Things Change, by Tanya Krapf

5:08 AM. I wake up groggy and disjointed to a song I have become very familiar with this semester – a cardinal is singing somewhere outside. It’s an insistent call, forcing me out of what must have been a deep sleep and into the yellow lit, brick walled reality that is my dorm’s basement. Shit. I must’ve fallen asleep on the couch while I was coding data. I had been dreaming of Afghan girls. Beautiful skin, piercing eyes… and road trips that got off to a delayed start. The rest of the dream fades too quickly for me to be able to write it down.

I’m sitting on the couch, disoriented and irritated when a small part of my brain lights up. Cardinals! A cardinal woke me up. Are my ears deceiving me? I refuse to believe that. There it is – again, a cardinal calling to me from somewhere outside, insisting I wake up and listen to it sing. Whether this is reality or a dream, this moment is just one more story to add to my growing list of cardinal interactions. My reaction? I smile a little, greet Opa, and promise him I’ll get up and relocate to my bed soon. I need to allow myself more than a 30-minute nap tonight in a place more comfortable than this dorm couch. Get up, get your work done, and then get to sleep! Message received. And just like that, I cease to hear the cardinal.

I’ve had this… connection… with cardinals all semester. I mention them in my journals often, to document their presence in the woods and occasionally write about a moment I share with one of them, but have never really delved into my relationship with them. It’s time, though, I think. Here goes. You may not believe me, but I don’t care.

My first cardinal moment happened this winter during my third time in the woods. My trip into the woods that day was an escape – from the commotion, the stress, and the pace of my everyday life. I saw a cardinal on my walk in, but barely reacted to it thanks to my foul mood. But then I saw one again on my walk out and just completely froze. Looking up at the cardinal, I had this enormously powerful sense that it was my grandfather (Opa) stopping by to say hello and let me know he’s watching over me. I have no idea how long I actually stood in the middle of the road looking up at this cardinal, but it felt like 20 minutes or longer at the time that I was standing there with my face lifted, tears slowly rolling down my cheeks, just feeling Opa’s presence for the first time since he passed away in July.

Since that cardinal sighting, I have seen them every single time I’ve been in the woods. Coincidence? Maybe. But the story goes on… A few weeks after that first encounter with a cardinal, I was on the phone with my mom just catching up and relaying stories about my time in the woods when I mentioned that I see cardinals all the time and just have this sense that sometimes, they carry Opa’s spirit with them. Mom fell silent for a moment and then proceeded to tell me this story:

Spring 2013. My mom was in her office at the studio (her business – it is attached to our house) when Janine, one of her employees, walked in and told her there was a cardinal sitting outside on the Es Gibt Immer Einen Weg stone. This stone is a 6-foot tall piece of sandstone standing in our garden with the saying “Es Gibt Immer Einen Weg” etched into it. The saying, which means “there is always a way” is a family motto passed down from the German side of my family. It is a phrase that Opa, my mother, and myself all live by. Years ago, Opa had this saying engraved in an enormous slab of sandstone and set it in his garden in Germany. For years, it stood there as a reminder of the power of determination and finding solutions in life. When my mom turned 50, she asked for a similar stone for her garden in America. There is always a way – and true to his motto, Opa found a way to ship that boulder from Germany to the USA in time for my mom’s 50th birthday. That sculpture has been standing in our garden ever since.

Anyway, Janine mentioned that there was a cardinal on the stone that morning when she came in to work just because it’s not a common sight in our garden and she thought my mom would appreciate it. Hours later, Janine walked back into my mom’s office. That cardinal is still sitting on the rock, she said. My mom went outside and sure enough, the cardinal was still there. It didn’t move the entire day. The next morning, my mom found out on the phone that her father had been diagnosed with cancer the previous day. She took the cardinal as a sign that Opa was there with her, letting her know that there is always a way – even through this. Turns out that way ended up being a dignified, enlightened death a few months later.

