The White Queen on the edge of chaos

To our surprise, Martin and I are going to be part of the Summer Literary Festival put on by Gemini Ink, a San Antonio writers’ center dedicated to building community through literature and related arts. Rosemary Catacalos, the executive director, is one of those forces of nature that mere mortals might consider defying, but only in daydreams or other altered states. So when she invited us to lead a seminar on Madroño Ranch as part of the summer festival, all we could say was, “Thank you, of course we will.” When we looked at each other later, all we could say was, “Gah! Are you nuts?”

I asked Leslie Plant, the director of Gemini Ink’s University Without Walls educational program, what in heaven’s name we should talk about. Since the festival theme is biomimicry, which the Biomimicry Institute defines as “the science and art of emulating Nature’s best biological ideas to solve human problems”—for example, looking at a gecko’s foot for ideas in designing nontoxic adhesives—she suggested the relationship between art and nature. Perfect. We wouldn’t have to talk about ranching, farming, business, and all the other things we know nothing about (yet). As I began to consider the topic, however, it seemed to me that virtually every field of human endeavor involves some aspect of the relationship between art and nature. So many big ideas, so many rabbit holes to fall down!

The first big idea that said “Drink me” was not particularly mind-altering: that the most important link between art and nature is that nature is the source of art. This is an idea with a long pedigree, going back at least as far as Aristotle, but because I’ve been reading Krista Tippett’s Einstein’s God, with its reflections on the nature of time, I started to wonder about origins. Are origins always rooted in the past, and do they always grow into the future as an arrow flies from a bow, in a thrust of forward motion? Or is there another way to think about them?

Tacked to the bulletin board above my desk is a quotation from Lewis Carroll’s White Queen: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” Tippett’s interview of Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University, forced me to think about that quotation in a new way.

To Davies, clocks are emblematic of a kind of “intellectual straitjacket” into which we were forced relatively recently. Einstein was “obviously thinking very much about measuring time, and this is what led him to the notion that your time and my time might appear different. We might measure different time intervals between the same two events if we’re moving differently. And also your gravitational circumstances. Gravity slows time. Time runs a little faster on the roof than in the basement. We don’t notice it in daily life. When you go upstairs and come down again, you don’t notice a mismatch but you can measure it with accurate clocks.”

A little later in the interview, Davies says, “Einstein was the person to establish this notion of what is sometimes called block time—that the past, present, and future are just personal decompositions of time, and that the universe of past, present, and future in some sense has an eternal existence. And so even though individuals may come and go, their lives, which are still in the past for their descendants, nevertheless still have some existence within this block time. Nothing takes that away. You may have your three-score years and ten measured by a date after your death. You are no more. And yet within this grander sweep of the timescape, nothing is changed. Your life is still there in its entirety.” So maybe there are memories that work forwards as well as backwards, remembering what is yet to come. Maybe there’s a state in which our origins are in our futures, or in which art is, in fact, the origin of nature.

This, by the way, might be an appropriate time to begin feeling sorry for the folks who sign up for our summer seminar.

But wait! Wait! If I throw in some more huge ideas, maybe it will clear everything up! In his 1995 address upon accepting the Templeton Prize, Davies discussed the origins of the universe and the elegant mathematical and physical laws governing its development from aboriginal simplicity to extraordinary complexity. These “laws do not tie down physical systems so rigidly that they can accomplish little, nor are they a recipe for cosmic anarchy. Instead, they encourage matter and energy to develop along pathways of evolution that lead to novel variety, what Freeman Dyson has called the principle of maximum diversity: that in some sense we live in the most interesting possible universe.”

He adds, “Scientists have recently identified a regime dubbed ‘the edge of chaos,’ a description that certainly characterizes living organisms, where innovation and novelty combine with coherence and cooperation. The edge of chaos seems to imply the sort of lawful freedom I have just described.”

Here’s what I think Davies means (and since I don’t speak science, I may have it wrong): the laws structuring the universe, both in and beyond time, seem to have aesthetic consequences every bit as profound as their practical ones. In fact, aesthetics and function don’t seem to be divisible. Cruising the internet, I found all kinds of great quotations, like this one from G. H. Hardy (1877–1947): “The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in this world for ugly mathematics.”

So here’s my ambition for Madroño Ranch as a writers’ residential center, a working ranch, a source of community nourishment, and a business: that it exist at the edge of chaos and in the midst of maximum diversity, and that it be as intensely productive as it is extravagantly beautiful. We’re beginning to plan a series of vegetable, herb, and forage gardens that we hope will symbolize this intersection. We hope that the writers—and everyone else—who come to Madroño Ranch won’t be confused about the relationship between nature and art. Or, at least, not more than two of Carroll’s other characters, the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon, were in their conversation with Alice in Wonderland:

“‘What is the use of repeating all that stuff,’ the Mock Turtle interrupted, ‘if you don’t explain it as you go on? It’s by far the most confusing thing I ever heard!’

“‘Yes, I think you’d better leave off,’ said the Gryphon: and Alice was only too glad to do so.”

What we’re reading
Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines
Martin: Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn

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7 Responses to The White Queen on the edge of chaos

  1. Tinky says:

    I LOVE this essay–although I think you've taken on a big task with the seminar! I always think that science stretches my mind in constructive ways; it seems to do the same for you.

  2. Joybells says:

    See, now is when I wish I actually WERE all thumbs, because then I could give this 10 thumbs up. Now I need to figure out how to bring my thumbs to your seminar.

  3. Heather and Martin says:

    Thanks, Tinky. For the sake of kindness, compassion, and registration numbers, we'll probably leave most of this out of the seminar proper! I just had to get it out of my system…

  4. Heather and Martin says:

    Joy, dear, I hope we get all your thumbs and the rest of you as well! And I LOVED your 160th birthday celebration for your parents, especially the shots of them dancing.

  5. Anonymous says:

    ….fantastic food for thought…topped off w/ jefferson airplane….great way to feed the mind/body/spirit.
    patricia morrison

  6. almost 50 but not quite says:

    Just discovered your blog via Joy. Love it.
    Intimidating to comment on such thoughtful, lovely writing.
    Glad to have found you.

  7. Galatia says:

    real fine…art as the origin of nature! and to top it off with grace slick–a real bonus!

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