Meaning as Ambiguity

I can’t even tell if I was wrong or not. Maybe you’ll have better luck:

In June at Refactor Camp I gave a talk about voids (How To See Voids). The hook for my talk was a pretty picture of late afternoon conifers in the woods outside Truckee, California, and a mystery: why does the wolf lichen, a three-dimensional lace of radioactive yellow, grow in evenly-spaced rings around the trees like that?

connifers covered with bright yellow rings of lichen in the late afternoon sunlight

After skillfully building anticipation by taking suggestions from innocent rubes in the audience, I rejected them all and provided a tidy answer that underlined the point of my talk: all those tidy geometric rings are the work of woodpeckers. Before asking how the lichen got there, we must ask where the voids came from, into which the lichens could then insinuate their creeping fungal fingers, or even their spores. Sapsuckers – a small and abundant local woodpecker – pecks lines of holes into trees, and these holes can then be colonized by lichens.

I got away with it because it’s such a rich image, a lateral thinking puzzle self-unfolding and releasing birds, as if from a magician’s hat, and because it set up the entire moral of my talk. But since that June morning, I have climbed several more mountains around Lake Tahoe, and in that process I have been rudely shoved through a very unpleasant Kuhnian paradigm shift. I warn you that this paradigm shift does not leave me as spiritually satisfied as the Pythagorean woodpecker hypothesis did, and I don’t blame you if you skip the next paragraph, in order to avoid joining me in an irritating state of ambiguity.

At the time of my talk, I’d only noticed those bright yellow fruticose lichens in their ring formation in that one spot in the Tahoe National Forest. But once I gave the talk, I started seeing – and not seeing – those lichens everywhere. I saw mountains whose trees were overgrown with lichens next to mountains whose trees had none – in rings or otherwise. I saw mountains where lichens grew in rings dozens of miles away from each other, and mountains in between without any lichens, or with lichens in other formations – resting along the tops of boughs without venturing onto the trunk, or in patches like facial hair that didn’t spread all the way around the tree. I saw lichens on different species of trees next to each other, growing in different patterns. On some species in some places, the lichens seem to clearly start out on a bough and spread outward only from the bough (or self-pruned bough hole), as if following a ring of weakness in the bark from which branches might grow. On others with very rough and deeply-fissured bark, the lichens wound through the spaces between the bark cobblestones, ignoring linearity totally. And the trails were strewn with fronds of fallen lichen with their fungal stalks sunk deep into bits of shed outer bark, suggesting that this lichen doesn’t even need a “void” to enter. I tried to figure out the range of the sapsuckers and how it overlapped, or didn’t, with the locations of lichen rings I’d observed, but I couldn’t find anything more definitive than my vague recollection of where I’d heard pecking and where I hadn’t. I tried to ignore all this at first, and then I got very annoyed, and then once I was forced to accept it I got even more annoyed. In fact, I lost confidence that there really is a tidy solution to the problem of the existence of the lichen rings, taking into account all the interacting factors: altitude, air pollution, water, aridity, trees, animals, mushrooms, bacteria, seasons, microclimates, each one a deceptively simple name hiding messes of vast complexity.

Reality, with its ambiguity composed of multiple interacting layers of ignorance, seems like an aesthetic let-down compared to the woodpecker puzzle-box story. I like neat little puzzles. A decade ago when I used to go backpacking a lot in the southern Sierra, we’d take turns making up lateral thinking puzzles to occupy us on the trail. I guess the trail by itself was too boring. I love the wilderness, but in an impure way, because I do bring headphones and music and audiobooks and drugs with me into the woods. Obviously I’m still trying to solve the wilderness as if it were some kind of puzzle. Obviously I’m still failing. “Learning about nature” used to seem innocent to me.

Six Ways of Seeing the Wilderness

There are as many ways of looking at the wilderness as there are steps taken in the wilderness. Most of these are not interesting to me. For instance, the wilderness is a product of regressive taxation, like public universities. I don’t find this interesting because it seems incidental; the politically-minded may find this fascinating, but I am comfortable with the fact that all good things have bad aspects. And the idea that the wilderness is an encounter with the wild, with unmolested nature, strikes me as too obviously false to be worth examining.

