“Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree.”

4167-frauen-auf-baeumen-lr-04Collector Jochen Raiss gathered hundreds of vintage photos of women lounging in trees and recently published them in a comprehensive coffee table book called Frauen auf Baumen (in English: “women in trees”). From what I’ve seen so far, the pictures are delightful—silly and strange and happy. Obviously, I want this book.

While we’re on the topic of trees, and German folks, I found this passage by writer Hermann Hesse in which he muses on what trees can teach us:

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree… A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live. Trees have long thoughts, long—breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is.

Beautiful

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On polar bears and Barry Lopez.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 8.50.19 PMI dream about bears.

I am not sure when bears entered my subconscious in such a strange and vivid way, but they did, and I think they may be here to stay. I dream about ferocious grizzlies and playful fat black bears. I dream about big white bears with paws the size of dinner plates and hollow hair that gleams creamy-yellow in the northern sun. In my dreams, I see cubs climbing trees and sliding over the ice. I sometimes think I can smell them in my sleep; I’ve been told they smell of pinesap and animal musk. Sweet, sticky, fresh, brutal.

Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a bear. I never see these phantom bears in the woods or in any landscape when I might meet an actual bear. Once, when I was very tired and working late at Maine magazine, I thought I saw a bear descending the stairs on all fours. Of course, it was just my co-worker, bending over to pick up something he had dropped. I shook my head clear of fuzz and fur, and went back to my computer screen.

I don’t know where this fixation comes from. I never liked bears, not particularly. I always felt kinship with hares and foxes, smaller animals that leap and scurry, not big lumbering things. I was never afraid of bears, either. Not like I’m afraid of heights (that terror is illogical and visceral, something that breaks my composure entirely, turning me into a quivering puddle of metallic fear and foul-smelling sweat).

I saw a video today of a polar bear cub dreaming. I wonder if it dreams of people. I hope not. I hope it dreams of calving glaciers and frigid ice floes, of the epic sounds of its northern homescape. I hope it dreams in a palette of blue and turquoise, deep rich indigo and startling mint green—the colors of frozen water and star-lit midnight.

I am reading a most excellent book right now: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. Never have I found an author whose career I desire as much as I want his. He makes nonfiction feel as pleasurable as fiction (and that is NOT an easy task). Someday, when I’m old and grey and going over my body of work, I want it to feel like his—varied, complex, focused on nature and the natural world, brave, smart, poetic. Here’s just a tiny sample of the wisdom and beauty that flows throughout Arctic Dreams:

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Dreaming of bears and leaning into the light—one is my reality, the other, my goal. Not a bad place to be, for now.

Image: Sculpture by artist Ellen Jewett who makes “natural history surrealist sculpture.” See more here. 

Build-a-genius, go outside.

girla nd her bear

In her famous essay the Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, Edith Cobb proposed that contact with nature stimulates creativity. Reviewing the biographies of 300 “geniuses”, she exposed a common theme: intense experiences of the natural world in the middle age of childhood (between five and 12). Animals and plants, she contended, are among “the figures of speech in the rhetoric of play … which the genius in particular of later life seems to recall”.

Studies in several nations show that children’s games are more creative in green places than in concrete playgrounds. Natural spaces encourage fantasy and roleplay, reasoning and observation. The social standing of children there depends less on physical dominance, more on inventiveness and language skills. Perhaps forcing children to study so much, rather than running wild in the woods and fields, is counter-productive.

From an essay on the “second environmental crisis” in The Guardian by George Monbiot. He argues that kids these days don’t spend nearly enough time outdoors, which has caused many people to lose their desire to fight for environmental rights. It makes perfect sense—the most eco-minded folks are usually people who really like nature and spend a significant amount of time in it.

It reminds me of a piece I read earlier this year about wild words being removed from children’s dictionaries. The publishers at Oxford University Press decided that some words were more relevant to modern kid’s lives than others. What’s out? Bluebell, newt, and willow. What made the cut? Broadband, block graph, and celebrity. Ouch, right? My personal hero, Margaret Atwood, protested the change, and when someone who specializes in spookily prescient dystopian fiction warns of a dangerous societal shift, well damn, I sit up and listen.

Clouds like poems and poems like clouds.

Mammatus_clouds_in_the_Nepal_Himalayas

Unburdened by memory of any kind,
they float easily over the facts.

What on earth could they bear witness to?
They scatter whenever something happens.

Compared to clouds,
life rests on solid ground,
practically permanent, almost eternal.

Next to clouds
even a stone seems like a brother,
someone you can trust,
while they’re just distant, flighty cousins.

