Generally True Patterns #10

Green Mertensia, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Green Mertensia, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

 

 

Part 10 of 22

Chapter 5 Part I The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order (person/nature separation)

There is an undeniable interrelatedness of subatomic forces, ecology, politics, spirituality, and romantic intimacy as realized specific examples of the larger potential of patterns. Pattern recognition calls for a denial of the tendency to assign each quality of nature a status of absolute separateness. This is not to be confused with identifications of specific separateness, for instance the morphology (form and structure) and taxonomy (genetic relationships) of plants and animals. Identification of something as one thing is a major preoccupation of scientists and those like me who make brief forays into their world.

Coming down a ridge in the high country spruce forest just below tree line, I see a moving shadow, but it is such a small thing that perhaps it is not precisely the sight of something, but more a sense of the presence of motion. As any wild thing would when confronted with the mysterious, I freeze in mid-step awaiting additional signals. I scan a rock field ahead, an inlay of small boulders on a steep slope mostly shaded by the trees. At the nearest edge of rocks, just ahead, I again get the impression of a flicker of movement, but this time not of shadow but of diminutive substance.

The tiny head and shoulders gradually resolve themselves connecting to a sleek body and narrow tail. The reductionist part of my mentality engages memories of classification schemes: Flesh-eating predator, Order: Carnivora. Furbearer, Family: Mustelidae, generally characterized by short legs, rounded ears. Then, in contravention to the inner wildlife biologist, the naturalist emerges as well: this group of animals is generally perceived as aesthetically pleasing to those of us who do the classifications. The family includes minks and skunks, but this is a miniature predator, Genus: Mustela, or weasel. Later, in reviewing my field notes, I find that I have tentatively identified this one as Mustela erminea(Ermine or Shorttail weasel) with “reddish top, cream bottom.” An Ermine is whiter on the ventral while Mustela frenata(Longtail weasel) is more yellowish. Frenataof the same sex is marginally larger, but what sex and what age is this one? And what is marginally? They are all small. As to tail length, I didn’t get a good enough look at the tail to know for sure.

This Mustela of whatever persuasion has no problem sighting me and after a moment’s peering and consideration from the vantage point of its rock, vanishes. It is simply gone from one second to the next while my brain has not registered the progress of its disappearance. This is not unique; an entire herd of elk can fade into deep brush even as we watch and then be gone as thoroughly as if they never existed. This feat is even more easily accomplished by a creature I could easily hold with one hand and nearly enfold with two. I climb across unstable rocks to reach the place once occupied by the creature. There is a deep hole into which it apparently has dropped. Above, on cloudless day, the sun has passed through mid-afternoon almost to the moment where its rays will noticeably angle. For now, all the upper world is in a state of bright luminosity making the blackness of the hole all the more exceptional. I lie down on the rocks and push my face to the edge of that blackness trying not to cast further shadow upon the entry into the miniature cave.

The weasel looks back at me, I suppose with equal curiosity. Like other predators, they are seemingly fascinated by what goes on around them, including the highly unfamiliar. In this remote place, far from any trail, it is possible that this one has never before beheld a creature of my kind. An occurrence of optical physics works to my advantage. A narrow beam of light at the same angle as the tunnel shines in just enough that, while it gives no illumination of the rocky dimensions, shines directly into the eyes of the weasel like that of car headlights reflecting from the eyes of an animal on a night road. Its eyes glow like silvery metallic turquoise beads, a description that must do although it is far from the mark.

A physicist might gauge the frequency of this reflected light to determine its place on the light spectrum; a biologist could kill the weasel, then pluck out its eyes to count the rods and cones and pigment fragments concluding with a check of its mammae, teeth, and of course, length and ventral coloration. But as I encounter this elegant being, I am seeing an order of a different kind, a reflected color from the eye that I have never seen in nature or art. I will be forever haunted by the moment. Those eyes are made of atoms from suns so long ago exploded and dispersed through the galaxy that even the broadest use of our imaginations can scarcely cope with the time and distance. The way we choose to order things in relation to other things is the key to how we perceive the three realms.

The way we order our knowledge of nature (relationships within the entirety) tells everything about us. How we do so is generally predictive of how we will treat one another and all other agents of the environment of which we are a part. Our resistance to accepting that energy input into a system leads to motion and instability, and that it thus means change, is severe. Perhaps this is because major change suggests literal death or at least metaphoric death of our ideas and ideology. Even when it is accepted, it can be melancholic as in Tennyson:

And slowly answer’d Arthur from the barge:

‘The old order changeth, yielding place to the new.’

Our continual attempts to deny a connection to something larger than ourselves are a form of resistance to the lessons of the generally true patterns. The patterns suggest a person/nature connection; we are in relation to all else with no possibility of being alone. But the way we live now, practicing the way of the person/nature split, places us in a kind of afterlife, something like the ancient Greek shades (ghosts or souls) of hell who live within observation distance of nature and at the same time beyond touch or understanding of it.

Then as now, the truthfulness of those who wield power can be tested: the more they conjure fear and enjoin hatred in their followers, the more likely they are to be liars who say what they do to gain control over others by a call to person/person separation or person/nature separation. Negativism is made easy to buy into because of our broad scale disconnection from the other two realms. The belief in separateness itself makes the potential order of the generally true patterns invisible. We have become shades by choice rather than by death. The massive violence inflicted by peoples upon one another and against nature must arise from our beliefs, or to put it another way, from our disbelief in the order of connection.

Next essay: Chapter 5 Part II The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order

 

 

 

 

Generally True Patterns #9

Daisy, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Daisy, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

 

 

Part 9 of 22

Chapter 4 Part II Connection and Separation (boundaries)

The belief that we can arrive at absolute knowledge of something presupposes that that something can exist in a static, unchanging state. The evolutionary view of pattern recognition suggests the impossibility of an unchanging condition. Our perceptions and consciousness of nature is in an endless process of movement and change. We are not separate from the reality we speculate upon. Consciousness and external connections form a continuum of boundaries, expanding the first statement of the pattern:

All situations of things, events, processes, and organizations exhibit motion and change—there is no situation of unchanging condition.

 Our perceptions of divisions divide us from each other and from nature, but we can also perceive reality as a flow rather than a series of breaks. How we order language, mathematics, and knowledge in general shows the deep ways in which we connect or disconnect the things and processes of reality to and from each other.

Divisions in our perceptions of things, events, and processes are confused for actual breaks in reality rather than analytic tools. In contrast, the harmony of individuals and societies with nature could arise from a recognition that patterns work in a similar way across all boundaries, including those boundaries we cannot define precisely. Indeed, giving up a need to define all boundaries with certainty may be achieved more easily as we begin to understand that such definitions are not always important.

If we re-order our perception of nature so that vague boundaries do not become insurmountable barriers, then we accept that our understanding of it may reasonably change over time, just as nature does itself. There are historic examples of our having changed the way we conceptualize. Newton and Einstein in science or Picasso and Kandinsky in art changed how we use physics and how we use visual imagery. Following these perception shifts, language evolution—new words or new uses of old ones—followed. Similarly, the statement of generally true patterns represents a way to achieve the recognition of flow, rather than disconnection, as the more accurate model of nature.

