The Lost Words

IMG_5538In Four Quartets, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote, “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” Language is constantly changing and evolving. New words enter our vocabulary and our lexicon. How many of the words that we use on a daily basis would be completely strange and unfamiliar to our ancestors just a few generations ago? How many of their vernacular are lost to us now? Just as our physical landscapes are changing with development, so, too, is our language.

How many of us, when we venture into the woods, cannot name the trees or plants or birds or wildflowers that we come across? How many children can tell you the names of imaginary cartoon animals but not the real names of animals in nature?  How many of them have been more likely to touch the latest iPhone than water in a creek or the bark of a tree as they climb it? How many of them would be more in awe of the latest video game system than in seeing a hawk in flight? When Cambridge University did a study of four to eleven year olds, what they discovered was that kids were “more inspired by synthetic subjects” than by “living creatures.” They were more excited by Pokemon than porcupines. But what are we losing when we and our children are no longer connected to the natural world? How can we care about the welfare of other creatures if we don’t even realize they exist?

As people become more and more connected to the online world, they become less and less to the natural one. As technological words enter our vocabulary and our dictionaries, the words of nature are falling away and forgotten. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

How limited will our world become?

When we diminish our language, we diminish ourselves.

In her book From The Forest: A Search For The Hidden Roots of Our Fairy Tales, Sara Maitland writes:

“The whole tradition of [oral] story telling is endangered by modern technology. Although telling stories is a very fundamental human attribute, to the extent that psychiatry now often treats ‘narrative loss’ — the inability to construct a story of one’s own life — as a loss of identity or ‘personhood,’ it is not natural but an art form — you have to learn to tell stories . . . The deep connect between the forests and the core stories has been lost; fairy stories and forests have been moved into different categories and, isolated, both are at risk of disappearing, misunderstood and culturally undervalued, ‘useless’ in the sense of ‘financially unprofitable.”

When I read those words, my heart broke. As someone who loves both fairy tales and forests, I fear for what we are not leaving future generations.

IMG_5542One of my favorite authors, Robert Macfarlane, has explored this loss in books like Landmarks and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Now he has a gorgeous new illustrated book out entitled The Lost Words.  It is astoundingly beautiful and the watercolor illustrations by Jackie Morris take my breath away in no less a fashion as seeing wildlife in nature itself. Their collaboration is a pure celebration of words, poetry and the natural world.

IMG_5544When I received The Lost Words in the mail, I could not wait to share this book with my younger son, who adores animals, the woods and, especially birds. The two of us poured over the pages of a work that compels the reader to reconnect with the outdoors again.

Robert Macfarlane mourned the loss of words that were disappearing from kids’ dictionaries: acorn, bluebell, heron and conker being among them. As he told The Telegraph, “The idea was that readers would feel a sense of walking into the book, like a landscape. We wanted to make a spell-book in two senses – in that children spelt these words but that there was also this great sense of enchantment; that old magic of speaking things aloud.”

IMG_5545As a child I discovered nature both through books (Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows were two vital ones for me) and by playing in and exploring the woods behind our house. I lament that my own sons do not have the ability to just roam free in the nature as I did, but I still make the effort to take them out on weekly nature walks and spend time in national parks where they can encounter fish in the streams, hear the piercing cry of a red-tailed hawk in flight, feel moss on their feet, see the sunlight dancing amidst the branches and leaves of the trees, and to learn the names of what we see. To know the names is to enter the enchantment because every reader of fairy tales understands the power of knowing someone or something’s true name.  Forests and woods can cast a spell that no other places can – and I want my boys to feel that magic as I have over the years.

IMG_5543I want my sons to pick and taste wild blackberries. To know the feel of acorns and the cool, smoothness of river stones and what it’s like to put one’s hands into the soil. I want them to realize that, while we are not wealthy by any means, we have riches by being able to spend time in such places.

As Macfarlane wrote in The Wild Places, “Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders. The seal’s holding gaze, before it flukes to push another tunnel through the sea, the hare’s run, the hawk’s high gyres : such things are wild. Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise that live by voices inaudible to you.”

IMG_5549The Lost Words is a lovely reminder of what we need to remember to value: the words and the natural world they are referring to. There is a beauty and a poetry to the natural world that Macfarlane and Morris capture exquisitely.  Our family has developed and nurtured our intense love for words and the wild woods, so this book was a wonderful addition to our collection and will be treasured for years to come.

Dandelion, fern, starling, spores, smoke, feathers are all parts of our lexicon. We have guides for birds, trees, plants and regional animals. Every trip that we go on as a family, we always research where we can spend time in nature and, hopefully, discover animals, plants and birds we don’t normally encounter. Because of me, my family has also begun paying attention to roots, moss, clouds, and rocks.

IMG_5550The Lost Words is a book to be poured over: both the images and poems. They also have continued to inspire my younger son to draw and paint watercolors of what he sees in nature (along with furthering his interest in keeping a nature journal).  This book will encourage anyone who reads it to desire to become protector of lost words so that they do not become forgotten and to find an abiding love for nature and spending time in the woods again. This book is magical.

IMG_5551“A proportion of the royalties from each copy will be donated to Action For Conservation – the charity that works with disadvantaged children and which is dedicated to inspiring young people to take action for the environment. Macfarlane is a founding trustee. “

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Komorebi & The Love Of New Words

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When I was a child and I would read a word in a book that I was unfamiliar with, I would go and ask my mother what that word meant. At first, when I was really young, she would tell me it’s definition. But when I got a little older, she told me to go look the word’s meaning up in a dictionary. I was enthralled that I could go to our shelf, pull down two volumes from our Encyclopedia Britannica set that were dictionaries and look up so many new and exciting words. Yes, I was one of those weird kids who actually loved reading the words and definitions that were found between its pages.  And, unlike so many of my peers in school, I didn’t go to dictionaries just to find the “dirty” words and snicker.

Some of my favorite children’s books were the best at introducing me to new words.

Where The Wild Things Are

It started with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Sendak’s use of the word rumpus. I learned that rumpus was “a usually noisy commotion or ruckus.” It was thrilling to me to declare, like Max, “Let the wild rumpus start!”

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Then there was one of my favorite childhood poets, Edward Lear. His most famous work “The Owl and the Pussycat” introduced me to the word runcible, as in “they ate with a runcible spoon.” I was delighted to find out that Lear had simply made this word up (Even more thrilling than a wild rumpus was that one could simply make up words). Edward Lear loved his new word so much that he used this adjective to not only describe the spoon, but also a cat, a hat, a wall and a goose. The word came to mean “silly.” Another writer who delighted in making up nonsense words to the delight of children was Roald Dahl whizzpopper).

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Lewis Carroll enjoyed blending existing words to form new ones as what he called “portmanteau words.” One sees this usage of words in his poems “The Jabberwocky” or “The Hunting of the Snark.” Frumious was just such a word formulated in the imaginative mind of Carroll by combining fuming and furious.

Dr. Seuss was, of course, a master of made-up words and language.

Beatrix Potter introduced me to the word soporific in her book The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies and my mother explained that it meant that something had the effect of making one sleepy.

A Wrinkle in Time introduced me to the world of science and the concept of a tesseractThe spider Charlotte first made me aware of the word radiant when she described Wilbur that way in Charlotte’s Web. The Little Prince was where I first encountered the baobab tree.

