Visualising the human ecological niche

1  Naturalisation of the land

Fig 1  Frozen Zuider Zee  with people participating in outdoor sport and leisure. Hendrick Avercamp (1608)


“It is a commonplace in history that the so-called naturalistic European landscape first emerged in Holland in the seventeenth century.   Histories of western European landscape painting frequently illustrate this point for example by juxtapos­ing a Flemish sixteenth-century imaginary world landscape, such as Joa­chim Patmir’s ‘St. Jerome in a landscape’ (1515), with an early seventeenth-century Dutch naturalistic vision, such as Pieter Molijn’s ‘Dunescape with Trees and Wagon’ (1626).   Something dramatic happened around 1620 in Haarlem, so the narrative goes, as if scales had suddenly and collectively fallen from seventeenth-century Dutch artists’ eyes, and they could suddenly see, and faithfully transcribe, the land in which they found themselves”.

Ann Jensen Adams (2002)

Adams argues that the selection by artists of identifiably Dutch land formations and sites for their subjects, their dramati­sation and physical manipulation, and above all their “naturalisation”, appealed to the unique conjunction in seventeenth-century Holland of three historical elements. Specifically, the change in political regime, growth of capitalism, and the religious Reformation.  These social upheavals centred on individual freedom, which gave new meaning to the local, the domestic, the prosaic, and the valued features of home and country:

  • first, on a political level, the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands together declared their independence from Spain in 1579 and almost immediately were inundated by waves of immigrants;
  • second, on the economic front, they exploited to an unprecedented degree many of-the practices of the open market economy of today’s consumer-culture, including amassing the national capital to undertake the largest land reclamation project in the world;
  • and third, in the reli­gious sphere. Protestantism replaced Catholicism as the professed religion of all the people.

The Reformation focused on the individual’s rights and responsibilities according to the dictates of his or her conscience  Dutch landscape imagery responds to and “naturalises” the topics of politics, money, and religion with freedom of thought. The so-called naturalisation of the homeland is also inte­gral to the creation of new, and competing, communal identities within a rapidly evolving nation composed of a very high percentage of immigrants.

Adams believes that one cannot escape the conclusion that many realistic landscape paintings were created pri­marily for the pleasure of the middle class viewer at home.  Seventeenth-century Dutch art has long been recognized as a distinctly urban form of visual expression. Rapidly expanding cities and towns were the main location for artists, patrons, and the market, while much of the subject matter of Dutch art reflects the experiences and aspirations of middle-class urban elites. In this sense, ‘urban origins’ is one of the key criteria in classifying Dutch art. Artists working in close geographical proximity in a common style and with shared iconographic interests are grouped together under such designations as ‘the Leiden fijnschilders’ and ‘the Utrecht Caravaggisti.’ Others have gone further to assign labels to entire communities and coin terms such as ‘the Haarlem School’ or ‘the Delft style.’”

In their travel diaries, many foreigners, among them, Englishmen John Evelyn and Peter Mundy and the Frenchman Samuel Sorbière, commented on the amazing abundance of paintings in the Netherlands. Mundy, visiting Amsterdam in 1640, wrote:

“As for the Art off Painting and affection off the people to Pictures, I thincke none other goe beeyond them, … All in generall striving to adorne their houses … with costly peeces, Butchers and bakers … yea many tymes Blacksmiths, Coblers, etts. [etc], will have some picture or other by their Forge and in their stalle. Such is the generall Notion, enclination and delight that these Countrie Native[s] have to Paintings”.

At this time the efforts of European landscape artists fell into genres of imaginary ideals, such as the pastoral and heroic, and often expressed a network of the upper class social hierarchies of church and state and their moral standards.  In contrast, Dutch landscape painting marked a new focus on the observation of the natural world and social processes. The images demonstrated a system of investment/extraction of meanings into and out of landscape images and these works often served as expressions of the social changes, cultural sensibilities and conflicts.  Landscapes are normally thought of as formed by, and consisting of, natural and cultural forces which can be identified and studied. In 16th century Holland, landscape is the medium that holds and channels these forces.

