30 SEPTEMBER 2002
29 SEPTEMBER 2002: “ABSOLUTE
SOBRIETY IS NOT A NATURAL OR PRIMARY HUMAN STATE.”
THE PURSUIT OF OBLIVION
A Global History of Narcotics.
By Richard Davenport-Hines.
Illustrated. 576 pp. New
York: W. W. Norton & Company. $29.95.
September 29, 2002
‘The Pursuit of Oblivion’:
Drug Taking as Part of Human Nature
By CHRISTINE KENNEALLY
In a sunless room in Bengal
in the 1670’s, a group of English sailors enacted a scene that would, in
spirit, be repeated in basements, bedrooms and alleys of the Western world
for centuries. First, they each swallowed a pint of bhang, a local drink.
One of the sailors then sat and sobbed all afternoon, another began a fistfight
with a wooden pillar, yet another inserted his head inside a large jar.
The rest sat about or lolled upon the floor. They were completely stoned.
depressed or mirthful, the sailors’ behavior was induced by bhang’s crucial
ingredient — cannabis, also known as ganja, charas, grifa, anascha, liamba,
bust, dagga, hashish, hemp and marijuana. Their drug-addled afternoon,
reported firsthand by the merchant Thomas Bowrey, who sat sweating throughout
it, is the earliest account by an Englishman of recreational cannabis use.
With this report, the English writer Richard Davenport-Hines begins ”The
Pursuit of Oblivion,” a history of drug taking that is dense with scholarship
and, because it is a ”history of emotional extremes,” highly absorbing.
on, Davenport-Hines presents with appealing plainness a radical idea: ”Intoxication
is not unnatural or deviant.” This small statement shapes his book. In
refusing to view drug use through the lens of the modern criminal justice
system, Davenport-Hines extends his focus beyond the ”drug problem” or
the miseries we bring upon ourselves (though it includes many examples
of that). Instead, he sees it as part of the repertoire of normal human
states that ”absolute sobriety is not a natural or primary human state.”
Humans have always used drugs, a fact that underpins ”The Pursuit of Oblivion,”
a history of the controlled and uncontrolled use of substances that alter
consciousness, shift feeling and meet an immense range of human wants and
needs. Davenport-Hines, whose books include studies of Auden and the gothic
genre, notes that his view conflicts with a prohibitionist view of drugs.
He briefly categorizes the major drug groups (opium is a narcotic, cannabis
and LSD are hallucinogens, amphetamines and coffee are stimulants) and
points out that their physiological effects have been truly understood
only in the last 30 years. He presents a multitude of capsule biographies,
official reports, literary excerpts, government inquiries and medical histories
that provide overwhelming support for the idea that drug use is not deviant
and, moreover, that it often reflects the ideal of ”human perfectibility,
the yearning for a perfect moment, the peace that comes from oblivion.”
of specific drugs and desires is dazzling. Opium is one of the oldest known
drugs. An Egyptian papyrus describing 700 different opium mixtures (including
one for calming bothersome children) dates to 1552 B.C. Cocaine is one
of the most recent. It was first extracted in 1860 by a chemistry student,
Albert Niemann, for his doctoral thesis. In between are betel, qat, pituri,
alcohol, chloroform, mescaline and tea, among others.
drug users have been rich and poor, despairing and lighthearted, educated,
unemployed and holders of political office. They have imbibed, inhaled
and injected to allay physical discomfort, increase sexual stamina, feed
addiction, soften coughs, take a mental holiday or just feel normal. Marcel
Proust was fond of the stimulant amyl nitrate before bedtime (it helped
his asthma). Arsenic-eaters in 19th-century Austria were in search of clear
skin and a good aphrodisiac. Civil War soldiers took opium to prevent malaria
Long, a young doctor in Jefferson, Ga., was motivated by fun. In 1842,
he staged ”ether frolics,” riotous parties where the chemical was dispensed.
