The author reads his essay — in which he proposes an entirely new definition of what it means to be one with nature.
Orion Magazine. September 18, 2009
THE COMPUTER KEYS fall and rise beneath my fingers, letters assembling themselves like ants on the screen as I list the matters I must attend to in the next days. Drop off a clutch of letters at the post office. Compose a decent lecture for the conference on Thursday. Clean the stove and the oven. And since we’re having guests, I’d better gather up this year’s receipts from the various boxes, baskets, and stand-alone piles where I’ve tossed them, and maybe organize them in a respectable fashion. The guests are my parents; they’re arriving Wednesday—tomorrow!—to spend time with their grandchildren. Tomorrow. How exactly do I expect to find time to craft a half-decent lecture for that conference? I’ll have to come up with some sort of outline and then just wing it. Meanwhile my partner’s been scowling at me all day because I forgot to fix the vacuum cleaner last week (as if I’ve any idea how to even take that gizmo apart—when I fixed it last year it was sheer luck: the bulky part fell down the stairs while I was trying to pry it open, then miraculously started working like new, so all of a sudden she decided I’m a mechanical wizard. Not that I don’t enjoy the respect, but sooner or later she’ll discover that I’m a quack, the last person one should trust with any tool more complicated than a shoehorn). Anyway I must remember—remember! —that the voice I reached at the power company said they’ll indeed turn off the gas and electric if I don’t get a check to them by Wednesday. Tomorrow. Too late to send it by mail. Maybe I can swing by there on the way to Hannah’s dental appointment. After the dentist we’ll have to head straight to the airport to pick up my folks; but why in Earth’s name is she going to the dentist again—what kind of scam are these doctors running? If my daughter’s teeth weren’t perfectly fine she couldn’t bite her friend Finn so effectively; and if she comes home with one more coloring book from the waiting room, with all those grinning animal faces proclaiming how necessary it is to see the dentist every six months, I’m gonna sue the dentist for corrupting minors. Why does he need so many visits anyway; doesn’t he have any friends?
As the overwhelm hits, I can feel a shot of acid in my stomach, and feel it register, too, as a ﬂeeting wince on my face. Not good. This upcoming lecture has me on edge for some reason—maybe because it’s in my hometown, for once, and so various acquaintances may be there, expecting something dazzling. Christ.
Something catches my peripheral vision and I turn toward the window. I feel my eyes widen in surprise: snowflakes! A great crowd of snowflakes floating down, a deep thicket of slowly tumbling white. How long has this been going on? I stand and stare for a few moments, then pull on a sweater and step out the door into a landscape transformed as if by a spell. My steps make no sound, the white blanket already plush upon the ground and layered in tufts upon the juniper and pinyon branches, as flakes drift down like loosened stars. A hundred of them swerve into my face, melting cold against my skin as I walk slowly through a world utterly transfigured by this silent grace cascading through every part of the space around me.
The surge and press of the week’s worries have somehow vanished. When I try to call those concerns back to mind I simply cannot find them behind the teeming multitude of slowly falling flakes . . . Past and future have dissolved, and I’m held in the white eternity of a moment so astonishing it melts all my words. All weight has lifted; the innumerable downward trajectories have convinced my senses that I’m floating, or rather rising slowly upward, and the ground itself rising beneath me—the Earth and I ascending weightless through space.
A sound: the flutter of a bird’s wings, and a small explosion of snow from a branch the bird launched from. Then, just silence. Not silence as an absence of sound, but as a fullness. As the very sound ten thousand snowflakes make as they meet the ground. A thick silence, muffling the whole valley, and for all I know the whole cosmos. I cannot imagine that any bird, any squirrel, any coyote or hare is not similarly held in the visible trance of this cascading silence.
The clumps on the branches deepen . . .
The snow falls through the night, the porch light illuminating a charmed space through which powder floats steadily down. I turn it off before heading to bed, then step outside to inhale the darkness: now even the house, and the truck asleep in the driveway, have fallen under the spell.
By morning the snowfall has stopped. Yet the enchantment holds; when I walk out and snap my boots into my skis, there is a soft stillness everywhere. I glide between the trees and onto the dirt road, whose countless ruts are now invisible; unbroken goodness extends from the tips of my skis in every direction. There is a hushed purity to the world, and to awareness itself as I float across the snowy fields. The dentist will wait, and the power company will get its check when the roads are clear, whether today or tomorrow. Thursday’s lecture is forming itself, easily, as I glide over the white expanse, my body writing its smooth script across the blank pages.