All events, objects, entities, and knowledge are not things separate from each other, but are realized specifics unfolded from the potential of generally true patterns. Everything that is realized in a way we can recognize (supernova explosions, garter snakes catching lizards, the appointment of a Supreme Court justice, a radioactive waste spill) is part of a larger process of change and movement. David Bohm makes an analogy to the flow of a stream, the ripples, waves, and vortices of which create patterns that are seen individually but that are not independent of the larger flow. Herakleitos observed that a river may be entered once, but not twice, since the water first encountered has moved on. In Siddhartha, Herman Hesse wrote that a stream always lives in the present, at once at its source, its middle, and its end. The state of constant change itself seems to act as the one quality that does not change. Knowledge itself is a manifestation of this generally true pattern. According to David Bohm in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, all thought and all things are themselves abstracted from the total process of reality, “incorporating both thought and what is thought about in a single movement,” a direct philosophical conclusion drawn from quantum mechanics.

The implication of pattern recognition is that we affect and are affected by the systems (business, relationship, environment, etc.) of which we are a part. The causality of events, consequences, and ideas have effects that pass through time and distance while not being interpretable in a merely linear fashion. Nor can any measurements account for all the variables of the system. Given this difficulty in accounting, generally true patterns reveal laws, rules, and tendencies within nature that exist on a broad scale. Applying awareness of these patterns to the circumstances of our own lives can provide guidance. Admitting to the primacy of change as basic to all operations of nature is a first step in this process.

The structures of generally true patterns are helpful in the examination of boundaries since systems are not entirely isolated from each other but subject to mutual influences through the various levels as well as among the three realms. At the quantum (very small) level of system activity, measurement is difficult because the rapidity of change may be greater than the response time of instruments needed to record the change. Bigger systems—commodities markets, for example—change more slowly, but the problem of measuring the rate of change or analyzing the pathways on which events move through adjacent systems remains daunting. Specific, localized quantum rules are different from commodities market rules, but the underlying pattern of change is the same: the pattern potential unfolds as realized events across particular cases.

On a larger scale, Einstein thought of the universe as a kind an unbroken whole rather than a collection of components. An example of wholeness comes from astronomy where energy across a spectrum of light and sound from different places and different times travels through time and space to intersect our seeing and hearing. Traveling energies are folded together through the vastness as a potential which, when it strikes us and our instrumentation, becomes realized events of sound and light, a depiction of an unfolded whole: not a final conclusion, but a demonstration of connectedness to the rest of nature.

The conceptual belief in boundaries and unchanging permanence is based on the analogy of machine-like parts that interact but exist independently of one another. By contrast, the enfolded order can be understood as the biological analogy of a living body (or system) where parts are not independent or even interdependent but are in an entire relation of uncertain boundaries. Further consideration of generally true patterns will help in explaining the connections.

Next essay: Chapter 5 Part I The Order of Connection/The Connection of Order

 

Generally True Patterns #8

Buttercups, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Buttercups, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

 

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

 

 

 

 

Part 8 of 22

Chapter 4 Part I Connection and Separation

On the prairie, as elsewhere, everything starts with the sun, but it is grass that first captures the imagination, grass which lives in a kind of symbiosis with fire. Tall grass rattles together like the sticks of wooden chimes suspended from porch eves. It is a mass of interwoven stems which, except when burned off, grazed down, or defoliated, intercept even the hardest rain, transforming its harsh impact to a gentle slide along ramps into the soil. Wind-blown grass forms troughs and crests so that the prairie sea appears light green when seen with the wind and dark green when the wind makes it bow towards us. The prairie turns from a photosynthesizing life color in spring to reddish-dun as summer passes; it changes to red-copper in wet gray autumns, then to blanched straw in winter, seemingly dull or glowing depending upon clouds and the angle of diffused or direct light escaping from above. At the end of winter, fires cause the above-ground parts of the plants to wither into ash. Briefly, the land itself becomes black.

Fires gold-rim the night hills in convex semi-circles of neon crowns. In the day, grass smoke from prairie fires can rise in fast thermal columns enveloping a passing cumulous cloud, a wispy gray embrace of white mass. Below, drifts of black ash pile against revealed sharp fragments of flinty rocks hidden beneath the grass at other times. Rains will turn the land to dirt brown again without the danger of erosion. The greatest extent and biomass of grass lies beneath the surface where each plant may have roots cumulatively miles in length. The boundary of the prairie is somewhere between deep in the earth and far up into the sky; it extends into eastern forests and western deserts, with a linage going back over ten million years. Its sod lay unbroken since the last ice age until ravaged by machines.

The boundaries of a plant or an ecosystem or a solar system are less subject to physical proof regarding its proposed extent than to the system of imagination we impose in the seeking of definition. There is first the physical problem of defining where a grass plant begins or ends. Does it start with sub-atomic properties? Does it end at the tip of the blade, or with the blades of its distant kindred, or does it end with the visual termination of the prairie aggregate, at the gash of a road or the sweep of a river bend? Even if those questions could be answered, the boundary of a plant or a prairie or of the thermodynamic forces at work in the creation and maintenance of that system are in constant flux—as is the way we imagine that plant or prairie to exist in the world.

When I lived in the Flint Hills of Kansas, I would follow the fires across ranch land. Fires have been purposefully set by humans from the time before the entry of the Europeans to the present. The prairie as it has evolved over the past several thousand years is a human/grass ecosystem. Burning off dry grass releases nutrients back into the soil and despoils the above-ground portions of old dead growth so that new growth can take advantage of maximum sunlight. The blackness behind the fire is just grass ash; the ground does not change color except by what overlays it at a given moment. The passing wall of fire, even where it flares up to many times my height, is often thin, in one place the length of my hand, in another about three paces across. There are brief moments when it flashes forward, wind-driven. Walking close behind the fire is not dangerous when the wind is not threatening, for it cannot turn back upon itself in places where the fuel has already burned. The ground remains warm behind the fire path, but burned grass leaves no hot embers. Whitish rocks show an oily brownish cast from plant resins, but stay hot for only two paces behind the just-passed flames of a slow moving fire, thereafter quickly cooling. Broad-leaved shrubs may survive the fires if they have received enough moisture. Cow dung (it used to be bison) continues to smolder after fire passes over, casting out thousands of little smokes from the black expanse. When a tree succumbs, a miniature fire may range inside its walls for hours afterwards.

Ashes crumble to the slightest touch. A strong wind will sort out the ash, sift it from piled to flat so that within a day or two the blackness will start to diminish. Winter wheat fields, riparian shores and deep thickets of sumac are unaffected by the passing firestorm, although white smoke crept through those places with choking force while the fire raged. Every curve of hill and all wheel ruts and previously hidden rodent trails show graphically after the fire, transforming the landscape to a vulnerable nakedness in which meadowlarks and crows and killdeer and coyotes hunt for the charred bodies of insects and rodents or the live survivors with nowhere to hide.

Within a few days wildflowers show everywhere as life rises from the ashes; the life/ash ecotone is a continuum and not one of separate components. Within a week, coffee brown earth will be tinged with green, and in two weeks the land will become recognizable prairie once more. In a month, the tall-grass prairie will be fully restored. It was once like this over much of the North American continent. Except for parts of the Flint Hills in Kansas, the Sand Hills in Nebraska, parts of the Dakotas, and lesser remnants of unbroken sod elsewhere, the original ecosystems of the prairie are largely destroyed. The remnants keep to their fire and rain rituals, growing in spring, decaying back to visually simpler form in the off-season, waiting for us to leave, to reclaim the overgrazed pastures and the wheat fields, to cover and protect the land again when we are gone.

