If you give a dog a bone, the bone is all there is. For the dog in that moment there isn’t a tomorrow, a “Huh, why the bone?” or “When will I get the next bone?” There isn’t a need to understand how bones form, how it got to the dog, or what the dog should do with it. It knows what to do with it. The dog sticks with the bone.
With any new skill we are trying to learn, and certainly with the language botany, an undeniable urge can creep in to seize at topic all at once, to understand it once and for all. We want to wrap our heads around it, get a bird’s eye view, read a condensed cliff-notes version of it, or get a hold of it as the Germans say, begrif (to hold, to grab). We want to tell it like it is and that is that. Begrif also happens to mean “concept," and concepts as we use them are abstracted notions that simplify a thing in order to make sense of it. In other words, they are inherently incomplete; they don’t do a living thing justice in all its complexity. Concepts are maps, and maps are famously not the territory.
What goodies does this give us, this method of apprehension? It certainly seems useful, makes us feel safe that we know what a thing is because we know how to handle it; where to place it among all the other things. This urge to pin down, to fix (hold still) or explain (make flat) also takes some goodies away, too. It tends to catch the flittering butterfly in the lepidopterist's net.
The dog beholds the bone: gets into it, sits down and chews. It’s interested.
To behold is subtly opposed to take hold. The etymology of behold means to “thoroughly hold.” It is more related to the act of appreciation, closer to the word respect in the sense of re-looking, turning it over in the hand, seeing all the shiny facets glinting in the sunlight. As in a Japanese garden where the path through takes you winding past the same flowers and trees and scenes multiple times in order that you re-spect them, re-view them, admire them from many angles. You don’t get a wowing overview of a Japanese garden, that is too coarse to much eastern sensibility. Miniaturization is more important, as in the art of bonsai. The numerous and varied little wonders—all those little intimate wows—are where the gold is found.
All this takes a bit more work, this beholding, as the poet Wallace Stevens wrote, “The way through the world is much more difficult to find than the way beyond it.”
If someone handed you a puzzle without the box it came in, what would you do? Not knowing quite what you where building, likely you’d start by spreading out some pieces and inspecting them for their qualities: shapes, sizes, colors, textures, tones; their meaning. Soon you’d find a number that fit together, then small groupings and scenes would begin to develop. Every little piece that fits is another yes!
There is always the odd pile, that smattering of I don’t knows. “Where do they all go?” And yet, you keep looking, picking them up, re-viewing, re-specting: “Does this one fit here?” No. “How about here?” Until that moment when you just know it will fit in some precise, particular place… and… it… does! All the little yeses make the whole thing possible.
Though, the end does near if you persist in your folly; the fool eventually becomes wise.
Hold on a minute! A few pieces are missing!!
Let’s just stick with the bones.