Now and then a high limb releases its too-heavy mound of snow, and a spray of powder drifts down in sheets, glittering, scintillating, then vanishing into the clarified air.
WHAT IS THIS ENIGMA that we call “mind”? Innumerable scientific papers and books have been published in recent years trying to account for the emergence of mind, or to explain how awareness is constituted within the brain. Yet most of these works are dramatically at odds with one another, for even among researchers in the burgeoning field of “consciousness studies” there exists no basic agreement as to just what “consciousness,” “awareness,” or even “mind” actually is. Part of the difficulty stems from the intransigence of old notions—in particular our age-old assumption that mind is a uniquely human property, a wholly intangible substance that resides somewhere “inside” each of us.
It may be far more parsimonious, today, to suggest that mind is not at all a human possession, but is rather a property of the earthly biosphere—a property in which we, along with the other animals and the plants, all participate. The apparent interiority that we ascribe to the mind would then have less to do with the notion that there is a separate mind located inside me, and another, distinct mind that resides inside you, and more to do with a sense that you and I are both situated inside it—a recognition that we are bodily immersed in an awareness that is not ours, but is rather the Earth’s.
After all, mind is a quintessentially quicksilver phenomenon, impossible to isolate and pin down. As soon as we try to ponder the character of awareness, we discover that it’s already escaped us—for it is really the pondering that we’re after, rather than the thing pondered. We find ourselves unable to get any distance from awareness, in order to examine it objectively, for wherever we step it is already there. Mind, in this sense, is very much like a medium in which we’re situated, like the ineffable air or atmosphere, from which we are simply unable to extricate ourselves without ceasing to exist. Everything we know or sense of ourselves is conditioned by this atmosphere. We are composed of this curious element, permeated by it, and hence can take no distance from it. (The contemporary word for the mind, psyche, was once the ancient Greek word for wind and breath, much as the word spirit derives from the Latin spiritus, meaning a breath or a gust of wind. Likewise, the modern term atmosphere is cognate with the Sanskrit word for the soul, atman, through their common origin in the older term atmos, which originally signified both air and soul indistinguishably: the atmosphere as the blustering soul of the world.)
To acknowledge this affinity between the air and awareness, however, is to allow this curious possibility: that the awareness that stirs within each of us is continuous with the wider awareness that moves all around us, bending the grasses and lofting the clouds. Every organism partakes of this awareness from its own angle and place within it, each of us imbibing it through our nostrils or through the stomata in our leaves, altering its chemistry and quality within us before we breathe it back into the surrounding world. Awareness, in this biospheric sense, is a quality in which we participate with the whole of our breathing bodies; as your body is different from mine in many ways, so your sensations and insights are richly different from mine. The contrasting experience of a praying mantis, or of a field of wild lupine, is as different from our experience as their bodies are different from ours. Each being’s awareness is unique, to be sure, yet this is not because an autonomous mind is held inside its particular body or brain, but because each engages the common awareness from its own extraordinary angle, through its particular senses, according to the capacities of its flesh.
IF WE ALLOW THAT MIND is a biospheric quality, an attribute endemic to the wide sphere that surrounds and sustains us, we swiftly notice this consequence: each region—each topography, each uniquely patterned ecosystem—has its own particular awareness, its unique style of intelligence.
Certainly the air is subtly different in each terrain. The air of the coastal northwest of North America, infused with salt spray and the tang of spruce, cedar, and fir needles, tastes and feels different from the air shimmering in the heat of the Southwest desert. Each atmosphere imparts its vibrance to those who partake of it, and hence the black-gleamed ravens who carve loops through the desert sky speak a different dialect of squawks and guttural cries than the cedar-perched ravens of the Pacific Northwest, whose vocal arguments are filled with the liquid tones of falling water. Likewise the atmosphere that rolls over the Great Plains, gathering now and then into vorticed tornados, contrasts vividly with the winds that pour through the Rocky Mountain passes, and still more with the mists that advance and recede along the California coast. The specific geology of a place yields a soil rich in particular minerals, and the rains and rivers that feed those soils invite a unique blend of grasses, shrubs, and trees to take root there. These, in turn, beckon particular animals to browse their leaves or to eat their fruits and distribute their seeds, to pollinate their blossoms or simply to find shelter among their roots, and thus a complexly entangled community begins to emerge, bustling and humming within itself. Every such community percolates a different chemistry into the air that animates it, joining whiffs and subtle pheromones to the drumming of woodpeckers and the crisscrossing hues of stone and leaf and feather that echo back and forth through that terrain, while the way these elements blend with one another is affected by the noon heat that beats down in some regions, or the frigid cold that hardens the ground in others.
