About now people are anticipating summer holidays, perhaps a canoe trip or hike across the escarpment. People say, we are travelling out to nature for our holidays. Perhaps this is wrong. Consider this rephrasing and so reimagining of our relationship to nature: We do not visit nature; we are nature. Nature is not a place but what we are. We are the rocks, the streams, the sky. We are in our nature no different to a bird we see or a waterfall or the earth beneath our feet. These compose us; we are inseparable from the natural world.
How often do we think of ourselves as superior to nature, possibly the pinnacle of nature but enough above it that nature merely caters to our needs, we being the highest on the pecking order, nature subservient to us. Trees are a resource: lumber, pulp. The other way of imagining the world, is that we are inextricably bound into the life of nature. In this imagination we would stand in a completely different relation to nature. Consider what it would mean to have this radically different view of ourselves and the natural world. Trees, being more ancient than us, around for a lot longer than we have been around – in a complete reversal of how we see the world- the trees are the wise ones; the trees would be our teachers, not a resource for our ambition, but a guide for us, a mentor for us to know what it is to live. Wow. Right now we humans believe we know best about how to live in this world, certainly better than trees. But if the streams and the rocks and the sunshine on the dew are guides for us, mentors to help us through the course of our lives, then we would be asking them to teach us about life. We don’t. How patient they are. But if we think differently about nature, how different would our lives be? How different is the way we would be in the world? How different the world would be? How different our very life?
Would we ask a tree to teach us? What if we did, observed a tree for hours, saw how the spectrum of light shifted over time, in motion with sun and cloud; how a breeze moves through branches creating and disassembling lines and shapes in patterns of movement, dance even. We look at art, and if in the right frame of mind, the art can access our deep inner contemplation. Art is lines and shapes and patterns that speak to us, to our inner selves. We put a frame around art and speak of the significance of great art. But were we to give the same credibility to a tree, let it speak to us through its lines and textures, light and shade, like art, it too might speak to our inner self, access our brain’s default network, our contemplation about life.
We have this odd notion, if you think about it, a very odd notion, that we observe the world out there in front of us. We seem to think of ourselves as having two holes in our skull that we peer out of to see what is going on out there, outside of our body. Well, we don’t have two holes in our skull, not until we are dead and decomposed that is. In the sockets of our eyes are two receptors that join other receptors for sound and smell and taste and touch. The world we think out there is actually inside our head. In the case of colour, colour is not out there in the object in our view. Colour is in our brain, waves received by the eye receptors and sent to the visual part of the brin where billions of neural transmitters compute the waves into our image of colour. If we were to count each neural transmitter in our visual region of the brain, allowing one second for each, it would take 30,000 years of counting to count them all. Such sophistication instantly creates our experience of colour. Some neuroscientists such that in the way colour is imagined in our mind, so too is space and time.
Far more data hits our bodies’ sensors than we can make pictures of. Of the millions and millions of bits of data we see in any day, most is discarded. Our mind selects what it perceives and presents that curated image to our conscious mind. We might be reading poetry, even crying over some sentiment expressed, but if an unexpected noise cracks behind us, and even if we continue to stare at the page of poetry, our mind will be perceiving something else than the poetry. In fact the poetry won’t even exist for us. Our mind has prioritized the data we are aware of. All our attention is on that unexpected noise until we figure what to do about it.
The human being is quite remarkable this way. The foetus of a woman pregnant with child does not follow a standard human development but selects its development based on data. If the mother is under stress, say enduring famine or war or violence in the home, then the R-brain, the oldest part of the brain of the foetus will develop more highly at the expense of other regions of the brain. Development efforts go to the R-brain. Why? The foetus will need to have good survival skills, lodged in the R-brain, to deal with the harsh world of famine or violence that it’s being born into. For a mother living contentedly, in relative peace, the emphasis in the foetal brain development in her uterus is more to the higher order regions of the frontal brain lobes preparing the foetus to best manage the world it will be born into.