When Long noticed that his guests sustained wounds while stumbling about
drunk but did not seem to feel them, he began to experiment with the drug
as a medical anesthetic, thus shaping the course of modern surgery.
the story of narcotics is closely intertwined with the story of the Western
medical establishment. Yet this connection has rarely been as uncomplicated
or benevolent as Long’s ether experiment. For hundreds of years, doctors
have been users and often addicts. In the late 1800’s, most of the male
morphine addicts in the United States were physicians. Through ignorance
or therapeutic intent, they also made addicts out of many of their patients.
no account of drug use is complete without a thorough analysis of commerce,
global trade, politics and antidrug legislation. Dozens of perfectly legal
drug products were once available, like morphine and heroin pastilles (available
through department store catalogs in England). In the 1930’s, according
to F. Scott Fitzgerald, airline stewardesses would regularly offer barbiturates,
asking, ”Dear, do you want an aspirin? . . . or Nembutal?”
assembles strong evidence to support his belief that criminalization has
created the modern drug problem. Indeed, history offers few examples of
punitive legislation curing addiction or ending trafficking. He contends
that because risk is closely tied to profit, enforcing laws against drug
trafficking actually increases the economic reward for those willing to
run an illegal business. The facts he cites bear him out: world coca production
doubled between 1985 and 1996. Opium production tripled.
the book spans continents, millenniums and subjects, from the opium habit
of Emperor Marcus Aurelius to the invention of hypodermic needles, the
sheer volume of detail in ”The Pursuit of Oblivion” makes it demanding
to read. But it is an extremely impressive work, not just for its common-sense
argumentation and encyclopedic breadth, but also because of Davenport-Hines’s
sharp eye for a good story. He skillfully weaves anecdotes into his analyses,
like that of the Derbyshire schoolteacher in 1911 who demanded that a pupil
tell him why the geography class was so sleepy. The reply: ”Percy Toplis
brought in a bottle of laudanum, Sir, and passed it round the class, Sir.”
Pursuit of Oblivion” follows a long trail of desire, despair and bad decisions,
and it is impossible not to feel a sense of connection with many of its
case studies. Whether or not the book’s readers are personally familiar
with the effects of narcotics, they will understand at least some of the
emotions that surround their use. After all, who hasn’t longed for oblivion
or dreamed of ecstasy? Who hasn’t wished for something, anything, to take
the edge off daily life?
Christine Kenneally is writing
a book about the evolution of language.
28 SEPTEMBER 2002: WIRE,
The legendary “art” combo
Wire was formed in 1976 in the midst of the first flush of punk’s youth
but immediately diverged from the “pogo” standard thrash with a combination
of a sparse aesthetic, obtuse lyrics and a much vaunted (but never charted!)
“pop sensibility”. Through the Seventies they released three classic albums
on EMIs Harvest label building a formidable reputation based on a rapid
evolution of style until one band could no longer contain the prodigious
output of it’s members and Wire went into one of it’s periodic hibernations.
During the eighties the band returned embracing a more electronic sound
and a series of albums for Mute records followed, the sound became even
more diverse as they became embraced by the indie generation. By 1990 phase
2 was complete and after one drummer-less album a second more protracted
not until the 2nd Millennium was almost complete that Wire were again curious
enough to venture abroad again. Physical temptation took the form of an
invitation to headline & curate a night at the prestigious Royal Festival
Hall. Wire now have their own imprint pinkflag through which they are
starting to release a series of increasingly adventurous items currently
taking the form of the “read & burn” series. Do not expect every read
& burn to appear in the shops. Always expect read & burns to
be available through posteverything!!
are Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Bruce Gilbert & Robert Gotobed.
& BURN – 02
WIRE 1 Oct 2002
01 ‘Read & Burn
02 ‘Spent (4:43)’
03 ‘Trash/ Treasure
04 ‘Nice Streets Above
05 ‘Raft Ants (2:05)’
06 ‘99.9 (7:38)’
Pinkflag proudly present
the much anticipated follow up to WIREs Read & Burn 01 in the shape
of Read & Burn 02.
Unlike 01 Read & Burn
02 will be available exclusively to posteverything customers (from 2nd
September 2002) and attendees of Wires forthcoming shows in North America
& Europe this Autumn. This item will not be available in shops or via
any other mailorder service.
All posteverything mail
order customers will have the added bonus of an included special item.
This time this will be a sample of a WIRE designed fragrance The smell
& BURN – 01
WIRE 17 Jun 2002
01 ‘In the Art of
02 ‘I Don’t Understand’
04 ‘Germ Ship’
05 ‘First Fast’
06 ‘The Agfers of
Pinkflag proudly unveil the
first wholly new wire release for over 10 years. This landmark release
marks the 1st shot in the Read and Burn series of sixpacks. In an offer
exclusive to mail order customers only, the CD will be dispatched with
a signed, limited edition print, featuring the band, excerpted from the
forthcoming video. Those unfamilar with Wire’s recent doings read on..
SEMINAL (ADJECTIVE) -CONTAINING
OR CONTRIBUTING THE SEEDS OF LATER DEVELOPMENT : CREATIVE, ORIGINAL.