Each place has its rhythms of change and metamorphosis, its specific way of expanding and contracting in response to the turning seasons, and this shapes, and is shaped by, the sentience of that land. Whether we speak of a broad mountain range or of a single valley within that range, at each scale there is a unique intelligence circulating among the various constituents of the place—a style evident in the way events unfold in that region, how the slow spread of the mountain’s shadow alters the insect swarms above a cool stream, or the way a forested slope rejuvenates itself after a fire. For the precise amalgam of elements that structures each ecosystem exists nowhere else. Each place, that is to say, is a unique state of mind, and the many beings that constitute and dwell within that locale—the spiders and tree frogs no less than the humans—all participate in, and partake of, the particular mind of the place.
Of course, I can hardly be instilled by this intelligence if I only touch down, briefly, on my way to elsewhere. Only by living for many moons in one place, my peripheral senses tracking seasonal changes in the local plants while the scents of the soil steadily seep in through my pores, only over time can the intelligence of a place lay claim upon my person. Slowly, as the seasonal round repeats itself again and again, the lilt and melody of the local songbirds becomes an expectation within my ears, and so the mind I’ve carried within me settles into the wider mind that enfolds me. Changes in the terrain begin to release and mirror my own, internal changes. The slow metamorphosis of colors within the landscape; the way mice migrate into the walls of my house as the climate grows colder; oak buds bursting and unfurling their leaves to join a gazillion other leaves in agile, wind-tossed exuberance before they tumble, spent, to the ground; the way a wolf spider weaves her spiraling web in front of the porch light every spring—each such patterned event, quietly observed, releases analogous metamorphoses within myself. Without such tunement and triggering by the earthly surroundings, my emotional body is stymied, befuddled—forced to spiral through its necessary transformations without any guidance from the larger Body of the place (and hence entirely out of phase with my neighbors, human and nonhuman). Sensory perception, here, is the silken web that binds our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem.
IF THE SUBTLE INTELLIGENCE of a place is inseparable from the medium of air that circulates invisibly within and between the inhabitants of that locale, it follows that some of the most dramatic modulations within the collective psyche are those that alter the sensuous quality of the atmosphere, changes that we commonly ascribe to the “weather.” Transformations in the local climate often confound our conscious plans, sometimes curdling the unseen medium into a visible fog that slows our steps and clogs our thoughts, or congealing the invisible depth around us into a thicket of slanting raindrops. Shifts in the weather transform the very feel of the world’s presence, altering the medium of awareness in a manner that affects every breathing being in our vicinity. We sometimes refer to such weather phenomena, taken together, as “the elements,” a term that suggests how primary and basic these powers are to the human organism. The ephemeral nature of such phenomena—the way such modulations in the atmosphere confuse the boundaries between the invisible and the visible, between inner and outer, between “subjective” and “objective”—ensures that the weather holds a curious position in the civilized world of modernity. We refer to it constantly; commenting upon the weather establishes the most basic ground upon which any social communication can proceed. Although it rarely occupies our full attention, the weather is always evident on the periphery of that attention, an ever-present reminder that the reality we inhabit is ultimately beyond our human control.
For the activity of the atmosphere remains the most ubiquitous, the most intractable, the most enigmatic of practical problems with which sedentary civilization has daily to grapple. Despite the best efforts of science and the most audacious technological advances, we seem unable to master this curious flux in which we’re immersed, unable even to glean a clear comprehension of this invisible field of turbulence and tranquility so fundamental to our existence. We rely on satellites to monitor its unruly behavior from outside, hoping to gain from such external data a rudimentary sense of its large-scale patterns, so we might better guess at its next moves.
But suppose we were to analyze this restless dimension from within—from our own perspective as sensing and sentient animals thoroughly permeated by this flux? How then would we articulate its manifold modes of activity, its storms and its calms, its clarities and its condensations as they resound in our organism and roll across the terrain? We would need a term that suggests the subjective quality of these elements, the way they alter the palpable mind of the place, transforming the awareness of all who live there. For our own species, it’s clear that such changes in the ambient weather don’t really force a change in our conscious thoughts, but rather alter the felt context, the somatic background within which thinking unfolds. From our own creaturely perspective, then, we might say that shifts in the weather are transformations in the disposition of the land. Different atmospheric conditions are, precisely, different moods. Each earthly mood affects the relation between our body and the living land in a specific way, altering the texture of our reflections and the tonality of our dreams.
