The Inclinometer is a tool used to measure slope, grade or elevation change in space. It is similar to a sextant, used in celestial navigation, but only measures one reference point relative to a given position. I became interested in the Inclinometer after conducting the Floracurrent Survey. I wanted to relate to the trees physically and compare them to my own physicality. I chose this tool for its simplicity and direct relational qualities. The tree is sighted through the scope at the top of the device. As the elevation of the front of the device increases, gravity keeps the weighted rod perpendicular to the earth. The angel is then estimated based on the guidelines carved into the device’s left front face. Once the angle is known, you simply walk to the base of the tree, counting paces along the way. These two data points are then plugged into the tangent function to find the height of the tree in paces. The height equals the tangent of the angle multiplied by the number of paces. I chose to keep the body as a unit of measure for this project because it is both practically easier to count steps then accurately measure feet and because it related the tree directly to a human. The inaccuracy in the system creates a relational rather than objective understanding of the tree and questions the utility of, and ability to, fully know something. As the farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka says, “An object seen in isolation from the whole is not the real thing.” (Fukuoka, 26) The photographs of the Inclinometer all have graphs superimposed over them to acknowledge that the information we gain with this tool is legible but incomplete. This project is an attempt to relate to a specific quality of the tree without isolating the observation from the whole.
Nature Is The Wrong Word
Nature is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as “The phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.” (Oxford) This definition draws a line between humans and all other species that extends into our spatial and conceptual understanding of the planet we inhabit with these other species. It is the first order of abstraction that allows for us to shrug off responsibility to other species and the future of all species (self included) because nature is fully separate from us and our actions. We are left to believe nature will correct itself.
I hear the term used to describe going to a place that is distinct from where we are now. We get into a car, drive over a bridge and park in a parking lot to go for a hike. But at what point did we enter nature? Is it when we get out of the car? In the parking lot are we in nature? How long do we need to hike before we are in nature? We are both always and never in nature. I see the divide between us and nature as the underlying philosophy that allows us to forget our interconnectedness with the Earth. It is the philosophy that allows us to see trees as wood to be extracted, to see rivers as water to be extracted and animals as meat to be extracted. Nature is out there, abstract in the distance. However, we are always in conversation with the species and phenomena that surround us and so the division is counterproductive if not harmful. It is the wrong word for what I care about. I care for the whole.
The second definition of nature from Oxford presents somewhat of a solution to this abstraction. This definition describes nature as, “The basic or inherent features, character, or qualities of something.” (Oxford) Farmer and philosopher, Masanobu Fukuoka uses this definition as the basis for his guide to natural farming, One Straw Revolution, where he argues for “do nothing agriculture.” Fukuoka’s basic premise is that through careful and slow observation one can begin to understand the inherent rhythms and relationships of other species and adapt human actions to respond to these rhythms. He describes the basic difference between natural farming and contemporary agriculture in the form of two questions. Industrial farming asks, “How about trying this?’ or ‘How about trying that?’ bringing in a variety of techniques one upon the other.” (Fukuoka, 15) In contrast, natural farming asks, “How about not doing this? How about not doing that?” What Fukuoka is interested in is “finding the natural pattern.” (Fukuoka, 16)
Fukuoka uses his citrus orchard to illustrate this point. After killing more than 400 trees over a number of years, he concluded that trees only need to be pruned once they have been pruned. “If a single bud is snipped off a fruit tree...that may bring about disorder which cannot be undone.” (Fukuoka, 17) You can not simply stop pruning a tree once you have begun, that is negligence. However, trees left to grow in their natural form are healthy without human intervention. “The reason man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them.”(Fukuoka, 15) Fukuoka believes science and modern modes of understanding abstract nature into singular units rather than appreciate the variations and unknowability of the whole. “Why is it impossible to know nature? That which is conceived to be nature is only the idea of nature arising in each person’s mind.” (Fukuoka, 25) For Fukuoka nature is unknowable and omnipresent, we must observe the whole to understand that it is not understandable.
What I have been describing are two very different relationships to the same word. The first definition fetishizes and separates nature. Nature is somewhere else. The second folds nature into our mundane daily lives. Nature, in this view, is an omnipresent force or condition, not a place at a distance. The mundane nature is powerful because it connects all of us, human and not, in all of our experiences. Nature is the whole. As Fukuoka points out, we cannot see the whole. We can, however, terminate our abstracting tendencies as we learn to venerate the omnipresence of nature in our daily lives. As designers we must recognize that we are tending to a pruned tree, to use Fukuoka’s example. The changes that humans have made to the Earth’s systems make them reliant on our choices while we remain reliant on the Earth’s capacity to continue to bear fruit. What this methodology suggests for design is a new relationship to nature, one built on respect for the range of qualities produced by the complex network of relationships we depend on and that, now, depend on us.
Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One-Straw Revolution : An Introduction to Natural Farming. New York, New York Review Books, 2009.
Oxford Dictionaries. “Nature | Definition of Nature in English by Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2018, en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/nature. Accessed 10 Apr. 2019.