Friday, December 16, 2011

The elementary structures of fallen leaves

Imagine an autumn tree standing by itself on a grassy slope. Its falling yellow leaves form a pattern, something like a shadow, on the grass.

It is the pattern that interests me: a pattern of what?

The leaves on the ground reflect, to a certain extent, the former distribution of leaves in the tree.

They also reflect something of the lie of the land, for the slope beneath the tree will affect the distribution of leaves. And so will wind, its direction and speed.

So the imprint of fallen leaves on the grass is a function not only of the leaves themselves, and the gravity that brought them down, and the reach of the tree’s branches, but also geography and climate. And for that matter changes in wind over time: a wind would blow fallen leaves in different directions as it shifted.

The point is that the distribution of leaves, the outcome of their having fallen on the ground, is structured by a number of factors, working separately and together.

I don’t want to make an argument about falling leaves.

What I want to do is note that the pattern of fallen leaves serves as an illustration of what we in the social sciences call “structure.”

The pattern – the distribution – of leaves on the ground is what it is because it was structured by factors such as time of year, biology of the tree, weight of the leaves, their surface area and shape, gravity, ground slope, weather, temperature, time, change, and even a passerby who may have kicked or raked the leaves one way or another.

The leaves presumably have no volition.

Imagine how much more complex an account of structure would have to be regarding the distribution of people across a landscape.

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