Monday 4 July 2022

Picture Post #76 Ancient Salt Marshes

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be
neither will they become what they might appear to become.'


Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Remains of Cape Town's Salt Marshes (Thomas Scarborough, 2022)

In Cape Town, there are everywhere reminders of the Holocene ‘transgression’ which peaked around 3400 BC. At that time, most of the area on which the city now stands was invaded by sea and salt marshes. Then the sea retreated once more.
However, in this picture, railway lines, separating Cape Town’s suburbs of Milnerton and Rugby, reveal the remains of ancient marshes on either side of the tracks. One finds patches of these marshes all over: along freeways, on undeveloped properties, and surrounding remaining wetlands, in particular. Once one is aware of them, they seem to be everywhere. They are older than history, so often undervalued, and yet they are still among us.

The image reminds us us that another kind of history surrounds us everywhere. This is cultural history. I think in particular of the culture of thought. Richard Feynman once said, ‘History is fundamentally irrelevant.’ But is it? Where did today’s thoughts come from? Why? How much more would we better understand, if we were aware of the ancient remains among us?


Keith said...

Key context for the quote was Richard Feynman speaking as a theoretical physicist. Here’s the fuller, and thus I think contextually fairer, quote: ‘[A] thing like the history of the idea is an accident of how things actually happen. And if I want to turn history around to try to get a new way of looking at it, it doesn’t make any difference’. He went on to explain, evoking the field he knew best, especially the quantum sciences, ‘[T]he only real test in physics is experiment, and history is fundamentally irrelevant’.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. I wouldn't want to do an injustice to Richard Feynman.

With or without Feynman, though, there is a view that may also be summarised as 'sola scientia'. It is a tendency to cut off the past and to judge all things on the knowledge and priorities of the present. It seems to me to be powerfully present everywhere we look.

I think that history is relevant to 'hard science', however that is a long story!

Keith said...

I agree, Thomas. Another translation of ‘sola scientia’ is of course ‘only science’, of which Feynman might have been guilty. Obviously, we don’t live by the natural science alone — or by history alone, or music alone, or literature alone, or political theory alone … and so forth down the line. Yet, the bias (unipolarity) that ‘sola scientia’ suggests pops up among members of all fields of inquiry. The best practiced scholars have curiosity that prompts them to cross many fields in order to learn and to inform their positions. And, to your point, those same scholars assuredly take the history of ideas into serious account — to learn from past scholarship. I don’t see how they could not.

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