Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Human Nature

Yes, it's Round Robin time again. Our newest Challenge, "Nature," comes to us from Gina, of Gina's Space.

When I introduced the topic on the Round Robin blog nearly two weeks ago, I teased myself by asking the question, "Are you hung up on sunsets?" I do post a lot of sunset photos, so it would not surprise me at all if a few of you come to this entry expecting to see more of the same. I don't like to be that predictable, so we'll give the setting sun a rest for tonight. Besides, as I thought about this topic, and the fact that I haven't had much chance recently to photograph birds and bunnies and such, a certain phrase kept popping into my head: "Human nature."

A hummingbird takes a break at Taliesin West

Humans are both part of nature and, by definition, the source of all departures from it. Our marvelous brains, our hands with those all-important opposable thumbs, and every other body part we were born with arise from the same source as the bunny's ears and the hummingbird's wings. All are part of the natural world, the amazing system of physics, chemistry and biology that makes the world what it is. I don't want to renew the usual arguments here, but I think of nature as a set of rules that God set up long ago to create everything that is, the blueprint that forms a large part of the divine plan.

A rock with petroglyphs at Taliesin West.

It is not in the nature of humans, however, to leave the rest of nature alone. Thousands of years ago, we were scratching odd designs into rocks, and painting on cave walls. The first time we sharpened a stick or planted seeds in furrowed rows with that revolutionary invention, the plow, we were making something artificial. We were taking nature and "improving" it, adapting it to our use. We love nature, by and large, but we always have to tinker with it. Who among us would want to do without clothing in winter and summer, lie on the floor of a cave every night, and eat only what we could catch with our hands? No. We appreciate nature, but we can't live in it. Not really. So we take what we like from nature, and fashion it into what we think will make us productive and comfortable and, we hope, happy.

The edge of the desert that surrounds Taliesin West

So it was with the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright (June 8, 1867 - April 9, 1959). He loved the Arizona desert so much that he bought a chunk of it, miles from civilization. All these years later, much of that original parcel of land remains untouched. At first he lived in tents in the middle of it all, but soon he
built his winter home there. He named it Taliesin West.

Taliesin West was designed not to stand out from
its natural surroundings
.

Nowadays, Taliesin West isn't all that far from civilization. It's in Scottsdale, Arizona, but in a relatively remote part of it. The property remains very nearly unspoiled, because of Wright's foresight in buying up a lot of land at bargain prices, and leaving much of it in its original state. To get there, a visitor goes north on Frank Lloyd Wright Drive at the northeastern edge of metro Phoenix, and then follows a private drive for half a mile, climbing through Sonoran Desert scrub. For most of that drive, no buildings can be seen, left, right, or up ahead.

Frank Lloyd Wright's studio at Taliesin West originally
had no glass in the windows.


Wright built a studio at Taliesin West, with interesting stones visible inside and out in the handmade walls, canvas roofing to let in the light, and, originally, open air instead of glass windows. It didn't bother him if birds, squirrels or even snakes stopped by for a visit. Eventually, though his third wife talked him into adding glass windows, which he agreed (in retrospect) was a good idea. His style of incorporating nature into his designs was called organic architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright's living room is a mixture
of natural and artificial elements.

I can't remember now whether it was Wright's studio or his living room that had another change made after the original construction, raising the wall so that the windows had a higher view of the desert beyond. The reason for this was that civilization had arrived at the edge of Wright's domain, in the form of power lines and telephone poles. Taliesin West was self-sufficient for a while in terms of well water and electricity, and during that period the only power lines were underground. Eventually, though, the poles arrived, a little way down the hill, spoiling Wright's view. He didn't want to see anything out his windows except nature, and perhaps a few things he personally put there. He would be horrified if he saw what stands at the bottom of his land today: at least a dozen of those huge high voltage electrical towers, carrying power across the desert to feed the human need to control and improve on nature.

A collage by Clare Booth Luce in Wright's living room, made
of all natural materials, is nevertheless a work of artifice.

Isn't the adulteration of nature pretty much the definition of art, though? Art is short for artifice, the source of the word artificial. Wright's buildings may have used wood and stone and been decorated with fur and clay pottery, but they were works of art, adaptations of natural materials into something the architect considered both aesthetic and practical. And it wasn't just Wright who did this. For example, the decorative panel shown above was one of two pieces of art made for Wright's living room by pioneering journalist and playwright Clare Booth Luce. It's made of saguaro ribs, chunks of dried cholla, stones, shells and seeds. It's all natural, and completely artificial. Nature provided the materials, but it took a human to arrange them in this particular way.


A former apprentice's sculptures at Taliesin West

And so it goes. In creating art, we both imitate nature and alter it, reflecting back what it means to us, using it to discover more about nature and ourselves. Even this blog entry is an attempt to turn nature into art, and art into a window on the inside of a human being - human nature. If I had posted a sunset photo tonight, it would have been a digital photo, a way preserving an image from nature in the artificial construct of ones and zeros. It would have been further removed from the original interplay of star and planetary atmosphere by the use of photo editing tools, making the sunset a little brighter and more colorful. I didn't do that tonight, but the same process, more or less, went into the photos that accompany this marathon text. They have been cropped or lightened or darkened or saturated, and one has been narrowed at the top to fix the perspective. And yet, all of those edits were done to approximate what my natural eyes saw - through articificial lenses, of course.

And now I'm done. Go see what the other Robins are up to!

Karen


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8 comments:

Carly said...

Very cool intpretation of the subject! Excellent as always darlin! And I LOVE the sculptures.

Always, Carly

boliyou said...

Great shots here! The desert is so dramatic.

Suzanne R said...

You have shown such creativity, as usual, in your interpretation of the theme -- I really liked reading what you wrote, and seeing your pictures. I think Frank Lloyd Wright was a genius and I have long appreciated his work.

DesLily said...

wow.. love the desert photo's Karen!!

Steven said...

Nice. Taliesin is one place I'd like to visit very much.

kmm said...

What a wonderful place. I keep adding places to my must see list and I think it will out live me Cheers Kerrin

julie said...

I love FLW's work. Great stuff as always.

Dorn said...

Very cool pictures. Makes me really want to visit Taliesin West.