A Cape Cod Notebook 12/4/07

listenWind Music

By Robert Finch

The more I learn about the natural world, the more it seems that nature always anticipates human technology. This is not a new idea, of course. Airplanes were made possible by studying the aerodynamics of bird wings. The sun produced nuclear fusion billions of years before the Manhattan Project. And the human brain is still a model for the latest advances in computer technology.

Still, I keep being surprised by the endless ways in which common natural phenomena seem, in retrospect, precursors of what we like to call "the latest technological advances." The most recent example of this didn't involve profound principles like flight, fusion, or cybernetics. In fact, wha t I witnessed was a natural counterpart of a fairly trivial use of technology, namely, the transformatio n of invisible forces into visible manifestations. Let me explain:

I was standing one afternoon on the shore of one of my favorite local kettle ponds, a small but perfectly round and unusually deep body of water surrounded on all sides by high, pine-covered hills . It was a windy day, and although the pond surface was protected by the flanking hills from the direc t effect of the strong gusts, the tops of the pitch pines waved in rough rhythm to the wind currents passing over them. This was a common enough phenomenon, and not particularly noteworthy, perhaps.

What struck me, though, was that although the small pond lay some fifty feet below the tops of the surrounding ridges, its surface was performing a complex visual version of the wind currents above i t. Channeled down the slopes, the wind?s fairly simple macro-currents were transformed into a complex symphony of sweeps, ripples, thrusts, vortices and riffles across the pond. At times it seemed like ghost dancers were skipping across its surface; at others, the channeled wind moved swiftly like gia nt hands and fingers playing upon some kind of watery instrument. I could hear, in the pines, the generating pulses of wind above the pond, and then, a few seconds later, see that power translated i nto a much more complex, delicate, and overlapping kinetic visual design on the water surface.

The sight was entrancing enough in itself, but it also seemed strangely familiar. Where had I seen t his before? And then I remembered. Why, of course, in those visual displays that were added to hi-fi stereo-systems in the 1970s, those little screens where the music was displayed as colorful, changin g graphs that reflected, usually quite straightforwardly and predictably, the rhythms, volume and text ure of the music being played. In subsequent years, this technology has been expanded and refined. During the disco era visual displays of music were communicated by complex systems of colored lights pulsing beneath entire transparent dance floors. Computers now come with programs that allow sophisticated visual displays of CDs or MP3 downloads.

No doubt technological visual displays of music will one day match or surpass the natural display I witnessed that day at the pond. But they'll still lack one essential element that gives this wind-mu sic a compelling profundity: global connection. The designs the wind traced on the pond's surface were not just a random and aesthetically-pleasing experience; they were a manifestation of primal association s between earth, sea, and sky. There is a reassurance in such universal connectedness that goes beyond artistry or technological wizardry, a reassurance that no disconnected, self-regarding, and isolated technology, however impressive and showy, can ever provide.