Nature as metaphor

The Fruit of the Land, the title of DCF’s monthly column in the Diss Express, can be interpreted literally to mean the physical abundance of the land, which is harvested by the community farm for the benefit of its members. However, the land, and nature in general, has much more to offer and, in particular, is a rich source of metaphor. Aristotle claimed that having a command of metaphor was “the greatest thing by far” and “a mark of genius”. Through metaphor we draw a comparison between two apparently dissimilar things and, by drawing attention to previously unobserved similarities, we gain insight into the less familiar. Metaphor literally means to carry beyond (from the Greek meta – beyond, and pherein – to carry), carrying meaning from one object or idea to another.

One pattern in nature that gives rise to many metaphors is the cycle of change. Just one example is the cycle of the year – in early spring the year is reborn and begins the cycle of growth, with new buds bursting on the trees, spring bulbs emerging and the birds beginning to sing. This growth and productivity approach their peak in summer when everything is in bloom, the birds are raising their young, and flowers start to give way to fruits. A period of decline follows during autumn, when fruits ripen and drop, leaves turn brown and fall from the trees, and plants begin to die back. In winter many things are dormant and the countryside appears relatively bare and monochrome. This cyclical pattern of birth, growth and decay is found many times in nature. Think of the phases of the moon from the new moon through the full to the next new moon. Think also of the daily cycle of night and day as the Earth completes a single rotation around its axis.

How many times do we use the names of the seasons as metaphors, talking of the springtime or autumn of our lives, for example? Well-known metaphors include the dawning of a new age or a new civilisation, the dark night of the soul, and Shakespeare’s “winter of our discontent”. The metaphor adds great depth to our understanding of the situation to which it is applied. For example, if we are engaged on a project that is not going well we might say that it has gone into a decline, and with our tendency to think of time as linear we might assume that the project is nearing its end. But if, instead, we talk about the project’s winter phase, the metaphor reminds us that this period of rest and inactivity will be followed by renewed growth, and we will know that the project is not ending but simply progressing steadily through a natural cycle.

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