Deviating Beauty in Stones, Plants, and Words

As long as I have been a student at BYU, I have always adored the home of the Humanities: the Joseph Fielding Smith Building (JFSB). On bright, sunny days, I often meander into the Mary Lou Fulton Plaza and idle away several peaceful moments sitting next to the towering broken rocks. I listen to the gushing of the water spewing from the stone, occasionally resting my eyes while stretched on the grass under the shade of a tree. On cold and gray days, I climb the stairs to the second and third floor exhibits and peer through the floor-to-ceiling windows into the courtyard below, petitioning the stone structures and hibernating vegetation for a spark of inspiration for my present essay or project.

Recently, I spent some time admiring the white travertine arches which seem to carry the building upon their stone shoulders. The structures symbolize individual learners who, building upon each other, become part of something bigger. [1] I am impressed by the strength the arches seem to parade in their crisp edges and uniformity and find myself wanting to exhibit the same.

In President Worthen’s recent BYU devotional, he urged us to create a community of belonging on our campus. In the face of many important, but “secondary” identities, he encouraged a focus on our commonality as children of God. [2] This foundational commonality is like the constancy and regularity of the geometric shapes guiding the chiseled white travertine arches upon which the JFSB rests.

However, I am learning that although such exact regularity works well in architecture, it is neither practical nor prudent for a community of plants. I experienced this this summer as I cruised up and down beautiful rolling hills along the narrow country roads of rural Germany. I was spending time there with my aunt in our ancestral home in a small town nestled between fields of barley, grain, corn, and sugar beets, yellow hills of rapeseed, and dense forestry. Driving to neighboring towns, I was shocked to see so many dead or dying trees in the forests surrounding me. When I inquired further, I was informed it was the destructive work of the “Borkenkäfer” (Scolytinae or bark beetle). In recent years, the bark beetle has destroyed hundreds of acres of forestry across Germany; the area of my heritage has been particularly hard hit.

It is no coincidence that this beetle has been unimpeded in its baneful labor. Over half a century ago, to spur the struggling German economy, Adolf Hitler pushed forestry workers to adopt an agricultural strategy called monoculture, in which only one type of plant or crop is grown in a place at a time. In the monocultures in the area of my heritage, only spruce forests were grown, as it was a tree which grows quickly and is used for building furniture. Originally, this economic endeavor was successful.

However, after many decades of monoculture growth, the homogenous forests lacked the variety of plants the ecosystems needed to protect and sustain themselves, leaving them vulnerable to parasites such as the bark beetle. The genetic homogeneity means that when one organism is threatened, the entire ecosystem falls prey. Additionally, spruces grow shallow roots. In a diverse forest, trees with deep roots are able to mix in with shallow-rooted spruces and help support them. Without other species of trees to shore them up, spruces fall over easily in heavy storms—and heavy storms came.

After falling to the elements, the dead trees became a perfect feeding ground for the bark beetle to prosper. All it took was an additional dry spell (another perfect condition for the bark beetle), and the fate of the forest was decided. The spruce trees in Germany taught me a key lesson: It is not in homogeneity that vegetation ecosystems find their strength, but in diversity. Only through a diverse array of plants are these complex systems able to maintain a fragile balance and exhibit resilience against foreign or threatening organisms.

Back on campus for another semester at BYU, I found myself in a botany class in which a professor with eagerness in his eyes and excitement in his voice took us for a stroll around the south end of campus to showcase a number of plants significant to our native vegetation ecosystem in Utah Valley. I have never seen anyone so passionate about plants! The experience roused a newfound appreciation in me for the place I live and the vegetation that makes up more than its backdrop. Instead, it is a central part of its beauty.

I find I am not the only student of the humanities to develop a fascination in botany. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, often recognized for his roles as a poet, novelist, playwright, and philosopher, was passionate about the science of plant life. He even thought he would be best known for his work The Metamorphosis of Plants, describing the serially homologous nature of leave organs in plants. In biology, homology refers to a similarity in structures due to a shared ancestry.

