Thursday, September 2, 2010
Friday, May 28, 2010
In the hour and a half it took us to walk through the woods today, about 87,500 gallons of oil poured out of BP’s ruptured Deep Horizon well into the Gulf of Mexico, and in the coming week the last Hummer H3, that arch-symbol of humanity’s earth-indifferent, oil-addicted narcissism, will roll off the assembly line -- ironically at the Shreveport, Louisiana, GM plant -- and it feels like something is about to happen, and it feels like nothing is going to change.
Everywhere in the woods are signs of insatiable hunger: Leaves notched by insects. Random paths of leaf tracers tunneled through broad leaves. Spiders crouched on webs or on top of leaves, waiting. Metallic green beetles mating and feeding.
But the hunger found in the woods is limited by need, curbed by the physical limits of jaw strength and stomach size, necessitated by biology. Human hunger is a different thing.
When all we want is more, our lives spin out of balance, out of control, and we destroy everything near us. And given the reach of our powerful technologies, everything is near us. Lao Tzu wrote, “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich.” But we distrust. We distrust, mainly, that we can maintain the ties necessary for survival, and, like a spoiled teenager, have come to hate those we depend on. Absorbed, as we are, in a society grounded in the illusion of independence, we fear our need for other people. Haunted by our fear of poverty, we impoverish ourselves even more and deepen our cravings.
The current fashionable economic model views consumers as amoral beings who make decisions based solely on rational self-interest, but there are many of us who wonder about the morality of our choices, and many of us find it more and more impossible to ignore the damage caused by our endless consuming. Many of us are coming to realize that, like the disease that shared the name, consumption is laying waste to our only planet’s body.
I hear from some people that we can’t blame BP or Transocean or any corporation for the devastation that is occurring in the Gulf, because we all use oil and, so they argue, unless we are willing to give up all use of petroleum immediately – an act which they know would be impossible to achieve – we shouldn’t complain. But an obsessive emphasis on personal responsibility, to the exclusion of larger political and social forces, is the main weapon that polluting corporations like BP use against the rest of the world. If everybody’s responsible, then nobody’s responsible, and the status quo can remain intact.
When you are alert, you can’t help but be humbled every time you walk in the woods.
Sometimes you feel dwarfed by the size and age of the trees or by the resilience of the life that persists in spite of storms and drought: spiders who quickly re-spin their webs after a rainstorm; mayapples and red chestnuts turning a blotchy yellow with their leaf tips dried and brown, and still thriving; grape vines looping from tree to tree – carrying the memory in their curves of old trees now fallen and completely rotted to earth.
Today, it is the miracle of plants drawing on the sunlight that falls freely through the forest canopy that is humbling to me. How clever are we, really, to have spun these vast webs of highways and networks that refrigerate food for the 1,500 miles it takes to carry our dinners from field to plate? Our food is soaked in the oil that is destroying human and non-human lives throughout the Gulf. Our vast webs, unlike the spider’s, take away more from the world than they give. The plants in the woods gather sun and rain to make their own energy and release only oxygen, and all of us would do well to carry this lesson with us, acknowledging our dependence on all of the life around us, and finding ways to not only sustain that life, but to help it flourish, long into the future.
“You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough,” William Blake wrote. Watching the oil geyser in the Gulf, many more of us are beginning to realize that what we are seeing is what more than enough looks like.
Words by Stephen Black
Photos by Jenn Allmon
To see more photos from May 23, please click here.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Everything is wet out here
and there are mosquitoes,
and it is always dangerous to go looking
for God in nature.
Or anywhere else.
But especially in nature.
I go seeking God
among the trees
and the teeming green,
and find mosquitoes in clouds so dense
I can aimlessly swing my hand through the air
and feel their bodies
– thick with blood,
most recently my blood –
against the palm of my hand.
Wild hydrangea flower heads are hesitating,
their white buds swollen.
Nothing else is blooming.
Everything is growing.
It seems like the only important thing
is to reach toward light.
Thick growth along the edges of the trail.
Lanky Virginia knotweed.
Slender-stemmed seed pods of wild violets.
Swelling may-apple fruits.
The spearhead-shaped leaves of Lady’s Thumbprint.
Healthy poison ivy.
So much poison ivy.
Along every step of the trail I am spotting
until I think there isn’t enough space for God
or anything else
but poison ivy
to grow out here.
Until I decide,
walking down a narrow trail,
to find smilax,
and glancing to the left,
immediately find a smilax vine,
half-hidden in a thicket of poison ivy
and it makes me think how what we are looking for
determines what we see,
and that’s not a new insight,
but I’ll take it.
It may not be the glimpse of God
I was hoping for
but I’ll take it over the mosquitoes.
And here I am supposed to say that in a flash
I’ve come to see God even in the mosquitoes,
But I haven’t.
Words by Stephen Black
Photos by Jenn Allmon
To see more photographs from May 16th, please click here.
Friday, May 14, 2010
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
I have something wrong with me when it comes to math. I can’t do it, for one thing. Present me with a mathematical problem requiring a solution and I get vertigo and can’t breathe. Vertigo at first, and then a buzzing arises in my brain, a mental tinnitus in the decibel range of, say, a jet at takeoff. And then – assuming that I’m still conscious – I give up. I give up and slump into a shamed stupor, craving with all my being the chance to read a poem or anything with letters instead of numbers so my sense of self-worth and dignity can be reasserted and restored.