I was shocked when I heard my mom tell this story. The same bird brought with it Opa’s presence on different occasions for both of us, without either of us knowing the others’ story. How can that be a coincidence? Seeing and hearing cardinals this semester always brings me hope, stillness, and reflection. To me, the cardinals are reminders to slow down and remember what is important in life – compassion, gentleness, family. And they serve as proof of a life force or energy on Earth that truly never dies, but instead just changes form.

Become Totally Empty, by Jillian Kelly

The sixteenth verse of Tao Te Ching is one I began reading everyday to start it the right way, with an open heart and mind, free of any negative controls. “Become totally empty, Quiet the restlessness of the mind, Only then you will witness everything unfolding from emptiness.” The first thing I thought to do was take into the woods, the quietest place one can go in Newark.

This point in the semester is the make or break point for many people, including myself. The stress I have been feeling within myself has shown through my grades, my relationships with people, and my own health. Quieting the mind, even in the woods, has been a fairly difficult task for me the past couple weeks.

However, reading Tao Te Ching made me reminisce back to last year when I unknowingly strove to act in accordance with the lines in the book. I had never read it before, but the way it explains one should live is how I always felt I should live. It just felt right, I felt at peace. Now, reading Tao Te Ching, I can fully understand and put words to the emotions I was feeling all those years. For a while I did feel very at peace, but as the lines say, “emerging, flourishing, dissolving back again This is the eternal process of return,” I knew my peace would not last forever, as life moves in ups and downs.

I am taking this moment in my life as a down, though college is supposed to be the best four years of one’s life, my struggle with internal issues gives me grief sometimes. Be quiet. Be still. Sitting by the river I decided to be as still as possible. Mediation time. I had to quiet the mind, to let the bad thoughts come, be addressed, and go so that I could live in peace once again. I realized all things that matter dwelled in the very place I was sitting. External problems don’t matter, what matters is life and that you are living. The woods are living, but still and quiet. That is living. Being one with everything that may happen to you whether you are emerging, flourishing, or dissolving. The tree I’m leaning on is doing all at the same time. It’s emerging taller and taller every year, flourishing in the dirt, sunshine, and water in which it dwells, and dissolving into death as it will come in however many years.

Acceptance is the key to living. If I accept everything that is thrown at me as a positive experience, something that needs to happen in order to live, I will be at peace once again. I often would look adversity in the eyes and say “good,” but I don’t know what has happened to me. My confidence has taken a tumble, but reading Tao Te Ching is empowering. It brings feelings you always knew were there, but could never put words to. The great truth of nature is Tao!

A Land Just Beyond Language, by Laura George

Every week I go out into the world and become an active observer of nature. I take in what the world has to offer and try to the best of my ability to release the stress of human life from my mind and body, to tune in to the forest and surrender myself to my senses. And every week I proceed to write a journal about what I see. I do my best to detail my experience, to put into words every sound and feeling. I want so badly to record the magic of every moment of observation, but it’s not always easy. In class we have been talking a lot about the idea that as soon as you name something, you miss the mark. Sometimes things are truly beyond words. While my forest excursions may seem ordinary enough – surely we have words for such a basic human experience, right? – I often find myself dissatisfied with my descriptions of nature. How it smells. The minute details of its physical appearance. What it does to me physically, emotionally and often spiritually. I could spend hours searching for the perfect words, but odds are I would never find them. At first I thought that this made me an insufficient writer, perhaps not fit for this type of class, but after some thought I began to realize it’s something entirely different.

We spend hours each week in class discussing nature, reading books and poems about the earth and its inhabitants, and sharing our stories or insights into the natural world, but all of these things, even the greatest of them, will never be anything more than a simulacrum at best. While the class serves as an incredibly enriching experience and our discussions and readings give a better appreciation of nature and in many cases a better understanding both of the nature of the world and the nature of mankind, it can never serve to truly expose us to nature. It will always lack the aura of nature, the holistic sensation of worldly experiences. And isn’t that the whole point? Why are we sent to the woods weekly anyway? Because words and pictures can never stand in for the real thing. Because the real experience – real, total immersion in nature – is what ultimately matters. We don’t fight for the environment to write books about it, we fight for the environment to enjoy it, to spend time in it and to allow future generations to do the same. Why do I struggle every week to find words that will fully capture my natural experience? Because there are none. Because real, true, sensory human immersion in an entity as powerful as the forest is greater than the words of even the most skillful author.

