The Parable of the Prodigal Scientific Methodology (dedicated to my friend Andrew Wilson) image

The Parable of the Prodigal Scientific Methodology (dedicated to my friend Andrew Wilson)

Twice upon a time, Father Wisdom planted a garden, marking out its borders, selecting and arranging shrubs and flowers, constructing trellises and sharpening shears. As time went by, his twin children Nature and Nurture grew up also, each delighting in different facets of their father’s creation and profession. Nurture would happily assist her father in weeding and pruning, shaping bushes, removing dead branches, and wrapping stray creepers back into place in the lattice. Nature preferred to help his father with the seedbeds in the greenhouse, a marvellous profusion of colours and forms. He learned how cuttings could be grafted from one fruit tree into another, and how particular plants might flourish in different niches around the garden. When they were big enough to reach with the shears or balance the wheelbarrow, Father Wisdom gave his twins joint responsibility to manage the garden under his oversight. His plan was that eventually, when they had come of age, they would together be ready to receive the whole garden as their inheritance.

As they approached adulthood, though, Nurture started to resent her brother’s ever-growing variety and number of species filling every corner of the garden.  Secretly, she was afraid that she would prove inadequate to the task of maintaining Father’s ever-beautiful order and harmony throughout the vast garden.  She began bossing Nature about, uprooting his new breeds of flower from certain areas as if they were weeds.  She harshly pruned some of his best experimental vines before they could outstretch fully.  She even claimed Father’s authority for cutting all new shrubs into the same handful of shapes originally used, pointedly ignoring all of the wise recommendations of her brother.

Eventually, Nature had put up with his sister’s bullying long enough.  He was the stronger of the two, and when the chance arose, he proclaimed himself the sole owner of the garden.  Avoiding his father’s gaze, and ignoring his sister’s loud protestations, he locked Nurture in her toolshed.  With his meddlesome twin safely out of the way, he set about undoing as much of her hard work as he could; when he was finished no-one would ever know she had been there at all.  The whole garden was now his greenhouse, his personal experiment.  Hedges would be allowed to find their own shapes, rosebushes their natural height, dandelions their preferred locations, ivy its optimum extent.  Interference was anathema, observation became dogma.  Each plant would be given the same chance of success, equal rights to win its place in the sun without help from him or anyone else.  If it survived, it deserved to win – he had learned that lesson himself, after all.

Gradually, the garden took on the guise of a jungle, while Nurture gave up shouting and busied herself with endlessly rearranging the tools in her toolshed.  Outside, colours struggled to emerge from the mass of nature, green in root and spore.  What fruits still grew were small and hard.  Borders lost all definition.  As for the trellises which were already quite impossible to extricate, Nature told himself that it didn’t really matter – they had clearly been built subsequently, to imitate the vines’ own innate structural tendencies.  Some patterns from his father’s original designs in different regions of the garden stubbornly resisted his reinterpretations.  But that was okay.  Those patterns would, he was convinced, have grown that way anyway by themselves, if given enough time and space.

When Nurture had learned her lesson, her brother warily allowed her out of the toolshed once more, and back into his garden.  Grateful for the freedom, she wasted no time in reassuring him that this was exactly what she herself had planned the garden to look like all along.  After all, it did have a certain attractiveness to it, a wild untamed sort of beauty, surely just the type of situation their father would have wanted.  Nature bristled at the mention of Father; that old man hardly poked his nose into the garden any more, ever since the notice about the change of ownership had been posted on the gate.  Presumably he had realised that his time as gardener had come to an end just a little sooner than he had planned, and that the garden had been inherited by the most deserving of the twins.  Father’s designs and his judgment had both been so hopelessly old-fashioned – I mean, who in their right mind would give a girl joint responsibility for looking after a garden?  Even Nurture agreed with hardly a grumble.  She seemed happy enough to leave her tools in the toolshed where they belonged, only bringing them out when needed to dig up the neat paths of paving stones, which Father had laid so precisely throughout the garden.  They might have been useful once, but times change.  It is so restrictive to be told exactly where one ought to walk, particularly when roots will always end up asserting their superior right to occupy those positions anyway.

As the appointed time approached for the twins’ coming of age, Nurture happened to meet her father on one of her occasional trips back to the toolshed.  He reminded her about a story he used to tell her and her brother as children; this one was about the early days of the garden, long before either of them could remember.  As the story went, Father had planted this garden once before.  The layout had been quite different to the present garden, but you could just about see what it had been like if you looked hard enough, or from far enough away.  That garden had also been entrusted to apprentices, naughty ones who had let it go to ruin while they fought with each other or else just lounged around eating fruit.  Father knew that the river running through the garden was getting blocked up by garden debris, and it would not endure that for much longer.  He warned them of the urgent danger, but they refused to listen.  Eventually, he took a wheelbarrow and filled it with saplings and seeds representing each type of plant in the garden.  Removing it from harm’s way, he then allowed the frustrated river finally to find a new way around the blockage.  As it overflowed its banks, it swept away the entire garden, along with its unfortunate supervisors, tolerant to the very end.  What a sad loss of a beautiful garden.  But he had at least made preparations for a new one.  Father dug out several streambeds across the devastated waste ground, so that the raging river waters would drain away and calm down again.  He then replanted the garden from the barrowful of rescued seedlings, which would flourish in the care of new gardeners.  The twins liked that part.  But they were anxious – what if the river destroyed this garden too?  Father would explain that he had designed the streams to meander together along the new path carved by the once mighty river, so that the river could never do that again.  Even so, unless they listened carefully to his instructions, something else equally catastrophic could happen to both themselves and the garden.

Returning to her brother, Nurture repeated the Tale of the Blocked River as she remembered it.  Perhaps Father Wisdom was implying something about our, I mean your, current management of the garden?  In response, Nature led his naïve sister over to one of the streams and pointed to a big tree branch that had recently fallen down into it.  The stream had begun to overflow its banks, searching out a new course around the obstacle.  Father was probably just remembering one particularly large disturbance many years ago, and exaggerating it.  What an obvious attempt to scare them into giving him back the ownership of the garden.  After all, what sign is there now of any large river running through the garden?  No, it was the combined action of the streams which had created the garden’s valley, slowly over countless generations.  And don’t let Father tell you that he planted everything, either.  Nature was quite confident that all of this diverse vegetation had in fact spread out over time, all from a few tiny seeds that once happened to arrive in a stork’s droppings.  How preposterous to suggest that gardens must have been formed by gardeners.

Seeing the unarguable logical simplicity of her brother’s explanation, Nurture went back to the toolshed and posted a sign: ‘All retired gardeners are kindly requested to stop interfering with the tools, and keep well away from my toolshed.’  Back in the garden, she made her way to the one quiet spot where her brother would allow her to sit and think – a comfortably overgrown patch of what had once been the path.  Closing her eyes, she fell asleep to the soothing creaking of the huge tree bough above her, groaning under the vast weight of its unpruned profusion of self-expression.

                    She who has ears to hear, let her listen.

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