A Sense of Place: Belonging Together

A happy and harmonious system is one in which all the parts of the system truly belong together. This “belonging together” can not necessarily be perceived in their external relationships, and as such we have to develop the capacity to appreciate this belongingness in a more contemplative consciousness. there are examples of this which I will now discuss.

Mammals today are based on hierarchical taxonomies based on the work of Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778). Members of each category share key structural features and other characteristics, such as jaguars, tigers and cats.  Following Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859, this work gained a new significance with the concept of a single ancestor back in time.  All well and good, but how to explain mammals with very similar characteristics which are only extremely distantly related, perhaps across oceans and continents too.  The traditional explanation is that these mammals evolved under similar external environmental conditions.

That’s fine, but is there another way of viewing this same situation? There is, and that is to rethink what an organism is.  It can be seen not just the product of external conditions, but also as a result of their intrinsic organising principles which then interact dynamically with the external conditions.

It was this approach that Wolfgang Schad developed, and which Mark Riegner writes about in his essay Horns, Hooves, Spots and Stripes: Form and Pattern in Mammals (full reference at end of article).

What does this mean exactly?  Have a look at this picture below, of a leopard, harvest mouse and bison.

Schad, inspired by Goethe and also Rudolph Steiner’s work inspired by Goethe, Schad helps us understand animals in terms of a three-fold distinction.

If we think of the quality of its life, it lives nervously, continually at risk of being eaten by a predator. We can think of their primary orientation therefore to their nervous and sensory systems, with their head, the anterior as the major centre for those organic systems.

A bison can be thought of as quite opposite to the harvest mouse, with its focus on its digestive system, as it seemingly goes consciously inwards as it grazes leisurely. The primary orientation of the bison is therefore focussed on its limbs and digestion, which are primarily towards its posterior.

These two mammals can be seen to have opposite forms (accented anterior or posterior) in reciprocal relationship with the functions (metabolic and limb).

When it comes to the leopard, a carnivore, its predominant systems are metabolic (circulatory and respiratory). For the leopard in one moment is intensely alert and hunting prey, muscles tensed ready to spring, and in other having gorged on its prey, lazily sprawled out in a tree, its awareness now going inwards to its digestion.

Schad used this threefold system to classify mammals, and in doing so provides a convincing argument for having discovered a formative principle which is why the same motif can be found across diverse mammals whose relation is not immediately apparent in the former form of classification.

This principle only becomes intelligible only when the relationships among phenomena are grasped in their wholeness. This perception of wholeness comes from both scientific and artistic consciousness. When perceiving phenomena, the underlying organising principles appear in imagination in the authentic belonging together as Henri Bortoft says.

When we try and abstract common principles, we are taking a system, looking at parts which are already separate, and trying to put them together. This belonging together is counterfeit if we only look at external relationships which we ourselves have perhaps synthetically created, such as the taxonomy of Linnaeus. It is only once we have grasped in our intuition and authentic whole that we come to meet the whole in a way in which it comes to presence in the parts. Note that in this sense, in relation to the example of Schad and mammals, whole here refers to a dynamic process, which results in the wholeness of the animal.

This may or may not make sense, and it is extremely hard to compact into a single blog entry an insight as deep as comprehending authentic wholes in nature through this sense of belonging together. Composers though do not think about this, they simply compose music in which the notes that they select belong together in a harmonious relationship, allowing the whole essence of the composition to be perceived and enjoyed by us.

I feel that just contemplating the phrase “belonging together” is very powerful, for it is something that those who comprehend the complexity of nature comprehend, and as a design principle it would be one that would be enriching even when thinking about technology, or inorganic life, and even the interaction and the belonging together of technology and nature.

I went today on my bike to visit a local wildlife reserve in Dumfries. This is the Fountainbleau Ladypark reserve I mentioned in my previous post in this series on “Place”. It is a small area of low-lying wet birchwood with a good bird population including woodpeckers, willow tits and willow warblers and where the woodlands and wild flowers can be appreciated too.

I arrived though as you can see to find access blocked. The nature reserve is being slowly surrounded by a brand new housing development, many hundreds of houses, and there has been quite a large outcry at the risks of flooding due to a lack of drainage for surface water. I had planned to come here regularly to start some Goethian studies in wildlife, but any idea of peaceful contemplation in nature was erased as soon as I arrived and saw just how close to the wildlife reserve the builds are.

For me I had an immediate sense that the housing estate just did not belong there. I am not anti-developments as such, but it is perhaps only by developing one’s own sense of belonging together can one then design truly harmonious solutions. There is a secondary school on much higher ground near the nature reserve, and that does make sense in order to enrich the classes of the pupils there. But this closeness will be no use if the marshes become flooded, and the homes of so many plant and animal species destroyed.

I know this is maybe a little bit of a down piece, but the positive to take is that we can all in our connections to nature develop this way of perceiving true belonging together, and from there design from our hearts and not just from our heads.

Further Reading

Mark Riegner Horns, Hooves, Spots and Stripes: Form and Pattern in Mammals in Seamon, D. and Zajonc, A. (1998) Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature

Henri Bortoft (1996) The Wholeness of Nature – Goethe’s Way of Science

Newspaper stories:

Flooding problems at wildlife reserve

New homes protest centres on flooding

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