“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is Earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Today I’m skipping to page 26 of Room to Write, which asks us to write about Nature—we can discuss it in terms of either the outdoors or our human nature. Or, as a third alternative, write about both and connect them together.
Nature peeks in at my window from the flower box, offering a contrasting visual to the street traffic that I hear below. The roof that I otherwise view out our flat’s front windows is gradually becoming obscured by the tree buds that are cracking open to unfurl their vibrant sources of shade. While Autumn will always reign as my favorite season, there’s no question that Spring is the one that consistently unleashes the euphoria…in Chicago, it meant the cessation of the bitter cold with no more fear of a surprise snowstorm to dig your car out of as you curse into the winds; here in London, it means more gaps between the oppressive cloud-cover that has given me mole-eyes with extreme sensitivity to this golden, natural light we’re delighting in now. As opposed to the droning hum of fluorescent lighting that dulls our pallor to that of corpses, the sunshine has slurped up the puddles for the time being and is grinning at all the people glad to scurry about in lighter jackets and exposed toenails.
But I don’t mean to make this about the weather, just the effect that it has on the human psyche, making us feel an urge to interact with it, be a part of it. Nature expands our lungs, colors our cheeks, infuses us with a sparkle that we risk losing when all we may come into contact with day-to-day is the plastic of pens, kettle handles, or keyboards pushing against our fingertips along with the cool metal of doorknobs and pocket change. Even the natural grain of our wooden furniture’s once living existence is separated from our skin with a layer of varnish, the embalming fluid of trees.
I once attended a series of debates at St. Paul’s Cathedral during which theologians and scientists discussed the nature of the soul (if interested, you can read the full transcript here). While they went on to distinguish the soul from the spirit, one panel member (Keith Ward, Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford University) had this to say of both:
“[A]ll living things—all animals, even vegetables, potatoes and tomatoes—have souls. They all have living principles. So having a soul, for the Bible, isn’t what makes human beings special.”
“Every living thing has the breath of life, which is the spirit.”
Regardless of anyone’s religious beliefs—that is what made these debates so fascinating after all, as panel members across the series represented Christianity, Judaism, Agnosticism, and Atheism, and found more common ground than disparate, as far as I perceived—I think the above captures a sense that people can share universally. It is that “living principle,” that “breath of life” that we share with Nature, and this is what binds us together no matter how much we try to distinguish ourselves by our intellect and emotion. If this is a way that we humans are not special, that means we can commune with Nature as our brethren, giving and receiving energy from one another in much the same way we breath the oxygen plants give off only to expel the carbon dioxide they need to photosynthesize in return.
When I stand on a mountain or swim in the sea, there is something so gorgeous about the vision and experience of it that I could cry, for it taps into my own primal nature that remains embedded in my core, nonmalleable to societal influences that may otherwise shape me for better or worse. Nature vs. Nurture is a whole other tangent on which I could take this topic, but I shall hold off on that other than to say I personally believe both factors are at play when it comes to who we are and who we become. Our nature, however, is akin to that persistent vine that finds its way through the cracks of a stone wall; aspects of who we are at our roots are likewise things to be nourished so that they can flourish or perhaps be plucked like weeds when we recognize the bad that could come of them (the very duality addressed in my “Mad Me?” post and your comments). Think about it; we constantly address ourselves in terms of vegetation: early or late bloomers, budding, blossoming, being planted, rooted/uprooted, fertile, and so on. This metaphorical language doesn’t come from nowhere; we draw comparisons of ourselves to images we somehow intuitively understand, and, in doing so, better understand ourselves.
On looking back at this entry, I see that I automatically addressed the gentler side of Nature. This is the hopeful, inspiring aspect of the outdoors that we can embrace for a healthier mind, body, and soul. Yet I would be remiss not to footnote here that I stand in awe of Nature in a fearful way as well. It has a tremendous force that humbles us through what we term “natural disaster”: earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, tornado, and most recently, volcanic eruption. I literally just jumped out of my chair to look outside at the first sound of an airplane I’ve heard in days—sure enough, I just watched it fly past. It’s been an experience directly observing the impact of the ash, leaving people stranded in a way that didn’t occur 200 years ago when Iceland’s volcano last erupted (and did so for a year!). We take our air travel for granted and have felt practically paralyzed at being sent back to an earlier time when such was not an option. Of course, though, our next escape routes became our trains, cars, and boats.
But envision if we did peel back the layers of technological innovation and retreated to our more basic, natural selves:
“If we assume man has been corrupted by an artificial civilization, what is the natural state? The state of nature from which he has been removed? Imagine wandering up and down the forest, without industry, without speech and without home.” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men
What are your thoughts on Nature (in any of its respects), and how do you think such contemplation impacts what and how we write?
April 22nd, 2010 at 15:03
Nature is usually one of the main characters in my stories… I mean, I start of having nature as a background, you know- green trees, blue sea &sky, the birds the butterflies, but it always ends up being so much more than a setting…
I think you made a great point by saying that there are two sides to nature; the gentler side where we lie on the grass and watch the clouds and the side of it that can make men kind helpless like a newborn. I find both sides utterly inspiring…
I loved the quotes by the way, great picks! 🙂
April 22nd, 2010 at 20:20
Your statement just brought to mind staring at the clouds and trying to find shapes in them…such a dream state to be in, and then, yes, the utterly fearful feeling when those puffy white clouds swirl into purple and grey and crack with illumination. “Newborn” is the perfect way to describe that sense of helplessness. I saw in your birthday post how nature really comes to the forefront, and you used the pelting rain powerfully to establish an ominous and vulnerable mood. I’m so excited to read more of your story and see how nature continues to emerge as a character.
April 22nd, 2010 at 15:18
Most of my aphorisms are motivated by nature. Something I see-a hill, a cloud, a squirrel-triggers a response in me. It’s a feeling of awe at the existence of these things, and I want to acknowledge that awe in my own words.
April 22nd, 2010 at 20:23
And you articulate that awe so well. I envy that, really, as I always struggle to describe the feelings that nature inspires in me, and it seems to take me paragraphs to do so when you manage it so succinctly.