A healthy eucalyptus/nothofagus rainforest swallows you completely. Old growth eucalyptus trees easily measure 6’ diameters and tower out of sight with the beech serving as understory. Most striking though are the downed trunks of giants matted with moss, ferns, and other epiphytes building new soil and providing habitat for countless organisms. The air is thick with oxygen and aromatic compounds—the exhalation of all that green—and passing through it feels both primal and somehow proper, as if this is how life is to be lived. Once while crossing a particularly vibrant section, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of what I took to be a man-made structure. On turning I saw instead a medium-sized deadfall caught in the branches of other trees settled into a nearly perfect right angle. I was puzzled why this peripheral sight had alarmed me, or at least set off a cascade of neurons different from the familiar patterning of my rainforest saunter. One answer is that the rainforest and its complex inhabitants abhor the rectilinear (and their eyes don’t have “corners”).
One of my favorite television series is Ray McKinnon’s Rectify— a dark southern tale of violence and small town retribution. The title raises the question of the program—can the past be straightened? Can clear understanding clear away distrust, violence, and pure malevolence? To me, given my encounter in the rainforest, the more pressing question is why we associate straight—the rectilinear— with truth and understanding. I can justify this text with a keystroke (though that won’t straighten the thoughts), but the rainforest—that place where life burgeons—is anything but square.
There are of course many counter-examples to this intuition, particularly from the mineral world. Humans have long prized the crystalline, clean hard edges of gemstones that seem to resist the non-linear creep of nature. Think of Water Pater who defines a well-lived life as a profoundly aesthetic stance that “burn[s] always with this hard, gem-like flame.” Here even the sensuousness of a flame is rectified. Far outside academic debates, walkers regularly encounter the hard and sometimes gem-like— bare sharp mountain peaks, limestone fractured into prisms—but perhaps those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The mineral and the metallic find their stability, some would say ideality, in their crystalline form, something humans tend to admire for a certain timelessness which is clearly a denial of change, becoming, and death. When time is reintroduced to the formula—the sort of time that far exceeds the human like that found in the rainforest—those sharp edges melt away. Mountain peaks are surrounded by skirts of scree, slowly rounding and rolling away. The fractured squared stones in landscapes are soon covered by layers of reactive chemicals, slowly smoothing, a process hastened by lichens and moss. In isolation from both space and time, the crystal dominates. Through the long-now of the rainforest, those edges abrade and fade.
An Absurd Aside: Rectilinear, rectify—etymology that also points toward rectum, surely an unrelated term. Oddly enough, on that same path where I saw the fallen tree, I regularly encountered wombat scat (their preferred defecation sites are the open surface of a trail). Most people are quick to notice that wombat scat, unlike the smoothly tapered excretions of other bush creatures, appears rectangular, prompting questions about the physics of a square object emerging from a round hole. One of life’s great mysteries. My personal theory is that they are herbivores who tend to chew the plant at a specific length. The undigested cellulose fibers arrange themselves in the gut in pellets of that length so on expulsion the scat breaks at a specific point, forming at least part of the rectangle. How the sides then spring out to form longitudinal right angles needs to be explained by someone with greater knowledge of the physics of extrusion. Recently scientists (including some from my home institution) claim to have solved this conundrum.
Take an axe and chop into one of those eucalyptus logs—one not yet fibered with fungus filaments. Your first moment of arrest will be from the powerful wine-like smell welling up from the newly opened grain which brings the realization that you’ve been immersed in a faint version of that aroma all along—perhaps the reason for that walking well-being. It is sometimes possible to reveal, with careful splitting, a square beam from a round log. A tree that grew “straight and true” —in the absence of wind, water, animal, fungus, or insect stress —can be split into a perfect rectangular prism, that ideal geometric form. That rare moment is greeted with surprise and some pleasure by the chopper, because all trees are affected by wind, light, other flora and fauna, so, on the level of the fiber, they are just as sinuous/sensuous as the tangled mats of moss and roots hikers stumble through. Joiners in the old days had a solution for such unruly tangles— the adze and the broadaxe. Both are tools that function on the business end exactly the same. The differences are in the hanging of the handle and the stance of the chopper. The broadaxe looks like a heavy headed oversized hatchet. Its primary characteristic is a sharp blade beveled on one side (like the adze and the wood chisel). This allows the worker to square a round log by chopping down the length, flattening each side in turn. The beauty of the tool is that it only cuts in one direction so that, once the cut is begun, the flat side of the log acts with the flat side of the axe. In the words of David Pye, it is a self-regulating tool. It will not cut deeper into the log, and instead will follow the flat plane it is making. The product can be a beam flat and square, but most hand workers stop short of such perfection, preferring the adequacy of a roughly squared beam. Such practices, now generally long past, reveal the material basis of geometry. It is, of course, easy to see geometry as one of the most abstract of human practices, positing as it does idealized hylomorphic objects that have no actual counterparts in material life—Platonic forms always beyond grasp, experience, or understanding glimmer, holding out the chance of realization. The broadaxe is an instrument of the possible rectilinear, one that satisfies not because of actual realization but instead because it is a lived temporal process.