The prairie, a story of fire, is one specific example of a generally true pattern:

There is no situation of un-change.

 Identifying generally true patterns is a means of making sense of non-linear processes. Coming to a deeper understanding of processes, rather than prediction of specific outcomes, is the goal of pattern recognition. Physical occurrences such as fire force change on life systems in a way that is sensible in the aggregate while much less knowable in the outcomes for individual lives. The lessons of prairie fire ecology present a model of interconnectedness. Our more common approach of fragmenting problems into manageable bits can be a useful illusion particularly in technical matters of science and engineering. But separation, as a thing itself, has its limits as shown by the impossible task of determining the boundary of even a single prairie grass plant.

If the perception of separation creates separation, then it may be equally possible that the perception of connectedness could create connectedness. Pattern recognition presents a way to imagine connectedness in a meaningful way. The person/nature split is an outcome of a belief in certainty. When beliefs are assigned permanent true/false values, they lead us to a static view of nature and society, thus becoming a limiting factor on thought and a self-perpetuating mechanism keeping our knowledge in a fragmented state. Were language to allow, the perception of holistic reality would create a holistic response. There is no one way to look at realities, but many ways to look at one reality. There is no arrival at absolute truth (through science or any other means), but there are insights changing over time that give us a way into understanding the nature of knowledge and experience.

Next essay: Chapter 4 Part II Connection and Separation

Generally True Patterns #7

Big Horn Sheep on distant ridge, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Big Horn Sheep on distant ridge, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

 

 

Part 7 of 22

Chapter 3 Part II The Search for Boundaries

In this nonlinear universe, outcomes do not owe their trajectories to senselessness. When an action takes place, it does so based on mathematical probabilities of outcome. Outcomes may be uncertain: the direction of subatomic particles following collision in an accelerator. They can be clearly deterministic: a plant seed lands in fertile soil or on a large rock either germinating or not. They may be especially complex, particularly in the social realm with the generation of new more highly structured organizational forms: the International Monetary Fund is created at the end of World War II as a mechanism of economic stability. The importance of this process is that once a decision or action has been taken, the course that ensues is irreversible, but also subject to further change with the next input of energy.

Agents within a system will be altered by energy input (pollution kills off organisms) and the system may self-organize into a new form (a drained swamp becomes a barren plain with an entirely new component of organisms). Our interpretation may be of change as creative or destructive. The introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park fostered an expansion of the wolf gene pool. That change, however, caused a rapid decline of the coyote population and a slower decline in the mountain lion population as the more efficient wolves out competed other large predators. The predator-prey system in the park self-organized into a new form with unanticipated consequences such as elk more often retreating from riparian areas resulting in less trampling of fragile locations. Elk shy away from aspens where they are more easily ambushed by wolves, with the result that aspens experience more growth in summer and provide more forage for elk in winter when the groves less easily conceal wolves.

This relationship becomes more complex because of the energy input by humans in making the decision to reintroduce the wolves. This input of money (to trap, transport, and release wolves) and political will (wolves valued as an intrinsic part of wild-nature in the park) is as much a natural process as wolves killing off their coyote competitors or elk learning to move away from brushy streams. The interpretive and evaluative part of this process (Was reintroduction of wolves a wise decision?) is equally a natural process. The consequences of both conceptualization (creating a set of environmental values) and physical action (introducing wolves) are examples of forms of conversion. It is unavoidable that all actions by humans are natural regardless of how wise or unwise such decisions might become in retrospect. This is why dealing with the person/nature split is of vital importance: all of our decisions send out disturbances throughout the world.

An action by an agent will determine the next step in a process, even if in a non-predictive manner. All actions taken by us from conceptualizing new weapons of mass destruction to flooding farm fields with insecticides can be understood as experiments in forms of conversion. We add the energy and see what happens. We can take a step towards a person/nature connection by considering probabilities of consequences on all aspects of the three realms before actions are initiated. The significance of deciding which world fisheries to expand, contract, or close, or of whether to try atmosphere dimming to control global warming is of wide reaching importance. Not understanding (or even acknowledging) the person/nature connection could be fatal for ourselves and other species.

Forms of conversion take this generally true pattern:

Instability within a system leads to change.

 Without instability there is no chance for creativity. New order arises from past instability. Any system open to energy input will change over time. Even energy expended to ward off change and maintain stability (a corporate official covering up losses from shareholders) can lead to instability. Change compounds so that evolutionary rules themselves can alter dramatically. Eons ago oxygen-intolerant bacteria released oxygen as a waste product. This gas built up in the atmosphere until poisoning many early single cell organisms out of existence. The presence of oxygen at a certain concentration became deterministic of the mass extermination that followed. A series of small actions such as the release of carbon dioxide from a single motor vehicle causes quantifiable alteration of the atmospheric system when, in aggregate, many individuals repeat the same small action.

Instability within a system leads to non-predictive outcomes for individuals, but pattern recognition leads to an understanding of outcomes on a larger scale. Within living systems, the collective actions of individuals on other individuals have immediate consequences. Off the California coast, sea lions swim in roughly circular patterns around schools of fish forcing them to bunch. By concentrating the fish, occasional forays into their midst by the predators results in a higher probability that an individual sea lion will catch an individual fish. At the same time, pelicans attracted to the motion of fish and sea lions dive into the center of the action. The situation is one of numbers but also of individual luck in hunting. The outcome of such situations is one of immediate life or death consequences for individuals, but also of aggregate outcomes over time leading to species continuation or extinction. While fishing success for the fishers as a whole is probable, the success rate for any one fisher cannot be predicted. The chances of any one particular fish being eaten can be expressed as a probability but not as a certainty.

There is no static nature, only a state of constant, disconcerting, and unrelenting creativity, final outcome unknown. As energy moves through a system of planets, sea lions, or economies, decisions are made, actions taken, forms of conversion build up into novel events then break down again to take yet another new shape. Every system is ultimately configured movement.

Next essay: Chapter 4 Part I Connection and Separation

Generally True Patterns #6

Arctic Sandwort, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Arctic Sandwort, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

 

 

Part 6 of 22

Chapter 3 Part I The Search for Boundaries

Energy can accumulate into useful function or dissipate into purposeless void. Either way it both creates us and is created by us. Overcoming the person/nature split begins with identifying examples of generally true patterns with which we are presented on a daily basis. I recognized them while traveling Highway 93, a dismal route flattening out north of Kingman, Arizona. The road begins with a series of graphic official signs depicting auto collisions. If one does not drive off the road in the reading, these signs carry messages warning of carnage on this stretch of pavement, or perhaps on our life journey. They warn against drunk driving (that action, the temporary anesthetizing of desire), encourage seatbelt use (an approach to the alleviation of suffering), and demand that drivers keep their lights on at all times (right in action, mindfulness, etc.).

This highway is not only the way to Las Vegas. It is also the way back. I spot a man sitting on an abandoned dirt road which is cut short by a barbed wire fence. He is too far from Highway 93 to actively pursue hitchhiking. He is seated on a large mustard green suitcase. He looks off into the barren distance with the same non-revealing expression you can see on any of the slots players from Beatty to Reno to Cripple Creek. Busloads of white, older middle-aged and elderly people travel these roads. Some end up sitting on suitcases outside of Kingman. What weight keeps him sitting on a road to nowhere, robbing him of any desire to go on?

