I arise today Through the strength of heaven: Light of sun, Radiance of moon, Splendor of fire, Speed of lightning, Swiftness of wind, Depth of sea, Stability of earth, Firmness of rock. From St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer
After living indoors for weeks because of winter storms bringing record snowfall and ongoing rain or or working inside for months, when finally able to walk outside in the green world, we feel its life-giving qualities. Today, a pause between atmospheric rivers, was just such a day, making it possible to wander down a path in our area we’ve not walked before. It’s a delight to take a path, not knowing exactly where it goes, simply to follow it and see what presents itself. Wild flowers, leaf-perfumed air, and birds gliding through got me thinking about how the weather affects the weather of my inner garden. After a walk at Helen Putnam Regional Park, the weather in my inner garden is one of calm skies with soft light with the chance sprinkle of blossoms.
There is much to be said for the wonder of desert lands, the exquisite form that desert worlds reveal. Desert scapes bring us in direct contact with the Earth’s elemental shape, the magnificence of mineral texture, as in this overview in Saudi outside of Jeddah. As beautiful as the desert is, after months of gray skies and the hope of spring in the air, right now I’m longing for green.
Nature’s green offers tranquility, calm, and restores a sense of wellbeing. New research at Cornell indicates that spend as little as ten minutes a day in nature can help college students feel happier and reduce mental and physical stress. Robert Jimison’s CNN article “Why we all need some green in our lives” states that a “2016 study found that living in or near green areas was linked with longer life expectancy and improved mental health in female participants. Another eight year study of 100,000 women showed that those “who lived in the greenest areas had a 12% lower death rate than women living in the least green areas.”
Lucille H. Brockway’s, “science and colonial expansion: the role of the British Royal Botanic garden,” clarifies how Britain, (and the West in general) has historically viewed the plant world as an object to be manipulated for bringing economic advantage. Michael Moore’s film, Planet of the Humans, directed by Jeff Gibbs, further demonstrates this idea, emphasizing the dire situation we have brought ourselves into as a result of not living in union with nature in a regenerative way. When the natural world is viewed as merely a backdrop, our spirits become impoverished. It takes time spent in the natural world to be able to hear its language. In his poem, “The Language of Trees,” Eran Williams writes,
When we hear the language of trees,
will we hear the season’s pulse,
and find the heart’s beat is but an echo?
Nurturing our relationship with nature, as with any relationship, helps us understand its language and way of being. Observe something closely across a period of time, and you will hear the nuances of its voice, discover its moods in greater depth and detail. We grow in recognition of how our life is connected to the natural world.
There’s a variety of ways we might nurture a relationship with the natural world. Santa Cruz’s Brighton and Jim Denevan’s sand art could be a starting place to encourage you to create our own environmental art. To begin more basically, you could choose to draw a few lines on paper that represents the textures of the sounds around you, or you could photograph patterns or textures in nature, or write a dialog with a neighborhood tree or back balcony flower. You might create a piece of music based on the tones or rhythms in a the landscape or skyscape, or simply create questions about something seen or heard. Alternatively, you might begin learning the names of plants in your neighborhood, find out if they are native or nonnative plants and why that might matter. You might join together with others to go on walks or to appreciate something in nature such as ferns, rocks, or clouds as do those who have joined the Cloud Appreciation Society.
As we search for a closer connection and understanding of the natural world, we gradually grow into relationship with it. Nurturing a connection to the natural world nurtures our inner landscapes and garden. When we take care of the earth, it takes care of us. In her poem, Today’s Book of Delights, after Ross Gay, Teresa Williams writes
He is right; if we choose to look, we just might believe it’s there in the first chirp of the day and the body awakening to hear it, in the black wings weaving through champagne leaves,
This image is a beautiful one, the kind of image we hope to meet when we go out into nature, but recognizing our connection to the natural world also includes embracing the whole of what it means to be part of the natural world. As the poem concludes, Williams writes about delight even in the midst of diminishing life,
or each small note from the universe and its cheerful persistence, even today,
with a new tumor on the back of my dog’s leg, to encourage delight in her oblivious exuberance, and let that be
what sustains me.
How difficult it is sometimes to keep on tending our inner gardens when pain or rain, storms and sorrows keep coming. As Willams writes, however, observing and listening to the small notes from the universe can help sustain us.
Poets listen closely to the world around them, interpreting what they mean for how they might take us into the heart of ourselves and the world we inhabit. In the 1994 film, Il Postino, the characters of the postman and Pablo Neruda record the local sounds of their island, with the purpose of helping the postman use metaphor to write a love letter. The earth speaks to us. Listening closely to the earth helps us to write a love letter to being alive.
What are the sounds of your home that have written themselves on your heart? Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton says the art of listening is dying but we can open our windows or doors or simply sit calmly in our house and listen. What love letter of the earth do you want to hear over and over. When you listen to your heart’s garden what does it tell you? As Louis Armstrong’s song reminds us, it’s a wonderful world with so much to explore.
Full in the hand, heavy with ripeness, perfume spreading it’s fan: moments now resemble sweet russet pears glowing on the bough, peaches warm from the afternoon sun, amber and juicy, flesh that can make you drunk.
This month I moved from a place I called home for decades in Santa Cruz County, California, a location rich with beauty that has filled me with wonder and gratitude where morning mist drifted between tree-covered hills and summer’s noon sun lifted the redwood’s green scent from the forest floor. Wasps drinking the grapes’ sweetness hummed under the arbor on autumn afternoons, crickets sang at twilight, and at night the horned owls call from among the redwoods.