In the Modern world (the Industrial West), building is nearly always associated with the rectilinear which is held out as ideal (think of high-modern flat roofed houses) and comes with an associated vocabulary. Unlike the products of hand tools, the materials for today’s construction are formed by overwhelming force. The nonconforming scraps are cast aside (or sold to naive customers) and the standardized products enable joiners to build “straight and true” with joints that are “jam up and jelly tight.” I’ve spent much of my life building, particularly with wood. An essential tool in any joiner’s box is named for what it does— a square, which gives itself over to 90 degrees (or mutiples). But rectilinear tools don’t stop just with measurement. Hand saws (as well as most powered ones) cut straight lines (except of course specialized ones such as coping, scroll, or jigsaws). Using levels, planes, winding sticks, chalk boxes and plumb bobs, the skillful carpenter can “true up” both the materials and the spaces they form. As I recall, Michael Pollan in his Place of My Own spends some time speculating on the sometimes strange equation of an upright beam with an upright person, so I’m probably unwittingly incorporating his insights here. Still, think of the terms describing human behavior or mores in a positive manner linked to right angles. A person is direct, squared-away (or, pejoratively, square), upright, upstanding, right, righteous, true, level-headed. One “frames” a problem. There are even unrecognized versions of this rectilinear attitude. Being ”in fine fettle” generally means in good health with a positive sense of well-being, but originally meant level—bringing one’s sharpening stone to perfect flatness so it can impart that trait to the tools, to put them in fettle. And of course there are the opposites: twisted, meandering, devious, serpentine, warped, sinuous, crooked.
A modern building out-of-square will cause a world of problems (something Pollan deals with in his writing house as does everyone else who fails in an initial layout). I guess the question is how deep does this attitude run? Is it simply material (my roof leaks) or is it also ethical or psychological (my self leaks)? It’s not surprising that Plato (in the Republic and the Meno) embraces geometry not as the road to the truth about the measure of the earth but as a practice necessary for a leader (guardian) or thinking person to take the measure of others, to help them understand proportion and balance between clearly defined entities. And generally this geometry is Euclidean—the patron saint of the right angle. Centuries later Descartes carries that righteousness into our delineation of space with his coordinates. Now we are able to locate objects in a clearly defined, unambiguous space, albeit one that lacks temporality except as a series of layered static positions. Since then, (Western) human habitations and “well-designed” cities and states aspire to the grid (and indeed are drawn on them)—a cleanly articulated spatiality that, like a power planer, runs roughshod over the undulating substratum that is our actual material world. In a brilliant mediation on fate and free will, Melville unravels those coordinates via the weaving of a sword mat (an abrasion resistant pad made of rope). Ishmael (here the representative of the Modern sensibility) tends to the warp and woof (x and y axis) while Queequeg, the tattooed Maori harpooner who grew up amongst the tangled roots of a Kauri rainforest, strikes with the weaving sword indifferently, by chance making an uneven, even crooked mat.
The Western philosophic project has been to distinguish humans from the non-human (and the “less-than-human” other). Bipedalism, thumbs, souls, humongous brains (homage to Jethro Bodine), and of course language have all been called on to articulate human exceptionalism. The right angle is another. The rectilinear is a timeless place of stability (which perhaps is why it is prized by builders—ideal buildings withstand time). In the rainforest, the point-line of geometry is replaced by the point—the clinamen which is the minimal angle necessary to produce—in time—a cascade of events, an efflorescence of growth. A moment pondering of any point in that breathing mass reveals a past disturbance —in deep or recent time—which configures but does not determine an entangled complex of entities. Of course geometry can be used to describe such tangles—e.g., knot theory in hyperbolic geometry—but those formulae haven’t yet been used to frame ethics. The difference is obvious—in the modern house, humans look out onto nature through a windowframe (or a video screen, the most recent instauration of rectilinear lust) while being confined in their “true” (90 degree) environment. In the rainforest, they are immersed in a temporal world, the one that is actually true (just not straight).
T. Hugh Crawford