Farther north is the awful grandeur of Hoover Dam. Its dark toilet-drain shaped emergency spillway is frightening, the last plunge of the most magnificent corpse of a lake, the free spirit of a river killed in a head-on collision with concrete. Like the man on the suitcase, this river is stuck, converted instead into hydro-electric energy to power gambling casinos for men with green suitcases to deposit into slot machines, coin by coin, their life savings, their houses, their families, their lives. This deathly chain mimics the natural birth-death-decay-regeneration cycles. Do the dam builders, in their dreams, feel the weight of all that cold dead water?

As I accelerate the car to escape the endless webs of power lines, I see that we are running out of things to conquer. The energy of violence we put into the world (greed, pollution, habitat destruction, overpopulation) distributes itself as instabilities creating the violence we get back (war, famine, pandemic disease). I want to get away from the bleak pattern examples and later, at sunset on another highway in the eastern foothills of the Sierras, I find a sign enticing me to a better place. “Idyllic log cabin resort-on-a-stream, bedroom, kitchen, bath, surrounded by ponderosas.” A half hour and twenty miles out of my way I find its reality: a clapboard hut of one small, smelly dark room with a neglected sink and sagging bed, and attached, barely, a claustrophobic shower stall and stained commode. It is set back ten feet from a highway and is nowhere near water except during rain storms. Outraged by the lie, I speed back on a road winding steeply down through sagebrush and oak.

A deer fawn leaps from the shrubs directly into the path of the car. I see nothing more than a brownish flash of movement but hear a dull thump which sounds like the striking of a large pillow. Heart racing, I keep control of the car even as I shove in the clutch, slam on the breaks and skid through a curve onto the road’s rough gravel shoulder. Without consciousness of the action, I find myself kneeling by the deer, shaking, running my hands over its side. Guts ruptured, neck broken, blood everywhere, an instantaneous death, a horrifying trophy. I wrap my arms around its shoulders and lift, dragging the animal into olive colored sagebrush, hidden from the road as if in an attempt to hide the murder. It has weight, but it is the deer’s warmth that seems heaviest. I apologize to this small once living evidence of energy, movement, position. It grew not much higher than my car bumper before its demise. In its death it will provide sustenance for the energy of other lives although that is little consolation. A shocked doe and its remaining fawn cross the highway. They stare at me and the dead fawn for a long time.

Destitute men slump on green suitcases in the desert. Nihilist engineers defile rivers with dams. Speeding naturalists smash hapless deer on roads to nowhere. Each of the events serves as a question about the person/nature split. How is it that we kill what we love on the shoulders of these highways of life? The weight of each question rises to become truth. There is a weight to mindlessness. We drive like we alone own the place, but deer blood on my clothes suggests otherwise. I am stained with memory of the deer; we are no longer separate.

We imagine the presence of boundaries. This comes from the necessary imposition of physical and mental structures we impose on the continuum of the entirety to make sense of it, but from an individual point of view boundary constructs can also serve as barriers or stops in our understanding, a willful denial of the larger systems of which we are a part. For convenience, we pretend that systems exist outside of time and change, that is, we act as if systems are closed: Marriage must be between a man and woman. God is defined by certain attributes but not others. Preservation of the environment must be balanced against the needs of large businesses. Deer and other objects will stay out of our way. The world we fabricate is different from the actual unfolding of patterns over time. Open systems of the social realm (religious institutions, political parties, businesses, the commitments of two persons to one another) are specific examples of a larger pattern common to all closely aligned collections of interacting agents:

Energy moves through all systems.

An idealized social organization acting in accordance with this pattern finds that energy (information) input is actively sought and allowed to flow freely among its stakeholders resulting in a degree of instability (the necessary font of creativity). As this energy dissipates through the system, new ideas emerge in a non-linear way that is natural but non-predictive. This dissipation can be understood as forms of conversion where new ideas (such as a new method of teaching) or new objects (a larger truck added to the fleet) restructure the system so that it takes a shape, either slightly or radically different than its shape prior to the input of the new energy. Chemist and Nobel Prize laureate Ilya Prigogine recognized the changing forms of systems over time as “dissipative structures.” Open systems, that is, just about everything we know of or come into contact with, exist in a far-from-equilibrium state where the input of energy causes instabilities.

All systems, including astrophysical, chemical, ecological, economic, and political, maintain an inflow and outflow of energy with the environment during the time they survive. Energy movement creates temporary states of dynamic equilibrium the shifting form of internal processes and external relations can leave the system teetering on the brink of not working at all. This is of vital importance, for in any system where an input of energy (nuclear fuels, raw meat, political activism) can push that system to instability and change it to an altered form, amplification of agents within the system can take place. The most spectacular example of this kind of amplicate unfolding is the evolution of sensory abilities of life forms culminating in consciousness. The process of energy moving into and through an open system to change its functioning is what I mean by forms of conversion. The distribution or dissipation of energy always carries consequences.

A change in circumstances, a decision taken, or shift in direction within a system caused by an input of energy (nuclear explosion, arrival of a new species, retirement of a chief executive officer) leads to non-predictable outcomes. This is the process of creative evolution. Decision points are known as bifurcations, events that seem a matter of chance, but are chaotically determined based on probabilities arising from earlier decisions. It is just as true for the universe as a whole as it is for you forgetting to engage the parking brake of a car left on a steep hill. Within a general parameter of chaotic patterns, the released vehicle will take any of several downward courses, the exact one of which cannot be known in advance, although the result can be reconstructed historically with great precision. Limited predictive ability, however, is not equivalent to simply not knowing. A broadly stated generally true pattern such as energy moves through all systems (and more focused ones to follow later) establishes a connection from enfolded potential to unfolded realization. It is often our inability (or unwillingness) to make fundamental connections at a deep level that leads to our confusion over the significant outcome of an event that blindsides us (such as running over a deer while driving too fast). The unfolding is a fractal-like, pattern of endless possibilities. Nature is both vast and connected in its unrevealed potentialities, in its realized specifics, and in our perceptions.

Next essay: Chapter 3 Part II The Search for Boundaries

Generally True Patterns #5

Alpine Sunflower, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

Alpine Sunflower, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

 

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a part of Nature

 

Part 5 of 22

Chapter 2 Part II Historical Connections of the Anthropocene 

Revealed (or actual) order is never complete in a non-static universe. Instead, nature is in a state of continual transition, and because of the relatedness of all its components, all that is, is part of a continuum of dynamic processes. Relational thinking suggests this pattern:

All things, events, and processes arise in our perception from somewhere.

 Anything that can be actualized references other entities either because of shared history or by means of some contemporaneous action:

A thing becomes a thing following its move from an abstraction to a concrete reality or actual occasion of something.

 There are many things (and events and processes) that exist as abstraction which may be realized as a unified thing—an object or thought, for instance. Every realized event—the collision of astral bodies, the flowering of a lily, the discovery of a mathematical theorem, drought, the life cycle of a civilization—is the result of a large process including other realized events, and ultimately of the enfolded order of potentiality.

