Inside the Box

My wife and I were driving along a state highway near Caribou, Maine, some years ago when I spotted an abandoned house by the side of the road. I grabbed my camera, jumped out of the car and began taking pictures as my long-suffering wife waited for us to be on our way. I don’t know how long the house had stood empty, but the siding was worn down to bare wood, and the glass was gone from the windows. The roof was bashed in, and the structure was almost entirely covered in vines. I shot through the windows and the doorway, which opened into a darkened front hall and stairway. An image of the doorway overgrown with vines remained on my hard drive for several years until I came across it again and realized I might have something.

This image, suitably matted and framed, was exhibited several years ago in a juried competition at the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins, Colorado. The theme of the show was listed as “Box Squared,” with the following explanation:

While life and nature are cyclical and cylindrical, we live in boxes, travel around in boxes and buy things in boxes. We talk about "out of the box," squaring up, and box stores. Explore the box and square within a cylindrical world.

While I might quibble with the notion that the natural world is primarily cylindrical, it is hard to dispute the show’s basic premise. In Conversations with Myself, the philosopher Alan Watts observed that the essential difference between humankind and nature is our penchant for putting things in boxes, not the least ourselves.

But why should this be? In fact, boxes are a relatively recent innovation in human development. The first rectangular dwellings go back less than 10,000 years, a mere fraction of the time our species has sought to take shelter under a roof. Before that, people lived primarily in circular dwellings: yurts, teepees, igloos and the like. So what accounts for the squaring of the circle? The vertical dimension of the box is easily explained, because if you don’t build structures perpendicular to the ground, gravity will work against you. The other dimensions are partly the result of adding more rooms to habitations and partly of moving buildings closer together. You make better use of space by squaring off the corners. Thus, the first rectangular dwellings coincided with the beginnings of permanent settlements, when buildings were clustered cheek-by-jowl in towns and cities. Property ownership no doubt had something to do with making plots of land rectangular as well. Similarly, boxes make for more efficient storage in the space available.

Given their obvious advantages in utilizing space, you would think nature would find more use for boxes, but no. Alan Watts, who first highlighted our penchant for putting things in boxes, noted that “nature is wiggly.” Gertrude Stein observed, “There is no straight line in nature.” Neither is entirely correct. In fact, geometrical forms of all types abound in nature, from spherical planets to their elliptical orbits to the perfect spirals of the Nautilus shell and the pinecone. Box shapes admittedly are rare, apart from crystals, such as pyrite and common table salt. Even with the honeycomb, where storage space is at a premium, bees seem to prefer hexagonal containers rather than square ones.

Human beings may stand alone in their predilection for boxes, but there is little doubt that nature will prevail in the end. The photograph I took at the abandoned house outside Caribou, Maine, clearly demonstrates this. After only a generation or two of neglect, the roof had collapsed, and the structure was well on its way to rack and ruin. As my picture demonstrated, nature is not altogether indifferent to our efforts to impose human geometry on the world. Sooner or later, it will reclaim its own and defeat every effort to leave a mark on one’s surroundings.

It occurs to me that photographers are also in the business of putting things in boxes. Photographers are alchemists who transmute nature into something with a rectangular frame around it. It might appear that we have merely put a frame around reality. But in enclosing a space we have created a composition that enables us to manipulate form, color and balance. It is all an illusion, of course – another bid to leave one’s mark upon the world. We abandon reality in seeking to put a frame around it, and yet without the frame there can be no artistry.

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