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Archive for June, 2017

I have just had the great good fortune to view Jennifer Peedom’s documentary film, Mountain.

A product of her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane (script), Enan Ozturk (cinematography) and Richard Tongnetti leading the Australian Chamber Orchestra (music), Mountain is a feast for the eyes and ears. It is the most sensuously sumptuous film I have ever viewed. Not to be missed!!

Macfarlane drew the deeply insightful and poetic script from his bestselling book, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. Although written very much from a mountaineer’s perspective, the book is also about the human experience of mountains more generally.

Unlike Macfarlane, I have not had the climber’s extreme engagement with mountains, but I have trekked around them, across them and even into the glacial hearts of some. So I know first-hand the fascination about which he writes and can relate totally to his well-informed analysis of that fascination.

The label, “mountain”, is attached to all sorts of elevated landforms, some more hills than mountains.

Genuine mountains are characterised not just by height but also by the way ecosystems vary in layers across their vertical expanse (vertical or altitudinal zonation). To ascend a mountain is to pass from relatively warm forests to cooler grasslands and heaths, to cold, vegetation-free rock and scree and then, in many instances, to regions of permanent ice and snow.

Even the “baby” mountains making up the Australian Alps display something of this zonation.

That said, it is important to accept that our experience of mountains has to do more with how we perceive them rather than the facts of their geology, climatic variation and ecology.

As Macfarlane writes, What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans – a mountain of the mind.

In his book, Macfarlane plots how the imagining of mountains has changed over time. In so doing, he draws our attention to the rich and unique impact that mountains have on the human mind and spirit.

These excerpts from Mountains of the Mind convey something of the extent and power of that impact.

  • Ultimately and most importantly, mountains quicken our sense of wonder. The true blessing of mountains is not that they provide a challenge or a contest, something to be overcome and dominated (although this is how many people have approached them). It is that they offer something gentler and infinitely more powerful: they make us ready to credit marvels – whether it is the dark swirls that water makes beneath a plate of ice, or the feel of the soft pelts of moss that form on the lee side of boulders and trees.

Mountains return to us the priceless capacity for wonder which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence and they urge us to apply that wonder to our own everyday lives.

  •  By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.

At bottom, mountains like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to   lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans.

  • Mountains also reshape our understandings of ourselves, of our interior landscapes. The remoteness of the mountain world – its harshness and its beauties – can provide us with a valuable perspective down on to the most familiar and best-charted regions of our lives. It can subtly reorient us and readjust the points from which we can take out bearings. In their vastness and in their intimacy, mountains stretch out the individual mind and compress it simultaneously: they make it aware of its own immeasurable acreage and reach out, at the same time, of its own smallness.

 

  • Nowhere but in the mountains do you become aware of the incorrigible plurality of light, of its ability to alter its texture rapidly and completely.

The sky and the air, too, were found to be magnificently different in the mountains. At altitude, on a clear day, the sky was no longer the flat ceiling of the lowlands, but an opulent cobalt ocean, so sensuously deep  that some travellers felt themselves falling up into it.

  •  In the mountainous world things behave in odd and unexpected ways. Time, too, bends and alters. In the face of the geological time-scales on display, your mind releases its normal grip on time. Your interest and awareness of the world beyond the mountain falls away and is replaced with a much more immediate hierarchy of needs: warmth, food, direction, shelter, survival.

It is little wonder that people are still flocking to mountains in their millions, most to savour rather than climb them. As a friend of mine recently discovered, Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California is crawling with sightseers during the summer season. A comparable influx of visitors occurs in iconic mountain locations and resorts in other countries including Nepal, India, Switzerland and Canada.

Is my friend’s experience telling us that people’s love of nature is well and strong and that the evidence pointing to a declining involvement with nature in many Western countries is, in fact, misleading?

Regrettably it doesn’t – in part, because the evidence is from a range of reliable studies including large-scale surveys, and also in part, because the evidence can be linked to (and partially explained by) broader changes in lifestyle and recreational preferences within Western societies.

And then there is the fact that the allure of mountains, especially the awesomeness of them, is like the Sirens’ call – very hard to resist even by those who are not otherwise drawn to nature. People will still be visiting mountains, even when other forms of nature experiences have little or no part in their lives.

Nevertheless, we can always hope that people will come away from their mountain visit with a new, restored or re-vitalised love of nature.

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We modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been around for much longer than was previously thought – 100,000 years longer in fact.

An international team of scientists recently reported the discovery in Morocco of human remains dating back 300,000 years. Previous fossil records have put the emergence of Homo sapiens in East Africa to about 200,000 years ago. It now seems probable that our species emerged not in a single East African “Garden of Eden” but in a number of places across eastern and northern Africa.

Three hundred thousand years ago, northern Africa was not the dry and arid land it is today. Because of a wetter climate, it was clothed in woodlands, forests and grasslands similar to those known to have existed in East Africa 100,000 years later.