Though I lived abroad for over two and a half decades in urban environments, I always looked forward to coming home to Santa Cruz County to be restored, a place with a multitude of trails through forests, as well as being near the coast with the sea stretching into the far distance. After rains, moisture rose from the redwood duff and the bay laurels, making the earth smell medicinal green. Walking on that earth, I felt the sweetness of being alive, as if I were tasting one of the pears Marge Percy describes in the opening stanza of her above poem.
When my husband and I moved to our house in the Soquel Hills of Santa Cruz County years ago, I never suspected I would move, never considered that one day it would be wise to have an easier home to manage and a smaller amount of land to care for. We can’t see all the way to the end of a road we’re traveling on. Needs change, bodies age, environments alter, and so do world economics. As Percy writes,
There is a turn in things that makes the heart catch. We are ripening…
Whenever we let go of what we’ve loved and held dear we experience loss. We have to leave behind much in our lives when moving–people we hold dear, pathways we’re familiar with, places that bring us joy, routines we find comfort in and all the many memories place holds–the tree we sat under in afternoons, the hill we rode down on a bicycle, the restaurant where we ate a favorite food, the steps we argued with someone on, the school we graduated from, the storm that carried the bridge away or the quake that tumbled the house’s chimney–griefs and joys–all the many ways we experience the turn of light and the sounds of the earth we walk on through the seasons across years.
Just as we can’t wear the same shoes throughout our lives and a favorite piece of clothing wears out, even though we may not want it to happen or feel unprepared for it when it does, transitions are necessary. Wanted or unwanted, transformations require adjustment, internal and external. If we can arrive at the place of embracing the change as part of a journey rather than a final destination, we can discover new ways of understanding and being in the world. “We are ripening,” Percy calls it. Potential and possibility are there.
As Percy goes on to say,
Whatever happens, whatever, we say, and hold hard and let go and go on. In the perfect moment the future coils, a tree inside a pit. Take, eat, we are each other’s perfection, the wine of our mouths is sweet and heavy. Soon enough comes the vinegar. The fruit is ripe for the taking and we take. There is no other wisdom.
The past, present and future are all contained in the fruit we hold even though we may not fully see it. The seed, the tree, the fruit, the vinegar–reality is all of these simultaneously, not just one of these things by itself–even if one aspect appears more dominant. Vinegar comes, and with it will come, the sour things we don’t like to taste. But the vinegar is not all. There’s also the fruit. “Hold hard,” Percy says. Let what we love be dear. Feel its weight. Taste the flavor of each other’s perfection and the perfection of the world around us in this moment just as it is, the perfection of its imperfection.
Percy also says, “let go and go on.” Hold on. But also let go! Everything around us is in transformation anyway. It is in relationship with each other and with the world around us that through time we transform and become whole. This is how we are each other’s perfection that Percy describes.
Here are trees I lived beside and called my friends, and this is the garden I nurtured that fed me and gave me beauty, and this is the ocean and fields I loved, though there’s so much more inside the experience of each of these—all the ways the land I lived on whispered its life, bestowed its presence, left its imprint. I hold all these, and more, dear.
There are many ways of knowing something. One of them is to live beside it for a long time, to observe it for many seasons and through many kinds of weather and light until in the end it takes on life. You see the same scene but with more depth, with all its nuances, history, subtleties and character. I have left now these things I’ve held dear, but paradoxically, they are still with me and still alive, as are the many other places and people I hold dear who are no longer with me yet still influence how I live.
The evening I left Santa Cruz for the last time to drive up the coast and then inland to my new home, the sun was setting, an ongoing display of dying light in all its beauty. I’ve entered a new world now, further north in Sonoma County. I don’t know where time will take me from here but I’m holding on to the fruit of this experience, savoring it until it’s again time to let go.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid,” wrote Fredrick Buechner. There’s a lot of uncertainty we collectively face as a planet in the years ahead. Moving is a practice in death and rebirth. I hope I can learn to face every future transformation and not be afraid.
“If there’s magic on this planet, it’s contained in water.” –Loren Eisley
Diving is one of the most otherworldly experience a person can have while still on earth. Immersed in a different world than that of everyday life, one sees wonders that open the heart and boggle the mind with the beauty of the natural world.
Drifting through the water, eyes attentive to fish activity and the surrounding terrain, a diver grows conscious of being both a drop in the ocean and an intimate part of the intricate interweaving of all that is. Snorkeling alongside a whale shark is a rare opportunity allowing a direct experience of that wonder.
Spangled with starry dots and pale streamers on its blue, night-sky body and the size of a bus, the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, journeys thousands of miles seeking warm water and nourishment from the tiniest bits of life in the shallows, filtering plankton, krill and small fish through its enormous mouth, along with a thousand five hundred gallons of water every hour.
Jumping into the water from the side of the boat, there it was, ten feet from my body. I stared directly into the cave of its gigantic mouth. My entire body could be sucked into its gaping maw.
Thinking of Jonah, I pitched my body in the opposite direction, swimming hard for escape.
Breathless, I paused to peer down the shark’s long length, its body’s dazzling radiance. The ineffable grace of its muscled movement, colossal tail brushing from side to side.
Effortlessly, the shark glided into water’s seamless, silent expanse, the stars on its back evaporating into fluid geography.
This isn’t a small life. Some travel immeasurable distances to find what feeds the soul.
For a few breathless moments we feed our yearning, the stardust in our bodies greeting an ancient light glowing still, before disappearing into the invisible.
I’m happy to announce Buoyant, my new book of poems about scuba diving and life inside the sea is now published by Bellowing Ark Press. If you’re not a diver, the poems in this volume will allow you to experience life underwater world while remaining dry. I hope the poems feed your soul.oe
(Let me know if you’d like a copy and I can tell you how to order one.)
