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.
‘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.
Recently I spent a year immersed in the elemental land and seascapes of Cape Cod, on the Atlantic coast of the United States. In my mind’s eye at least. This is where Henry Beston’s book ‘The Outermost House’ transported me. I will let his captivating prose set the scene:
Every so often I discover books that use the elements to frame their stories. Having just returned from a trip to the USA, I was drawn to a book titled ‘The Men Who United the States’. The author, Simon Winchester, uses wood, earth, water, fire and metal as the basis of the five ‘Parts’ in the book. This framework is loosely based on Wu Xing, the fivefold conceptual scheme that is found throughout traditional Chinese thought.
One of the delights of undertaking research on the intuitive elements are discoveries that open up new worlds. Recently I came across a miniature-lacquered plate in a second-hand shop. This most unusual object led me to Russia, magic and the exquisite imagery and symbolism of the Firebird.
The Rivered Earth contains four libretti written by Vikram Seth, a celebrated Indian novelist and poet, designed to be set to music by Alec Roth. The final libretti is called ‘Seven Elements’. It is a song cycle that includes seven poems – Earth, Air, Wood, Fire, Metal, Water and Space.
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.
Very few western scientists take the elements – earth, fire, water, air and space/spirit – seriously. David Suzuki is an exception.