Conventional wisdom suggests that reading to your children benefits them in myriad ways: it stimulates language and learning centers of the brain, creates a bond between parents and children, and emphasizes the value of books and reading. I recently learned that this practice is beneficial from birth, even before the infant can truly discriminate sounds. Further, it doesn't matter so much what you read, because just the act of reading aloud works on the areas of bonding and stimulates brain development. Given this, I made an unconventional choice while reading to my three-week old son, choosing portions of Wendell Berry and the Given Life, the recent book by Ragan Sutterfield. Choosing to read aloud forced me, as one might expect, to go a little slower, but I'm not sure that Berry (or Sutterfield) would recommend anything less.Read More
Filtering by Tag: Nature
Caesar. What say the augurers?
Servant. They would not have you to stir forth to-day. Plucking the entrails of an offering forth, They could not find a heart within the beast.
Compared to freshman year’s Romeo and Juliet, I loved sophomore year’s Julius Caesar. I loved all the weirdness, from the lioness whelping in the streets to the slave with the burning hand to dreams of bathing in blood. Then, all that oratory stirring up men to mad revenge—it was almost enough to make politics cool.
But it was the whelping lioness—love that word, whelping—and the stormy weather and the crazy birds that I really loved. The idea that all of nature was in tumult along with the ruling classes of Rome made nature and culture all of a piece, and I liked that idea.
Pivotal in this all-of-a-piece world were the augurers, or haruspex, priestly types that read nature via the entrails of animals in order to prophesy the future and test the will of the gods. It was a strange type of priesthood, so extremely earthy.
I began my own foray into entrails—so says the master haruspex to the apprentice—via the fish we caught when I was a kid. After filleting the larger game fish, Dad would slit the stomachs to find what else the fish had been eating, usually various sorts of smaller fish that were intact enough so we could tell what they were, minnows or perch mainly.
Now, with my own kids, the stomach-check has become such a highlight that they request it even before I begin. It’s maybe a little creepy, but over the years we’ve found a pretty interesting array in the stomachs of northern pike: the usual minnows or perch, but also crayfish and frogs—once five entire frogs—and another time something with fur. Now, we’re even checking the stomachs of sunfish where we have found snails and dragonfly larvae.
Of course, real fishermen do this sort of work to understand how to better catch fish: what are the fish in a given lake feeding on and how well? Then there’s the larger story of the lake: how well is the food chain working? The larger story yet is that of the canary in the coalmine: what is disappearing from the food chain and what does that tell us about how sick we are?
Which brings me back to Caesar’s augurers, those improbable butcher-priests, looking down to look up, who could not find a heart in an ox. Recently, as I filleted a pike, my son asked where the heart was; the meat was already slid off and in a pan; the stomach was checked, empty; I reached in and found the heart, held it out slightly to show them, a tiny little rubbery muscle slightly smaller than a marble.
It beat, throbbing between my fingers, startling me, sending a shiver down my spine.
If it was an omen, it was an omen of life, and it made me feel small, there in the twilight, the world all of a piece.
If I can see a tree outside my bedroom window, blood flow to my brain will be different than if I was looking at a view without vegetation. Right now, I have a rectangular perspective of deciduous trees and evergreens making their home next to sidewalks and steep neighborhood staircases. The Italian restaurant across the street is shaded by bare-branched trees adorned in twinkle lights. I have lived in Seattle, Washington, for four years, the most urban place I have ever called home. Wildness and development exist as two tangled lovers, bound by each other’s bodies. I came from Arkansas, and there was a forest in my backyard. I went to the woods as often as I could.
Nature is unscripted. There are no directors, writers, artists, activists, scientists, or programmers predetermining my experience. No one is cuing or staging events. I get to be surprised on nature’s terms, and with thousands of variables at play, the possibilities are limitless. In Seattle, this means a sea gull suddenly appears. Occasionally, a bald eagle will soar. I wonder about the village life of microorganisms dwelling in the rosemary bush that Chef Paul uses for his pasta dishes.
On clear days, I can see beyond the Italian restaurant and the undulating Seattle neighborhoods, all the way to Puget Sound and the Olympic mountains. Though I have never penetrated the heart of its wildness, glimpsing the glacial-capped mountains from my home perch offers its own kind of exhilaration. I know there are six species of shrews and four species of bats. There are flying squirrels, marmots, and Pacific jumping mice. Wolves and black bears, elk and porcupines and cougars are living somewhere in the folds of the land I see from my living room window. River otters share territory with both the spotted and the striped skunk. And those are just a handful of the mammals. Amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, birds, and marine animals breathe the same air. There are six kinds of salamanders, four kinds of frogs, one toad, and one newt, the rough-skinned variety.
