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.
When I started my exploration of the elements I was familiar with earth, air, fire, water, metal, wood and ether/space/spirit. Little did I imagine that down the track I would be reading about consciousness as an element in the Buddhist Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta, also referred to as the Analysis of the Elements/Properties.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.