I recently arrived at the intersection of two personal discoveries and a small poetic experiment—Umwelt—was the result (poems are being collected and edited currently).
So here we had a:
A vague genealogical connection
An old MySpace “diary” from 2005
= Umwelt (German = “environment”)
Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll
I uncovered that I am likely, loosely “related” to Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll (1864 –1944), a Baltic-German biologist who established biosemiotics as a field of research. Baron von Uexküll was always presented to me as a possible great uncle, via my paternal grandmother, who claims her aunt (her mother’s sister, Marija Kulvietis) “married” a baron of this name, who met her in St. Petersburg, Russia, and instantly fell in love with her.
The story my grandmother told me once is a romantic one. She was a young beauty in the late 1890’s (turn of the 20th century), and Baron von Uexküll—an older man—allegedly wooed Marija with many gifts. On Marija’s birthday (in Russia) he stacked a pyramid of cigar boxes—each with a small gift inside—in the foyer of his home (?). She was overcome with such happiness and wonder—each box—hundreds of them stacked nearly to the ceiling—revealed a tiny, beautiful prize inside: chocolates, jewel-crusted hairpins, velvet ribbons and bows, brooches, earrings, dried or fresh blossoms…anything he could find that had significance/meaning to her. It is interesting to note that Baron von Uexküll had a wife, Gudrun Baroness von Uexküll, and three children— Sophie Luise Damajanti von Uexküll, born in 1904, when Baron von Uexküll was 40 years old; Karl Kuno Thure Baron von Üxküll, born in 1908, when Baron von Uexküll was 44 years old; and Gustav Adolf Gösta Baron von Uexküll, born in 1909.
So it’s less possible my great-aunt Marija married to Baron von Uexküll, and most possible she was a love interest before the Baroness (née Gräfin von Schwerin). Baron von Uexküll would have been age 26-28 and my great-aunt Marija perhaps 18-21.
Uexküll was born in Estonia. His family lost most of their fortune during the Russian Revolution. He took a job as professor at the University of Hamburg where he founded the Institut für Umweltforschung (Institute for Environmental Research).
Biosemiotics, & Umwelt
Broadly, biosemiotics (Greek = “bios” = “life”, and “semeion” = “sign”) studies forms of communication and signification within—and between—living systems. It’s the study of representation, meaning, sense, and the biological significance of codes and sign processes—from genetic code sequences to intercellular signaling processes to animal display behavior to human semiotic artifacts (such as language and abstract symbolic thought).
In other words: from the chemical passwords that a sperm cell must excrete in order to obtain access to the egg, to mating rituals, bird song, and formation of alliances among chimpanzees—semiotics can be a central tool set for biology and the medical sciences.
Uexküll’s most notable contribution to biosemiotics is the notion of umwelt, (German = “environment”). He was interested in how living beings perceive their environment(s), and argued that organisms perceive the experience of living in terms of species-specific, spatio-temporal, “self-in-world” subjective reference frames that he called umwelt (translated as milieu, situation).
So he meant umwelt as an organism’s external environment AND its inner world.
The umwelt is composed of two parts, the innenwelt or self-oriented features, and the umgebung, or world-oriented features. Together, they describe the individual’s subjective viewpoint, or embedding, which has the property of being ubiquitous, as compared to the observer’s objective viewpoint, which has the property of being universal.
Every living organism creates its own world, its own reflection of the surrounding environment and acts in this environment according to this reflection. Living organisms are not passive objects of the operation of natural laws, but active subjects that influence the processes in nature.
Jesper Hoffmeyer, Professor Emeritus at the Biological Institute of Copenhagen University, explains it best: “All living things have an inside that relates to an outside.”
Uexküll’s ideas about how organisms create their own concept of time are described in Peter Høeg’s novel Borderliners, and contrasted with Isaac Newton’s view of time as something that exists independent of life.
2012 Nov 27 – Science & Cocktails, Jesper Hoffmeyer
Fifteenth Annual Gathering in Biosemiotics – Copenhagen 30 June to 4 July 2015
International Society for Biosemiotic Studies
Biosemiotics: Information, Codes and Signs in Living Systems
BIOSEMIOTICS: A NEW SCIENCE OF BIOLOGY?
Slovak Academy of Sciences
Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll