If I were to ask you the question:
“What is the quickest way to get from A to B?”
A . . B
What would you answer?
The most common response is of course “a straight line” and we humans have got quite obsessed with them. But where (else) in nature do we find them? Which others species uses vast amounts of energy to carve a massive slice out of a hill to level a road, destroying important habitats in the process, just to save a minute or so of journey time?
Even light, which at first glance appears to travel in a straight line, curves around massive gravitational bodies (e.g planets!) and is turns out to be a waveform when looked at closely! So why the absence of straight lines in nature? Well, perhaps it was my initial question that was at fault. By looking for the quickest way between two points, we have assumed that there is no value to be had on the journey between them. And this is a common way of thinking nowadays; here is good and so is here, but the bit in between is just an inconvenience, to be got over with as quickly as possible. The Twyford Down example above demonstrates just what can tragically happen when we start by asking the wrong question.
Nature however, never does anything of ‘no value’. For a water molecule travelling around the water cycle, the journey is all that is ever occurring; there is no beginning or end (these too are human concepts). At any one time that molecule of water may be in the sea and then at some point in the future it may be back there again, but that doesn’t negate the value of the journey it will take between those two points in time. Everywhere water goes it creates opportunities for life, and particularly as it travels across the land from the mountains back to the sea.
Patrick Whitefield demonstrates the value of this journey time in his latest (wonderful) book ‘The Living Landscape’, as he shares his notes of many landscape processes observed from train windows. The journey is not an inconvenience, it has become an opportunity. Why bother to go on holiday if you are going to be home again in a few days? You’re already there!
So given that the journey is of great importance, we now see why water doesn’t take the fastest route down the mountain – in fact the longer it takes and the more it weaves, the more opportunities for life it creates. Hence the swirling upland pools and the meandering lowland rivers.
But what about when water falls? Surely then it takes a straight path?
Ok, here’s your opportunity to find out. Get yourself a clear glass (or plastic) bottle and fill it with water. To make it particularly interesting, leave it to stand for a good while, so it sits still in the bottle. Then find yourself a clear jug, at least big enough to hold the volume of water in the bottle. After the water in the bottle has stilled itself, carefully lift it and in good light, pour it slowly into the jug. What do you notice about the water’s behaviour? Pour the water back into the bottle and repeat the exercise several times, pouring at different speeds and from various heights. What else do you notice?
Hopefully you will have noticed how the water falls in a vortex, a curved one at that and that the tightness of the spiralling decreases when the water is poured more quickly. In addition, as the poured water enters that already in the jug, the air drawn in by the vortex is ‘injected’ into it, oxygenating the water and killing harmful bacteria. So the vortexing pattern is increasing the ability of the water to support life.
This illustrates beautifully how the lack of straight lines in nature is because of their inefficiency compared to all the many other more convoluted forms.
So finally I have to ask, why are we so obsessed by them?