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"OH WATERS, TEEM WITH MEDICINE TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE FROM HARM, SO THAT I MAY LONG SEE THE SUN." - Rig Veda
The story, part of it, is that
the tractor was parked, running,
at the top of the hill, and that
my sister Jennie, ten years old, climbed
up and took a seat at the wheel. The story,
part of it, is that my father worked on something
attached behind the tractor, the boom of the digger
or the chain, perhaps; the story does not tell all. It tells
what he said to Jennie, his instruction; it tells
what he said into the fierce wind blowing that day,
the roar of the wind and the roar of the tractor.
He said, “Whatever you do, don't step on the clutch.”
The wind took his words, flipped and turned them,
gusted them even as it gusted everything it could,
even as it tossed the ends of the red scarf Jennie wore,
flapping it out and back, out and back. Jennie
hear him say “Step on the clutch” and she did.
The tractor lurched down the hill like an animal
freed. The story, part of it, tells how the tractor
rolled, gaining, how Jennie stood steadfast
on the clutch, hanging onto the wheel, her hair
and her red scarf flying with the speed of it, how
the tractor roared down the slope until it
hit the barbed wire fence at the bottom,
broke through and rolled over,
how she flew off, and the clutch engaged and
killed the engine. Everything was at that second
silent from the roaring, and Jennie was
face-down on the grass, alive, but he, my father,
thought she was dead.
And years later when my father was dying, I called
Jennie. You'd better come, I said. She arrived
at the hospital and I met her at the main door
to show her through the maze, the halls,
to my father's last room. We turned the turn
and could see him ahead. No longer
a man at work. Or rather a man doing
the new work of dying. He sat in the bed, tubes
into the skin of the back of his hands.
He looked up and caught
sight of her, of us, and then he did what
Jennie cannot explain, get over, understand,
make sense of: he puts his hand over his eyes;
he looked down at the floor while we came to him.
The story, part of it, is that Jennie cannot let go of this.
She told me: It's what he's always done-
he did not want to see me, to look at me.
No, I told her. No, it was to keep from crying.
Complex systems – the object of study in complexity science – present a challenge to narrative frameworks of understanding because they defy narrative explanation, even as they exhibit behaviour that invites it. Narrative is an indispensable part of the cognitive legacy of human evolution and defines the terms of our understanding of spatio-temporal phenomena; yet representing the behaviour of complex systems in narrative form entirely fails to capture their complexity. This is a problem for science communication, because the first principle of effective communication is to tell a story; but its roots lie deeper, with significant implications for the practice of complexity science itself and for the nature of narrative cognition. The principled incompatibility between narrative and complexity can be used to throw each into relief; this talk will outline some of the lines of inquiry that such a strategy opens up. It has the potential to transform the basis of public engagement with complexity science and to facilitate more accountable use of such science to inform policy debate across the vast range of issues to which it applies; it can also demonstrate narrative’s capacity, in its most developed fictional forms, to accommodate our cognitive limitations and refine the resources of narrative meaning.