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Just as I longed to go to Narnia (Lewis taught me the word wardrobe), I also longed to visit Dictionopolis from Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Dictionopolis, the kingdom of words, where King Azaz decreed a law that words were more important than numbers. As someone who has always struggled with math, I’m with King Azaz. This was the land where the protagonist, Milo, learns to use words and times wisely.

From elementary school on, I was a logophile (from the Greek logos for “word, reason” and philos for “dear, friendly”). It never once abated. I adored words. If I grew bored, particularly during the winter months when I couldn’t go exploring the woods, I would take down a dictionary and simply begin reading it. I thought I was the only one, but then, years later, I found out that David Bowie did as well. “Don’t you love the Oxford Dictionary?” he once asked someone,  “When I first read it, I thought it was a really really long poem about everything.” Now I’m sure there was some tongue-in-cheek playfulness about that statement, but I still found Bowie a comrade.

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As I have gotten older, I continue to love new words, particularly if they are related to the natural environment around me. One of my newer favorites is a Japanese word KomorebiKomorebi means “the sunlight filtering through the leaves or trees.” The fact that there is a word for that is magical to me because now I can use it whenever I see light coming through the leaves of trees. There is something transcendental about the light coming through the leaves and can fill me with a sense of awe. This was especially true during the last eclipse. Komorebi also describe that effect that happened after the solar eclipse, where I was more fascinated by the light playing on our patio than the eclipse itself.

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I love language that reads like poetry or makes the world more poetic and somehow names that which was previously ineffable.

Komorebi is what Dylan Thomas called “windfall light” in his poem “Fern Hil” when he writes “Down the rivers of windfall light.” Like myself and Thomas, C.S. Lewis was someone who loved Komorebi and he described them as “shafts of delicious sunlight” or “Godlight.”

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon the absolute truth.” And he’s right. Words cannot touch the absolute truth but they can, however, guide us there. When we give something a name, we give it meaning.  As Robin Wall Kimmerer wisely said, “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

And they have. Words have taught me to see. They have opened me up to being able to call something a specific name instead of just a bird (a Brown-headed nuthatch – so much more wonderful than just saying “bird”) or just a plant (Eastern Blue Star is far more poetic) or just a tree (Carolina Silverbell).

anne-and-matthewI, like Anne of Green Gables, understand the value of naming a place(the White Way of Delight or the Lake of Shining Waters). Like one of my favorite fictional characters, I agree with her assessment of in this passage of the book:

“Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about?” she asks Matthew on their first drive to Green Gables. “It’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we knew all about everything, would it? There’d be no scope for imagination then, would there?”

Words help give us that scope of imagination for discovery, for being able to name something we once could not name. I can use the German term Waldeinsamkeit  to describe “a feeling of solitude, being alone in the woods and having a connection to nature.” Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote an entire poem about this.

So I will continue to take the dictionary down, even when I’m not bored, just to open it randomly and find new words. It not only expands my vocabulary and my mind, but my world as well.

The Holy Hungering After Beauty

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“It seems to me,” wrote George Eliot, “that we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good and we must hunger after them.”

I find myself in a place in my life where I am hungering after the beautiful and good because the world appears to be filled so much more with the harsh, cruel, violent, and indifferent. As if to counteract all of that, I am turning more and more to poetry, nature, music, and art. They provide a kind of balm to my soul when everything else seems overwhelming and chaotic. I turn to either silence and stillness or I allow myself to listen to works of music that cause my spirit to soar, especially Handel’s Messiah (a work I have already begun listening to in expectation of the beauty of the season to come. It’s hard not to find joy in listening to a chorus singing, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given . . .” or the famous “Hallelujah” chorus. This music is ushering me into the spirit of Advent before Advent begins. It is preparing myself into that holy waiting.

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Awhile back, when I was writing a blog post about the nature journals of Jane Goodall, Charles Darwin, Rachel Carson and John Muir (The Nature of Notebooks), my younger son came up to me and asked what I was writing about. After I explained to him about how these naturalists often started journaling about nature as kids, he became fascinated and wanted to begin his very own. I gave him a small pocket journal for him to keep with him whenever we are out in the yard or on one of our many nature walks so that he can record and draw what he sees. I love how it teaches him observation skills, for him to pay attention and to be aware of the beauty of the world around us: be it a bird, a leaf, a plant, an animal, an acorn or a pinecone. He then goes to his bird or tree or plant guides to discover more about what he has seen and to compare the notes he has made to what the guides say about them.

This act of noticing and recording what he sees is a way for us to grow closer together as we talk about what’s in his journal. It’s also a way for him to begin to care deeply for nature and express his thoughts, feelings, and observations down so that, years later, he can go back and look at them. It will, hopefully, be something he will continue to do throughout his life. It’s a way for him to see the world around himself and to connect himself to those very things: the texture and feel of trees, the sounds and smells of the natural world, the change of seasons as reflected in the colors of the leaves. It creates awareness and connectedness.

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The German poet Johann Wolgang von Goethe wisely suggested, “A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”  Sound advice. And one that I follow daily. I always keep a small collection of poetry in my car so that I can take it out whenever I need the loveliness of and rhythms of the language  and continues my connection to landscape (particularly in poets like Wordsworth, Dickinson, Oliver,  Frost, Whitman and Merwin).

In his collection The Moon Before Morning, W.S. Merwin wrote a poem entitled “Trees”:

I am looking at trees
they may be one of the things I will miss
most from the earth
though many of the ones I have seen
already I cannot remember
and though I seldom embrace the ones I see
and have never been able to speak
with one
I listen to them tenderly
their names have never touched them
they have stood round my sleep
and when it was forbidden to climb them
they have carried me in their branches

When I read such a poem, I connect with his love for trees because it is something I have as well. It causes a longing in me to walk along my thinking path, through the woods filled with a restless curiosity and a desire to allow creation to fill me.

Poetry and nature remind me that I, like Walt Whitman, “I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen, / And accrue what I hear into myself – and let sounds / contribute toward me.” I take the sounds I hear into myself: birdsong, the conversations of others, music (especially when it’s a songwriter like Andrew Peterson or Mary Chapin Carpenter or Carrie Newcomer).

Monkey Rock Autumn

Lately, I also find myself drawn to Japanese woodblock prints, such as those by the landscape artist Ito Yuhan, Hiroshi Yoshida or Hasui Kawase. I love not only the flora and fauna of the works, but the principal behind the works which embrace a simplicity, quietness, tranquility and transcension.  I find that often, I find myself meditating on the beauty of their works and connecting them to the haikus of Matsuo Bashō. One that I love is:

In the twilight rain
these brilliant-hued hibiscus –
A lovely sunset

His haikus, along with the woodcuts, allow me to enter a space of contemplation and focus on the essence of the impressionistic images in both.

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Why should we hunger after beauty?

In her Lectures on Philosophy, Simone Weil wrote, “Everything beautiful has the mark of eternity.” This hunger is to fill a spiritual need that dwells deep within all of us to be connected to the seen and unseen world, to that which is deeper and truer, which nourish and nurture us, that ever reaching for Divine Mystery. To those things that inspire us to awe and wonder. Those things that transcend us and make us consider beyond ourselves and ask questions of why we exist and to join in the sacrament of transformation that occurs when we enter a forest, stand in the ocean, gaze on a masterpiece of art, hear a composition of music that goes deep within our own experience and connects us to so much more, to join in the dance, to sing, to speak aloud a poem, to long to create ourselves and become co-creators in this wondrous world of ours.

