The Dancing Strands


A talk given at ‘Artful Ecologies,’ Art, Nature & Environment Conference 2006, University College, Falmouth

The other speakers at this conference showed slides. I’m also going to start with some slides but these are mental slides—slides of the imagination!

Slide 1
The poet and ecologist, Gary Snyder, said, ‘First find where you belong…then dig in.

Slide 2
When I moved to the medieval village of Pari in Tuscany an old man named Aladino used to drive by each day in an old putt-putt tractor. He would stop, call to me and point to the landscape saying, ‘Look.’ I’d look and nod and he would say, ‘No, Look. Look!’ He wanted me to see the land as he saw it.

Slide 3
I was with some Native American friends at a meeting of anthropologists who were talking about Indigenous art. One of them referred to the art of a particular tribe. A Native American stood up and said, ‘I’m a member of that group and I can tell you that we don’t have a word for “art” in our language, and no concept of an artist. But we do make things that fit the hand.’

Slide 4
I don’t have any objection to having bulldozers in the landscape. It’s egos that are the problem.

Slide 5
Claire and Gordon Shippy live in Middlesbrough, in an area that used to be littered with burnt-out cars. Drug deals took place on the streets and it was too dangerous for children to play outside. They visited Pari and noticed the way people left their keys in the front door and greeted each other by name. On returning home they did a very simple thing—they walked down their road, knocking on doors and introducing themselves by name. Next a local association was formed and today that part of Middlesbrough has been cleaned up, drug dealers have disappeared and children are playing outside.

Slide 6
The Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Michigan decided to hold a meeting of scientists and Native American Elders. The first thing the Elders told the organizers was, ‘You must find out who are the keepers to this land. Then we will ask them permission to enter.’ At that point most of the non-Natives realized that they had no idea who were the keepers of the land on which they lived, be it in a city or in the countryside.
The keepers of the land in Kalamazoo were located. They came to the Institute, put tobacco in the four corners of the property, performed a ceremony and said; ‘Now you can speak about sacred things in here.’

Slide 7
There are one thousand trees for every person living in Tuscany. How many are there for people living in England?

Slide 8
Siena’s medieval Palazzo Pubblico contains a famous fresco The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. Good Government shows the flourishing city of Siena with its thriving shops. Bad Government shows rape, murder and decaying buildings. But it doesn’t end there because the fresco also shows the outlying countryside. Good Governmentmeans neat rows of vines and olive trees whereas with Bad Government the country is overgrown and the fields neglected. Not too long ago I was standing beside someone who was looking out over the fields of Pari. ‘That is good government,’ he said, referring to a fresco that is six hundred years old. Attitudes have not changed.

Slide 9
The biologist, René Dubois, believes that there is a ‘spirit of space,’ something that inhabits a landscape and enters into the people who settle there.

Slide 10
The village of Pari is nicknamed ‘little Siena.’ It has a living centre. The benches on the outer road of the village do not face outwards but inwards, to give a view of the village. Two people with Alzheimer’s were perfectly safe to wander because the village contains them, they never walk away. Likewise even small children are safe to play, because someone in the village will always be watching them.

The Double Helix

Our conception of the world is like a double helix with two threads recurring throughout history. One strand views nature as sacred, immanent and alive. The other sees the world as a mechanism to be controlled and dominated.

Within science itself this latter viewpoint has been modified through the revolutions in physics of the twentieth century which see the essential holism of the world and the limitations to prediction and control. Nevertheless this type of thinking still persists in our society, in our policies and in our politics.

The former vision goes back hundreds and thousands of years in human history. In Paul Devereux’s The Sacred Place: The Ancient Origin of Holy and Mystical Sites, (Cassell, 2000) he argues that Stonehenge was a ‘dream landscape’—the land itself had been changed to reflect this ancient dream. And Stonehenge is only one of many sacred sights all over the world.

