(Part 2 of 2; here’s the other one)
As to scenery (giving my own thought and feeling),
while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite,
Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone, and the like afford
the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but that the
prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight,
last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest,
and make North America’s characteristic landscape.
—Walt Whitman, Specimen Days, 1879
The realm of high mountain peaks has so often felt like the prime place to experience the meeting of earth and sky—all those jagged summits piercing the atmosphere, their sheer power (primal earth) stirring sky to respond, calling forth great explosions of cloud and bringing down the rains from on high. Yet: today I see the folly—and dare I say the maleness—of that narrow view of the eternal dance of sky across earth under sky. For now, all around/under/within me, a very different and equally powerful union is taking place: the skin of the earth is rippling at the wind’s touch.
Here, at the bottom of the sky, rolling hills blanketed with supple grasses shimmer under a day-long caress of the hundred-mile winds of the plains. On a nearby slope, nearly backlit by the mid-day sun, large-scale patterns show the wind moving steadily left to right. Yet within this flowing motion are countless smaller and constantly shifting shimmerings, bright patches within the larger patterns, slipping and sliding across the hills: expanding disappearing returning trembling. This play of light is dynamic and detailed, riveting and subtle to the very edges of perception in ways that call to mind the ionic exuberance of the northern lights.
Drawing my gaze in, to the prairie carpet closer at hand (foot), Read the rest of this entry
(Part 1 of 2; here’s the other one)
As dusk fades to night, a strong wind stirs the stiff, heat-hardy leaves of oak and hickory into steady sensual contact with their brethren; the sound we know as “wind in trees” is, in actual deed, tens of thousands of leaves caressing each other. Spinning out a two-day tendril from the Rockies to the nearest edge of the eastern forest, I’ve touched down in the Cross Timbers of northwest Oklahoma, an oak-centric forest that’s a sort of stepping stone between the prairies and the Ozarks—from which spread the piney forests of the southern gulf plain and the leafy Tennessee and Kentucky woods that stretch on to the ancient bones of the Appalachians.
Many times I’ve travelled between my home in a small valley at the southern tip of the Rockies and the moister, sylvan landscapes of the east. This time, instead of zipping through the vast open plains in a burst of I-40 intensity, the journey stretched to fill two long days—laced with detours and countless pauses along the way, and so knitting together another stretch of my experiential map of our varied continent.
For starters, I slipped off the interstate after just a couple hours, drawn by the chance to cross the Canadian River in a more exciting spot: dropping suddenly into a 600-foot canyon gouged into the western edge of the plains. Read the rest of this entry
Finally, a video of aurora that isn’t speeded up by today’s craze for time-lapse. For two nights in the early 80’s aurora swept far enough south to be overhead in central Maine (very rare; usually they’re on the northern horizon at best), and we were entranced by their visual Majavishnu dance. Slower than water in a stream and faster than clouds overhead, the rippling motion of aurora hit a real sweet spot for lifting viewers into an extended state of wonder. While of course video in a 500-pixel-wide portion of a screen can’t replicate this wonder, you can get a faint taste of it from this show in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
And check this out: the same footage with comparisons in real-time and time-lapse. As he explains, while real-time captures the actual feeling of the motion, that 30fps shutter speed dims the colors, while time-lapse sequences come closer to presenting the color as seen by the eye, at least for bright aurora.
Note, though, that many time-lapse videos of the night sky, using a series of still shots at wide aperture, clearly exaggerate the brightness, as compared to human vision; virtually all of the gorgeous milky way time-lapses do this to a fairly dramatic degree, as do some videos of fainter aurora. Real time video, by contrast, will, if anything, under-represent the brightness of the night sky.
Again, in lieu of any fresh songs springing forth from my own muse, I offer this recent reverie from a writer I’ve come to deeply appreciate, Brian Doyle. In an essay on the wonderful website curated by the Center for Humans and Nature, he glimpses the needle’s eye:
What is the greatest single virtue of our species? What is the one thing that we have in spades and abundance, the one thing that perhaps allowed us to prosper and multiply in such staggering numbers, to send men and machines into the sea of the stars, to fling a chirping robot past the boundaries of our very galaxy? Imagination, brothers and sisters. Imagination. We dream and then make real our dreams. And all that inventiveness, all that innovative zest, all our yearning to solve puzzles and discover secrets and worry inarguable truths from the welter of lies and distractions, all our deep pleasure in making things that were never in the world before in just that way—now that is become the thin thread of our salvation. Not to mention all the other actors in the play. Not to mention your children and their children
Following his heart and his pen through a series of powerful and poignant reflections (please do read the whole piece), Brian reminds us, and asks us:
We dreamed ourselves aloft. We dreamed ways to wrestle and wrangle rivers. We caught electricity. We persuaded plants to march in rows and give us their children to eat. We dreamed ever-faster ways to whir along the skin of the earth in steeds of steel. We dreamed throbbing cities so big and vast and high they seem unreal when we shuffle through them gawking far below. We dreamed the most extraordinary music and the most haunting deep-shared stories. We invented uncountable thousands of languages and religions and dances and sports and foods and medicines. Can’t we invent new fuels for our steel steeds, and new ways to catch and share energy, and new ways to spin detritus into fuel and energy? Have we gone stale and dim as a species, here at the apex of our population and technology boom? Were these last centuries of incredible invention and innovation and imagination all just for money and power? Or do we have a last slim door through which to send our wild holy imaginations into a future where children do not gasp and retch and duck the bullets of the Water Wars?