The study of the forces and their dynamics is the subject of geographers, sociologists and historians. This academic tradition of “reading,” decoding and interpreting landscapes is an approach aimed to extract meanings from the landscape as a visual text. In his essay “The beholding eye: ten versions of the same scene,” Donald Meinig identifies ten approaches to this discipline. As described by Michael Conzen they are;

  • nature (stressing insignificance of man),
  • habitat (as man’s adjustment to nature),
  • artifact (reflecting man’s impact on nature),
  • system (a scientific view of interacting processes contributing to a dynamic equilibrium),
  • problem (for solving through social action),
  • wealth (in terms of property),
  • ideology (revealing cultural values and social philosophy),
  • history (as a record of the concrete and the chronological),
  • place (through the identity that locations have),
  • aesthetic (according to some artistic quality possessed).

This list summarises the ways in which a picture represents a human habitat.  It becomes acceptable as a desirable social object around which a community of like-minded people can coalesce.

2  Affiliations and coalitions.  

People bond together as coalitions through participating in, and evaluating, behavioural displays.  They merge into social affiliations through owning and valuing the same social objects.  The importance of affiliation in forming social networks has been popularized by David McClelland.  Affiliation with other persons is the outcome of an individual’s need to feel a sense of involvement and “belonging” within a social group.  McClellend’s thinking was strongly influenced by the pioneering work of Henry Murray, who first identified underlying psychological human needs and motivational process. It was Murray who set out a taxonomy of needs, including achievement, power and affiliation—and placed these in the context of an integrated motivational model of society. People with a high need for affiliation require warm interpersonal relationships and approval from those with whom they have regular contact. Having a strong bond with others makes a person feel as if they are a part of something important that creates a powerful social grouping. People who place high emphasis on affiliation tend to be supportive team members, but may be less effective in leadership positions.Such persons, who take part in a group, whether it be a movement or project, help create a sense of achievement and satisfaction for the individual and the whole.

A social hierarchy of needs was represented as a pyramid diagram by Maslow (Fig 2) who believed that the needs are satisfied in stages.  Affiliation was the outcome of the stage, where the need to belong was paramount.

Fig 2 Hierarchy of needs


Stage 1 Survival Needs.

Biological necessities such as oxygen, food, and water are the most basic and most urgent when threatened. People share this need with all living things.

Stage 2 Security Needs.

Survival needs projected into the future include such items as shelter and a reliable supply of food and water. When survival needs are met, we worry next about security, in other words survival over time. Many other species share this need with humans; e.g. squirrels gather nuts in the fall and migratory birds plan ahead for summer or winter habitat.

Stage 3 Belonging Needs.

These needs are sometimes called social needs, affiliation needs, or relationship needs. When our survival and security needs are met, our attention turns instinctively to our web of relations. Our belonging needs are shaped and conditioned by early experiences within the universal ‘belonging laboratory’, the family.

Whenever we move from one social group to another, as in leaving full time education or getting a new job, we confront the need to figure out where we belong in relation to the other people around us. This need is directly related to the primitive needs for survival and security in light of the helplessness we all face at birth and the need to be nurtured for years before we can fend for ourselves. In some preindustrial cultures, people never go anywhere alone and are terrified if they ever find themselves alone even for a moment. It is strong enough to distort or override rational decision processes. Humans share this need with other primates and with some other species, but in humans it is much more complex. and is central to consolidation of the human ecological niche.  Affiliation is exemplified by the Dutch 17th century burgers, who socialised around naturalistic paintings, distinct social objects, which depicted their day to day lives in a shared and uncertain watery environment.

