Staring Down the Triceratops:
As I write this, piles of children’s toys surround me. My kids are play-fighting again, making mock karate moves, dancing like break dancers in a Picasso painting (if Picasso ever painted break dancers). They’re yelling, spitting, laughing, making rough-with-life, and they’ve walled me in with toys. Their movements are natural and unnatural alike: contorting, twisting, wrestling their bodies into shapes that only children can make at play. They have stacked these toys here, I assume, to get me to participate: a crumpled piece of lined notebook paper butting heads with a plush bumblebee, towers made out of blocks rising toward the ceiling, and a bottle cap collection threatening to topple to the floor. But at the moment I only have eyes for a plastic Triceratops. We’re having a good ol’ fashioned stare down, he and I, and my eyes are doing their best to keep from blinking.
Who will win this battle of the perpetually opened eyes? My bet is on the Triceratops, given his plasticity. His stare is painted on his face after all. My eyes can’t compete with that. They must shut sometime. Then again, I too have my little advantages. I’ve got the trash, for example. I could throw him into it, use size and mobility to my benefit, make him stare away from me and look instead at an already thrown out noodle package and other remnants from this afternoon’s lunch. In these competitions of fortitude, disposing of one’s opponent seems a very compelling act. I’m bigger than he is. I’m animate. I could do it.
But I’m reminded that my friend the Triceratops will out-stare me even if I toss him. I’m just shifting the playing field and not entirely ending his unnerving gaze. When I’m dead and gone, this little figure concocted out of oil will continue his stare in some desert-like wasteland called the city dump, waiting for some ingenious invention of the future (if it ever comes) to turn him and similar trash into something that can eventually decompose. So I refrain from throwing him out this time, knowing my efforts would be futile, that even then his stare would continue, and for now determine to have my kids put him to good use. Even the lives of plastic figurines should not be wasted.
Still I know that one should not take these stare-downs too lightly.
I know, nature is pretty resilient. But it cannot be denied that our lack of insight into how nature works has dramatically affected our health and that of our environment. Plastic, for example, not only takes thousands of years to decompose but many types are now known to contain chemicals that are endocrine disruptors which may cause a slew of human health problems.
There was probably no forethought when we created plastic as to what the effects would be on the environment or on ourselves. There was I imagine only this effervescent bliss, a faith that what we create with our hands cannot be bad, a faith that we are always making improvements. It is our society’s (and my own) lack of insight into the way nature functions I think that has made me war with the squirrels (part 1) , fear the winter (part 2), and helped us create this technologically-fat society that removes us from natural cycles such as decomposition (part 3).
The problem I think is in design.
Broadly defined design is the way we create culture from the natural world as determined by our observations and assumptions. Typically this involves a combination of our beliefs in such subjects as philosophy, aesthetics, functionality, and cost. These beliefs shape the cultural soup in which we exist and then that cultural soup further influences our beliefs. Usually we learn to design by trial and error, reorganizing and refining through our experiences, but still there is a huge gap between our methods of design and the way nature itself designs. And even though nature provides the raw materials and is the context in which we design, many times we fail to look at nature as something that can teach us how to design better.
What nature offers I think is a radical transformation in the way we design, something beyond the stare of the plastic Triceratops . . . something modeled after nature itself.
(Up next: Perma(nent) Culture)