Examples of revealed, unfolded things, events, and processes may be called actual or specific fact. The generally true pattern (from which specifics arise) of all actions have consequences is an enfolded potential until unfolding as an actual realized occurrence. The initial cause of the generally true pattern itself is unknowable. The manifestation of the pattern as something specific, and thus measurable or knowable on some level, is where we begin to take an interest. For instance, the action of damming a river lowers water temperatures downstream upon release of deep, cold water creating deteriorating conditions for lower river aquatic life. The reason the actions have consequences concept is important is because it demonstrates our connectedness to the larger scope of nature.

All things are interconnected by process, the unfolding of potential into realization. Process can also be understood as change, chance, evolution and history. All realized occurrences (mental or physical events) can be studied as the outcomes of processes and can give insight into those processes through inferences, either inductively (individual instances supporting a general conclusion) or deductively (general observations leading to specific instances). The nature of process is a generally true pattern of paradox:

Realized outcomes of things, events, and processes are both deterministic and unpredictable.

 A primary example of deterministic unfolding is the existence of the four fundamental physical forces: gravitation, the electro-magnetic force, the strong force (binding agent of the atomic nucleus), and the weak force (particle decay or radiation). The slightest change in any of these laws would have made life (as we recognize it) impossible, but since these forces came into being as they did, the creation of life and consciousness became inevitable—proven by the fact of our being here. Another way to state this pattern is that a particular process has a particular outcome, but we can’t always know that outcome in advance. All we know is that something we say, write, or act upon will set in motion a process resulting in a particular outcome: A war waged by the United States on Iraq will have a certain outcome, one that cannot be known in advance.

Generally true patterns can also be considered in terms of a third variety of inference, abduction, (coined by Charles S. Peirce) which provisionally assumes that the offered explanation, if shown to be correct, gives clarity to the question under study. He held as well that an idea should be examined in light of its consequences, an idea that informs this study.

Patterns can be understood as relatively simple rules. These, however, can be combined to create complex outcomes of visual form (such as fractals) or behavior (such as the construction abilities of bees and beavers). Installing a set of rules into an ant’s brain to control each fragment of behavior necessary to construct a tunnel and nest system is impossible (not enough capacity in the neural system). The development of philosophy also cannot be precisely genetically coded. But the inborn rules of sensory and symbolic inquiry can be combined in ever changing ways to achieve extraordinary results. The ability to recognize the patterns that connect us to the rest of nature could be an example.

The ability to recognize change itself is inherent to all life, starting with reactions to changes in surrounding chemistry and temperature recognized by even the simplest life forms. Those reactions can be as simple as moving closer to or farther away from stimuli, or evolving into a new form altogether.

All things, events and processes of the entirety change and evolve.

 All things are in the process of becoming something else. For us, the altering of conceptualization and consciousness is an example; all states of mind and perception are temporary before the next moment of greater or lesser change. Even the closed system of a rock crystal on the hillside above my house is a temporary state, old rather than eternal. The comprising minerals were once below ground and molten; some day our expanding star will engulf the earth and render its crystals into yet another thing. This means that the motion inherent to all processes is of ever-change:

The processes of reality are always in motion, regardless of time scale.

Another way to put this is that the systems of all things, processes and events have position and velocity. This includes the smallest theorized subatomic particles, rock crystals, Labrador Retrievers, and ideas.

Systems exist in a state of continual non-equilibrium (according to Ervin Laszlo and other theorists) where stability is (sooner or later) overcome by change. The premier example from living systems is when, after eons of time, organisms evolved from simple cell division to genetic recombination through sexual reproduction. The loss of stability led to multitudinous variety.

When living systems such as businesses or sciences or even civilizations accept change as a natural dynamic by working with its forces, they remain open to energy input and thus in line with the evolutionary/creative processes of generally true patterns. Interconnections within or among systems (called process structures by mathematician Erich Jantsch), leads to “self-organization,” or the coming together of that system. The change process (instability) comes about through the movement of energy. If we accept the generally true pattern of All things, events and processes of the entirety change and evolve, then we have we have given acceptance to evolution in our environment and as our environment. Instability within a system can be the cause of unsettledness, but this place of tension is also the font of creativity.

Next essay: Chapter 3 Part I The Search for Boundaries

 

Generally True Patterns #4

Alpine Forget-Me-Not, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

Alpine Forget-Me-Not, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

 

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

Part 4 of 22

 

Chapter 2 Part I Historical Connections of the Anthropocene

In the mountains north of where I live, at tree line, the place above which the environment is too harsh to support the growth of trees, there are signs on a ridge trail where three paths intersect. The last spruces live there, shortened in height, branches on the southwest face of the trunks blasted away by winter winds. Higher up are alpine meadows where the snow blows off; below, the thick, dark forest traps that snow, holding it until spring. The trail’s junction is marked by two small wooden signs, one mounted above the other, giving rise to the quality of uncertainty.

They are connected by a narrow board attached with a single nail to the wrinkled grayish-white skeleton of a long dead tree. Their message, the information they were meant to convey, is missing, abraded by the wind as thoroughly as the missing spruce branches. No writing or symbol remains, nor the faintest trace of paint or metal. The signs must once have been sharply rectangular sawed lumber but now have edges weathered to rough smoothness. Their light gray color nearly matches that of the dead tree to which they are attached, the aged patina of an old growth forest that has lived here since the last ice age. Perhaps the tree still lived when the signs were posted and they grew old together. One might miss them or see past their meaning, but what appears unreadable is not necessarily without meaning.

In whatever direction you look trails divide distance into parts of time, taking longer or less long to reach a destination. These paths are vaguely recalled or are reminiscent of paths seen in other times and places, once traveled but subsequently forgotten. The very presence of the signs suggests that the trails, even if we are without knowledge of their destinations, represent a way forward.

Our recognition of generally true patterns path must be as ancient as our own existence. In written form, patterns were noted in both historic Chinese and Greek civilizations, to note just two examples. Ancient peoples were as concerned as ourselves with understanding the structure and order of nature—the unfolded whole—that directly impact individuals and entire societies. The keen observations of Lao-tzu (“The Old Master”) from around 500 B.C.E. and Chuang Chou (a.k.a. Chuang-tzu) about two centuries later acknowledge the practice of Wayfaring, akin to finding our way along actual or metaphorical mountain paths. The limitations of words describing patterns may not capture the exact underlying meaning, but are what we have to serve as our guides.

Knowing our exact speed and place along the path of a generally true pattern comes with a degree of uncertainty (something like the term used by Werner Heisenberg). The operation of right and wrong, good and bad, retains a measure of the mysterious even where the pattern seems clearly definable since, with movement, what we think we know constantly alters. The important insight from the ancients was understanding change as the central feature in nature—and thus of everything, including the relation of opposites, which is to say that a unity is found in the interaction of opposites.

Describing flow in a physical manifestation like turbulence (such as the flow of liquid through a pipe) is difficult mathematically and was not describable at all before the development of non-linear equations. For our forbearers, intuition and identification with the forces of nature were favored over rational, logical means as a way of finding nature’s flow. In an ideal state of oneness with the larger flow, no actions are taken contrary to the laws of nature. For those of us who have not yet reached this mystical state, generally true patterns could be the signs that hold significant meaning to act as guideposts.