In Just Kids, Patti Smith eloquently writes, “The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”

To create art or to come in contact with it, forces us to move beyond the material world to one that connects us to the artist and, ultimately, something far greater than that. We encounter both ourselves and something transcendent of ourselves. We move beyond mere existence to an understanding that all is holy. As Walt Whitman wrote, “All truths wait in all things . . .” When we encounter beauty, we encounter these truths.

Beauty is a beacon.

May we all proceed towards it with sacred, joyful abandon.

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The Magic & Necessity Of Nature

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“Like most children before the age of TV and computer games, I loved being outside,” writes Jane Goodall in her book Reason to Hope: A Spiritual Journey, “I loved playing outside, playing in the secret places in the garden, learning about nature. My love of living things was encouraged, so that from the very beginning I was able to develop a sense of wonder, of awe, that can lead to spiritual awareness.”

When I read that passage by Goodall, I instantly connected with her and her experience. While I had TV, I spent more time in books and the woods. Both were ways of exploration and self-discovery for me. Both libraries and nature were places of freedom, self-education, self-discovery and deep connection to the realization that I’m not alone. When I look at my past, I  see how literature and language and the natural world were all interconnected for me.

My mother encouraged both my love of reading and my love of nature. And I’m sure she was thrilled to go through my pants’ pockets before she washed my clothes: never knowing what she might find in them (small stones, bird bones or feathers, a snake skin, a brightly colored leaf).

It was my discovery of the wonders of nature, like Goodall’s, that opened me to a sense of awe that undergirded a spiritual awareness that was deeper and richer than that I experience in church as a child. It’s also why, as a parent, I ensure that my own sons spend time in nature, to get that sense of the amazing delight and reverence for trees and plants and animals and streams. To be connected and rooted to the natural world and not just to the technological one.

Later in her book, Jane Goodall writes about how she was “not at all keen on going to school.” These are words that harken to my own ambivalence and dislike of systemized education that feels more like chores and prison than opportunities for discovery or creativity or even inspiring critical thinking. My room was filled with books. We took weekly trips to the local library. I would check out stacks of books and then spend time losing myself within their words and worlds, just as I did within the woods.

Many of the books I loved as a boy were either about far off imaginary places, magical places, or wild and wooded places. Fairy tales were a start, but then they were followed by books like The Wind in the WillowsThe Secret GardenDoctor DoolittleCharlotte’s WebWinnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book

I can still recall reading The Wind in the Willows, one of my most cherished and beloved books, and becoming enthralled with the passage where Kenneth Grahame writes, “All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.” That was me he was describing. I could and, still can, get lost into staring at the sky.  I have a fascination with skies and clouds that is unexplainable and I love that it is. I delight in mystery and the inexplicable and unexplainable.

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Needless to say, I relished that Jane Goodall also loved The Wind in the Willows. As she writes, “…to this day, I remember the beautiful and mystical experience shared by Ratty and Mole when they found the missing otter cub curled up between the cloved hoofs of the sylvan god, Pan.”

Pan in The Wind in the WillowsI, too, remember that moment. Certainly this Pan was a kindlier and gentler, more English version of Pan than that of classical Greek. Grahame’s Pan owed more to Wordsworth as a protector of the English wild countryside.  Pan symbolizes nature itself and we see the awe and reverence he inspires in the dialogue between Ratty and Mole:

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.

This was a reverence for wild, untamed places. This was a respect and wonder for the natural world. It was what I felt every time I ventured into the woods behind our house, for when I saw a fox, or discovered raccoon tracks, or spotted a barred owl on a tree branch overhead.

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As a boy, I climbed trees. Loved climbing trees. To hide out. To read. To be alone. To think.So when I read Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, I understood, at once, why the protagonist, Cosimo, climbs a tree on his father’s estate and vows never to set foot on the ground again. There was nothing like being near the top of a tall tree when the wind began to move it, the tree began to sway. Overhead the pale clouds glided by in the summer sky.

It’s also one of the many reasons why I connected with Jiro Taniguchi’s beautiful and simple graphic novel The Walking Man. It is a lovely reflective and meditative work on a man walking. The narrative shows what he encounters on each walk: the people, places, and nature. One of my favorite images is of him, resting in the crook of a tree, gazing out over the rooftops of houses in a suburban Japanese neighborhood.

The Walking Man

This manga wonderfully illustrates the Japanese art form called “Ukiyo-e.”  The philosophy behind Ukiyo-e is of living in the moment, of appreciating life’s simple pleasures and the beauty inherent in nature. This work by Taniguchi causes anyone who takes the time to spend within its pages towards contemplation, reflection and awareness. It takes us out of the pace of our busy, hectic world into one of Ukio-e.

When I first discovered The Walking Man, I could easily identify with its protagonist. There is a peace to his world that I find in my own walks, in my own interactions with nature. I can remember, as a boy, how I loved walking through the tall, woodland grass that brushed against my skin as I passed through the field to enter the woods.

Whenever the world has felt chaotic, I turn to the woods and to the words of writers like Mary Oliver, Jane Goodall, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Macfarlane, John Muir, William Wordsworth, Annie Dilllard, W.H. Hudson, W.S. Merwin, Loren Eiseley, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Rebecca Solnit, Wendell Berry, or Gary Snyder. They draw me back from the hopelessness one so often sees in the media, to the reality of the natural world where there is true connection and where one can find peace and hopefulness.

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“There is no mystery in this association of woods,” writes Robert Macfarlane in The Wild Places,”and otherworlds, for as anyone who has walked the woods knows, they are places of correspondence, of call and answer. Visual affinities of color, relief and texture abound. A fallen branch echoes the deltoid form of a streambed into which it has come to rest. Chrome yellow autumn elm leaves find their color rhyme in the eye-ring of the blackbird. Different aspects of the forest link unexpectedly with each other, and so it is that within the stories, different times and worlds can be joined.”

The woods and forests are an enchanted, magical world because I came to them as a boy and through books. I saw through the lens of the excitement that one never knew what one would discover or encounter in both the natural world and in the pages of books. Both opened me up and have helped me get through the hardest times of my life (How often did I feel the nourishment and healing of the woods when I took walks there after the death of my mother?).

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As the world around me appears to me in chaotic disarray and confusion, I am returning again and again and again to the peace of wildness, of finding the beauty and grace in leaves that are turning glorious golds and reds and oranges all about me. Of putting my hand into the chilly creek to remind myself: This is life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Autumn Walk In The Woods

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I go to the woods to embrace the beauty of the ferns and the elms, the birdsong and the runnel of a brook, to feel the rough contours of a tree’s or to see light through the leaves that are autumnal gold. I go to find raccoon tracks and the fallen feather of a Cooper’s hawk. I go to the woods to be silent and mediate because, when I have, I find I am able to find beauty in all of the world.

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When I walk in the woods that I have walked in more times than I can count, I do so to rediscover and see anew those things I have seen and not seen so many times before. To encounter grace in all things that I too often not noticed because I was distracted by something else, but that calls out to me on this particular day and I do: I stop. I pay attention. I am aware.

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The world is always full of new things, of miracles, of the wondrous. Why did I not see you before? How can I be the same after I encounter such seemingly ordinary marvels that contain the Mystery? I do not have to search hard or look far to find the sacred for holiness is all around me. There are miracles in the minutiae.

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When I am in these woods, I am blissfully and vitally present to it. I am in this moment and do not wish to be in any other. As the poet William Cullen Bryant observed, “The groves were God’s first temples.” These woods are still God’s temple.

