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Ridiculous Things


by Martin Spray


And little things, ridiculous things, shall move me
To smiles or tears or verse....
[1]
I

A FRIEND has sent me a photo of some ridiculous-looking things: half-a-dozen millipedes tucking into a windfall apple, each body white but for a row of black dots along the sides, looking like a miniature set of remote-controlled plastic toys in some bizarre game.

A relative of these Spotted Snake Millipedes is called the Train Millipede. M.C. Escher seems to have noticed this sort of creature!   Kathy Lewis, after photo by Vaughan Fleming.
A relative of these Spotted Snake Millipedes is called the Train Millipede. M.C. Escher seems to have noticed this sort of creature! Kathy Lewis, after photo by Vaughan Fleming.

Well: we're both naturalists, and he knew they would raise a smile. So many things in the world do, most of them small, and many just - in a nice sense - a little ridiculous. Fortunately, despite mankind's great efforts to make it otherwise, there is still, as Ruskin noted, "more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly". [A]

And he added: "they will see it no better for going fast". He may not have envisaged the catch that many find in our world. If one goes about the world today more slowly - and it is a world being redesigned for fast living and thus fast going and fast seeing - one sees more: especially more of the little things, But, the more is of less ... So-called Western societies are, of course, not the only ones - but our prevailing, technocentric, consumerist, globally engulphing, and (in some if not all senses) unromantic culture does seem to be doing its best, willy-nilly (though in a darker mood I'd say deliberately), to delete most of the little things, even before we've seen them, on the assumption that if they aren't harmful they'll also be of no damned use. To us, that is... We have a long way to go with the little ones, maybe; but we're doing better with the big ones.

Going slowly - through the woods, or the fields; in the mountains; through the park; down the High Street, or the back-street: almost everywhere, it seems, except the supermarket or shopping mall - seems to demonstrate progress with our project. I don't just mean a McDonaldwise sameness; it is as though we are trying to minimise the diversity around us at several scales. As a naturalist, I have foremost in mind other forms of life; but I think it applies widely, to such different 'things' as decoration on buildings, clothing, television programmes, local customs, children's games, and the English language. (Did I get away with the English English spelling 'programmes'?...) - the whole 'local distinctiveness' thing. [B]

II

Sometimes, it looks as if we would prefer to live within the virtuality of our computers, and dispose of the reality without. More likely, we are pretending that the world we live in - Reality - is some gargantuan piece of Art. The landscape in which most of our lives are acted by and large already is. We husband it, dig it, build it, garden it. There are still fairly wild bits - but we're reluctant to leave them alone.

If we're not trying to dig holes in the wilderness, we want to 'garden' it - want, that is, to make it productive, or 'useful', or want to make it conform to our standard of beauty - as though we had a chance of a backgate readmittance into Eden. In the wildest, remotest, harshest bits, or - like the bottom of the sea - places most difficult to get to, Science is eager to explore, and see what we can exploit. Adventurers are there too (and the Military, of course), and it has become easier for Art to follow. From Andy Goldsworthy at the North Pole to Richard Long in Bolivia to residencies for poets in Antarctica, artists are exploring, making, recording, and bringing home the good news that wilderness is still there, and has - often very ephemerally - contributed to our store of beauty.

The standard for beauty so often sought is not what one would call Natural; it is cultural. To grossly simplify, we want either to 'eat' the world or make it a work of art. But this is a digression as well as an oversimplification. Yet... a useful digression, methinks.

I am an artist. ...I see the landscape as a vehicle for self-expression, I wish to leave a mark.

So says Martha Schwartz, whose landscapes and gardens are fascinating, with their own frigid beauty of geometric simplification and smoothness uncluttered by ridiculous little things. They are in a sense undetailed. Not everyone is as self-expressive - or takes the Cartesian-Platonist Malebranche's view that "the visible world would be perfect if the seas and lands made more regular figures" [C] - but it does seem to be important to us to 'leave our marks' where we go; and in the case of going towards the wild, to leave marks that speak (to whoever else might pass there, but principally to the mark-makers) of civilisation and familiar culture.