One problem with looking at the wilderness is that words are fake, and wilderness is more of a messy spectrum than a particular thing with a locatable essence. Some places that are called “wilderness” have public toilets and paved roads. Some areas with permanent human habitation are wild and dangerous. In my town there are suburban parks with lush, velvety grass and creeks flowing through abundant mature trees that are more beautiful than many areas in the national forests, where muddy fire roads spoil the view and the earth slowly reclaims the carcasses of ancient cars and trucks. Here we will not define wilderness; we will simply know it when we see it. I will be taking the national forests and parks of the western United States as my core example of wilderness, but I don’t think it’s the only kind of wilderness, just my favorite kind.

1. The wilderness is a garden.

The wilderness is not the absence of civilization, but rather a special product of civilization. Consider that national forests are not particularly fraught with violence and crime, whereas we might expect a zone where civilization is truly excluded to be just that. A poorly-managed city park is usually more dangerous than the wilderness.

In the wilderness, as in a garden, some species of plants and animals are encouraged and protected, while others are discouraged and even removed. As permaculturist Acre Qiu says, a weed is a social construct. An “invasive species” is a complex creation of civilization, as you can see from my writing on island ecology. The idea of the wilderness, I think, is to actively intervene in nature and human behavior, in order to produce an artificial construct that humans find nice and valuable. The product is not a construct created “as if” human civilization did not exist, else what are the roads and trails for? Rather, it is constructed according to multiple overlapping principles and compromises that result in a “garden growing wild” (pattern 172 in A Pattern Language) that humans find pleasant, yet challenging.

2. The wilderness is a zone of linear surveillance.

Roads, trails, and routes wind through the wilderness, to allow humans to view and monitor the wilderness. One of the projects that draws me into the national forests and up the rocky peaks is to keep an eye on what’s happening from week to week and month to month, like keeping up with a dramatic television show. I worry what the mountains will get up to if I don’t watch them. But beyond this idiosyncratic feeling I have of being the mountains’ parole officer or something, the job of park rangers is actually to surveil the wilderness, and they use the roads and trails and routes to do it.

What are they looking for? For fallen trees and erosion blocking the trails, for evidence of fire danger and unauthorized human habitation, for people and animals and plants and rocks doing things they’re not supposed to be doing. Fire lookouts spend lonely months just surveilling the wilderness for unauthorized fire activity, all so we can have nice lush gardens to hike through instead of burned-over expanses of rocks and blackened trees and weeds. It is important to note that their work is hampered by the plants themselves, which, while they may look innocent, are actually often part of a “fire-embracing ecosystem” that promotes and relies on fire as part of its life cycle. Pyromaniac plants fail to prune themselves, and some of them grow extra flammable plant material the minute any extra water permits them to. When you see a whole meadow of arrowleaf balsamroot, dried out so that the parchment leaves rub against each other as if trying to spark a fire in the most eerie way possible, you know what the park rangers are up against.

3. The wilderness is a zone of transient being (in the sense of both moving and temporary being).

You can walk through the wilderness and even sleep there, but you can’t stay. Trails are designed for experiencing the wilderness while in motion. You can stop for a minute to admire the view, or even stop for the night, but the experience that the wilderness is designed for is motion. You can hike, run, bike, ride a horse, follow a yak if you have one, but you don’t hear much about “wilderness sitting.”

In places like Adirondack Park in New York and Lake Tahoe in Nevada and California, areas of human habitation bump up against wilderness areas, but their density is highly regulated, and no permanent dwellings are allowed in the truly wilderness areas (generally the parts that are owned by the government, and hence “public”). Just like you can’t move into Disneyland, you can’t really move into the national forest. It is inherently a place for temporary and moving experience.

4. The wilderness is a zone of market exclusion.

In the wilderness, you can’t solve problems by buying something you didn’t bring with you. This is very different from early experiences in what we now consider wilderness: camps that provided meals, equipment, sleeping quarters, and workers to carry your equipment and clean up after you. The modern American conception of the wilderness regards this earlier wilderness culture as fundamentally fake and wrong (though it is still the normal way of things in many other countries).