It’s often said that two photographers shooting a subject while side by side will not capture the same picture. We see the world in a particular way, different to another person, even if standing beside us, even if we seem to agree on a lot. Unlike the camera, our brains don’t just reveal the data they receive. There is far too much data to bring it all to conscious notice. Not only is the data culled, but more for the efficient operation of our brains, our minds impose patterns on the data received based on our genetic makeup and our experience. We guess. We impose a pattern on the data from within. We make an informed guess on what the data means to us.
This is hard to believe because we think we all see the same thing, maybe with different opinions, where it seems we do not each see the same thing, that is judge the world in the same way as someone else, and while our common language allows us to feel we have a shared experience and the appearance of a shared perspective, it’s clear to sensitive people, in particular therapeutic counsellors, that the deeper one’s insight into the perspective of another person, say after hours of analysis, the more obvious it is that the other person is living in another world quite different to our own.
I see things one way. I see them another. Time may be the only factor distinguishing two perspectives I have. Or maybe my perspective is affected by how tired I am. Or how much I’ve spent thinking about something. Or the mood I’m in. Or whether I’ve just received some good news or bad news. I can be awake at night over some worry, and at another time, the very same concern is taken in stride. I remember numerous times when serving in a restaurant that a table would be quite curt with me when I first approach it. In no time, after the customers had eaten their appetizer, they had become the most congenial of people. Their hunger, and then its satisfaction, meant they perceived me in two very different ways. And of course, if I wasn’t aware of the forces behind their behaviour, I could have reacted to the first perception in a way that sent us all down a very different path than my ignoring their brusqueness and later capitalizing on their eventual good spirits.
How do we perceive nature? Something out there that can be manipulated to our ends. Or something inseparable from us, that we are nature. And the perceptions -remember, based on the patterns we impose on the data- our perception shapes our way of being in the world, how we are in the world, how well we feel about being in the world. Our relation to nature is a perception that has a bearing on the life we experience.
There are some built-in affinities of personality and character, what we’re born with I guess, that can’t seem to be overcome, not with out a lot of hard work. Probably for all of us, there are deep structures formed in our infant and child development that seem so entrenched, never to leave us for our whole life. It’s why some suggest that what we develop during our youth is the life we live out to the day we die. In writer John LeCarre´s autobiography, he goes through each chapter viewing his life events, little vignette’s from his life, reminiscences with a detached and amused eye to it all. Near the end, he finally gives in to discussing his father and with that the tenor of the writing changes, takes on an edge, stiffens up, the voice a little more hoarse. He can’t seem to help it. A bit possessed by the thoughts of his childhood relationship with his father. LeCarre´is 85 years old, his father long past, behind him are many pages of his books spent in sorting out that relationship of father and son, but here he is, an 85-year old man, still locked into his youth, his seemingly inescapable youth, just like the rest of us it seems.
So I’m sitting on our back deck. Anne creates a wonderful garden every year on our postage stamp lot. I’ve put down a book having finished. It’s a warm day in June with a cool breeze. I’m in the shade. Life is good. I have no worries, no demands on my time, no concern to be meeting anyone else’s expectations for me. I look about. The bush in our neighbour’s yard overhanging our fence begins to talk to me. And I look about and the plants with long stalks not yet in bloom are chatting away. And off in the distance a street or two over, a tree whose branches grow vertical unlike the canopy of the maple tree two neighbours’ lots over, the tall tree is waving like mad to get my attention, no doubt something important to say. I’m drawn to the bush again. One branch rises up on a breeze, in a familiar manner to me, in the same arc and alignment also taken by a bushy eyebrow raised in a gesture of consternation. The weaving plant stems move slightly away from me and then duck down, come toward me. I’m reminded of our long-past dog. It’s just the same way he used to get me to play with him. And I’m looking about at all this activity, shouting really, going nuts really, and now they have my attention, all of them saying to me, seems really clearly, to me, calling me to dance. “Come on.” they bubble on. “Come on. Join in the dance. Don’t you see. It’s a dance. Why aren’t you dancing.” I don’t feel they’re asking me to stand up and wiggle about. I feel they are telling me to see about me, see the dance I am in the middle of, this life dance.
