Generally True Patterns: A New Natural History of Recognizing Ourselves as a Part of Nature
Part 18 of 22
Chapter 7 Part I Loss (symptoms of beauty)
My observations come out of being struck by the beauty of order characterizing nature. Describing the symptoms of beauty does not explain the essence. To find that higher level of meaning, it is necessary to go into the structure of that beauty to discover a way to provide a better explanation of what we are observing. The potential of generally true patterns represents the essence of that structure, but it is the realized specifics that drive us emotionally into finding meaning.
I am continually drawn to the high mountain arctic alpine by its challenges and promise of adventure. At the tree line ecotone, tundra above, forest below, Engelmann spruces (Picea engelmannii) can grow to nearly the normal length of their kind, but sometimes laterally along the ground rather than vertically, a pattern known as krummholz. Bristlecone pines (Pinus aristata) produce foliage less dense, but at this elevation have more massive trunks than the spruce. These gnarled ancient ones tenaciously cling to the unpromising rocky alpine slopes where even the tallest of most other plants scarcely touches the belly of a medium-sized dog. Steep slopes show soil loss from storm erosion and moisture loss from the prevailing southwest wind. Nonetheless, this land nurtures the trees into a lengthy maturity.
Most years I visit the two most imposing pine trees inhabiting a large grove sprawling down a long south-facing slope. The larger of the two lives upslope of the other, its grayed, sculptural trunk growing parallel to the ground for a distance longer than I am tall before thrusting its bulk upward in the manner more typical of trees. The skyward facing side of this trunk has lost much of its bark and in one place has been worn over time into a shallow depression, a bowl where a thin leafed bunch grass and yellow Groundsels have taken root inside what becomes a diminutive rain pool after a downpour. The two trees reach out toward each other, their branch tips just coming together so that they look like arboreal lovers holding hands. Their ample fertility is evidenced by large numbers of pinecones beneath the spread of their limbs and by the dozens of younger pines farther down. The leaves at the end of each branch are whirled into the form of bristle-brush bottle washers; to others these branches suggest foxtails and give an alternative name to the tree.
Clark’s Nutcrackers, (Nucifraga columbiana) the size of a large jay (which is more or less what it is) pass low over the trees, their flapping wings producing a breathy puffing sound, then circle back to rustle about in the upper limbs of the pines. They settle dislodged cones in the ample crook of a dead branch, then turn them over and over picking out the ripe fruit. Some of the seeds fall near where I recline on the horizontal trunk later to be washed downhill by the rains or picked up and dropped by the birds above the parent tree. One of the seeds dropped by the birds as I watch may, as a mature tree, provide good seating for a future naturalist to watch Nutcrackers crack nuts a thousand years hence.
Most of the Bristlecones on this slope are less than four hundred years old. The oldest known member of this group—still living after 4900 years—grew in Nevada until collected (killed) by a biologist for the data provided by its tree rings. It is a misguided profession that converts the living into the dead for study. I don’t know the age of my reclining tree, but until the scientists find it, it will remain one of the oldest denizens of New Mexico. Tiwa Indian hunters must have passed by this tree prior to the building of their oldest multi-story adobe buildings over nine hundred years ago in the valley below. The Nutcrackers live only a few seasons, dogs somewhat longer, humans longer still, but even if I live to be very old, it will be as nothing compared to these trees which should outlast me by several centuries if they survive climate change and are otherwise left alone.
Rarely, hikers or horse riders pass nearby on the ridge above the Bristlecone grove. They never see me. I remain hidden and motionless beside the tree, trying to become as much a part of it as possible. It is the pursuit of the naturalist to become one with the surroundings. I don’t have to kill the tree to know it. In those moments, I make myself malleable and transform into some larger meaning than the small space I take up at most other times. I pull away from this place where I fit in so well with a sense of loss.