This week I spent time in the park as I always do, but instead of filling my head and notebook with things to write about. Instead of finding ways to put into words, even mentally, the experiences that surrounded me I simply let myself be in that very moment. Hanging in the liberating present. With nothing but my immediate thoughts and senses. I can tell you what I saw: birds of many sizes and colors, trees whose now-leaved branches are beginning to form a canopy over the lush underbrush, green grass standing tall and reaching several inches above the soft dirt, squirrels chasing one another up trees, the clear creek flowing calmly beneath them. But do you see these things as truly as I did? I can tell you what I heard: the lyrical chirping of birds looking for mates, the peacefully slow rush of water in the creek, the whistling of the wind, the rustling of the leaves, the snickering of the squirrels. But do you hear these melodies ringing in your mind? I can tell you what I smelled: crisp fresh air, damp dirt, subtly sweet flower blossoms. But do these scents linger longingly in your nostrils? I can tell you how I felt: warm, with every skin cell exhilarated by the sun, free, with the whole world at my feet. But do your own skin cells react to my words? Do your own feet feel free to wonder the world? My bet is no. Because these descriptions are not nature; they are language. My guess is that words, again, have failed me in my effort to share the magic of my experience. But I now see that that is perhaps the greatest lesson this class can teach us as students: nature lies outside; outside our vocabulary, outside our minds, outside our box.

We humans, live inside a box that has become increasingly technological and decreasingly natural. However, with the increasing technology has come an increasing ability to create an illusion of nature through videos, pictures, online articles and other forms of media. As a modern human culture we have begun to see these things as substitutes for the real thing. We watch a documentary about warblers and feel that we know them. We read articles about the environment and think this makes us an environmentalist. We see pictures of world wonders and feel our need to see natural beauty satisfied by this unnatural imposter. Why leave the house when you can enjoy the sunset right from your computer screen? These experiences seem real enough. But it isn’t until we are finally brave enough to venture out of this box, to leave the shelter of society, that we find ourselves in a world more meaningful than the one inside our computer screens. A world not only beyond words, but also beyond comprehension. A world we cannot categorize, rationalize or ever truly explain. Perhaps that is why we hide from nature. We are afraid. Afraid of the unknown. And we are arrogant. Too prideful to have to face the fact that there are things in this world that we will never understand. And we are greedy. Unable to imagine aspects of the world to which we will never have access (physically or spiritually). So we close ourselves off. We board up these self-righteous aspects of the world. These natural beings that threaten to shatter our illusion of human dominance; of the all-knowing and infinitely superior man, the only creature Godly enough to understand the world in which we live. Who is nature to challenge our brilliance? Who is the forest to question our authority? Who are the whales to contest our strength?

Instead of nature, man has decided to turn to science – and to turn science from a study of the nature of the world to a study of the “objects” of the world – stripping the earth of its life and turning it instead into an inanimate subject for appraisal. I like to believe that this is not because we are inhumane but rather because we are obsessively, and inherently, rational. We crave sense, predictability. We crave meaning, but not in the abstract, only in concrete certainty. We are scared to believe in anything that we cannot see, anything that we cannot prove. And so we turn to science to show us things. To prove to us what’s real and ensure we do not put our faith in the wrong hands.

We used to be more trusting, as a race. Native Americans used to let the world teach them. They would open their hearts and minds to nature without fear of being betrayed and through this they found true meaning in life. The Native American’s gained, through their camaraderie with nature, access to worldly mysteries of which we are lucky to get even just a fleeting glimpse. They could see into the world in a way that is foreign to us. I have always envied them this. I often find myself wishing I could live the organic life of an American Indian. Instead, today we build walls around ourselves. And within our box we are bombarded with data and scientific evidence. And while science does its part in helping us understand and protect the earth, it also limits our view, narrowing our vision of what’s real, what’s true. But it’s not too late. There are still people out there, many of whom we have learned about in class, who have found a way to tap into their more primal spirit and with this they have found an ability to see the world in a more honest light, revealing the unnamable magic we often miss. I believe that we can all learn to see if we simply stop trying to look through a rigid lens. And I hope that one day we will.