It has always been this way with me.
My mother tells me that she would try to help me with my math homework when I was in elementary school, only to have both of us crying and near despair.
Inexplicably, when I was in high school, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. A friend of mine at the time was much more realistic about his abilities and chances in life, so he planned to become an astronaut. I bought twenty and thirty year old textbooks, their gray covers grubby from generations of student hands, from a library sale and actually spent some Friday and Saturday nights – teenager weekends that I will never get back – trying to teach myself astrophysics. It ended in tears and despair.
I’m thinking about this because walking through the woods these past couple of weeks has made me start thinking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and I am in no way capable of discussing any laws of physics with any pretense of authority.
But ignorance has never stopped me – or most either people, for that matter – from talking about stuff. So here goes:
But before I launch into my physics lesson, I want to talk about something I know slightly less about: Pre-Socratic Greek Philosophy. According to Democritus, “Actions always planned are never completed,” and that, along with the principle of entropy, seems like a good, if sideways, way to describe the past two walks in the woods.
A watched tree in early spring never leafs, and I have been impatient since the first day of spring for the empty tree limbs to grow green, as if every tree in the woods was hesitating only for the last second of the last degree that brings the uprighting earth’s equator in line with the center of the sun. And then the second day of spring came – and the third and fourth – and nothing new had happened and the woods began to feel like a track and field meet where for days after the starter’s gun has fired the listless runners merely adjust their shoes and run in place and stretch, and from time to time, in the middle of the track’s grassy oval, some shot putter suddenly hurls a iron ball that sputters in a low arch and lands with a muffled thud.
But that flimsy shot put analogy does an injustice to the red buckeyes whose spiky blossoms seem even more beautiful for their charitable willingness to bloom so early in the season, and to the skinny, understated pawpaw trees with their tiny wine-colored flowers.
Still, with the exception of the red buckeyes and the pawpaws, I found myself looking down, down from the empty limbs and lower than the brown and gray landscape at eyelevel and instead trace the progress of spring on the ground: among wild and wood violets, and lavender pools of jacob’s ladder and yellow swaths of wood poppy. Trillium and wild geranium.
And here I was, all set to dive off the steep cliffs of physics and talk about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, about entropy, but now that the time has come, I’ve decided to swim instead, dogpaddle really, into the placid cove of poetry.
Wallace Stevens was right when he wrote, “Death is the mother of beauty.” Imagine a world in which all the flowers that will bloom, bloom at once and year round. How often would we notice them? Probably even less that we notice the stars, constant even as they steadily wheel through the seasons.
Even the green leaves that we all love in the spring will be unnoticed a month from now – and by July, I would feel like a fool – and would probably be viewed as someone to avoid eye contact with – if I took to stopping strangers walking in the park mid-summer to point out how green everything is.
My ideas, my plans for how the woods would look in too early spring, were thwarted, and the woods’ return to visible life progressed at its own pace, indifferent to my wanting everything green right now. Democritus also stated, “The world is change; life is opinion.” And the violets and poppies and all the other wildflowers hovering low to the ground have been beautiful this spring.
And now, three weeks into spring, every living thing in the woods is leafed.
Walking through the woods these last few weeks, I have realized that it doesn’t matter what I want the woods to look like, what flowers I want to see in bloom right now. And though it is not what Democritus had in mind, I have realized that my plans for the woods, no matter how elaborate or perfect, will never be completed. The woods has its own plans, or rather its own rhythm, its own pulses, and there is wisdom in leaving behind all my notions and expectations of how things ought to be, somewhere at the forest’s edge, and wandering along its trails open and alive to what the forest can teach me about abandoning my opinions, about opening myself to its changes.
Words by Stephen Black
Photos by Jenn Allmon
To see more photos from April 4th, click here. And for April 11th, click here.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
One in four known species of animals in the world are beetles. There is a good story – and like many good stories it just might be true – that the biologist J.B.S. Haldane was once asked by a theologian what his studies in the natural world had revealed about the Creator. Haldane replied, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.”
Judging by the woods today, you could say the Creator, at least when working on certain spots in this forest, also had an inordinate fondness for mayapples.
Mayapples stand sprung up among dead leaves, in various states of unfurl, and there is something umbrella-like and tropical about their spreading leaves.
The woods are a mix of the dead and the living right now, like a braided river, the brown and bare swath of winter’s main channel threaded by the green of tiny leaves and first shoots.
Thoreau wrote, "Nature never makes haste; her systems revolve at an even pace. The bud swells imperceptibly, without hurry or confusion, as though the short spring days were an eternity. All her operations seem separately for the time, the single object for which all things tarry. Why, then, should man hasten as if anything less than eternity were allotted for the least deed?”
Seasons may be governed from above, by the angled sun, but spring moves from the ground up. To see the spring on these first days of spring, you have to look down.
Down at the first wildflowers emerging through the leaf litter. Wood Poppies. Trillium. Cutleaf Toothwort. Wood Violets.
And up a little higher at the uncurling Red Buckeye leaves and swelling leaf buds on thin limbs.
The other morning I heard a mockingbird outside my window at four in the morning, an eternity of spring saturating his voice.
Words by Stephen Black
Pictures by Jenn Allmon
More pictures from March 20th can be found here, and March 28th pictures can be found here.