Saturday, July 14, 2012

Things Hidden and Buried

So much learning from this trip to Mexico and the southwest. Yesterday afternoon we reached Aztec Ruins National Monument. An amazing site now in the middle of oil and gas fields in northeast New Mexico.


The site took a generation or two to build and was inhabited for maybe 100 years. Wooden beams were brought down from the mountains. River cobbles for building were close by. The sandstone for most of the building had to be brought from miles away. And greenstone for decorative layers of wall had to be brought from quite a distance.


The outer walls are more or less flat, but buried inside the walls the rocks are irregular and shaped together with mortar or mud. So, much of the wall material is buried inside the thickness of the mud.


Archeologists have found pottery and baskets, probably connected to rituals, buried intact in layers of midden and soil. These objects were apparently buried as is, not thrown away or lost under layers of ruin. Like sacred bundles, they are hidden and part of the site. After they were documented and studied they were reburied by the archeologists.


The long lines of greenstone are curious and perhaps hold some hint of how people thought about their structures and their world. They seem to be decorative, perhaps commemorative or symbolic. They are reminiscent of serpents, rivers, etc., all of which are symbolic in Mesoamerican expression. Green may also symbolize life, growth, and fertility. But the interesting thing is that these lines of greenstone, which took enormous effort to bring to the site, were also buried intentionally by the builders.


It's as if it were enough just to have the presence of the stone, the symbol of life and fertility, hidden in the walls of the structure, again like a sacred bundle.


In some ways it's hard to understand what people were thinking when they engaged in this kind of nuilding project. In some ways though, it's not. Our culture revels in the visible, the apparent, the facies. But artists are also concerned with process, the hidden or buried effort that goes into artistic expression. In science as well there is almost overwhelming stress othe internal, processes and patterns "hidden" in molecular combinations deep within the cell.

Grand Canyon

So when we explore the "mysterious" cultures of "non-western" people perhaps we can look for hints in our own ways of thinking and problem solving. Maybe there are human universals that are expressed variously by various cultures. Alternatively, we can try to understand the "other" on it's own terms, a challenging, frustrating proposition that may offer insights of its own.

Hopi Corn

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Typology, Teleology, Contradiction

As a botany student at Harvard I encountered great thinkers whose agenda was to re-evaluate and ultimately to reject 18th century Linnean typology. It made sense. Linnaeus based his classification on an essentialist understanding of nature that did not recognize evolutionary process. The Linnean classification system borrowed from the Aristotelian world view a teleological approach in which all living entitites, created by a deity, were unchanging, perfect, and hierarchical. From lichens and earthworms to oak trees and humans there was a "scale of nature" by which every species held its predetermined place according to its "complexity." Typology ignored evolution as a force in the dynamic flow of life as a phenomenon of change. While the binomial nomenclature scheme of Linnaeus continued as a convenient if antiquated tool, pre-evolutionary thought had to be reconsidered in light of the great complexity of nature and enormous advances in ways of knowing. Botany in the late 20th century was, it seemed, finally catching up with Darwin.

Tula Cactus

I shouldn't have been surprised but I was. The deconstruction of Linnean taxonomy led to a different set of formalities as scientists began shaping their classification systems in the "new" bottle of cladistics, a formalistic, mathematically based system devised in the 1950s by the German entomologist Willi Hennig. As we struggled to master this new style of taxonomy we were driven by an almost messianic belief that the New Phylogeny would revivify botany, adding relevance, attracting funding, and polishing up our dusty self-perception. Finally we would pull ourselves off the bookish piles and creaking cabinets and join with pride the new Computer Age. By deconstructing Linnean teleology I wonder, were we forcing ourselves into a new teleology?

Dry Design

Cladistics transformed botany but not, I think, in a positive way. Hot on the heels of hennegian systematics followed dizzying heights of New Technology as research teams and institutions sought to outdo one another vying for equipment, superstar faculty, and an ever dwindling pool of graduate students. Botany, which had shaped itself as a syncretic, literate, broad-based study of nature joined post-modern academia in a narrow minded, reductionist, exclusionary approach. Molecular phylogeny rejected the whole organism in the search for Truth though genomic analysis. There was less room for discourse that didn't address molecular phylogenetics. Phylogeny established itself as the coin of the realm even in disciplines like mycology which had been, if possible, even more broad-minded than botany. For example, my studies in lichen morphogenesis- the way these tiny insignificant organisms attain form- did not fit the reductionist agenda of my journals and became unpublishable. Whole systems of classification were (theoretically) toppled, and botanists shot themselves in the foot by basing a scienltific practice and a set of theories on what had become little more than expensive lab techniques.