Averting Our Eyes, by Alina O’Donnell

Culturally and individually, we avert our eyes from death. It is a conversation that is shrouded in fear, denial, and euphemisms. We tug desperately at the spool of life, caught in a paradoxical tug-of-war between wanting to live longer and wanting to look younger. We cushion our existential anxiety with wrinkle creams and hair dye. We try to forget that we are born toward dying.

My mother, a yoga instructor, a Reiki practitioner, and Medium devotee, has always encouraged me to tour the spiritual passage. In the past, I’ve been quick to dismiss these practices as cultural fabrications devised to assure us we won’t be forgotten after we’re buried. That changed two Saturdays ago, when I, along with the wife, children, mother, and best friend of my uncle sat at his bedside for twelve hours as we waited for him to die. He had been with me when my own father, his brother, left us 12 years ago, and he wanted me to be with his children when his time came. As difficult as it was to witness his prolonged suffering, the experience resonated with our classroom conversation about enigmatic metaphysical energy that transcends the scope of science.

My grandmother was horrified when her daughter-in-law invited Uncle Jim’s friends and extended family members visit him in his final hours. “He’s too sick. No one should see him like this,” she said. Once a world-ranked athlete, he had become so skeletal that the outline of his frame was barely detectable beneath the sheets of his hospice bed. Maybe she was right. When my father was dying, some of his distant friends, afraid to address his death, stopped visiting. Others told us that they weren’t “strong enough” to attend the funeral or forbid their children from coming with them. I couldn’t blame them. Seeing those who are gravely ill reminds us of our own fragile existence.

A few hours before he died, my aunt’s sister-in-law, a self-proclaimed energy healer, visited my uncle. I watched her with curiosity and gentle incredulity, probing her about how “it worked”. She told me that she read the frequencies of the heart, and channeled the energy of angels. I wanted to believe her but my intellect demanded more. Where had she studied this? Did she have some sort of certification?

Her hands moved wildly over his body. When she lifted them above his head, they began vibrating with a frenetic intensity that cannot be recreated. Her hands moved like that for several minutes without a lapse in rhythm. Privately, not wanting to upset our family, she told me that she sensed turmoil. While this was happening, my aunt was in the room next door, frantically phoning a few close family members who had yet to say their goodbyes. An hour later, after those few family members had finally visited and left, the energy healer returned to my uncle’s bedside. This time, her hands undulated over him, like cotton on a clothesline. The furrows of her face had softened around a calm smile. She said that he was radiating joy and that she heard giggling.

My aunt and uncle had met as freshman in high school and were together ever since. She had been his prom date, his business partner, and in the last few years, his nurse. In the twelve hours before his death, she never let go of his hand. We had to remind her to eat. When it came time to part with his physical being, she was seized by hysterical grief.

Human and nonhuman animals grieve in the same language. As I watched my family lament, I remembered the powerful passage from Listening to Whales, which describes Corky’s response when her baby is taken from her:

“As her baby’s voice left the water and entered the air, the mother threw her enormous body against the tank walls, again and again, causing the entire stadium to shake…Every fiber of her being begged for the nuzzling of her newborn baby…I stayed with the orcas and listened to their vigil of grief stretch on for three days and night. Corky’s calls grew horse as the hours continued, and I began feeling the grief as if it were my own”

After three days of mourning, Corky and her mate call to each other all night, through the dawn, their movements perfectly synchronized. For three days, Corky refuses her meals. These devastated cries, visible expressions of rage, and loss of appetite are behaviors mirrored by human and nonhuman animals.

I also thought about Corky’s uncanny ability predict the exact spot where the sunbeams would fall on her cage wall each morning. The day that Uncle Jim died, his two skittish, outdoor cats, which normally only enter the house in search of food, never left his hospice bed.

“I’ve heard that they can sense death,” my cousin said.