The Greek philosopher Herakleitos was contemporary with the early Taoists. He used the term logos to suggest the natural rule of order. Logos is not the same as the Tao, but there are striking similarities. Sayings of Herakleitos such as “Knowledge is not intelligence,” and “I have heard many men talk, but none who realized that understanding is distinct from all other knowledge,” would find a sympathetic ear with Taoists. (Davenport 1976) Compare this to Chuang Chou’s “Great knowledge is broad, small knowledge is petty. Great talk is powerful, small talk is loquacious.” (Cleary 1998)

The dynamic system of paradox recognized by the Taoists also finds expression in Herakleitos: “When Homer said that he wished war might disappear from the lives of gods and men, he forgot that without opposition all things would cease to exist,” and “Opposites cooperate. The beautiful harmonies come from opposition. All things repel each other.” Contemporary systems theories of ever expanding connections have much in common with Herakleitos: “No matter how many ways you try, you cannot find a boundary to consciousness, so deep in every direction does it extend.”

Expressions of the entirety found in Taoism, logos, and contemporary physics explain nature as inherently relational. This is expressed in the generally true pattern:

No thing is one thing alone.

There must be among things reference to other things in order to derive meaning. The infinite number of things, events, and processes that make up the entirety are comprised of interconnecting relationships that go across scales of position, velocity, and time. The quality of interconnectedness is the central tenet of natural history.

Beyond the temporal existence of things, events, and processes,

Relationships evolve over time.

The agents which individually comprise galaxies, lichens, and marriages all change. Each of these comprises an open system, open to input and dissipation of energy. The opposite is a closed system. As a theoretical construct of social systems, Gregory Bateson described its components: Rules are stable and internally consistent, the equipment used is non-evolving, the motivation of the players is unchanging, and the players interact with a steady-state environment. Such a system in reality is impossible.

Open, nonlinear physical, biological, and social systems are in every way the opposite of a closed system. Here are four examples: (1) Rules may give the appearance of momentary stability, but over time are in flux. Even in physical systems, the known (or suspected) behavior of matter and energy may not now, or in every place, be the same as it was at the beginning of time at the origin of the universe. Even if laws of physics do not change over time, our understandings of these laws do change. The rules are not fixed in our own minds, but develop in a process of continual evolution. (2) Individual agents within patterns may evolve in ways either expected or unexpected. The chemical composition of the agents may change. Agents may be perceived as waves or particles. Agents may learn and act upon what they learn, including making changes to the rules.

Systems are in interaction with other systems, unpredictable things may happen. Correct or incorrect guesses or chance occurrences may have beneficial or catastrophic outcomes. The ability to recognize the existence of a pattern, or the tendency of an agent, by chance or design, to take advantage of “lessons” learned from patterns can give that agent (a leader, for example) an advantage over others which (or who) have not recognized or have been unable to take advantage of pattern recognition. (3) Tendencies, rules, preferences, and motivations can and will change over time. (4) Experimentation, statistical testing and mathematical quantification by themselves will not describe everything about a rule-changing, unpredictable environment. However, the environment is not senseless and the unpredictable appearance of random events is often a result of the limitations of both our empirical knowledge and perhaps more importantly, of our wisdom, or at least of our willingness to make use of those patterns which are recognized.

Next essay: Chapter 2 Part II: Historical Connections of the Anthropocene

Generally True Patterns #3

 

Alpine Avens, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Alpine Avens, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as Part of Nature

Part 3 of 22

 

 

Chapter 1 Patterns Part II: Above All Else, Nature Is Characterized by Movement

My role is to act as a natural historian of pattern recognition. Patterns are essentially limitless in number, like the synaptic connections of neurons, a multitude of pathways without an apparent center. There are no identifiable entries or exits; all parts are larger or smaller aspects of all other parts. Generally true patterns of underlying order may describe a degree of connection and control from higher to lower (or lower to higher) levels explaining some part of our relationship to nature and one another.

Understanding the nature of change and motion through the things, events, and processes repeating through many forms in apparently unrelated circumstances is daunting, but denying the existence of change (such as the clean atmosphere of 1700 becoming the contaminated one of today) or of responsibility (such as “off budget” foreign wars creating deficits) shows that some among us deny the possibility that what we do has an impact on the world. For example, the diversity of the biosphere is being irretrievably destroyed without hope of recovery. Once a species or a region is gone, it’s gone. Our actions suggest that extinction doesn’t matter or can’t be helped, even for those of us who believe the destruction to be a crime against the earth. Either way the carnage does not stop. The simultaneous ability by our other-wise civilization to hold both apathy and moral outrage at the same time stems from a reluctance to search for meaning in nature.

The person/nature split is about our distance from wild-nature, not just its poetic aspect, but from reluctance to admit the primacy of physical and biological laws. The disastrous weight of this belief is compounded by our idea that we live in a static universe where movement, flow, and the irreversibility of time do not occur. The outcome, based on our actual behavior, not what we say, is a belief that our actions have no consequences, or at least few important enough to change our behavior. We may decry war, human rights injustices, or species extinction, but the historical record tells a different story. The study of generally true patterns considers the disconnect of stated belief from actual behavior as a loss of meaning that occurs because of the nature/person split. Acknowledging inherent connections between nature and society, and between time and our actions, becomes essential in understanding a world we are rapidly destroying.

Naturalists traditionally made observations of wild-nature and interpreted the meaning of those observations. They found that nature is characterized by complexity of process and form, yet at the same time brings an economy of organization to its seemingly infinite variety across all scales of size such as the similar spiral forms of nautilus shells and galaxies. The generally true patterns in this book, however, are more about principles than the visual appearance of forms.

Statements of the generally true are somewhat radical within the context of Western heritage that more often looks for the absolutely true. Here is a centrally important pattern that provides thematic context for this work as a whole:

All actions have consequences.

 This may be the most problematic because it is a statement that we often claim to believe but that our behavior contradicts. The outcome of accepting or ignoring consequences will unfold in the following pages. (This pattern is of course a basic tenet of Buddhism; my perspective is based on Western science.)

Actions are actions regardless of the originating source of the event. In the physical realm gravitational forces hold together aggregations of planets to a star. Radioactive decay changes uranium into lead. Within living systems, the action of introducing an exotic species like salt cedar into a new habitat extirpates native grasses and wildflowers. In the social realm, the assassination of a president in an African country leads to a war of genocide between Hutus and Tutsis. In each case, a certain action has led to a particular result, the details of which in living systems are largely unpredictable, but in all cases display the same underlying pattern of actions having consequences. Actions may be termed disturbances. Within this pattern disturbances can take physical form, but also collect conceptually. Massive ideas distort our space-time more than less massive ideas, a pattern similar to the gravitational effects of more massive on less massive astral bodies.

This pattern is not a truism, because in destroying the biosphere of the planet (pollution and species extermination) and taking actions against other humans (murder, rape, torture on a small or large scale), and willingly taking actions against ourselves (knowingly eating unhealthy foods when nutritious alternatives are available), we act as if actions do not have consequences. Until we understand on a deep level that we are nature, that our actions constitute an outcome of natural processes, we cannot solve the chronic crises facing us. Accepting ourselves as a part of nature rather than separate from it may be the most difficult challenge we face. Until we do so, we actually deny that actions have consequences in a fundamental way.

As a result of this denial of our actual behavior in relation to the rest of nature, the usefulness of this book is less to prescribe how to live than it is to acknowledge recognition of our being a part of nature. Until this fundamental shift in our philosophy and our psychology takes place we will not be ready to admit the existence of motion and change. Pattern recognition can be a part of this process of increasing our receptivity for change. When we truly accept and understand ourselves as a part of nature, we may become open to solutions needed to assure our survival along with that of our fellow creatures.

