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Self-Portrait: Introspection Through the Social Distancing from Society and Rationalism

By: Yuki Ito

Cost, product, and waste. Such was the extent of my creative thought process prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Being an environmental chemistry major, I had always been focused on very concrete concepts, like calculating the exact amount of reagent A to drive the reaction equilibrium and deplete all of reagent B, or knowing the exact ratio of polar and non-polar eluents to successfully purify a liquid compound and how much impurities would remain. I was taught to have as much control over all factors as possible in my creative process, also known as experimental procedures. It was not until the global economy came to a sudden halt in March 2020 that I first saw the limiting effects an industrial society can have on human thinking. Western rationalism had invaded, colonized, and rewired my brain into a strictly input and output mindset.

My realization on the manipulative nature of living in an industrial society started when I picked up a new hobby: container-growing plants. When I first began growing, my philosophy was what industrial society had taught me; have as much control of the environment as possible to maximize production. This meant only planting one plant per pot, fertilizing the plant with a calculated ratio of nitrates to phosphates to potassium, and removing “pests” from the leaves. However, over the next few weeks, I noticed my plant slowly dying, and the soil started to smell off-putting. This was when I had the rude awakening: modern-day humans are so preoccupied with man-made concepts like production and finance that we have grown extremely out-of-touch with the processes in nature and the interconnectedness of life around us. 

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Since my growing failure was still early in the season, I had a chance to redeem myself with a jalapeno pepper plant that I had been neglecting. Ironically, this plant looked very healthy, with dark green leaves and good-smelling soil. I reflected on this as well as my previous failure and decided to go with a more hands-off approach. Conveniently, I had just learned in my chemistry class about soil microbiology and their role in the nitrogen cycle as well as the decomposition of organic matter. There also exist fungi in the soil that can colonize plant roots and nurture them in exchange for a portion of the plant’s photosynthesized sugars. Learning about this was the biggest eye-opener, as now I am no longer growing a plant; I am maintaining an ecosystem. Below is a photograph of mushrooms, called parasola plicatilis, that grew from the same jalapeno container.

Seeing the interconnectedness of life through my potted soil, I had a total overhaul of my philosophy in life.  Contrary to the concrete ways of western rationalism, I did a semi-abstract, introspective portrait of my past self (displayed before the essay). I made it in a grotesque manner to indicate everything wrong with me prior to this realization. In the piece, I am a miscreation with many deformed features all over my body showing my neglect for life around me. The speck of light I am focused on is career, education, money, that I am too distracted by to see the other parts of life. The tube going into my head is the extraction and removal of ideas considered unimportant to the unsustainable growth of an industrial society. 

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