Context #4 (Fall,
2000, pp. 9-11); copyright 2000 by The Nature Institute
Books discussed in this article:
Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water
and Air, by Theodor Schwenk (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1965).
A few thoughts as a follow-up to "The
Straitening of Science," in issue #3 of In Context:
Water: A Natural History, by Alice Outwater (New York: HarperCollins,
In his book, Sensitive Chaos: The Creation of Flowing Forms in Water
and Air, Theodor Schwenk pursues with striking observational prowess
the view that "water is more than a mere flow of energy or a useful
means of transport." He struggles to grasp its expressive gestures, its
"archetypal forms of movement," which turn out to be curvilinearspiraling,
gliding, meandering, oscillating, rhythmically ebbing and flowing, going
forth and returning. Even in the straightest and smoothest pipe, flowing
water insists upon spiraling, and over time it will impress its swirling
tendencies even upon the solid material of its channel.
But Schwenk is not content with such broad-stroke characterizations.
He traces the flowing forms in delicate detail, and brings out their lawful
and expressive interrelatedness. The structures of the human organism
itself, right down to the bones, are found to be (as Novalis suggested)
the result of partially arrested streaming; our organs are gradually shaped
as the patterns of flow in the fluid embryo are materially "filled in."
Mathematical versus Qualitative Understanding
I can scarcely hint at the full range and richness of Schwenk's treatment,
but this brief mention may suffice to raise the obvious question. Where
Schwenk speaks of the archetypal circular or curving motion of water, the
physicist tells us that all matter naturally moves in a straight line unless
acted upon by an outside force. Water is a form of matter, so who is right?
They are both right, for they are saying quite different things. The
physicist's truth is an act of high abstraction, whereby it is discovered
that certain mathematical treatments of moving objects gain their greatest
simplicity when we juxtapose the idea of movement in a straight line with
that of a disturbing force. Important as this achievement was for certain
practical, mathematical manipulations, it entailed a studious ignoring
of the qualitative nature of whatever object was doing the moving. And
it is this nature with which Schwenk concerns himself.
The problem arises when the physicist takes issue with Schwenk's claim
to be approaching the true nature of water, and dismisses as "Aristotelian"
the argument that we virtually never see objects moving in perfectly
straight lines. This is to forget that mathematical parsimony does not
automatically equate to parsimony in qualitative understanding, and that
for the latter what we see (and perceive with our other senses) is exactly
what matters. It is fine to say you will have nothing to do with qualities,
but that does not put you in a good position to criticize the results
of those who have attended to the qualities.
One either ignores the expressive face of nature, or else attempts to
read it. The often highly effective abstractions we arrive at through
the ignoring are not always helpful when it comes to the reading. Mathematics
always strives toward universality; reading gives us concrete meaning
and contentsomething for our mathematics to be about. We
should not complain if what the mathematics is about turns out to be more
than just mathematics!
To attempt an analogy: in some contexts it proves easiest mathematically
to treat the circle as a collection of infinitesimal straight lines. This
does not mean that the expressive potential of the circle is identical
to that of the straight lineas any dancer will doubtless be happy
to remind us. It is this expressive potential that Schwenk is trying to
get atan expressive potential manifested in a dance that is neither
private nor subjective, but the demonstrable reality of the phenomenal
world wherever water flows.
Applying Occam's Razor to American Rivers
The alternative to reading nature is to be satisfied with what a quantitative
science indisputably gives us: effective power. It was just such power over
the nation's watercourses that led the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army
Corps of Engineers to undertake a massive "rationalization" during this
century. According to Alice Outwater, a naturalist and environmental engineer,
Over a period of eighty-six yearsfrom 1905 to 1991the Bureau
of Reclamation and its predecessor built 339 reservoirs, 154 diversion
dams, 7670 miles of irrigation canals, 1,170 miles of pipelines, 270 miles
of tunnels, 267 pumping plants, and 52 hydroelectric power plants.
Likewise with the Corps of Engineers. Following the Flood Control Act
of 1936, it modified 16,000 miles of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
The natural course of a river, as Outwater reminds us, is not fixed in
time; it "writhes like a snake, throwing off oxbow lakes as meander loops
slip downstream." But the Mississippi, "dammed, channeled, and leveed,
doesn't move much anymore. The rafts of logs and the alligators are confined
to remote backwaters, the great fish that the river was once renowned
for have slipped into legend, and the indigenous mussels, which once filtered
the impurities from the water, are just about gone." The cost of the rationalization
of our water systems, as Outwater points out, has been great.
In a 1960s study of the Tippah River, the Mississippi Game and Fish
Commission found before channelization a total standing crop of 877 fish
per acre, weighing a total of 241 pounds. After channelization, 99 percent
of the fish were darters, shiners, and minnows. The total standing crop
had nearly doubledto 1,498 fish per acrebut the total weight
per acre was only 5 pounds. In studies across the country, stream productivity
was seen to crash when the streams were channeled.
In straightening, channeling, canalizing, and otherwise harnessing the
nation's river systems, the engineers blithely assumed what any physicist
would have told them: the most natural thing in the world is for water
molecules to move in a straight line, undisturbed by "interfering" obstacles.
Yet, left to its own devices, water has an oddly persistent way of raising
such obstacles whenever they are not immediately foundthrough its
own direct action, and, for example, through the urgent reverberation
of its murmurings in the water-attuned consciousness of the beaver (who
feels driven to plug every opening and stop every gurgling sound of moving
water)as if the inefficient circulation through meander and swamp,
through beaver pond and subsurface reservoir, through eddy and whirlpool,
were somehow needed. And when artificially coerced into unnaturally
straight lines, a river system begins to die.
The equation-wielding scientist may find it easiest to say that water's
nature is to move in a straight line. But no water we have ever known
exhibits such a nature. For the past few hundred years scientists have
ignored the qualitative reality as peripheral, phenomenal, poetic, Aristotelian,
subjective, reducible to more convenient terms, and irrelevant to the
progress of their quantitative dreams. The neglected facts may actually
be irrelevant to those particular dreams. But it is not at all
clear that the world we actually live in can survive another few hundred
years of the same neglect.
Original source: In Context (Fall, 2000, pp. 9-11); copyright 2000
by The Nature Institute
Steve Talbott :: Water's Obstinate Meanderings