I am holding the hand of a small child in a yellow raincoat and orange bib overalls. His little boots have long ago filled with water. His hair is damp and smells of salt. And I am staring at my boots and thinking of what it could possibly mean to this child, to live on a planet whose life-supporting mechanisms have frayed and fallen apart.
He sucks in his breath. “Hey! Guys! Come close and look. Come close and look.” Under a blade of rainbow kelp, he has found the red, orange-spiked, gooey sea animal called the California sea cucumber, Parastichopus californicus. How beautiful it is, and how beautiful is the human impulse to be astonished.
But there’s this: Yesterday, on a beach only two miles from this one, sea cucumbers by the hundreds washed up, dead. I’d never seen anything like that before. Gloriously colored animals sagging under the sudden weight of the world, they rolled in with the tidal detritus, tangled in seaweed and slime.
What does this mean for our children, yours and mine, this dying? Can children thrive in a world where other species are vanishing as they watch? I just don’t know. And what does it mean for us, the parents and grandparents who desperately love these children?
Do read the whole thing; it’s beautifully written. And click through for links to two other recent pieces by Kathleen.
I recently discovered Michael Leunig, an Australian cartoonist whose wonderful and often-poignant work is well worth perusing; his site features extensive archives. Click through below for a few more of the ones that jumped out for me (one in every five or ten, I’d say; many others are pretty grim, if also too true).
We may “know” the universe of galaxies is out there, and we do indeed gaze with wonder at our galactic body shining across the summer sky. But the largest of the bodies we are really able to experience is the Solar Body. We see this body from different angles, as earth circles the sun. We watch it change over time, our cycle but one figure in the eternal dance of our sister planets. And we feel it with our animal bodies: the sun warming our tender skin, human beings reveling in the seasonal breath of life within the skin of the earth.
Check it—that’s how high the sun gets on my birthday! Tip the ol’ head back, to its natural easy limit (just shy of craning) and I’m looking right at that great ball of plasma at the center of it all. Seems pretty far up there; it really does take a leap in February, after the two chilly months straddling Solstice; for so long, we’re looking way down across the winter planet’s deep backwards tilt, while the southern horizon swings eastward not much more than hands-breadth below our precious local star.
Ah, Bodhi. Another year gone by and again the anniversary of my birth is being spent within your warm embrace. Morning on the back porch, catching some eastern rays as the orange and white cliffs spin down and away from the brilliant beacon in the sky. Midday finds me on a bench under bare cottonwoods, continuing my day of reading and integration. And now, as the afternoon fades to evening, the pools call and the books are set aside. Ah, Bodhi; earth-warmed waters, take me in. How I love the touch of your cobblestones under fingers and palms that slowly pull this floating body across the pool, sun rippling on stones below, chin slipping through the subtle, pliant surface tension of your waters.
Body temp rising, head now resting in a grassy nook between a couple of rocks along your edge, high clouds streaming through the deep blue sky. Ah, Bodhi, here in this mighty canyon, where ancient waters scoured away towering layers of limestone and volcanic ash all the way down to where today’s small, lively stream dances ceaselessly a few feet away. . . and draws my awareness out, and up, beyond the cliffs shining upstream in soft afternoon sun.
A Valentine’s Day message from The Teilhard Project speaks to the deeper spirit of the day:
Love is the the most universal, formidable, and most mysterious
of the cosmic energies
—Building the Earth
The day will come when,
after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation,
we shall harness for God the energies of love.
And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world,
man will have discovered fire.
—Toward the Future
The special effect of love is to plunge the beings it draws together more deeply into themselves.
Love is a sacred reserve of energy, and the blood stream of evolution;
that is the first discovery we can make from the sense of Earth.
—Building the Earth
Learn more about Teilhard de Chardin on this edition of On Being, in which Krista Tippet interviews three thought leaders for whom he has been a formative influence (includes links to transcript and audio).