Chapter 14. The Power of Form

The Sundays we spent at Sechelt were special days for rest and re-creation. I laid aside my tools. My projects remained as they were. The ache in my muscles eased up. No new scrapes and cuts. In the evening we had our own “church service” with Carsons. Collectively we could muster a flute, a clarinet, two melodicas, a mouth organ, a ukulele and a guitar, so we always had music. We sang in harmony some of our favorite hymns. Wafting over the water on a quiet evening, even mediocre music can sound beautiful. As seemed appropriate in that peaceful place, we shared with each other some of our best thoughts and our reflections upon the ways of God. Two or three of us would pray for whatever concerned us at the time. Often I would read aloud some great story until the darkness made it too hard to see the pages. The Sunday evening would end when everybody held hands around the fire and sang “Taps.”

On those idyllic Sundays we took time for each other as a family. We would go for long walks together and explore new places. Sometimes we’d go by boat for a special picnic across the inlet. One time over there, when we were ready to light a fire to roast wieners, we discovered we had forgotten to bring matches. The Boy Scout in our family suggested that we should try to start the fire using the time-honored method which is illustrated in scouting manuals. With a hastily constructed bow we rotated a stick furiously in a wooden socket. It became pretty hot all right—and so did we—but not hot enough to ignite anything. The wood wasn’t quite dry enough.

At night we have often bounced stones off rocks to see the sparks fly. So now we poured a little gasoline into a hole on a flattish rock and threw stones at it, hoping to ignite the vapor. If we had been at a service station, the sparks we created would have set off a conflagration, but out there on that shore the sparks all fizzled out firelessly. That hot afternoon we ate “cold dogs.”

Each of us had special quiet things that we liked to do by ourselves on Sundays and elsewhen. Up in the woods, Karen had a favorite nook. At a certain time in the afternoon the sun would shine through the trees and light up a cozy hollow between some mossy rocks. She loved to sit up there in her sun-dappled nest and read.

Martin spent hours gaining the confidence of local chipmunks and squirrels. They would come closer and closer by fits and starts, gradually gaining confidence. Finally they would take peanuts out of his hand and eat them while the rest of us watched quietly in the background and smiled.

Dawn found that her skin was most persistently fair. She would spread a quilt down on the sand in the sun and make “one more try” for a tan, chatting with her mother alongside.

With the income from his paper route, Robin had purchased a small motion picture camera. He had seen a movie of clouds which rolled spectacularly and boiled with turbulence. The pictures had been taken by time-lapse photography. One Sunday afternoon he set up his own movie camera on a tripod and began to take a few frames at short intervals.

I was sitting nearby watching as those big, fluffy cotton-wool mounds came drifting along high over the inlet. If I watched a certain part of a cloud shape closely for long enough, I could tell that it was changing rather quickly. After a few minutes hardly any detail or feature of the cloudscape remained recognizably the same. A camel’s neck would stretch out longer and longer until the head parted company from the body and drifted off to become a mere wisp that soon disappeared. A giant amoeba cloud slowly extended a pseudopod towards another cloud and almost touched it. The other cloud forthwith shrank away and drew itself up into a tower of outrage. Then it bulged and collapsed in all directions, quickly fading away.

Each cloud was actually a marker. It marked a place where warm, moist air was ascending into cooler heights above. It al{so marked the level at which rising water vapor would condense into droplets. The hummocks of white above the condensation layer revealed the presence of turbulent air currents whose existence I would otherwise have never suspected. The shapes of the clouds and their continual changing were tracing out for me the pathways of invisible forces at work in that part of the sky. Power made those cloud forms.

A movement off to my right attracted my attention. A falling alder leaf had been caught up in a spider web. Dangling by its stem, twisting and flopping from side to side, it indicated that a faint breeze was squeezing through from somewhere up the hill. “Who has seen the wind?” Air currents are invisible without indicators like clouds and leaves. Dust particles lend visibility to those dramatic miniwhirlwinds called dust devils. The extra-large-size dust devil has the form and power of a tornado.

Currents in water are sometimes hard to detect. Sometimes subtle changes in the reflection of light or moving bits and pieces on the surface reveal streamings that would otherwise go unnoticed. When water is being heated in a pot, the rising convection currents are marked by bulges in the surface, as well as by streams of small bubbles rising here and there from the bottom of the pot.