The term ‘social objects’ and the related phrase ‘object-centred sociality’, were used by the engineer and sociologist Jyri Engeström to address the distinct role of objects in online social networks.  Engeström argued that discrete objects, not general content or interpersonal relationships, form the basis for the most successful social networks.  These artifacts and experiences are the engines of socially networked experiences, the content around which conversations happen.  Social objects, such as pictures, allow people to focus their attention on a third thing rather than on each other, making interpersonal engagement more comfortable.

People can connect with strangers and develop friendships when they have a shared interest in specific objects.  For example, online, some social networks are about celebrity gossip. Others center around custom car building. Others focus on religion. We affiliate with people through our interests and shared experiences of the objects around us.  The objects don’t have to be physical, but they do have to be distinct entities. Engeström explained object-centred design this way:

“Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”

Sharing of social objects go hand in hand with membership of physical behavioural units.  They are parts of the spatio-temporal continuum of cultural reality, the same reality that is described by physics. They are, from the perspective of physical science, parts of humankind’s ecological reality, from ‘molecules to man’.  The social parts will never be capable of being understood as the products of any combination of physical building-blocks. But they are parts nonetheless.   How are we to do justice ontologically to the fact of complexity? How, more specifically, do separate persons become joined together into social wholes of different types – committees, teams, battalions, meetings, conversations?   Barry Smith believes that to answer this question we need to distinguish, first of all, two categories of object – ‘continuants’ and ‘occurrents’ – which serve in a certain sense as the building blocks of common-sense social reality. He believes that:

“Continuants are such as to endure self-identically through time. They continue to exist from moment to moment and from day to day. Examples of continuants would include, in the first place: you and me, my pet rock, the planet Earth, and, from the instant of its formation to the instant it hits the ground: a raindrop. The family of continuants thus includes what are called ‘substances’ in the Aristotelian terminology (also sometimes called ‘things’ or ‘bodies’ or ‘extended spatial magnitudes’). But it includes also entities of other sorts: for instance media (bodies of air and water)”.

“Occurrents (which include ‘accidents’ in Aristotelian usage , and which include also what in more recent terminology are sometimes called events or processes or states) occur or happen in time.  Examples of occurrents would include: whistles, blushes, speakings, runnings, my present headache, your knowledge of French”.

The surge in the 16th century Dutch market for naturalistic paintings was satisfying a need for affiliation continuants. The naturalistic landscape paintings were surrogates for the population’s new, developing homeland.  At this, time for the Dutch, art functioned as a social cement, reinforcing the shared beliefs and aspirations that helped tackle communal concerns in unity. In the works of most artists both style and content reflected taste, not of the wealthy and sophisticated, but of people in moderate circumstances. For this, international fashion could be largely ignored. This allowed the full development of native art form.  Hendrick Avercamp’s winter scenes represent the extraordinary social and artistic cohesion exclusive to the Netherlands among European nations.

3  Surrogates and metaphors

One could call this affinity between artist and the landscape, and then between the viewer and the painting, a form of resonance.  It had appeared centuries before in China, where the oldest tradition of landscape art is Chinese monochrome ink landscape painting. Chinese art, from early times, has always been understood as “experience art”. Making reference to a text dating from the 4th century, the art historian James Cahill wrote in ‘The Theory of Literati Painting in China’:

“The feeling inherent in natural scenery can be lodged in paintings of this scenery, because of the affinity between the soul of the artist and that of his subject.”

Such a resonance is possible, because, in Chinese understanding, principles like the concept of the opposites, Yin and Yang, underlie the relationship between nature and humankind. Chinese landscape has been strongly characterised by the symbolisms of opposites, like shanshui, ‘mountains and water’, which are the two most important symbols of nature. An artist who succeeds to implement Yin and Yang in a landscape painting, e.g. through light and dark contrasts, motifs and composition, can create resonance with the viewer. Not surprisingly the Chinese name for landscape painting is “Mountain and Water Painting” or, as mountain and water are emanations of Yang and Yin, one could say Yin and Yang Paintings where the two opposites unify the naturalisation of  mountainous land (Fig 3).

