Interviewsand Articles


Editor's Introduction w & c #27: Hidden Nature

by Richard Whittaker, Nov 22, 2013



detail from Kristen Van Diggelen's painting Battlescape 1

Finding a common thread in the material that came together for this issue has been especially challenging. We think “hidden nature” fits, especially if one lets the word “nature” wander freely into any territory it might feel at home in.
     In the lead we have UC Davis Art & Science Fusion program founders, artist Donna Billick and entomologist Diane Ullman. They talk about how their innovative pedagogy invites students to cross into what they call “the borderland,” a term borrowed from E. O. Wilson. The territory between science and art qualifies as a borderland. And as Wilson writes, “such a territory need not be seen as marking an intrinsic epistemological divide. Instead, it’s an uncharted territory of poorly understood causal relationships.”
     In bringing art and science together in their program, Billick and Ulman expand the role of creativity, add the artists’ hands-on approach and introduce scientific study to artists. Bringing students into new territory fosters new insights and a greatly enriched experience for all, including the teachers themselves.The obstacle of entrenched thinking is nowhere more apparent than in the rejections familiar to Billick and Ullman in their applications for grant money. If it’s not “too artsy,” it’s “too science-y.” And yet this program is in its 16th year, and picking up steam—a word that lends itself to an acronym Billick and Ullman like  (s: science, t: technology, e: engineering, a: art, m: math)—together, you get STEAM.
     Studying pollinating insects, and especially honeybees, is a big part of their program. There’s even a honeybee forage garden on campus. And thanks to Billick and Ullman, I heard about Meredith May, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who keeps beehives on the roof of the Chronicle building. Just the image of beehives on the roof of the city’s major newspaper created an irresistable inner buzz that compelled me to reach out to May who, it turned out, was happy to talk about honeybees. In fact, she’s something of a bee missionary. And with the dramatic decline of honeybees all over the world, we need more people trying to help these most beneficial of insects. 
     We hope May’s love of bees will inspire others to begin landscaping with bees in mind or even to become beekeepers themselves. As the two hives in downtown San Francisco attest, honeybees can make a living in urban settings.
     The first definition of nature in most dictionaries goes something like this: the material world indepen-dent of human activities. But humans themselves are part of the material world, which is part of the universe itself. So looking at it that way opens the door to Carl Sagan’s famous statement: “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
     It’s that part about the universe knowing itself that opens up to another borderland: the inner life of mankind. Or putting it another way, it leads to the fact that we live in the realm of experience. And where science is the measure of the Real, what standing remains for the world of our subjectivity?
     Having recently read Joseph Campbell’s The Way of Art I am reminded of the way Campbell conceives of the essential work of the artist. At the core, the essence of that work is when the object becomes pure object while the artist becomes pure subject. In that state the artist becomes, as Campbell puts it, “the Eye of the universe beholding the Thing of the universe.” It’s a stupendous thought, and doesn’t it still have the ring of truth somehow? (It should be noted that a great deal of artists’ work falls far short of this level. Everything that is only personal, for instance.}
     It should go without saying that it’s not so easy to get to a moment in which Campbell’s words do not seem preposterous. That brings us to Kristen Van Diggelen’s paintings, which belong somewhere, I think, in that realm of the artist’s essential work.
      When we speak of mystery, we are speaking of what can only exist as experience. Facts are facts are facts. But the experience of facts is a mystery. And some mysteries are more apparently mysterious than others. Anne Veh’s feature with Steve Karlin is like that. Maybe that’s enough said. You’ll have to read it.
     Rounding out the issue are other treats: a conversation with David Fullarton and a peek at his unique humor; two poems by one of our favorite poets, Red Hawk; and a new episode of Indigo Animal, in which our protagonists, disguised as yokels, explore the obelisks of Rome. Here’s a quote from William James worth pondering: “From a pragmatic point of view, the difference between living against a background of foreignness (an indifferent Universe) and one of intimacy (a benevolent Universe) means the difference between a general habit of wariness and one of trust.”
     Welcome to issue #27. —rw

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founder of works & conversations magazine.


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