A place of abandoned windmills, trailers and tractors, the Carrizo Plains north of San Luis Obispo, California carries a kind of sadness, an emptiness that fills the landscape’s wideness. In her poem, “Elegance,” Linda Gregg writes, about the neglected world,
All that is uncared for.
Left alone in the stillness
in that pure silence married
to the stillness of nature.
And there is, indeed, an undisturbed stillness to the landscape of the Carrizo Plains, a silence that absorbs you when you step out onto the sea of land and peer out into the far distance, a world that goes on being itself with out much notice from anyone. The wind rises a bit and rattles the grass. Clouds drift by in their silent carousel. Crow sits in her nest atop a tower where once the windmill turned. The countryside here is full of light, but you can feel the shadows waiting beneath the surface, a kind of loneliness.
Nevertheless, because these plains are a place left undisturbed by humanities’ hustle, traffic and expectation, something truly grand has the opportunity to appear: wildflowers. After a winter with abundant rain, a super bloom occurs in backcountry areas like the Carrizo Plains. Flowers that have waited for years, at last have the conditions they need to spring forth, forming lakes of lupin and pools of baby blue eyes. Beauty spills its bounty across the hillsides, dusts them in the pink blush of owl’s clover, clothes them in her bejeweled cape of brocaded yellows–gold poppies, topaz fiddlenecks, mustard, butter cups, and bright-eyed tidy tips. The hills reverberate with sun.
People who typically view nature as a backdrop, and who may not know the names of plants in their front yard or on the street where they live drive hours to stare at flowers. They climb hills to get a good view, spread a picnic blanket at the edge of the road, and lug their crying children along with them all for the opportunity to glimpse at the splashes of color for a few hours before making the journey back home. What is there about these flowers that pulls on our spirits so powerfully?
Temporal and rare, we know the burst of color these flowers produce doesn’t last long. If you want to see them, you know you can’t put the journey off for weeks. Flowers do not bend to our schedules and timelines. They live and thrive when they choose, and wither quickly beneath the heat.
There’s something beyond the flowers’ narrow life span that pulls us to them though. Something deep inside us physically responds to what we see and experience, allowing us to feel more at ease, interconnected with the world around us, and with ourselves. We feel more whole. When standing amidst the wildflowers, like others around me, I found myself wordlessly staring out at their colorful bounty, fumbling for how to express the awe I experienced.
Something in us responds to a presence in nature that we recognize as much larger than ourselves and intricately, beautifully complex. Though nature speaks a language we in our consumer oriented society barely comprehend, when we step inside a natural world that has not been severely impaired by human interaction, we can nevertheless sense it imparting something significant into our very being. Neurologist Oliver Sacks in Everything in It’s Place describes the profound effect these experiences in the natural world have on us. “As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process, as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”
The natural world is interconnected, and our own lives interwoven into its fabric. Nature preserves are also called sanctuaries. The word sanctuary is linked to the idea of what is holy, a word the etymology dictionary indicates connects to that which is whole or uninjured. Nature continues on its vast spiral, working under its own rules to carry on its own story within the constraints of its own rhythms, its own timing. Awe of the natural world reaffirms our connection to it, allows us to feel alive and whole.
As they walked from place to place or rode an an animal, for centuries people lived closer to the land than we do now. Before factory farming, many more of us were farmers interacting daily with plants and the land. According to Sara Burrow’s article in Newsweek’s October 27, 2017 article, ‘”one in nine children “have not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least 12 months.'” These patterns of disengagement from Earth alienate us from a life-giving source whose wideness is beyond comprehension, her boundlessness presence ready to carry us into a spaciousness, to use Hopkins’ words, that “flame out, like shining from shook foil.” National parks in the US are threatened by human activity. Perhaps this is because as a whole, people in our culture spends so little time in nature we don’t comprehend its value to our inner lives, and therefore don’t nurture our connection to it. As a result, we’re willing to treat it mostly as a commodity to be used and sold.
Sadness does, indeed, roam about the world, but there are also wildflowers seeds waiting to be watered beneath the surface of loss, and despair. With blossoms and perfume, Earth call us to come join her, walk with her, listen to her voice. The story she’s telling is far bigger than our fears and worry. It’s a story of renewal, and she’s calling us to be part of it. While watering a plant on our windowsill, walking by a river, waiting beside a tree for the the local bus or looking out our window as rain clouds gather, we can open our roofs to the moment of her presence, let the seasons and scents drift in. The meadow of her refuge awaits. As Hafiz writes in his poem, “All the Hemispheres”
Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out
Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.
At seventy-three years old, Aretha Franklin sings Carole King’s song, “Natural Woman” at Lincoln Center with perfect timing, range of voice, power and outright presence. If you ever wondered what you might have to offer the world in your aging years, listen to her sing, and you will know what is possible—a person who knows who she is, who is in full possession of herself, and who gives her gifts—her talents and skill to the world as a blessing. This is beauty.
Daniel O’ Leary, a priest in Leeds and former teacher at St. Mary’s University College in London writes, “I like to think that each one of us, when we act out of our true essence rather than out of our false ego, when we refuse to betray our authentic self, when we are in close touch with our own sacred centre, in spite of persistent temptation, persuasion and compulsion to conform and to compromise – that when we act in this way we transform every room we enter, every conversation in which we take part, every relationship we engage in and every project we initiate or join.” Aretha Franklin was most certainly singing from with in the center of her true essence when performing at Lincoln Center, her presence transforming not only those in the room, as evidenced by Carole King’s overwhelmed and enthusiastic reaction to the performance, and by Obama who wiped tears from his eyes, but transforming also those who watch Aretha via the Internet. How do we live like that–from the center of ourselves, moving beyond the desire to demonstrate our skill, ability, talent, or worth—beyond the need to compete and claim a space, beyond nervousness and fear about perceived success—and instead, move into the depths of our own selves, to rest in the acceptance of who we are, including our imperfections and incompleteness? How do we live with open arms, surrendering into life in order to walk into a larger world, so we can let go into our own transformation?