DURING THE SUMMER, near the coast, one sometimes wakes to a day that seems like any other, although as one goes through the motions of dressing and preparing breakfast one notices one’s thoughts lagging behind, as though they have yet to fully separate themselves from the state of sleep. A slowness attends all one’s cogitations—the newspaper, today, seems written with less zip, reporting the same old thing with the same stale phrases, and when you put it aside you wonder if a minute’s rest on the couch would be in order before tackling the day’s work. The immediate tasks to be accomplished are after all somewhat vague and unfocused; it’s difficult to remember just what they are.
Only upon stepping outside and surveying the world from your stoop does the material cause of this mental lethargy become apparent. For the leafy trees, the electric wires, and the other houses are all bathed in a humid atmosphere that renders their outlines fuzzy and imprecise, while the mountains that usually rise from the far edge of town have dissolved, or are wholly shrouded, somehow, in the moisture-thick air. There’s no cloud to be seen in the washed-out sky, only the too-big sun, hovering in the east, sweating like a spent tennis ball mouthed by too many dogs. Its dull heat presses in from every direction.
THEN THERE ARE those rare days, not entirely unknown in any region of the Earth, that dawn with a clarity that muscles its way into every home and studio and office, lending a crispness and cogency to almost every thought. One feels uncommonly good on such days, and others do too; deliberations move forward with unaccustomed ease. Ambiguities resolve themselves, or render themselves more explicit, the choices more defined and clear-cut. There’s a delicious radiance that seems to come from the things themselves, from even the tables and the plush rug, and when we step outside we can taste it in the air and in the way a few fluffed clouds rest, almost motionless, in the crystal lens of the sky. How far our vision travels on such days! When we climb to the top of the street we can see clear to the mountains that rise from the plain in the neighboring state. Long-term goals abruptly become evident; possibilities far in the future seem more accessible, lending perspective to the present. Hence planning goes more smoothly, with a marked absence of the usual friction—no sweat.
Although, to be sure, we’re not always in sync with such felicitous weather—with the strangely clarified transparence that lifts the weight of the whole suburb on such unpredictable days, or that wraps the aspen branches outside our cabin with such a pellucid and form-fitting cloak of blue. Sometimes we’re still carrying the strains and stresses of recent weeks, struggles that followed us into our dreams and now cling to our face and our feet, or perhaps we’re still in the dank doldrums due to the wreck of a relationship we’d trusted our hearts to. These are the worst days for depression, when everyone else seems to move so smoothly through the world. Even if we’re well away from the human hubbub, the despondence can be darker on such days, when it seems the stones and the singing sky and the green blades of grass are all tuned to another frequency. There’s an insistent and eager harmoniousness to things, an ease that we sense on the periphery—the hillside itself humming with pleasure for a whole afternoon—yet the mood cannot penetrate the thick pellicle of our pain. The mismatch of the world with our own traumatized state is unnerving, even terrifying, shoving us deeper into the pit.
OF COURSE I AM WRITING of these earthly elements, or moods, from an entirely human perspective. Indeed, I’m writing from the quite subjective perspective of a single human creature: myself. Nonetheless, I write with the knowledge that there cannot help but be some overlap between my direct, visceral experience and the experience of other persons—whose senses, after all, have much in common with my own. Moreover, I’ve confidence that my bodily experience is a variation, albeit in many cases a very distant variation, of what other, nonhuman bodies may experience in the same locale in that season, at a similar moment of the day or night. For not only are our bodies kindred (all mammals, for instance, sharing a recent ancestry, and hence enacting divergent variations of what were once common sensibilities), but also we are all of us, at the present moment, interdependent constituents of a common biosphere, each of us experiencing it from our own angle, and with our own specific capabilities, yet nonetheless all participant in the round life of the Earth, and hence subject to the same large-scale flows, rhythms, and tensions that move across that wider life.
The world we inhabit is not, in this sense, a determinate set of objective processes. It is our larger flesh, a densely intertwined and improvisational tissue of experience. It is a sensitive sphere suspended in the solar wind, a round field of sentience sustained by the relationships between the myriad lives and sensibilities that compose it. We come to know more of this sphere not by detaching ourselves from our felt experience, but by inhabiting our bodily experience all the more richly and wakefully, feeling our way into deeper contact with other experiencing bodies, and hence with the wild, intercorporeal life of the Earth itself.
