Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Home and Wildness

For the past three years I have been working on an intimate body of photographs made within walking distance of my home and studio. Our property is in the middle of an orchard, parts of which have been left to go feral, the trees growing towards their natural grizzled tangle, while other parts have been bulldozed and prepared for development, only to be left for the weeds and the thistle.

For a time it has been a place grounded between categories, neither kempt nor wild. I have come to see it as a kind of crucible within which local tensions are played out in ways with global significance.

Probably the most significant issue of our lifetimes will be the emergence of global climate change as a consequence of human development. How we picture living with nature has everything to do with what we can imagine as a response to looming catastrophe.

There have been sets of parallel visual expectations that emerged over the last 50 or so years, on the one side there is a vision of nature as pristine ala Eliot Porter's The Color of Wildness, and on the other side a vision of the American suburb that is bulldozed flat, gridded off and built up in a completely controlled fashion. Over the last few years, that American vision of the huge housing development has become quickly associated with decay and entropy as so many sit unfinished and empty, partially built and partially ruined. Suburbia and wildness developed mutually exclusive visions where neither had room for the other, and yet both have to exist.

A successful city is generally imagined as completely counter-entropic. It is permanent progress. Fully realized. In contrast, nature is understood to be cyclical. It is a system where the counter-entropy/entropy tension is contained and fully resolved within a system that is sustainable. An organism is generated, feeds, grows, dies and decays, returning its components completely to the ecosystem.

There is a dialectical tension between the constant effort required to sustain a counter-entropic city and the tendency of nature to absorb everything into a cyclical rhythm of growth and decay. As Carl Jung said in his essay Alchemical Studies, ‘Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose.’

This interaction between home and wildness has profound psychological implications for it mirrors the evolution of human consciousness itself. A similar and analogous set of tensions is played out in the interaction between consciousness and unconsciousness, the first being the creator of technology and home, and the second being a product of nature, emerging from millions of years of evolution. These exist in dynamic tension, in constant movement to dominate or subsume the other. In fact, the history of development is in a sense the history of human consciousness, with many of the same tensions and contradictions.


Martin said...

Aric, thanks for that ! Love the pink and plastic child toys juxtaposed with "works" of men. The image of fallen poles in water pointing to an interior, the safety cones embody the absurd in front of the wild and cold sea and the birches are fearless in the face of that imposing wall. Images work best that "tell" the least and instead just bring you there. Strong stuff. Thanks again

photo editing service said...

No matter how we try, nature will always reclaim even our greatest efforts at leaving memories of mankind.

TC said...

Wonderful work you are doing, marvelous photos, terrific blog.

But one fears Jung was wrong. He had not seen enough of the full curve.

The "cannot lose" comes to feel more and more like it needs correcting to "has already lost".

Aric Mayer said...

Martin, thanks for the good words. You helped me see my own work in new ways. Photo editing, you may be right, but I hope we get in a good run before that happens. Tom, thank you as well for your comment. Your thought on nature having lost is a popular one.

I think it is worth closely examining exactly what is being lost here. First and foremost the loss is our 18th, 19th and 20th century visions of nature as an infinitely exploitable resource. Those romantic visions ignored the laws of the universe that say nature will respond to our actions by adapting. That adaptation to our exploitive behavior is increasingly seeming to be a destructive process to us and the millions of species that are going extinct as a result. If we release in a short flash of energy huge amounts of carbon that were stored up by the earth over hundreds of millions of years deep underground, of course there will be consequences. But those consequences will not eradicate nature. They may however alter it on our planet in ways that are highly inhospitable to the human race.

What is quite interesting in this evolution is the way that our imaginings of nature drive our behavior in reference to it. So long as we saw its resources as inexhaustible and unalterable, we could exploit it with impunity. This required a compartmentalizing or disassociating vision where nature was imagined as pristine and wild while development was seen in visual terms as divorced from the resources and impacts that its materials required. I think we need to create a collapsing aesthetic that can somehow begin to imagine the system as a whole, complete with all our messes and failings.

What we are changing, or destroying, isn't nature itself, but is a constellation of conditions in nature that are very hospitable to our species and our culture. Those can be radically altered without destroying the system itself.

Jung is referring in his quote on nature specifically to nature as it is manifest in the archetypal unconscious, which exists in all of us.

He believed that the great work of humankind was to establish a relationship between ego and unconscious so that the center of the self is dominated by neither. The goal is for both to exist in relationship.

I think his quote has real relevance to how we perceive our relationship with nature as it is manifest in the physical world. Just as in Jung's view on the balance between ego and unconscious, the only best outcome of humans and nature is that we achieve a kind of balance with it, in which neither influence is the dominant force.

Nature can't lose because it is infinitely adaptable. According to the law of conservation of energy, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It is transformed. Even if we precipitate climate change to the extent that the earth will no longer support life for medium sized warm blooded mammals, nature will go on. The earth has seen many dominant species come and go and the fundamental laws of physics say that will continue.