When I go into the wilderness where I live, I don’t bring money, because I can’t buy anything I didn’t bring with me. If I’m going to need it, I have to plan for that, and bring it. Interestingly, I notice that this is also true of large areas of suburban habitation where I live. It’s nice to wander around the trails and streets and parks, old organic neighborhoods and new planned “communities,” but for the most part, there are only residences there, and no businesses. If I want water, I have to bring it with me, or plan around rare seasonal drinking fountains, as well as one single strip mall with one Starbucks and a grocery store.

Each one of these ways of seeing wilderness implies its own spectrum of wilderness, sliding from the eerie winds of rocky peaks to housing developments and beyond.

5. The wilderness is an encounter with technology.

The wilderness focuses attention on the limited, necessarily elegant package of technology that a hiker or camper brings with her. I love my wilderness equipment: my tiny, feminine hydration pack that doesn’t look capable of holding 3.5 liters of water, my hand-knitted wool socks, my trail gaiters that keep sand out of my shoes, my light wool gloves whose fingertips always need mending when steep hikes require all four extremities to maneuver, my water filter that doubles as a bottle, my lightweight rain jacket that folds up into its own pocket, my tarp for sitting that might someday double as a makeshift shelter if I really screw up, and most of all my pith helmet of little woven sticks that functions as a wearable gazebo.

Your wilderness kit is different, because your body and your environment and your idea of comfort are all different from mine. But everyone who goes into the wilderness has a wilderness kit of some kind and a philosophy behind it, and both the kit and the philosophy changes over time. Even people who go into the wilderness “naked and alone” as a stunt carry with them technological ideas, ways of turning available materials to their own technological ends. That’s what a water filter is, after all.

I used to be very interested in the idea of a “wilderness survival kit.” This is a modern cultural idea of a package of technology that would allow one to survive lost in the wilderness (though usually it includes ways to signal to potential rescuers in order to end the ordeal). I used to carry all kinds of garbage into the wilderness, the most ridiculous of which was a pair of paramedic scissors which I imagined I might need in some vague emergency. Now I think of my stuff as a “wilderness comfort kit” – discomfort being a leading indicator of mortal danger, and comfort being what I really care about anyway. I carry too much water and a water filter and too many clothes and a tarp and extra socks and sticky bandages and matches and a lighter that I’ve never used, not in order to survive, but because I understand exactly what it’s like to be uncomfortable in ways these things remedy, enough to justify the extra weight in the balance of comfort.

And yet, going into the wilderness is not exactly a pursuit of comfort. It’s uncomfortable to be dirty and sweaty with an itchy layer of dust sticking to your sweat and sunscreen. It’s uncomfortable to hike for dozens of miles up and down thousands of feet of altitude. But somehow my technological package makes it comfortable enough to justify the activity. Most of my hobbies involve sitting on my butt for long periods of time, but doing that all the time isn’t comfortable either.

6. The wilderness is an encounter with death.

Like Disneyland rides, the wilderness provides a safe encounter with mortality. Almost every Disneyland ride offers an encounter with death, even the ones made for small children: flying through the air, crashing into cars, plummeting off of mountains, being attacked by pirates, even encountering Hell itself.

It’s easiest to see how wilderness is an encounter with death from the previously-mentioned focus on “wilderness survival.” You can buy all kinds of survival kits and survival tools, and stories of wilderness disasters and people lost in the wilderness are popular entertainment. In reality, as in Disneyland, wilderness deaths are quite rare. Most of the deaths in national parks are from car accidents, drowning, suicide, and things like that. Classic wilderness deaths from exposure or wild animal attacks are vanishingly rare, but I think they are a crucial part of the constructed wilderness myth. Also, “creepy” wilderness deaths are having a cultural moment right now – wilderness disappearances that can be made to seem eerie and supernatural against a background of ignorance. Even people who don’t physically visit the wilderness seem to have a lot of fun learning about “spooky” wilderness disappearances. So much of our world has already been disenchanted that it’s a bit of a shame to disenchant the wilderness. To admit that we are merely preparing for our own comfort is to diminish the gravitas of the wilderness encounter – and perhaps to ruin a lot of the fun.

