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Sunday, 11 October 2015

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Romantic science

"Science is not only a disciple of reason but, also, one of romance and passion."- Stephen Hawking, English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author, and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge

Romanticism during the Age of Reflection was an intellectual movement that originated in Western Europe. Romanticism incorporated many fields of study in the arts and humanities, but it also greatly influenced science. European scientists of the Romantic period held that observing nature implied understanding the self.

They felt that it encouraged and sought to advance a new way to increase scientific knowledge, one that they felt would be more beneficial not only to mankind but to nature as well. Thus evolved what came to be Romantic Science. Romantic Science is all about the fervent evocations of dynamic nature in action; analyzed through and allied to empirical science: a science based on or concerned with, or verifiable by, observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.

Trunks

Thus, bridal beds, blushing captives, and swollen trunks - the taxonomy of plants - heralded a whole new era in 18th-century Europe in which plants were spoken of in sexualized terms. It was a period in which sober scientific analysis blended with poetic rapture; the association between the floral and erotic, reaching its visual and poetic zenith with many books published, describing the love life of plants, and alluding to their behaviour in a manner that titillated the genteel of both sexes of the time.

As an example, I will refer to a passage in Robert Thornton's exquisitely illustrated Temple of Flora in which his evocation of the polygamy practiced by the lily Gloriosa superba - a species of flowering plant with many names such as flame lily, climbing lily, creeping lily, glory lily, gloriosa lily, tiger claw, and fire lily - is nothing but erotica superba. You can see that the tone of actual texts was sexual in theory and practice: "Proud Gloriosa led by three chosen swains, the blushing captives of her virgin chain.

When time's rude hand a bark of wrinkles spread, round her limbs, and silvered o'er her head. Three other youths her riper years engage; the flattered victims of her wily age." Of course, one needs to know the flower, to understand the beauty with which Thornton captures its behaviour with an undertone of implied sexual aptness.

Unsurprisingly, religious and conservative organizations began to express alarm at the "disgusting strokes of obscenity" with which the picture of nature's innocent beauties, were being disfigured. Yet, such pious intentions did not stop nor prevent the Romantic Scientists from presenting highly wrought accounts of the personalities of plants in the great spectrum of the book of nature.

Sensitive

There were sweet delights, like the description of the Sensitive Plant: Mimosa Pudica, or more commonly known as Touch Me Not, which grows wild, but also grown for its curiosity value, the compound leaves fold inward and droop when touched or shaken, defending themselves from harm, re-opening a few minutes later. "Secreting honey, it gives a delightful food to the humming bird, and Nature has been so anxious for the preservation of this tribe, that besides multiplying the number of males (stamen) to one pistillum or female, there are also several of its flowers, which possess only a cluster of males." Such expressions even made the radical French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was an enthusiastic advocate of the new system, feel it prudent to warn one of his friends that her young daughter should only be inducted into the secrets of stamens, pistils and such-like "by degrees, no more than is suitable to her age and sex".

Even in those days, in the emerging Europe of enlightenment, Darwinian rapture of romantic pictures of particular plants in evocative landscapes and highly charged allegories of nature were not unlike today: where a range of opinions exist in all matters. Even the Queen of the time, Charlotte, George III's queen was not spared; and features as the target of Cupid's arrow in the allegorical image of "Cupid inspiring the plants with love".

Distribute

However, lest some think that Queen Charlotte was being encouraged to distribute her favours with Darwinian profligacy, I must mention that she was a bright example of conjugal fidelity and maternal tenderness - unshakably pious, staunchly monarchist, and very English; and had nothing to do with the dangerously French attitudes of the time.

Romanticism then, had four basic principles: the original unity of man and nature in a Golden Age; the subsequent separation of man from nature and the fragmentation of human faculties; the interpretability of the history of the universe in human, spiritual terms; and the possibility of salvation through the contemplation of nature.

The above-mentioned Golden Age is a reference from Greek mythology and legend to the Ages of Man. The Ages of Man is the stages of human existence on the Earth according to Greek mythology in which, successive ages of humanity tend to progress from an original, long-gone age in which humans enjoyed a nearly divine existence, to an age in which humans are beset by innumerable pains and evils. Thus, Romantic thinkers sought to reunite man with nature and therefore his natural state. The Romantics believed that science must not bring about any split between nature and man; that mind and nature need to be reunited.

From this perspective, humans in the world of today have become tragically disconnected from nature. They have been de-sacralized in both thought and deed. Healing this rift is possible only through a profound shift in our collective consciousness that must prepare us to surrender to earth's intelligence; whence, we could rise up rooted like trees.

Relationship

In 1963, Robert Greenway, who was one of the founding fathers of what has come to be popularly known as ecopsychology, coined the term "Wilderness Effect" to refer to the psychological impact we humans experience out of extended stays in wild nature. Following Greenway, a growing body of writers came to see that our relationship with non-human reality, even if largely unconscious, is one of the most significant facts of human life; and which, we humans ignore at our peril. Much of modern psychology assumes a divide between psyche and nature - the inner reality of the mind, and outer reality of nature. The problem is to overcome this divide.

The human mind does not stand wholly apart from the natural world; but is deeply rooted in and intertwined with it. By ignoring this relationship between the mind and nature, we perpetuate the world's destructive state of estrangement from our Earth home, which has disastrous consequences for both our psyche and for the environment.

Pursuit of mental and emotional well-being, on the one hand, and environmental health, on the other, are closely intertwined tasks - indeed, they are inseparable. Hence, healthy psychological development requires that children be bonded to nature and adolescents initiated into its mysteries. Perhaps, it is time our own Poets and Romantic Scientists reverted to the Age of Romanticism and started penning poems such as: "The flower's leaves ... serve as bridal beds which the creator has so gloriously arranged...and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much greater solemnity. When now the bed is so prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and offer her his gifts."

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