Sunday, May 1, 2016

Biological shapes, cultural patterns. Interdisciplinary studies.

Ironic maybe. I've always been drawn to interesting shapes. Shapes that are unexpected. Shapes that tell a story. Shapes that exist apparently outside of reason, or better, purpose. But these shapes are real. And they occur in nature, they're not some phantasmagorical imagined things. The work that I started during my PhD and continued for ten years after, work that has never really been completed or consummated, was the work of shapes. My interest was to see how tiny lichens attained their shape. How did they branch? How were their branching systems different? Could you trace those branching systems to uncover relationships among species? Could they by interpreted in some more universally-understood system of branching or shapemaking? As arcane as that work may sound it was even more deeply arcane in a way. Lichens, which are a symbiosis between a fungus and photosynthetic partner, are classified as fungi because the fungus is the sexually reproductive partner. They have certain parts of their bodies that are solely fungal. That's the part I was studying. 

But I wasn't studying the development of the fungal sexual system in lichens. The fungal part I was interested in, which might have later developed into what's colloquially called a "fruiting body," was pre-sexual, vegetative. This fungal part, about a tenth of a millimeter in size, appeared to develop on its own without any "purpose" such as extending the photosynthetic surface, or maximizing the distribution of later-to-be-developed fungal spores. If all of this is starting to sound technical let's just say I was not trying to find any "functional" or biological "reason" behind shapemaking in lichens. I was studying the development of shape for its own sake. 

If you're wondering why the work didn't reach a satisfactory level of completion, at least by my standards, it's because it was too difficult to publish in the conventional scientific journals I subscribed to. The work was way outside the bounds of what people were doing in conventional biology at that time, mainly phylogenetics. I found that work to be mechanical, reductive, profoundly in-holistic and most of all, it lacked the romance, yes romance, that the botanical world invokes. Sorry if that sounds unscientific. I fell in love with botany for the beauty and imaginativeness of plants and plant-like organisms like lichens. I couldn't be satisfied doing the test tube and  centrifuge bit.  

Fast forward to the here and now as I am finishing up a Fulbright fellowship that was devoted to shape. I came to Sri Lanka to study the shape of its landscape. Specifically I wanted to study the characteristics of its ancient landscape, which is marked by over 30,000 human-built lakes. The lakes are very ancient, some over 2500 years old, and in parts of the country they are so thickly developed that there is one lake per square kilometer. My objective was literally to explore the shape of these lakes, how they themselves are shaped, how they shape the landscape around them, and how society here has shaped itself along with the lakes, which are the source of most agricultural water and therefore life in this part of the world. 

I was surprised that many of the lakes are shaped like dagobas, the ubiquitous domed Buddhist structures that dominate the Sinhalese countryside and towns. I conjectured that the lakes, whether dagobas-shaped or not, might have been built by very early pre-Buddhist settlers who came here from India. My thought was that these bodies of water might have been used initially not only for irrigation. They may have denoted ownership, provided fish and other foods, and even protect up for the early settlers here. It became apparent that the lakes are integral to Sri Lankan life, and that the lakes' cultural importance is part of an ancient heritage. 

As I studied the lakes, learned the scholars and scholarship that surrounds them, and perceived the landscapes of which they are part, I began to draw a better understanding of Sri Lankan life. This indirect way of studying culture proved to be very useful. Ultimately I learned less about the irrigation systems and more about how they've been used, abused, mimicked, and politicized in contemporary Sri Lanka. Instead of an outside-in study of the lakes and attendant culture I got a kind of inside-out view of Sri Lanka. Something that was very much my goal. Because really, how can you tell the shape of a people and their landscapes? 

It turns out that looking at shapes, which are patterns in themselves, results in seeing further patterns. By looking at patterns you start to find outliers, unusual variations, even new patterns that challenge your old understandings. Looking at lichen shapes led to a new way of seeing lichens. In the same kind of unexpected way cultural patterns of Sri Lanka emerged for me after a study of seemingly simple shapes in the landscape. 

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