Calochortus albus, Fairy Lantern, Globe Lily. “With this plant the whole world would seem rich, though none other exists.” John Muir
There’s an easy path through the woods in my area, maintained by the forestry service. A small parking lot at its head (like a large pullout) makes it convenient, and the path is flat and wide, with a lot of nice vistas. Locals and tourists go there.
I was in the little parking lot one day when I saw two people staring down at a piece of paper.
“The brochure says that the best wild flowers are this week,” one of them was saying indignantly. “But I don’t see anything.”
They studied the piece of paper and went back and forth on this. They were irritated, the way people are when they’re in a crowded restaurant, and they don’t get the service they’ve been expecting. Cheated.
I was glad they were so wound up in their disappointment that they didn’t notice what was going on around them, because it was a small parking lot we were in, and I was trying not to crack up. What is this touching faith we have in the printed word? Why don’t we realize that the humans who write things down are just interpreting as much of the information around them as they can take in– and that that information changes all the time? And when the writers are just taking down something that somebody else told them–watch out. That’s when it gets really abstract.
None of us has the power to encapsulate or predict natural life, any more than we can reduce it to one single meaning. Yet each of us, concentrating on our own piece of paper, seems to believe (or hope) that the human-made words carry more power than the non-human world.
It’s the power of myth over experience. As children in our culture we’re trained to value what we’re told over our own senses. “Oh, it isn’t really bothering you.” “You’re just tired.” “You like that? Try some of this, it’s better.” That we may really be bothered, sad, or like the scorned item better doesn’t matter. With the best of intentions, our personal narrative gets rewritten, our lives get edited, and we forget what it was like before.
Maybe part of the reason our culture has worked out this system is the hardship of facing up to the rest of nature. It’s not so long ago that all of us had to be out in freezing rain, walk up steep hills, suffer heat without relief, eat moldy food or eat the same food every day because that’s all there was. Being fully aware of our surroundings is not a big benefit then. It’s one of the reasons storytelling has been so popular through the ages, in all its forms. A story or song can wake you up on one level while it shuts out the pain and wretchedness.
And it’s still true–and a part of us knows that–that at any moment, the powers of the natural world can make our human concerns into nothing. Our cities don’t mean much to an earthquake or melting polar caps. Our ambitions and talents are no concern of pneumococcus virus, drought, and dust storms. Our thoughts and memories can be drowned and dissolved in the slow insidious creep of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
A part of us knows that any day we can be wiped out entirely. That we are a tiny fleck in a huge universe. That the struggle of human nature with the rest of nature is one we will never win.
There’s a weird power in admitting that vulnerability. Vulnerability is a wound–but it’s also an opening. In the moments when we remember to feel all of what we really feel, to open our senses to what’s around us–those are the times when we’re most alive. Those are the peak experiences we strive for in a vacation or a career or a new life.
But we don’t need cataclysms or dramatic action, order or perfection to get it. That giant surge of aliveness is all around us. All we have to do is look up from that abstract, two-dimensional world and take it in.
That’s the moment when the world speaks to us.