“In God’s wildness is the hope of the world,”
wrote John Muir while tramping through Alaska on
a long mission to meet that hope on its own terms.
Not to snub the majesty of perfect sunsets,
Muir might hasten to add, but is there a
nobler expression of divine engagement,
of a super-charged world ripe and
overflowing with portent and awe,
than a severely blackened sky followed by
lightning cascading across its canvas?
Or even in suburbia, biking in a hot howling wind,
when one forsakes actually getting anywhere, but
instead peddles slowly, mouth agape at neighborhood
trees gone horizontal under relentless gusts.
One is given to laughter in these moments,
marveling at the audacity of us humans,
all puffed up with self-importance,
Charlie Chaplin characters marching up to
Brawny Nature and proclaiming our freedom
from its transgressions with the bulwarks of
our houses and stores, bricks and concrete.
Is there anything more futile than flood or
hurricane survivors, their world awash,
staring into the television camera and
vowing to rebuild “on this very spot!”?
We are gods in our own minds, though
who is to say we are not better for the effort?
Perhaps the vanquished will rebuild indeed,
and a worthy story it will make, but the
reaper shall take its due from them and
you and me, too, all of us falling, falling, every
last shred of our world collapsing back into the
great (and natural) void from where we emerged.
A bald fact, that, serving as both balm and spur,
humbler and motivator, mocking and cajoling us to
live, now, bodacious beasts probing the wildness within.
Longtime readers with really good memories might sense a familiar note or two in the above, which I adapted from a relevant paragraph in an August, 2013 post on John Muir and rendered into this experiment in poetic form. (Because some things are just worth emphasizing again…)
Meanwhile, you’re invited to visit my 1-minute daily blog on Facebook, where I present snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied always by lovely photography from the world of Flickr. http://www.facebook.com/TraversingBlog
Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Photo of crashing waves on lighthouse by Alfonso Maseda Varela, A Coruña, Spain, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/braveheart1999/
This is a powerful and inspiring reminder, Andrew, and helps to restore perspective as we go about our human tasks in a world that pays so little homage to the natural and wild, both within us and all around us. Not surprisingly, this brings to mind a poem, a fine poem by Wendell Berry:
I Go Among Trees
I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
Angela, I am always more than happy to share a page with Wendell Berry, though I fear I come out of that encounter with all audacity muted, humbled before that icon and god of the written word. Thanks for sharing this!
Well said, Andrew! It is the very fact that nature allows us to feel so small and insignificant that seems to give us so much comfort. It is as though we intuitively know how perverted our sense of self-importance is. Nature helps us to restore ourselves to a proper perspective. A balm of the highest order indeed. Thanks!
Powerful and provocative point, Al: that we actually welcome and need the humility that nature brings to us, whether we overtly invite it or not. I’m reminded of Islam and the essential meaning of that word being “submission,” which has lamentably gone on to be interpreted and practiced in ill ways by some adherents, but which is at least on the right track with respect to our bowing before the majesty and overwhelming power of the creation.
I have been blessed, in my first few years of retirement, to live close to nature in Port Townsend, Washington. Transition to retirement was much more difficult than I had imagined. In it I found some fear and loss; and bountiful amounts of lost identity and confusion. Communing with the waters of the Puget Sound and sitting amidst the trees of the Northwest has been healing and grounding. Those things that identified me (or, more accurately, that I identified as me) fade as I open myself to the spaces and serenity of this magnificent environment. Sitting amidst the trees on a bluff overlooking the Straight of Juan de Fuca recently it occurred to me that for many of my Wednesday afternoons at this hour I had been doing important things such as attending meetings of the Faculty Senate, the Department Chairs and, of critical world importance, the Board of Trustees. A few deep breaths later I gave thanks that I have come to a phase where gazing out to stretches of the sea is worthwhile and I have no need to apologize to myself for that.
In the Spring Patti and I will be heading back to Alaska on a cruise ship. While some of the little ports, like Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchikan are mainly tourist traps these days, it sailing through the inner passage and fjords that I find awe inspiring. We sail by places where no human foot has ever stepped. It is a profound sight. But as spectacular as the inner passage is, the North Pacific Ocean can be also be magnificent.
Several years ago I took a photograph from our cabin’s balcony of a sunset on the horizon of a stormy sea. When I looked at the picture on my camera I was a bit disappointed. It appeared that there were two smudges on picture. Back home I took my photo disk to a camera shop, where they enlarged the photograph. To my surprise the two smudges were two whales spouting just to the right of a sunbeam stretching across the water.
Wilderness seems to help me get grounded. Just when I think of my world being the life I live, the vastness of nature helps me put things back into perspective.
I no longer carry a pack on my back and venture into wilderness for 10 days, 20 days at a time as I did in my youth (20s into my 30s) as an instructor for Outward Bound. Then I lived close to the earth and could tell just how far away lightning was, how much daylight was left without looking at a watch, or when we could count on the blueberries to be ripe as we crested a hill in the Smoky Mountains. Yet I carry those memories into my 60s, and I carry that connection to the land, and the sky, and the waterways in ways that shape me to this day, and inspire me to be an activist for environmental preservation and justice. We are only fully human when we embrace nature, and it is ever more urgent for us to teach our children and grandchildren of its importance, and to fight for it in the public and political realms.