NATURAL FLOW-FORM: A MUTUAL INCLUSION OF STRENGTH AND WEAKNESS
NB this is a re-publication of an essay formerly published at www.bestthinking.com in 2015
Imagine a scene depicted in a painting or framed in a photograph, for example, something like this one:-
Has this scene always been as you see it here, and will it always remain as you see it now? If not, how has it come into being, and how will it change? What makes the forms you see distinct from one another and their surroundings? Why is it that you don’t just see a featureless monotone, but instead apprehend a marvellous array of shapes, shades and colours? Why, if you were yourself to enter into the scene, would these visual distinctions be added to by a rich variety of sounds, smells, temperatures and soft and hard textures, including those within your own body — all of which combine into your sensation of being miraculously present as an inhabitant of the scene, throbbing with life?
Now, while still imaginatively including yourself and your feelings as an observer within the scene you are observing, not standing aloof from it, let’s pay a visit to one of the inhabitants of the scene, for example a tree. From a distance we might just make out the appearance of something like a fuzzy lollipop, sticking out of the ground. As we move in closer, as depicted in the following series of photographs, more and more of its branching structure becomes discernible, shooting out from its trunk into smaller and smaller offshoots, culminating in buds, leaves and flowers. As we move under its canopy, we become aware of the shade it casts over us. We notice the airiness that is all around and amongst its branches and foliage, sometimes quite still, other times whispering gently or even rushing stormily. If we look closely enough, with the aid of a magnifying lens, we can witness this airiness entering within the tree’s leaves and corky covering, through pores known technically as stomata and lenticels. Meanwhile, we can sense the varying smoothness and roughness of the tree’s bark. We might notice the wonderful rippling, branching, sprouting, erupting, collapsing variety of lichens, mosses and liverworts that find a home here, as well as the fanning, mushrooming and splurging fruit bodies of fungi that find food and shelter deep within the tree’s woody interior. And, if we were to dive down microscopically with those fungi into this interior, we would discover it to be full of holes — the communicating pipelines that link water-absorbing roots with photosynthesizing canopy — not the solid block of substance it at first might seem to be.
What we are witnessing is no work of pure, solid strength that comes into being instantaneously and persists forever within a rigid framework isolated from its neighbourhood, any more than are the human beings seen relaxing, drinking and eating on the grassy bank. Rather it is an ever-changing framing of an inner-outer- world relationship mediated through the dynamic, VARIABLY permeable, deformable and connective interfacings of its root, leaf and bark surfaces. It emerges from a seed germinating in soil, and its eventual death and decay add to the humus of the soil in which its own seeds will germinate. Its branching pattern resembles that found at many different scales throughout Nature, for example in fungal and bacterial colonies, nervous systems, blood systems, leaf venation systems, ant trails, sheep trails, road systems and river basins. All of these branching patterns arise from the same fundamental process: the gathering and translocation of substances through and within a resistive but dynamic boundary, as is graphically illustrated by the following example:-
While Plato, who lamented, ‘Oh , to find a solid without flux’, might have appreciated the apparently instantaneous fixture of all that these photographs include, what is actually shown in each photograph is a scene temporarily and selectively freeze-framed within a camera aperture and shutter’s field of view and duration of exposure. It is a scene abstracted and diminished, as if cut out from its natural setting, literally as a snapshot.
The actual scene beheld by the included observer is, by contrast, far from completely solid and is utterly full of flux. Indeed, it is a scene that could not have come into being without flux. Take a moment now to imagine this. Can you sense the energy and dynamic relationship present, the combined individual uniqueness and overall coherence that brings a feeling of communion with and within the natural world? The landscape could not have arisen without the fluid movement of the Earth’s crust and the erosive and depositional influence of streaming water in dynamic relation with valley sides. The trees could not have arisen without germinating from seeds deposited in soil formed through growth, death and decay of their ancestors. The people could not have arisen without being born, breathing, eating, urinating, defecating, growing up and aging. And so on.