The Wilderness Is Profound Because It Is Ambiguous

In order to understand ambiguity, we must encounter the enemies of ambiguity: legibility and vagueness, which, surprisingly, often occur together. Better writers than I have provided accounts of legibility: the Department of Motor Vehicles, going all-in on observable metrics, top-down planning assuming tree-like structures, a discarded plastic soda bottle with its nutritional information printed on it. The more legible, the less ambiguous. Vagueness is more difficult to account for.

I find it hard to think of something vague. The sandy, eroding slope of a mountain seems vague with its buff-colored vague sand and shifting, flowing nature; but there’s nothing vague about the trees that live there, like forearms clinging to the rocks and sand below the surface with clenched fists, adapting to the specific forces of the landscape. This morning I was walking around the lake and a woman passed by going the other direction, but walking backwards. It took me a moment to process the strange situation, but it was ambiguous, not vague.

The best example I came up with of something that is truly vague is something that is also very legible: the cliché. I have uneven taste, so I read as much bad fiction as good. Bad fiction is a magical domain in which one can encounter every kind of cliché: assurances that the protagonist is “normal” or “ordinary,” people running “like a bat out of Hell,” someone who is “fifteen years of age,” taking jobs “to earn some extra cash,” and the breathless claim that some particular meaningful event “was everything.” When you hear that someone ran like a bat out of Hell, you probably don’t picture a bat or Hell. You merely picture someone running quickly. A cliché has some particular meaning, but that meaning has become disconnected from its image. Often, precision masks meaning: providing the precise age or height of a character seems to be conveying something that is not vague at all, but no image is actually conveyed. (I don’t know why fussy constructions like “years of age” are so popular.) Clichés provide an illusion of precision: one particular meaning that in fact conveys almost nothing.

Meaning as Ambiguity

The whole point I want to make is that ambiguity is the essence of meaning. Here I mean “meaning” in the sense of the profound, the artistically deep, the spiritually relevant – not in the crude sense of “pointing” that I previously examined. The story of the Garden of Eden, The Shining, your Hamlet and Bend Sinister, the evidence of their profundity (that is to say, ambiguity) lies in the multitude of interpretations they support. To me the empty tomb at the end of the Gospel of Mark is more ambiguous, hence more artistically and spiritually interesting, than the fan theories worked out in the other gospels, although these are also beautiful and ambiguous in their own ways.

Meaning in the sense of pointing is fairly easy to translate from language to language, and from century to century, but ambiguity is hard to detect, much less translate. Look at a dozen translations of the Tao Te Ching next to each other, chapter by chapter, and you will find some translators doing you the dubious favor of resolving ambiguity in the text in their own minds, and serving you their own theories instead of translations. (Nabokov plays with this in Bend Sinister, in which a character translates Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” as if it were the murder of Claudius which may or may not be, rather than Hamlet’s life, or something else.) Or read a new translation of the Bible, in which all the poetry and ambiguity has been resolved in favor of some plain meaning in accord with the translator’s theology, and you will see what I mean.

There’s something important about ambiguity that I can’t to justice to here. I have previously written, never satisfactorily, about Christopher Alexander’s Fifteen Fundamental Properties (properties of beauty, or of wholeness, or of the profound in general). Since putting on the ambiguity lens, it’s become clear to me that every property in Alexander’s list is a method for elaborating ambiguity. Even though only one of the fifteen properties explicitly uses the word “ambiguity,” it is the organizing principle of all of them. They are ways of making the vague precisely ambiguous. Strong borders emphasize a division while themselves bridging this division. Spaces in between – the “ground” of figures – must not be vague and forgotten, but must themselves display forms with good shape, rendering the very distinction of figure and ground ambiguous but not vague. The Void is incorporated as an entity, so that there is ambiguity between presence and absence. In his architectural patterns, entrance transitions and arcades render ambiguous “inside” and “outside.” Neighborhood boundaries allow neighborhoods to become more individual and specific, rather than flat vague undifferentiated nothings. Symmetry is ambiguity itself – it can be read forward or backwards. Everywhere pieces are doing multiple jobs, connecting and isolating, as in nature. The beauty of ugly things is always some secret ambiguity.

a water tank whose pipe frames the distant mountains

For the past several weeks I have been reading William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. It bills itself as a classification of ambiguity, but every summary I have read of the seven types strikes me as wrong (though interesting), as if every summarizer had been reading a different book. I don’t think it matters: the book functions as a kind of gymnasium to help you practice noticing ambiguity.