It was hard to disagree; these cats were drawn to the bed by some intuitive force. We pried them off, afraid they would hurt him, but they were tenacious: again and again they clambered onto his bed. They moved deftly around his fragile limbs, never once touching him. I smiled at the sight of them, nestled up beside Uncle Jim, purring. Eventually, we let them be.

At 10 p.m. that Saturday night, my grandmother realized that Uncle Jim had been born on Easter day 51 years ago, and said she thought he might wait until after midnight. And he did- just minutes after midnight, he spirit departed. It was tragically poetic.

These few transcendent moments offered respite during 12 hours of heartache. I’ve walked away from this experience with a new understanding of death as a profound and inevitable part of life.

Walk in the Woods After a Storm, by Tyler Kline

When the grandfather tree falls,
he falls into his own coffin
beside his children and grandchildren
who stand like onlookers
at a wedding
awaiting the next verse.

Something said or written
marked this tree as once alive.
Signified its anatomy
into dignified parts –
the cursive of limbs,
torso of cedar.
The innards of bough decomposed
like an opened pillow.
Bottle an artist left
years back
smoothed into the wet dirt.

My mother told me stories
of walking her mastiff
over this land.
Told me her father
fell ill and passed away
before her eighteenth birthday.
Told me she was left
tending a sickly mother.

I don’t think the forest
knows family,
but it knows life.
The daughter and hound,
years later –
the mother and son.
Walking the canopy’s foyer
after an autumn storm, observing.
My hand quiet across her back,
her eyes kept like secrets.
The nomenclature of loss
written from all angles
in this country of pine.

Blues for the Birds, by Kerry Snyder

The butterflies are back, and they remind me of fragility. How control can be lost with a strong gust of wind. They seem happy though, and that gives me hope. A chickadee followed me along my walk this week, cocking its head curiously at my figure and happily bouncing from branch to branch. The sunglasses I wore are normally sold to fishermen. They cut out the glare around me, giving incredible color to the world.

I laid down on my back and looked up at the sky, feeling that this was the best way to observe and catch some well-needed rest at the same time. In my absence of movement, taking pictures, and using binoculars for observation, the yellow-rumped warblers seemed to decide that I was approachable. I had never seen them quite this close before, at least with not with my naked eye. I watched one and thought back to our first encounter in late winter – how he had stayed on the other side of the creek bank, a distant fleck of beauty and energy.

“Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything
Unfolding from emptiness.
See all things flourish and dance
in endless variation.”
-Tao Te Ching, verse 16

Have you ever had a moment in the woods where it seems as though nothing living is present, one that makes you think: Who has turned off the splendor? Or perhaps you have found yourself fixating on one aspect of your surroundings, drowning all else out. It’s not unusual, and it is often your wandering mind that dampens variation. I was surprised at my ability to quiet my mind during this visit, as it had felt near capacity during the morning.

As I reclined, I felt the warmth of the sun fill my chest as my lungs facilitated breathing. Once in a while, the sun would flicker as flying birds stole occasional rays from my line of vision. I lay there watching the warblers, enjoying their close proximity and skilled foraging movements. I rolled over and, right at my eye level, a Great Blue Heron flew by silently, without a flap of the wings, over the flowing water.

I’ll never get tired of that.

The photographer in me begged my hands to reach for my camera in an attempt to create an image of my warbler companions, but once visible the device seemed to scare them off. I felt guilty for using it but at the same time eager to capture the mesmerizing feather patterns, to have proof of nature’s incredible color palate. Using binoculars made me feel more distant from them, and I preferred relishing in the anticipation that they might come closer to my still body. I laid back down. Overhead, vultures started circling closer, and I wondered how dead I appeared in this very moment, despite the intense feelings of life coursing through my veins.

Alright, I thought, it’s time to discover what Paul Winter was feeling. I took from my backpack a blues harp given to me by my father. I wasn’t sure how old it was, but it felt ancient in my hands. I have tried to be a musician at so many points in my life. I attempted to make a recorder sound bearable, stretched my stubby fingers over piano keys and guitar strings, and blew hot air over the hole of a flute and the reed of a saxophone.