Fig 3  Kuo Hsi: Clearing Autumn Skies over Mountains and Valleys, Northern Song Dynasty c. 1070, detail from a horizontal scroll.

song dynasty 1070

Based on this resonance induced in the viewer, these paintings were meant as true surrogates for being in nature.  Natural features admired by the ancient Chinese, all had symbolic moral and aesthetic meanings. Symbolic meanings of landscape were continuously constructed throughout Chinese history. For a period of about 700 years, from the Middle Tang Dynasty to the Middle Qing Dynasty, the Chinese continuously developed the subjectivity of nature and brought these values into daily life until all its details were developed to an extremely fine degree. This period had a great influence on views of nature and brought Chinese landscape painting to its peak time during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and Chinese gardens during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). During these periods, nature was extensively observed, touched and examined, and ways to experience nature were carefully theorised. Also, while “constructing subjectivity”, the Chinese were also attaching cultural meanings to nature and symbolic meanings were fully developed. Metaphor was highly advanced in Chinese arts. Chinese landscape paintings, literature, poems and gardens were never separated and all these forms were usually used at the same time. Chinese paintings always had poems on them, and gardens always contained inscriptions. The expression of symbolic and abstract meanings of landscapes strongly depended on metaphorical texts. This is one of the most important characteristics of Chinese landscape art,  because experience of landscape defined the  task of art to bring these understandings into full reality in human discourse.  Just as in our post-modern world the Chinese landscape discourse is aimed at conserving the human ecological niche.

After the Ming Dynasty, landscape forms became more abstract and landscape meanings were expressed more in metaphorical texts. The material landscape gardens that once had the most artistic qualities began to be destroyed, and this severed the link between landscape art and discourse about human ecology.

4  Art in human discourse

Landscape art defines cultural aspects of the human ecological space.  The noun ‘scape’, as in ‘landscape”, is a bounded view of scenery: a space extracted from the environment as a ‘scene’ that is representative of the wider environment.  It can include interior architectural spaces and, increasingly, virtual digital cyberspaces.  Other scape categories  include dreamscapes, seascapes, townscapes, roofscapes, moonscapes and cityscapes. Scapes serve as environmental media that envelop the observer. They are produced by the act of scaping.  Scaping is any process that adds aesthetic value to an unbounded view of the environment.

When people produce scapes by cropping scenes from the environment in words, music or pictures,  they are producing works of art using  a process called inscaping to capture a personal aesthetic quality called inscape.

The concept of inscape was devised by the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and is central to his idea that everything in the universe is characterized by a distinctive design that constitutes its individual identity.  Hopkins’s idea of inscape corresponds nearly exactly to John Duns Scotus’s ‘formalitates’. Scotus (1266–1308) was one of the most important and influential philosopher- theologians of the High Middle Ages.  Scotus acknowledges that a shaping imagination moulds the experiences recorded by any­one’s senses.  The mind organizes experiences by what Scotus calls formalitates., These are aspects of a thing perceived that are sep­arable realities and yet do not destroy the unity that makes that entity a single thing. Being real, formalitates are independent of individual perceivers, but they require for their existence the possibility of a per­ceiving intellect. No two people perceive the same things; we therefore must trust, and not demand a single vision.

Hopkins used the concept of ‘inscape’ to define the unique aesthetic identity, or character, of things. His ideas pre­date his first encounter with the writings of Scotus.

According to Hopkins, this identity is dynamic. Each being in the universe ‘selves,’ that is, enacts its identity. And the human being, the most highly selved, the most individually distinctive being in the universe, recognizes the inscape of other objects through an act that Hopkins calls instress.  Instress is the apprehension of an object in an intense thrust of mental energy toward it that enables one to realize its specific distinctiveness. It is this process of finding inscape in an object that captures an aesthetic experience that may lead to the production of a work of art.  Hopkins invented the concepts of inscape and instress as ways of talking about the particular perceptions of multiple realities.  The modern dictionary definition of  inscape is ‘the unique essence or inner nature of a person, place, thing, or event, especially depicted in poetry or a work of art’. Any single thing can have as many inscapes as there are perceiving minds to call them forth; each thing is a bounded infinity of inscapes. In this respect, the spatial selving of social objects defines a person’s ecological space, particularly its aesthetic qualities, which are revealed in the arts of landscape and still life..