The surface of the water in our little bay was only slightly rippled, until a boat went past out in the inlet. I watched as bow waves left the boat. I followed their travel until at last they splashed on the shore. Out there the energy of the moving boat had pushed up a series of waves which continued through the water all the way to the beach. The water in the inlet nevertheless remained much where it had been before the waves of energy came and went. It partially changed its shape momentarily, briefly rising and falling, while each wave of energy passed through. The form of the wave revealed the presence of a concentration of energy traveling toward me. That energy would finally dissipate itself along the shore, splashing water about and shifting the sand a little.

Forms tell of forces

That afternoon I learned a general principle that had never occurred to me before. The forms of things reveal invisible forces and powers that are presently working or have previously been working in and around those things.

Stretches of flat sand near the water’s edge at low tide are likely to be riddled with tiny holes. If one of those holes suddenly squirts water all over an ankle, a beachwalker with even the dimmest interest in biology begins to pay attention to these holes, seeking the source of the unexpected soaker. Some holes are at the center of miniature “volcanos” and others are only near little mounds. What makes these scattered perforations? What forces have been at work here, producing these signs?

Below the hole that ejected water lives a clam. Normally it takes water in through one of its siphons, and expels it through the other. The outgoing current keeps open a little “chimney” in the sand. Expelled sand settles around the opening, building a “minivolcano.” If the clam is startled it suddenly snaps together the two halves of its shell, squirting a jet of water up the chimney. Sometimes the jet hits an ankle of a passerby.

Below each hole that is accompanied by moundlets, a pale white ghost shrimp lives. A busy creature, it is forever digging tunnels. When its large flattened claws up front have scraped together a big armload of sand, the shrimp backs out of its burrow, hauling the sand outside to deposit it. The little heap becomes another one of those mysterious minimounds.

My seawall’s long, high, fairly straight, regular form immediately tells all who pass by that this stretch of the shoreline was not constructed by waves. If they looked closely they would notice that, while some of the stones had been worn by the sea and were still bearing old barnacles, others looked sharp-edged and clean, as if freshly broken. If, like detectives, they wanted to use all the clues present in that wall and my excavation, they could patiently reconstruct most of the story of how I built that seawall.

Forms tell of forces, living or otherwise. Our educational system should not allow us to walk through this world simply taking for granted the shapes and forms and layouts of things. Art teachers usually think of forms as means toward recognition and beauty. Seldom, however, do they use them to convey an understanding of why things are shaped as they are. In an unceasing process of transformation, the world is ever taking on new shapes. To make sense of the continual changing, we should pay attention to the shaping forces which are at work in the process. The mathematical equations used in physics and engineering are simply a means of expressing the effect of form-making forces on structures.

Form, whether an internal organization, an external shape, or the relation between two or more shapes, is an aspect of every situation. Everything about each particular form tells something significant about how that thing or phenomenon came to be that way.

Since the forms of things offer important messages, I try to keep my eyes open for them. The shape of a leaf tells about the development of its inner structure, its regions of growth, its battles with insects and diseases. The form of each empty shell records how it developed, what kind of creature lived in it and for how long. Form is a silent voice, the speech of the voiceless, telling a fascinating tale to all who will listen with open eyes and understanding.

Kinds of forms

All objects and persons have an outline, a profile, a silhouette, with assorted bumps, curves and angles. But it’s possible to think of form apart from all objects or persons. When a flicker takes off and flies, the swooping form of that flight, though it is not an actual object, etches itself upon our visual field, our experience, our memory. Anything, flicker or not, might trace out a similar line with rising and falling characteristics. You could draw such a line in the sand with a stick.

Anything that moves has to move in a certain “direction.” Each edge of anything, whether lying still or in motion, has a certain relative “orientation.” The various parts of a sequence of things must occur in some definite “order.” The concept of form emerges from the concepts of direction and order. All three are absolutely essential to any mental model we may conceive for this world.

Any linear form can be visualized quite independently of whatever could make it. The “figures” of geometrical diagrams consist of such “disembodied” linear forms. They may be very simple, such as those of “straight” lines and circles. Or they may be very complex, made up of all sorts of curves, angles and repetitions.

