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A synesthesia of art and science: moving toward an ecological consciousness

This is the question writer in residence Daniela Elza asked of a small audience to start her GreenSpeak lecture on March 11. The talk offered a unique take on environmental sustainability even from its title: “Through the poetry of the world: toward an ecology of being.”

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By Katie Stobbart (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: March 19, 2014

Where do you daydream?

This is the question writer in residence Daniela Elza asked of a small audience to start her GreenSpeak lecture on March 11. The talk offered a unique take on environmental sustainability even from its title: “Through the poetry of the world: toward an ecology of being.”

The talk was attended by an audience of about a dozen, including students of English, biology, geography, physics, and environmental studies.

Elza stood in the foreground of a great tree whose branches stretched out of sight, beyond the corners of the B101 lecture hall’s big screen.

“This is my friend,” she said, gesturing to the trunk, its furrowed bark. “I want to introduce you.” I found myself wishing the lecture had been held outside, where spring was finally beginning to poke through the hard winter ground and the sun was caught up in the fuzzy skin of new magnolia buds. Could we be introduced to a tree through a photograph?

However, her words also spoke to a new kind of consciousness: could we, in the first place, be introduced to a tree?

Then she drew us to this idea of daydreaming.

“In class!” one student offered as an answer.

“I’ve waited all my life to talk about daydreaming in a school,” said Elza, who earned a doctorate in philosophy of education, beaming. She went on to point out that in our busy, results-focused culture, daydreaming is often overlooked, viewed as “doing nothing.”

But reverie, the state of being lost in one’s thoughts, is a power we have not yet harnessed, she said. Scientists are getting curious about things like memory, intuition, language, creativity, spontaneous forms of cognition… things, Elza said, “which writers have been talking about forever.”

From daydreaming she moved on to our perception of the senses. What are they? Taste, smell, touch, hearing, sight…

“Sense of space,” Patrick Harrison, chair of UFV’s centre for sustainability, suggested. Intuition, someone else added, and common sense.

There are four acknowledged senses on top of the five we are familiar with. Thermoception is our ability to sense temperature, nociception our sense of physical pain, equilibrioception our sense of balance and acceleration, and finally proprioception, which is the kinesthetic awareness of the body. Elza pointed to synesthesia as well, which involves experiencing two senses at the same time. The word is a Greek compound meaning “joined perception.” She smiled, asking if synesthesia is not what poets have been trying to accomplish for some time.

“We’re still Aristotelian about the way we think of our senses,” she said, noting the importance of the senses: they are how we experience the world. Can we be introduced to a tree?

The poetic consciousness, Elza said, is an ecological consciousness. As an exercise, she produced a lightbulb, holding it up for us to see, and asked us to describe it. A list of qualities began to form. Filament. Clear. Symbol for an idea. Glass. Small. Globular.

Elza pointed out the dark shadow on one side of the glass bulb — it was burnt out. Then she asked us to write down how we thought the lightbulb would describe itself.

“Even disconnected, I still seek the light.”

“I give up myself to be myself.”

“I’ve been a servant of humanity all my life.”

“You are most commonly aware of me in my absence.”

“I illuminate that which is hidden.”

“What just happened?” Elza exclaimed. “It became extraordinary… it made even a burnt-out lightbulb light up.”

She pondered aloud whether a poetic practice could move us toward a greater coherence.

“We need to focus,” she said, speaking of the division between art and science, “on integration and convergence to make ourselves whole again.”

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