Nature is nice
What is it about nature that makes it so incredibly re-vitalising? What is it about the forest, the beach, the stream, and the mountains that draws us to them and restores us, breathes life into us? You could answer: “Who cares? It just does, now get on with enjoying it!” There are times when those very words could be coming from my own mouth, but there are other times too, when such matters deserve some contemplation. For there is much to learn and plenty at stake. There are many lessons yet to be learnt from nature and many potential answers to the question: why is nature so incredibly re-vitalising? The perspective that I would like to bring to this topic looks at nature as a dynamic system of forces in harmony with itself. Or as Christopher Alexander puts it:
‘There is a character in natural things which is created by the fact that they are reconciled, exactly, to their inner forces.’
C. Alexander, Page 147, The Timeless Way of Building.
What this means in practice is that there is a certain fluidity to the forms we see in nature. Every tree of a species has a trunk, branches, twigs and leaves with roughly the same form, yet no two trees are exactly the same. No two are the same because no two trees are subjected to identical forces. The light, soil, slope, wind, water, neighbours, insects etc. are different for every tree. This is as true for the individual leaves on the tree as it is for each tree as a whole, as they display individual differences within a certain set of defining characteristics. This holds true for all levels of scale in the tree, from the macro to the micro. It is these subtle differences that, in part create a sense of aliveness in nature and provide its character.
This Nikau did not grow as 45 degrees to the ground because it was fashionable to do so, or because it was trying to impress the Kanuka – it grew this way in response to influences from its surroundings. Our eyes can dance around a forest without getting bored, we are enchanted by waves on a beach, grass in the wind or fire licking a log. Even though these things are largely repetitive, it is the slight variations that keep them real and vibrant. We can sink into ourselves in the presence of these things. These minor variations in an essentially repetitive pattern are a world apart from the modular repetition we often see in the built world around us, such as in this apartment building:
It is not only trees and other biological life forms that demonstrate this vibrant, variable structure. Inorganic forms too, be they rocks, ocean waves or ripples in the sand are products of the forces acting on them and the interaction of these forces with the substance of the wave, ripple or rock. There is no foolishness in nature, no desperate attempt to define oneself as different; no wave ever said: “Fuck it! From now on I am going to be an octagon!” Yet like the tree, every wave is unique. Every wave is one of an infinite number of wave forms made possible by a relatively simple set of rules. Every ripple on the sand conforms to the pattern formed by the interaction of wind speed, particle size and friction. The pattern is simple, yet again no two forms are the same, because every ripple meets marginally different conditions from every other. The natural world doesn’t impose any ideas upon itself. It merely generates forms that are true to their own nature. This is ultimate simplicity. And for us humans, it is the ultimate challenge. When we go to nature for renewal, I would suggest that why we do it, in part at least; is to drink in the simplicity and inhale the deep honesty and truth inherent there. There is an interesting computerised version of this called The Game of Life which shows nicely just how many outcomes are possible even with an incredibly simple set of rules. “Well goodness me, that’s lovely and all.” I hear you say, “But what does that have to do with Permaculture?!” Quite a lot, I reckon. Everything maybe. What are we trying to do, when we create places, spaces and things? Surely we are wanting to create in such a way that our creations are reconciled with the forces in and around them, true to their own nature, like nature. Maybe even, in some sense ‘alive’ themselves? The tricky bit is that we are consciously attempting to do what seems to just happen in the rest of nature. Also, in order to make any progress, we have to filter out many influences that are unhelpful to our efforts. There is a vast weight of advertising and media communication in the world that are not concerned with ‘reconciling inner forces’. They are only interested in selling mental images. A mental image, or a pre-constructed idea without a full relationship to the place where it is to exist becomes an imposition. Impositions do not have the qualities that we seek out in nature. Far from it. They are brought into being by sheer acts of will, even if they are the product of ‘inspiration’ or ‘genius’ they are still forced and therefore lack merit. Impositions ignore realities in the ecological, physical and social fabric. They are problematic in ways beyond measure. They are everywhere and they will continue to exist for as long as the people creating and using them (that’s you and me, baby!) lower their expectations away from nature’s example of ultimate simplicity. Impositions ignore the context of the situation, and in so doing create tensions that are amplified out into the world. Here are a few pictures I ripped off the internet that show what I consider to be blatant and heinous impositions of abstract pre-formed concepts devoid of connection to context.
These are extreme examples in order to make a point, but once you start looking at the world in this way, you will see many more everyday examples around you. The concepts or mental images propagated by our culture today cover many realms, from how a successful person should look, how their house should look, how a ‘modern’ city should look, right down to what their food should look like. As we pursue ‘the look’ of the day, ‘the idea’ of the moment, we are starved of real substance and connection on every level. It has not always been this way, and we can find timeless examples of what Alexander calls ‘living structure’ in traditional building and crafts from all corners of the world. Subsequent posts will explore this idea of living structure further and from a few different angles. But in the meantime…. yay for nature! Somewhere for us to go to inhale deeply. Free of impositions. Full of simplicity. Full of life.
Shankar Obrien: Inhaling the simplicity