Natural or Sad?

I used to think we could commune with nature, like the way that Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests in his writings on Transcendentalism; that by virtue of simply spending time in it, with ears, eyes, and mind attuned, something spiritual might pass between us and it.

At some point a break occurred, however, and I find the notion of communion with nature increasingly difficult. Indeed, the word that presents itself to me over and over now is ‘indifference.’ Nature is indifferent to us–I can’t seem to shake this feeling, though I want to. I want that innocence of my twenties, when the woods buzzed with mystery; when a gust of cool wind contained echoes of ancient rituals; when the deep red-orange of autumn maples burned with knowledge of species long extinct; when the molecules of magnificent events lingered inside the furrows of ashes, behind the peels of shagbark hickories, or tight against the rippled trunks of beech trees. But now it all seems like mere vegetation–no less beautiful, just void of the visions it once held; no less a fertile ground for the imagination, just no longer offering transcendence.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Modernist literature, or perhaps it’s an effect of age. I do miss seeing nature through those younger eyes. Oddly, though, the loss is not all that sad. In fact, it feels pretty natural.

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!