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I come here to heal, to be nourished, to become more myself again.  The woods are tranquil. Here there is peace. Here I am in my body, feeling my heart’s beating, my lungs breathing, the sound of my feet crunching along the path.

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When I am among the trees and the brooks and streams, I cannot help but think of John Muir’s words, The sun shines not on us but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us. Thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. The trees wave and the flowers bloom in our bodies as well as our souls, and every bird song, wind song, and tremendous storm song of the rocks in the heart of the mountains is our song, our very own, and sings our love.”

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Draw in this beauty to your soul.

To touch nature is to brush against grace, against the Divine Mystery in a way that one cannot do anywhere else. It is to find awe, not just in the visions of the mountains and the oceans, but in the smaller, quieter places where something as simple as an acorn can open the universe simply by holding it in one’s hand.

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In the forest, I amble. I walk slower. I stop and notice. I am not hurried or rushed or desiring to be anywhere but there, in this very place, at this very time. I close my eyes and just breathe in. This landscape becomes a part of me. I am connected and intertwined with the life that pulses all around me: in the trees, the water, the soil. We are all filled with the current of life. One can understand why the Creator would look on such things and declare them, “Good.”

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Rocks and trees. Leaves and grass. Squirrels that dart and dash and scatter up trees.

This is the very dream of God.

Life and death. Creation and decomposition exist hand-in-hand. Birth and death and rebirth in nature. The passing of seasons. Transformations.

Treasure them.

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This is ancestral and lasting. The woods have wisdom that can be found nowhere else. Listen to it. The silence. The whispering of trees to one another.

Watch the water-striders skim across the water’s surface.

Hear the cry of the hawk circling in the Carolina blue sky.

This is contemplation.

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All around us is signs and wonders.

Just round the corner and look. See them. They are everywhere about you.

Don’t miss them.

Take them into your heart, your spirit. Make them a part of you.

Do not allow yourself to walk out of such a woods as this unchanged.

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This is how to live a life.

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Ted Hughes On Pain & Poetry

Ted Hughes writing

“What’s writing really about?” the poet Ted Hughes asked,  “It’s about trying to take fuller possession of the reality of your life.” Possession of the reality of your life. All of your life. All that a life encompasses: both joy and heartbreak, healing and hurting, love and loss, loneliness and community. Part of why we read is to understand that all we go through is not unprecedented. That others have experienced, survived and understand what we are going through. Reading is a form of connection: both to the words and the writer, but also to the understanding that we are connected to others in the world who live their lives as we do on this planet. That our stories are individual and similar. We are all bound by that thread and when we read, we grasp what we sometimes cannot put into words ourselves and are given understanding.

In his book The Problem with Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken’.” Most of us do not want to admit the latter, neither aloud, to ourselves (sometimes) and many would never dare to be vulnerable enough to write and then allow that to be published for much of the world to read and judge. Yet the poet Ted Hughes understood that by opening up all of his life in his work, he was taking possession of the feelings, of the moment, the memories and the experiences in all of its totality.

Ted Hughes painting

Of his poetry, he once said, “The inmost spirit of poetry, in other words, is at bottom, in every recorded case, the voice of pain – and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry, is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the world.”

Take his poem “The Seven Sorrows”:

The first sorrow of autumn
Is the slow goodbye
Of the garden who stands so long in the evening-
A brown poppy head,
The stalk of a lily,
And still cannot go.

The second sorrow
Is the empty feet
Of a pheasant who hangs from a hook with his brothers.
The woodland of gold
Is folded in feathers
With its head in a bag.

And the third sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the sun who has gathered the birds and who gathers
The minutes of evening,
The golden and holy
Ground of the picture.

The fourth sorrow
Is the pond gone black
Ruined and sunken the city of water-
The beetle’s palace,
The catacombs
Of the dragonfly.

And the fifth sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the woodland that quietly breaks up its camp.
One day it’s gone.
It has only left litter-
Firewood, tentpoles.

And the sixth sorrow
Is the fox’s sorrow
The joy of the huntsman, the joy of the hounds,
The hooves that pound
Till earth closes her ear
To the fox’s prayer.

And the seventh sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the face with its wrinkles that looks through the window
As the year packs up
Like a tatty fairground
That came for the children.

In that poem, Hughes moves from the imagery of nature to death as he laments the “slow goodbye.”

Ted Hughes

“Because it is occasionally possible,” Hughes believed, “just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions inside the head and express something – perhaps not much, just something – of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are, from the momentary effect of the barometer to the force that created men distinct from trees. Something of the inaudible music that moves us along in our bodies from moment to moment like water in a river. Something of the spirit of the snowflake in the water of the river. Something of the duplicity and the relativity and the merely fleeting quality of all this. Something of the almighty importance of it and something of the utter meaninglessness. And when words can manage something of this, and manage it in a moment, of time, and in that same moment, make out of it all the vital signature of a human being – not of an atom, or of a geometrical diagram, or of a heap of lenses – but a human being, we call it poetry.”

Hughes’ poetry expressed the complexity of being human and living in a world in an attempt to attempt and make sense of it. He began writing poetry at the young age of seven after his family moved from the windswept moors that he described as an “empty wilderness” to Mexborough. His work is filled with the imagery of mythology, folklore and nature. A solitary boy, he often spent his time reading and writing. He grew up in a house filled with books. He was a voracious reader. As he told The Paris Review, “I equipped myself in the most obvious way: whatever I liked I tried to learn by heart. I imitated things. And I read a great deal aloud to myself. Reading verse aloud put me on a kind of high.” He loved Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Coleridge, Hopkins, Yeats, and Eliot.

“Every single person,” wrote Hughes, “is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation.”

Poetry was a way of transforming and transcending tragedy, of turning wounds into words, of taking the singular and making it into the shared, common experience of being human. It was Hughes way of wrestling with the why of birth and death, to plumb the depths of experience and memory, of landscape (both the inner one and the natural one around him). In one of his letters Hughes wrote, “That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

Hughes and Plath

Like her estranged husband, the poet Sylvia Plath wrote, “I want to taste and glory in each day, and never be afraid to experience pain.” Her suicide would torment him for the rest of his life. He laid bare his torment over her death and the fact that he was in the bed of a lover when it happened in his poem “Last Letter.”

That night
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze….

Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your -weekend over,
You might appear—a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—the same from which

Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.

Hughes Last Letter

How many of us would have been so willing to write such a brutally raw poem? To take the worst and lowest moment of our lives and craft it in a way that does not make us appear better than we are, to hide the hurt we inflicted, or the suffering we have caused another? To show ourselves as selfish?

Letters of Ted Hughes

In one of his letters Hughes wrote, “That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

Ted

“You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses.” Ted Hughes’s poetry is rooted in myth, folklore and the reality of nature (both its beauty and its savagery). All of these elements expressed his deepest subconscious and his fearless ability to translate the aliveness of being in language that is both brilliant and intimate, mythic and emotional.

As Peter Davidson wrote of Hughes’ work in the New York Times, “He searches deep into the riddles of language, too, those that precede any given tongue, language that reeks of the forest or even the jungle.”

BirthdayLetters

In his last collection of poems entitled Birthday Letters, he wrote:

“And you will never know what a battle
I fought to keep the meaning of my words
Solid with the world we were making.”

As readers, we can only be grateful for this battle, for Hughes’ ability to turn pain into poetry to remind us all that there is beauty even in the darkness.