The general conception of form has several subclasses which should be distinguished from each other. The way some construction, say, a folding chair, is put together—i.e., the order in which its various parts are connected or, alternatively, the order of the various joinings of its parts—is called its organization. If the chair’s parts were connected to each other in some different way, its outline shape would not remain the same. It wouldn’t be the same chair at all if the armrests were attached, say, somewhere under the seat. It would then have a very different organization.

A chair might be built with the same organization but with somewhat different measurements. If each part were lengthened or shortened, thickened or thinned, according to some uniform scale of change, a series of chairs might be built ranging widely in size, but retaining the same organization.

If the measurements of some of the parts were changed, however, without changing all of the other parts according to the same uniform scale, or if the measuring of some parts were done sloppily, the shape of a chair built from such parts would look distorted or askew. To reproduce a chair in the same form, the measurements and scale of parts, angles and proportions must be carefully observed. When you are considering the measurements, proportions and materials of a chair, you aren’t dealing with its organization but with its structure. Structures which have the same organization of parts and joints may yet differ widely.

A temporary or casual organization of loosely connected parts is often called an arrangement. For example, books can be arranged on a shelf in all sorts of ways: alphabetically by author or title, by the colors of their covers, by standing them on edge or by piling them flat.

An arrangement’s organization and structure may be deliberately repeated to form a pattern.

When a sketch or model of an arrangement, pattern, organization or structure has been prepared with a view to making an actual object, or whatever, it may be called a design.

Form power

Power is revealed by form, but forms can also exert a power of their own. Indeed, the relative positioning of a thing in a structural arrangement may endow it with a store of energy. Any rock placed high up on the face of my excavation has great potential power. I carefully keep out of the way of such highly placed rocks when I’m easing them down to lower levels. If one of them escaped my control it could crush whatever it hit. Any building stone I lift into place in one of my walls, likewise, has potential power by virtue of its position.

The water at our springs up the hill occupies a higher position than the outlet faucets down below. When a tap is turned on, the water rushes with considerable force down the pipe from the spring into our sink. Someday it may turn a waterwheel for me. That wheel could turn a cylinder with pegs set in it in the right order to raise little hammers and play a tune when they fall on a resonant cedar “xylophone.” I’ll write some special “water music” for it to play! The topographical structure of our place—the lay of the land between the springs and sea level—gives the descending water its power. The organization and structure of my water-powered xylophone will give it a further power to produce musical sounds. Form in itself can give power.

Suppose I have to raise a large rock five inches off the ground in order to put a roller under it. If I set a block of wood a foot away from the stone as a pivot point, I could calculate how long the pry must be to provide the leverage for raising that weight of stone. The weight of the stone multiplied by its distance from the pivot block must be less than my weight times the distance from the pivot to my handhold on the pry. I know in advance that such an arrangement will always work. The universe will cooperate with me if I can provide a formation of things on my side of the pivot which will be more than equivalent to the arrangement on the stone’s side.

Equations in physics and engineering simply mean that the form (the arrangement) of things on one side of the equal sign is interchangeable with the arrangement of things on the other side. If the two forms are exactly equal, I cannot move the stone. If I am to move it, I must either become heavier or take a longer handhold position on the pry. Power often lies in form rather than in matter or energy. Knowing how to arrange a set of interacting forms often makes all the difference.

Energy tends to radiate away in all directions, to expand and disperse. If it is to be directed into some useful activity, it must be contained within boundary walls. From its base in such confinement, the energy may then be allowed to expand in some desirable direction through a pipe, a wire, a rod—some form of channel which will conduct it to where it can perform a useful task.

Free-floating steam will never turn a wheel. To do directed work, the steam must be confined within some form such as a hollow cylinder. The steam’s energy can then be delivered through a mechanical arrangement—a piston and connecting rod—to a drive wheel. With that set-up (form), steam can move a long, heavy train.

Electrical charges are found everywhere. Until they appear in concentrations such as batteries or condensers, and are channeled by wire into electric motors or light bulbs, the charges will not accomplish anything useful on command.

Energies or motions that are confined entirely within set bounds are said to be contained or restrained. Motions that are prevented from occurring except in a particular manner and definite direction are said to be “constrained.” Because forms are directional in themselves, they are able to constrain motions, forcing them to turn in certain definite directions. “Causes” may push or pull motions, but “constraining forms” direct motions.