This vision persisted throughout the early Middle Ages. Abbot Suger, who ordered the rebuilding of the Church of St-Denis in Paris in order for it to be filled with light, believed that a numinous inscape could be found within jewels, stained glass and precious metals that transported him into a ‘strange region of the universe,’ one that lay between earth and heaven. (Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St-Denis and its Art Treasure, Ed, trans and annotated by Erwin Panofsky 2nd ed. Princeton, Univ. Press. 1948.). For Robert Grosseteste light was ‘the best of all proportions.’ St Bonaventure believed that, ‘to the extent that material things participate in light, they attained their true being.’ For Duns Scotus the universe was so wondrous as ‘to be compared to a beautiful canticle, a symphony of joy and harmony.’ William of Auxerre saw the goodness of material things as being one and the same as their beauty. For both Boetheus and Honorius of Autun the world was so perfectly ordered, with the macrocosm mirrored so perfectly to the microcosm, that it could be compared to the harmony within music or to a precisely tuned instrument. [These writers can be found in Umberto Eco and Hugh Bredin’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages. (Yale University Press, 1988)]

Then something happened. Around 1300 Italian merchants began to use what is called double entry bookkeeping. In this same period the first mechanical clocks appeared on public buildings. Arabic numerals replaced the Roman system. Philosophical arguments employed systematic logic. In short, Europeans were given tools that allowed them to abstract the world around them and manipulated it in the mind. Before double entry bookkeeping, for example, commerce was an anecdotal affair in which people were never too sure how their businesses were performing. Now it was possible to predict and control; to determine if it made sense to invest in a ship going to the Spice Islands, or to make prices more competitive. And, where once usury had been banned because time belonged to God, now time was secular. Time was something to ‘waste,’ ‘save’ and ‘put aside.’

And so human beings were given powerful mental tools that encouraged them to abstract the world and view it as an object external to them. With the Renaissance that followed, ‘Man’ became the measure of all things. And what invention do we associate with the Renaissance in art?—perspective, that vision of a one-eyed person with their head clamped. It presents a world that is external to us and involves a monolithic logical system that distorts circular objects and parallel walls into one overarching scheme that mathematicians call projective geometry. We had to wait for Cézanne until that clamped head could be freed again; ‘Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply, the same subject seen from a different angle offers subject for study of the most powerful interest and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without changing place by turning now more to the right, now more to the left.’

These mental tools were also the seeds that blossomed into the rise of science, with Francis Bacon’s claim that ‘knowledge is power’ and that female nature should be placed on the rack and tormented to reveal her secrets. The physicist, Wolfgang Pauli believed that science’s obsession with ‘the will to power’ increased during the twentieth century. Pauli had a long involvement with Carl Jung, who had argued that when eros is absent it leaves a vacuum and that vacuum will be filled by the will to power. For Pauli the lack of eros in physics, the absence of an intimate relationship to the natural world, had given rise to the will to power over nature.

Pauli felt that scientists should rather work like the alchemists of old, not in order to seek power and control but for their own redemption. He believed that we must search for the wholeness in nature in order to find the wholeness within. We must also come to terms with what he called ‘the irrational in matter.’ And, just as Carl Jung had discovered the collective unconscious—the objective side to mind—we need to find the subjective side to matter and physics. Indeed just as spirit had been banished from matter with Descartes and Newton, Pauli felt that the time was now ripe for ‘the resurrection of spirit in matter.’

We cannot deny that the ability to abstract the world and realize the products of our imagination through science and technology is enormously powerful and has transformed our planet in so many ways. But at the same time the vision still persists, it is what the composer John Tavener called ‘the one simple memory,’ that recollection of a period when art, the world and the sacred where unified. Dionysius the Aropagite, wrote that the cosmos was created out of beauty, and this beauty was ‘the cause of the harmony and splendour in all things, flashing forth upon them all, like light, the beautifying communications of its originating rays.’ [quoted in Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, Umberto Eco, trans. Hugh Bredlin. Yale University Press, 2002.]  Centuries later we have the same vision is the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
(‘God’s Grandeur’)

And with Einstein ‘To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the centre of all true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.’ (Albert Einstein, Strange is Our Situation Here on Earth, in Modern Religious Thought, Ed Jaros Pelikan (Boston, 1990)

Also with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, ‘all created things, every one of them, cannot be looked at, in their nature and action, without the same reality being found in their innermost being—like sunlight in the fragments of a broken mirror—one beneath its multiplicity, unattainable beneath its proximity, and spiritual beneath its materiality.’ (F.C. Happold, Mysticism: A Study and an Anthology, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1970.)

