Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was once asked in a TV interview why two magnets, with their north poles facing, would repel each other. He answered in words to the effect that:
Feynman: “You want to know why?”
Interviewer: “Yes. It doesn’t seem like a big question to ask.”
Feynman: “Where would you have me start? The detailed nature of steel, the nature of electromagnetic forces, the principles of resistance or gravity, or forces that hold atoms and parts of atoms together. The answer to every question rests on assumptions, and those assumptions lead to further questions. I can see you don’t have the patience or the time to understand the scope of what you ask or an appreciation of the details of any answer I might give you. So no. I cannot simply answer your question.”
So it is with this photograph. We have a piece of fencing wire marking an arbitrary boundary to a landholder’s possession. Steel wire is something so ubiquitous that we don’t normally see it. But the wire has a long history that led it to be here both as a physical artifact and as a legal construct used to enforce the landowner rights.
The heads of grass seeds are even more complex. Why are the stalks so thin and heads so fluffy and bulky? What is the chemistry and biology of the materials that make up stalks and the seed pods, and how did it know to grow that way.
In any case, two errant stalks have completely ignored the landowner’s rights and have cheekily ducked under the restraining barrier, careless of the legal conflict that this irresponsible behaviour might entail.
The why and how of the wire leads one through an endless chase down from the construction of the fence, the distribution of the coils of wire, the mining of the ore and the coal and lime in distant lands. How the blast furnace combined them and the steel was extruded and drawn out into that long thin form; let alone thinking of the properties of the steel and the galvanising coating that makes it strong, resilient and resistant to weathering.
If you allow yourself a childlike act of looking to the why and how and follow those thoughts down the rabbit hole of questioning, there is endless pleasure in the knowledge occasionally revealed.
I have always loved the simplicity of this photograph, taken on a walk in the hills above the little English village of Harpenden in Hertfordshire.
I used it as a meditation subject, but now, I like the look of it. And that fact opens up another line of inquiry about the nature of aesthetics. Oh, blast it – is there no end to this!?