You have argued elsewhere that nature (and science too) is organized symbolically, much as literature is. Can you explain?

You have claimed elsewhere that nature (and science too) is organized symbolically, much as literature is. Can you explain?

Yes, but let me do so in the form of a literary response:

Science (As the muscled barracuda charged,) is literature (I gave no thought to the fact that millions of years of encoding protected the flower of my throat from his feigned desire. I was frightened.) but better organized. And like literature, science must be lived. (After the barracuda’s thrust and retreat, however, I realized that the relationship of the barracuda’s territoriality to my terror was not, after all, important, was not the product of that kind of force that has called the razor-like sharpness of the barracuda’s tooth out of the evasiveness of the reef fishes upon which it preys. I was merely out of place and frankly embarrassed for having so little respected the barracuda as to have made his mock charge necessary; I was merely too large to call out from Sphyraena barracuda more than a bluff.) And the natural world is just as figurative as a poem, literally. (She steps then dips below the brush of the tangled bank of the marsh, and tilting her head, Mary Oliver [Homo sapiens poetica] sees “a spindle of bleached reeds . . . wrinkl[e] into three egrets.”) Is this wrinkling of reeds into egrets a biological phenomenon or merely some figurative one, some poet’s dream of a visual Eden where the reeds lie down with the egret?

The early sun pries open the morning wood

Bringing a flower to me in tiny bundles.

And to see the flower but one time only–

Taking the image in motion as you

Are bringing the stillness of thought–

One must do much collecting.

Or perhaps this transformation of reeds into egrets is merely some projective vision akin to thinking one sees (while scuba diving) a barracuda in a boat’s keel? But the world on its keel ever pitches and yaws; reed and egret are pushed and pulled by the transforming eyes of a million predators and prey in a glorious cycle of blood and water in which bodies are offered as a community’s communion with its emergent self–an ecological wine of great age and refinement whose “legs” are legs (an egret’s), whose “bouquet” is a bouquet (of reeds), and whose legs are a bouquet (the reed-legged-and-necked egret). Indeed, a “rose is a rose is a rose”; but an “egret is a reed is an egret” is richer. And surely those egrets who looked most like reeds were the more successful hunters, poised behind a perceptual curtain that caused some unsuspecting fish or toad to think the moment’s drama not for him or her. Indeed, for a fish (as opposed to a poet) the failure to solve the complex visual puzzle (or metaphor) presented by the egrets and the reeds may prove fatal. For in nature as in poetry, metaphor makes all the difference. And whether we read Mary Oliver’s poem, or see for ourselves the biological mimicry of egret and reed–that is, whether we experience a figure of speech or a figure of sight–what is striking is that this ecological drama that unfolds before us is translatable into human language. (And so the bee’s flower–merely a foraging index for a bee–is a symbol of love for thee.)

Biology must expand its range to include the ecology of metaphor, for while the “reed-egret” metaphor may not have profound implications for human beings (but there was a time, Wilson cries, when the buzz of a bee or the scent of water made a difference), the inability of some human beings to solve the visual puzzle called “organism-habitat” may prove grave (literally).  Visually, we humans can separate rather efficiently a spotted owl from its background; but such a separation, while visually convincing, is made at no little cognitive and ecological cost.  In spite of the recent Supreme Court’s upholding of federal rules limiting land use to protect endangered species, some people insist that habitat modification or degradation should not be held up unless such activities actually kill or injure an endangered species, in other words, unless we can actually see a tree fall on an actual spotted owl or a bulldozer run over an actual golden lion tamarin.  But while it is easy to separate visually owl from habitat, there is literally no separation that is not death.  (And the shaman sees only the small wing-like wrinkling of the forest as it folds itself upon a vole.)  To cut the oxygen hose of a scuba diver is to leave the scuba diver perfectly unmolested; I haven’t touched a hair on her head, your honor.  The life support system of the spotted owl is old growth, the oxygen hose the transpiring leaves of the falling trees.  The owl is old growth: an owl in the zoo is not an owl–as anyone who (who-who) knows owls knows.  Human survival will depend on our being conscious of this biological metaphor that runs counter to our eyes’ inherited tendency to separate organism from habitat; a fish’s survival may depend on seeing that egrets are not reeds; an egret’s survival may depend upon a fish seeing egrets as reeds; and so on.  Biology is metaphor.