Most of this marking wouldn't be called art, though it has some of art's functions. I am intrigued by a passage in The tribe that hides from man by Adrian Cowall (1973), describing a lonely jungle landing-strip in Xingu:

There was a little concrete pool at the side of the path, and someone had roughly shaped an egret out of wire, painted it with white-wash, and popped it into the pool. Here, in the heart of Amazonia, for anyone who cared to come and look, was a wire bird, drinking in a concrete pool. [D]
III

I am, of course, using 'nature', 'beauty' and 'art' as shorthand. Beauty is, first, something found via the senses; but there is beauty for the intellect, Kant's 'beautiful action', and beauty in something being felt to be 'right'. But beauty to some extent varies (shorthand: 'the eye of the beholder'[E]). This beholder finds himself usually in a landscape that is, as it were, trying to please the eye that wants the comfort of seeing something that conforms with the culture's 'art'. In a way, the whole is overwhelmingly more significant than the sum of its parts. Maybe this is not far from saying we want to live in a picture, and move amongst sculpture - and hear music as we go. And as another of our projects is to find ways of going faster, our world (as it were) is pictures done in increasingly broad brush-strokes, and sculpture in ever bolder forms with ever coarser surface detail.

The situation is neatly drawn at the start of Robert Pirsig's passionate Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance (1974):

In a car you're always in a compartment, and because you're used to it you don't realise that through the car window everything you see is just more TV. You're a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

Indeed; and "modern landscapes seem to be designed for forty-year old healthy males driving cars", as geographer Edward Relph quipped at the end of the seventies. [F] Increasingly, our world is a facade: a dimension is missing. One admires the facade, but looks in vain below the surface, or within the structure, for a finer-grain of interest. It isn't there. It's not intended to be!

Although Emily Dickinson is over-optimistic when she says:

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,-
One clover, and a bee,
And reverie.
The reverie alone will do
If bees are few.
[2]
we can often compensate for this lack by conjuring up missing components, and imagining them in; and often this is satisfying, a little like listening to a radio play and seeing the characters in one's mind. Yet - there does seem to be a part of the human makeup that looks for other than mind-play, and is delighted by and engages with real complexity, serendipity, and the finer grain of the world. It is surely unfortunate that we play down that side of ourselves. How ironic an expression to use!...

IV

We are, thought Schiller [he of the "Ode to Joy"], only fully human when we play. Play is the very thing that lets us find the world full of interest ...yet we play it down. This is a major sadness.[G]

Some natural objects are begging children and artists - and anybody else - to play with them. Part of
Some natural objects are begging children and artists - and anybody else - to play with them. Part of "Phoenix Roots" by Jane Spray, 2003. Materials: tree roots, some charred, some painted with caisin and/or local iron oxide, around a large existing central coppiced oak, with planting and regeneration of young oak trees sheltered by the roots. Influenced by the Iraq war.

To be fair, many, many people miss out on the world's pleasures because of want, or drudgery - such as "the Drainer" -

Out on the moorland, bleak and grey, using his
spade in a primitive way, through chilly evening and
searing day. Call him a fool, and well you may -
[3]

his playfulness limited by circumstance. However - and this is a personal, subjective, opinion - we miss much potential pleasure by seeing the world largely in our culturally-evolved, art-oriented, grown-up, aesthetic terms. Again, it is making 'environment' a picture backdrop to ourselves - and if we are moving fast in front of it, small detailing is wasted on us. The composition as a whole is what matters. For me, an obvious example is the garden. Many of us have a fondness for gardens, and for what we grow in them. Sometimes, this enthusiasm is a passion. But it can be a highly selective, blinkered, enthusiasm. We see flowers and colour in our gardens, but perhaps miss foliage or winter silhouettes; we see the marred beauty of a leaf, but not the subtle beauty of the caterpillar or the beauty-to-be of the butterfly - or, indeed, if not its own beauty, the fascinating life of the slug.

He would pore by the hour o'er a weed, or a flower, or the slugs that come crawling out after a shower... [4]
well summarises the delight or engrossment experienced by the child, the naturalist, and many an artist and scientist - but which many other adults find ridiculous. Not that I expect everyone to enthuse over a swarm of molluscs, or share their god's "inordinate fondness for beetles"...[H]
Both scientist and artist can see beauty and can take delight in many aspects of biodiversity.
Both scientist and artist can see beauty and can take delight in many aspects of biodiversity. "An inordinate fondness for beetles" by Kathy Lewis.

