Dogs and thunderstorms. Frogs and rain. Elephants and earthquakes. These are some of the many observations, across cultures and the ages, of the acute ability of nonhuman animals to sense changes in the elements – of wind, water, earth and fire – often long before we do. They do this using senses many humans have lost in modern times, and some that we have never attained. While some may attribute these responses purely to the physical ability other animals have to see, taste, hear, smell or feel extremely subtle changes in the environment, it goes well beyond this. As people take the time to look and listen to what these animals sense, think and feel, our eyes are being opened to the extraordinary lives of the other species we share the planet with, both big and small.
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.
On August 30th, 2005 the focus of the world was on New Orleans in Louisiana, USA after a category 4-5 Hurricane called Katrina unleashed its elemental power. Combined with a levy system that could not cope with the intensity and aftermath of the hurricane, Katrina was the most destructive storm to strike the United States and the costliest in U.S. history, causing over $100 billion in property damage. The human cost of the storm, which is not something that you can put a dollar figure on, is still playing itself out. Lessons on how to plan for and respond to extreme elements can be learnt from the experience of cities like New Orleans and other parts of the planet.
Each of us has a special place, or places, that we have a strong connection to. This “sense of place” is developed through personal and cultural experiences and knowledge of a particular area. The “elemental” landscape is an important part of these experiences, one that expresses itself on many scales – from the sun on your face, to the changing of the seasons or the impact of earthquakes or storms on a region.
We are almost half way through the Oriental Year of the Sheep, or Year of the Goat, or Year of the Ram. The Chinese character yang (羊), which represents this year in the Zodiac cycle, can be translated as all of these animals. In Japan the yang character represents only one animal, the sheep. In Australia we also refer to 2015 as the Year of the Sheep. Not because we have studied the astrological intricacies of this year, in the main. It’s due to the long association of the post-colonial Australian psyche and economy with domestic sheep. Who would have thought the animal zodiac could be so culturally influenced? And what has it to do with the elements? It’s a fascinating story……
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.