Recently, while traveling through Morocco’s enormous outback of the Atlas Mountains, I noticed how in the desert, the earth lays itself open for all to see. Nothing is hidden, the layers, folds, slumps, the red years of surface soil eroding away to the green rock beneath, solidity slowly wasting away–all is revealed. The Atlas Mountains, opens its chest to Allah, lays bare its red heart. Each ripple and rock stripe, distinctly visible and known. How vulnerable the earth is, face open to sun and wind. The sky kisses the earth. Goats, their shadows following them like dark drifting clouds, amble slowly across the red soil, grazing. Earth’s muscles loses hold. Rocks walls crumble—bones turning into gravel. Mountains slide into valleys in slow, smooth heaps. Complete with folds and flares, in her old age, the earth wears her skirt of splayed sand and rock, swirled out as in slow, ponderous steps–an ancient dance still in play. Continuously, the earth’s age reveals her beauty.
Erosion reveals the layers of earth’s substrata. As in our own lives, the surface wears away as time continues, revealing the bedrock of who we are, what we are built on—what our foundation consists of. When standing in Morocco’s 10 meters (thirty three foot) wide Todra Gorge, the color and stone rise 600 metres (1,969 ft) above in gold-red walls, surround you with their millennia of patiently layered rock, cut through by the Todgha River. The slow turning folds and twists that made the canyon’s strength, humble you, leave you without words. We take the wadi and the world in at a glance—the entire landscape gifted to us, a grace delivered as simply as the sky kissing the earth–a beauty, that like an abstract painting, strips away all to its bare forms and essence–joining us to the oneness lying beneath. To stand in the Todra Gorge is to connect to your foundation, to stand inside it. Experience it.
Todra Gorge cliff and sky
Later, a bit further down the road in the Dades Gorge, I woke the next morning to the view outside my window: the leaves of a tree trembling in the gold, early light of morning’s breeze. Everything around the trees delicate leaves was rock. Solid and still. The sun rose, turning the gorge’s walls to rust. Then, the tree, too, stood still as the stone surrounding it.
The next day, after traveling on to Ait Bin Haddou, I climbed the hill that overlooks the mud walled city. Walking along, Here you can find calcite formations strewn across the earth in palm-sized slabs, and can see the bubbling up in pillow-like form from beneath the soil’s shallow cover. The earth wears stripes here and spots of purple. Wind rushes across the earth, kicks up dust, and streaks the sky with long cloud flares. The sky is the very definition of blue—long vowels of ooooohhhh, moving with the wind’s rough breath, the scattered stones the earth’s consonants. The earth speaks.
Dust in the wind over river bed
Ait Bin Haddou sky
Calcite formations at Ait Bin Haddou
Red and purple earth
In mountains, in sky, in her erosion and old age the earth speaks. She has no pretensions. In full possession of herself, she gives her gifts to the world as blessing. She’s the natural woman. She knows who she is, and she is singing.
Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But you’re the key to my peace of mind
‘Cause you make me feel
you make me feel
You make me feel like a natural woman.
The great story weaves closer and closer, millions of
touches, wide spaces lying out in the open,
huddles of brush and grass, all the little lives.
–William Stafford, from “Over in Montana”
Bodhgaya, India, is the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment after forty-nine days of meditation under the ficus, otherwise known as the Bodhi tree, a tree related to the mulberry. Because Bodhgaya is a place of historical significance, I wanted to visit it while living in India. Two weekends ago, I had that opportunity.
The Bodhi tree is a ficus religiosa . Its leaves, even without a breeze, are said to be continuously moving. “O Ashvatha, I honor you whose leaves are always moving…,” says a verse in the Bhagavad Gita about the tree. Gods are thought to live in the leaves causing them to move, and thus the official name, ficus religiosa–thereligious fig. The name fits, in particular for the bodhi tree in Gaya.Though the tree standing in Bodhgaya now isn’t the actual tree the Buddha sat under, it’s a relative. Sanghamitta, the daughter of the 3rd century BC Indian emperor, Ashoka’s, brought a branch of the original tree the Buddha sat under to Sri Lanka and planted it in Anuradhapura. The original tree was destroyed, how is uncertain. There are various versions (see more here) of how this occurred, though most accounts state that the a shoot from the Sri Lanka tree was brought back to India and replanted at the original spot.
Bodhgaya is a holy site and a pilgrimage destination. One of the things that struck me the most while in Bodhgaya, was how many distinctive faces I saw as I sat near the tree, observing as people made their circumambulation around the shrine. Many visiting were monks and nuns performing ritual prayers, but others were like me, there to stand in a place considered holy, and to absorb what it had to share. For all the crowds, the place still manages to have a sense of calm, probably because so many there are intent on doing their prostrations and sending up prayers.
It struck me how similar people are in the way they express devotion or carry out holy acts, though they are from different religions. Burning candles and incense, offering prayers, bowing down, ringing bells, bringing flowers,–these are commonly used in acts of worship in many religions. Bodhgaya attracts a wide spectrum of people from Buddhist countries, but people from many walks of life and countries in various parts of the world had come to stand in the spot where so many before have journeyed to send up their hearts’ longings–or possibly to set them down. Possibly, however, some pilgrims had come simply with an openness, willing to receive whatever understanding their minds brought to them while standing there, listening to their heart’s inner whisperings.
