The Nature of Nature: For Us or Against Us?
How do we engage a nature that couldn't care less about us?
Posted Sep 07, 2011
I went on a walk this morning to survey the damage wrought to our land by the winds and rains of Hurricane Irene. I was also interested in exploring the impact on my imagination of a book that I recently read by Darryl Caterine called Haunted Ground: Journeys through Paranormal America.
Irene is one of those phenomena that easily disabuse us of any lingering illusion that nature is a benevolent "Mother." The storm was nature on nature at its fiercest. Winds lashed at leaves and toppled trees; rains flooded banks, washing plants, animals, fields, roads, houses, and people away. In the wake of Irene, it is hard not to admit that "nature" is indifferent to human well-being.
In Haunted Ground, Caterine offers an equally troubling vision of the "Nature" that Americans idealize as the Ground of our nation. This Nature, to whose beauty, order and innocence we aspire, is only ours, Caterine reminds us, because our ancestors destroyed the peoples and cultures who were already living here. "We" asserted a right to ownership by denying it to others--Native Americans, of course, as well as African Americans, and many women. In his travels, Caterine hears the whispers: the Ground we claim to own is haunted by these unknown and unknowable Others. It will never be ours.
Pondering Caterine's book on the heels of Irene, I think again about the ninety-six acres I claim to own. What is "it" that I own? By what right do I stake my claim? Who do I think I am? And where?
With sunlight wrapped softly around my shoulders, I plow up the hill towards the hayfields. The grass is heavy with a moisture that catches the light and saturates the leaves with green. The air is so clear it glows blue. The mountains in the distance seem close enough to touch. The roar of the brook reaches my ears far beyond its usual range. A light breeze ruffles the treetops, as if to calm their agitated twigs. The storm has passed.
We were lucky. The few elms that fell in the forest will make terrific firewood. The splayed roots of tipped sunflowers are easily pressed back into the soil. The winds cleared out dead leaves and branches. This place feels refreshed, vibrant, humming with life. Walking the land, I do too.
"It," however, doesn't feel like mine. The land doesn't owe me anything. On the contrary, I owe it everything. I belong to the land. I could not breathe without the precise mix of air it exhales; I could not drink without the water it circulates; I could not stand without the pull of gravity upon its ground.
It is obvious to me: this land has a life that exceeds me--a life I cannot control or master. To own this land is to submit; it is to enter into a relationship with it where I allow myself to be disciplined by its needs, by its rhythms and rolls. Its hills charge my thighs; its vistas guide my gaze; its briars scrape my limbs; its deer open paths for me to explore. Its beauty calls me to let it live, for my own health and well-being. For the pleasure it brings to me. For the thoughts and feelings and impulses to move that it stirs in me.
To own this piece of earth is to allow its incessant creativity to live through me. In whatever I do. I want to move from the place that moving through this place awakens in me.
But what about the ghosts? What about the indifference of nature to me? In wanting what I want, am I shrouded in some romantic haze?
As Caterine points out, a yearning to commune with nature is normal. What fascinates him is the fascination of many Americans with the paranormal. It has to do with nature. After traveling to several locations around the United States, he concludes that people in these circles accept that nature is haunted. Rather than seeking communion with it, they are seeking practices for discerning and communicating with the others. Whether channeling spiritual entities, tracking down aliens in our midst, or mapping the flows of water under the earth, these people engage in practices for the purpose of educating their senses to stirrings of knowledge that are neither taught nor validated by reason-based, science-driven systems of education.
This focus on practices is what I like most about Caterine's book. It makes sense to me. In these exercises, I see people learning to discern, trust, and move with impulses arising in and through their bodily awareness. As Caterine confirms, it is a serious play, aimed at exercising a human capacity to move strategically in pursuit of what is desired, and bring it into being.
In a round-about way, his reading also illuminates what I am doing here, on the farm. I moved here with the intention of cultivating a different way of knowing than the rational objectivity privileged by our mind over body culture. I sought a closer proximity to the cycles and rhythms of the natural world as a way to challenge the complacency into which we are led by the virtual and conceptual worlds of modern western culture--a complacency that fosters a notion of ourselves as minds living in and over our bodies, able (at least potentially) to control and master nature.
I was not seeking to connect with a nurturing nature as much as to disconnect from the illusion of such a whole, whether present or forever lost. I wanted to develop practices of living that would give rise to ideas of humans as participants in the creation of this world we inhabit.
As I stride up a hill to the crest, a span of forest-encircled pond bursts into view, erupting with a bubble under my ribs. Ripples of wonder travel down my limbs and nudge my thoughts.
On the one hand, I am under no illusion. Nature is indifferent to my well-being. Elemental storms twisted out of air, fire, water or sand, bacteria or virus, forces of gravity, and laws of matter care little for the individual bodies caught in their path. We hairless thin-skinned humans are particularly vulnerable. In order to survive, we must insulate ourselves, to some extent, from these stresses.
However, it is also true that nature is completely and absolutely for me, wanting nothing more than to live and thrive in the form of the particular person I am. Nature is at work, becoming what it can be, in the pulsing, squeezing, crackling of my bodily self. Nature is for me in the shapes of my limbs, the scope of my senses, the orientation of my thinking, and most of all in the movement that relates me to what is. My eyes cannot develop with light; my ears without sound, my taste buds without flavors. My digestive system will not function properly without hoards of bacteria which make their home in me. My brain will not wire without this movement of cells, senses, systems, and limbs. Nature is moving in me, as me, creating me, as I create and become myself.
For me or against me? Nature is both. Is it mine or am I its? Both are true.
It is a paradox, or a rhythm: it is our nature to separate ourselves from nature... and to keep coming back. We conceive and plan and implement, we dance and sing and sign, and whatever we do stands or falls based on its ability to align us with the forces of nature operating in, through, and around us.
When we fix Nature as an ideal that is either there or not, we deny this rhythm. We lock ourselves in conceptual boxes of our own making, assuming that we are either home or homeless, one with it all or alienated forever. It is our mind-over-body conditioning at work.
However, when we cultivate an alternative sense of ourselves as movement--as the bodily movements that are making us--then nature appears differently. We realize that the bodily movements that we make make us able to think and feel and act at all. As such, we can never control (our bodily) nature, but neither does it exist apart from us as some thing out there. Rather, we participate in the rhythms of our own bodily becoming, and we can learn to do so as consciously as possible, creating and becoming the patterns of sensation and response that will relate us to what will sustain us in mutually enabling ways. We can let live. We can dance.
And if I want to cultivate a sensory awareness of how my movement matters--of what I am creating--then the best way is to slip away from a human-built world of vibrating and stationary boxes, walls of words and wood, constructions made of concepts and concrete, and submerse myself in whatever nature I can find. Even if it is the world that appears when I close my eyes, wiggle my toes, and breathe deeply.
Returning home, I notice how the glowing world through which I walked is now dancing in me. There are ghosts in the woods and ghosts in my flesh and blood. Nature is haunted and so am I. I swell with joy at the feeling and knowing of this kinship.
Yet soon enough the deluge of tasks to be done will sweep away this sense of connection and I will settle into boxes of my own making, content to rest in the wake of the effort expended.
But then again, my rest will turn to restlessness, my insulation to isolation, and it will be time again. Time to break out, bare my skin to the wind, and submit my senses to rhythms and forces without which I would not be able to think or feel or act at all. Time to let nature live in me and through me and as me. Time to dance.