I am apprehensive - yet, there is much to see in the world, still, when one examines it closely. There is still happenstance and chance of serendipity [are they not two of the most joyous words in English!]; and how interesting some people find it all! How multifaceted… yet we usually do not try to enjoy most of its faces. We may refuse the happy chance.

This once I saw, but not again,
Above the water pocked by rain,
Three mottled eggs in a moorhen's nest...
[5]

Those flowers in the garden we visit might be a delight for their fragrance - but the fragrance of the soil, the wet paving slab, or the mouldering, recycling community of the compost heap, are seldom advertised to visitors. Sight is our greatly preponderating sense, and the world is less attractive to many when it can't be experienced as picture. This, too, makes us miss much potential pleasure. What a loss (say), to be out in old woodland in a May dawn after rain, enjoying the sensuous early sunlight, but not smelling the after-rain fragrance of soil and bark and foliage or being enraptured by the dawn chorus!...

Lle digrif y bum heddiw ----- I was in a happy place today
Dan fentyll y gwyrddgyll gwiw ----- under mantles of lovely green hazels
Yn gwarando ddechrau dydd ----- listening, at dawn of day
Y ceiliog bronfraith celfydd ----- to the ingenious cock thrush
Yn canu englyn alathr ----- singing a polished 'englyn'
Arwyddion a llithion llathr. ----- with portents and bright lessons. [6]

But the setting I want to explore here is the homely garden.

Do we not tend to only half-use the garden? It is for experiential enjoyment in fair weather, but in any other, it is the wallpaper beyond the window. We make it with plants and furniture for day-use, and enjoy dining on the patio or deck more than we used to. We may add facilities to enable us to sit out and mellow with friends in the evening - but how often does one see (I'm thinking in a British Isles context) the platform for sleeping on, or the comfortable privacy designed for moon-watching, meditation, or love? Indeed, how often do we go out to walk around and enjoy the place because it's the middle of the night and therefore different from the daytime place, with more ridiculous things about?

They may become harder to find and explore as the light fades, but landscape and the things in it are still there after sundown, and can be enjoyable, still:

Shadows of the trees:
my shadow wavers with them
in the winter moonlight.
[7]

A garden is a piece of landscape. Landscape is a multifaceted thing, and perhaps - at all scales - we emphasise, and respond with pleasure to, too few facets. Landscapes are not only seen. They smell:

It's the lilac's scent -
so I notice, and wake
from my noonday nap.
[8]

They are full of tastes. They rustle in the breeze, or when the mouse scrabbles for food in dead leaves. In their growing, and in their dying, they are full of little things, most of which we never notice. And we tend to find it eccentric, a little ridiculous, or embarrassing, when somebody does notice the 'details' - and finds them interesting. White millipedes assembled on an apple, say...

V

Ours is a culture in which blandness and standardisation (a.k.a. 'quality control') are commonplace, and in which facade is all-important; one in which preference for the 'virtual' is devaluing reality. And it is a culture in which a thing that isn't human-made or human-controlled is devalued, or rejected and destroyed. The everchangingness of nature, and its variability, are often seen as problems (Yes! I too am looking forward to Spring as I write this...). Its messiness is an inconvenience (I must also 'tidy' the garden then), in which the positives are lost.

In the wind that blew last night
peach blossoms fell, scattered in the garden.
A boy came out with a broom
intending to sweep them away.
No - no, do not sweep them away.
Are fallen flowers not flowers?
[9]

Perhaps because of blandardisation, we seem not to be much moved by commonplaces - seem unable to greet yesterday's familiar anew today. Yet, what was beautiful then, is now, and still shall be:

I long to see that morn again
Which brings to light the violet blue;
[10]

or, if not for beauty, might we not find some little thing interesting for some reason?

Oh, don't mistreat the fly!
He wrings his hands,
he wrings his feet…!
[11]
'Furuike ya kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto.'
"An old pond a frog jumps in the water the sound".
[12]

Beauty isn't allocated equitably - that is, as seen through the restricting window of a particular culture's aesthetic. Nor can we allow it to be the essential consideration of our dealings with fellow beings. Though there is still more in the world than we can ever see, hear, &c., most of it, we are never aware of - even if it is ecologically essential for our wellbeing. Most of it, we never trouble to look for. Much, I think, of what we do see &c. is seen as a problem or enemy.

