Friday, May 29, 2009

Natural analogies

“First man creates the circle, whether this be the plan of the tepee or the ring of the war dance, and then he can discern circles and cyclical processes everywhere in nature, in the shape of the bird’s nest, the whirl of the wind, and the movement of the stars.”

So writes the philosopher and geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in Space and Place. When I first read those words I thought, yes, of course. And then I wondered.

In the desert I used to see the nests of weaver birds, hanging like frizzy gourds from acacia trees. I marveled at their engineering, and I speculated nests very like these inspired hunter-gatherers to make their own, technologically similar houses.

Tuan, of course, is saying something radically different – that humans first make huts, then notice similar patterns in the world around them.

What does it require to notice anything in nature? Culture comes first, at least in our own personal development: the idea of having ideas, the habit of analogy and mimesis. We must learn how to do these things.

In a very real sense we need some sort of culture before we can discern order and similarity beyond ourselves. I think of Durkheim, who supposes a similar trajectory: that human beings project the familiar social order onto the cosmos, not the other way around.

And yet, once this noticing is started – granted developmentally some sort of training must have come before – but once we notice that the world is patterned, we find new patterns there which inevitably influence the patterns we were taught and create.

The arrow does not dart one way alone. What did it take to get the idea of a topographic map, or to realize that communities do not dwell in neat boxes but live side by side, marbled together, like sediments in rock or swirls of stream sludge?

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