I’ve been learning about Buddhism, since arriving in India nine years ago, and somehow I expected to feel moved while standing in such a holy place. Instead, I found myself noticing people’s feet, and thought of the many journeys people had taken to arrive at this place where our lives briefly intersected with a smile or a short glimpse.
Buddha at Bodhgaya temple
Once surrounded by forest, Bodhgaya it is now a city with apartments, shops, restaurants and hotels. To imagine the place as it was when the Buddha spent time there requires you to stretch your imagination. People continue to come to this place, because they wish to make a connection with the long chain of seekers, hoping to gain insight into how to live.
Pilgrimages are taken for many reasons, but one important reason is to the desire to expand beyond the boundaries one currently lives in– to break through the skin into something new, perhaps as the snake does when it sheds its old skin because it has grown bigger. Thoreau, purposefully set out to let his soul grow bigger when he spent a year living outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts on Walden Pond and wrote his famous meditations on living known as Walden. Thoreau speaks to the those of us who have felt the desire to step out of the hamster cage of events that keep us continuously rolling, and who long to live meaningfully. “Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour,” Thoreau asserts, and we are led to explore the idea that every life is worthy contemplation, of spending time reflecting on what our actions mean. This act isn’t meant to benefit just a few lucky ones who can take the time off to do so. We can do this daily as when we give our full attention to whatever it is we are doing, wherever we are walking or sitting. Listening deeply to those we are in relationship, listening to the world we walk through allows us to sense the holiness of life itself underneath the surface of all that is.
Cave where Buddha meditated
Monk at Bodhgaya temple
a pilgrim to the Buddha’s cave
While wandering through the temple grounds at Bodhgaya, I read a quote on a plaque. The quote’s first portion eludes me, but the second portion read something like “Now I enter the forest of my old age,” and it struck me as a metaphor for transformation in general. We may have been walking through a plain before where things could be easily seen, but when we change, we enter a forest. Things aren’t necessarily easily found or understood. Perhaps we are even purposefully looking for a different path from the paths we once knew or walked. A whole new life can appear. As we age, though, I think of forests in the fall, flames arising from the myriad leaf faces, the sugar inside burning before the leaves let go to the earth.
Thoreau chose to go to the woods, and set aside a year to live in a small cabin on Walden Pond. Many of us can’t do that, or at least don’t feel it’s possible until reaching such an age where regular work ceases. Thoreau bravely took time out to consider to look for life before old age. Thoreau chose to live simply during his year away, in order to find what it is that matters in life. He went to the woods, he said “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” This is a brave statement. It requires an openness to life, to what you might understand if you listen to the world around you, including listen to the physical world.
The Buddha, as well, encouraged people to let go of their attachments in order to find life. We may be born in one place, have a particular history or speak a certain language, but we need each other’s differences. The interconnected nature of our physical environment itself demonstrates this reality. Other people in other places with perspectives different from our own have experiences worth listening to, insights worth understanding. I notice fear is such a strong motivating force in the media but it creates so much suffering. The Buddha’s path began with a question, “How do I relieve suffering?” What if we were to live differently? What if everyday in recognition of life’s dearness we deliberately asked “How do I live so I learn what life has to teach me today? How do I live today so that I don’t discover when I come to die that I’ve never lived?”
James Wright, in his poem “The Blessing,” shows the reader what it is like to live attentive to the details before us as he describes his encounter with ponies off the side of highway in Rochester, Minnesota who “have come gladly out of the willows/ To welcome my friend and me.” The ponies greet he and his friend with “shy bows,” then begin munching the grass again, as they have been all day. As the speaker of the poem carefully observes them, he becomes aware of the wonder breathing beneath the experience, “…Suddenly I realize/ That if I stepped out of my body I would break/ Into blossom.” We become more than we are when we let ourselves experience that we are connected to all that is.
A plain dotted with trees and scattered with boulders, Hampi in the Indian state, Karnataka, is a beautiful landscape. My recent visit there during the Diwali holiday allowed me to wander into India’s rural outback, and to laze against sun heated granite by the Tungabhadra River. During the 1500s, the Vijayanagar had a population of 500,000. The empire covered the entire southern portion of India, but Deccan Plateau sultans joined together and defeated the Vijayanagar army. The temples’ treasures were carried off as loot, much of the population was killed, and of those who weren’t killed, many fled. One of the world’s mightiest kingdoms fell to ruin, and gradually into obscurity.
Four hundred years later, Robert Sewell, a British civil servant stationed in India, wrote about the empire in his book, A Forgotten Empire Vijayanagar: A Contribution to the History of India. Much later, in 1986, Hampi became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In addition to being a World Heritage site, Hampi is also a place of important religious significance for Hindus. As the stories describe, Hampi is the hill where Shiva, the god of destruction, did penance before marrying Pampa. After Shiva married, the gods poured gold onto the Heamakuta hill. According to the Hampi India website, Heamakuta, means heap of gold.
Hampi’s temples and ruins are spread over more than 10 square miles, or 25 square kilometers. There is much to see, and the carvings are fantastic. Though a place of enormous significance for many people on the subcontinent in the 1400 and 1500s, Hampi and the Vijayanagar empire are mostly unknown to people outside of India. As I walked along near the queen’s palace, I ran my hand along one of the carved walls. “My hands are touching history,” I thought to myself. “My hands touch what the ancients have touched, yet I understand so little.” Whether at a ruins of an ancient empire, or walking down the street of our hometown, our lives are enveloped in mysteries. We just don’t often recognize it.
