Isolation + Convenience = Art

IMG_3578Saturn Parkway feels isolated, even with cars, even during the morning clamor and hustle for lane position beyond the Port Royal merge: commuter frenzy and misplaced rage; Dodge Chargers riding bumpers and Honda Civics with custom exhaust systems buzz-whining from your blindspot like cranky string trimmers; the feeling that no one sees the beauty of the growing light, soft in the treetops: everyone is sequestered in their rolling, windowed cocoons, looking at phones, eating breakfast–angry-seeming, hostile, indifferent, closed-off. I have to ignore the indifference and rage, or else my equanimity erodes–my sense of worldly equilibrium and mental poise; I feel my own rage swell. Pointless. How do people stand it?

But the isolation, I like. It’s false, of course–tens of thousands of people live in Spring Hill–IMG_3579but out on the nearby highways the feeling is there. Saturn Parkway and Highway 840, the two four-lane belts stretched tight across lower Williamson and upper Maury counties and forming the northern and southern perimeters of Thompson’s Station and Spring Hill, are bordered by trees and fields. Broad, shallow-sweeping hills hide the stacked and jagged subdivisions of new and newer construction; a great herd of cattle–Black Angus, presumably–snuff lazily along majestic, Middle Tennessee pastureland, idle as the sun, less than a mile from where construction cannot match demand. Driving into the area, one may not realize that they enter a place where population has outstripped infrastructure, where roads do not accommodate traffic.

The isolation may be false, but its effect on the mind is not. Yet it’s a tricky thing–we Spring Hillians have the option, while driving home from work, to either dwell on this imaginary isolation or remind ourselves that civilization lies just beyond the trees. I doubt that many people think about this at all, actually. I’m a weirdo that has to have a slant way of seeing things, an ethereal territory on which to plant my mind, or else a place will never be a real place for me. When we moved from Nashville’s urbs to its suburbs, I needed to find something about Spring Hill in which to root my imagination–a milieu of my own. Nashville was rich with it; stories dripped from every brick. But what did Spring Hill have? So far I’ve landed on isolation, albeit an isolation with modern conveniences. And isolation can be a welcome thing for an artist.

I wonder what other territories Spring Hill will present. Meanwhile, we’re building one of our own with flowers, trees, and playground equipment. And I’m wallowing in artistic isolation, which is the good kind.

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Seeing Is Being

     As an idealistic undergraduate student, some twenty years ago, I held capital-r Romantic ideas about nature. I identified with William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson and their spiritual, transcendental writings; I took walks in the woods, believing humankind to have some kind of symbiotic relationship with the earth. Stopping short of worshiping nature, it nevertheless seemed that there was something spiritual at the back of it. There was something that my soul needed, embodied in the dusk: orange light sifted through bare branches; mystery descending in the cool air; the way that near-darkness teases the eyes. Dusk was (and is) the most magical time.

CAMBODIA, Siem Reap. Doorway at Prasat Bram temple, several brick towers enclosed by tree roots, part of 10th century Ankorian site at Koh Ker.
CAMBODIA, Siem Reap. Doorway at Prasat Bram temple, several brick towers enclosed by tree roots, part of 10th century Ankorian site at Koh Ker.

     I still feel those sensations, but now something else has settled into my bones, a feeling unshakable: nature does not need us. Nature accommodates us, but she doesn’t need us. If a plague rubbed us all out of existence, she would go on. In other words, nature is indifferent to us. Sure, certain plants benefit from our care; certain animal populations thrive because of conservation efforts. But on the whole, nature was fine before we got here and she’ll be fine when we’re gone.* And haven’t I always suspected this? Haven’t I always known that this affection only traveled one way?

Yet I won’t end on that dreary note. A greater realization has replaced that earlier longing. Frank Lloyd Wright said, “Architecture is the triumph of human imagination over materials, methods, and men to put man into possession of his own earth.” If you substitute the word ‘art’ for ‘architecture,’ then you’ll begin to get what I’m driving at. Taking ownership, i.e., creating order, i.e., creating meaning, or what Wright calls “the triumph of the imagination,” is a way that we humans excel. (We also excel at creating chaos, but that is not what this post is about.)

The way that this ties to nature lies in the way we look at nature. It’s the very thing that I didn’t realize I was doing as an undergrad: I was seeing in nature what I needed to see. In a world that can be hostile to the imagination, and that values efficiency,productivity, and economy over art, I needed mystery and beauty. And I still do. Nature, with all her forms and textures and colors–her caprices, excesses, and austerity–is the perfect canvas on which to project these needs.

     So this is what we do, I’m convinced. We project onto things, and by projecting, we create meaning. We have this ability to see what we need to see. And this faculty of ours is a glorious gift. It helps to smooth abrasions and to intensify that which already shines. It swells our capacity for hope, and it renders us more humane. It is an overflow of the very consciousness within, a flicker of the divine, and we would do well to embrace it. We can be what we choose to see.
*Photo of Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia courtesy of Grant Dixon Photography (http://www.grantdixonphotography.com.au/). Check out his stellar work!

Life among the Treetops

As a boy I dreamed of living among treetops, whether in elaborate tree houses or simply as some humanoid primate perched on the uppermost branches. As a forty-year-old man, however, the treetops don’t seem quite so high; I now dream of flying above them. Which gets me thinking about the way perspective changes with age. It’s not that some arboreal existence wouldn’t yield its share of amazing sights, but it’s that even the big things seem smaller now. Part of this is geographic in nature, by which I mean that a huge perspective shift occurred when I moved from Union City, Tennessee, to Nashville almost fifteen years ago–two towns only three hours apart, but worlds apart demographically and size-wise. As a child, the drive across Union City felt endless. By contrast, my morning commute these days would encompass at least five of those crosstown drives of yore. Nevertheless, I feel that this shift in perspective has to do with more than just moving to a new address.

Distance and time haven’t changed. My eyes have. And I don’t even know what to attribute the change to other than age and the unavoidable broadening of understanding that accompanies it. So there are no life answers embedded in this post, just observations. Just an excuse to write. It is true that I am writing a book, and it’s what I am most excited about. But I also have a compulsion to maintain this blog. To air out random ideas from time to time. To you who have chosen to read it, bless you. Maybe across the digisphere we can reminisce together about those dusky childhood days of climbing trees and feeling like another world had been entered. I used to climb trees with my friend Bobby. He always seemed to climb a little higher. Perhaps he was more at home in those heights. In the innocent way of children, I admired his tendency to climb higher–jealousy wasn’t a thing back then. Those trees we climbed and the house that stood nearby are all gone now, but when I think of those days, I always picture the trees. No doubt they are taller in my imagination, but so what? The trees and houses of childhood are permitted to loom as large as we need them to. The survival of the memory is what matters, not the accuracy of it.

My boys love being outside. In spite of the allure of televisions and iPads, they are drawn out-of-doors. They seem unable to resist it. I sincerely hope that they are dreaming up their own little worlds in the treetops that they see. Maybe by the time Arthur is of a solid climbing size, one of the trees I’ve planted will support a little weight (I’m counting on those fertilizer stakes I hammered into the ground a few days ago). Perhaps he will imagine elaborate tree houses, or some primordial age of tree-dwelling human life, foraging among the leaves for nuts or raining down death from above on unsuspecting prey, marking out his special place in the great chain of being. Let him imagine these kinds of things.