Places are alive. Setting, not merely a dull backdrop, is a topic near to my heart as a writer and as one who recognizes herself as a natural human animal. (And make no mistake, “animal” ought to be a title of honor and pride.) Much of my professional background is in the outdoor education field of “deep nature connection” and the “re-wilding” movement of reconnecting people to our natural environments. It is an educational movement based in loving the aliveness of a world shared with other members of the kingdom of life on earth. This is my starting place for so much of what I feel and do professionally, and it continues to mature in me over the years while influencing my relationship to writing especially.
One of the most important lessons I learned early on in my own nature-based education (unlearning and relearning) is about “the wall of green”. That is the feeling of disconnect, bewilderment, ignorance and fear that many modern humans feel when confronted with a forest or any other natural environment not walled in with four corners and a thermostat set to 70 degrees all year long. I remember it being absolutely overwhelming at first, until, by a slow and gentle establishing of relationship, the “wall” of green disappeared, and I realized I knew the names, and more importantly the distinct personalities, of many of the “plant people” and “animal people” who before had all looked the same. Seeing the natural world in this new way, I was disturbed by my own ignorance. Now I knew the difference between a Western Redcedar, the famous Mother Tree and Tree of Life of the Pacific North-West which provides medicinal tea and valuable building materials, as compared to a Sitka Spruce, an equally beautiful tree whose needled branches taste like candied mint when covered in ice but whose same needles can be extremely painful to grab or step on indelicately! So many species became alive to me: my eyes were opened, and I knew I could never see the living land as merely a passive, mechanical, impersonal “setting” or “backdrop” which only existed as a pretty, disposable decoration for more ostensibly important (and arrogant) exclusively human drama.
This massive paradigm shift has affected me profoundly, and in this I cannot even approach writing itself as a disembodied subject. The aliveness of the land, a being with a relational, lovable, even conscious personality all her own, will always be an important character in the writing process, as it deserves to be. I suspect that this will continue to make a strong mark on my developing career as a writer and obviously influence which subjects feel attractive to spend my time writing about.
And neither is an experience in nature-based education all sweetness and light. Many adult initiates go through an intense cathartic inner turmoil, a “dark night of the soul”, where we come to peace with the unavoidably harsh, violent, and deadly aspects of nature which live in our own human psyches. We find we become more creative, more aware of these primal forces, and we find healthy outlets are honoring them. We may come to honor our newfound awareness of our own edgier natures by channeling physical aggression through more exercise or sports, taking responsibility for our meat-eating by learning the bloody work of how to harvest an animal body on a farm, or enjoying the gothic literary genre and contemplating our own limited lifespans. Indeed, all of these are places, too: states of being expressed in the pitch-black of a forest at night, the strangely soothing beauty of a graveyard, a broken-down part of town that glimmers with a mutinous danger. All all these, also, are nature. Having contact with the magic of places and the night-side of nature provides much creative juice to an ecologically-minded creative writer.
Now I live in a more urban area again, several years after that initial introduction to an indigenous mode of learning about Place. After several transformative years of living rurally surrounded by forests, it was at first a difficult transition “back” in many ways. Yet I chose to accept this new chapter with confidence that nature is still present in the cities, and the aliveness of the world around us comes to aid all of us, even in an urban setting. The movement of the city trees in the sunlight echoes the same effect of a woodland cathedral. We must love and rehabilitate even our urban environments in fiercely creative and regenerative ways, honoring them as not separate from the rest of the earth. We recognize their capability of hosting the same natural magic as the wild places, albeit with more urban flare. The spirit of Place is alive and magical, wherever it is.
Many wild animals have adapted to urban environments and bring their old magic to visit us. Crow, Fox, Coyote, Squirrel, Raccoon, Thrush, Jay, Bobcat, Lark, Butterfly and so many of the Insect Nation, occasionally Deer and even Eagle I know are near me, hiding just beyond or above the concrete sidewalks. There is a beautiful Bald Eagle who nests on a lamp post above highway 520 on the Seattle side facing Bellevue, signifying a threshold between the riparian marshes of the sea-sound and my species’ metal towers. This interconnected aliveness which calls out to us, involving our human-animal selves in their subtle web of life, cannot be disconnected from the writing of a writer who is aware of these relationships.
There is a poem that comes to mind, by Lisel Mueller, about not being able to go back to old ways after having experienced a new yet societally unrecognized way of being. The poem, called Monet Refuses the Operation, is about the impressionist painter Claude Monet’s refusal to have cataract surgery on his eyes so that he can see “correctly” again, because he valued what others called his “disability” of cataracts as a gift that allowed him to see all the world blending together in beauty, as his paintings revealed. Though I certainly don’t consider my re-wilding experience to be in any way a disability, the parallel holds symbolically in the line, “I will not return to a universe of objects that don’t know each other…” There is a poem that comes to mind, by Lisel Mueller, about not being able to go back to old ways after having experienced a new yet societally unrecognized way of being. The poem, Monet Refuses the Operation, is about the impressionist painter Claude Monet’s refusal to have cataract surgery on his eyes so that he can see “correctly” again, because he valued what others called his “disability” of cataracts as a gift that allowed him to see all the world blending together in beauty, as his paintings revealed. Though I certainly don’t consider my re-wilding experience to be in any way a disability, the parallel holds symbolically in the line, “I will not return to a universe of objects that don’t know each other…” I am happy to explain to people why setting is not just a lifeless thing in the background, but instead is a character as much a part of a story as an animal.
Below is a link to that poem. May it inspire us to see differently, unafraid to see the magic of setting, even in our own lives, with new eyes.
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
Source: Lisel Mueller, “Monet Refuses the Operation” from Second Language. © 1996 Lisel Mueller. Louisiana State University Press.