Einstein showed us that “matter” is a form of energy. When matter is excited by heating, it will turn from a solid into a liquid, then into a gas and finally into a plasma. In plasma, the fourth state or phase of matter, the atoms have become so agitated that they have flown apart. Normal atomic order has disappeared in a chaos of ionized particles that can be contained only by a magnetic field or the supergravity of some great star. If the solid substance of a channel—pipe, wire or rod—were ever to become plasma, it would quickly vanish in a blaze of radiating energy. Plasma is as useless for channeling energy as is steam. Likewise a block of metal is not likely to function as a versatile mechanical channel. Until ingots have been reshaped by tools and techniques into useful forms such as pipes, wires or rods, the big metal blocks won’t do for many channeling jobs. The ability of a channeling substance to direct a flow of energy is derived from its form and phase.

If you change the form of something, you change its capabilities and powers. A roll of sheet metal will not hold much water unless it is manufactured into buckets. When powdered lead is shot from a gun it won’t penetrate a target to nearly the same depth as a solid bullet. In each case, the form (the concentration and cohesiveness of the substance) makes a big difference.

If a bullet were fired at me, and I shielded myself by holding a sheet of thin metal so that the bullet hits it straight on, the projectile would burst through. But if I were quick-thinking enough to turn the metal sheet at an acute angle to the approaching bullet, the death-dealing pellet might ricochet harmlessly off to one side. The form of the arrangement, the angle between the shield and the path of the projectile, could give my shield the ability to overpower and deflect the bullet.

Controlling the form of forms

Anyone who works with tools is aware of the power of form. With one and the same knife a woodcarver can pierce, pry, smooth down, split, sever, scrape and shave. The form, i.e., the inclination of the blade and the direction in which the motion of the knife is applied, as well as the pressure applied, largely determines what happens to a piece of wood under a knife. The knife blade has a form, but the wood also has its own form, its shape, density and grain. These must be respected and allowed for in carving. The woodcarver must relate the form of the knife to the form of the wood in such a way that the energy applied will produce the desired effect and not some other undesired splitting. When the forms of the knife and the wood are set properly in position with respect to each other and to the carving arm, a cut can be made as intended. The more skillful the carver, the fewer mistakes will be made in directing the energy. A carver must be in control of the form of three forms: the knife, the material, and the carving arm with its hand and fingers.

It is much the same when I’m trying to cut stone with a hammer and chisel. I have to change the original forms into new forms. My chisel, hammer and the stone have to be placed each in a certain position with respect to the others. If the chisel is not held at the proper angle, it will glance off the stone instead of delivering a cutting blow, or it may cleave the stone at a wrong angle. If the hammer blow is improperly aimed, the blow will deflect the chisel, perhaps smashing my holding hand. If the stone which is to be cut is not properly supported or is lying at the wrong angle under the chisel, it will not fracture according to plan. To direct my energy so as to cut a stone exactly where I want it to break, I have to line up all three—chisel, hammer and stone—in just the right form, or arrangement.

Whoever can control the form of all forms can control the world. You might call that epigram “Morphé’s Law” (pun intended—in Greek, morphé means “form”). These days “Murphy’s Law” has become very popular: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” But Murphy’s Law is true only because no earthly person can control the forms of absolutely everything all of the time.

Everywhere I look I can see the power of form at work. Take Old Smokey, the erstwhile oil drum now serving as our stove at Sechelt. Look at that heater from the standpoint of form, not from a standpoint of mass and energy. If the same weight of iron were in any form other than that of a hollow container about Smokey’s size, it would probably be useless as a stove. If the low fireplace opening at the front were much smaller, we’d be kept busy feeding the fire with small pieces of wood rather than larger chunks. If that opening were much larger, more smoke would be generated than the smoke pipe could carry away. Our shelter would then be filled with smoke, not people. To control the volume of air entering the stove, I put a wide belt of galvanized iron around Old Smokey’s “waist” just above the fireplace opening. This girdle slides up or down over the opening to make the size of the opening larger or smaller—a kind of fine tuning. The stove and the smoke pipe keep the smoke outside the shelter, yet allow the heat to radiate inside. Old Smokey is a veritable hotbed of forms that control.