The issue I wish to address is the fallacious belief that the significance of our behavior is trivial and irrelevant to anything outside of itself. The natural history of pattern recognition recognizes the existence of broad organizing structures explaining the person/nature connection within a non-static universe. The behavior we exhibit always leads to outcomes—for good or ill. Meaningful chance requires the acceptance of individual responsibility for the self and for others, because the reality in which we exist unalterably consists of interacting things, events, and processes. The opposing view, closed-system silliness such as “Objectivism” anchors the political ideology of the person/nature split in which we are exempt from the laws of nature.

Next essay: Chapter 2 Part I: Historical Connections of the Anthropocene

Generally True Patterns #2

 

Alp Lily, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Alp Lily, Mt. Wheeler, New Mexico

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

Part 2 of 22

 

 

Chapter 1 Patterns Part I: Above All Else, Nature Is Characterized by Movement

East of where Santa Monica Boulevard ascends a steep hill carrying its traffic congestion away from the ocean, but before Venice, is (or was) a quieter stretch of beachfront accessible off a little used street ending in a parking lot. A green-lawn hill slopes down from the road to the lot with its five double rows of yellow-lined slots, enough space for 250 vehicles with wide driving lanes. On the other side, a generous space borders the lot for bicyclists and rollerbladers. Beyond this hard ribbon is first cement, then wood-picket fences at the farthest landward encroachment of beach sand. At night this asphalt and sand California neighborhood is deserted.

One night I was struck by an image of movement. A single figure filled the empty parking lot with her presence. The cold, clear air of mid-winter blew the sound of crashing waves inland. A rollerblade dancer ranged over the black pavement of her personal arena, cutting through the dusk, dressed all in black except for lighter boots of indistinguishable color. She made an ice-skater’s moves, rolling backwards, then changing directions rapidly or turning in slow twirls. I followed her movement through space and time and a chiaroscuro of shadow and spotlights of orange mercury vapor lights. She was a lean, lithe athlete wearing protective kneepads for which, in her perfection of movement, she had no need.

She experienced a moment of self-consciousness as I passed by, like a wild creature slowing to watchful hesitation at the approach of something novel or dangerous. I disappeared from her sight beneath the cover of trees that pressed in on either side of a steep stair where I was too captivated by her to continue on my way. She resumed her entrancing motion, dancing unhurried, graceful, as if in time to the rhythm of waves as darkness gradually overtook the scene. Finally she made use of only a small area, circling arms swinging out, one with the ongoing rush of water. She was alone, but was not a lonely figure; she seemed the epitome of uninhibited freedom, experiencing it like a meditation. I felt the need to write down every nuance of this choreography, scribbling notes that added up to no more than event description. She filled that parking lot with her moving presence; later, illuminated by a full moon, but without her, the place seemed unbearably bleak.

I have been a frequent and conscious observer of motion.

One late winter night, driving southward through Colorado toward the New Mexico state line, I watched the moon, two days past full, over the shoulder of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range looming to the east. The moon’s rising, from my perspective, left it riding on a long ridge that rose gradually to the south, matching and holding the moon rise to a steady grazing of the ridge top so that a constant march of saw tooth forms ran across the moon seemingly going north as I headed south. Because of the winter angle of moon to earth, my driving schedule coordinated accidentally with the changing relation between the increasing height of mountain summits and the rise and fall of the highway. I saw the moon rise and set dozens of times.

A narrow ridgeline divides north from south at 12,000’ (3660m) above Williams Lake near Taos, New Mexico. One summer’s day, although windless to the north, gale force winds assailed the south slope with an eye of tension maybe two paces across separating calm from storm. I lay down on the rocky surface, the cusp of the wind and no-wind worlds, a narrow summit between precipitous cliffs on either side. I closed my eyes for a time, and then looked straight up. Just above, little more than arm’s reach above me, a peregrine falcon rode the backward crested curl of wind wave, which, striking the south-facing slope, fell back on itself rather than crossing the ridge. The falcon achieved perfect harmony, motionless but for wind-ruffled outstretched wing and tail tips. Then it plummeted downward blindingly fast before disappearing. A poetic naturalist observing this event might have spoken of it as a demonstration of flow. A physicist could have remarked on the non-linear mathematics of air turbulence. A biologist would have had the opportunity to identify the ventral field marks on a diurnal raptor. Each might have explained their view to the other two, but not necessarily in a manner of mutual intelligibility.

On central Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, Canada’s northeastern Arctic, the Triangle Glacier points out northward, an appendage of the vast Barnes Ice Cap. Somewhere over a hundred years ago (or perhaps a little more) its ice streamed down a couple of hundred meters of hillside so steep that in places it seems more like a cliff. At the bottom, it joined the flow of the larger Lewis Glacier, and together, both edged forward to drop into the mighty Isortoq River, one of the largest on the island. Over decades, the glaciers retreated and separated as each moved back up its separate watershed. A half century ago, the Triangle still formed a giant wedge emerging from the ice cap, emitting two small melt streams so small that either could be stepped across. In 2009, in its remaining but diminishing lower reaches, I saw that the Triangle had taken a string bean shape, little more than a long narrow snowfield sheltered in the shade of a deep canyon.

The former streamlets are now torrents. Each exhibits such wild turbulence that one could imagine water molecules being torn into their separate component elements. The water drops so fast and violently that the decibel level of its roar is similar to that of the muscular Twin Otter airplane (the workhorse of the North). The canyon wildness of central Baffin, isolated from human sounds, is anything but serene and quiet. In the middle of what passes for night in the constant daylight of summer at 70 degrees north latitude, the motion of melting glacier water mimics the sound frequency of airplanes and disturbs whatever sleep the light has not.

The shared experience of motion must somehow connect dancers, birds, glaciers, and the moon, but the separate languages of poetry, spirituality, physics, and biology used to describe these occurrences often seem not to intersect meaningfully. I have gone to these places looking for processes common to all aspects of the natural world—the physical environment, the biosphere, and its special case, human culture and society. The exterior of the natural world—the mechanisms of how things work—is understood imperfectly, but in considerable detail through the physical and life sciences. At the same time, organization of this knowledge has come about with a concurrent disconnect to its meaning, a kind of person/nature split. Nature remains outside, not only out-of-doors, but also as an otherness from which we are separate.

The consequent loss of meaningfulness has been catastrophic. Overcoming this disconnect is the most pressing issue of our time, the one on which all other issues ultimately rest. I believe we need to find a means of establishing awareness and connection, a recognition of the integration of our lives with a larger concept of nature. Underlying this is the assumption that categories we understand as art, religion, science, history (and many more) are parts of a larger, integrated and indivisible whole. This has political and social implications, for if we truly understand ourselves as individuals living as part of a greater whole, then our politics and morality must move in a different direction that if we believed otherwise.