REGROUPING FOR LIVE PERFORMANCE
IN 1999, THE HUGELY INFLUENTIAL WIRE HAVE ABLY DEMONSTRATED, VIA SELL-OUT
SHOWS EVERYWHERE FROM THE ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL TO THE GARAGE, THAT THEIR
FIRE STILL BURNS SOME 20 YEARS ON FROM THEIR FIRST ANGULAR BROADCASTS,
WOWING AUDIENCES MADE UP EQUALLY OF DEVOTED DISCIPLES AND CURIOUS YOUTH,
WINNING RESOUNDING CRITICAL APPROVAL OF THE “ELDER STATESMEN STILL ROCK
LIKE ANGRY YOUNG MEN” VARIETY.
READ & BURN 01 ? IS
THE FIRST PHASE OF A SERIES OF NEW WORKS AND STAGE APPEARANCES PLANNED
FOR THIS YEAR AND ON INTO 2003, MARKING A FIERCE RETURN TO RECORDING FOR
THE BAND, SETTING A STANDARD THAT MANY OF TODAY’S NEW CHASERS OF ART-ROCK’S
GOLDEN FLEECE WILL BE HARD PRESSED TO EMULATE (AND HOW THEY’VE TRIED IN
THE PAST!), AND SERVING EMPHATIC NOTICE THAT THE GAUNTLET IS DOWN.
COMMITTED FOLLOWERS WILL
NOD IN APPROVAL AT THE SLY REFERENCING OF ELEMENTS OF EARLIER MATERIAL.
THE KIDS WILL BE TOO BUSY RESPONDING TO THE DEMANDS OF THEIR ADRENAL GLANDS
AS THEY BOUNCE THEIR HEADS OFF WALLS IN UNISON WITH THE CARCRASHING DYNAMISM
AND DOGGED, UNYIELDING TEMPOS. THE SIX TRACKS OF READ & BURN 01 EACH
HITTING THE 3 MINUTE MARK WITH DEADEYE ACCURACY, RIDE THE LINE FROM PUNK
TO ROCK AND BACK AGAIN WITH NERVE-JARRING IMMEDIACY, DRESSED AND STYLISHLY
ACCESSORISED WITH STATE OF THE ART PRODUCTION VALUES. WHICH MEANS, IN SHORT,
LOUD AND CLEAR LIKE THE SOUND OF SHOUTING INSIDE YOUR OWN SKULL. (Capitalised
propaganda courtesy Bill Dolen)
WIRE will be taking part
in an evening of performances to launch Iain Sinclairs “M25 London
Orbital” which has a soundtrack composed by WIRE’s Bruce Gilbert at the
Barbican on Friday 25th October @ 7.30 pm. The Barbican’s website says
: “Based on and inspired by Iain Sinclairs London Orbital, this extraordinary
performance brings together readings by Iain Sinclair, J.G.Ballard, Bill
Drummond and Ken Campbell; Chris Petits specially shot and manipulated
M25 film and new music performed live by WIRE, Scanner and Jimmy Cauty.”
27 SEPTEMBER 2002: HOW
CORPORATE GLOBALIZATION DESTROYS AND THEN ‘GREENWASHES’ ITS ACTIVITIES.
The Lacandon Jungle’s Last Stand Against
Plan Puebla Panama and the
fight to preserve biodiversity and indigenous rights in Chiapas
By Ryan Zinn
September 26, 2002
Montes Azules, Mexico —
A battle is raging in Chiapas’ Montes Azules Integral Biosphere, Mexico’s
Garden of Eden. The last stand against corporate resource exploitation
is taking place in this remote, lush tropical jungle, home to Mayan communities.
Best known for ancient pyramids and endangered species like the toucan
and jaguar, this modern day “El Dorado” is now threatened by the search
for black and green gold: oil and biodiversity.
in the cross-fire are indigenous communities, many of them Zapatista supporters,
who are resisting the devastating effects of corporate globalization. The
zone has recently been marred by violence and plagued by paramilitary attacks
against these communities. Local residents believe the attacks to be the
latest stage in the Mexican government’s efforts to oust indigenous people
from the Biosphere.
result, the struggle to preserve this biologically diverse region is being
pitted against the struggle for human rights and local/indigenous autonomy.
