Whatever you hear from the
it wants you to carry
the sound of its truth on your lips.
David Whyte, "All My Vows"
The last few months I've done many projects about the natural world and our place in it. I've created a blog site for WolfSong Sanctuary, a refuge for wolves and wolf hybrids. I've written web content about algae, frilled lizards and whether there are quakes on Uranus. I've found out that yes, there is sodium on the Moon and that there is a vast black hole at the center of our Milky Way. In the course of all of this, I've watched NASA scientists speak reassuringly (in videos the real audience will never watch) about the reasons why Planet X would have been discovered by now, and the real meaning of the Mayan "long calendar." And I've read some truly awful writing about these topics and many others on the Web.
In the course of all of these assignments one thing has become quite clear: too many people know too little about the workings of our planet, the lifeforms on it, and the rest of the universe around us. And because they don't know, and don't really care to know, global warming engulfs the planet, and most of us carry around enough heavy metals in our bloodstream to build a small-block Chevy. (All right, that's an exaggeration, but maybe not by much.)
There's a deceptively simple cure for all of this: mindfulness. Artists and writers know it, and so do some spiritual seekers. It's not possible to know something for itself unless you step out of your assumptions and see it, as if for the first time. That kind of seeing without preconceptions allows writers to create vivid descriptions, and artists to render subjects in exquisite detail. And, as Henri Cartier-Bresson and others have written, seeing in photography creates vivid, unique images which show a viewer what they might never have otherwise seen.
Gretel Ehrlich is a multifaceted writer/documentarian whose writings on the natural world I've come to admire. Her works on the cold places of the world, This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland (2001), The Future of Ice: A Journey Into Cold (2004) and In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape (2010) blend personal narrative with scientific information in a way that can engage and enlighten anyone, even my intermediate writing students. In discussing her work, she says, "allowing the life of other beings to enter yours is an important and valuable skill for a writer and for all humans...to express something well you need to have observed the details of it so closely that the boundary between its life and yours becomes blurred."
Ehrlich's point is echoed in the world of photography. Cartier-Bresson speaks of the moment in which photographer and subject become one, united in the camera lens. Numerous writers, reflecting on their craft, mention the importance of seeing a thing clearly before it can be described for the reader. And artists such as Frederick Franck raise the same idea in speaking of drawing realistically.
You don't have to be a pro to use art as a tool for seeing mindfully and appreciating the lives we share the planet with. All it takes is looking with a new eye. Take a sketchbook with you on a walk and draw a leaf, a tree, a bird. It doesn't have to be a masterpiece, but the act will make you look carefully. Turn off the television and go outside of a spring night. Look up at the sky. Really look. Grab your camera and photograph a bug. Up close. Or keep a journal of the natural things you encounter in a morning.
The act of seeing opens eyes. And if that creates connection, allowing those other beings to enter our lives, maybe, just maybe, we'll live more gently with them on the only planet we have.
I'll be devoting more work time to these ideas in the future. See my other blog, The Natural West, for more.