Nature Shows Its Right Angles

Story and photos by Gar Smith
Friday September 07, 2012 - 04:33:00 PM
Gar Smith
Gar Smith
Gar Smith

Gertrude Stein's observation, "There is no straight line in nature," has prompted critics to supply a long list of nature's linear rebuttals—the path of a falling acorn on a windless day, the flat membrane that forms at the merging of two soap-bubbles, the hexagonal walls of a honeycomb, the edge of a crystal, a stand of bamboo. 

But now we have evidence, right here in Berkeley, that there also are "right angles" in nature. 

At least there are when the natural world rubs up against the walls of a city building. 

In late August, workers atop a large structure due east of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center on Dwight Way in downtown Berkeley, hacked away at some vines that had gained a perch on the building's rooftop. 

The pruning job resulted in a strange and unsettling sight. 

The massive wall of vegetation that had covered the building for decades suddenly lost its grip and tore away from the long, brick wall. It was as if the building had decided to shrug off its winter coat. 

The next day, many curious passersby (not knowing about the role of the workers on the rooftop) speculated darkly that the collapse of the ancient cloak could be linked to climate change and global warming. (August did rack up a string of punishingly molten days, and it did look as if the vine wall might have simply fainted from the heat.) 

But what was left behind was a marvel to behold. After years of quietly and invisibly insinuating its growing branches into the rigid rectilinear niches of the building's wall, the unsecured vines had peeled back to reveal an exact, mirror-image of the structure — like Jello popped from a mold. 

Alas, the mighty vines were wrenched from the soil and removed within a matter of days. But the photos remain as added proof that Gertrude Stein underestimated the powerful agility of nature. 

Yes, Gertrude, not only are there straight lines, there is a right angle there.