OF ALL THE ELEMENTS, wind is the most versatile and protean, offering in each region a different range of personae, varying itself according to the season and often, too, according to the direction from whence it arrives. For example:
Toward the tail end of a heavy winter, when a few days of unexpected warmth bring whiffs of spring, and a buried store of state-specific memories proper to that season send a few green shoots into one’s conscious awareness, the winter will often reassert itself, swooping low at night to chill the walls of your house and repossess the snowy fields. When you step outside in the morning the newly melted surface of the snow has now frozen solid and slick like a pane of glass. And gusting across that glass, a fine mist of crystals speeds past the trunks of trees, some of them tinkling in eddies against the windows of your house as the main current of wind gallops through the valley. Boots slip along the frozen surface as you try to take a few steps, ears and face stung by the icy blast. Nothing in the landscape beckons or reaches out to you, for each bush or branch or telephone pole seems entirely focused on staying in place, every home holding fast with all its fingers to the ground beneath, each being doing its best to become an inconspicuous part of the ground, a mute lump or appendage of the Earth, affording the wind nothing other than a smooth surface to glide past on its way to wherever. Under the onslaught of the chill wind, each entity subsides into the anonymity of the Earth, and even you, too, find your individuality subsumed into the rigor of standing solid against the icy blasts, as your body makes itself into a smooth stone. Thought is stilled, all interior reflection dissolves, no memory apart from this ancient kinship and solidarity with the density of metal and rock, of heartwood and stone. The outward roar of wind forces one to find the blessed silence of stone at the heart of the mind. Anonymous, implacable, unperturbed—the biting cold of a winter wind returns one to one’s unity with the bedrock.
Yet a wind of comparable velocity in the late spring can have a nearly opposite effect. As when after a long hike one ascends to a high pass from the eastern foothills and peers over into the valley beyond. A moist breeze is riding up the western slope, carrying fresh scents from the forests below, and clouds previously unseen are slowly massing on that side of the range. The wind becomes stronger, more insistent, and you realize that a storm is brewing; it is time to head down and find shelter. Yet something holds you on the pass. As the wind begins to rage, pouring over the crest and rushing down the boulder-strewn grade behind you, it tugs your hair back from your head and fills your cheeks when you open your mouth, whipping your unbuttoned shirt like a kite as an exuberance rises in your muscles. Laughing, crouching, and leaping in the wind, facing into it and feeling the first raindrops as you gulp from the charging gusts, imbibing the storm’s energy, meeting its wildness with your own as you dance drenched like a grinning fool down the trail—a wild wind can return us to our own vitality more swiftly than any other element! And the needled trees swaying and tossing above us as we descend, jostled by that same wind—are not they, too, caught up in something of the same mood? Not the giddiness, but the exuberant pleasure that lies beneath it, the way the wind challenges us in this season when the sap’s already been rising in our veins, testing our flexibility, waking our limbs and our limberness, goading us each into our own animal abandon, our own muscular dance?
For wind is moodiness personified, altering on a whim, recklessly transgressing the boundaries between places, between beings, between inner and outer worlds. The unruly poltergeist of our collective mental climate, wind, after all, is the ancient and ever-present source of the words spirit and psyche. It is the sacred ruach of the ancient Hebrews (the invisible “rushing-spirit” that lends its life to the visible world); it is the Latin anima, the soulful wind that animates all breathing beings (all animals); it is the Navajo Nilch’i (the Holy Wind from whence all earthly entities draw their awareness).
Indeed, whenever indigenous, tribal persons speak, often matter-of-factly, about “the spirits,” we moderns mistakenly assume, in keeping with our own impoverished sense of matter, that they’re alluding to a supernatural set of powers unrelated to the material world. We come much closer to the shadowed savvy of our indigenous sisters and brothers, however, when we recognize that the spirits they speak of have more in common with the myriad gusts, breezes, and winds that influence life in any locale—like the wind that barrels along the river at dusk, chattering the cottonwood leaves, or the mist-laden breeze that flows down from the foothills on certain mornings, and those multiple whirlwinds that swirl and rise the dust on hot summer days, and the gentle zephyr that lingers above the night grasses, and the various messenger-winds that bring us knowledge of what the neighbors are cooking this evening. Or even the small but significant gusts that slip in and out of our nostrils as we lie sleeping. We moderns pay little heed to these subtle invisibles, these elementals—indeed we tend not to notice them at all, convinced that a breeze is nothing other than a mindless jostling of molecules. Our breathing bodies know otherwise. But we will keep our bodies out of play; we will keep our thoughts aligned solely with what our complex instruments can measure. Until we have indisputable evidence to the contrary, we will assume that matter itself is utterly devoid of felt experience. In this manner we hoard and hold tight to our own awareness—like a frightened whirlwind spinning ever faster, trying to convince itself of its own autonomy, struggling to hold itself aloof from the ocean of air that surrounds it.