The mind grows out of the earth, (The mind grows in of the earth,

And the dichotomous tree embodies a logic (And the rhizome embodies a logic

Of deep-rooted faith,
(Of unrooted rootedness),

proud stem, delicate spray, (no sides (no out or in), a net,

And leaves of tender thinking.
(And no be-leave-ing in, or out, as yet.)

The great stone libraries,
(The ancient forests

Are alive inside: (Are a hive inside.

Ancient forests are folded on circuits
(Great libraries are folded on circuits

To form deep pools; To (pool deep forms.

We come to drink freely as fawns,
(We come to think freely at dawn

And run into the green city pulsing
(And run into the green city pulsing


How does one enter a coral reef?  Head first?  One approaches the bank-barrier reef as does the barracuda–by way of the reef’s precipitous walls and sometimes its perceptual pratfalls. Postmodern ecology can only begin in perceptual aporia–an impasse or difficulty–and so how to account for a fish with two heads or rather one head that is indistinguishable from its tail?  Here the foureye butterfly fish (Chaetodon capistratus) re-presents itself as a deferment of itself.  (I approach it and it darts unexpectedly backward?)  The effect on me is disorientation–until I discover that its real eye is being held under erasure by a black Nike-like bar running through it.  A false eye (a black, circular representation of an eyespot encircled itself in white) is located at the tail end of the fish.  The tail, a dead give away of posteriority, is therefore enveloped by the long dorsal and ventral fins that wrap themselves almost entirely around the tail–masking the presence of the tail in an arc that mimics a facial ridge.  And so my disorientation or aporia, I discover, is the barracuda’s too; my experience is contiguous with its: and through this window, this portal of aporia the foureye butterfly fish escapes.  (Of course, the name “foureye butterfly fish” is an after-the-fact name; “foureye” equals the two real eyes plus the two false eyes–an act of addition made possible only by solving the two-headed  puzzle.  And so names, the “foureye,” the “rock beauty,” all names, represent conquest.  Alas, so much of naming, so much of science, is precisely after the (conquered) fact, is a stripping away of the teeth of experience from the jaws of representation.)   But at that moment, the moment before naming, the moment of confrontation and contiguity with the reef, face to face is always face to faith–in ecology as in religion (How so?  The neighbor throws his house and window through a small child’s ball, and the earth falls to land on me so softly that I am hardly broken off a tree.)  How does one enter a coral reef?  Perhaps backwards.

        The mind grows out of the earth.  The body of the tropical marine fish called the rock beauty (Holocanthus tricolor), in conjunction with the mind of its predator, say the barracuda, consists of three figures of sight, one of which is iconic (i.e., it resembles something), one of which is indexical (i.e., it points to something), and one of which is constructed out of the relationship between the iconic sign and the indexical sign.  The head and tail of the rock beauty are bright yellow; as indices generally do, the yellow head and tail call attention to (point to) themselves and also orient themselves (and any observer) spatially with respect to some object with which it is connected.  In this case, the object is the Rock Beauty’s own large, black midsection that breaks its body in two so as to appear to be in front of a yellow fish.  This midsection is itself iconic of the spherical surface of a rock or a coral head.  The boundary between the yellow indexical head of the rock beauty and its black iconic body roughly describes an arc of some 90%; the arc itself is an icon of both the long-term effects of erosion, effects which produce spherically shaped rocks, and the sphericality of coral heads, which heads often form on round boulders anyway, providing a natural base for their spherical growth.  Thus the yellow indexical head and tail and the circular arc described by the boundary between head and body are part of a single indexical and iconic sign complex called the rock beauty–by some human beings. To the barracuda, though, there is no rock beauty (to Ptolemy there was no solar system; to Thomson, no nucleus).   To the barracuda there is only a  yellow fish behind a dark rock or coral head.  In formal terms, then, the indexical head and iconic body of the rock beauty are signs that determine the interpretant, i.e., the mind of the barracuda, to refer to the (imagined) all-yellow fish as if it were behind an (imagined) rock; that is, the interpretant or predator is determined to refer to objects to which the indexical head and iconic body of the rock beauty (a fish that is both sign and in part its own object) themselves refer. The ghost within the fish, the yellow fish within the rock beauty emerges to cast its spell over the whole reef.  Given the apparent inaccessibility of the yellow fish (within the fish), the barracuda may move on to more accessible prey, of which there are many in a reef.  Other predatory fish may follow the barracuda’s lead and move on as well.  Their moving on is itself a sign in a greater web of signification that is a reef community.  (And maximizing both protection and mobility, the rock beauty effortlessly carries its round rock or coral head with it where it wanders.) 