Ted Hughes quote

 

 

The Beauty & Bravery Of Conversation

Walking the Dog

“Beginning a conversation is an act of bravery,” writes Sakyong Mipham in his book The Lost Art of Good Conversation, “When you initiate a conversation, you fearlessly step into the unknown. Will the other person respond to favorably or unfavorably? Will it be a friendly or hostile exchange? There is a feeling of being on the edge. That nanosecond of space and unknowing can be intimidating. It shows your vulnerability. You don’t know what is going to happen. You feel quite exposed. There’s a chance you’ll experience embarrassment. Yet this very feeling is what allows you to connect to the other person.”

As a shy, introvert, I cannot stand small-talk. I’m not good at idle chit-chat. I would much rather have a deep, meaningful conversation with someone than to stand around in shallow, prattle. Social occasions are a nightmare to me. At neighborhood parties, I tend to find myself a corner to watch others and to wait out my time until we can leave and go home. For me to initiate a conversation takes a lot out of me. I feel exhausted after I have been to one of these social gatherings. This is not the case when I have lunch or coffee with a friend and we have real conversation with each other. “Even brief moments of genuine conversation,” Mipham writes, “can uplift our entire life.” I know I feel this way when I have genuinely connected with someone.

In a culture were most communicate through texts, short-hand use of words or emojis, or there is talk radio where the host spews his or her thoughts on politics or the world, or social media where people post comments (often vile, negative ones that they would never say if they were standing in front of that person).  Sakyong Mipham says that this negativity in our communication comes “because we take less time to think before we speak, we may project our anger around the globe via media before considering the outcome.” In an age with instant connection, via the internet, people have lost real connection with each other and, in that loss, the ability to have good, meaningful, mindful conversations with each other where we both speak and listen. There is a loss of civility. “The danger,” says Mipham, “is that while we are more connected now to the whole world than we have ever been before. we are less connected to people in our everyday life. We’re having fewer and fewer conversations.” Certainly I have noticed, when my family goes out to eat, that when I look around, we are in the minority of people who are actually talking to each other instead of all of us being on our phones.

What are we losing by not having conversations but are opting out by merely messaging or texting each other?  “A conversation is based on physical presence, which is rooted in felling. All of our senses are involved. By talking to someone in person,” Sakyong Mipham writes, “we gain access to specific senses: appreciation, compassion, and love.” When we are having such a conversation, we pick up on more than just the words but the expressions and the feelings of the person we are talking to. It requires our attention. As Simone Weil so aptly understood, “Attention is the rarest and purest forms of generosity.” When we take the time to spend it with someone else, to listen and open and share with them, we become closer and more deeply rooted in each other’s lives.

Social gatherings exhaust me. I feel as if I have been drained and depleted. After I come home, I find myself retreating to be alone to, essentially, replenish myself. When I have had a great conversation with someone, I feel invigorated and challenged and encouraged and connected to that person. We are invested in each other’s lives. These interactions are less stressful to me and less draining, despite the fact that I am more vulnerable and open with this person than I am at a dinner party or social engagement.

Meaningful and mindful conversation brings beauty and a richness to my life. I am present to them and they are present to me. From conversation comes relationship, which is something one cannot get in a meet-and-greet type setting. There is an intimacy to conversation, a sharing of stories and self, of laughter and, sometimes, tears. There is a “connectivity” that is “the heart of all conversations and relationships.” Conversations engage our minds, our hearts, our imaginations, and our emotions.

Good conversation is not asking someone how they are doing just so we can wait for them to finish and we can really get to talking about ourselves and what we are going through. As the essayist William Hazlitt noted, “The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.” How many good conversations can we say we have truly had? In a world where everyone wants to be heard, one of the greatest acts of love we can offer is to be silent and listen. There is never a lack of talkers, but there appears to be a rareness to those who are good listeners. It is something I often struggle with as I listen to someone telling a story and I am thinking, “When will they get to the point?” This is not listening and there need not be a point. Conversation is not about negotiation, or bargaining. Our conversations should be transformational, not merely transactional. It is allowing someone to share and to be heard.

To be mindful in our conversations means to be present. Present to the other person and not distracted but listening carefully to their words, their meanings, and what is underlying what that person is saying. It is to be present in one’s surroundings and not be constantly checking one’s phone or thinking about all of the other things one needs to do that day.

Good conversation is sharing. Of finding the other person worthy enough to listen to them and that they do the same for you. It is being intentional. It is being empathetic and compassionate towards another human being, which we need more of in this world of reaction and frustration and declaration.

Sakyong Mipham writes that good conversation is asking oneself before one speaks a single word: Will I create war or will I create peace?

What are we offering with the very words we are saying?

We must contemplate what we are going to say, why we are going to say it and should we even say it.

Good conversation is a balance of listening and speaking. It is like a great work of music where there are the notes that are being played and then there are the breaths and silences between them. Music is composed of notes and silences just as a great conversation is. It is an interplay and an exchange. Giving of our time and ourselves to listen and share with another person is a precious gift. It is a building of bridges, not walls. A conversation is an act of both “bravery” and “vulnerability.” We move beyond our self and our own self-interests, to the interests and needs of another. It is a place of healing and hope. It is a place of sharing and allowing the other person to be themselves and not pretend or wear a mask. Good conversation is, ultimately, an act of love.

One cannot help but wish more would take the time to cultivate and nourish such conversations in order that we might begin to see the world and ourselves quite differently afterwards.

The Art of Good Conversation

The Nature Of Notebooks

 

IMG_5368

In her poem “45 Mercy Street” Anne Sexton writes these words:

I live in,
my life,
and its hauled up
notebooks.

It is an idea I can easily identify, having kept notebooks for most of my life. I try to keep a small moleskin journal on me wherever I go to jot down ideas, questions, or observations. This was a habit I started as a boy, always sticking a small spiral-bound notebook into my jeans or short’s pocket along with a pen or pencil. Being an observer and constant asker of questions, my journals were filled with them: everything from seeing a king snake sleeping on a rock in the summer sun or watching a formation of geese fly overhead or the feel of wild fern fronds brushing against my leg as I walked through the woods.  Or I might sketch the flowers, birds, animals, plants or trees I encountered.

From a very young age, I have had what E.O. Wilson coined biophilia. This is the term he used to describe what he believed: that all humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with the natural world.

With my own notebooks, I would set out into the woods to observe nature, jot down what I saw or to create stories about the plants and animals. Certainly my view of nature first came to me from the literature I read: from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings. In fact, it was the latter that made me imagine every grand old oak as the ent Treebeard. As a boy, I strived to “stuff” my eyes with wonder, as Ray Bradbury suggested.

I felt a kinship with the poet Mary Oliver when I learned that she started doing the same thing from the time she was a girl of twelve and has continued to keep a notebook and pen on hand with her at all times, as she explored the natural world around her. As she wrote:

 Bless the notebook that I always carry in

     my pocket.

And the pen.

Bless the word with which I try to say

      what I see, think, or feel.

With gratitude for the grace of the earth.

The expected and the exception, both.

For all the hours I have been given to

      be in this world.

Is it any wonder that she became the poet of the natural world that she is today? Her notebooks allowed her to write down the contemplations she made while encountering wildlife, like a heron. As she told Krista Tippett, “I went to the woods a lot with books. Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as I — they came to me. And then worked them into poems later.”