Hopkins’ notebooks show the tremendous care with which he details what he thinks is unique about a particular sunset, cloud formation or even waves.  For example, in his diary of a tour of Switzerland in 1868, Hopkins made minute notes of his often eccentric impressions of the Alpine peaks. The Matterhorn struck him as resembling a stranded Greek galley. “How fond of and warped to the mountains it would be easy to become!” he wrote. “For every cliff and limb and edge and jutty has its own nobility.”  He added a note, “ ….that a slender race of fine cloud inscaped in continuous eyebrow curves hitched on the Weisshorn peak as it passed”  The Weisshorn is one of the many peaks surrounding Zermatt, with Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn.

Hopkins never formally defined the term inscape but its meaning is found in one his letters to Robert Bridges:

“But air, melody or what strikes me most is all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling inscape, is what I above all aim at in poetry”.

Hopkins compared inscape to design and pattern, but he was not fully satisfied with either of them.

The following quotations, all taken from his diary and journal, well illustrate the use of inscape: They make it clear that inscape is the qualitv that gives a special virtue to an object. It is this pattern or design that distinguishes it from the rest. For Hopkins, nature is universal. Its objects are its specific parts having beauty of their own and complete the universal design of nature.

“Spanish Chestnuts: their inscape here bold, jutty somewhat Oak-like attractive, the branching visible and leaved peaks spotted so as to wake crests in: eyes”.

“The Horned Violet pretty thing, gracefully lashed. Even in withering flower ran through beautiful inscape by the screwing up of the petals into straight barrels or tubes.”

“One day early in March when long streamers were rising from over Kemble End one large flake loop-shaped, not a streamer but belonging to the string, moving too slowly to be seen, seemed to cap and fill the zenith with a white shire of cloud. I looked long up at it till the tall height and the beauty of the scaping—regularly curled knots springing if I remember from fine stems, like foliation in wood or stone—had strongly grown on me. It changed beautiful changes, growing more into ribs and one stretch of running into branching like coral. Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is”.

“This is the time to study inscape in the spraying of trees, for the swelling buds carry them to a pitch which the eye could not else gather—for out of much much more, out of little not much, out of nothing nothing: in these sprays at all events there is a new world of inscape”.

“The bluebells in your hand baffle you with their inscape, made to every sense: if you draw your fingers through them they are lodged and struggle [sic] with a shock of wet heads; the long stalks rub and click and flatten to a fan on one another like your fingers themselves would when you passed the palms hard across one another, making a brittle rub and jostle like the noise of a hurdle strained by leaning against; then there is the faint honey smell and in the mouth the sweet gum when you bite them”.

“The sharp nape of a drift is sometimes broken by slant flutes or channels. I think this must be when the wind after shaping the drift first has changed and cast waves in the body of the wave itself. All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in the random clods And broken heaps of snow made by the cast of a broom”.

“The ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first: I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pain and I wished to die and not to see the shapes of the world destroyed any more”.

“Stepped into a barn of ours, a great shadowy barn, where the hay had been stacked on either side, and looking at the great rudely arched timber frames— principals  and tie-beams, which make them look like bold big arms with the cross-bar high up—I thought how sadly beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand it was if they had eyes to see it and it could be called out everywhere again”.

“No doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness. I hope in time to have a more balanced and Miltonic style. But as air, melody is what strikes me most of all in music and design in painting, so design, pattern or what I am in the habit of calling ‘inscape’ is what I above all aim at in poetry. Now it is the virtue of design, pattern, or inscape to be distinctive and it is the vice of distinctiveness to become queer. This vice I cannot have escaped”.