VI

Problems and enemies are to be eliminated, or avoided; however, we might be pleasantly surprised if some of them turned out to be like Don Quixote's knights. A world in which complexity and diversity, serendipity, surprising details, and ridiculous little things, were accepted rather than feared could surely be a more satisfying one. A more interesting one....

Not only the so-called natural world: there is interest, serendipity, and beauty, in the grimmest of places, the most ordinary things, when we are free to see.

There is serendipity on offer in the litter in any city street every day:   Nico van Hoorn's
There is serendipity on offer in the litter in any city street every day: Nico van Hoorn's "Trashlog" #1095, for 3 May 2005.

Of course some confusion may come with complexity, but this is reduced by experience; and against that, there is benefit.

I'll take an obscure parallel as guide. In Reflections on the English language, Robert Baker (1770) advises the careful use of punctuation: "These seeming minuties are by no means to be despised, since they contribute to the intelligibleness of language." Yes - and by one word-change it reminds us here, that, though they look as dull and dispensable as commas and colons, those ridiculous things - millipedes included - are important. They can provide distinctiveness of place, and of time, and help orientation in our environment; they can give us markers for memories. These seeming minuties are by no means to be despised, since they contribute to the intelligibleness of landscape.

But... it is the normally invisible world of micro-organisms that sustains the landscape. Although not as photogenic as orchids, tigers and butterflies, nor as cute as dolphins and pandas, and not usually inspiring great poetry, pictures, or music, it is some of those very minuties, the primitive bacteria, obscure fungi in the soil, and tiny animals that don't have their own Biodiversity Action Plans (probably because we haven't met them yet…), that are said to underpin the functioning of Gaia. If that is so, it's a sad mistake to think that if they aren't harmful they'll also be of no damned use…. At the very least, little things, ridiculous things, shall move me to smiles or tears or verse.

Maybe to something more.... It may be that if we attend to them more closely - really look at and listen to them - as we would attend to a person, we could feel less distant, and overcome the urge to call them Other. Maybe...

Creatures without feet have my love,
and likewise those that have two feet,
and those that have four feet I love,
and those, too, that have many feet.
[13]
VII

Nietzsche thought that "to be unknowing of the smallest and most day-to-day things - this is what makes the Earth a 'Vale of Tears' for so many". "To those who have not learned the secret of true happiness", the American scientist and former slave George Washington Carver's advice was "begin to study the little things in your own door yard". [I]

The situation is signposted well by the poet who says

Book-learning they have known,
They meet together, talk, and grow most wise,
But they have lost, in losing solitude,
Something, - an inward grace, the seeing eyes,
The power of being alone;
The power of being alone with earth and skies,
Of going about a task with quietude,
Aware at once of earth's surrounding mood
And of an insect crawling on a stone.
[14]

Our problem is, I think, caught beautifully in a poem that grew from watching a child:

Before he went to school
he could read
the bark of trees,
leaf veins,
seashell-convolutions,
footprints,
and the touch of fingers.
Now he goes to school
and he can only read
words.
[15]


CODA

We find it hard not to think of ourselves as either the peak of evolution or a special creation. In either case, we tend to claim we hold [though we may not want to!] the fate of the world. But ecology seems to tell us otherwise. We are latecomers, or final products - and so far as Gaia is concerned are dispensable. It is the tiny, ridiculously primitive organisms that we can't bring ourselves to call sentient beings, and especially the things we lump together as 'bacteria', that are - in its best sense - vital to Gaia. We are probably 'advanced' enough to be able to make a hell of a mess of Earth - but I suspect many of those Ridiculous Things would carry on much as they have for some billions of years.

They remain largely unseen, unimagined, at best ignored. They are not normally the subjects of biodiversity action plans, or the reason a reserve is designated. [J] When we notice them, it is usually to call them pests and diseases. We might note, however, that most photosynthesis is in single-celled marine algae; that microscopic fungi are essential to soil fertility, and a spoonful of soil might contain over 5,000 species of bacteria; that worms, mites, and insects in soil outweigh the cattle in the field above; and that neither cows nor insects can digest cellulose, but must rely on their gut communities doing so for them. Remember, too, when looking in the mirror, that about one-tenth of 'you' ['your' body weight] is bacteria.