ON A WARM AFTERNOON, new leaves creeping out of the just-opened buds, when the apricot trees shamelessly offer their blossoms to a thousand bees, one notices a faint rumble in the air. It dissolves back into the incessant whirring of bees, until then, sometime later, a similar trembling. The tremor is more inferred than heard, a vibration noticed more by our bones and the trunks of the fruit trees than by our conscious reflections. Behind the branches, way off to the west, a darkness is massing in the sky, a vague threat on the horizon. Yet now the irregular rumble once again, more audible, ominous. The rabbits (who only recently began appearing by the road at the edge of the orchard) are sniffing the air, hesitant. And how odd; what’s become of all those bees? Now only a few stragglers are moving between the blossoms. Birdlife is more evident, several wingeds calling and swerving between the trees, expending an unusual amount of energy. Everyone here is now feeling it: the background hush that’s come over the land as the clouds thicken into a too early dusk—the rabbits ducking into their digs—a deep hush broken by the alarm call of a bird, and then a bit later by the thudding violence in the near distance. As though the sky is a skin that’s stretched taut. Everyone is finding somewhere safe and hunkering down, tremulous, waiting.
Then, quietly, a soft breeze stirs the tips of the grasses, rippling and bending the blades, perhaps a kind of pleasure spreading there among the green life, an eager anticipation very different from the threat vaguely sensed within one’s muscles and the muscles of other animals.
And then without warning the air splits open: white fire tracing an impossibly erratic path between the sky and the hills opposite, a jagged gash burning itself into one’s retinas and turning the entire landscape into a negative afterimage of itself, for an instant, before the shadowed darkness returns. Silence. And then the shattering sound of that splitting, the syncopated cracking, ripping open the world as it explodes in the skull and reverberates off the cliffs. The sound from which all other sounds must come. The Word at the origin of the world. And as the visible world settles back into itself, another bright flame rips haphazard through the gray, and soon the anticipated yet unprepared-for SHOUT!!! ruptures the air and shudders through the ground underfoot.
Nothing, no creature or stone or flake of paint on the wall, escapes the shattering imperative of the thunderbolt’s shout—the way it undoes and recreates us in a moment. No awake creature is distracted at that moment, no person remains lost in reverie or inward thought; all of us are gathered into the same electric present by the sudden violence of this exchange between the ground and the clouds, the passionate mad tension and static that reverberates through all of us in the valley this afternoon. This rage in the mind.
This passion now rising, it seems, in the branches of the ponderosas on the hillside opposite, and soon in the swaying limbs of the closer cottonwoods, and now in the roiling needles of junipers and pinyons along the dirt road—some power is moving rapidly across the valley: a tumult of wind in the branches, and now the rushing cool sound of
A FEW DROPS, at first, on my shoulder and head, as I hear it begin to pelt the soil of the orchard. And then I am taken up within the cold thicket of drops, soaking first my clothes and then the smooth-skinned creature beneath those clothes, rolling off my nose and dripping off the apricot branches to pool among the grasses, spilling down my arms and gathering in the cuffs of my jeans.
The obvious effect triggered by the rain is release—a steady, dramatic release of tension, like held-back tears finally sliding down my cheeks.
Lightning still flashes through the downpour, and the stutter of thunder, but all this water drumming on the ground and on my head eases the violence of that darker percussion, drawing attention back from the splintering tension in the sky to my own cool and shivering surfaces, to the intersecting patterns in the near puddles—returning awareness to the close-at-hand.
Minutes earlier, when the lightning first struck nearby, all attention was gripped by the present moment, yet that moment was a vast thing, opening onto the entirety of the clouded sky, including the whole lit-up span of the valley. A strong rain, however, rapidly shrinks the field of the present down to an intimate neighborhood extending only a few yards in any direction. The dense forest of droplets tumbling down all around me is not easily penetrated by my senses. Past and future seem utter abstractions, yesterday and tomorrow are far-off fictions; I am gripped in the slanting immediacy of water and mud and skin. I tilt my face upward, blinking, trying to follow individual drops as they fall toward me. Difficult. I give up and just open my mouth. The sensuous density of the present moment, and me inside it, drinking the rain.
