Monday, January 21, 2013

To match your nature with Nature

"I went to the woods 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."  - Henry David Thoreau 

In my post of Joseph Campbell quotes some months ago I included one of my favorites - "The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe - to match your nature with Nature."  I believe this wholeheartedly.  For me, at least, I know it's true.  I've lived in cities twice in my life, now and when I was in college.  In between I lived in the suburbs, where I still pined for nature, but it didn't hurt as much when there were at least some trees to be seen.  There are some nice things about cities, sure.  It's nice to be able to walk to places.  It's not so nice that the walking is all on cement.  It's nice that there's a great variety of people and cultures (and food) all close together.  It's nice that there are lots of colleges.  And... and I'm sure there are other things.  But I'm having a hard time thinking of them.

I grew up surrounded by nature, and I still can't seem to learn how to live without it.  But I don't think it's just a "me" thing, and I don't think it's just a country kid thing.  We're all part of nature, animals born on this earth to be part of the interconnected web of life.  And to separate ourselves so much from all of that, physically and mentally, takes a toll.  Maybe more on some than on others, but it must change us.  It must rob us, just a little, of our true humanity.

And without nature, that's how I feel - like I've forgotten what it is to be human.  I become a thing that pays bills and stares at screens and can't wake up in the morning or sleep at night.  I remind myself in moments of desperation that none of it is real.  Not money or society's expectations or any of the stresses of this invented "human" world.  While evolutionary psychology is often a slippery slope into justifying inequality and bad behaviors, I think there is a huge value in adopting the perspective of what a simple and beautiful world we as humans were "meant" to be born to.  What a simple, real life we could try to create.

Every little part of the day is filled with meaning for me when I wake up early in the cold, bright morning -  as I can only seem to do when I've slept out under the stars - and smell the dew on the grass, and feel the energy of everything alive waking with me.  When I sit down to the patient, meditative task of bringing a fire to life, in a stove or a pit or a hearth, and feel the warmth of that brilliant life filling me up.  When I look out into the world and find miles of woods and mountains spread before me, deer running on a far hill, the only sounds from birds and insects carrying on their busy lives, the wind rustling through branches, little streams rushing with melting ice.  How huge and unknowable this world is, even though every day another of its little secrets is revealed with careful study - to watch a spider spin its web, or see the first shoots of spring flowers rising through the last snow.

The only thing I want in this world is to have that life.  To spend my days exploring forests and tending gardens, building fires and baking bread, watching the stars and the changing seasons, and sharing it all with the ones I love.  I am, in theory, an artist.  I was almost a poet once or twice.  But the only place I feel inspired, the only time I have that elusive perfect recipe of inner peace and awe and joy and the spark of creativity is when I'm in that place.  When I am human, and remember what that really means, how it feels, and how much it's worth celebrating.

I fight to keep that alive in the world of dirty crowded sidewalks, I try to center my life around real little joys - herbs on the windowsill, a hot cup of tea, pinewood incense, a warm kiss shared on a cold day, bread in the oven, a purring cat.  But I just can't manage it all the time.  Depression makes me too tired to love as I should.  Without the elements around me I feel starved for a real life I can see and touch.  So every week I light candles and look at pictures of our Adirondacks vacations and cry.

The Adirondacks are an amazing place.  Where I grew up a couple hours south of there was wonderful, but it was just the country.  The Adirondacks are wild.  In the 1800s they were more depleted by deforestation, over-hunting and over-fishing than any area in the country.  But in 1895, six million acres of the Adirondacks received a completely unique grant of protection in the New York state constitution: "The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed."  Many environmental organizations in the area proudly display the motto today: Forever Wild.

From the Adirondack Wild Center:  "The Adirondacks are unique in the world. Surrounded by people, they house great expanses of nature interspersed with small towns and communities. They can be an example for a future where man and the rest of the natural world find better ways to coexist."

There are obstacles to this, of course, including the reason we do not live there right now: little development means little work is available for Adirondack residents.  On the plus side there is extremely cheap housing to be had, but most locals live under the poverty line.  And with a small population, there's not a lot of publicity for the area as a model for modern living, outside of those who vacation there.

And our vacations there have been the brightest spots in my recent years.  I remember sitting around the bonfire one crisp autumn night, a mug of hot cider in my hands, the man I love at my side, listening to coyotes howl and watching the light of the embers glow and dim in waves, like the surface of the ocean, and knowing that in that moment I had absolutely everything.

We took a drive one day an hour or so before twilight, when I saw off to the side an opening in the thick forest, the trees seeming to form an arch over a dark tunnel into a mysterious other world.  We parked on the side of the road and took off into the opening, where there was no path to follow.  Under the canopy dusk was already gathering, and there was that special kind of rich, still silence that only a forest has.  The ground was carpeted with the dry needles of spruces and firs, and the scent was all around us.

Seeing a forest endless ahead of me, the tall trunks and mossy stones, twisting roots and old fallen logs, and the way the dim light settles in such a way under the branches that everything almost glows, just makes my heart so full I want to cry.  And then, I want to run.  I can never help but to take off as fast as I can manage, dodging around treetrunks and scrambling over boulders, to see what more beauty lies ahead, to see that it's no tiny cluster of trees between houses and shopping centers, that it really keeps going on and on.  On that day, we started to hear rushing water, and followed the sound to a big stream with a strong current running off into the forest.  We went along beside it until the trees opened up enough and the slope of the banks was gentle enough to get a good view of it, clear and cold, churning over smoothed stones.  There might be no more magical place in the world than a secret stream tucked away in a wood with no paths.  Nothing that touches the soul of being human more than being somewhere wild.  How often does that happen to any of us?

I don't know what my "point" is for this post.  I was never good at having thesis statements in papers, I've always preferred a kind of meandering exploration.  I guess I want to express how it feels to so desperately miss a place, a life, a presence of divine love - because being depressed because you miss trees sounds kind of like a friffly fairy princess problem.  It's not something a lot of people can relate to, but I think the soul-replenishing joy experienced in nature is something everyone can relate to, if they give themselves a chance, and something everyone needs to experience a whole lot more of.

Can we all revert to Village-style communes where we use our skills to support each other and don't use money?  Much as I wish for that every day, while I mourn my bills, my inability to find someone to pay me to do the things I'm good at, and the lack of culture and community in the modern American experience, probably not.  But I hope we can follow the Adirondacks' example and start moving in a better direction; start bringing back more of the wild.  Considering it our responsibility as a species to restore what we've destroyed and ensure the continuance of life as we know it has apparently not been enough to get humans going.  But maybe that should be no surprise when so few of us see the world that should have been all of ours to share.  When so few learn the desperate love of the vanishing wild and how simply it can nourish and fulfill us.  We have no idea how much we need nature, until we've loved and lost it.

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