After our day of exploration at the ruins, we went on a walk on the grounds near our hotel. We stepped across bamboo bridges stretching over the river, looped up across massive granite faces. Turning a corner, we tucked ourselves through a wooden door between leaning rock slabs. As we stepped inside, it seemed we had entered into a rock cathedral with windows of sky beaming through the stacked boulders. We continued climbing a short distance to an opening where we stood, at last, to view the valley spread before us in a 360 degree view. It was as if we had entered a secret door that enabled us to see the whole world. What a wonder it was, too–a plain filled with trees, and a river meandering through it with granite boulders balancing in precarious positions and leaning agains each other in dramatic angles. Nature like this is not a site often seen when living in one of the world’s mega cites like Delhi. We scanned our eyes across the landscape, fishing for greenery, for sky, for what we didn’t even know how to name. Our hearts simply opened to the world, and when we left the hilltop, we knew something inside us had shifted. We were lighter, and ,paradoxically, somehow more solid. Nature writer Barry Lopez says, “real beauty is so deep you have to move into darkness to understand it.” This is because when beauty touches you, you slip into a place that is beyond rational thought and abstraction. The divisions between the physical and spiritual worlds collapse into one unified presence. That presence is far bigger than the mind can hold. You are humbled and made whole again.
The beauty of Hampi’s temples is definitely worth traveling a long distance to see. The setting of the ruins themselves, though, is what sets Hampi apart from other locations. In this landscape, you can learn that everywhere is a temple if we have eyes to see it. To be there is to walk around in a colossal expanse of found sculpture, an installation art piece of gargantuan proportions, the origins prehistorical. Everywhere I looked, I saw art emerging from the earth.
Hampi granite sheathes
Rice field, Hampi
Granite sheathe 2
Granite sheathe 3
Rice field, Hampi
The earth is in an ongoing creative act. If you listen, you can hear it speak through its myriad forms. The wind in palm trees chatters with stiff, clattering branches. Wind through bamboo scratches and cracks like arthritic bones. Wind through neem trees speaks with a restless, dry and fragile sound like crinkled onion skins. The earth tells its stories.
In my continuing desire to learn Spanish, I’m reading Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Treehouse book series in Spanish. Currently, I’m reading Una momia al amanecer, or in English, A Mummy at Daybreak. The children in the novel, Annie and Jack, learn how the Egyptians “tried to protect the body against death by preserving it for eternity.” (p. 45) Travel to the Vijayanagar empire’s ruins, however, assures the visitor that empires are temporary. All we have can be lost in a moment. Even stone wears away and topples. In Hindi, Vijay means victory. Victory, if found, is elsewhere, not in empires.
The final stanza of Louise Gluck’s poem “Summer Nights” reads,
Balm of summer night, balm of the ordinary,
imperial joy and sorrow of human existence,
the dreamed as well as the lived–
what could be dearer than this, given the closeness of death?
Life is so dear, and life is full of both imperial joy as well as sorrow. You don’t seem to get one without getting the other too, at least that is what I’ve observed from living in India. Everything is being destroyed and made at the same time. Maybe that is, in part, why art is necessary. It reminds us that we participate in the creative act of life. Perhaps this is why temples have so much art. Religion means to rebind, and the creative act helps us to re-member–to put our selves together again.
What are the geographies that have entered your heart? As we embark on our exploration of how the physical world affects culture, consider the ways that the places you have lived have shaped you and your understanding of the world.
Nature writer, Barry Lopez, in his book, About This Life, says “Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want to not forget.”
How has the cultures and your interactions with the physical environments in the places you’ve lived influenced and shaped the way you think and the experiences you have had? How might your reflection on this question guide the kinds of things you want to learn and discover about the country you are researching about? How might your experiences help you focus your research, write up your understandings, and talk with the class about topics you think are personally meaningful and important?
“Odd as I am sure it will appear to some, I can think of no better form of personal involvement in the cure of the environment than that of gardening. A person who is growing a garden, if he is growing it organically, is improving a piece of the world. He is producing something to eat, which makes him somewhat independent of the grocery business, but he is also enlarging, for himself, the meaning of food and the pleasure of eating.”– Wendell Berry
In a few weeks I will be back home in California and able, once again, to walk out my door onto the earth and stand in the garden. I will pick berries and pull weeds, prune and plant. Growing a garden connects us directly to the earth. To garden is to learn something of what the earth needs and to care for it–to have a relationship with the earth and to love it. I miss that garden, that particular piece of earth. If earth is our mother, then I am its child, and sometimes I just want to go home–home to that particular landscape that looks and smells like home, where I have dug and weeded and planted, have walked many times–where I’ve given the trees names. When I go home, I will look out my window to see trees and mountains. I will be surrounded by nature. What a gift that is to the soul; what a pleasure to walk through greenery in forests and wild places.
But all this is still a few weeks away. For now, I am still in India. Last week was labor day holiday, and I took a short trip with friends to Musoorie, a city in the Himalaya foothills, a hill station resting at 6,500 feet, and place with roots from the time of the British Raj that is today popular with honeymooners. A walk along Camelback Road, brought views of iris growing wild on the forest covered hills, steep valleys, and the snowcapped Himalaya in the distance. We arrived during a rain storm, and the following morning, the sky was as blue as I’ve seen skies get in India. Tree leaves literally glowed in the light. This is the India I love to be in, the mountains, where the urban coat can be cast off, and the world’s natural form emerges. I felt myself alive again, filled with a sense of wholeness, looking out at the world in wonder.