These savannah-like environments are thought to be the ones in which modern humans evolved and to which, as a consequence, our brains and bodies are most comprehensively and efficiently adapted. In other words, we are most at home in natural environments. The savannah is for our species the Environment of Evolutionary “Adaptedness” or EEA. Each living species has its particular EEA and the total or even partial loss of the EEA means extinction unless the species can adapt to any significant environmental changes.

Compared with our ancestors of 300,000 years ago, we 21st century humans are living in very different environments.  For the more than 50 per cent of us living in towns and cities, the most obvious difference has to do with geometry. Ours is mainly a world of smooth lines, regular shapes, simplicity of form and symmetry. It is principally a rectilinear world that our forebears could never have imagined.

Theirs, in contrast, was largely a world of raggedness, irregularity, complexity and apparent chaos. The familiar Euclidian geometry that can be used to describe urban environment is much less applicable to the natural world. For that world a very different geometry – fractal geometry – is also required.

Fractals are created by patterns that recur on finer and finer scales meaning that a fractal object looks very similar whether it is viewed from some distance away, close up or anywhere in between.

Fractals are readily observed in tree branches like the ones shown in the accompanying figure (which originally appeared in a research article). The red rectangles show the same tangle of branches from three different distances. While the three images are not identical, they are remarkable similar.

A better gauge of the “self-similarity” of the three views is obtained using an analytical procedure that produces a measurement called a “D”. A smooth line, which has no fractal structure, has a D value of 1 while a completely filled space, which also has no fractal structure, has a D value of 2. Once a line begins to repeat itself, it starts to occupy space and its D value falls between 1 and 2. The D value of the three images of the branching limb is the same even though the patterns formed by the branches vary slightly.

As more fine detail is added to a fractal mix, more of the space is filled and the value of D moves closer to 2, as a photo which I received recently illustrates very nicely.

D values for some common natural features are:

Coastlines                           1.05 – 1.52clouds

Woody plants and trees  1.28 – 1.90

Waves                                 1.30

Clouds                                 1.30 – 1.33

Snowflakes                        1.70

 

I have risked boring you to sobs with this technical excursion into fractals because I want to share with you some recent discoveries that illustrate how wondrously our brains have been shaped by nature.

The ability to see and make sense of fractal objects in nature was central to the survival of our species. Without it, the complexity of nature would have been mentally (and emotionally) overwhelming. But millions of years of evolution produced a brain that could “decode” nature’s fractal language and extract the information needed to solve the problems of survival and reproduction.

Because the move by modern humans from natural to urban habitats started only a matter of a few thousand years ago, we remain creatures of the wild in terms of evolutionary development. As a consequence, the ability to respond to fractal objects endures as part of our make-up.

Studies of this response have provided several arresting findings:

  • Fractal objects appeal to our senses and many elicit aesthetic pleasure (or the “beauty buzz”). Such was the genius of the artist, Jackson Pollock, that he was able to create fractal masterpieces. Inspired by the fractal patterns he observed from the verandah of his house on Long Island, New York State (The house in the top image was his), he developed his drip and scatter painting technique to capture what he saw. Typically, he would proceed by creating relatively dense clusters of lines joined by longer sweeping lines. Then, often after a period of days, he would return and add finer and finer details. D analyses have confirmed that the images produced in this way are indeed fractal in nature. While Pollock’s earlier works had low D values (e.g. 1.3), his later works, like the one shown here, had higher values (in the order of 1.7 – 1.9). This is interesting because studies have shown that fractal objects in the mid-range of D values are generally found to be most attractive (the “Goldilocks” factor again). Perhaps the extra “challenge” of Pollock’s later paintings added to their artistic appeal.
  • There is an extraordinary parallelism between fractal forms in nature and the way the human eye moves when observing them. Maps of these eye movements also turn out to be fractal in structure. Why this is so is still a matter of speculation but it may have something to do with the information gathering efficiency of scanning patterns that move from larger to smaller features (Just as Pollock did when painting). Interestingly, animal grazing patterns sometimes take on the same whole-to-part, fractal organization.
  • The brain is both relaxed and busy when observing fractals. It is thought that when our brain is doing things it is wired to do, less effort and energy are involved. The concept of “fluency” is often used to describe non-demanding mental processing of this kind. This has led some researchers to predict that when our brain is processing fractals, the visual receiving and interpreting parts of our brain will be active while the parts of the brain to do with planning, executive control and concentrating will be in a more “free-wheeling”, relaxed mode. Studies using a physiological measure of stress and brain monitoring procedures report findings squarely supporting this prediction.

These are particularly intriguing discoveries in my view because they testify to the exquisite detail, subtlety, economy and efficiency with which evolutionary mechanisms have matched the human brain to the natural world. They also serve as a powerful reminder that if we are fully to understand ourselves and our behaviour, we need to understand the full scope and depth of nature’s imprint on the functioning of our brain. And we are not simply talking about “survival” behaviour. Just as Pollock’s art demonstrates, this imprint is to be found in the most sophisticated forms of human cultural, social and ethical behaviour. We cannot ignore the legacy of our species’ sojourn in nature – in its EEA – nor should we want to. It is a legacy to be embraced wholeheartedly because, as I argue in my book, it is a precious legacy.

 

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