I head into the house to peel off soaked clothes and towel myself dry. The rain beats an irregular staccato on the roof. I stand at the window, staring out. Drops slam against different points on the pane, the impact breaking them into smaller droplets that slide erratically down the glass, each droplet picking up others as it descends—every added straggler increasing the velocity of the drop, until they all pool along the bottom.
Even the interior of the house is transformed by the thrumming rain: objects seem more awake to the things around them—the table, the lamp, couch, chairs, bookcases, and books all seem to have shed their distracting ties to the world outside and are now committed citizens of this small but commodious cosmos wholly isolated from the rest of the valley. The familiar bonds that these objects have with one another and with me are all heightened, somehow, by the pounding of water on the sheltering roof and the walls.
Later, after the rain has dissipated, I open the door onto a different world—a field of glistening, shiny surfaces, of beings quietly turning their inward, protective focus back outward, as creatures poke noses out of burrows and a thrush swerves down to a puddle’s edge and then hops in to splash its wings in the wet. Everything glints and gleams, everything radiates out of itself as a thousand scents rise from the soil and the fungus-ridden trunks, from insect egg cases and last year’s leaves and the moist, matted fur of two squirrels chasing each other along the roof gutter. A tangle of essences drift and mingle in the mind of this old orchard, each of us inhaling the flavor of everyone else, yielding a mood of openness and energetic ease as the clouds begin to part and the late afternoon sun calls wisps of steam from the grass.
BUT WAIT! Are we not simply projecting our own interior mood upon the outer landscape? And so making ourselves, once again, the source and center of the earthly world, the human hub around which the rest of nature revolves?
It is a key question, necessary as a check to our ingrained arrogance, and as a way of bending our attention, always, toward the odd otherness of things—holding our thoughts open to the unexpected and sometimes unnerving shock of the real. So are we merely projecting our emotional states upon the surroundings? Well, no—not if our manner of understanding and conceptualizing our various “interior” moods was originally borrowed from the moody, capricious Earth itself. Not, that is, if our image of anger, and livid rage, has been borrowed, at least in part, from our ancestral, animal experience of thunderstorms, and from the violence of sudden lightning. Not if our sense of emotional release has been fed not only by the flow of tears but also by our experience of rainfall, and if our concept of mental clarity is fed by the visual transparence of the air and the open blue of the sky on those days of surpassingly low humidity. If our sense of inward confusion and muddledness is anciently and inextricably bound up with our outward experience of being enveloped in a fog—if our whole conceptualization of the emotional mood or “feel” of things is unavoidably entwined with metaphors of “atmospheres,” “airs,” and “climates”—then it is hardly projection to notice that it is not only human beings (and human-made spaces) that carry moods: that the living land in which we dwell, and in whose life we participate, has its own feeling-tone and style that varies throughout a day or a season.
IN TRUTH, it’s likely that our solitary sense of inwardness (our experience of an interior mindscape to which we alone have access), is born of the forgetting, or repressing, of a much more ancient interiority that was once our common birthright: the ancestral sense of the surrounding earthly cosmos as the voluminous inside of an immense Body, or Tent, or Temple. We know that for the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the vault of the sky was considered the canopy of an enormous tent held up by the mountains that rise at the boundaries of the Earth. For the Haida people, a seafaring tribe of woodcarvers and wordsmiths who still dwell on a rain-drenched archipelago of islands off the west coast of what’s now called Canada, to enter into one of their traditional cedar-plank houses was to enter and situate oneself within a living analogue of the cosmos, for the universe itself was perceived as a huge house with holes in the planks where the stars glimmered through. Similarly a Navajo hogan—the traditional dwelling of the Dineh people of the American Southwest—is experienced as a microcosm of the encompassing house of the universe.
Indeed in the absence of telescopes, some such conception of the cosmos as an immense interior or enclosure—this broad house of land and sky—seems to have been common to a large majority of human cultures, as though a sense of the interiority of the surrounding world is all but irresistible for the human creature. The cosmology of Aristotle and Ptolemy, which held sway throughout Europe up until the seventeenth century, was itself a refined instance of this same notion. It held that the universe was a nested series of concentric, crystalline, hollow spheres turning—independent of one another—around the central, solid sphere of the Earth. Each of these transparent (and hence invisible) spheres carried one of the celestial bodies on its surface as it moved. Since to the naked eye there were only seven independently moving bodies in the night sky, so in the pre-Copernican universe there were seven invisible, nested spheres variously carrying the sun, the moon, and the five visible planets, along with an eighth, outermost sphere carrying all the “fixed stars” as it turned.
