Monday, March 15, 2010

Sometimes it's enough to be inspired. Pothole gardens, here I come...

Art inspires us to act. Some of us, at least. Some art is so well-blended with science that it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Don't know what I mean? Ecovention contains some of the best examples of this unique blend (though it appears to be out of print).

The art in Ecovention is functional in a very beautiful way. You can see plants change colors as they react to, and filter out, heavy metals in the soil. Places that shouldn't be alive are made that way by these thoughtful artists.

But sometimes what art "does" is less about the art itself, and more about how it makes us feel, and what it makes us do.

Take Pete Dungey's pothole gardens for instance. In subject, it's a far cry from a forest garden. But, in spirit, it's exactly the same thing. It's a concession to let nature do what it will, and allowing nature to benefit us, rather than forcing it to do so. It is a concession that we are not apart from nature, but rather, a part of nature.

Plants are patient. They pre-date animal life by millions of years. Long after we're gone, they'll still be here, as you'll no doubt realize if you've ever tried to remove a well-adapted invasive weed (Himalayan blackberry in my case).

When we are gone, those plants which we've chased into the shadows will reemerge. Their roots will break up our roads, crumble our bridges, and topple our skyscrapers. Plants have no archeologists. Plants don't care about that little blip in Earth's history called Homo sapiens. They will just go on living.

If this sounds like the voice of loss, it is not.

Plants are so unassuming that it can be awe-inspiring to step back and realize how well they thrive in spite of us. Rebellious, they will not be told "no." We cut them back, but they return, branches outstretched toward the sun, toward warmth. They bend with the wind. They bend with the sun. Forever bending, if slowly, but not breaking. They have time. They are in no hurry to get where they are going. Where they are going? Destination: life.

To move at a plant's speed would not be a major inconvenience, though we might think it so. A plant can bend 180 degrees in a single day, chasing after a light. The plant doesn't know where the light is coming from tomorrow. The plant doesn't know if the light is coming tomorrow. The plant simply follows the light each day that it does come and it is strengthened all the more for it. And if the light doesn't come the plant won't make any fuss about its passing. It was nourished by the dead, and now it will be among them, nourishing whatever future takes root. And why must we look any further than today? If we do not have water and nutrients and sunshine, we seek them out, and when the sun sets we will be content.

But we won't be.

Can we ever be?

We are torn between our pasts--where we survived when natured nurtured us--and our futures--where we have the knowledge and power to bend nature to our will, regardless of what the costs might be.

All of this is to say that there really is very little that separates a writer and a biologist. We're all just blips.  And if either one of us got everything we wanted, we would likely find our species to be unbearably off-kilter.

But you wouldn't know we were so similar by the reactions we get.

My studies took me toward the humanities, despite my great appreciation for the natural world (or, perhaps, because of it). Because I have made that decision, I am not "allowed" to do science. "Leave science for the scientists," they will say.

"If I have to call my science 'art,' then so be it."

But if I have to call my science art in order to have it respected, then we take too lightly the words of one great scientist:
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand. ~Albert Einstein
We mustn't forget just how much science has followed from science fiction. Or, for that matter, how much science has been born in the bosom of philosophic discourse.

Art and philosophy are the parents of human endeavor. They are the inquisitive mind on which science is built.

As a writer, I might have to stand back and let the scientists take credit for their often egocentrically named theories. But, silent as the plants, I can take pride in knowing that my reaching for the sun, my putting things into words, is exactly what will decide the direction of science long after I'm gone. And just as plants will outlive us, as our species declines, being able to share stories with our loved ones will prove more important than the gadgets we use to do so.

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