From “Clouds” by Winslawa Szymborska, a Nobel Prize winning Polish poet who writes beautifully about the natural world and the human heart. Read the entire poem in English or in Polish here.

The clouds shown in the image above are mammatus clouds, also known as mammatocumulus. The name comes from the Latin word mamma meaning “mother” or “breast.” Beautiful breast clouds, swinging their udders in the sky.

Also, did you know that the World Meteorological Organization has a section called “Weather reports from the future?” I’m almost afraid to click on it, because I want it so badly to be something oddly magical or slightly silly. I assume it’s about climate change—an important topic! obviously!—but I wish it were stories from a future meteorologist, sending his weather reports back in time to us, boring dispatches about the sky from an unimaginable life form.

What whale songs can tell us about art.

goofy whaleFrom a fantastic article on whale songs, this great quote (emphasis mine):

Whale song has artistic elements beyond simple communication of information. For example, since each whale theme ends with consistent final sounds, the phrases can be said to “rhyme” in a way akin to human poetry. Is such ornamental courtship behavior just an illustration of the “male quality” valued by hard-line evolutionists? Or does it show that evolution, over thousands of years, is able to produce art if there are no serious predators around?

Another interesting bit that describes graphing whale songs to find patterns by speeding up the music then assigning each tone matching colors and shapes:

Whale songs include a strange range of sounds, from the bowed bass beats of a giant sub-surface fiddle to the feedback squelches of an electric guitar. But we have trouble perceiving the structure by which the sounds are organized because the notes seem cast out in slow motion, with relatively long silences between each unit of sound. To better appreciate the patterns, we can speed a song up by ten times, allowing us to hear a compressed version… The set of shapes resembles the notation of Gregorian chants written in the tenth century.

Granted, I’m just about as likely to sit around listening to 10th Century Gegorian chants as I am to download an entire album of whale songs, but it’s still pretty freaking cool.

Image: A very goofy whale from Treasures of the Deep: a Descriptive Account of Great Fisheries and Their Products, published in London by Nelson and Sons in 1876. Found via the University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank (a great resource for lithographs and early American photographs).

Butterfly names are surprisingly awesome.

Whistler_as_a_butterflyReal names of actual butterflies found in North America (many of which would also make pretty good assassin aliases):

  1. Sara Orangetip
  2. Ruddy Daggerwing
  3. Two-barred Flasher
  4. White Checkered Skipper
  5. California Dogface
  6. Theona Checkerspot
  7. Zebra Longwing

From now on, please call me Theona Checkerspot. Thanks!

(P.S. That image above? It’s a portrait of the artist James McNeill Whistler as a butterfly. I love Whistler, partially because he seems like kind of a jerk, but an “impish” and hilarious one, kind of like Oscar Wilde, another big believer in art for art’s sake.)

How to be alive, according to Willa Cather’s grave.

georgia_okeeffe_paintingI’ve never understood why people visit the graves of famous people. I’m a very morbid person, yet this never struck me as something I wanted to do. However, I’d like to see Willa Cather’s grave, for as I recently learned, it holds a rather incredible message about happiness, life, and death. The line—”that is happiness, to be dissolved into something complete and great”—comes from her novel My Antonia. Here’s the full passage (found via Brain Pickings):

The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

Although I love the entire passage, I think my favorite part might just be: “Nothing happened.” I’m such a speedy person—impatient to my core. I frequently describe my motions in fiery terms. I burn through my work and blaze through books. I light up and burn out. I consume the world with big steps and fast motions. You know what doesn’t come naturally to me? Slowing down. Letting nothing happen. Being quiet and calm. Sleep.

I often wish I were different, that I could dissolve more easily into a moment. But perhaps that will come with time. If not, I’ll just try to keep Cather’s words in mind. At the very least, it’s a lovely way to think about death—a self disbanded, a body dispersed, a part of something entire.

Image by Georgia O’Keeffe, since the theme of the day is badass ladies of the American west, apparently. 

Star light, star bright, last star I see tonight (because light pollution is ruining everything)

To celebrate its 24th year in orbit, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has released this beautiful new image of part of NGC 2174, also known as the Monkey Head Nebula. NGC 2174 lies about 6400 light-years away in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter). Hubble previously viewed this part of the sky back in 2011 — the colourful region is filled with young stars embedded within bright wisps of cosmic gas and dust. This portion of the Monkey Head Nebula was imaged in the infrared using Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3.
These are the things I know about the night sky: I know where to find the Big Dipper. I know that the Big Dipper is also called “Ursa Major” because it is supposed to look like a large bear, though I can’t claim to ever have noticed a resemblance. I know that planets emit steady light while true stars flicker in and out (they twinkle, to use an infantile word I rather hate). I know how to find the North Star and how to spot Orion (it’s his belt, from which supposedly hangs a sword, though let’s be honest: dude’s probably not packing steel, ya hear me?).

