Holding forth

Nature may appear as an external object with a history; indeed, for true aesthetic appreciation to take place, nature must be captured, recontextualized, preserved as a discrete moment or series of moments: mental snapshots at the very least. One does a kind of double take, both focusing and also – more critically – framing, editing out. I am always coming across places in the woods that strike me as garden-like (usually a rock garden or moss garden, since I live on a dry mountaintop). I find myself squinting, circling the imaginary garden, perhaps stepping into it gingerly to remove a fallen branch, or nudging a mossy stone into a slightly more pleasing position. Then the mental shutter clicks and I can move on.

I almost never attempt to write poems based on these experiences; the few I’ve ventured have been lifeless failures. It is as if my minimal arranging and circling satisfies the compulsion to capture or collect. I do not need to return in my imagination as I otherwise would, because ordinarily an experience only becomes fully aesthetic for me in retrospect. The same applies for an auditory as for a visual experience, and I imagine those who have honed their taste buds or olfactory nerves could expand the scope of this observation even further: too much immediacy obviates the need for re-creation, which is what artistic creation largely consists of. Or it may be that I just haven’t found the adequate language yet for such poems. It would take a very light touch, the most circumspect kind of conjuring – closer to romance than to necromancy.

I once was friendly in a coffee-shop kind of way with an artist whose primary material was natural, and whose main artifact was the notebook in which she recorded her impressions. She had a PhD in Art Education – this was serious stuff. As she explained it to me, the process consisted of going out into the woods (or wherever), finding something that interested her, observing it, changing it in some way, observing some more, then writing it all down. This was apparently part of a movement called ecological art, which differed from landscape art mainly in being far less obtrusive and disruptive. I remained unclear on how much didactic content these “works” would typically possess – she indicated that a fair degree of ecological awareness was required to create and appreciate ecological art. How then does ecological art differ from creative writing? I wish I could remember her answer exactly. As I recall, she felt that the writer tends to be more removed from her material, less willing to go outside herself – or, we might say, to assume an active role within Nature and regard that (im)positioning as primary and the writing as secondary. How does this differ from drama, from dance? “You could make a serious case for ecological art being a form of theatre,” she told me.

Writers could do worse than adopt this kind of path. “The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together,” said Miguel Hernandez. This is not a prescription for any one style or subject matter. But cultivating a heightened awareness of our relationship with wild Nature through a willingness to participate in its own creation ought to point the way toward more authentic forms of re-membering. All of us, whether artists, scientists or mystics, should be constantly striving to improve the quality of our attention.

Looked at in one way, immersion in the object of attention leads to self-transcendence. But what is actually being transcended? It seems more accurate to talk about emergence: the self merging with the Self, an I-It relation giving way to mutual co-creation. Because, as artist John Fowles points out (The Tree, Norton, 1983), wild Nature is more than external object. It is “creating in the present, as we experience it. As we watch, it is so to speak rewriting, reformulating, repainting, rephotographing itself.” When we step “outside,” when our mental shutters click, we are charming, no? We are being game, we are acting innocent in order to attract and entrance the quarry. (But there is no such thing as just a game!)

One can catch glimmers of this perspective in the Bible, remnants probably of an animist heritage. The 18th century hasidic Rabbi Simha Bunam of Pzhysha stressed the literal translation of Genesis I:1, “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heaven and earth.” “For even now the world is still in a state of creation,” Rabbi Bunham said. “When a craftsman makes a tool and is finished, it does not require him any longer. Not so with the world! Day after day, instant after instant, the world requires the renewal of the powers of the primordial word through which it was created, and if the power of those powers were withdrawn from it for a single moment, it would lapse into tohu bohu [‘chaos’].” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters, Schocken, 1948.)

The theistic hypothesis will no doubt strike many readers as a needless distraction here. The most important thing, I believe, is to see other beings as self-completing and beautiful with or without the aid of a creator, human or divine. God is a superfluity, I agree. But for me, life exceeds itself at every turn. The fundamental religious gestures of awe, hospitality and respect all derive from a willingness to see things as being somehow more and better than they appear to the eye (I) of calculation and discrimination. This self-regarding eye forms a positive feedback loop with the idol or object of lust (“fetish” in the Freudian sense). But the self-exceeding eye is at home in the alterity (otherness + changeability) of the world:

Wilderness was never accepted as our home, but now it has to be. Uncompromising but protective, it holds to the principles of renewal and diversity in all the facets of its nature. It keeps the law, for which we have no substitute. As original creation, it reconciles extremes in a way that is impossible for mankind to imitate. We know this . . . in our unfinished selves, where stability and instability keep company with the eternal weather.
John Hay, The Immortal Wilderness (Norton, 1987).

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