Meditation on nature

Close your eyes and breathe in. How do we meditate about nature? Let us think of some cliché scenes of nature: magnificent Alpine peaks, unspoilt blue lakes, endless tundra, rain forest. The concept of nature seems to be defined as those objects left alone by men. The fewer humans have set foot somewhere, the more natural that place is.

This idea of nature as ‘that which humans are no part of’ is intuitive to everyone who ever took a hike, but impossible to uphold in a serious intellectual debate. The emotional appeal of sublime and beautiful nature works because we are a part of it, and it is a part of us (we only need to think about the billions of friendly gut bacteria who reside in our belly). The juxtaposition man – nature is translated in an entanglement of the two, in which the terms are rather vague.

Still, the concept of nature is among us and it appears to mean something different than simply ‘being’. We remember Lord Byron’s famous romantic lines “I love not Man the less, but Nature more”. Nature is more awe-inspiring to him than people. He imagines ‘mingling’ with the Universe. He wants integration in nature as a pure enjoying observer, without the cumbersome dynamics of human relations. Yet, he must remain distinguishable from nature, so every now and then his self-awareness as an observer flares up. I see Lord Byron floating on a pristine lake, gazing at the clouds and the green hills, while he lets the awareness of his awe and his attentiveness slowly sink, until a fly wakes him up by sitting on his nose.

Breathe, Byron. Our concept of nature is fully artificial. It is a mental artefact that we create every time we observe the world and try to translate that sublime, overwhelming feeling of a raw, imposing reality into a short word. When we advocate “more nature in cities” we don’t care about our intestinal residents but about flowering plants and other forms of groomed, cultivated nature. When we say we “go into nature” we don’t mean a walk in the garden, but a hike in a primary forest or a sailing trip to an uninhabited island. We construct these concepts of nature when and as we need them to make sense of the world, to understand our instinctive primate reaction to the experience of the sublime.

In the same way, we distinguish ourselves as free agents from our human nature, the concept of which we often invoke to explain away the weakness of our will. We don’t think about breathing or drinking water when we bring up human nature, but about character traits. Here too, the category of nature helps us to interpret and bear our emotions, such as shame, envy or guilt.

We still love nature, and we are still going to call her nature. But we slowly become aware of our vantage point and the inadequacy of our concept. May a bird song remind us that we are that bird’s nature.

Meditation on nature was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: Another Species by Peter Kane Dufault

American poet Peter Kane Dufault (1923 – 2013) was also a tree surgeon, pollster, fiddler and banjo-player. His writing career spans nearly sixty years. Here a simple poem about species extinction, because it is a topic I am upset about:

Another Species
Kestrel too? Dwindling now?
That small falcon somehow
quarried out of a rainbow
in its saffron and ash-blue
blazons — and nary a one
seen yet, and the year half-gone?

Watching two of them once
tumbling among canyons
and crags of summer cloud,
I felt top-lofty, proud
to be in the same world with them.
But I suppose, even then,
it had been moot how much
longer they could live with us.

Some good news to begin with: the Mauritius Kestrel (Falcon punctatus) was nearly extinct fifty years ago but its population but recently, its numbers have soared. Dufault is talking about the American Kestrel, whose numbers are down by 66% compared to 2016 according to a 2016 article. Habitat loss and pesticides are to blame.

I like the strange language (to my ears) of the bird quarrying out of a rainbow in saffron and ash-blue blazons. It gives the bird its magic that we tend to forget if we’re not ornithologists. Dufault likens the sky and the earth again when clouds become canyons and crags. He seems to suggest changing places with the bird, seeing the world from the kestrel’s eyes. That causes the top-lofty feeling of pride to be in the same world with them. I like it when poetry does this, it’s why I admire W.S. Merwin and Wendell Berry.

Let’s hope it will not be moot how much longer any fellow creature could live with us.

Reading: Another Species by Peter Kane Dufault was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: For The Anniversary Of My Death by W.S. Merwin

W.S. Merwin (b. 1927) is an American poet who became famous as an anti-war poet in the 1960s. He later developed an interest in buddism and deep ecology and moved to an old banana plantation on Maui, Hawai, which he restored to its original rainforest state. I read a timeless poem about celebrating the anniversary not of your birth, but of your death:

For the anniversary of my death
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveller
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

It’s a neat invention: celebrating your deathday instead of your birthday. The detail that we don’t know (thank god) which day it will be can be dealt with. Merwin mentions the last fires (cremation? He is a Buddhist after all). The astronomical metaphor seems to be a black hole, a collapsed star whose gravity is too strong for light to escape. It’s ‘beam’ is not visible light, but perhaps some kind of Stephen Hawking effect. Or the gravitational ‘beam’ that pulls everything inward and into spaghetti, like Neil the Grass Tyson explains.

In the second stanza he likens life to a strange garment. He observes himself with the gentle eye of a detached soul, a soul well versed in feeling detached. The love of one woman (Mr. Merwin married once, in 1983, to Paula Schwarz). The shamelessness of men could refer to the destruction of nature. Of course it does.

Three. Days. Interpreters will rush to point out the biblical, but let us not. After the rain the wren (brown insectivorous bird of the northern hemisphere) sings again and Merwin sums up the practice of his religion in a striking formula: bowing not knowing to what. It’s not a perfect rhyme, there is some difference between the sounds and I’m sure critics and do a dissertation on that. We just observe it’s an awesome formula for a religious experience that honestly accepts our ignorance in these matters.

Reading: For The Anniversary Of My Death by W.S. Merwin was originally published on Meandering home

Reading: On The Mountain by John Haines

John Haines (1924-2011) was a poet laureate of Alaska so imagine snow and huskies and winter cabins. I read a poem about a mountain that is praised for its precision. If you’ve ever walked on a serious mountain, this might remind you:

On the mountain

We climbed out of timber,
bending on the steep meadow
to look for berries,
then still in the reddening sunlight
went on up the windy shoulder.

A shadow followed us up the mountain
like a black moon rising.
Minute by minute the autumn lamps
on the slope burned out.

Around us the air and the rocks
whispered of night . . .

A great cloud blew from the north,
and the mountain vanished
in the rain and stormlit darkness.

I just read a beautiful description of a mountain trek I did once in Argentina or Europe. I haven’t hiked in the far north but I have been in snowy mountain forests on the German-Austrian border. The first stanza sets the stage perfectly: berry gathering at nightfall.

The shadow following the couple (I assume there are two people, where could that assumption come from?) should not be interpreted religiously, like, there is a black moon and the darkness of heart follows us when we look for the forbidden fruit. Forget it. You’re out. That is not what Haines meant.

Speaking of religion, he shows a vitalist world view in which air and rocks can whisper.

Reading: On The Mountain by John Haines was originally published on Meandering home