Often after being out in nature, I feel more whole, as if I have returned to myself, as if in some odd way I’m being healed even though I may not have been particularly aware that I was “ill.” Since returning to Delhi, I’ve come across an Atlantic Monthly article explaining new research showing how, as the article’s title says, “Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies.” People who can view nature from their windows after operations generally recover more quickly, for example. “The business of everyday life — dodging traffic, making decisions and judgment calls, interacting with strangers — is depleting, and what man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back,” reports Adam Alter. The theory for how nature does this is called Attention Restoration Therapy, Alter explains. Human made environments ramp up our attention. Nature, on the other hand, asks little of us, and therefore calms our attention. The Japanese, the article goes on to say, have long advocated what they term forest bathing– long walks amongst trees, breathing in the wooded air, and the research on the effects of this activity “compared with people who walked through urban areas, shinrin-yoku patients had lower blood pressure, lower pulse rates, and lower cortisol levels, a marker of reduced stress.” That’s pretty nice! You don’t have to go to Japan to experience forest bathing, however. People in California, are promoting this idea as well, and you can head out into any forest. The idea, according to Brian Wu of the LA Times, is to go slowly, not walking more than three miles in four hours, take rests as you like, drink water or green tea, read.
Going to the mountains, or going to the garden. As it turns out, gardening, too, is good for the soul. Sue, Stuart-Smith, in her Telegraph article, “Horticultural therapy: ‘Gardening makes us feel renewed inside,” suggest that when we plant seeds we interact with the earth in a way that binds us to the mystery of how a seed produces life and our minds connect that with the mystery of our own lives. When gardening, one learns the importance of cutting away and pruning, of digging and weeding–all metaphors for what we must do in our own lives if we are to nurture what it is we have as seeds within us that want to grows.
American culture seems filled with the notion of getting somewhere, setting goals, becoming somebody. We get caught in the stimulus, the distraction of competition. After a while, however, this all grows tiring or we can lose track of who are, what we care most about. We lose our zest for life and get caught up in trying to make our mark or make a living, when we’re not actually living very much. Instead, we are walking through one procedure to the next, only partly alive. Feeling this sadness, this loss, however can be a very good thing as it can lead us back to ourselves. Wendell Berry writes,
It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work
and when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
As Berry implies, obstacles and questions we don’t have answers for can help us find what makes us sing. When we open ourselves to the Mystery, or to mysteries bigger than our own life, we can experience how everything that is worth something in life isn’t necessarily connected to our effort or accomplishment. Our life stream wants to move from behind the dam that blocks it. It wants to flow, and confronting the question of why it isn’t can help us find they way to let our lives sing again.
The Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, in his book The Heart is Noble, writes, “The particular profession or job you do is not the most important factor…Whatever work you do, you have to give yourself opportunities to just be. Even if it is only once a day, you should find a moment to just be yourself in the course of each day. This could be through a short period of meditation or quiet reflection in the morning or the evening, or in whatever way best suits you. The point is to reconnect with yourself. Otherwise, the whole day you are running around and busy, and it is easy to lose yourself. To guard agains this, you should make efforts to return to yourself and recollect what is essential for you.”
Whether it be forest bathing, gardening, or painting on pottery–as I have done this afternoon–whatever it is, let us find those things that return us to ourselves, that allow our hearts to sing so that when we come to the end of our day or days, we will find that we have lived, we have truly lived.
Two weeks ago as I rode home from the airport, Delhi was enveloped in smoke, the city’s signature perfume. One evening later the skies were full of lightning with rain pouring down heavily. Since returning from a trip to the Czech Republic and Austria, I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes a place. Some time back, when I first moved overseas, my husband and I sat in our Izmir, Turkey apartment, explaining the culture to ourselves–as we understood it at the time–our first experience of living in a foreign country, through using the designs in a carpet on our floor. It was world full of life, energy, color and sound, but still contained and shaped by tradition’s forms. Turkey is still the favorite place I’ve lived outside of my own home, still holds wonder and happiness in my memory.
Years ago, I visited Spearfish, South Dakota a small town where my parents had lived for some time, and where I still have relatives. While exploring the downtown, I came across a book in the bookstore window titled Dakota, A Spiritual Geography.At the time, I didn’t know the author, Kathleen Norris, but noticed that she was living in Lemmon, South Dakota in a home she had inherited from her grandmother. Lemmon was the same town my father was born in. I had come to South Dakota for the purpose of getting to know a bit more about my family’s background. I had grown up in California, far from relatives except for my father’s parents who lived at the time lived nearby in Lemon Grove, California. I knew little of my family history except through the descriptions of my parents. I was drawn to Norris’s book and its subtitle in particular, because for some time I’d held the belief that the geography we grow up with shapes us in mysterious ways we don’t quite understand–affecting the way we think, what we value–shaping our souls. A few days previous to discovering the book, I had gone with my Aunt to see where my grandmother’s family was buried. My Aunt’s friend was an oral historian whose family knew my great grandparents. She had shown me the graves of my great uncles, and before walking back to the car, I went to stand in the middle of a field nearby. There, I found myself surrounded by the green wheat, an ocean of grass, the sky above infinite and blue. No sound pierced the silence as the earth’s scent earth and the weight of its quietness seeped into my feet. This was my parents’ homeland, a geography they knew and that shaped how they saw the world–its colors, sounds, rhythms. My body felt the quality of its presence, affirming my sense that the land speaks to us. Dana Gioia’s poem, “Palabras,” talks about this idea as well. “El mundo no necesita de palabras. Sabe expresarse/en luz solar, hojas y sombras,” Gioia writes, “The earth doesn’t need words. It knows how to express itself/ in the sun, the leaves and shadows,” and it’s true. There is a kind of voice inside of the material world that speaks without words–something akin to music, but more abstract. Though Nature speaks volumes to us in its vast library of sound and movement, one artist has tried to show this voice visibly in an interesting way, attaching pens to a willow tree’s branches, making visible the branch’s movement, a fascinating idea. Small scratchings embodying the language inside the leaves’ dance.
