Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature
Part 2 of 22
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