It is a thread that also weaves its way through the history of art, for in the Middle Ages the miner, metal worker, alchemist and artist are midwives to nature, assisting her in her striving for perfection. Dürer paints himself in the image of Christ as the Redeemer of nature, rather than one who seeks to dominate and control the material world. In Michelangelo’s sculptures for the Medici tomb in the church of San Lorenzo in Florence, Night has a face that is only roughed out and unpolished, unlike the rest of that figure, as well as being partly obscured by an arm. Night is a symbol of the Dark Sun, the first, or nigredo stage, of an alchemical working. Next to this figure is Day, androgyny—a male figure with female breasts. Such alchemical symbolism is found again and again, consciously or unconsciously, throughout the history of art. It is there in Duchamp’s Great Glass and the androgynous Mona Lisa with moustache. It is present in the work of Anish Kapoor who feels that truly great art has experienced an alchemical transformation of its matter. Likewise the architect, Christopher Alexander holds that matter is alive and buildings too are alive and have living centres.

We have already had one quote from Hopkins. It was he who wrote of inscape, the authentic inner voice within

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
(Pied Beauty )


So what is inscape? A Sufi master was about to pass on his mantle and had chosen a poor boy from the village. At this his wife protested, saying there were young men from better families and so the master announced to his students that on the following day he would chose his successor. Next morning his pupils arrived with gifts of fruit and flowers but the boy he wished to select brought nothing. When challenged the boy said that he had gone into a field of poppies and as he bent to pick them they sang the praises of Allah, so he passed by. He next went to a tree of pomegranates but the fruit sang the praises of Allah. Everywhere he went the trees and flowers sang of Allah and so he came back empty handed. The Master handed him his mantle.

Likewise Cézanne wrote, ‘The Landscape becomes reflective, human and thinks itself though me. I make it an object, let it project itself and endure within my painting… I become the subjective consciousness of the landscape, and my painting becomes its objective consciousness.’

Process and Object

Just as in the art world there has been a change in its earlier preoccupation with the ‘art object,’ as something that can be valued, collected or placed in a museum, so too in science we have moved from object to process. Thinkers such as the late David Bohm viewed the electron as more like a process than an object. In his notion of the Implicate Order, quantum objects are constant processes of unfolding out of the Implicate into the Explicate Order and then enfolding back into the Implicate. Just as in ancient Hindu teachings, the universe is a constant process of being breathed in and out of existence.

As an aside, it is worth noting that Bohm’s vision comes directly from Cézanne. During the 1960s Bohm engaged in a long correspondence with Charles Biederman, the artist and author of The New Cézanne. He learned that after hundreds of sittings by the art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, Cézanne indicated that the portrait was complete except for a tiny region on the hand, but if he were to touch that area, he would be forced to repaint the entire canvas. Thus for Cézanne, as for Bohm, the whole is contained within each part.

In many ways our concern with the primacy of the object is a reflection of the language we speak. Our European languages are subject-predicate forms. Just as Newtonian physics deals in objects connected by forces, our languages deal in nouns connected by verbs. But journey to the world of the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwaj and Naskapi and you find a very different language family, one in which verbs predominate and categories of objects fade away. Likewise, the worldview of the Blackfoot is not of permanent objects but of flux and change. A person’s name changes throughout a life, fish are seen as ‘processes in water,’ the notion that someone would have a single personality is somewhat bizarre, as is the act of dividing the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things. And if all is flux then we must have ceremonies of renewal such as the sacred pipe and the Sun Dance.

Goethe had argued that rather than subjecting nature to artificial situations in the laboratory we should indulge in a two-way dialogue. When this is done, nature will provide us with ‘the example worth a thousand.’  Likewise the Blackfoot point out that if we are in a dialogue with the world then what does nature learn about us? It finds out that we like to make quantum particles bang into each other at high speeds and explode. And if we create a high degree of order in a superconductor then, since all is in balance, there must be disorder created somewhere else. But do we feel morally responsible for the disorder (the entropy) we create in nature?

