Making mindmaps of Nature

This is a kind of coda to my previous blog and was prompted by a visit to the Welsh fairy tale castle called Castell Coch (the Red Castle), recreated by the celebrated High Victorian architect, William Burgess for the fabulously wealthy third marquess of Bute, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, in pursuit of their vision of the Middle Ages.  
I had been reading David Lewis Williams book, The Mind in the Cave, which had opened up ideas about prehistoric cave art being an ecological mind map.   That is to say the paintings of herbivores and their predators, produced by Stone Age communities in dark caverns tens of thousands of years ago, were part of a survival toolkit to make sense of their tribe’s dependence on a wild and uncertain food chain dominated by bloody carnivory and cross-clan rivalry.   I was therefore primed to see the rooms of Castell Coch, stuffed full of colourful beings of land, water and air in cosmic harmony, as a Victorian expression of animals as symbols of human frailties and dependencies.   This is very evident in the iconography of the vaulted drawing room.  At the apex is a starburst of butterflies, which move in a procession down the ribs through the realm of stars to the Earth’s biosphere filled with birds in flight.  The whole symbolises Nature’s rich fertility and its inherent transience. 
The Welsh pictures are creations of anonymous craftsmen working in the spirit of Catholic Medievalism and therefore comparable to the fresh spiritual world of the Upper Palaeolithic, where scientists and artists were one and the same person.  They remained so until the Renaissance.  Only then did ‘art’ begin to break free of mysticism and emerge as highly personalised expressions of individual freedom of thought and action. 
This comparison across many millennia also highlights the persistence of worship as a mystery to be participated in.  Our Palaeolithic ancestors gave their hearts and minds seamlessly to pictorial expressions of their being at one with the cosmos.  We, their descendants, give our hearts to the love, awe and beauty we have for ‘the other beings’ of Nature around us, and we bend our minds to understanding how to tap into Nature in order to secure for ‘ourselves’ an ever more comfortable life. Our divided modern personality at its extremes envisages art and science as separate poles of human endeavour, whereas in the Stone Age, being religious was as natural as wanting to find out how to hit a piece of flint to make an effective arrow head.  With the passage of thirty millennia, splitting flint led inevitably to the mechanics of splitting atoms.  In our atomic age, for those who care to look, the universe can be explained without the need for divine intervention. In looking for a supernatural force, one would predict aberrations from natural laws. But despite the evidence we might hope to find, the net balance of energy in the cosmos appears to be near zero. Scientists have yet to detect any input at the point of origin or anywhere else. There is no clear fingerprint of God. The Big Bang is entirely within the realm of natural possibility. Life on Earth is a marvellous cosmic circumstance.  Although a rarity perhaps in such a vast universe, many rarities would be expected to occur.
Making art is on a par with making a spiritual life.  Both are natural behaviours aimed at reinforcing the realm of human consciousness, which is the major evolutionary distinctiveness of primate evolution.  In this respect, things of the mind have not really changed for humankind since the Upper Palaeolithic.  People cannot be argued into or out of a belief in spiritual mysteries.  D.H. Lawrence encompassed this truism in his poem, Terra Incognita written at the height of a human commitment to industrial development powered by coal.
There are vast realms of consciousness still undreamed of,
Vast ranges of experience, like the humming of unseen harps,
We know nothing of, within us.
Oh when man has escaped from the barbed-wire entanglement
Of his own ideas and his own mechanical devices,
There is a marvellous rich world of contact and sheer fluid beauty,
And fearless face-to-face awareness of now-naked life;
And me, and you, and other men and women,
And grapes, and ghouls, and ghosts and green moonlight,
And ruddy-orange limbs stirring the limbo
of the unknown air, and eyes so soft,
Softer than the space between the stars.
And all things, and nothing, and being and not-being
Alternately palpitate,
When at last we escape the barbed-wire enclosure
Of Know-Thyself, knowing we can never know,
We can but touch, and wonder, and ponder, and make our effort,
And dangle in a last fastidious fine delight
As the fuchsia does, dangling her reckless drop
Of purple after so much putting forth
And slow mounting marvel of a little tree.
We 21st century beings are not in a different relationship with Nature.  There is ineffable subjective mystery and there is objective scientific inevitability.  But, facing a potentially disastrous collision with the global outcome of an ever-expanding carbon economy, we have to concede there is really no cosmic separation between being and not being.   Gods cannot mediate in the human food chain, of which mind, soul and spirit are an ungodly expression of the steady state of human metabolism.  We burn like a candle flame.  We drink of mother’s milk.  Materials are added and the human flame burns more brightly.  Then the balance between addition and subtraction wavers until the flame goes out.  Mind, body and environment throughout are one.
Glen A. Love, in his essay on ecocriticism, defined the untenable separation of mind and body as:
“a dualism in which the mind, soul, or spirit retains an august autonomy derived from God or some sort of numinous stand-in, and entailing an immaculate conception in which the mind (as a “blank slate”) was assumed not to have been violated by anything so gross as a body-or as Richard Dawkins has termed it, a “survival machine.”
He goes on to say that in reality, there is not and never has been such a thing as “the environment” separate from ‘mind’.   Nothing special “surrounds” human consciousness. Our substance cannot be distinguished from its “surroundings.” There is only one earthly entity and it comprises day-to-day chemical flows into and out of the biosphere as part of an integrated planetary system that includes everything from the degradation of a rock particle and the growth and reproduction of a microbe to Albert Einstein creating the theory of relativity.
Castell Coch

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