Cladina rangiferina

What does all this have to do with the connection between science and art, and how is this connected to the wonderful National Endowment for the Humanities trip I'm on right now?

Late Day Graffiti

Here on our NEH Mesoamerica trip I'm a happy observer. The one non-humanities participant on the trip I have the opportunity of seeing a whole range of other disciplines roll out their best ideas. I'm seeing a huge amount of art history, anthropology, archeology...and that's only the "a"-list. I'm getting to see amazing analyses of culture, history, iconography and art, a sweeping view of a diverse, perhaps chaotic world. And travels to places at once beautiful, challenging, and sometimes uninterpretable. Our goal is to connect conceptually the desert southwest with Mesoamerica, regions that have been arbitrarily divided for political expediency. A challenging goal and one that deserves attention, the kind of scholarly attention that has been lavishly, elegantly demonstrated during these weeks of the seminar.

Home Style

Something that has come up in several discussions is the reality that there are many ways of knowing. Obviously we've addressed that by rolling out a wide range of scholars in a variety of disciplines. But shouldn't we consider more seriously ways of knowing outside of traditional academia? Something equally troubling? I've heard critique of certain disciplines or approaches as being "old fashioned," something that makes my botany antennas go up.


The beauty of this scholarly pursuit is that it allows all kinds of input. "Old fashioned" ethnography may not provide the formality some scholars would like to see but it does reveal, in bushelfulls, insights into rare and endangered cultures. Iconographic analysis may not seem "scientific" but it is a portal to ideas about seeing and depicting the world that are unmatched in their beauty and elegance. And a "scientific" approach to archeology may seem to be narrow minded. But beware of replacing the narrowness of denrochronoly with other varieties of typological conceptualizing.


Contradictions? We're rife with them as humans and as scholars. But here I venture an unsubstantiated and perhaps unsupportable suggestion. We acknowledge that the world is chock full of complexity. Instead of narrowing our vision to make complexity "manageable" (some sort of famous last words) can we open our minds to complexity, embrace it, embrace one another for our divergent visions, and observe in gaping wonder the chaotic world around us?

Late Afternoon Storm

Friday, July 6, 2012

Art as Inquiry

I was in a discussion with my friend and colleague Eva Garroutte when she made the profound suggestion that making art is a mode of inquiry into the unknown. Eva is a Cherokee woman and I can't recall if she was speaking about Cherokees and art. But I went ahead and started making connections to some of my observations during this wonderful NEH seminar. For example, we learned from the ethnographer Alan Sandstrom that in the Nahua village he studies people make innumerable paper figures that are used in ritual contacts with the spirit world. The dolls are lovingly made, counted, wrapped in bundles, and later laid out carefully for the ceremonies. In the narrowest sense they are ritual objects but in a broader perspective I would call them art. They are beautiful, handmade, decorative, and above all, an expression of each person who creates them.


We were discussing this with our colleague Lise Mifsud, a physical anthropologist and fellow participant in our seminar trip. Earlier Lise and I had pondered the connection between tool making from stone and ancient stone figurines. Did our earliest ancestors inquire into the unknown spiritual world by creating stone effigies related to their tools? It seemed to make sense that in this case "art" emerged from "necessity," or more to the point, that the creation of artistic ritual objects was connected to working the stone for tools. I think I've suggested this in earlier posts and it's an idea that seems to stick.

Edenic Image

Back to the big question of art as a mode of inquiry into the unknown. If we consider the supernatural world of the Nahua to be unknown, then the paper figures they make provide a connection, or a mode of inquiry into that unknown. Ancient stone tool makers, our non-human or early human ancestors, delved into the unknown by creating tools that extended their physical capabilities. As their capabilities increased and they penetrated further into the physical world new unknowns emerged. As their descendants we continue that process.