Complementarity and Dialogue

Up to now these two strands have been treated as being in opposition to each other, or as having different values. But maybe it is truer that they are entwined in each one of us. Yes, we can celebrate the freedom and inscape of nature but we also need to exert a level of control within our lives. We may accept a degree of uncertainty but we also need to know something about the general pattern of the future. We do make plans and seek to make our mark, even if we, at the same time, accept the endless creativity of the natural world.

Yes, we are aware that science is associated with a ‘will to power’ and our dream of endless progress has endangered the planet. Yet it is the same science which tells us about the threat of global warming, global dimming, the damage to the ozone layer or identifies trace contaminants in water. Our science and technology paradoxically is part of the problem and part of the solution. And if our civilization is to survive global warming then it requires both a radical change of consciousness and a thoughtful deployment of technologies.

The physicist Niels Bohr argued that reality is so rich that it can never be exhausted in a single explanation or description. Rather we need what he termed complementary approaches, levels of explanation that may even appear paradoxical when placed side by side. Thus the electron is both a localized object—a particle—and something that extends over space—a wave.

Maybe this is equally true for these two strands I have explored in this talk. They are complementary ways of approaching nature and the environment and are constantly involved in a dialogue with each other. And science and art are themselves part of that dialogue, two aspects, two ways of approaching the world.

Maybe art and science themselves expose yet another pair of strands, that of male and female, or rather the masculine and the feminine. We have already met Pauli’s views on the ‘will to power’ in science and Bacon’s on nature as feminine. In fact the physical sciences are very much a male enterprise. Walk into any physics department and you will find very few women, if any at all. Read Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (The Women’s Press, 1984) and you will find very similar statements that men have made about nature and about women.

If further evidence were needed then think of the birth of quantum theory, which involved a battle of egos with Bohr summonsing Heisenberg to Copenhagen and reducing him to tears and haranguing Schrödinger to the point where he had to take to his bed. And those who were engaged in the Manhattan Project did not really think about the ethics of creating an atomic bomb until it was too late. Rather they thought of themselves almost as gods, who were playing with the very stuff of creation. They were not so much making a bomb that would wipe out Japanese cities, as attempting to solve a fascinating problem set to them by nature.

Yet, the physical sciences are very much a male preserve. I recall a physicist being asked what he would do if given a sum of money, ‘I’d get a group of chaps together into a research team.’ ‘So there would be no women?’ was the reaction. ‘But women can be chaps, too,’ was his reply.

Attend a conference on art, such as this one at Falmouth and you will find a high proportion of women. Maybe it was not always that way in the history of art with the exception of Artemisia Gentileschi, Mary Cassatt and Suzanne Valadon. But today there does appear to be a certain sensibility exhibited towards the natural world on the part of women artists. The male land artists may go into landscape with their earth movers but Susan Derges places large sheets of photographic paper in the River Taw and allows that river to manifest itself. Or uses drops of water as lenses to bring her face into focus. Cornelia Parker asks us to consider the boundaries between collecting, classifying and experimenting when done by the artist or the scientist. Lynn Cohen photographs the altars of science—the empty laboratories—and finds traces of humanity—a crushed plastic coffee cup, a cigarette butt in an ashtray. Mona Hatoum explores the vulnerability of the human body.

All this is not to say that similar sensibilities are not exhibited by male artists, or that female artists, such as Marina Abramovic can some times give extreme performances. Rather I would like to suggest that the masculine and feminine weave their way through contemporary art, as they do in our desire to care for nature.

But back to quantum theory. It may have been born out of a battle of egos but at least it teaches us about the undivided wholeness of nature. However we must also discriminate and analyze. We need both wholeness and discrimination, while rejecting both fragmentation and the sort of soupy wholeness in which all distinctions are lost.

In my book, The Blackwinged Night, I suggest that the gods Apollo and Dionysus thread their way through our history. Apollo is the god of moderation and order, the founder of states, the god of mathematics and philosophy. Dionysus is the god of vegetation, fertility and wine. The Apollonian world is one of simplicity and rule, while the Dionysian is one of intoxication, flux and multiplicity. The two form complementary ways of viewing the world, for when we turn to chaos theory we discover that order is born out of chaos, and chaos born out of order. The two gods, and the two strands are mirror images of each other and engage in an eternal dance. The lord of this dance is Eros.