Nature and imagination: The celebration of an alliance

Photo courtesy of NASA

Photo courtesy of NASA

April is Earth Month and nature takes on a temporary stardom status. Cherry blossom petals carpet the city’s streets, pleasant smells are everywhere, windows are open and linen hangs outdoors.

These days, nature is most likely prized as a landscape, real estate with a view, or a place for pesky raccoons in garbage cans. Others still see it as a commodities warehouse. We forget that one of nature’s elementary functions is to engage our imagination.

Ever since Icarus decided he wanted to fly, humankind has strived to fulfill its dreams and aspirations one way or another. Time and again, the answers to their fulfillment have come from nature itself. Artists have long been acquainted with nature’s pull, or what James Joyce qualified as esthetic arrest, as have scientists, whose mission is to pry out its chemical secrets and physics’ rules. Architects see in it a diversity of forms (think of Arthur Erickson’s Waterfall Building), mountaineers, boaters, hikers engage with nature, for the love of measuring human fitness against the earth’s geographical challenges. Even lawmakers of yore, those Sumerian astronomers who developed social systems based on the universe’s immutable cycles, and of whom Western civilization is the very distant heir in its social structures and time management, turned to nature for their models. We still do.

The sharp-shinned hawk, a raptor which can be seen flying over the Lower Mainland, has a flight pattern so sophisticated, it has attracted the attention of scientists. NASA, Stanford University’s aerodynamic department, and other institutions, have studied its flight model and applied their findings to aircrafts and continue to study the bird, as they haven’t yet extracted all of the its biomechanical offerings. The albatross, increasingly threatened with extinction by floating plastic debris in the northern Atlantic Ocean, is another bird whose effortless flight is currently being studied in hopes of improving fuel economy in passenger planes.

The snail too has its followers among some members of the scientific community. Its slimy locomotion has inspired biomechanical engineers to find ways to improve the safety of that most fearful of medical implements used in colonoscopies.

In the Sahara, every year, in the month of May, at noon precisely, a great wind comes from the west and gathers from the dunes a cloud of dust 200 km wide and several stories high. Together dust and wind travel east, five thousand kilometers, to the forests of the Amazon. There, the dust will mingle with the local clouds and fall as rain. The Saharan dust is comprised of trace elements scientists have deemed essential to the productivity of the rainforest, yet unavailable locally. Gathered from the decayed bodies of long-dead crustaceans who roamed an ocean long-ago vanished.

A Douglas fir towers above the photographer. - Photo by Wildcat Dunny, Flickr

A Douglas fir towers above the photographer. – Photo by Wildcat Dunny, Flickr

We have meals-on-wheels – nature provides meals on the back of Aeolus. Intercontinental kinship? Scientists have recently demonstrated an example of this relationship of mutual support in the plant world; here in B.C. Douglas firs were shown to nourish their saplings from their own carbon supplies. Will scientists someday discover intent in inanimate matter?

Anthropologist Loren Eiseley (1907–1977), hailed by some as “the modern Thoreau”, wrote in his book Mind as Nature: “I believe that one way or the other we mirror in ourselves the universe with all its dark vacuity and also its simultaneous urge to create anew.” Nature’s exploration, in all of its forms, drives human existence. The days of “Nature red in tooth and claw”, Darwin’s view, may be behind us, replaced by a stockmarket view of its riches counterbalanced by environmental concerns, yet its more fundamental function is still barely recognized.

Whenever contemplated, observed, studied and the knowledge of its plural mechanisms drawn out and applied to human activities, nature in its own right becomes a source of imagination, a means through which we are able to actualize our creative urges, a driving force of civilization.

Cause for celebration indeed.