Mayan Bas Relief

What does this have to do with scientific inquiry? During my botanical research at Harvard I prepared thousands of specimens for distribution to museums around the world. The rote activity of soaking, arranging, pressing, drying, and packing the specimens (they had already been collected, studied, identified, labeled, and stored), was a kind of symbolic act akin to the intricate activities associated with Nahua paper cutting. The specimens themselves were not "artistic" but they reflected my painstaking curatorial work. They were "valueless" in terms of nutritional or monetary worth but they were symbolic of my work and accomplishments. They provided evidence of my inquiry into the unknown.


Science is nothing if not an inquiry into the unknown. The tools we make, the ritualized activities we perform, and the symbols of our discoveries, all can be considered part of the same process of our prehuman ancestors or the Nahua paper cutters.

Eagle Head

This topic carries a huge amount of epistemological baggage we could unpack for a long time. "Inquiry into the unknown is the way we make art and art is our inquiry into the unknown."

Flower Detail

Thursday, July 5, 2012

It's What's Going On Inside That Counts

Woke up to a hazy chocolate-colored sky in Santa Fe with this thought. It's so well-worn its almost trite. But in the perspective of what we've studied so far in this seminar it takes on new meaning.

Some examples from ancient Mesoamerica seem to fit.

Inside of mountains, deep inside caves, the source of water is present. That water is depicted and felt as wind and in later conceptualizations (and almost universally in iconography) depicted as breath emanating from the mouth of a god.

Desert Swirl

Pyramids came to represent mountains. Much less something to climb than a physical representation of water and well-being.

Chichen Itza Landscape

Inside a shell bracelet resides the power and flexibility of the wrist. Thin in proportion to the arm and hand, the wrist harnesses the power of movement.

Power of Movement

In many of the ancient Mesoamerican cultures, sacred bundles were placed inside caves or containers, or closets. The sacred bundles were themselves a phenomenon of the inside, holding perhaps paper, feathers, and other talismans.

Weird Aztec Ceremonial Sculpture

My friends in the Collectivo Tres made "sacred bundles" of basura (garbage) wrapped in ziplock bags and sold them on the Mexico City subway The way people sell chiche (chewing gum) or CDs.


Inside resides the power, whether it's power of the heart, brain, or hands, a thought as contemporary as it is ancient.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Landscapes and Cognition

The past few weeks I've been on the road with a summer institute from the National Endowment for the Humanities in a study of cultural connections between Mesoamerica and the desert Southwest of the United States. What an amazing trip it's been.

Huge Mexico City Demonstration

As the lone scientist with a group of art historians, archeologists, sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and assorted others, I've had a unique chance to observe the workings of scholars in a range of disciplines. Also, I've had the chance to see just where crossovers lie, and where disciplines seem to draw the line at interdisciplinary thinking.

Tape Store

The sort of glue that's holding us all together is a wonderful set of visiting scholars who have introduced us to concepts as wide ranging as mesoamerican iconography, Hopi kinship practices, and the geography of traditional ball courts. Our scholars have travelled extensively with us for on-site interpretive sessions, meals, and conversation.

My NEH Posse

One element that has come through strongly for me is the concept that people in many traditional societies have placed value on their landscape as a source of spirituality and history. Migrations, pilgrimages, and seasonal movements through the landscape all contribute to a sense of physical surroundings as culturally meaningful phenomena.


Coming hot on the end of a trip to Yellowstone a few weeks ago it occurred to me that in the United States we have also created a sort of "sacred" landscape in the form of our National Parks. A fitting thought for the 4th of July perhaps, but one that is not meant to underestimate the brutal realities of European settlement of this continent.

A trip to the Grand Canyon earlier this week taught us the story of the Hopi emergence, something that occurred right in the center of one of "our" national shrines.

Theres so much to write on this and related topics. But I don't want to spend whole pages on it, at least not for now. But to head back to Mexico City however briefly, massive, peaceful student demonstrations on the Zocalo reminded me of the power of collective perceptions of place and time.

Massive Demonstration

More to follow, soon I hope, on space, time, and human cognition. Of course, lots of thoughts on art and science to follow too, I promise.