        The grammar of life and death in the reef.  When tropical marine fish of the family Scaridae or Libridae (parrotfish) wish to have parasites removed from their gills and mouths, they line up at “cleaning stations,” i.e., coral heads around which live small, neon-colored fish known as cleaning gobies.  The neon colors of the gobies, like neon signs in human storefronts, advertise the cleaning stations.  The gobies swim unmolested in and around the gills and mouths of the parrotfish, eating from the eater.  The parrotfish, while in line, will swim at oblique angles, a sign that their intentions are not in line with their regular habits:  they are presenting their oblique case that they     are ready to be cleaned and have no intention of eating the very small gobies, fish that the parrotfish might very well eat in the case of regular  predator-prey  relations.

The predator-prey relation in nature is much like the subject-object relation in grammar. Subject equals predator, and objects equal prey. These relations of subject to object and predator to prey are direct, linear, in line: this eats that; subject does something to object. In grammar, any grammatical case that is not the subjective or objective case, that is, any case that is not in line with this straight-line, subject-object backbone of a sentence, is called an oblique case (e.g., the possessive case, the dative case, the instrumental case). Is it merely a coincidence that parrotfish, when hoping to avoid being the subject to the goby object (that is, when desiring not simply to attack in a straight line and to eat the goby but rather desiring to enter into a new kind of relationship with gobies), I ask, is it merely a coincidence that parrotfish in this special case swim at oblique angles to their usual plane of orientation–one parallel to the water’s surface? No. Case in grammar is a biological structure; language is built up upon the life of the coral reef. GRAMMAR PARROTS PARROTFISH.

The barracuda, however, might solve the complex visual puzzle presented by the rock beauty, effectively detaching from their objects the rock beauty`s iconic and indexical signs (its “hey, look at me” yellow color and its rock-like or coral-head-like midsection) and thereby changing the status of those signs from motivated icons and indices (effective biological mimicry) to unmotivated symbols (pure decoration). The yellow fish behind the rock becomes the unprotected rock beauty–a dainty dish to set before a king or queen barracuda. Not all poetry lives. (And we learn that this detachment proceeds at many levels, that endangered species are themselves like icons and indices that are in the process of being detached from their objects. We are the barracuda to the rock beauty of the earth, the earth’s predator.)

Whether it lives or dies, the lyric beauty of the rock beauty is its ecological modesty, its giving itself up to another (an other)–to a yellow “fish that never was.”  In such modesty the rock beauty may hope to escape the judgment of the barracuda.  A thing of beauty is a joy (for a while anyway).  And so we live and die by the metaphors we live by.  (And we learn that human language is primarily symbolic–its iconic and indexical body stripped away like an egret from reeds.  The body of our language is a lie: “There is no “away” in “Throw it away,” says Garrett Hardin.  “Away” is merely vanity–not the rock beauty’s modesty; “away” is merely a symbol of our own detachment from those parts of the cycle that must ultimately take in what we throw out.)

