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Thursday, 29 September 2011

Owl vs. Goose: Winner Takes All

Our perception of the natural world continues to take its place as the virtue that divides mankind. But what these perceptions represent has changed and is changing.

Take the two images above: the one on the left is Egyptian and, in an almost anatomically perfect way, depicts red breasted geese. The one on the right is from northern Europe and represents, in a highly stylised way, an owl. Both wrought by human hands, both produced around 2000bc. The striking differences do not need listing. But considering that the people that made these images were at the same point in human history how can they possibly be so different?

The differences in artistic culture that clearly exist between the two civilisations is not the point; these images speak of different attitudes to the animal. That the same human hands can see similar animals and yet reproduce them so differently suggests a divide that, in a different context, still exists today.

One the one hand we have something that is elemental, almost god-like in its appearance; simplified and, to a certain extent, anthropomorphised with those very human shaped eyes. The owl is suddenly more than just a bird and becomes totemic, emblamatic of a fear or a reverence. On the other, a homage to the animal itself; represented in detail, in all its beauty. Not only shape and physiology but plumage and, in the background, the realist tufts of its natural, marshy habitat. The geese, then, are not symbolic but represent a certain prowess in depicting the natural world.

These perceptions are no less acute in today’s world but exist in more highly evolved permutations, few of which seem exclusive. There are those whose reverence towards the natural world borders, or sits entirely within, a spiritual boundary, a boundary into which (in some cases) few rational incursions take place. Others may occupy the DMZ where scientific understanding diplomatically mixes, sometimes uncomfortably, with an unabashed enjoyment of the wild. Still others will take a road that continues to gaze upon the environment as nothing more than a wilderness to be tamed or a resource to be exploited.

It may be true that perception divides us. A more terrifying thought is that the balance in which our planet is said to hang may depend on which perceptions come to dominate human thought.

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