The other-wise belief prevails, although not unchallenged. From the 1960s when Rachel Carson warned of the Silent Spring, to the end of the century when James Lovelock explained Gaia (all living and non-living aspects of Earth as a system), to the beginning of the 21st century when E.O. Wilson painted a bleak picture of The Future of Life, our deepest thinkers have given eloquent warnings. But judged by our actual behavior (not our rhetoric), the loss of biodiversity, destruction of open spaces, and alteration of the atmosphere have been ignored. Despite the obvious changes in our climate, no significant mitigating actions have been taken. Scientists report statistics, corporations obfuscate, politicians dither, and many of the rest of us live in denial or powerlessness. Environmentalist organizations have saved segments of wild-nature in a series of temporary, infrequent victories while remaining on the political fringes or worse, allying themselves to the corporate and government structures causing the destruction. Ruination of the natural environment continues unabated, causing irretrievable loss of the wild-nature that is integral to who we are. Whatever we have needed to learn or experience to create a shift in our civilization from an anti-nature to a pro-nature stance has not yet taken place.

The prevailing paradigm of other-wise thinking has been challenged by integrative models including Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy, Ken Wilber’s spiritual mapping of reality, and the deep ecology of Arne Naess. Where Cartesian mind/body separation and Newtonian (or classical) mechanics are increasingly understood as incomplete explanations of a complex universe, systems thinkers, primarily from the physical sciences, have developed theories that integrate the processes of nature into one that is holistic rather than piecemeal. Scientists including Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, David Bohm, Ilya Prigogine, Gregory Bateson, and Erwin Laszlo have explained nature in terms of nonlinear and emergent properties, “systems theories” that go by names such as “complexity” and “chaos.” These ideas have been presented as applicable to the realm of physical systems (physics and chemistry), biological systems (microbiology, genetics, etc.) and social systems (psychology, sociology, economics, etc.) but commonalities among them, if recognized at all, have been made mostly by analogy. Different events may be explained comparatively, but they remain different things.

My study of the natural world led has me to believe that the things, events, and processes that constitute our perception of reality are interconnected by a means both more intimate and more substantial than is suggested by analogy. The natural history I propose is based on the premise that commonalities exist on a broad scale in complex, ever-changing physical and biological systems and, as well, in the structures and organizations that we ourselves have created. Generally true patterns are those that repeat themselves or behave in similar ways through dissimilar systems. It is possible to draw lessons from them that can provide guidance for our actions in the world.

A pattern can be recognized in physical events or in ideas or conditions as the result of the interaction of things, events, and processes. The parts of a pattern (formally known as information or signals) can be interpreted as quantities or measurements, as concrete as the numbers of migrating birds or as abstract as the ones and zeros of computer code. The parts, collectively, operate in a general way, as patterns that give insight into the structure of all dynamic relationships.

Patterns are held in common across all scales of size in non-living, living, and social systems. Pattern recognition can provide guidance through the maze of interconnecting and evolving issues that confront and confound us, including the environmental crisis. In nature (including human society), all processes have, simultaneously, unpredictable consequences, but also inevitable outcomes. Generally true patterns help explain that apparent paradox.

Next essay: Chapter 1 Patterns Part II: Above All Else, Nature Is Characterized by Movement

 

Generally True Patterns

 

Albino Marmot, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

Albino Marmot, Mount Wheeler, New Mexico

Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature

raison d’être 

Part 1 of 22

This series on generally true patterns in nature is offered at what may be the concluding moments of our civilization, the “Anthropocene” era. This new geologic and biologic era created by us is marked by the certainty of coming catastrophe unless our behavior changes. Massive oceanic and terrestrial habitat destruction, a nearly unprecedented rate of species extinction, and intentional alternations in the atmospheric and hydrologic forms that nurtured our civilization (and wild nature) are leading to a shift in air composition, water distribution, and a reduction in overall bio-carrying capacity of the living earth (“Gaia”) even as our population spirals out of control. (For more on this check out the Help Nature section of my web site and authors including Naomi Klein.)

The belief that we are separate from nature and thus immune to the laws of physics and biology is demonstratively wrong. Those of us who have identified these issues have a moral obligation to accept the dictum of Socrates that the only life worth living is the examined one. The dictum of the naturalist is that it is not just the individual life, but the life of the planet that we must examine and fight to preserve in whatever way we can.

There is a widely held belief that we are exempt from the laws of nature. And further, that we can treat the living earth without regard to consequences. Our species may endure, but our purposeful environmental destruction threatens the survival of wild nature and the civilization we have built. We need to examine what might remedy or mitigate the situation and address the underlying cause.

Look elsewhere for stories about “solutions” such as solar energy and recycling, reduced meat consumption, anti-corruption efforts, etc. Such fixes are vital outcomes of what I have in mind, but utterly incapable of saving us unless we look deeper.

Understanding nature is of vital, ultimate importance. The sense of unease that many of us feel in our personal, societal and environmental lives comes out of a disconnection from nature. This disconnection can be addressed through identification of what can be summarized as generally true patterns, a recognition that the physical, biological and social realms operate according to common underlying principles.

Deeper into Patterns

Patterns demonstrate the endless complexity of nature, but are based on relatively simple rules and once recognized can be applied to the way we live, think and act. Generally true patterns are a model of nature’s architecture. Neither mass nor energy, they encompass both. Building skills in pattern recognition will be of importance to any of us who wish to become more conscious of our place in the world.

Pattern recognition is deep immersion into how the things, events and processes of the entirety are connected. Patterns represent the dynamical spirit of nature in its forms of chance and creativity pushed forward by instability. My purpose is to identify patterns that demonstrate our connection to the natural world, to replace the person/nature split with a person/nature connection. It is for those of us who have decided to take responsibility for decisions made in our personal and public lives. It is for anyone seeking a mutually healing relationship with nature.

This deep level of understanding is essential if the needed technological, ethical, and moral fixes can be put in place in time to make a difference to our survival.

Works on corporate and government corruption, carbon pollution and climate instability, biodiversity and habitat loss have refuted the belief that the laws of laissez faire prevail over the laws of nature, but not everyone has accepted this message. The poisoning of the environment and our bodies has been noted but without appreciable change in the way we actually live. Our disregard of the natural world has not changed.

Warning signs are coming from wild nature. Within a relatively short time major predators such as snow leopards, African lions, and polar bears will likely be gone from the wild. The integrity and carbon sequestering capacity of the Amazonian forests will be compromised beyond repair. Fresh water will become more fought over than oil. The polar air conditioners, required for planetary cooling will wind down dramatically releasing methane deposits currently resident in the frozen tundra, creating a positive feedback loop of climate warming.

Scientific documentation of our bleak future has had no political effect whatsoever, at least not so much as to make much difference in the outcome of our current path. My purpose is to suggest why this might be so. My observation is that our world civilization (its leaders, its individuals) has not been reconciled to nature and has failed to take its actual processes into account. Unless there is a revolution in our thinking (and consciousness) the predicted disasters may well come about. Pattern recognition could convince us that we are a part of and not separate from the rest of nature. Finding accommodation with the natural world will lead to a better future for all living beings.

Generally True Patterns is based on my lifetime study of natural history and is informed by academic and professional work in political science, systems philosophy, and history. In slightly different form it has been published as an eBook. Additional radical natural history essays may be accessed at www.davidlwitt.com.

This series of essays, published twice per week, will explore the structure of nature’s patterns. Each begins with a series of observations concluding with the meanings I draw from those observations, illustrated by the patterns themselves. Acknowledging that we are a part of nature could yet save us from ourselves.

Next essay: Chapter 1 Patterns Part I: Above All Else, Nature Is Characterized by Movement