I used to know more. I used to know the myths and legends and how to find the vain queen Cassiopeia. But that’s gone now, stuck somewhere in the weird and unreliable filing system of my memory.

I recently found myself staring at the stars and something funny happened: I got lost (or maybe more accurately: my ursine familiar was lost to me). I was camping in Canada, way up north on the coast of Cape Breton Island, in this beautiful place called Meat Cove, which seemed all the more lovely for its terrible name. In this remote place, few lights compete with the stars. There is no light pollution from cities, for there are no cities. There are few cars and fewer towns. When I looked up, I couldn’t find the Big Dipper. Orion seemed to have gone into hiding, shamed at being so easily overshadowed by the sheer wealth of stars. In many places in America, you can’t even see the Milky Way. Up there, you could see that pale, stagnant river of light. But it’s beauty was bland in comparison to the light show going on elsewhere. Night sky image “This sky makes me stupid,” I kept saying to my boyfriend. We would go for walks in the semi-dark, and I would trip over stones because my head was turned upwards. (This happens to me a lot, actually. Even city streets are more beautiful when you look at the tops of buildings and not the trash below.) One night, I sat on a rock and stared at the sky for over an hour, just looking. Just watching. Flicker, flicker, little stars.

It’s amazing to think that this experience is so rare—yet it used to be so common. A recent article in Nautilus (one of my favorite publications) profiles an astronomer named Tyler Nordgren who is working to reestablish dark spots in national parks. He wants to make it possible for everyone to get drunk on stars, to stare at the sky until they become lost in its splendor. A fellow astronomer describes the significance of Nordgren’s work in rather romantic—but wonderfully effective—terms: “It’s also one thing all of humanity has in common. It’s the same sky in the Sahara as it is over Philadelphia. It’s also the same sky as Native Americans gazed up at 10,000 years ago. People think of light pollution as an astronomer’s concern, but Tyler helps establish this broad value, that it matters to everyone.”Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 7.06.46 PM

Does it matter to everyone? Probably not. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t give too much thought to the stars until I found myself silenced by their brilliance. It took driving 15 hours away from home to a campground on the edge of an island for me to see why light pollution matters. It matters because there are so few things in the world that can truly induce awe (and so many things that induce aww but that’s a post for another time). I’m not very spiritual, but the closest thing I have to a religion comes from those strange moments of sublime wonderment, where I become very, very small and the world around me expands, like the universe is supposedly doing at all times, only at a far more rapid clip.

So, I do care. And maybe so should you.

(P.S. The image at the top of this post is from NASA. Taken by the Hubble Telescope, it shows a STAR FACTORY. Really, that’s what it’s called. How wonderful! Thousands of times better than “Meat Cove.”)

Get outside and worship in the Tree Church.

Church_front_thru_trees_resize-960x600In the past two weeks, I have gone mountain biking at Sugarloaf, hiked Bradbury Mountain, swam in three rivers and one pond, tried stand-up paddleboard yoga for the very first time, went bouldering and fell on my butt, and climbed up a slippery waterfall. I’m proud of this fact, even though it means I’ve been neglecting my blog and my books and my work. But the easiest way to recalibrate my inner system—to reset my mental state to neutral, to flip the switch from madness to sanity, to stop the centipede from whirling around my skull—is to go outside.

I won’t get weird and preachy here, but I don’t know how to say this without sounding a little too earnest. So I’ll just go ahead and keep it short: I need green things. Nature makes me whole and balanced and good. It’s my jam (friluftsliv FTW).

Tree-Church_web_front_full-colourSo naturally I fell in love with this outdoor church in New Zealand made almost entirely from living things. “After traveling the world and being a keen observer of Churches, Barry Cox decided to construct a unique Church of his own using living trees,” reads the website. Construction started in April, 2011 and now the church and garden grounds are open to visitors. You can also book it for weddings. How nice would that be?

Sadly, it’s too expensive for my nuptials (not to mention halfway around the world). But what a great idea! It reminds me of earthwork artist Olafur Eliasson’s piece at Bard, the Parliament of Reality. It’s an art installation that also functions as an outdoor gathering space, and I used to visit it often when I was in school. It’s been years; I wonder what it looks like now…

See more about the tree church here and here.