You could say I have a mental illness, suffering from some madness attributed to quacks who see visions, hallucinate. But then, don’t forget, it’s all in my head, and it’s all in your head, too, that is, how we see. I’m seeing the vegetation blowing about in the breeze, but I’m also seeing the vegetation as a shared nature with me. I’m allowing them to teach me, to show me things I don’t know. Perspective has changed from imposing some domineering attitude on the vegetation, to letting the vegetation be alive and full of wisdom. And so life can teach me. If I am open to the world, am companion to the world, companion to the rocks, to the streams, share this oxygen with them, walk along with them on their journeys, on the billion year old journeys of the rocks, on the momentary blossoming in magnificent glory and soon withering of the peonies, go with them on their journey. I discover in them teachers, wise guides indoctrinating me into the mysteries of life. I look at a tree blowing in the breeze and feel it knows so much more than I. I keep observing it, and the longer and more attentive my observation, the more I see of the tree, that single tree, and in a particular branch where it comes out of the trunk of my neighbour’s tree, I see what I have not seen in 25 years sitting on this backyard deck. I see it for what it is, what is there, and for the first time, I say, how beautiful that is. I notice the curve, the smooth indentation on the upper edge, the scarring below.
And in the moment I see it, my attention on it, in that moment I am changed, if a bit. It stops me in the moment, an ahha moment. Nothing dramatic. For a moment of recognition, my breath was taken away. I laughed that there it was this whole quarter century and I only just saw it now. And I spun around. And I jumped up and down, laughing, crying. I am awakened to life. I didn’t get out of my chair, but my consciousness was on fire with joy and celebration. And that perception that my mind put on the data coming in, that perception of life as I conceive it, carried me through the whole day and affected my whole day and the things I said, and how people regarded to me. And it could have been a very different day with a different perspective.
Life, as the epigram goes, is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by how many times it was taken away.
So it’s not some lucky day I hope will get hold of me again, this dancing. The experience has been written about for thousands of years in the writings passed on to us of monks and ascetics and mystics and herbalists and theologians and naturalists and photographers. I think of my mentor Freeman Patterson.
Emily Carr who headed out in her car to the woods each summer to paint, with her paints that were so expensive for her thinned with gasoline to stretch them out, write about how she painted nature. She would set up her chair and easel in a place she was drawn to. And she would sit and wait. She would wait often for hours. She waited for nature to tell her what to paint. She waited for nature to speak to her, show her the subject. It wasn’t enough for her to say oh what a pretty place. I’m going to paint this pretty place. She had to become a part of the place, enter into a companionship with the trees and grasses and lightness. She had to prepare herself to listen. It took discipline and time. To enter a perspective, frame of mind, of humility and love and care for the natural world. To enter their temple, kneel before them, feel their warmth for her, feel them lift her up. Nature became present to her, alive. She was able to hear what nature had to teach her about itself. Now she could paint. She wasn’t a mad woman. She was a painter. A wise woman. A great painter.
Hers was a simple and natural way of seeing herself in the world. Other accounts that come down to us over the millennium recount grand visions and ecstatic experiences but are often matched by the great portent of the moment. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl writes of experiences he witnessed, easily judged as madness, in one case of a woman speaking with trees while they were both imprisoned in a Nazi death camp. Paradoxically, the visionaries describe journeys within, into the depths of their own selves, in search of one’s own self, for there in that place, the guides explain, in that place of deep self-knowing, one comes to embody the whole of the world. The whole of the world, other people, the natural world, even as James Hillman and Robert Sardello write, the built world too, become a part of one, are the same as one, no different to one’s own being.
To look at the ribs of a leaf, see beauty in the lines alternating one with the other, the light coming through the leaf, is to become one with the leaf, to recognize one’s soul in the leaf itself. And so it is in that place of the deep self, a place where we have love for our self, grateful for the life we have, in that place is found all things, the unity of all things. And we are nature. Dance with me says the Raven. And the Raven becomes the whole of the world to us, and we dance.
Where do we find the dance. Deep within. Not anywhere else. In our breath. in the recognition we have breath. In our silence. In our letting go. Just being who we are, no fabrications, no assumptions, no self-importance, but who we really find in our deep soul. Listening in the silence. And waiting. Waiting for what nature herself might tell us.