Consider also the role of form in laying a wood fire. If the paper were put in on top of the kindling it would burn off quickly without setting fire to the wood underneath. It is good form, therefore, to place the paper under the kindling wood. If the wood were all in the form of large chunks, the paper would still burn away before the wood had become hot enough to catch fire. So dry wood should be split into the form of thinnish pieces of kindling that will heat through quickly enough to burst into flame. If the sticks of kindling are laid too closely together in parallel, neither hot gases nor oxygen can reach the center of that bundle of sticks any more easily than if the wood had still been as it once was, in a solid chunk. The kindling, therefore, should be laid in crisscrossing, loosely spaced layers. This arrangement provides a maximum number of spaces through which hot gases may rise from paper burning underneath. If your wood is reasonably dry and if you lay a fire in the right form, you’ll not likely have any trouble getting a blaze. Furthermore, it is easy to add more wood on top of this arrangement of sticks.

So we now have our stove constructed correctly and our paper and wood set out correctly. However, with these things alone as they are we’ll never boil a kettle or warm a hand. A flame must be brought to the paper. Applying or withholding a flame is the commonest form of heat control—the simple on-off method. It’s a matter of form.

The best-laid fires will soon burn themselves out. If we want a long-lasting fire, we must have a supply of dry wood and keep adding some to the fire as necessary. So to heat our shelter, we need more than old Smokey. We need more than paper and matches. We have to have a woodpile, a saw, an ax and a source of logs. To produce and supply a controlled fire, all of these things must be coordinated in proper operational form.

Coordination refers to the correct forming of forms in both space and time. The right things have to be together in the right place at the right time in the right formation and the right motions to fulfill a certain purpose.

A triangle is a simple form of forms. It is composed of three straight lines joined at three vertices, each pair of lines forming one of three angles. For bracing the joints in the frame of a house, a bridge or any other structure, this triangular formation is unsurpassable. Each side of a triangle, made of materials such as wood or metal, has two functions: it holds the ends of the other two sides apart, and at the same time holds them together. Thus no angle in a triangularly braced section of a well-made frame can change. The triangular arrangement of the side members restrains every angle-changing tendency. Under an application of strong forces, the shape of a square, a quadrilateral, or any other plane figure with more than three sides, will likely collapse unless diagonal cross-braces are introduced across the joints to produce subsidiary triangular forms within the major form. A triangular pyramid, being composed of four mutually reinforcing triangular sides, is an extremely stable and strong unit to build into any three-dimensional structure.

Ever-changing yet the same

One interesting class of forms consists of those which remain more or less unchanged despite the continual changing of their material contents. People have always been fascinated by the phenomena of flames, waterfalls and fountains.

As a lighted candle burns, its wax slowly melts, climbs the wick and is transformed into streaming, hot, glowing gases—a flame. If the room is free from drafts, the flame will retain its characteristic form until almost all the wax has been consumed. The shape of the flame remains constant as long as the rate of supply of air and wax continues the same.

The waters flowing along the bed of a stream and over a rocky precipice are continually being renewed—new water every second. Yet the waterfall in general retains its allover shape and configuration as long as the forms of the substratum and the rocky precipice do not change significantly, and as long as the rate of flow neither increases nor decreases. The rate of flow is determined by environmental conditions upstream.

A water fountain will also maintain its shape as long as the pressure and rate of supply of the water, as well as the size of the apertures and direction of the fountain’s nozzles, remain unchanged.

The forms of things which are moving within channels remain constant, due to the control exercised by the channels. The channels themselves, like the pipes within which water flows, are largely indifferent as to which particular molecules or atoms are passing through them.

Every particle in a human body is said to be replaced every seven years. Like the flame of a candle, each of us is therefore a continual streaming of particles that enter our body, become part of our physical form for a time and pass out again. Nevertheless each of us somehow seems to maintain the same general appearance for a long time.

What keeps our personal forms under control? Why do our fingers stop growing at a certain length while their nails keep growing? Why does each of us not become as big as Tyrannosaurus rex? Or bigger?

All organisms have to live within certain outward controls, such as physical barriers, and limiting conditions such as gravitational forces. They can live only within certain ranges of temperature and pressure, and within reach of suitable food.

