Think of the cave drawings that tell a story or capture a moment from some year BC. Someone meticulously scratched images on a rock wall to immortalize the event. Men with spears, mastodons, cave bears, big cats or buffalo tell the tale of a hunt and survival. Later, colors were added to better and more easily define the characters.

It is apparent from the drawings that men were a part of that nature — not a separate entity — and lived and died by the same rules as the beasts they depicted on the wall. As we evolved or grew in knowledge, people continued to document their lives and actions, but at some point, the scratchings were found to be insufficient for the stories they wished to tell. Oral tradition was ephemeral, living only as long as human memory, and we began to create symbols that refined our meaning.  

We graduated from the crude sketches of objects and people in action to more complicated symbols. We somehow decided that we were separate from nature. Hieroglyphs were among the first structured writings developed along with our civilizations, and facilitated the ability to actually communicate a written message to someone not present. Clay tablets and ink on papyrus were used as writing mediums, and the messages could be kept and stored without being etched on a cave wall.

Early concepts probably centered on quantities — how much or how little — and where to find necessary things. Numbers were needed, and better descriptions of actions were required. Writing became more complicated to reflect more sophisticated concepts. Faced with more complex concepts and ideas; men turned to nature to help communicate and capture them.

Technologist/artist James Bridle notes, “… the very early scripts, kind of Syriac, pre-Egyptian pictographs … were mostly essentially pictures of animals. The aleph that became the A was originally a bull’s head. The quoth that became Q is a monkey tail. These things, we’re basically still drawing tiny pictures of animals, even though the words we make have lost all their reference to the natural world …  The M is a wave and the O is an eye, as in the Eye of the Oculus, the Q is the monkey, the A is the bull.”

Therefore, our daily interaction with letters is a continuation of our interactions with nature. We are not separated from nature — even in the technologically advanced lives we now lead — we are but a continuation. Bridle continues, “They’re just living, just dancing around in the things that we are trying to write and say right in front of us. And we are using them for all these complex, abstract ideas.”

He is fascinated by “… the notion of the “broad commonwealth of life” that we are “inextricably entangled with and suffused by”; the paradox that the more accurately you try to measure some things, the more unmeasurable they become; the way words we use all the time have kept our cellular belonging to the natural world alive, even as civilization forgot.”

It may be that our vast accumulation of knowledge and experience will live on in digital or written form. However, It may not last for the millennia that the ancient, primitive cave drawings have survived. Our links to nature persist, even if we do not see them when they’re right in front of our eyes.

Additional information:

James Bridle, The Intelligence Singing All Around Us, March 2, 2023, “On Being” with Krista Tippett

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