analogy and metaphor
1 Life is...
2 Biology for you
3 Noticing the familiar
4 The Time Tunnel
5 Inside the body
||Our path through the forest is not an easy one – the
deep shadows fill us with foreboding and the ground is uneven, causing
us to stumble from time to time. The dappled spots of brightness that
filter through the leafy canopy draw us on, inspiring our search. There
is an occasional clearing where we can rest and catch our breath,
looking upwards to feel the warming rays of the Sun on our faces before
||And then – unexpectedly – our progress is barred
by a stone edifice of weathered stone blocks, buttressed with vine stems
and patch worked with lichens. A temple? But why here, in the ‘Forest
of the Unknowing’?
A figure stands before an opening in the stone wall,
and we move towards her, our minds filling with questions…
‘Hello – we are
lost. Where are we? Is this a temple? Who are you?’
||She remains impassive - her
clothing is different, unfamiliar. Is she from an ancient religious sect
or a visitor from the future? Everything has an aura of unreality.
She says only this - "Know thyself",
and steps to one side, giving us access to the opening and the
warmly-lit space inside.
Our eyes adjust to the brightness inside, and looking
around we see images of ourselves reflected back from full-height
mirrors attached to the walls. Such is vanity! We arrange ourselves,
offer our best profiles, flatten our stomachs to produce the most
flattering appearance. Is this knowing ourselves? Hardly!
We move on, grateful for the smooth floor underfoot
after the difficult terrain of the forest, and discover that we have
entered not a room but a corridor, arcing away enticingly and suffused
with warm light.
There are doors on each side, some slightly ajar and
others closed and bolted. Curiosity gets the better of me, and I push
open one of the doors and look in.
Through the haze I can see some figures. Of course! It
is my parents, and I am there too. They look upset – my mother has her
arm around my father’s shoulders, and he is crying. I am looking at
him, and thinking that I have never seen him cry before. It is the
moment at which my life becomes my own responsibility. What have I just
told them? And then I remember, and turn my back on them and return to
the corridor. You are there too, having looked through a different door,
and your face too is struggling to conceal your feelings.
We walk on without speaking, aware now that we are on
a journey into our pasts. The scene revealed through the next doorway
shocks – there is my mother giving birth, and I look on, fascinated,
terrified, unable to breathe… This tearing and rending of tissues, the
extreme pain of separation – the newborn looks out, as I look in. "Who
am I? Who are you?" the baby’s eyes seem to say - these are
questions to haunt a lifetime.
I look deep into the baby’s eyes, and see the
retinal cells at the back. I become one of them, reaching up to catch
the dappled light beams as they dance brightly overhead. I feel the
shared need to make sense of the patterns, the fleeting contrasts of
light and shade.
Looking back past the eye I see the cells of the
brain, a buzz of interconnections and communication, both near and far,
a jangling network – again the struggle to find meaning in the chaos…"Who
am I? Who are you?" There is a feeling of such intensity, of
something emerging that not one of us can comprehend, but of which we
are all part…a dawning of consciousness.
||I can see back further now, to the busy placenta where
everything I needed was provided by my mother for the long months before
birth, and where everything I didn’t need could be disposed of. The
uneasy truce between two different populations, maternal and fetal - the
policing level was high, as were the stakes.
||Now on back to the embryo, where all the organs and
tissues are being created in miniature, but always alive – the
movement, the changing forces, occasional crises, each cell thinking "what
shall I do next?", and looking around for cues. What drives
||Further back still, the blastocyst makes contact with
the lining of the mother’s womb, young and aging greet each other
guardedly, the one symbolically usurping the other, the other beginning
to give way to the inevitability of death. But not yet…
||Conception is the starting point of the new life. The
princess in her crystalline sphere sleeps fitfully, awaiting the arrival
of her courageous prince as he moves heaven and earth to reach her and
combine with her.
||Fortunately, I cannot see my parents at this moment.
It would not be wise – poor Tristram Shandy’s life was irrevocably
predetermined by his mother’s apparently innocent question of his
father "have you not forgot to wind up the clock?" The
importance of time and place…
Journeying back to the time of conception when we were
handed the Olympic Flame of life gives us insight into our personal
beginning, but what came before – what about my parents’ history, my
parents’ parents, and theirs before them? Where and when was the flame
We walk on through the Tunnel of Time, glimpsing cycle
before cycle of creation, development and death. We see our land before
vehicles, we see a landscape of ice. We watch our ancestors using stone
tools and fire for the first time. We trace our migrations in reverse
back to an unfamiliar Africa, and watch the emergence of people-like
apes many generations ago.
||Now we have reached the time before people, and marvel
at the shapes and forms of life. We see how the giant dinosaurs were
created from smaller predecessors, and walk on back through time until
eventually life is only to be seen in the oceans, not yet on land.
||We see complicated cells like the ones that build our
bodies being formed by live-in partnerships between once free-living
precursors, and further back still we see the simpler living cells
populating the seas unchallenged for eons. Where did those first formed
cells come from – were they created here from scratch, or did they
drop in from ‘out there’, seeded from space? The mists of time make
it hard to be sure…
the heavens above
Now the Tunnel of Time shakes with the heat and fire
of creation, as our tiny planet forms spinning around our juvenile Sun.
The dust grains of our Solar System’s origins already have tales to
tell, of exploding stars and the formation of new elements at the climax
of star-death. Their dust stories would go on to include their parts in
our creation, as transient constituents of the lit torch of life. The
Sun, remarkably, chose to sustain us throughout life’s unfolding.
But what was there before the stars? Before the atoms
from which they are made?
The sides of the corridor close in, and the heat
intensifies until we are driven back. Some mysteries will remain - about
the conception of the universe, and its early development. We feel the
vibrations of its birth echoing around us, and try to imagine what
the return journey
As we retrace our steps along the tunnel of time, we
reflect upon the marvels we have seen. We have witnessed the unbroken
thread that connects the earliest lifeforms with us today. We have seen
that before life became possible, the atomic building blocks themselves
had to be created, linking us with cataclysmic events on the grand scale
of space and time. What a rich recycled heritage!
In the more abstract sense, this much has also become
clear - each tiny atom, each cell, each person, each open system is a
network of interactions both creating and sustaining its existence and
development. Networks can categorise, assess and make sense of jumbled
inputs, model inside what’s outside. Then, as atoms combine to form
life, as open systems interact with each other to form our world,
networks at one level communicate with each other to produce new meta
networks with new properties - similar but somehow different from the
properties of the parts. And meta models interact with meta models and
This fractal network of modelling entities, so deep
and yet so compact in a living organism, gives us the power to think, to
model, to understand, to feel. To be conscious in all its colours.
This glorious universe of ours, creative to the core
– with its alphabet of parts and the art of writing, has tapped away
at the keyboard of evolution to create love sonnets and wars, haunting
melodies and colourful fabrics, as the Sun sets and rises in
cloud-peppered skies, a delicately balanced celebration of opposing
forces, beliefs, and values.
Each player on this evolving stage is an open whole,
interacting with other wholes to form new patterns, on and on – wholes
forming parts, parts forming wholes. Level upon level of complexity and
emergence, patterns within repeating patterns.
As we emerge from the Time Tunnel into the dappled
forest, the pattern of light and dark seems less threatening. We have a
feeling of not only belonging, but of being part of it all. I look at
you – the separation of birth has healed, and the intervention of
death is no longer final. The stone edifice has vanished…
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