Here in Chiapas, the battle focuses on the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), a
development scheme that would turn Southern Mexico and all of Central America
into a corporate extraction paradise.
central component is a new network of transportation infrastructure, designed
to carry merchandise from the soon to arrive maquiladoras or light assembly
plants. As a concession to environmental critics, the Plan contemplates
the creation of 300 “bioreserves.” However, critics charge that these are
just window dressing for corporate exploitation.
The Future of the Lacandon
Jungle and Montes Azules Biosphere
Montes Azules Integral Biosphere
is North America’s last significant tropical rain forest. Located within
the Biosphere are some 28 “illegal squatter settlements,” which the Mexican
government and mainstream environmental organizations, like the US- based
Conservation International, charge are perpetrators of environmental destruction.
residents say that they are being scapegoated. The situation has been over-simplified
or misrepresented by blaming “ignorant farmers” and “indigenous communities”
practicing slash and burn agriculture, or leftist rebels who abuse the
environment. However, the underlying conflict is far more complex than
depicted by the Mexican news media or the Fox administration.
been accused of destroying the jungle. But we as indigenous people are
the true guardians of the environment, we live together with the jungle,”
explained a Montes Azules resident who asked to be identified as “Juan
Gomez” — not his real name — for fear of reprisal by the army. “If the
jungle dies, we die with it,” he added.
33, is from the Tzeltal indigenous group, a third generation Montes Azules
resident, and a Zapatista. His humble home of wood and tin sits at the
base of the emerald green mountain that leads to the pristine Laguna Ocotal.
Juan was a coffee farmer until coffee prices plummeted to a dismal 40 cents
a kilo last year. He and his family survive on less than an acre of land,
planting corn, beans and squash.
Lacandon jungle could be considered a microcosm of natural resource exploitation
and human rights violations. Since the Spanish Conquest, the Lacandon has
borne witness to virtually every stage of natural resource exploitation.
Timber interests reined from the late 19th Century to the 1970’s, followed
by extensive cattle ranching, accounting for 80% of the Lacandon’s deforestation.
Next came petroleum exploitation, hydroelectric dams and roads. Finally,
and in many ways the last stage of the conquest, is the current privatization
of water and biodiversity.
Since taking office in December
2000, the Fox administration declared that “water [and forests] are issues
of national security.” And while much of northern Mexico goes dry, Fox
and local authorities have accelerated the process of overall water privatization.
Everything from municipal utilities to entire river valleys are on the
contains some 40% of Mexico’s fresh water supply, and with half the country
desperate for water, Mexico’s southernmost state is prime target for privatization.
Monsanto and Fox’s old employer, Coca Cola, are poised to seize this new
market. Coke has already gained important access to local Chiapas aquifers
by pressuring municipal governments to create de facto water privatization
through preferential zoning laws. The Coca Cola Foundation has also established
trusts with local schools conveniently located near primary water sources,
thereby facilitating the company’s access to water.
As global oil stocks deplete
and prices increase, Mexico will be under economic pressure to exploit
petroleum in socially and environmentally sensitive regions, like the Lacandon
jungle. PEMEX, the state owned oil monopoly, has been gradually dismantled
(privatized), and many analysts believe that Fox will finish the job before
his term is out. As Mexico supplants Saudi Arabia as the United States’
primary oil source, the Lacandon’s oil deposits may take center stage.
PEMEX has roundly denied the extraordinary quantity of oil in the Lacandon,
international and national researchers indicate the contrary. Seine River
Resources (Canada) and General Geophysics Company (France), among dozens
of other corporations, have already begun exploratory activities in the
Lacandon, including Montes Azules.
To accommodate the Plan
Puebla Panama’s appetite for energy, the Inter-American Development Bank
(IADB) recently announced the initial funding of 5 hydroelectric dams on
the Usumacinta River, to the tune of $240 million dollars. Other major
rivers in the Lacandon are also set to be dammed under the Plan. Besides
hydroelectric production, water will also be pumped from the Usumacinta
to the Yucatan Peninsula to satisfy growing agro-export needs, thoroughly
damaging Mexico’s (and Guatemala’s) most important riparian system.
the gradual privatization of Mexico’s Federal Electrical Commission (CFE)
has received most of the press, the dams’ social and environmental impacts
have been largely ignored. Unique biodiverse ecosystems will be lost forever;
tens of thousands of indigenous people will be displaced from their communities,
to say nothing of the soon to be submerged Mayan archeological sites like
Yaxichlan and Piedras Negras, local attractions in the region’s emerging
Fenosa of Spain or Alstom of France, both major players in privatization
throughout Latin America, are the likely frontrunners for the construction
or distribution contracts from the dam projects.
