Patterns

As a wildlife filmmaker, two of my great passions are constantly colliding. Nature and art are, respectively, my subject matter and my craft. As far as I know the following statement hasn’t been scientifically proven, but my gut tells me this is true: a deep appreciation for nature requires a deep appreciation for art. I can say it backwards with the same certainty: a deep appreciation for art requires a deep appreciation for nature.

 

Throughout the history of art, nature has been her constant muse. We see this in the cave paintings in Lascaux, France some 17,000 years ago. In these caverns, Upper Paleolithic man plastered the stony halls with frolicking dioramas of bison, stag and horses. The beasts that provided sustenance also inspired reverence and awe.

 

 

 

Modern man has progressed. We’ve tamed…or more precisely…dominated the landscape and its lesser fauna. But we still look to the natural world for meaning. British conceptual artist Damien Hirst (while his methods are questionable) explored the fear of the unknown in his sculptural installation, The Pysical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The 13 foot long tiger shark in its eerie, blue formaldehyde tomb is enough to make the soul shudder.

 

 

It’s hardly surprising that naturalists often gravitate… naturally…towards artistic pursuits. This is perhaps most eloquently displayed in the paintings of John James Audubon in the early 1800’s. His monumental Birds of America was the first exhaustive field-guide of American birds, and contained 435 hand colored, life sized prints of 497 bird species. During his career he himself discovered 37 new species and subspecies of birds.

 

The Greek philosophers were the first to explore the nature of aesthetics, or what makes something “beautiful.” Beauty is, of course, an attribute often used to describe both nature and art. In his work Metaphysics, Aristotle defined beauty as displaying both order and symmetry. Pattern, balance, harmony…these words embody what Aristotle was getting at, and scientific studies have determined that humans intuitively find beauty in these qualities.

Bust of Aristotle

 

As I, and many philosophers, artists, scientists and mathematicians have observed, the universe is full of examples of pattern and order. We see it in the concentric swirl of a seashell. In the perfect circle of a full moon. In a feather. A leaf. The way the milky way spills across a perfectly dark night, or in the twist of a galaxy. Our every living breath and falling footstep is ruled by immovable, absolute laws.  Gravity, thermodynamics, the conservation of mass and energy: these principals work together to shape the the universe into the great cosmic machine that it is.

 

 

I need to stress that I am by no means an expert in the holistic workings of the cosmos. It’s a story too vast to compress. I’m just an observer. My simplistic argument is this: the material world in all of its parts, great and small, works together as a whole. The life cycle of a single-celled protist, in some minute way, has an effect on a complex organism…like me. I can more or less say it backwards with the same certainty: my actions have an effect on billions of life-forms large and seemingly insignificant. We’re all part of an integrated system that, however difficult to observe, works in a cycle…a pattern.

protist

 

But we humans have a unique compulsion to thrust our shoulders against the concentric sphere of this spinning universe. We use more than we need. We demand even more. The pattern has become skewed and the environment lopsided. As resources are depleted, animal extinction rates explode and carbon sequestering forests are decimated, we can’t ignore that we are part of the same equation.

 

We need new eyes, younger, healthier eyes. Eyes that are no longer glazed by the smoke and brilliance of our own fire. There was a time when we appreciated the beauty, the order of our natural world. There was a certain humility man felt when stepping to the edge of a vast, untamed wilderness. As Henry David Thoreau remarked, “We do not enjoy poetry unless we know it to be poetry.” Art and poetry are the same. I like to think there is poetry in nature. How do we fit into this remarkable verse?

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