‘Elemental ecology’ was coined in 1968 by Professor Bill Jackson, a Tasmanian academic. It was captured for prosperity in his scientific publication ‘Fire, air, water and earth – An elemental ecology of Tasmania.’ This time last year I was preparing a spoken paper for the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) conference that would revisit Bill’s concept. My first post on elemental ecology was written before the presentation, this one provides an update 12 months on.
Albert Einstein is the most famous Alumni of ETH Zurich, which is consistently ranked amongst the top Universities in the world. It is encouraging therefore that this illustrious institution ran a four semester course between Autumn 2012 and Spring 2014 on architecture and the elements – Earth, Water, Air and Fire. The Chair of the Department of Architecture, Professor Dr Josep Lluis Mateo, used this framework to examine how the elements connect the conceptual and physical in architecture. In doing so he wanted his students to think from the start about the structure and materials of the buildings they were designing.
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.
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.
Saint Francis of Assisi is amongst the best known of the Christian mystics who celebrated God through images of the elements. On this Easter Sunday I leave you with ‘The Canticle of the Sun’, also known as ‘The Canticle of the Creatures‘. The prayer was originally composed in 1224 in an Umbrian dialect of Italian. While oft repeated, it is worth sharing the song again. It is a powerful demonstration of the importance of the sun, moon, stars and the elements to Saint Francis – the founder of the Franciscan Orders, protector of animals and Patron Saint of Ecology. At another time I will delve into greater detail about the works and legacy of Saint Francis and other Christian mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen. Today the focus is on praising and acknowledging the wonders of the elemental world and the cycle of life, whatever your religious leanings.
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.
At the start of a new year, many people’s thoughts turn to how they can improve their wellbeing over the coming months. Certainly mine do. In addition to being inspired by beautiful views, enjoying the calming effect of water or warming ourselves with fire there are many other ways the elements can help us to be well.
On this solstice day in December our thoughts go to the sun, the bringer of light and life. In particular our thoughts turn to the element of fire, in the southern hemisphere to the warmth and energy the sun provides on the longest day of the year, in the north to the fires lit to provide warmth and signify a return to longer days. The importance of the Summer and Winter solstices is reflected in many cultures that celebrate them in ritual, ceremony, art and architecture. These activities are intimately entwined with the elements, reflecting the cycle of death, renewal and regeneration associated with the cycle of the sun.