Thursday 9 September 2010

Nature by design

Generally speaking, nature is beautiful as a matter of course. It doesn't set out to be beautiful or spontaneous, it just goes about the business of arranging matter in accordance with the laws of physics and as a collateral effect creates patterns and forms that we find beautiful. I would contend that we find them beautiful because we are part of the same universe, made of the same material according to the same laws. Effectively the universe made self conscious, looking at itself and applying abstract meaning to its perceptions, and thereby defining it itself.

The shape and structure of minerals is determined by the way in which the atoms of which they are formed fit together as a matrix. The substructures of cleavage planes and angles thus formed determine the colour, hardness, diaphaneity and crystalline shape of the minerals, in short all of its physical properties which we find beautiful. It is a consequence on the large scale of a process which happens at the atomic level, according to the laws of physics.

When all the conditions were right the universal laws dictated that life should enter the scene, creating new and more complex structures. The shape of cells and the imprint of genetic coding has created a rich and diverse myriad of life forms on this little wet rock which spins around the sun. Within all these life forms, plant or animal, is a drive to survive, to flourish and to procreate. Whether it is a single strand of hair from an arctic bear designed to insulate against the cold or the hexagonal matrix of a beehive, nature creates structures that are efficient and ingenious and incidentally beautiful on every level.

The synchronised aerial acrobatics of a flock of birds, the aquatic ballet of a school of fish. The colour, shape and fragrance of a flower designed to attract insects to pollinate and bear fruit, the plumage and dance of a bird of paradise to attract a mate. There is a purpose in nature, in every aspect, and nature creates infinitely varied and structured patterns and forms incidentally to that purpose. We humans also have evolved in the same world according to the same principles, and somewhere along the line we have started to understand some of these principles and manipulate them to our advantage. That the hair of these animals is warm, and if we spin its fibres and weave the threads together we can create garments which allow us to increase our area of activity in environments that we could not have survived in naked. If we breed these animals or propagate these crops we can guarantee our food supply throughout the year. If we fire this clay we can make vessels to store, cook and serve these foods.

And so, incidental to our own struggle for survival and procreation, we created patterns and forms which were based on practical and efficient principles, and they were beautiful. Beautiful in the same sublime way that nature makes the scales of a fish or the fronds of a fern or the rising and setting of the sun. We have flourished. Our ancestors took nature to wife and husbanded it well, nurturing it and caring for it so that we in turn could enjoy the bounty of its embrace. Useful, beautiful, healthy and sustainable. Each generation passed it's knowledge to the next, adding their own experience and discoveries. Knowledge alone, however, is not enough, and a system of training and practice became established and this became tradition. Through training, practice and repetition we master the skills until they become natural to us, like language, allowing us to express our thoughts and feelings through the medium of our craft.

Our ancestors learned that cooking some foods made them more palatable, and that by combining them with other foods their flavour, fragrance and food value could be increased. As the range and variety of foods increased, so too did the need for vessels appropriate for the serving of that food. Hot liquids, for example, required shapes to keep them hot, handles so that we could hold them without burning our fingers, saucers to catch the liquid if it spilt, plates to serve fairy cakes on. As each individuals perspective and perception is unique, so too are our solutions to those design challenges and our artistic expressions.

These skills are not hard wired into our genetic code, however. Heredity does not imbue us with the skill to sit down and make a cup and saucer. One cannot stand up one day and spontaneously make or pull handle which springs from the vessel in organic curves, twisting in tendrils round the chattered hip of the vessel. These are skills we must learn, and we all start from the same point. No accident of birth gives us the ability to automatically be a potter, though circumstance may place us in an environment that nourishes our creative spirit so that we may grow to be one. It is only after we have trained and practiced and made a hundred or two hundred or a thousand, that those skills become natural to us, allowing us free and spontaneous expression.

Traditional society is all but gone, and the healthy beauty that existed as a consequence of it is going with it. It is, therefore, the task of our generation to be aware of our place as nature self aware and to consciously choose to be a part of the real world. Not the disposable industrial construct that we have built around us to separate us from nature, not the virtual escape and the veneration of the useless. This world that we have taken to spouse is not disposable, and the health and welfare of our children depends on how well we husband it. We are part of this beautiful world, and we have the ability to create art which is useful, beautiful, healthy and sustainable by design.

The matter which makes our universe, the space in which it exists and the principles by which they interact are part of a grand design, though who you believe that designer to be is not for me to say. Never the less, the universe is beautiful as a matter of course, and we are part of that.


  1. This post inspires all people like me that is beginning to learn pottery now. Thank you! We realize how a kind of work can be a path to transcendence.