rich natural resources, the state contains a virtual plethora of tourist
attractions that have sustained the local economy in hard times. Renowned
for its Mayan archeological sites, Chiapas also possesses waterfalls, canyons
and lakes, making it an eco-tourist paradise.
since the North American Free Trade Agreement mandated the modification
of the Mexican Constitution in 1992, ejidos or communal lands, can, and
are being privatized. Many of these eco-archeological sites are on ejido
lands, run by the local communities themselves.
as the local coffee economy has plummets, many ejido communities are economically
compelled to sell their ancestral land, migrate to the United States or
wait for promised jobs in the yet to arrive maquiladoras. Some community
run operations, like Aguas Azul, have already been partially sold to corporate
tourist operations, while others are resisting the hard times and the quick
Finally, as we enter the
much-touted “Biotech Century,” biodiversity is emerging as the strategic
resource of the future. In accordance with this trend, bioprospecting,
or the search of genetic plant material of market value, is expected to
become a boom industry of the 21st Century.
is well known in bioprospecting circles. Its rich history of plant based
traditional medicine and surviving landrace crop varieties make it a veritable
oasis for biopirates looking to patent biodiversity and traditional knowledge.
government, the Washington DC-based Conservation International (CI) and
Grupo Pulsar (world’s number nine biotech company) have several “biological
research” stations located in the Lacandon. Alfonso Romo, a businessman
from Monterrey and possibly the most influential person in the Fox administration,
heads Grupo Pulsar. Pulsar, also a major donor to CI, is positioning itself
as the biotechnology leader of Mexico, if not all of Latin America.
bioprospecting agreements with various corporations throughout the world,
and promotes bioprospecting as a means of conservation. For Romo, Chiapas
represents his most “passionate project,” and rightly so. Pulsar’s access
to the Lacandon’s riches guarantee a place at the table in the competitive
according to local communities and activists, the research stations carry
out biopiracy operations — that is, theft of natural resources — as Mexican
Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources turns a blind eye.
theft was gold and jade, our land, and precious timber. Today, they rob
us of ‘green gold:’ biodiversity,” notes ARIC-ID, a campesino organization
in the Lacandon.
Market Based Conservation
Parallel to the Plan Puebla
Panama is the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor (MBC), an initiative of
World Bank, Global Environmental Facility (GEF), and other public/private
agencies and organizations.
Corridor would create and link over 300 protected areas from southern Mexico
to the Panama Canal. The plan focuses primarily on “wild” biodiversity,
but ignores the important connection between biological and cultural diversity,
and the local indigenous populations that maintain it.
some $6 billion dollars budgeted for the Corridor, only $500 million is
allocated directly for traditional conservation efforts. The rest of the
budget supports conventional World Bank development projects. Meanwhile,
local communities have not been taken into account, much less consulted.
have speculated that the underlying motivation for the creation of the
Mesoamerican Biological Corridor is to “greenwash” the exploitation of
natural resources, including biopiracy, monoculture tree plantations and
government and corporations want us off our land to control the water,
petroleum and plants,” explained indigenous campesino Gomez.
Mexican context, the MBC will divert needed funds away from local initiatives,
created and backed by local communities. For Example, the experience of
community based Ecologic Farmer Reserves in the Chimalapas region of Oaxaca
has provided a proven alternative to top down conservation schemes, but
has been ignored by the architects of the Biological Corridor.
Laguna Ocotal, located in
the northern region of Montes Azules, is a crystalline lake in the cross
hairs. The area, reputedly the reserve’s richest in biodiversity, is also
a Zapatista stronghold. The lake is particularly isolated. The closest
town, Ocosingo, is hours away. To arrive in Laguna Ocotal, it takes take
a crowded three bus ride from Ocosingo, followed by a four-hour walk up
muddy paths to finally arrive at the lake’s edge.
part of the jungle is also the most militarized in the state of Chiapas,
with dozens of Mexican Army bases dotting the landscape. Why has the Mexican
military responded with such ferocity to a small, largely indigenous, poorly
armed guerrilla movement? The answer has more to do with Chiapas’ strategic
resources than any alleged military threat posed by the Zapatistas.
is now clear that although Fox cannot annihilate the Zapatistas militarily,
his administration can successfully portray them as the environmental criminals,
Campillo Garcia, Mexico’s Attorney General for the Environment Affairs
best summed up the government perspective in a press interview last year.
