Look at your world. Anticipation hangs round the trunks and low branches of hillside trees. Behind the laboratory, up on the steep slope, which spends its day much in shade now, fall has come. Everyone always guesses at the reason–some say shorter days; others say cooler weather; still others say moisture. Whatever the cause, it begins gradually in mid-August with a shy, suggestive fading of the green, which few seem to notice; then it waits; time must pass–elusive, insomniac time, falling away at the moment we would seize it.
Then on a traffic-addled September morning, one on which time has willfully mobilized against you, bringing tardiness, despite your efforts, and its attendant threat of reprimand, a spray of red pierces the leaf curtain at your left, followed by scattered assertions of pale yellow. A drowsing, purpling vine sways affably from an oak. And for a moment already passed, time was almost a thing to be grasped.
Finding beauty in death–an autonomous grace suffusing the expiration that we face; movement being the thing–temporal movement, i.e. time, not physical–for death also comes to much that is still. Take trees, for example.
The morning light strikes many leaves but leaves yet many in shade. And the beauty seems buried somehow in the contrast, mystically–how a leaf has two sides: light and dark, silver and green, matte and glossy, lamentation and praise–each side equally beautiful. And this splendor in the trees is spread at the margins of every vista–a free, daily gift.
Lines of trees are the seams of the visible quotient of our lives–they hem in our narrative. Only a fool misses the significance of trees.
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.
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.