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A river of Sap

I know people who know things. What octane you get if you mix half a tank of premium gas with half a tank of regular. The odds on getting a particular dice roll or poker hand. How the Grand Canyon formed. Why spiraling footballs go farther. The amount of electricity needed to power a ski lift. How much hotter boiling water gets when you add salt, and why. The number of payphones in London. Why the sun looks larger near the horizon. I know people who know these things and more.

I know these people because I'm one of them. We don't seek each other out, and yet we seem to end up around each other. Perhaps it's because we enjoy discussing how things work, batting around theories and poking holes in each other's explanations. Or perhaps it's because the only people who can put up with a know-it-all for any length of time are other know-it-alls.

It's nice to know things. People bring you questions that have puzzled them, kept them up at night, caused marital strife. The difference between "hanged" and "hung." The correctness of ending a sentence with a preposition. A person who knows things acquires a warm glow of authority and speaks in serious tones while others listen. He gets to nod knowingly and arbitrate disputes.

Some things must be memorized. The periodic table, and a tune you can sing it to. But the best questions require more than a few frozen tidbits. Unless someone asks about your one specific, learned thing, memorizing is not enough.

Instead, we rely on reasoned theories. The people I know can take a few root facts and work up from there, using arithmetic and science and logic. The surface area of the roof of a train car. The number of cars currently on the Golden Gate Bridge. Why there are tides and why there are waves, and whether the phenomena are related.

In fact, a person who knows things can become so used to deriving answers from bits of related fact that he might not realize when he's making a thing up. The line between reasoning analytically and fabricating a story is blurry. How the actions of the Federal Reserve influence stock prices.

My younger sister Laura once asked me where dew comes from. I searched my then-12-year-old brain and proffered an explanation involving condensation, the temperature change of the air at dawn, and pores in the surface of blades of grass.

Laura looked at me hard. "Are you sure?"

"Well, no," I admitted. "But I do know that condensation ."

She walked off before I could finish. She told me years later that it was the first time she realized her big sister didn't know everything.

So it would seem better to say "I don't know" than to fake it and risk disillusioning those around you.

And yet: I was recently traveling with a group in Poland, and someone raised a question about amber, the semi-precious gem. Poland is chock-full of amber. Every gift shop dangles necklaces and bracelets on walls and in windows, and you can find anything from lampshades to chess sets made from it. Where does all this amber come from?

My friend Jason — who legitimately knows many things — piped up with an explanation.

"You know that amber comes from sap, right? The sap pools and gets enclosed somewhere, and then it crystallizes and years later we have amber. Well, what happened was, back in the Pleistocene Era, all of Poland was a rainforest. There were huge trees covering the country. But then, there was a great rise in temperature and all the sap came down from the trees at once, like in maple trees in Vermont when they make syrup but much, much greater. It came down so fast that there was sap everywhere. There was a river of sap covering the earth, more than could be absorbed. It coated bugs and leaves, and that's why there are imperfections in the amber. That's what happened."

We looked at him. Amber comes from sap, sure. And the sap from maple trees comes in volume for syrup — OK. And maybe Poland was once a rainforest. Fine. But a country covered by a river of sap?

Usually when you call the bluff of a person who knows things, he'll back down. But not Jason. He held his sap-covered ground. And so the debate started: Names were called, alternative theories espoused. We talked about it for the rest of the night. We're still talking about it.

Some people say that if you don't know a thing, you should say so up front. (By the way: I don't really remember what I told my sister about dew.) One couple I know has decreed that if either of them doesn't have a definitive answer they must make note of the outstanding question until such time as they can find conclusive proof. No further discussion on that topic is permitted.

What fun is that? No one likes to say "I don't know." And after everyone has admitted not knowing, they can only sit glumly and sigh, wishing they knew smarter people or wondering where to find an encyclopedia or an internet connection.

On the other hand, if someone starts talking about rivers of sap, why, then the excitement begins. People knock down the ridiculous theory, laugh at the supposedly knowledgeable person, explain why a river of sap is a physical impossibility. They also wonder whether the sap river is really the correct explanation after all. And then they order another round of drinks and speculate on why there's so much turquoise jewelry in the southwestern United States.

But the true beauty of an answer like the river of sap is, you feel so certain it's wrong that it sticks (sorry) in your head, and the next chance you get, you look up the real answer. And so you get the best combination: a spirited discussion and the eventual truth.

So, the next time you don't know an answer, think of the river of sap, take a breath, and make something up. And make it good.

Copyright © 2001 Cynthia Closkey

As for the river of sap theory .... This web site about amber, unaffiliated with Inkburns or our friend Jason, discusses its origins. It describes resin flowing down rivers in what is now Poland. Does that count as a "river of sap"? Inkburns does not pretend to know the answer.