Charles Darwin

Recently I read James T. Costa’s book Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led To A Big Theory. Throughout his life, Charles Darwin kept notebooks filled with his questions and ideas. He was a keen observer and asker of questions. From the time he was a boy, Charles had a questioning mind and was eager to investigate and experience things. He was deeply curious about the natural world and loved spending time in it and finding things (collecting beetles remained one of his favorite past times throughout his life).  As Costa writes about Darwin’s mind and his need for writing in notebooks, “Looking at the world in a wholly new way calls for asking questions about the world no one had thought to ask before – questions that would need to be answered by careful observation in some cases, and experimentation in others.”

Darwin’s notebooks, Costa writes, “served as a storehouse of ideas and questions” on a variety of subjects including pollination, breeding, and variation. In the journals that would be published as Journals of Reasearches (1839): the words observation and observe appear 73 times, examine another 48, beautiful and beauty appear no less than 105 times along with delightful and delight, which are used 37 times.

Darwin's notebooks

It was from these various field notebooks that Charles Darwin was able to write passages like this one in Origin of the Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms… have all been produced by laws acting around us…

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on
according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful  have been, and are being, evolved.

Darwin kept at least fourteen journals during his voyages on the Beagle.  The field notes he took with him while he explored the Galapagos Islands are quick, jotted observations and thoughts of what he saw. Only when he was back onboard the ship did he take the time to write out in any detail what he saw as well as lists of specimens. No, the field journals were merely for him to go back to so that he wouldn’t forget any of the details. The journals are energetically written and reveal those things he found fascinating: whether that be plants or animals or even volcanic formations. What the journals show is an active and attentive mind at work.

Darwin's notebook inside

“… in the privacy of his notebooks,” Costa writes, “his speculations and questions ran rampant as he immersed himself in literature of all kinds, from hard-core geology, botany, and zoology to practical agricultural improvement and breeding, with philosophy. religion and literature thrown in.”

I was also fascinated to discover that Darwin kept extensive notebooks of books he’d read and those he wanted to read, which is something I also do.

What Darwin’s journals show is what Urusula K. Le Guin talked about when she said, “If I had to pick a hero, it would be Charles Darwin – the size of his mind, which included all that scientific curiosity and knowledge seeking, and the ability to put it all together. There is a genuine spirituality about Darwin’s thinking.”

jane-goodall-observing-chimpanzees-in-tanzania

As a child, Jane Goodall began keeping what she referred to as her “Nature Notebooks.” In her book Seeds of Hope, Goodall talks about these notebooks she started when she was a girl of twelve, “I spent a great attention to detail, had sketched and painted a number of local plants and flowers. Beside each drawing or watercolor I had handwritten a detailed description of the plant, based on my careful observations and probably a bit of book research. This was not a schoolbook. This wasn’t done for an assignment. I just loved to draw and paint and write about the plant world.”

Jane Goodall writing in notebook

At the age of twenty-six, when she got on a plane and went to Africa to study chimps, Goodall carried only a notebook and her binoculars. There she would sit, observe, and write down what she saw. “I could see my camp in the valley to the south, and the dense forest of the lower Kasekela Valley to the north. I gazed through my binoculars at the chimpanzees feasting on fruits and leaves and began to gather my first impressions of their daily life.” She would also note the names she had given the chimpanzees: David Greybeard, Goliath and Frodo (the latter a nod to one of her favorite books).

“I well remember writing my first observations, describing how David Graybeard not only used bits of straw to fish for termites but actually stripped leaves from a stem and thus made a tool. And I remember too receiving the now oft-quoted telegram he sent in response to my letter: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.”

Jane Goodall with chimp

Jane Goodall meticulously recorded the daily lives of the chimps. “I became totally absorbed into this forest existence. It was an unparalleled period when aloneness was a way of life; a perfect opportunity, it might seem, for meditating on the meaning of existence and my role in it all. But I was far too busy learning about the chimpanzees’ lives to worry about the meaning of my own. I had gone to Gombe to accomplish a specific goal, not to pursue my early preoccupation with philosophy and religion. Nevertheless, those months at Gombe helped to shape the person I am today-I would have been insensitive indeed if the wonder and the endless fascination of my new world had not had a major impact on my thinking. All the time I was getting closer to animals and nature, and as a result, closer to myself and more and more in tune with the spiritual power that I felt all around. For those who have experienced the joy of being alone with nature there is really little need for me to say much more; for those who have not, no words of mine can even describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected. The beauty was always there, but moments of true awareness were rare. They would come, unannounced; perhaps when I was watching the pale flush preceding dawn; or looking up through the rustling leaves of some giant forest tree into the greens and browns and the black shadows and the occasionally ensured bright fleck of blue sky; or when I stood, as darkness fell, with one hand on the still warm trunk of a tree and looked at the sparkling of an early moon on the never still, softly sighing water of Lake Tanganyika.”

Jane Goodall -Jane_s entry in a 1961 field notebook

“Those two worlds of my childhood,” she wrote, “that of the imagination and that of nature – were, I think, equally important in shaping the person I have become.”

John Muir

While working as a shepherd for a season in Yosemite, as a young man, John Muir used that time to begin keeping his nature journals.  Overwhelmed by the landscape, he began to record his observations. His writing was greatly influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essays he loved reading by the campfire underneath a canopy of stars.  As he traveled alone, he kept a copy of Emerson with him at all times. Muir wrote, “As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.”

John Muir's notebook

“One way to open your eyes,” wrote Rachel Carson, “is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” What a great way to approach writing a nature journal. To approach everything with new eyes and a fresh perspective.

Rachel Carson

All creativity begins from a place of questioning and curiosity. One sees this in the work and writing of Rachel Carson. “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth,” she wrote in Silent Spring, “find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” Her writing is filled with precision and lyricism, a poet scientist. She was not a transcriber of nature but one who brought a real sense of wonder to the page. As a child, she began keeping a journal after becoming fascinated by birds. Her notebooks show how she did, as she would later write in her book The Sense of Wonder, “…drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see.” Carson was able, throughout her life, to retain that “inborn sense of wonder” that enabled her to observe and rediscover the world in a way that made her reader feel that same sense of “joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

Rachel Carson's notebook

Certainly one of the most famous examples of a naturalist’s notebooks were those of Henry David Thoreau that became Walden. Thoreau once said, “We should not endeavor coolly to analyze our thoughts, but, keeping the pen even and parallel with the current, make an accurate transcript of them.”

Thoreau

“My Journal,” he said, “should be the record of my love.”

Thoreau, like the others I have mentioned, grasped that for one to even begin to understand and appreciate the natural world, one must first be open and awakened to it.  As he wrote, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” With his keen eyes, Thoreau saw the sublime in everything.

His faithful, thoughtful, and provocative journals are a roadmap for mindful living with its encompassing of nature, philosophy, community, and solitude.

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour,” he wrote in Walden.  Thoreau allowed the world to ignite his imagination and he found such interconnectedness to it that from his he turned the writings of the natural world into that of  a defining spiritual journey. As he began Walden, “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.”

At the age of thirty-two, when he went to live a life of simplicity at Walden, he would spend his afternoons taking long walks. On those walks he took instruments for specimen collecting, a spyglass to watch birds, a walking stick to measure things by, and small scraps of paper that he would jot down his thoughts. At the suggestion of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau had begun journaling after graduating from Harvard in 1837. After returning from his walks, he would set down at his table to transcribe his notes into his journal. His journals are filled with entries on the natural world. His rigourousness was that of a poet and a scientist.