All attempts had seemed mediocre at best. I blew simple notes into this new instrument and felt as though I could do no wrong. My thoughts and feelings flew through the carefully constructed openings and put me at ease. The warblers, meanwhile, seemed to come closer upon hearing me play. I looked to my right and saw one fly off quickly from an extremely close resting place where I imagined he was listening, perplexed at my “song.” My thoughts drifted to wonder about whether birds internalize any sounds while be-bopping around in search for morsels of food or a mate. I knew the 5K runners on the road close by would likely be lost without their music IV. Again, I picked up my camera and clutched it as I continued to play the harp. Like clockwork, the warblers shied away. I put it down once again.

The emerging leaves and seeds on the once lifeless trees are miniature versions of who they plan to be later this year. They are fragile, like the now-present butterflies.

“Don’t bother me
I’ve just
been born.”
(Mary Oliver, One or Two Things)

I felt reborn for some brief moments as I lay staring up at trees giving off new life. The vultures and warblers inspected me as a helpless being, an infant slightly out of her element, at least for a while. Desire to feel this way forever was hard to avoid. Mary Oliver’s poem talks about the necessity for understanding both joy and pain in life. All the wrong notes I had played on the piano were necessary for understanding what harmony should sound like. Being vulnerable, fragile, or hungry makes moments of rebirth that much more meaningful. The hectic life I left behind brought meaning to the moments I shared with yellow-rumped foragers.

“the butterfly
rose, weightless, in the wind.
‘Don’t love your life too much,’
it said.”
(One or Two Things)

I have not, and I will not, but right in this moment, life is pretty good.

Happiness, by Whitney Vos

A knot of stress nags in my stomach and I adjust my backpack on my shoulder, containing every what feels like every book I own. I contemplate where I can sit for an hour and work between classes. I veer down a quiet pathway needing to get away from the hustle and bustle of campus life. I notice a bench beneath a flowering tree, maybe a dogwood, and decide to sit for a moment and rest my tired back. The air is still as I sit down, my mind racing with responsibilities and to do lists, but then a breeze suddenly blows through the tree above me and white petals begin to rain down on me, dancing and swirling, like a child performing to get my attention.

As I look up, silken petals gently caress my face like snowflakes that do not melt. And just as snow catches all the sound of the world and quiets it, this summer flurry dampens the noise around me, real or imagined, and it makes me smile. I feel it filling me up, the happiness of this simple moment, warm and sweet like tea and honey. I breathe it in and I feel it travel down my throat and warm my belly and then it keeps spreading further through my body, and keeps going, out of the tips of my fingers and toes. I am so happy I feel I must have too much of it to fit in my body.

I think back to a poem by Mary Oliver, Goldenrod.
“…I was minding my own business
when I found myself on their straw hillsides,
citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?
Are not the difficult labors of our lives
full of dark hours?
And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light filled bodies?
All day
on their airy backbones
they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
they rise in a stiff sweetness,
in the pure peace of giving
one’s gold away.”

Aren’t we all minding our own business all the time? It took a hundred white petals to pummel me in the face to distract me from my own thoughts. Isn’t it our consciousness that allows us this ability to live almost entirely absorbed in our own thoughts and our individual lives? We believe that we are better for it than the flowers and trees that stand idly by, living strikingly simpler and less productive lives, producing no evidence of success or happiness because of it. But these organisms also do not suffer the dark hours that Mary Oliver and I and everyone else do, brought on by our conscious minds. These dark times are generally deemed necessary in order to experience the light, but today I am given the gift of happiness from a tree that feels no pain or suffering in exchange. So where does happiness come from?
In the human world, we search and work and fight and barter and try to buy happiness from one another. When we finally get it we guard it from the world, hang on to it in memories and sentimentality, and even cause other’s misery in order to protect it. We fear that too much happiness will be noticed and taken away so we teach our children and each other when we are allowed to be happy and exactly how to express it. We build our culture on the premise that the most widely accepted definition of happiness is the only one and is more important than one’s own and then we let another’s definition dictate our lives.