Yes, humans are part of nature. And, humans are influencing nature in terrifying ways. And yes, there are no longer any places on the planet untouched by anthropomorphic choices. We’ve altered the chemistry of the atmosphere after all. But still, I know that walking through my childhood forest is vastly different from using a painting or sketching app on an electronically-intelligent, handheld device. The toolbox on the iPad was decided for the “user” by someone else. The forest’s toolbox is up to your own imagination. You may decide the forest is a place for solitude, reflection, adventure, or escape. It may be a place to play, learn, draw, plant, crawl, climb, cry, laugh, or pretend. There is medicine. There is food. There is sanctuary. There are tools and potential tools. There is paint and clay. There are nuts and crystals and vines. There are bones and long branches dotted in lichen hamlets. All in the forest. All free.
The forest is not framed as a box. It did not arrive in a box. Imperfect spirals and curves and edges separate one thing from another. Nature lives and breathes. Smartphones are not vital organs. Swamps are the lungs of the Earth.
Though it’s possible to reduce ecological processes to precise scientific explanations, nature is miraculous just as human life is miraculous. It is no wonder I secretly hope trees may speak a human language. Or maybe the trees strain for us to hear them. The skin of the Earth and all the wild things thriving from its body are the souls keeping us alive, holding us, sheltering our sanity, giving us hope and inspiration to be more than users. We are creators. We are imagineers in ways most opposite to Disney’s brand of employment.
And here I am, writing this missive on my MacBook Air, created by a wildly imaginative person who loved art and calligraphy and beauty. I am listening to music on iTunes. It is an instrumental piece titled Become Ocean. I gaze at trees and buildings framed by 90-degree angles. The music calms and transports me away from the gray dark winter of Seattle. Given these ironies, I still know with all that I am that walking through the woods gives my heart delight unlike any cyber-styled comfort. No, delight is not a correct description. The euphoria of breathing without worry for what may happen, knowing something exquisite could transpire at any moment and a shimmering wave of endorphins will sparkle through the body—that’s the feeling. That’s the surprise I long for amidst the predetermined criteria of computer-generated beauty. Give me a fungus-infested tree over a perfect sequence of Fibonacci numbers, which produce the ideal pixelated tree. I want the freedom to not understand everything. My body needs mystery and mistakes.
When You send out Your
breath, life is created,
and the face of the earth is made beautiful and is
- Psalm 104:30 (The Voice)
I once had the words "To Lucy" embroidered on a notepad for a friend's birthday. He's been a lifelong fan of Narnia, so I had the salutation stitched on the book to inspire the childlike wonder, receptivity to beauty, and spiritual heroism of Lucy Pevensie in his own writing.
I had mostly forgotten about that notebook until I recently returned to the Romantic poets, specifically Wordsworth. While reading the Lucy poems, I was reminded of the embroidered name and began thinking about what was to be learned from the Lucy of Wordsworth's poems.
In the fourth Lucy poem, “Three Years She Grew," Nature recognizes something extraordinary in the small rural and solitary child named Lucy. In the first three stanzas, Nature speaks of how she will instruct the tender child in the ways of glee, gentle grace, and sympathy. Nature says that she will teach Lucy about the sportiveness of the fawn and the tranquility of insensate, or inanimate, things. Through her relationship with Nature, Lucy will acquire the "state of floating clouds" and be shaped by grace through sympathetic storm watching. By submitting herself to Nature's guidance, she'll learn to be attentive enough to recognize and admire the dimmest of midnight stars and tune her ear to the obscure and quiet places where rivulets murmur and brooks make gentle whisperings. What’s more, her internal receptivity to beauty will be mirrored in external loveliness, for “beauty born of murmuring sound/ shall pass into her face.”
And then, there it is. The first three lines of stanza six and I am truly stilled.
And vital feelings of delight
Shall rear her form to stately height,
Her virgin bosom swell
In Wordsworth, it is in "vital feelings of delight" that Lucy is brought to the "stately height" of true and admirable maturity. And, I too am reminded of the fruit of living in wonder and delight as Lucy does; I wish to daily live in the maturing gratitude that "the land is satisfied by the fruit of His work," as the Psalmist says (104:13). And while my notion of Nature may be closer to St Francis’ (the patron saint of ecology) “Sister Nature” than Wordsworth’s “Mother Nature,” I still wonder if Lucy could be an exemplar of the reciprocal relationship of ministry our Creator has set up between us and the natural world. As we, in following our Father’s example, minister to Nature through attention and care, Nature, through God's bounty, ministers to us.