My belief in geography’s affect on humans was affirmed some time later when I came across an article in Discover Magazine “Are the Desert People Winning?” by Stanford anthropologist Robert Saplosky, where Sapolsky explains how anthropologist Robert Textor in his 3,000 page book, A Cross-Cultural Summary, written in 1967, noted after examining 400 world cultures and classifying them into nearly 500 traits that a “striking proportion of rain forest dwellers are polytheistic, worshipping an array of spirits and gods.” This pattern, Textor points out, can be observed in places like the Amazons, and Borneo, whereas “desert dwellers—the bedouin of Arabia, the Berbers of the western Sahara, the Kung of the Kalahari Desert, the Nuer and Turkana of the Kenyan/Sudanese desert—are usually monotheistic.” Sapolsky goes on to point out how there is a kind of singularity to the landscape in desert locations, where the world is reduced to essentials. Rain forest people, on the other hand, live amidst an abundance of plants, herbs, and animals. “Letting a thousand deities bloom in this sort of setting must seem natural,” states Sapolsky. Every place and culture has its uniqueness, and each place touches our lives and shaping us. We live in a place, and we respond to it, interact with it.
As we travel from one place to another, we carry with us the other places we have been, and the memory of those places. I have often wondered if this is why I enjoy countries very different in landscape from those similar to where I grew up, but am emotionally drawn to countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy, or the state of New Mexico in the U.S., because they remind me of where I grew up in the dry southern California desert with rolling hills and yellow grass spotted with granite boulders and chaparral. Dana Gioia in his TED talk about place explains that “the world looks different depending on where you see it from and who you see it with. It sounds different. It looks different. It tastes different.” He goes on to describe how until recently, people had to pay attention to the local landscape to provide them with the means to live, and that people visit foreign cities today because they enjoy the diversity that local art, architecture, soil, produce, weather, presents in any particular place. Related to this idea, the biologist, E.O. Wilson has written about biophilia–how humans have a natural affinity for nature. It is our source of life. Today, however, we often don’t know the names of the trees outside their windows or the plants we live beside on a daily basis. Gioia asserts that the standardization of the world in its architecture and foods, clothing, and other numerous effects of globalization on cultures, while increasing affordability, creates a loss in diversity. This is a “huge impoverishment of human spirit”–a loss in connection to where we live, Gioia stresses.
We are always changing and so are places. When I first moved to Santa Cruz, California from San Diego County, I wore sweaters most the summer long until about noon each day. It was cold! The world looked different–there were so many trees, and the coastline was rocky, and it didn’t seem to matter how you casually you dressed. These were small things, but many small things put together create a sense of place. During the Creativity Workshop I recently attended in Prague, the workshop leaders asked us to sit in a cafe and draw the soul of a person–not the physical features, but the soul. That was challenging. I observed a mid-aged woman with blond hair and noticed how calm she was. Her voice was quiet, as were her manners. She was in no hurry to eat or to make her point with her partner. I envisioned her to be the shape of a cloud, all edges soft, content to wrap around objects without having to take control. She would glide from place to place without rushing. She contained no sharp edges. She could float above the world and see things clearly. It was interesting to think of visualizing a person’s spirit embodied in material qualities. When I came back to Delhi, though, noting the city’s distinctive differences from where I had just been, I wondered what a drawing of the soul of a place would like–specifically, what would a drawing of Delhi’s soul look like? I’m still pondering that question, but the art piece would need to be kinetic with glints of glass, a mosaic of colors swirling, moving, rising out of dark space then turning into smoke, the scent of smoke filling the room.
Leaving a place you have known and loved and lived always carries with it a grief. A place grows inside us, we have a relationship with it, and to let go of it is loss. We mourn. I remember my dad standing on the path outside my house when he came to visit me just before I moved overseas. “You’re never coming home again,” he said, crying. I had never seen him cry but once before. I was looking at the move as the adventure of my life. He was looking at it as loss. Even though I’ve been living and wandering abroad for years now, I still carry the longing for open space, wide and wild space–the kind of landscape the western part of the United States still holds. I’ve lived in mega cities for many years. I enjoy tidy gardens where they can be found. They are wonderful to behold with their shaped and contained designs, especially when greenery is rare, but to feel truly alive, I need wild space. E.E. Cummings writes in his poem, “Love is a Place,”
Love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
Not only is love a place, but I say place is also love. Through our connection to place our understanding of the world and of love begins. Last summer as I lay on the floor with the doors open so the sun and breeze could float in while I did my exercises, the sudden subtle perfume from the redwoods wafted in through the door and tears welled up in my eyes. The absolute perfection of that clean, woodsy sweetness. There are more dramatic places in the world to live, I’m sure, and I recognize different people need different things. What is it about a place we call home that makes us want to go back to it? There are people, the familiar routines, the memory connect to place, but there is also something fundamental–the physicality of the place itself. You are in love with the land, you want to know it, care for it, understand it and its mystery. When you find the home of your heart, as I felt I had lying there on the floor inhaling the afternoon’s quiet and perfumed air in California’s Soquel Hills, you know it’s where you belong.