We have even created a physical representation of happiness, money, and we value it over all else. And finally, we are so selfish in our happiness that we allow only, in our minds, our species to experience it, and allow all others to have only a limited capacity for it compared to our own.

But as I sit under this tree, and it weeps petals of joy, and the wind sends them swirling around me, and the warm hands of the sun rest on my cheeks, and the birds sing me a song, I do not feel like the authority on happiness. I feel like I am a small part of this greater, metaphysical system that controls happiness. And I believe more and more that happiness cannot be created or destroyed because it is energy and it follows its laws. It can be found in everything, and it can be given and it can be received. And no belief by humans can restrict it to just one species, or to just the “sentient” species, or even to only the living organisms.

I see so many people everyday that see happiness as retail and not as a gift, so many of them have come to value generosity as extraneous or exceptional. I hope that these people learn, as I am beginning to, to stop minding their own business and open their eyes to our place in the larger system, not above it, and they might see the way that joy moves through the world around us. And now as I sit beneath this tree I realize that it is not only giving me the gift of a joyous moment, but it may feel happiness too, in its own way, “in the pure peace of giving one’s gold away.”

The Spirit of the Sun, by Marisa Andreazza

“If we act recklessly and thoughtlessly we could easily put the whole of the world out of balance—for others as well as for ourselves. This is, of course, precisely what we are experiencing globally in this eco-crisis of global warming. Having denied or ignored the relatedness of all being and the responsibilities that come from that relatedness, we violently take from our relations. We have not maintained harmony or balance in the world, or a vital spiritual relationship to what nourishes us.” – George Tinker, “An American Indian Cultural Universe”

I happened to be up really early yesterday. Although my body ached from being sick and begged me to stay in bed, my mind had other ideas; you haven’t seen a sunrise in full for weeks on end now—why not get up and head out to White Clay? I hurled myself out of bed and reached my destination, a bit chilly from the morning air. One by one, however, all of my complaints began to fade, slowly but surely. As the dark sky awakened to a new day, so too did my mood. The promising light of the sun gave rise to yet another glorious day. The sun is a leader. It is the first to pierce through the darkness, carrying the torch of a new day. Plants, animals, humans—we all thrive on its ability to light the way every single day of our lives. We are all measly followers; it is the sun that is our leader. What’s beautiful, too, is that we don’t even see it at first. The sun is a mere rosy glow until it sheds its wariness and emerges, bright enough to light each of our paths on earth. The sun is humble—it carries such a massive job, yet it never once does it for praise. So is this why we take its existence for granted? Are we so accustomed to having the sun there that we don’t stop and think about just how blindingly beautiful it is? How amazing of a being it is?

These questions were racing through my mind as I read the assigned essays for the week in Moral Ground while basking in the newly lit day. The quote that I began my journal with strongly resonated with me, so much so that I needed to take time to really reflect on what was being said. In environmentally based literature, you can often find similar themes to Tinker’s idea about humans taking too much from the earth and living out of balance with the natural world. However, his essay took this idea to a whole new level for me. He began it by noting that all of his readers are his “relatives”—not even just in a philosophical sense where we are all connected, but rather he truly focuses on the idea that we all have the same moral responsibility to this world. This moved me. As I continued reading on, the passage that I quoted became one that will be engraved in my mind forever. He states so simply that we have ignored our relatedness to the natural world, and therefore our responsibility. Instead, we take and take and take from the world but hardly ever, as a whole, do we return gratitude or give back.