Plato’s predecessor, Heraclitus, recognised this flux all too well. We remember him today for his telling aphorism, ‘you cannot step in the same river twice’. He envisaged Nature as flux and appreciated the need for both variability and constancy to sustain its continuous transformation. Flux incorporates flow, circulation, polarity, reciprocity, mirroring and mutuality as ingredients of movement and change. Flux is what all natural forms have in common and what enables them to be both different from and the same as one another in distinctive ways, without contradiction. Nature can and should always be imagined as variably fluid — continuously changing at greater or lesser rates. Flux is evident — given sufficient closeness and duration of observation — wherever there is any distinguishable form, and no single form can be entirely and permanently isolated from or unified with any other as an independent entity. All naturally-occurring forms are dynamic inclusions and expressions of their neighbourhood. None can stand forever rigidly alone and apart from where it is situated. As William Wordsworth put it:-
“In nature everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute, independent singleness”
So how can we understand natural flux, and why is such understanding so vital to our realistic perception of the natural world and our human place within it? This is where there is a need not just to view and talk about the existence of flux objectively as a distanced spectator, like someone watching a river flow by while standing on its bank. We need imaginatively or actually to experience immersion in the flux as an involved participant. Don’t just stand there watching, so to speak, dive in! Swim the flux!
This is where the engaged qualitative approach of an artist complements and adds insight to the quantitative, mapping, measuring and recording approach of an analytical scientist. For example, as a woodland ecologist, I was once moved to try to bring to life in a painting, my feeling awareness of immersing myself receptively in the fluid relationship between trees, fungi and their habitats, which sustains the life and diversity of forest communities. I called the painting ‘Fountains of the Forest’:-
Long before me, William Blake had written the following:-
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature as all ridicule and deformity…and some scarce see nature at all. But by the eyes of a man of imagination, nature is imagination itself” — William Blake
To my mind ‘flux’ is the imagination of Nature, without which the wonderful variety of natural form simply could not exist. And flux is also what brings all natural forms into continuous, dynamic relationship as ‘flow-forms’, i.e. forms made of flux. Recall the life cycling of trees from seedlings, to mature, foliated fountains, to fallen and decaying, and hold this imagery in mind. Why, then, do you think Plato was so keen to find a solid without flux? How has this kind of desire influenced and been influenced by our human attitude to our natural neighbourhood? I’ll say more about that later.
For now, let’s just consider what must be present for flux to be possible. Quite simply, there needs to be both a source of resistance or ‘strength’ that provides tangible distinction between a local form and its neighbourhood, and there needs to be a source of looseness or ‘weakness’ that enables this form to come into being and transform. Moreover, these two sources must be distinct but mutually inclusive because neither alone is capable of producing distinguishable local identities:-
Strength minus Weakness = Stiffness
Weakness minus Strength = Formlessness
Strength plus Weakness = Natural Flow-form
Returning, by way of illustration, to my painting of ‘Fountains of the Forest’, it was quite obvious to me that I could only bring this scene into existence by combining stiff paint pigment with loosening solvent on a receptive surface. Paint pigment alone would remain just a blob. I needed to add solvent in order to work it into the variety of shapes, shades and colours of the painting. And this work wasn’t done instantaneously — it took me a good 50 hours or so to finish painting before leaving it to dry and mature.
I was also delightfully aware, while in the process of painting, of the fundamental role of water as source of both strength and weakness in all forms of organic life on Earth as ‘embodied water flows’. Water provides strength due to its pressure when embodied in a resistive envelope. Water provides weakness as a liquid and solvent. So the fluidity of these life forms, due to these complementary qualities, can at least partially be understood as a consequence of their inclusion of — and, in aquatic habitats, within — a watery medium. An ‘average’ human being, for example, is around 65 % water by weight and 99 % water in terms of number of molecules.
Modern biology has tended to emphasize the importance of DNA as a source of ‘building blocks’ of reproducible ‘information’ (genes and the amino acid constituents of proteins that they encode) specifying the character of life forms, but this information would be meaningless without a watery medium within and through which to convey its message into future expression. Dry life is shriveled life — a message that the unbending ‘Iron Lady’, Margaret Thatcher might have been well-advised to recognize when dismissing who she viewed as ‘wet’ politicians on account of their ‘weakness’. I once illustrated the evolutionary relationship between wetness, dryness and genetic information in another painting, entitled ‘Future Present’:-
But water doesn’t occur everywhere and it isn’t an ingredient of every natural form. So while an appreciation of its role in the evolution and fluidity of biological diversity provides a very strong pointer, it can’t explain the more general occurrence of fluidity in all kinds of liquid and gas, nor indeed can it explain, as I will do shortly, why even apparently solid material cannot exist at any physical scale without internal flux.
