Category Archives: Essays on Generally True Patterns

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

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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

 

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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

 

 

 

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