In 1959 the mathematics lecturer and musical humourist Tom Lehrer wrote a song titled ‘The Elements’. The song refers to the chemical elements, the ones that are classified in the periodic table. The opening lines are “There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminium, selenium; And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and helium”. Sung to the tune of the Major-General’s Song from The Pirates of Penzance, ‘The Elements’ has popped up in all sorts of places since it was composed. There have been many other attempts to popularise the chemical elements since 1959 including giving them personalities, showing them in action and translating them into art works. These efforts are educational, entertaining and worth further examination.
We are born with a sense of wonder. Taking delight in the warmth of the sun, the colours of the rainbow, the leaves dancing in the wind. Mesmerised by the beauty of fireflies and dragonflies. Amazement in the smallest of things. It is a sense to celebrate and recapture if it has been buried under day to day distractions.
Drums have been used by virtually all cultures. They are an instrument of the elements, being connected to earth, air, fire and water and spirit. Their beat is likened to a throbbing heart, evoking many powerful forms of energy. Their round shape felt to represent nature, Mother Earth, the Universe and the divine. They are commonly reported by Indigenous people to influence weather conditions through the vibrations sent into the atmosphere. Drumming is known to be good for our physical and mental health. Some say it is in our DNA. My sister and I have certainly developed a passion for it.
Architecture and the elements are intimately interconnected. It is estimated that around 50% of the world’s population lives or works in earth buildings, constructed mainly of dirt (clay, gravel, sand, silt, soil, loam and mud). Stone, also of the earth, has been used to great effect by civilisations like the Tiahuanacu and Inka, as well as in buildings in Europe and their colonies. Iconic buildings like the Flame Towers in Baku, Azerbaijan pay homage to the elements. And ancient practices such as Feng Shui from China and Vastu Shastra from India use the elements to assist with the placement of buildings in a landscape, on a site and their internal design.
‘How Earth Made Us’ is a ground-breaking BBC series that tells ‘the incredible story of the natural forces that have shaped our history’. Now available on YouTube, it is well worth watching, offering fantastic imagery and though-provoking commentary. Presented by Professor Iain Stewart, the series examines the influence of four fundamental elements – Water, Deep Earth, Wind and Fire – on human history. The fifth and final episode, called the Human Planet, presents humans as a natural force in their own right.
Wood, as an element, is only explicitly found in Wu Xing – what, in the west, we imprecisely call the five element theory of Chinese philosophy. Yet wood, and trees, have been worshipped for as long as humans have called planet earth home. This is not surprising considering our evolution from forested landscapes and our use of wood and trees for shelter, transport, protection, food, fire and to nourish the soul. In other elemental frameworks this intimate link to trees and their products is most likely encapsulated within the Earth element.
In Australia we welcome in the New Year on January 1st with fireworks, parties and new year resolutions. The most spectacular pyrotechnic display is on Sydney Harbor, where a combination of fire and water holds people in awe and wonder. In many other cultures the New Year is celebrated at a different time of year. While I’d like to wish everyone a Happy New Year based on the Gregorian calendar, of particular interest in this post are the Tibetan astrological and astronomical systems that are intimately connected to the elements.
Recently I flew across half of Australia – from the green, coastal fringe where most of us live to the vast, arid, sparsely populated centre. John Muir, the famous Scottish-American naturalist and astute observer of nature, was with me on the journey – his experiences captured in the book ‘A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf’.
Nearly 50 years ago, Professor Bill Jackson published the paper ‘Fire, air, water, earth – An elemental ecology of Tasmania’. With a title like that, one could say he was ahead of his time.
The elements are part of our lives in a multitude of ways, some more obvious than others. Today, the first ‘official’ day of Spring in the Southern Hemisphere, seemed a perfect occasion to explore a day in my life with the elements. These experiences are shared and connect us, wherever we are in the world.