So, for a more general understanding of flux at all physical scales and in all localities, is there some universal source of weakness that accounts for the fluidity of all natural forms as flow-forms? In fact there is, but its presence literally everywhere is in some ways so very obvious as to lead many of us to overlook it. We may even go so far as to regard this presence as an absence of presence, which we exclude from our consideration of material bodies. We then envisage it as a separating distance between these bodies, i.e. as a formless void — the opposite of material, not what material bodies necessarily include and are included in. But actually, while this intangible presence is not a substance, no substance could come into existence or move around without it. It occurs everywhere and in having no strength whatsoever lacks the friction that slows and transforms motion into heat wherever there is any material presence. Do you know what it is yet?
This intangible presence and universal source of weakness everywhere, at all scales of existence, is no more and no less than the infinite receptive space of Nature within and as a natural dynamic inclusion of which all natural forms come into being and into flux. Notice that I am not speaking here of the abstract three-dimensional ‘boxed-in space’ of conventional geometry. I am speaking of a truly limitless, truly continuous, truly permanent, truly receptive (i.e. without resistance to movement), non-finite presence of utter stillness that cannot be cut up into independent, quantifiable pieces because it isn’t a fabric. Recall my equations mentioned earlier:-
Strength minus Weakness = Stiffness
Weakness minus Strength = Formlessness
Strength plus Weakness = Natural Flow-form
Or, as no less a philosopher than Ludwig Wittgenstein put it:-
“This space I can imagine empty, but I cannot imagine the thing without the space”
So, what, then, you might be wondering is the source of natural strength or stiffness evident in all materials, whether solid, liquid or gaseous? And how does it combine with and yet remain distinct from the utter stillness of receptive space?
Try to imagine this source of strength alone, without the receptive space. It would have to be utterly stiff, utterly motionless! Not only that, however, but without receptive space within, throughout and all around it, it could have no shape or size: it would itself be formless and dimensionless, quite literally a point with no volume, area or length. It cannot exist, other than as an imaginary construct of abstract geometry!
Inescapably, whatever kind of presence provides the strength of material forms cannot be freed from receptive space without becoming non-existent. Try to imagine it otherwise. Also inescapably, this presence cannot be unified homogeneously with receptive space without losing the distinguishability of natural forms from one another and their surroundings. So, receptive space and whatever source of strength gives distinction to form must be distinct but mutually inclusive. If receptive space is excluded from form, form ceases to exist. How can this be?
This is where the presence everywhere of receptive space as an infinite, intangible source of no strength, no friction and utter stillness becomes so important to understand. If receptive space is continuous everywhere, utterly still and without strength, what does this imply for the source of strength? How can this source make form distinct-but-not-independent-from receptive space? In other words, how can it be informative, capable of distinguishing natural forms from each other and their surroundings as variably fluid identities?
If you’re still wondering what enables this universal strengthening presence to be informative, try this:-
Take a sheet of paper and place it in front of you. Take a very sharp pencil and apply it to the surface of the paper while holding the paper utterly still. Now try to outline some kind of figure on the paper without moving the pencil. Can’t do it? But you can do it, can’t you, if you move the pencil point around in a loop so as to incorporate a local area of space within the overall area of the sheet of paper? Now imagine the sheet of paper to be intangible and extending without limit in all directions, and the informative presence of the pencil point capable of moving around in all directions within it, without being slowed by friction.
The inescapable implication is that if the informative presence is to be capable of giving rise to and sustaining distinguishable form with shape and volume, it must be in continuous motion. Also, it is circulatory motion that enables the informative presence both to embody and be embodied within receptive space. Pause to imagine this complementarity between circulating movement and receptive space. For example, imagine a free-swinging pendulum bob revolving around a local centre of space, creating and following a circular path of outward and return journey, which cannot be present instantaneously. Perhaps you are reminded of the orbits of planets around suns and electrons around atomic nuclei? But notice that these movements cannot move around or aside the intangible ever-present stillness of receptive space, which, being frictionless, slips through these bodies as they circulate and does nothing to damp their continuous motion. As we dwell here on planet Earth, the stillness of receptive space is freely permeating through us at around 20 miles per second!