“… he [Sir Samuel Ferguson, promoter of  Yeats  was a poet as the Irish are—to judge by the little of his I have seen—full of feeling, high thoughts, flow of verse, point, often fine imagery and other virtues, but the essential and only lasting thing left out—what I call inscape, that is species or individually-distinc­tive beauty of style. …”

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

5  Ethics and aesthetics

Hopkins’ concept of inscape allows access to discussions of beauty as the core of all social objects and central to the art of perception.  Frederick Franck, author of ‘Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing: Meditation in Action’, and eminent teacher of drawing as an art of perception, says that the capacity to draw is the same capacity “for empathy, wonder, and reverence, for awe for the simplest things of nature, for a leaf, a scallion”, and that “to see is that specifically human capacity that opens one up to empathy, to compassion with all that lives and dies”. Franck contrasts “seeing” from “looking-at” and argues that what distinguishes the former from the latter is transformed consciousness wherein the subject-object dichotomy no longer holds. Franck explains:

The thing I draw, be it leaf, rosebush, woman, or child, is no longer a thing, no longer my

“object” over and against which I am a supercilious “subject.” The split is healed. When I am drawing leaf or caterpillar or human face, it is at once de-thingified. . . By drawing it, I

dignify it, I declare it worthy of total attention, as worthy of attention as I am myself, for

sheer existence is the awesome mystery and miracle we share.

In another passage, Franck recounts his non-dual meeting with a cow:

One day I was drawing a cow in a meadow near our house. As I stood there drawing, our

eyes met, and at that instant she stopped being “a cow.” She had become this singular fellow being whose warm breath mixed with my own in the cold fall air.

In as far as art-making is a practice of “deep seeing”  that heals the subject-object duality, it goes straight to the heart of morality, since the heart of morality is compassion and caring for our fellow beings, humans and nonhumans alike.  The notion that ethics and aesthetics overlap, and might even somehow be the same thing, is ancient.   Plato linked Beauty, Truth and Goodness, and this multiminded approach to modelling these drivers of sociocultural systems represents the successive historical shift in our understanding of  human society, from a mindless mechanical tool, to a uni-minded biological entity and, finally, to a multi-minded socio-cultural system using technology to develop and expand an ecological niche.

Certain human capacities, such as perceptual sensitivity, imaginative freedom and creativity, seem to be involved in both moral decisions and aesthetic engagement.  We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.  We therefore have to enquire into how images, sounds and cultural memories shape our religious, spiritual and ethical lives and consider the distinctive potential of art, religion and ethics to open up new transformative ecological spaces for human beings searching for Hopkins’ inscape as an ecosystem service.  Since Manley’s time, ecology has provided a scientific model to manage ecosystem services as a resource currency linking microbe /plant/animal.  In particular, deep ecology provides an ethical supplement to guide humanity’s relation to land as a beauty system for future survival.

The only difference between an ecosystem and a technology is that the latter is intentionally made by a human being.  It becomes part of an ecosystem by the gathering and processing of the resources required for its manufacture.  The functioning of either one can be described by the same conceptual models and because they are systems they both follow the same rules of operation.  In a biological perspective, human technology is an evolutionary extension of the instinctive behaviour underpinnng the nest building skills of bower birds or the the dam-making activities of beavers.  We, like birds and beavers are part of nature in everything we do.  This fundamental truth is expressed graphically in the biotic pyramid (Figs 4 and 5 )

Fig 4 A generalised biotic pyramid


Fig 5  Biotic pyramid of a human whale hunting community


A resource pyramid is an artistic expression of the living social objects with which we interact in the act of accessing ecosystem services. The species in each layer of the pyramid are alike, not in where they came from, or in what they look like, but rather in what they eat.   It is through food that species enact their identity.   Each successive layer depends on those below it for food and often for other services, and each in turn furnishes food and services to those above. Proceeding upward, each successive layer decreases in numerical abundance.

