Permanence

I am reviewing photos of some time back, and marvelling at how wonderful the appearances of friends then who have died young, often in great pain. I see their children in the photos, and while I know of no reason they should fear inherited disease, I pray for their futures.

I am reviewing also photos of places that have changed greatly, and enjoying the fact that I saw and photographed them then, and also can see and photograph them now. The School of Horticulture in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario is an example. The grounds are populated with class “projects” which had been vast sweeps of tree groves punctuated by large planters with blossoms; deeply-dug moats with plateaued plant beds; brooks; and simple flower beds. Some are gone now, replaced by newer class projects. This is fitting, of course, because of not only the symbolism of Nature’s changing things, but also because later classes should be able to overtake the works of earlier years, creating not necessarily something superior (nor should superiority be expected in order to have “permission” to change things), but simply things that are appropriate to their own time and generation.

I am glad of these photos of the past together with photos of the present, because, having actually been in those places, I can remember how my body perceived them. My imagination can move beyond the two dimensions of the photos and remember what it was to look at the “affordances” (Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes our Lives¸ Sarah Williams Goldhagen, and The World Beyond Your Head: on Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew B. Crawford ) beyond a grove, around a bend, up at the tops of the trees. I live more in those areas than probably does one who views my photos but wasn’t there.   I can admire the beauty of the subjects themselves, and also the beauty of the way I photographed them – the framing of the subject, colour, light, the close-ups of the central items, and the farther-away shot to show some context and proportion.

Imagination benefits not only from perceiving affordances, but from perceiving order and design as well. By Hand and by Eye, by George R. Walker & Jim Tolpin, teaches about and celebrates proportions in sculptures derived from careful study of nature: posts of which the proportions of top to height, base to height, mid-section to total, and so forth, are patterned after proportions in the human body; the proportions in swirls of furniture decorations similar to the proportions in the spirals of some tree bark shapes, and in some sea life and snails. The proportions are in whole numbers, primarily 1:2, 1:3, 1:5, 1:7, and 1:9. It’s like having extra lenses for the mind’s eye: you can see not only the beauty and wonder as it first confronts your eye, but also the three dimensions in which your body experiences the affordances AND the proportions and “techniques” used in nature’s design of things. It is inspiring to see things through so many lenses and dimensions. It takes time to absorb the experience, and then to let it sink into the subconscious for rumination.

It is one thing to have these experiences of things. Other Minds by Peter Godfrey Smith; The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate : Discoveries From A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben; and Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by F.B.M. de Waal, have convinced me that there is much more to experiencing things than ever had I understood. The term “things” used to imply inanimate qualities, or something of little value compared to humans. Now we know that those things are very animate and nearly sentient, and sometimes highly sentient and intelligent, and each has a worth of its own in its own context and in the broader environment.

It is quite another to experience people.

I have been with many dying and dead people over the years, and I have often marvelled at the qualities of life which seem to depart in death. Even aside from the loss of skin colour, the dead lose much more. One realizes how much the mere fact of being alive makes someone beautiful, and when that animation is gone, so also is much of that beauty. This is true not only when looking at the face, but a hand or well- formed arm. The person must be alive and interacting with you in some way to be truly beautiful. I suppose one could think of this in terms of affordances.

By contrast, trees have different beauties when alive, and when dead. We tend to think of trees as almost inanimate because immobile (aside from JRR Tolkien’s ents), yet they have beauty. I am not sure that beauty is something actually possessed by a tree itself or person whether dead or alive; rather the viewer has an abstract quality of beauty in mind and sometimes sees a person or a thing which seems to align with that quality (something Plato wrote, perhaps?). It’s like overlaying a pattern onto a subject. Curves, skin tones, angularity of a cheekbone; the entire face as a whole rather than as a sum of eyes, nose, mouth, etc, together with the quality of being alive, are what compose “beauty” as the viewer beholds it. (I know that many people value the beauty of particular body parts more than others, but I doubt those parts offer such beauty if not alive.)

This makes the difference between being with someone, and looking at a photograph of him or her. It’s not just the two dimensions which seem limited compared with three. It’s not just that people who have not been in a scene cannot appreciate the affordances the way the photographer can. It is the absence of life. One does not live on in photographs, not truly. One needs live on in personal memory to keep the sense of life, of affordances, of bodily experience in three dimensions.

So, the absence of permanence is not a bad thing, though one often may wish for things to be more nearly permanent. Really, one must consent to the absence of permanence, and being well informed by personal experience, helps to assuage the longing, and makes the sweetness of longing a pleasing part of the experience of wishing for permanence.

 

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