitz’ Inside of a Dog comes to mind. Also, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses.) At the very least, the writing style is entertaining, making some of the dry scientific data more palatable. At best, the poet-scientist is able to go deeper than the scientific data alone. In “good” poetry (and I must admit I find a lot of poetry inaccessible!), information and understanding can be conveyed through a seemingly indirect route, one that creates a mood or emotion. And hopefully that emotion can open a pathway to an understanding, perhaps a deeper understanding, which is just as valid as the understanding that scientific facts can provide.
I have a notion that with some deep pondering and study you can probably track some very real facts that led you to a certain feeling. And, if after some serious investigation you find that you cannot find any substantial pathway for a particular “feeling,” you may want to reconsider its validity. Sometimes this “feeling” left unexamined can lead us down a false and dangerous path.
So pay attention when you feel a vibe. Relish those feelings that come unencumbered by words, but never be afraid to question them, especially if they come from a fellow human! When you sit with your cat or dog, or talk to your bird or plant, just accept those good vibes. You don’t always have to ask how.