I wonder if Goethe’s passion for discovering the shared structures in botany can be seen within the structures and order demanded by his poetry, and the beautiful lyrical tapestries he creates through its forms. In The Metamorphosis of Plants, he seeks to find the common forms in botany. In poetry he observes: “Like unto each the form, yet none alike; / And so the choir hints a secret law, / A sacred mystery…” [3] As I study Goethe’s poetry, I am amazed by his ability to blend the rigid structures of the German language with the more organic forms of lyrical prose, elevating his capacity for expression to a higher plane. But, more interesting still is Goethe’s occasional use of deviance.

There is an elemental paradox in lyrical poetry when a poet endeavors to use words to express things that are, by their nature, inexpressible. Deviation from a patterned rhyme, meter, atmosphere, syntax, or punctuation convention calls attention to a word, emotion, or idea—whether written or unwritten—which only a reader is truly able to experience or interpret. Meaning is often found in the conflict such deviance from the “rules” of poetry creates. Jacques Derrida claims it is in the relationship and comparison between concepts that we understand and discover meaning. Deviation can draw attention to or highlight this meaning in a powerful way.

At a closer inspection at the architectural beauty of the JFSB, I discover that embedded in the uniformity and precision of its white travertine arches and crisp brick corners are flares of individuality and deviation. There is deviation in shape, with irregular, naturally cut pale stones offsetting the otherwise flat and polished surfaces of the other travertine slabs. There is deviation in texture, with every travertine slab expressing its own personality in unique lines and swirls immortalized in their form after thousands of years of pressure in the earth. There is deviation in color, with different shades of bricks strewn across the surface of every wall as if haphazardly tossed from a handful of disarrayed tones. The bricks that make up most of the second through fourth floor are broken up by lines of travertine that give a feeling each level is floating in space, while the contrast of heavy stone and lightweight brick draws attention to their weight and gravity.

As in poetry, each deviation—these unassuming breaks from uniformity—contributes to the overarching form and purpose of the architectural design. There must be some degree of regularity, for there cannot be deviance without a regularity from which to deviate. Thus, the greatest beauty is found in the balance of conformity and individuality. There is a certain majesty to the JSFB in its deviations that highlight individuality even while those individual pieces—the white arches, the pillars—achieve their ultimate unified purpose to hold up and sustain the edifice. Together, many parts work together to not only house an educational center but inspire a young undergraduate like me to seek higher secular and spiritual learning.

Perhaps this was President Worthen’s purpose in urging us to focus on our common identity and joint purpose as children of God, building a community of belonging at our university. After all, a child is inherently individual; each of my siblings and I are different from each other. Social psychology shows us there tends to be greater heterogeneity than homogeneity in any group. And, like the ecosystem of a forest, diversity of individuals provides appeal and resilience against the storms that come. But as in poetry and architecture, we also need a unity of design and purpose to give individuality and deviation from the norm meaning and distinction. It is in finding the fragile balance between individual expression and communal cohesion that we create the greatest meaning and beauty. In the words of Goethe:

Rejoice the light of day! Love sanctified,

Strives for the highest fruit—to look at life

In the same light, that lovers may together

In harmony seek out the higher world! [3]

 

This post was written by Jarom Hickenlooper, a Center undergraduate fellow.

 

[1] John Rosenberg, former dean of the College of Humanities at BYU.

https://www.architecturelab.net/an-architecture-of-light-and-truth-the-joseph-f-smith-building/

[2] Worthen, Kevin J. “Hearts Knit Together in Love.” BYU Speeches, 15 Sept. 2021, speeches.byu.edu/talks/kevin-j-worthen/hearts-knit-together-in-love/.

[3] Von, Goethe Johann Wolfgang, and Gordon L. Miller. The Metamorphosis of Plants. MIT Press, 2009.

 

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