Noticing hidden ambiguity is the most important skill for producing the kind of art that I most enjoy. It’s a difficult skill to teach, since it comes down to slowness, to cultivating a suspicion of the obvious. What I most want to read about are mysteries in plain sight: an unexpected pattern, an unremarked contradiction, a question with a commonsense answer that, upon reflection, is no answer at all. Once you find a mystery in plain sight, it’s mostly a technical skill to elucidate it: presenting the mystery from one frame of reference, researching the evidence, whittling it down to the most suggestive pieces that all fit together, and presenting them in such a way that a solution comes as a dramatic shift in perspective. But the hardest part of solving a mystery is noticing that one exists. The only way to do this is to cultivate the skill of noticing and feeling ambiguity before “deciding” (falling into) some resolution. What are five things that this could mean? What is being concealed here beneath the veil of common sense?

Consider my lichen ring problem, however. Unfortunately, I think my almost-certainly-wrong answer is more satisfying than the truth (as I am able to ascertain it). I think this is the difference between the particular kind of puzzle-box art I enjoy and reality. Puzzle boxes can function as approaches to reality, and can lead you into reality, but by their nature they can’t fully represent it, any more than music or painting can.

Puzzles, riddles, and humor employ hidden ambiguity, revealed in the solution or punchline. But unbounded reality itself hardly makes a satisfying puzzle, even though lots of ambiguity is hiding there. Great art, too, relies on ambiguity.

What is the difference between puzzle-box art (trivial or great) and messy reality? In the art of the puzzle box, fiction or nonfiction, there is, underlying all, the premise that there is a hidden order that is discoverable. Reality, lacking an author with a mind like ours, cannot make such promises. Sometimes order can be coaxed out of reality: I believe in the Periodic Table of the Elements, for example. More commonly, an artistically constructed order is imposed on reality. The softer the science – the more layers of emerging complexity it tries to account for – the more dubious the constructed order.

The point of constructed orders, in addition to being entertaining, is to cultivate a sort of mood or attitude toward reality: a mood of optimism, supporting a belief that an apparent mess can be transformed into an order legible to the human mind. I’d go further: I think that any apparent mess can be resolved into multiple orders, one for each assiduous scientist or artist.

Astute readers will notice that I haven’t written anything in several months. This is largely because I quit eating carbohydrates in February, and it somehow, quite unexpectedly, cured all my mental illness. I have been figuring out how to deal with the absence of intense mental suffering. I also seem to have figured out how to not write, a skill I have struggled with in the past. This will be my last post as Contributing Editor, though I expect to write occasional pieces in the future. Thank you to Venkat for emailing me years ago to invite me to write for Ribbonfarm, and then to be Contributing Editor. It gave me a sense of status and meaning and purpose when I was lacking those. My body of work, such as it is, would almost certainly not exist if not for his interest and support. And thank you, reader, for reading.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Sister Roseanne says

    You will be missed. One of the web’s great talents.

  2. I’ve always enjoyed your writing, it has always given me ways to think about my life that feel both novel and appropriate, a rare pleasure.

  3. I had an insight about something really basic recently. The real value of children might just be that they’re not fucking exhausted by encountering physical situations that they can’t handle

    • I also realized something about myself, which is that I absolutely love stuff like clever wordplay and trickery and games precisely because I’ve never been subjected to anything like that IRL

  4. Thank you for the courage of your thoughts. I found your work as I was reaching a dead end in my thinking and it helped me discover another path.