Those external physical constraints, however influential they may be, do not altogether determine or explain the constancy of the outward forms of living organisms. Nor does that law of dynamics which holds that anything at rest or in motion will continue in that state of motion until a new force is applied to it. Our skeleton, our skin and connective tissues do hold us together, helping to maintain our general structure and size, but even in these parts of our bodies the cells are continually changing.

The exact nature of the internal constraints that produce the constancies of our shape and organization is not clear. Our inherited genes with their particular arrangements of DNA may be part of the explanation.

Very shortly after the radical change called “death,” my body will begin to break down and disintegrate. The set of particles which composed my body before I died will eventually disperse and become completely unidentifiable. Some of them may then be taken up to participate in the body of one or more animals or other human beings. This transition poses grievous problems for anyone who thinks that “the resurrection of the body” means the complete reassembling of all the specific molecules that were in each body when that person died. If a particular molecule has actually participated in a succession of different bodies, to which body would it belong when bodies are being reassembled? There wouldn’t be enough jointly participant molecules to reconstitute completely all of their respective bodies at the same time. Some molecules would always have to be missing.

Human beings, however, are usually recognized by their figures, features, characteristic behavior and stores of remembered experiences. The individual identity of the molecules which constitute them is rarely established. These more obvious human “forms” are quite indifferent as to exactly which beneficent constitutive particles happen to be passing through them at any given time. The calcium in my bones probably came from cow’s milk that I drank. Perhaps through the soil in which some vegetable grew I ingested something from a disintegrated animal bone, or from the shell of a prehistoric shellfish. The specific organismic origin of the calcium has no known effect on the actual form of my bones. So long as God remembers and preserves adequate information regarding each person’s figure, features and relationships, no one need worry about the mode of the postmortem dispersal of their bodily substances.

Invisible forms

Some kinds of forms are not directly visible. For a computer, “spaces” between words, though invisible, are definite realities. Magnetic signals as imprinted upon magnetic recording tape cannot be detected or read off directly by the human eye. The powerful magnetic field around magnets cannot be seen, although field effects on nearby iron filings are observable. For quite a while after people have walked along a path, dogs can still pick up traces of people odors. Each person exudes an invisible aura of smells which, to doggy sensitivity, may be their principal identifying feature. Each of us continuously radiates heat. Although we ourselves cannot see it, that radiation can be detected by infrared sensors and by some snakes. Radio waves of various forms have always been ricocheting through space everywhere around the human race, but until radio detectors were invented the existence of this form of radiation was not suspected. If I were speaking these words directly to you rather than writing them, the patterns of sound waves which would then be conveying my meaning to you would be just as effective as inked words on paper, even though they would be invisible.


The realm of visible forms includes not only boundaries, outlines, angles, frameworks, surfaces and patterns of orderly arrangements, but also the path, track or trajectory traced out through space and time by whatever is moving. The swooping-swooping flight of a flicker has already been mentioned. But everything and everyone is in motion, so everything and everyone is tracing out a different trajectory. As time goes on, a particular person may move from place to place. That person’s “life-trajectory” consists of the moment-after-moment successive positions in space which were occupied. That particular life-path could not have been made by any other person, because two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. The trajectorial form of a person’s life is therefore a unique means of identification. No two people can have exactly the same life history. A complete record describing the total form which my life has actually taken could be called “me.” My “life” is all the life-situations that I have gone through and am currently going through. My life is not merely some mystical animating principle which is at work in me as long as I am alive. It is also my total life-story.

Sometimes at Sechelt when it is very dark, we put the ends of some long dry sticks into our campfire. Once they are burning we pull them out of the blaze and swoosh their fiery ends around in the night to write messages to each other in letters of light. It takes skill and forethought to write “mirror letters” so that they can be read by a person facing the writer.

Although the actual glowing coal at the end of the stick is always moving on from where it has just been, the image of much of its path lingers awhile in our eyes as a glowing line. During the movement of the bright coal, it cannot be seen as a single dot of red light. Our experience of the path of the glowing stick is produced not only by the light from the ember, but also by our own visual apparatus. The images that fall on the retinas of our eyes are prolonged by the slow-fading characteristics of our ocular chemistry. We certainly do see those red lines, though at any given moment nothing but a single spot of fire is there to be seen.

Some night each of us will disappear from this world. May the forms of our life-trajectories glow on afterward in the eye of God, spelling out for him a unique message which no one else could ever read or remember or see as a whole.