His journals are filled with his ever expansive attention to the natural world: filling pages with questions and observations about everything from birds and pines and the rings of a stump from a fallen tree. All was beauty. All was mystery. He was fascinated by the “marrow of nature.”

In her book Henry David Thoreau: A Life, Laura Dassow Walls writes about how Thoreau began on November 8, 1850 to write in his journals like he had never done before and how he “wrote up everything he noticed and thought during his daily walk as one long entry . . . filling pages with a stream-of-consciousness flow of words as if he were writing while walking: “I pluck,” “I heard,” “I saw yesterday,” I notice.” And he continued to do so even on his death-bed where he penned his final entry.

Thoreau's notebook

Luis Pasteur once said, “Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.” The “prepared mind” is the one that is aware, that is constantly seeing and looking and questioning and wondering. To be astonished and never bored.

Stephen Whitney wrote in the preface to the Audubon Society Guide to Western Forests, “A notebook is the single most important piece of equipment a naturalist takes into the field. It is useful for recording daily observations, sketching plants and animals for later reference, taking notes on behavior and habitat, and assisting in identification by recording field marks that otherwise might be forgotten. The naturalist’s notebook only increases in value as time goes by and observations accumulate. Soon, patterns begin to emerge from what initially may have been chance encounters with various plants or animals. A well-kept notebook that preserves a record of their activities at a particular place over an extended period of time can contribute information valuable to our understanding of nature”

The journals by all of these great naturalists reveal how they all were passionate observers whose wisdom revealed a sense of delight and wonder at what they encountered. Each one was alive to the possibilities and approached their subjects with a child’s sense of awe and speculation. They were connected to every bird or plant or tree or animal they watched. They were drawn in to the rhythms of the natural world and were stirred by the realization that we are, indeed, all of us connected and necessary. Each studied their own small corner of the world but, in so doing, made the world seem not only grander and more amazing, but that all was important for the survival of each other.

All of the journals are more than a collection of words or thoughts but are alive and cause the reader to feel alive as well. They each give us a sense of wonder and curiosity that makes us want to grab a pen, a notebook and enter into the rich and diverse kingdom of the natural world.

 

e e cummings on how a father’s love encouraged risking curiosity

cummings

“We do not believe in ourselves,” wrote the poet e.e. cummings,  “until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

Edward Estlin Cummings was born to parents who were supportive of his interest in the arts and his own creative endeavors. Because of his parents encouragement, according to the Poetry Foundation  “Cummings decided to become a poet when he was still a child. Between the ages of eight and twenty-two, he wrote a poem a day, exploring many traditional poetic forms. By the time he was in Harvard in 1916, modern poetry had caught his interest. He began to write avant-garde poems in which conventional punctuation and syntax were ignored in favor of a dynamic use of language. Cummings also experimented with poems as visual objects on the page.”

His love for his father, Edward, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, shows up throughout Cummings’ poetic career. One of the first poems he ever wrote about his dad,  he wrote at the age of six. It was entitled “Father Dear.”

FATHER DEAR. BE, YOUR FATHER-GOOD AND GOOD,

HE IS GOOD NOW, IT IS NOT GOOD TO SEE IT RAIN,

FATHER DEAR IS, IT, DEAR, NO FATHER DEAR,

LOVE, YOU DEAR,

ESTLIN

After the death of his father (who was killed when his car was hit by a train), cummings wrote the elegy “my father moved through the dooms of love” which reveals how important a figure his father was in shaping who e e cummings became, both intellectually and spiritually. The poem was first published in 50 Poems (1940).  What is striking about this poem is how the poet offers his father up as an example of how one should live one’s life.

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where
turned at his glance to shining here;
that if (so timid air is firm)
under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which
floats the first who, his april touch
drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots

and should some why completely weep
my father’s fingers brought her sleep:
vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow.

Lifting the valleys of the sea
my father moved through griefs of joy;
praising a forehead called the moon
singing desire into begin

joy was his song and joy so pure
a heart of star by him could steer
and pure so now and now so yes
the wrists of twilight would rejoice

keen as midsummer’s keen beyond
conceiving mind of sun will stand,
so strictly (over utmost him
so hugely) stood my father’s dream

his flesh was flesh his blood was blood:
no hungry man but wished him food;
no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile
uphill to only see him smile.

Scorning the Pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain

septembering arms of year extend
less humbly wealth to foe and friend
than he to foolish and to wise
offered immeasurable is

proudly and (by octobering flame
beckoned) as earth will downward climb,
so naked for immortal work
his shoulders marched against the dark

his sorrow was as true as bread:
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he’d laugh and build a world with snow.

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)

then let men kill which cannot share,
let blood and flesh be mud and mire,
scheming imagine, passion willed,
freedom a drug that’s bought and sold

giving to steal and cruel kind,
a heart to fear, to doubt a mind,
to differ a disease of same,
conform the pinnacle of am

though dull were all we taste as bright,
bitter all utterly things sweet,
maggoty minus and dumb death
all we inherit, all bequeath

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why men breathe—
because my Father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all

Edward Cummings with children

 “My father,” cummings recalled, “is the principal figure of my earliest remembered life; when he cradled me in his arms, i reposed in the bosom of God Himself; & when i rode on God’s shoulder i was king of the world. His illimitable love was the axis of my being.”

From the love of his father, cummings felt the ability to “risk curiosity” and “wonder,” whether that be through his poetry or his paintings (both of which he worked at daily, no matter where he was in the world).

ee cummings self-portrait

“It takes courage,” he wrote, “to grow up and become who you really are.” His parents, especially his father, instilled that courage within his son. What greater gift can a father give one’s child than to bless who they choose to become and in what they pursue? cummings found courage in his father’s acceptance.

Edwards Cummings was an involved father in the lives of his children.  Scientific research shows how the rejection of a parent, especially by the father, has a huge impact on the child as they grow up. Those who have felt rejected experience more anxiety and insecurity, as well as being more hostile and aggressive towards other people. Ronald Rohner of the University of Connecticut has written about such studies that show, “The pain of rejection — especially when it occurs over a period of time in childhood — tends to linger into adulthood, making it more difficult for adults who were rejected as children to form secure and trusting relationships with their intimate partners.” Why? Because they will relive the emotional pain of rejection over and over again throughout the years. Rohner writes that the love of a father is critical to a child’s development.

One sees the influence that the love, encouragement and nurturing of Edward had on his poet son, who felt free to explore his craft in ways that pushed the boundaries of poetry in syntax and form.

“To be nobody but
yourself in a world
which is doing its best day and night to make you like
everybody else means to fight the hardest battle
which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”

Because of his parents, e e cummings was allowed and emboldened to be himself and to strive creatively. His talent was strengthened by having parents who allowed their son to question, challenge, create, explore and be creatively curious. His father instilled in his boy a desire for wonder.

cummings

“I recognize immediately three mysteries: love, art, and self-transcendence or growing,” e e cummings once said.”Art is a mystery; all mysteries have their source in a mystery-of-mysteries who is love: and if lovers may reach eternity directly through love herself, their mystery remains essentially that of the loving artist whose way must lie through his art, and of the loving worshipper whose aim is oneness with his god. From another point of view, every human being is in and of himself or herself illimitable; but the essence of his or of her illimitability is precisely its uniqueness–nor could all poetry (past present and future) begin to indicate the varieties of self-hood; and consequently of self-transcendence.”