In other words, the informative presence is flux as a circulatory, reciprocating current. Recall what I wrote earlier: ‘flux incorporates flow, circulation, polarity, reciprocity, mirroring and mutuality as ingredients of movement and change’. Informative flux is a pulsating presence. This pulsing current intrinsically produces, sustains and transforms embodied forms of all kinds at all scales. These include even those most slow-flowing bodies that may appear solid and motionless when not viewed sufficiently closely, or for sufficient duration. The continuous passage of ‘time’ as ‘duration’ is implicit in this current. If the current comes to a halt, even for a moment, it ceases to embody receptive space and it disappears from tangible existence. The pendulum bob disappears into eternity! A truly instantaneous, zero-exposure photographic snapshot can only ever reveal nothing! Consider that!
So, there we have it. Not only is there no solid without flux, but flux is intrinsic. The very essence of all material form — all flow-forms — requires a mutual inclusion of receptive space and informative flux. We also know the informative flux as ‘energy’.
That is all there simply is to what I have called ‘natural inclusion’: the mutual inclusion of receptive space and informative energy in all tangible natural phenomena as flow-forms. You, me, the world and the stars are all 100 % receptive space plus informative energy. And ‘information’ is a fluid, pulsing process, not a pre-existing set of ‘building blocks’ assembled by some external agency. We may now express my earlier equation:-
Strength plus Weakness = Natural Flow-form
more specifically as:-
Informative Energy plus Receptive Space = Tangible Flow-form
It may strike you how this formulation relates to many other human ideas, both ancient and modern, concerning Nature and human nature. For example:-
Electromagnetism plus Gravity = Matter
Light plus Darkness = Body
Spirit plus Soul = Flesh
Father plus Mother = Son/Daughter
Eros plus Agape = Philia
Maybe you’re thinking that this is really all rather obvious — that anyone could work it out without any complex apparatus or devices, just through contemplating the implications of experiencing the world. I think you’d be right to think that. Heraclitus was well on the way to doing just that. Maybe you’re wondering why I should have gone to such length to explain it — what’s the big deal? On the other hand, maybe you’re feeling puzzled, even disturbed or hostile, thinking that all you’ve been given to believe in as indisputable scientific or religious fact contradicts what I have said.
The reason why this is such a big deal is that for thousands of years — indeed since before Plato’s time — a great many of us human beings have been teaching ourselves to think it is right to regard those universal sources of strength and weakness, ‘material’ and ‘immaterial’, light (~energy) and darkness (~receptive space) as mutually exclusive opposites. Moreover, we have been prone to regard sources of strength as ‘good’ and weakness as ‘bad’, even ‘sinful’.
It was for this reason that Plato and Aristotle, in so many ways the founders of modern thought, regarded Heraclitus’s view of flux as paradoxical when it in fact resolved the paradox embedded in their own abstract, definitive logic of opposition between material and immaterial! This abstract logic continues to underpin our scientific and philosophical methodology and interpretation, to this day. It has the devastating effect of alienating ourselves from our natural neighbourhood and bringing profound paradox, misunderstanding, distress and conflict to our lives. We really do need to get over it and learn to understand ourselves and others as we actually are in the world as it actually is. In the process of growing this understanding, we will need to overhaul our scientific interpretation radically so as to align it with the fluid logic of Nature. Most fundamentally we will need to develop a very different kind of physics and mathematics from what currently predominates, and this may require much heart-searching and honesty. But then we may truly be able to live more lovingly, joyfully, tolerantly and sustainably than we currently do.
So, next time you venture into the imagination of Nature, please be prepared to include yourself receptively within it and don’t be tempted to objectify Nature as something opposite, which stands in your way. Remember where Hamlet’s self-contradiction led him:-
“To be or not to be, that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?”
Recall that flux and receptive space are partners in natural flow-form, not irreconcilable opposites. That way you may become as inspired by the Fountains of the Forest’ as I feel.
I thank Rev. Roy Reynolds for challenging me to prepare this essay, and for his editorial help.
Further reading:- See http://www.spanglefish.com/exploringnaturalinclusion