After sitting in the woods for so long and having watched the sunrise, this statement really got me to start thinking. As the sun was rising earlier, I kept thinking about what a vital role it plays in each and every living entity’s daily life, and how little praise it gets. Perhaps this is what Tinker is really getting at. Humans have this amazing, and rather disturbing, disconnect with the surrounding world. We have lost our sense of awe at the little things. Isn’t it amazing, in and of itself, that there is this ball of warm, beautiful sunshine that gets itself up out of bed and rises every single day, so that life on earth can be sustained? This should be regarded a huge deal, no matter how many days an individual has lived to experience it. Yet it isn’t. This is precisely the type of issue that Tinker is addressing when he notes that we have lost “a vital spiritual relationship to what nourishes us.” For me, this is such a powerful line. A lot of environmental writing addresses the fact that we have lost a “connection” to nature. But it’s so much more than this. We have lost a critical relationship. Some people may argue that these two words are essentially getting at the same thing. I, however, disagree. To me, a relationship signifies something much deeper than a mere connection. You can connect with someone or something, but not truly invest in it like you would if you had a relationship with it. I think we therefore have lost this critical investment in nature. The sun nourishes us and provides us with so much, yet we are no longer one with its spirit. Humanity as a whole has lost our appreciation for the precious relationship with the earth that our ancestors once held so dear.

It’s my hope to change this. I may only be one person, but who is to say that I can’t cause a ripple effect among my friends, who then pass it on, and so on and so forth. Tomorrow, I am going to wake up in awe of the sun’s beauty. I am going to rise every morning and thank the world for its eternal sunshine. There are just some things in life that deserve recognition, simply because they are what they are.

Wise Moss, by Jimmy Sale

I sat with my back against a thick tree yesterday, in the forest of White Clay Creek, brooding. I was in a foul mood. This is the time of the semester when my mind is filled with worry. Small concerns, like having to write a paper, for instance, compile and develop into huge anxieties that take over my life. It was comfortable day, the kind of day where you don’t even think about the weather. I tried to take my mind off of all of the work that was waiting for me at home. With a deep breath, I let my head fall back and looked up at the waving branches of the trees and then down at their mossy shadows that danced in front of me. I examined the crust on a log to my right; beautiful, light-green lichen garnished by tiny, tubular volcanoes with spongy, gold craters. For a moment I got lost in this little, layered world and I imagined being ant-sized and making a home out of one of the volcanoes. But then a gust of wind landed me back in reality. I usually go out in the forest with a clear mind, ready to take in everything. But yesterday, I was preoccupied; lost in a world, bigger than that of the lichen, that is filled with responsibilities. So I got up and started walking to try to clear my head.

Through the trees, I saw a fisherman with a long, white beard, knee deep in the water, with his pants rolled up so as not to get them wet. “You know, you shouldn’t have worn pants,” I wanted to tell him, “Waders would have been a much better choice. You should know that.” He seemed to be at ease as he waited there, looking down the creek, and in my discontented state, I wondered how that could be. I watched him for a short while, wanting him to catch something. But he didn’t, so I cursed him and moved on. Then, I saw two children across the water, a boy and a girl, scurrying down edge of the creek with their mother who was trying her best to stay close behind. “Hey slow down, you two!” she shouted quite emphatically. “Don’t hit your sister!” “Don’t splash your brother!” I remember thinking, “My god, how could anyone ever be a parent?” Their laughs echoed across the water as they hopped along the bank merrily. Even their mother showed a tired smile. I was irritated by their happiness, and I was frustrated by my irritation. Just the other day, in the same forest, I had a revelation during which I felt a profound connection with everything around me (see last journal) yet a few days later, there I was, unable to muster up even the slightest fondness for my fellow humans.

Disturbed, I left the bank and went back to my spot on the tree. I opened my collection of Mary Oliver poems, which I thought might help clear my mind, or at least put me in a better mood. I read a few poems before I landed on one called “Landscape,” which caught my eye.

“Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience?…

…Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.”

That last stanza shook me. I looked over at the moss I spotted earlier, then read it again. “…if the doors of my heart ever close, I am as good as dead.” Curious, I stepped over the lichen log-world and headed back to my dorm to do some research.

A simple plant, moss lacks true roots but has a single-cell layer of rhizoids that are used for attachment and always prepared to absorb water. It is hardy, carrying “a botanical camel’s hump as it trudges through long stretches of aridity,” as Haskell puts it so eloquently in The Forest Unseen. Because of this, moss has the ability to grow and spread indefinitely. It is this resilience and readiness to take in what it needs to thrive that Oliver suggests is necessary to reflect. And now, I know that I too should take a lesson from the ancient moss and refuse to let the tough times in my life close the doors of my heart.