In the web site ‘Live Lucid’, the idea is developed that our personal inscaping is closely linked with, and in many respects the same as’ the workings of our imagination. That is to say, it is about the living field of images that continually and dynamically constellate the ‘Common Inscape’ we call reality.  Our ‘Common Inscape’ is the hosting space in which also “physical reality” unfolds according to very strict rules governing the biotic pyramid, which we call natural law. But obviously this particular niche of the ‘Common Inscape’ is just a certain region within the larger ecology. The ‘Common Inscape’ is the ecology that every personal inscape, our personal theatre in the ‘Common Inscape’, participates in and shapes to a certain degree.

The other graphical presentation of the human ecological niche, which takes a long step back into the bigger picture of the ecosystem from a human perspective, is the socio cultural system in which we exist (Fig 6).

Fig 6  The human ecological niche as a system

human niche

The main components are:

  • an economic system
  • a political organization
  • a social structure
  • a belief system
  • a system of arts and leisure

Figures 4, 5 and 6 are works of art, human cultural artifacts into which viewers can project their own inscapes.

The socio-cultural view of human ecology considers the system to be a voluntary affiliation of purposeful members who have a choice. They get together to serve their own purpose by collectively serving a personal need in their particular socio-physical environment. Mechanical or biological models cannot explain behaviour of a system whose parts display an ability to choose. However, to get a handle on socio-cultural systems, we need to explore the essence of information-bonded systems and explain the self-organizing behaviour of multi-minded purposeful systems.  This is the journey in which social objects are encountered on the way and endowed with inscapes.The land sculptor, Richard Long, early in his career established the precedent that art could be a journey and that a sculpture could be deconstructed over the distance of a journey. His beguilingly simple works use raw materials such as mud, stones and driftwood, found along the way. These works are often simple environmental interventions, marks of passage. Also, these works often leave little or no trace and are documented through photographs or texts  that record his ideas, observations and experiences as he encounters and socialising objects (Fig 7 ).

He views his world in the same vein as Hopkins.   About his works, Long says:

They are a sort of simple celebration of the place, like its stones, or the horizon, or the mist, and of me being there, at that particular time, possibly never to pass that way again. I sometimes think of these works as songs. I have said that a sculpture can be as far as the eye can see, meaning the stones can be aligned to a feature on the horizon, for example, or a passing cloud, at that moment, in relation to the viewer.

Richard Long, 2014

Walking as a medium has enabled Richard Long to articulate ideas about time and space. He seeks a freedom of movement and expression, and a balance with the natural world though a physical and personal engagement with the land, working with nature to reflect its impermanence and the changing processes of time. These often remote works made in wilderness landscapes have inscapes that feed the imagination.

In summary,  there are multiple intellectual realities in individual things, waiting to spring into actuality through the work of an observing mind to turn them into social objects, which add an aesthetic value to their environment. .  Indeed, Hopkins used poetry to express his religious devotion, drawing his images from the natural world. He found nature inspiring and developed his theories of inscape and instress to explore the manifestation of God in every living thing. According to these theories, the recognition of an object’s unique identity, which was bestowed upon that object by God, brings us closer to Christ. Similarly, in a post-religious world, the beauty of  nature, and our appreciation of that beauty, helps us worship the act of creation that set in motion the evolution of our universe.   Many of Hopkins’ poems, including “Hurrahing in Harvest” and “The Windhover,” begin with the speaker praising an aspect of nature, which then leads the speaker into a consideration of an aspect of our physical origins. For instance, in “The Starlight Night,” the speaker urges readers to notice the marvels of the night sky and compares the sky to a structure, which houses Christ, his mother, and the saints. The stars’ link to Christianity makes them more beautiful.  A pity that their origin in a Big Bang does not resonate with post modern viewers in the same way.

Fig 7  Richard Long: Walk from London to Dawlish, with social objects he encountered on the way.


6  Web References

Evolution of human decoration

Social objects

Beauty and the human ecological niche

Kenneth Clark s





Dutch art market

Greg Dunn

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