Thesis
Master of Arts in Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies  
Rhode Island School of Design 2021
Creative Writing


A brief introduction to my MA thesis from the Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies program at RISD work can be found on the Digital Grad Show 2021 website.




During my time at RISD, I became fascinated with classification systems and the different ways we acquire knowledge of Earth. This culminated in my thesis project, A Pond Becomes a Forest, where I chose the mediums of creative writing and photography to reimagine a story that captures the shift of perception of a character from a bibliophile to a budding ecologist. I wanted to understand the difference between the impetus of seeking knowledge from books versus acquiring knowledge directly from the land and its life cycle. By attempting to construct a pond, the character realizes that the books cannot guide its construction. The pond is a process in which the character has to construct not categories, concepts, nor ideas but an actual ecological body.










It may be difficult to understand how an encounter with a seed inspired a new way of thinking. “I cannot consult my books anymore,” I told myself when I saw the sunflower seedling emerge from the soil.

I arrived in the sunflower field following the apocryphal myth of Heraclitus’ words, “Nature loves to hide.” There is more to the story. I arrived in the field because I followed the dragonfly.

My study room, where I collect knowledge of the natural world, cannot locate where nature hides, neither the books nor the terrestrial globe found at its center.

I am opposed to the shape of the globe - after all, Earth is an oblate spheroid, not a sphere. The belief that our planet’s shape is a sphere has been cultivated since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers. The concept of this shape dominated most scientific thought and mine as well.


The shape of things influences our mental structures.

My first perception of the globe was its form. Since the globe depicted Earth, I innocently assumed the Earth itself is a sphere. When I think of the moon, the shape of dew forming on the dragonfly’s eye, the shape of nectar droplets forming on the sunflower’s seed head, or the shape of a dandelion’s clock, spheres reveal themselves in my mind’s eye.

And so I wonder:

How is the formation of the moon different from the formation of dew?

How is the shape of a water droplet different from the shape of a nectar droplet?

How is the growth of seeds in a dandelion different from the growth of seeds in a sunflower?

How is the birth of a bee different from the birth of a tornado?    


The answer is nowhere to be found in my ordered accumulation of knowledge. As my initial assumptions become visible, I want to understand the genesis of my beliefs. And it would be the readers’ assumption that what I wish to understand is the genesis of forms in nature.

In 1678, Isaac Newton published the “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” known as “Principia,” in which he introduced the three laws of motion and first described the idea of gravity. A peculiar fact he included was a calculation suggesting that Earth, in its revolution, takes the form of an oblate spheroid, its poles slightly flattened. In other words, he predicted that the shape of the Earth is a “nearly perfect” sphere.

If I step outside the shape of the Earth, what I perceive as a smooth surface is irregular, asymmetric—constantly changing. This leads me to believe that my perception of nature in any given instant is a conjecture. So what do I see if I step outside the shape of my knowledge system, given what I now know?

A terrestrial globe that is not Earth

A dandelion’s life cycle

A sunflower’s growth pattern

A pond becoming a forest





Abstract

A Pond Becomes a Forest questions the terms by which we come to our knowledge systems, and asks how we interpret and know nature. This thesis argues for direct encounters with natural forms and the processes that create them. It represents a search to understand ecology through profound attention. It proposes new ways of perceiving and interacting with the natural world.

The central character is a bibliophile who discovers a world through books. After years of immersion in words, an imaginary study room emerges, a location that represents her knowledge accumulation. After she directly encounters nature, however, her worldview changes, and she transforms into a budding ecologist. As she begins a patient process of observing natural life cycles, a new order of perception unfolds.

Through prose storytelling and empirical research, A Pond Becomes a Forest combines often disjunctive forms of writing as a method of argumentation. Unlike a more static academic paper, this thesis develops non-linearly, blooming outwards across a network of events, associations, meditations, and chance encounters. The writing gathers ideas and approaches to cultivate curiosity, capturing not only how the protagonist tends to her ecological self, but how we all might imagine doing so.