When parents inspire their children to embrace mystery, to examine and investigate, to allow for their talents to be developed and explored, to accept a child who’s unconventional, then children feel not only secure but emboldened to express themselves and to go out into the world with a sense of delight and joy and wonder. Creativity is birthed in this kind of environment.

ee cummings in a window

“Love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear; the strength so strong mere force is feebleness: the truth more first than sun, more last than star…”

The love of a parent shapes a child, informs their sense of identity, and either fosters or discourages a child’s ability to “risk curiosity.” As a parent to two boys, I have striven to be such a Papa to them. I have worked hard to not only encourage such creativity but given them the space and tools needed to do so. This means exposing them to books and museums and nature and the world. I allow them to have their own thoughts and ideas, their own identities. Part of this is also letting them have the chance to make their own mistakes. To let them have their own feelings.

As e e cummings said, “Anybody can learn to think, or believe, or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel… the moment you feel, you’re nobody ― but-yourself ― in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else ― means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”

I want to instill in both my sons a sense of worth and identity. I want them to risk curiosity and wonder and delight that the world is so much bigger than they ever imagined. That they can be creators in their own ways, with their own talents, having their own voices. While they were both only born once, they can be reborn again and again as they change and discover and come to their own understandings and rediscover again and again, their own imaginations.

“may I be I is the only prayer,” cummings wrote. And I pray that my sons are themselves and forge their own paths. And that no matter where their lives may take them, what they accomplish or don’t, that they know and understand within the deepest parts of themselves that they will always and unconditionally have their Papa’s love.

by Manuel Komroff

Learning From Laura Ingalls Wilder

laura-ingalls-wilder

“I am beginning to learn that it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all,” wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I first encountered her Little House series not through the books but through the television show that began in the late 1970’s. Like many families, ours watched Little House on the Prairie every week (originally on Wednesday nights until NBC moved it to Monday nights).  Despite the hardships that the Ingalls family endured, there was something about their closeness and connectedness to the land  and community in Walnut Grove that drew me in and made me long to be a part of their clan. It was because of the show that I went to our local library and began to check each book in the series out, starting with Little House in the Big Woods. I remember taking that book to the counter to check it out and having the librarian look at my choice and remark, “Good for you.”

At the time, I didn’t know what she meant. Now I realize that she was glad to see a boy checking out a title that might be dismissed as being only a girl’s book, but I had never held to such preconceptions when I read (which is why so many of my favorite books have heroines: The Secret GardenLittle WomenAnne of Green GablesA Wrinkle in Time just to name a few).

Yet from the Wilder’s very lines about the “great, dark trees of the Big Woods,” I was hooked.

Little House Books

Reading the books only made me long to be a member of the Ingalls family, in the same way that reading Little Women made me want to be one of the March family. Yes, they endured hardships and struggles, but they faced down adversity and made do with little and yet there was still love and joy and I identified with Laura in her curiosity and restlessness. In many ways, I saw parts of myself in those traits. She connected me to the series, as any great protagonist can, and I followed along with what happened to her and her family.  With each new book, I only grew to love them more.  As a boy, I didn’t stop to consider whether or not white settlers had a right to appropriate the land that had been the home of indigenous people. Nor did I stop to reflect on Ma’s racism towards Native Americans. No, as a boy, I focused on Laura’s spiritedness.

Young Laura Ingalls Wilder

When I grew up and had two sons of my own, I decided to introduce them to the Little House series, though unsure of how either would respond. Would they find these books too quaint or would they dismiss them as being simply books for girls?

As an adult, I saw how romanticized, idealized and cleaned up the stories were but I also watched as both of my boys also began to enjoy hearing about the adventures and daily life of Laura. When we got to the moments of obvious racism, they provided me with an opportunity to talk about the dark side of Manifest Destiny and of the struggles that Native Americans still endure.

But what all of us were learning was the importance of having a real appreciation for what we have.  Yes, pioneer life could be hard, harsh, dirty and they even suffer near-starvation during wintertime blizzards, and, yet, they do not whine. The Ingalls triumphed over adversity and challenges, while remaining a loving family.

Pioneer Girl

After I finished reading the series, I began to read more about the author herself, including the recently published autobiography with annotations, Pioneer Girl, which shows the darker and harsher side of pioneer life. But what I continued to learn from Laura Ingalls Wilder was taking the time to grasp what she understood when she wrote, “As the years pass, I am coming more and more to understand that it is the common, everyday blessings of our common everyday lives for which we should be particularly grateful. They are the things that fill our lives with comfort and our hearts with gladness — just the pure air to breathe and the strength to breath it; just warmth and shelter and home folks; just plain food that gives us strength; the bright sunshine on a cold day; and a cool breeze when the day is warm.”

Do I feel a sense of thankfulness over the “common everyday” life I live? Do I feel “gladness” over having “air to breath and the strength to breathe it?” To appreciate what the day has to offer in beauty and simplicity is a spiritual gift and something that must be worked on to become a habit. And am I teaching these things to my sons?

Laura_Ingalls_Wilder_cropped_sepia2

“The true way to live,” she writes,  “is to enjoy every moment as it passes, and surely it is in the everyday things around us that the beauty of life lies.” These are not just pleasant words or platitudes. When one reads about all that Laura Ingalls Wilder truly went through in her life, one comes to realize the depth of spirit it takes for her to come to such a statement. How many of us, in this day and age, have such an outlook on life?

Laura

“It is a good idea sometimes to think of the importance and dignity of our every-day duties,” Laura wrote. “It keeps them from being so tiresome; besides, others are apt take us at our own valuation.” I know that this is something I struggle with constantly. How can one view ones daily duties, whether at work or at home, as being of deep and rich value? This can be difficult when we are folding and putting away laundry again or are struggling to help one of our kids with homework or in preparing dinner again or cleaning bathrooms again. These daily chores seem endless and tiresome, but how we approach them can make all the difference in how we do them.  I know, in my own life, when I am preparing dinner and I think about how much I love each of the people I am preparing this meal for, it changes this task from drudgery to an act of love (though this can easily be wiped out by one of my kids asking with a disgusted look, “Do I have to eat that? Can I please have something else?”).

Laura Ingalls

Certainly there is spiritual application to her writing, “We who live in quiet places have the opportunity to become acquainted with ourselves, to think our own thoughts and live our own lives in a way that is not possible for those keeping up with the crowd.” In silence and stillness, we can begin to know ourselves for who we truly are and not who we often pretend to be. Silence and meditation can only be had when we are not in a crowd, not in the hustle and bustle busyness that fills so much of our culture’s every waking moment. When we aren’t on social media, but either find a quiet spot in our own homes or go out into nature (without our technology). As she also writes, “Some old-fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat. In our mad rush for progress and modern improvements let’s be sure we take along with us all the old-fashioned things worth while.”

Certainly, we all have to deal with a society that gets more excited about the release of the latest iPhone than they do spotting a bird or playing in a stream. Yet how much are we losing in our families, our communities and in our nations by not removing ourselves from the crowds, from the technology and returning to the simpler and more fulfilling connections of each other and the natural world?

Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books remind me of the necessity of these things.

LauraIngallsWilder2

“As you read my stories of long ago,” she once said,  “I hope you will remember that things truly worthwhile and that will give you happiness are the same now as they were then. It is not the things you have that make you happy. It is love and kindness and helping each other and just plain being good. ”

Are these not things that we could all relearn and, hopefully, live out?