Innovation

Thinking with Shadows

Shadows are great. You can walk right through them. You can feel them pass over you like a cool hand. They are the space an object blocks from a source of light, we’re told: an absence. In the case below, an elm tree is blocking the light from the sun. Is the absence? No, of course not. The shadow is there.

But this light thing is not quite right, either. The boulder below has a shadow, too, but it’s a shadow of rain and snow and heat, which the grass is appreciating, thank you very much. Again, it’s not an absence. It’s more like a concentration. A projection.

Could the image below be a concentration like that, then? Which is more a tree, the fallen one or the projected one?

There’s no doubt that shadows are regions blocked from light. The balsam root below has cast a shadow on its own leaf, just as the bee on it is casting a shadow in its own shape. It’s also rational that the flower is not projecting its spirit, nor the bee its own, because the shadows don’t appreciably differ in substance.

And yet, what if they were projections within a human mind, the mind that apprehends them and apprehends the similarity between them at the same time? A mind operating by modelling patterns of similarity and difference, casting an impression on a neutral screen and measuring its characteristics there, at the same time it is viewing more complex patterns of similarity and difference, in shape and colour and depth? What if that image of the flower and bee above is really an image of the mind, all the differing means of apprehension in the long process of evolution that has made humans what they are? An image, so to speak, of all our ancestors across all life on Earth, working together? Is that not what the billions of cells in our bodies do, in physical terms? Is human apprehension of shadow the same? Here’s an image from Big Bar Lake last fall:

What if we really are the Earth, examining herself?  Nothing would change, and yet everything would change. With this understanding, if you reach down with a finger and separate a few leaves, and move that shadow to see what it is obscuring, would that not be the same as reaching your finger into your mind? I’m talking about reverence here, about the spiritual life of creatures on Earth, to whom shadow foregrounds these leaves and intensifies their brilliance. That is an organic process for catching light, but also for being seen. It is also a process fairly close to what we are doing when we pick out pattern from difference and view a balsam root as our mind. And the thing about that mind, of course…

… is that there are other beings moving in it and thinking the same way. Look at that bee above, camouflaged to use its shadow to change its shape, effectively confusing pattern making by using contrast, its dark abdomen, and brightness, a white band, to not only look like a dead flower head with a frill of dried sepals, but to make the bee’s head and shoulders disappear by tricking an eye into seeing the abdomen between two tan-coloured shadows. The bee effectively disappears in plain sight. This is what you can expect from someone moving through your mind. This works in multiple directions, though, all at once. We could ask: what can we expect from grass, that moves through our minds as well, yet also what does grass experience as we move through its mind?

Only a human can ask these questions, and only a human can answer them. A neutral physics will give us a neutral physics. That’s not the end goal. The goal is to return its neutrality to human experience and to become more human. One way to do so is to consider: bright objects are accompanied by dark ones, and dry with wet, and so on. Sure, but that’s us, viewing it. It’s not just us, either. The grass below does it, too.

Shadows give light, or at least the spirit of light, as much as light gives shadow.

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