Science is getting to know some of these ridiculous [K] things better. It must be time for art to celebrate them.

_______ ... _______

POETRY SOURCES

  1. Edward Shanks 'Sonnets on separation. VI' [1916].
  2. Emily Dickinson [1830-86].

  3. Patrick MacGill 'The song of the drainer' [1907]

  4. R.H. Barham [a.k.a. T. Ingoldsby] 'The knight and the lady' [c1840].

  5. Vita Sackville-West 'The Garden' [1946].

  6. Dafydd ap Gwilym [c1320-c1380] tr. R. Bromwich, [1982] Selected poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym. [Englyn is a strict 3-line Welsh verse form.]

  7. Masaoka Shiki [1867-1902], in Makoto Ueda, ed. [1976] 'Modern Japanese haiku. An anthology'.

  8. Hino Sojo [1901-56], in Makoto Ueda, ed..

  9. anon., in P.H. Lee [1974] 'Poems from Korea'.

  10. John Clare ending of 'To the violet' [1821].

  11. Kobayashi Issa [1763-1827].

  12. The famous pond-frog-splosh haiku by Matsuo Basho [1644-94].

  13. Buddhist, 'Sublime state of friendliness', from the Culla-Vagga. See www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/vin/cv/cv.05.06.01x.olen.html.

  14. Vita Sackville-West 'The Land' [1926]

  15. Jennifer Farley [English, current. I have used this several times, but cannot remember the source.]

NOTES & ASIDES

  1. John Ruskin [1819-1900], English critic and reformer, continues to be influential in the background.
  2. Biodiversity is the nebulous focus of much ecological concern, but cultural amd historic diversity also matters. 'Local distinctiveness' is fervently promoted in Britain by Common Ground [www.commonground.org.uk]. "The signs of human presence are the only elements of the landscape that have any moral or aesthetic significance" - Infrastructure. A field guide to the industrial landscape, B. Hayes, Norton, 2005, displays the legacy of technological 'details' scattered over the U.S..
  3. Nicolas Malebranche [1636-1715] proposed that knowledge comes only by contact with God [i.e. perfection] . Martha Schwartz is an innovatory designer-artist, perhaps seeking a sort of perfection - but "Perfection", advises Sylvia Plath, "is terrible, it cannot have children."
  4. The Amazonian scene is in The tribe that hides from man, Adrian Cowall, 1973.
  5. 'Beauty' varies considerably in meaning, as Crispin Sartwell's Six names of beauty, Routledge, 2004, intriguingly demonstrates.
  6. For plentiful quotations from Pirsig's 1974 investigation of 'quality', see http://www.wholeo.net/Trips/Wholeo/BooksOnline/zen0/think26.htm. Edward Relph wrote about blandscape in Rational landscapes & humanistic geography, Croom Helm, 1981.
  7. For humans as players, see Johan Huizinga's Homo ludens, first published 1944, and D. Winnicott's Playing and reality, 2nd. ed. Routledge 2005. Schiller wrote on aesthetic education in 1795.
  8. Biologist JBS Haldane, asked by a clergyman if he could say anything about God from his study of Nature, replied that he "must have an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles". It is claimed over a quarter of named animal species are beetles. In 2002, Jan Fabre had 1.6 million [dead] specimens of a green Jewel Scarab species glued to a ceiling in the Belgian royal palace.
  9. What an interesting conversation philosopher Nietzsche [1844-1900] and agricultural scientist Carver [1864-1943] might have had on this far from ridiculous subject...
  10. Environmentalism has yet hardly noticed the problem here. See Charles Cockrell [2005] The value of microorganisms Environmental Ethics 375-90.
  11. ridiculous - 'laughable'; foolish, trivial, grotesque, absurd, unreasonable, bizarre, amusing.... A good introduction to the significance of microorganisms is Lynn Margulis & Dorian Sagan's Microcosmos, 1st. pub. Allen & Unwin, 1987.

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