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.
Half-an-hour or so after noting that this particular hike, taken on a chilly early-March morning, may be the quietest one I had yet experienced in Middle Tennessee, a vicious rumbly roar issued from an indefinite distance. This was not an animal’s roar. It was manmade–the product of explosives. The big sound shook me from my reverie, and I searched for its source. Through an opening in the bare-branched canopy I watched a wide cloud of gray-brown smoke disperse upward off a faraway hillside and take slow flight on the breeze. A dynamite explosion, perhaps, for some mining or quarrying process, was my first assumption. Unexpected outbursts often startle, but in this wooded sanctuary, it was plain unnerving. After a period of bemusement, there was nothing to do but trudge onward.
An ominous air had already insinuated itself upon the morning, beginning when, en route to the trailhead, I turned onto a narrow, shoulderless two-laner named Dark Hollow Road. It seemed the kind of remote rural backroad that has some grim legend attached, the details of which the locals are familiar but outsiders are regrettably unaware. Once on the trail, the total absence of other hikers lent its own eerie charm to the labyrinthian limestone, and a fresh, sizable set of canine pawprints, big as my forefoot, was a nice touch. I measured a print at four-and-a-half inches long, which is well within range of a mature wolf’s. The tracks may have belonged to a large, friendly dog, but being in a spooky frame of mind, I was picturing a red wolf that had migrated west from the Smoky Mountains, hunting these very woods. All of this just adds to the enjoyment of a solitary hike, however. These dangers are mostly imaginary and provide the same brand of innocent thrills one may experience on a trek through a haunted forest during the Halloween season.
Later, having lunch on the mountain, in a sublime natural amphitheater made of enormous boulders, the earlier disruption was becoming a memory. Peace had been restored. Buzzards circled overhead, their shadows crossing the ground endlessly before me–yet another spooky element. But in spite of these things that may seem scary to the imagination, the very real and present danger seemed to be the explosion that had occurred that morning. It carried a violence that the backroads and rocks and wolves and buzzards did not. A question came to mind: Is this progress? Is this the way to steward the earth’s resources? It feels like a perversion of stewardship. It seems that as our kind advances with its technology, the goal should be to come into harmony with nature, not to destroy it in an attempt to take what it does not readily give.
It is naive to think we have reached a place in our collective journey where we are ready to stop taking resources from the earth. But maybe there is a better way to do it than by blowing up vast tracts of wilderness. Maybe a mind more technical than mine already has the solutions, and maybe those solutions will plod through the muck of bureaucratic special interests and come to light before our wild places disappear completely. Maybe.