Sunday, June 29, 2014

Creatura - Songs From the Oyster Bed

Oysters on a desk-top - Digital Photo - 2014, DS

"The co-evolutionary story between rocks and life began 4 billion years or so ago, when the planet had only rocks, air and oceans to work with. The origins researchers that followed Miller and Urey’s heady success soon realised that air and oceans aren’t enough to create life, no matter how lightning-filled the sky. Only with the addition of carefully selected minerals will simple, nonliving biomolecules concentrate and combine in complex biologically useful ways.

Life arose from minerals; then minerals arose from life. The geosphere and biosphere have become complexly intertwined, with numerous feedback loops driving myriad critical natural processes in ways that are only now coming into focus."

- from an 2014 article by Robert Hazen, found at Aeon magazine.

"Mr. Gerard further states: 'Just before crossing the boundary of Ludak into Bussalier, I was exceedingly gratified by the discovery of a bed of fossil oysters, clinging to a rock as if they had been alive.'

In whatever point of view we are to consider the subject, it is sublime to think of organic remains lying at such an extraordinary altitude, and of vast cliffs of rocks formed out of them, frowning over the illimitable and desolate waters, where oceans once rolled."

- from Shells on the Snowy Mountains of Tibet, Asiatic Register,  found here.

"... the great power and human destinies are couched in the virtues of Stones and Herbs. But to know from whence these come, a higher speculation is required. Alexander the peripatetic, not going any further than his senses and qualities, is of the opinion that these proceed from Elements, and their qualities, which haply might be supposed to be true, if those were of the same species; but many of the operations of the Stones agree neither in genere nor specie. Therefore Plato and his scholars attribute these virtues to Ideas, the formers of things. But Avicen reduceth these kinds of operations to Intelligence, Hermes to the Stars, Albertus to the specifical forms of things.

...Now consequently we must discourse of Intelligences, spirits and Angels. An Intelligence is an intelligible substance, free from all gross and putrifying mass of a body, immortall, insensible, assisting all, having Influence over all; and the nature of all intelligences, spirits and Angels is the same. But I call Angels here, not those whom we usually call Devils, but spirits so called from the propriety of the word, as it were, knowing, understanding and wise."

- from De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books Concerning Occult Philosophy), 1530s, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

As readers of this blog know, the moment summer arrives, one can often find a peculiar, solitary woman (me) roaming the sandbars on the Connecticut shoreline; every now and then bending down to pick up an object or two... possibly even talking to herself (or the objects) before placing them back down, or, resuming her search (if that's what it is), possibly still holding one prized object (carefully) in her sweaty little paw.

There are no "ordinary" objects at the shore... and some, like the one above (shown from various angles - click to enlarge) are to be celebrated. When I first found these three shells cemented* to a fragment of rock, however, I wasn't even sure what I'd found. Were they some form of barnacle? Had a human glued some shells onto a rock in such a pretty array?

If it weren't for the Google ramp on the "information" highway, it may have taken me much longer to find out, that my found object was, in fact, naturally conceived, and/or - depending upon your perception -  fabulously designed, by three oysters (specifically, Crassostrea Virginica). And the oysters even found the perfect base to attach themselves to: a triangular, boat-shaped wedge of rock... which, possibly, may have broken off something larger... eventually taking the oyster shells on a cruise, or - in the event they were dead - a type of Viking burial (sans flames).

The crux of the matter lies in the word "designed."  As in: deliberately? As an artist, am I merely "projecting," when I imagine that mollusks are capable of designing the visible "songs" in this post's title? Is it "magical thinking" on my part to conclude the creatures - and those with the most primitive of brains - have exhibited creative intelligence?  We can suppose an oyster's intelligence would seem almost alien** but, if so, the design aesthetic is eerily familiar. So, while the oyster may not have the word "beauty" in its repertoire - nor a "repertoire" at all - I have a suspicion that it's ability to combine and collaborate with its brethren in an attractive way is not altogether predicted by its biological needs nor the economical use of space.

In the end, perhaps, the whole conundrum lies in the word "intelligence." But, what exactly is Intelligence? Very much like the "sentience" (in seaweed), there is no concrete definition (.pdf file). Consciousness, sentience, intelligence, creativity - all are indescribable - but, are they one in the same? I think not... despite the recognition that they all seem like predominately subjective terms -"supernatural" terms - and fugitive to "proof." That scientific inquiry might avoid them like the plague is to be expected. Science describes the engine; it is philosophy which grapples with the "ghost" in the machine. And, philosophers have been grappling with that ghost for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But, lest we forget, science and philosophy originally slept in the same bed, and, perhaps, at some point, in some dimension, they'll reconcile... or not. But, then again - perhaps - they'll be forced to.***

That being said, I am neither well-versed in science, philosophy, (nor theology). I am, however, well-versed in design. I know design like the back of my hand. So, my perception informs me that this little oyster artifact was designed... and, I say it was designed by oysters. Did they mean to be "pretty"? Not necessarily. But, through their own expression of intelligence, or through an intelligence all their own, they strived to be harmonious.

An oyster bed (and its virtues) found here.

Okay... but, I digress. A lot. The stars of this show are a collection of oysters. And oysters are more important to this planet than you might normally guess. I'm not referring to their use in a stew. it's the reefs built by this creature which keeps our oceans viable. That is, their presence insures that our oceans are free from pollutants... although, unfortunately it is, in part, the pollutants - like those unleashed by BP - and catastrophes like Fukishama - which have decimated oyster reefs across the globe. From Wiki:
"Unfortunately, there has been large declines of oyster beds in the coastal areas of the United States and around the world. It is estimated that more than 85% of oyster reefs are gone, making it the most threatened marine habitat in the world. Some reasons for this decline are overharvesting, dredging, filling and draining of wetland, pollution and other detrimental factors. As a result, this has spawned a need for oyster restoration projects in order to revitalize the depleted natural resource of the oyster population. There have been oyster reef restoration projects conducted in New York City for over five years and there is currently a plan to create 500 acres of oyster reefs by 2015 and 5,000 by 2050."

And, yet, oysters are global citizens and have been around for over 100 million years. They survived whatever mysterious apocalypse leveled the dinosaurs. What's more, their fossils can be found on every shore, on mountains (including the "snowy mountains of Tibet"), and in the middle of deserts. But, will they survive the catastrophic effects brought on by humanity?

Interestingly - apart from the fact that they also undergo metamorphosis - in the first year of their lives, the oyster is also protandric, which is a variety of hermaphproditism. That is, they can physically switch genders, change form male to female, and then change back again!

Meanwhile, I silently thank them for inspiring this post and, continuing my exploration of Creatura. Inspiration is gold, even when the resulting product is flawed.

(There are billions of unsung creators in our world, this article describes just one of them.)

Fossils of oyster ancestors (?) found in Kansas. Credit: T. Brook Smith

* See: Oyster Glue's Secret ingredient.

** For an interesting article about another marine "alien" - and one I mention here - see: "Aliens in Our Backyard".

*** For an interesting - if somewhat flawed - discussion of magical thinking, try another Aeon article: The Sun Does Not Rise.

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