There was a great intimacy to this vision of the cosmos, with its invisible but ordered spheres enveloping the Earth, cradling this world in their grand embrace. For all its complexity and observational refinement, it remained an extension of our ancestral, indigenous view of the universe as an enormous interior. And so, when Copernicus and his followers wrecked this Ptolemaic image of the cosmos, Western civilization suffered the dissolution of the last, long-standing version of that vast interior.
We can hardly imagine the visceral disorientation and sheer vertigo precipitated by that shift as, first, the concentric spheres holding the planets, and later the outermost sphere of the fixed stars, abruptly dissolved into a boundless depth. In the seventeenth century, European persons suddenly found themselves adrift in a limitless space, a pure outside. Only in the wake of this dramatic disorientation, and the attendant loss of a collective interior, did there arise the modern conception of mind as a wholly private interior, and hence of each person as an autonomous, isolated individual.
Experiential qualities once felt to be proper to the surrounding terrain—feeling-tones, moods, the animating spirits-of-place known to reside in particular wetlands and forests—all lost their home with the dissolution of the enclosing, wombish character of the pre-Copernican cosmos. Such qualities now had no place in the surrounding world, itself newly conceived as a set of objects connected by purely external, mechanical relationships: a world of quantities. Unlike quantities, qualities are fluid, mercurial realities arising from the internal, felt relations between beings. Qualities—these ephemeral and fluid powers—require at least a provisional sense of enclosure to hold them. When they could no longer be contained by the visible world (no longer encompassed and held within the curved embrace of the spheres), these ambiguous, ever-shifting qualities quit the open exteriority of the physical surroundings, taking refuge within the new interiority of each person’s “inner world.” Henceforth they would be construed as merely subjective phenomena.
Yet there remains something exceedingly tenuous in this incarceration of felt qualities within the solitary precincts inside each person. For where, really, is this “inner world”? Does it exist somewhere inside our bodies? This seems unlikely, for whenever we open up a human body we find therein only a clutch of organs and tissues just as physically measurable as the things and objects outside the body. Perhaps it resides in the brain? If we cut into the brain we discover a crowded mass of specialized cells, densely packed, with little breathing room between them. But when we speak of our “inner world,” we mean a spacious place where imagination dances and takes flight, an open field where creativity has free reign, yet where various ambiguous agencies (dimly sensed fears, tranquil yearnings, molten desires) vie for our attention, a realm with room for all kinds of adventurous forays. Clearly, then, we are referring to something other than the crammed thickness of our bodily interior. Where, really, is this expansive “inside” to which we allude, this spaciousness and depth wherein subjectively felt qualities have their home?
DESPITE A FEW THUNDERSTORMS last month, the land is dry—too dry. All around my home the pinyon pines are desiccating and dying from the deepening drought. Most of the fish once endemic to the Rio Grande that waters this broad valley have now vanished, the river’s flow usurped by too many farms, too many developments, too many golf courses. Sometimes clouds arrive, bringing hope of rain that rarely falls. Like today, a rare overcast afternoon in late spring—cloud cover stretching from the Sangre de Cristo peaks behind me to the Jemez Mountains on the western horizon, with nary a stitch of blue visible to the eye. The underside of the clouds is more defined than is common here in the high desert; the texture of that gray ceiling is unusually clear—inverted mountains and plains, with ridges and furrows tinged with purple. Here and there in the distance are areas where a wispy, feathered blur slants down toward the ground: light rains falling on the far-off earth.
It is strange, this broad overcast extending its wings like a huge bird over the whole valley. The dense topography overhead appears as palpable and solid as the ground underfoot. And so the beings I meet as I walk between these two densities—rabbit brush and sage, a red-shafted flicker testing with a few knocks the rotting shutter of an old window, a horned toad scrambling under a sapless pinyon—all seem curiously familiar today, as though they and I are co-conspirators in the same plot, vital characters in the same broad story, or spell, being chanted by these chirping crickets.
The feelings that move us—the frights and yearnings that color our days, the flights of fancy that sometimes seize us, the creativity that surges through us—all are born of the encounter and interchange between our life and the wider Life that surrounds us. They are no more ours than they are Earth’s. They blow through us, and often change us, but they are not our private possession, nor an exclusive property of our species. The mind is not ours alone, nor the imagination. With the other animals, as with the crinkled lichens and the river-carved rocks, we’re all implicated within this intimate and curiously infinite world, poised between the tactile landscape underfoot and the visible landscape overhead, between the floor and the ceiling, each of us crouching or tumbling or swooping within the same vast interior. Inside the world.