regions [the Lacandon] suffer from high un-governability, deterring private
investment. They [the Army] will guarantee the security for private investment”
role has expanded to include enforcement of environmental law, reforesting
and the pending violent “resettlement” of communities located within biosphere
reserves. Top on the list are the Montes Azules and Oaxaca’s Chimalapas
jungle. These regions also correspond to areas of social unrest or insurgent
the Mexican Army has been implicated in both in trafficking of endangered
species, as well as logging in the Lacandon jungle. In fact, the Attorney
General for Environmental Affairs’ office currently has open investigations
on both charges.
the Army, which has an abysmal human rights record, to enforce environmental
protection is a pretext to further militarize the region, say local residents.
army is arriving not to protect the jungle, but to eliminate us,” notes
Montes Azules resident and Zapatista Juan Gomez.
Who Will Win?
In the final analysis, with
so many forces converging on the Lacandon, who will win out? Ultimately,
the onus for the present crisis in Chiapas rests squarely on the shoulders
of the Mexican government. Not only is the government impeding indigenous
communities from developing local initiatives for natural resource “management,”
but also threatening them with violent retribution if they do not immediately
vacate their ancestral lands.
is our home, the roots of our people. [Relocation] means the death of our
people, our culture, our land,” says Gomez.
Ryan Zinn is the coordinator
for Global Exchange’s Chiapas program. Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based
international Human Rights organization, has worked in Chiapas, Mexico
26 SEPTEMBER 2002: BUT
WILL THEY TOUR?
“An elephant orchestra plays
drums, wind instruments and a foot-operated gong at Thailand’s Elephant
Conservation Centre in Lampang, 600 km north of Bangkok, on September 8,
“Buoyed by the success of
their first compact disc, Californian-born resident conservationist Richard
Lair and compatriot musician Dave Soldier are putting together a second
CD featuring an ensemble orchestra of 11 elephants, some rescued from a
brutal life on the streets of Bangkok, who play everything from xylophones
to drums and wind instruments.”
25 SEPTEMBER 2002: Zen
and axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes.
Scientists unlock Zen gardens secret
Analysis reveals a hidden
tree among rocks
ABOVE: When viewed from a
prime spot in the Ryoanji Temple, the five groupings of rocks in the Zen
garden create the “medial-axis” image of a tree, scientists say. However,
the viewer may not even be aware of the shape, they say.
Sept. 25 For centuries,
visitors to the renowned Ryoanji Temple garden in Kyoto, Japan, have been
entranced by the simple arrangement of rocks. The five sparse clusters
on a rectangle of raked gravel are said to be pleasing to the eyes of the
hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the garden each year. Scientists
now believe they have discovered its mysterious appeal.
WE HAVE UNCOVERED the implicit structure of the Ryoanji gardens visual
ground and have shown that it includes an abstract, minimalist depiction
of natural scenery, said Gert Van Tonder of Kyoto University.
The researchers discovered that the empty space of the Zen Buddhist temples
garden evokes a hidden image of a branching tree that is sensed by the
We believe that the unconscious perception of this pattern contributes
to the enigmatic appeal of the garden, Van Tonder added.
He and his colleagues believe that whoever created the garden during the
Muromachi era between 1333-1573 knew exactly what they were doing, and
that the placement of the rocks was not accidental.
Through the centuries, various meanings have been read into the rock placement
one view holds that the rocks symbolize a tigress crossing the sea with
her cubs, while another contends that the pattern represents the strokes
of a Chinese character meaning heart, or mind.
However, such interpretations dont explain the attraction the garden holds
even for the uninitiated, the researchers reported in Thursdays issue
of the journal Nature.
To look for deeper patterns, the scientists used a concept called medial-axis
transformation, a scheme for analyzing shapes that is widely used in image
processing and studies of visual perception.
To understand the concept of medial-axis transformation, imagine drawing
the outline of a shape in a field of dry grass and then setting it alight:
The medial axis is the set of points where the inwardly propagating fires
meet, the researchers explained. It has been shown that humans have an
unconscious visual sensitivity to the axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus
The analysis revealed what appeared to be a tree with branches that separated
the elements of the rock arrangement. A widening trunk leads to a point
in the gardens main hall that is considered the prime viewing spot as
well as to an alcove containing a Buddhist statue.
Random changes in the location of the five rock clusters would destroy
the image, the researchers said.
They said abstract art may have an impact similar to that of the Ryoanji
Temples garden, which has helped earn Kyotos monuments the status of
a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There is a growing realization that scientific analysis can reveal unexpected
structural features hidden in controversial abstract paintings, Van Tonder
and his colleagues observed.