        Language is an ambivalent biological category :

                    Each sentence is a sentence; clause is claws;

                    His words are hiss words and the loss of laws.

The mind grows out of (and away from) the Earth. And like some species, some metaphors survive and some don’t. In Shakespeare, for example, there are figures of speech that no longer mean the same thing to us that they did to the Elizabethans but which continue to work as metaphors today though with new meanings. Shakespeare’s “salad days,” which for Elizabethans meant those “days of youthful inexperience,” is a metaphor that has a new vitality for contemporary readers in the context of our culture’s concern with personal health, diet, and ecology. This new vitality is only obliquely related to the original meaning of “salad.” Its meaning , however, is in the process of being re-figured (as the meaning of oxygen was re-figured by respiration: oxygen, once deadly, was contextually re-figured so as to make ecological sense in terms of respiration (evolution’s new “reader”). However, some figures of speech seem to lack the potential for reinvention and become, in essence, extinct (as may the people who use them if the figures of speech are serious enough–see “throw it away” again). Take, for example, the rather common expression from Shakespeare, “Take me with you,” which, to Elizabethans, meant “Make yourself clear.” This figure, unlike “salad days,” is not being re-figured by readers; rather it is producing only confusion (which itself when used in a controlled fashion can be

useful–pity the confused barracuda who lets a perfectly accessible lunch get literally away by getting figuratively away). Some metaphors (be they reeds into egrets or salad days) are more adaptive than others and tend to survive.

Science too lives and dies by metaphor. (Little Robert races out into the field and like an ecological crier cries,

                    Calling all butterflies of every race

                    From source unknown but from no special place. )

There is a paradox here that runs deep into tissue of science: in science, an unknown source is a special place, since science explores and seeks to articulate the unknown. Robert Frost, however, asserts that a source (here a biological one) is both unknown and not special. Frost’s conception of modern physics informs this paradox. The key may lie in his understanding that an observer tends to influence or alter that which he or she attempts to observe. (Reeds wrinkle into egrets for Oliver; a yellow fish swims out behind the rock of itself in the bright blaze of the barracuda’s brain.) Because of observer interference, population biologists can only make statistical claims about natural populations. The necessity of this may not at first be apparent: we might assume that given enough time each organism in an area might be enumerated. But there are theoretical, not merely practical, limitations to a population biologist’s certainty. For population biologists, any attempt to trace the individuals of a given population back to their sources (or “homes” or home ranges) is likely to alter the population count. For example, some organisms have developed behaviors that mask their homes or presence. (Seventeen yellow fish live within the rocks and coral heads of this reef; seventeen yellow fish live within the rock beauties of this reef; seventeen yellow-headed-and-tailed rock beauties live within this reef.) Not only may the presence of a biologist cause these organisms to hide; some organisms have evolved deceptive behaviors that serve to lead predators (or biologists) away from their actual homes. Thus the very act of observation influences the outcome of the population biologist’s measurement, and the source of butterflies in Frost’s lines remains paradoxically both unknown and no special place. And this is the end of science, when everywhere is unknown again. To defamiliarize the familiar, the poet said. The very structure of the process of science is poetic.

How many of science’s butterflies or fish may like Ptolemy’s sun and moon for Copernicus turn out to be yellow fish behind the black rock of themselves?   Indeed, how many individuals are not entities at all but merely parts of a much larger and as yet unrecognized entity?  How many false eyes are there on the tail that wags the dog of the foureye butterfly fish of science?   Oh reed and egret, how can we tell the dancer from the dance?  Nature is figurative (and hard to figure) and the scientist must sing her science like a bard to her.

Wm John Coletta, PhD, CEO

Wm. John Coletta, Ph.D.  is a proefessor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and is a member of the Editorial Board of the American Journal of Semiotics. He has served as President and Vice President of the Semiotic Society of America and was a system fellow at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.