The death of its member branches is a natural part of the life of a Bristlecone. In the oldest trees there is at least as much dead wood as live, sometimes more. After death, their skeletons may stand for uncounted decades. The oldest dead trunks scattered across the alpine turf like bleached bones have been beyond this life for over a century. With an ancestry of over 10,000 years, since enough ice cleared out of the cirque after an age of ice, a visit here is a sojourn to the elder community. Like the prairie, the physical space occupied by an alpine tree is well beyond the reach of its branches and the flight of its attending birds. It also takes its place in an irreversible time of transformation and loss.
Vastly long after the death of the Groundsel, me, and even the aged tree itself, this ridge will erode, severely creating slope on which even the Bristlecones will not stand. If the planet’s atmosphere warms enough, even the tundra will be gone. And not withstanding human intrusion, long after the humans are gone, the mountains too will flatten and disappear. If life continues, the Nutcracker may have a successor bird for its ancestral niche and perhaps a successor species of naturalist devoted to its study. Now I hear the distant voices of hawks and on occasion, when the wind lets up, the voices of hikers whose words blur with the distance and mean nothing to me. This place is about loss, but also preservation, perseverance, transformation, and connection in time and space revealed by the repeated patterns of nature.
In my notes on these subjects from decades ago, I speculated on a general upward evolution of advancement: more efficient species, greater knowledge, a democratic political procession. Instead, change is neutral even if the circumstances of change may be more, or less, favorable as expressed by Carl Orff: “The wheel of Fortune turns, and I am put down, while someone else is taken up on high. Exalted gloriously, a king sits at the top. Let him beware his ruin!” As a generally true pattern, it may be stated:
Systems follow natural processes of change to maintain or transform into a different form.
In the physical realm, radioactive decay is such a process; in the biological realm, the carbon cycle circulates material through different life forms over time; and in the social realm, our understanding of the entirety reinvents itself through the progression of philosophies. The stories we tell ourselves about the way things are in the world often concern the nature and meaning of loss. In our time, political fascism (authoritarianism of both the so-called left and right) and religious fundamentalism (represented by many different groups and creeds) purports to explain the state of loss: Loss of land, resources, wealth, status, dignity, freedom, life itself. Common to each story is the assignment of blame to other people or to nature itself. All stories of disconnection are tales of loss. Stories of connection lead to a different way of thinking and acting.
To establish the person/nature connection in our lives, organizations, and societies, there are generally true patterns we must try to become conscious of. Whether or not we are aware, these patterns are operating all around us at all times. In our homes, workplaces, nations, in meditative or ecstatic or profane states, without our permission, potential unfolds into realized form. Defining complex issues one-dimensionally avoids coming to terms with the inherent energy flow leading to emergent properties and therefore has no basis in nature:
Aspects of existence are a collection of malleable properties rather than a set singularity.
This is one of pattern recognition’s most radical lessons: Nature operates with an economy of pattern and form to achieve complexity. With an understanding of the generally true patterns, what were once mere independent agents become instead aspects of changing forms with velocity and position. The reason we need to tell stories about things, events, and processes is that energy can dissipate into useful function or into purposeless void. Either way, it is a social realm example of the generally true that turbulence, position, velocity, and energy flow, both create and are created by us. This has been noted in the psychological sciences. William Reich observed that human happiness, what we might term contentment, arises from our ability to connect with nature. Theodore Roszak put forth the premise that human-caused pollution and destruction of the earth is an indication of the state of the human soul.
The stories we tell about loss are among our most important, not the less so for often degenerating into circular reasoning: We must give up our civil liberties to fight terrorists who would deprive us of our freedom. We must sacrifice the environment (the source of our economy) for the sake of growing our economy. These arguments nearly always win out over opposing views. In the tradition of the Great Chain of Being, questions that we might ask regarding consequences of actions and relatedness of all things, events, and processes are often not accepted as valid by political and media authorities. Any pattern larger than their own personal gain is not considered relevant. Questions of meaning can be deflected by construction of an entirety characterized by static constancy where change and time don’t matter. Environmentalists for the most part have accepted this state of definition, equally ignoring the existence of generally true patterns and usually asking questions or making protests relevant only within the context of those who have defined loss instead of the more accurate perspective of change and relationship as our prevailing wind.
Next essay: Chapter 7 Part II Loss