  5. I hope you enjoy not writing as much as I’ve enjoyed you writing. Good luck

  6. It’s interesting, thank you for sharing.

  7. I wrote a comment a month or two ago about this post in terms of Deleuze’s distinction between the clear-confused and the obscure-distinct, and coming back to see if there was any response, found I’d shelved it somewhere rather than posting it. Here’s a recreated version:

    This idea is a pretty common framework I think; the concept that there are a variety of mutational/selective or chaotic/energy-minimising structures of change that operate in a distributed way to produce the particular distinct representations and concepts we produce.

    The interesting thing here though, is not just seeing this as an invisible background, mainly there for us to laugh smugly about how mere mortals with their stable concepts do not understand the chaotic depth of reality, but to consider how a space or system can be picked out, roughly at least, and considered in the complexity and multi-valence of the inspiration it produces:

    We can experience particular generative structures by their capacity to inspire a variety of concepts in us, just as a sequence can be characterised, if not fully defined, by limited samples of it’s entries, except that rather than in a mathematical sequence, where in principle arbitrary symbols can follow one another, grouped only by the assertion that they constitute a particular series, instead each of these new concepts also are attached to a particular referential field in which they overlap, with the changing forest being like the different views of a slowly rotating stone.

    The fact that these representations and concepts patch onto one another is in a sense a form of ambiguity, but in another sense it is also showing us the paths of change that trace out the form of the system.

    The overlapping of these simplified models, that are each individually clear to us and yet prove each other mistaken or incomplete, give us a sense of continuity in the ongoing processes that produce them; we have some conception of the forest as an object that collaborates in producing and then surpasses our attempts at representation, like a kind of matador setting itself up as easily target-able only to spring away.

    By looking back over our history of interaction, we gain an intuitive sense of the forest as a thing that makes us make certain kinds of mistakes, a problematic field that has certain kinds of representations flow off it.

    And so, shifting from the concept of a matador to a dance partner, we can try to understand the wilderness insofar as we are able to cultivate it but limit our interventions in order to maintain it’s ambiguity and generative complexity; seeking to sustain it in a form that we cannot fully understand, by pruning off the potentialities that tend towards it’s collapse into “destructive” simplification, (fires etc.), and also into becoming the same as other parts of the planet’s surface, (litter, invasive species).

    We collaborate with the forest as something unknown, and try to avoid our relationship with it becoming stale, by trying to move towards increasingly subtle modes of interaction (reintroducing potentially dangerous predator animals back into habitats, intentionally recoupling national parks to other ecosystems across roads then managing invasion directly, letting fires burn in particular places) that allow it greater freedom to be “wild”, in the sense of dynamically complex and representationally multifaceted, while still managing to head off these overly simplified and dead extremes we still want to avoid.

    This is in principle the same as interacting with a person, also generatively producing representations of themselves, identities that overlap and render each other incomplete, reflections of a particular situation, but also of a continued history of situations bound up in that person’s memory and particular patterns of dynamics and sensitivity to external influences. You want them to remain illuminatingly generative of concepts, the particular enjoyable problem space of interacting with them, but in those ways that give them maximal capacity to sustain and diversify that space. Of course, unlike living but non-communicative fields like forests, people can generate these fields of concepts not only in you modelling their own behavior, but in trying to understand their own processes of concept formation. And although unlike a forest that is managed, people are generally in charge of shaping their own development, in terms of what we allow each other in terms of expectations, I find the same rules of not holding too rigorously to older interaction patterns can sometimes still apply.

    So to bring that back into the social-present, I’d just like to say that reading this post was no-less interesting for not being functionally connected to mental illness, and I’d be interested to see what other writing you come up with in future, off an on, if you are ever still inclined to.

  8. Thanks for your essays, Sarah! A few years ago I stumbled upon your piece on peopling and Rochat’s Others in Mind. First time I’d come across any of those ideas and it blew my mind. Every now and then, as happened this morning, it comes to mind and I return to it. Just got hold of the Rochat book. And happily there are still a bunch of essays of yours I have yet to read. All the best with your writing and not-writing.

  9. Sarah, your imaginations are useful, and sometimes a dim comfort, to me. I’m not sure if the body of this article is as satisfying a conclusion, as the postscript. – Many returns