Monday, July 17, 2006

The chaos of order

I have been reading one of my favorite authors, Henry Petroski, and one of his essays in 'The Evolution of Useful Things' seems to speak to my vision of modern life. Petroski talks about tableware and specifically about forks. He refers to the fact that in 1898 one company produced a single silverware pattern that consisted of 131 discrete specialized pieces for serving or eating. There were separate forks for oysters, berries, terrapin, lettuce, salad, lobster, mango, pastry, fish, pie, and that didn't even include the dinner fork. Additionally some of the utensils were developed specifically for right handed use only. With so much attention needed to match the silverware to the appropriate use, who would have time to enjoy the meal. We've reduced this complexity over time but it persists in places. For me, when I reach in to the silverware drawer to pull out a fork, it doesn't matter to me if it is a salad fork or a dinner fork. The complexity has moved from the dinner table to the kitchen. At one point I remember having found more than 20 different devices for peeling, crushing, and mincing garlic. In the time it takes someone to find their garlic preparer in the doohickey drawer, I will have done the entire operation with the same Chinese cleaver that I use for the meat the vegetables and the herbs. It's tempting to ask why we are so in love with complexity and simultaneously so fearful of it that we build walls and borders to protect ourselves from it. But that's misinterpreting the situation. The complexity that so many love is the complexity of order. It is the farmer brain rampant; memorizing uses and abuses, developing specialized tools for specialized jobs, creating categories and rules. We hunters squat by the woods on the outskirts of town and gaze in wonder at all the bright shiny things. We squat there and trim branches for arrows with our knives, we cut feathers for fletching with our knives, we cut our food with our knives, we stick it in our mouths with our knives. Then we go out into the chaos that is forest and watch for interesting disturbances. As a hunter I worry that the complete imposition of order, no matter how complex, will eventually destroy us. Our objective should not be the subjugation of chaos or the destruction of order it should be to achieve 'life in balance'. To have hunters and farmers not just co-existing but valuing and understanding others' capabilities and needs to the point of mutual respect.

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