Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Natural wonders

Two remarkable things I learned on our trip to the desert, and the Wild Animal Park, which can really get a person thinking about nature and our place in it (if they're true!).

Poking around in some materials on this history of rocks to find out if a vein of rock in Little Surprise Canyon could be marble, we learned that marble is metamorphosed limestone. And limestone is made of seashells. Somehow this seems category-confounding. Marble is eternity, transcending the vagaries of life, isn't it? And yet even before Michelangelo confronted his blocks of Carrera Marble, to reveal the living shapes of limbs and bodies within them, they were already monuments to - products of - life. It's something Louise Bourgeois sensed, I think. (That's her above with "Eye to Eye"; at right the gorgeously unsettling polyplike "Cumul 1." Both were in the Guggen- heim retro- spective in 2008.)

The other startling fact came from our driver-guide in the tramway making its way around the big enclosures of animals. Cheetahs, who like the other predators get their own enclosure, are the fastest runners in nature, we learned, though only in bursts. Even for these bursts, they need lots of rest - on the order of nineteen to twenty hours of each day.
How much do you suppose their prey sleep each day? If this cheesy guide is to be believed (he said he thinks of the gazelles cheetahs chase as "cheetos"), only nineteen to twenty minutes. It makes a nature-red-in-tooth-in-claw sort of sense, though. And it just about demands to be applied analogically to human society, doesn't it. Some people lounge about all day, surrounded by luxury, while most can barely scrape together enough to live on... But don't stop there. As Hobbes famously articulated, in a "state of nature" each of us - even the strongest - could be the prey of any other. The fact that any of us is able to sleep at all owes to social structures: that's what social structures are for. But as Montesquieu is sadly not famous enough for having retorted to Hobbes, the "state of nature" doesn't exist in nature, at least within species. It's actually an image of social structures which have broken down, or lost sight of their function. Supposing each of us a potential predator enables the powerful to become predators, to naturalize structures they've turned to exploitative ends. It doesn't have to be that way. (Spoken like a cheeto!)

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