Monthly Archives: August 2010

Change by Necessity or Faith

“Sometimes … reaching your Element requires devising creative solutions to strong limitations.  Sometimes … it means maintaining a vision in the face of vicious resistance.  And sometimes … it means walking away from  the life you’ve known to find an environment more suited to your growth.

“Ultimately, the question is always going to be, ‘What price are you willing to pay?’  The rewards of the Element are considerable, but reaping these rewards may mean pushing back against some stiff opposition.”

Sir Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Viking, p155.

Not just throw-away advice, it seems to me, although, unfortunately it has the ring of platitude.  In fact, I think all great advances, in whatever field and whatever context, were revolutionary – tending to turn things around or upside down, demanding sacrifices and causing anxiety.

What’s deceptive about Sir Ken’s words, what seems platitudinous is how easy it is to accept in hindsight.  The “of course” factor is huge, as it is in all platitudes.  But there is no “of course” when you are turning your world upside down, swimming up stream, making sacrifices, and causing anxiety.  There is no “of course” in the moment.  Still, that is what people tend to say.  “Of course, it was hard.  Of course, there were sacrifices.  That is part of the deal.”  But that belies the severity, the pain, and the difficulty experienced.  The great and noble stories unto myths we pass around the family of relatives who gave up everything to follow a dream, uprooted their families to reinvent their lives, faced the fear of failure for the chance to greater success, don’t include the reality of the pain, don’t allow the experience of the anxiety and the difficulty.  What we experience in stories like that is the the inspiration and the success.  As if the price paid for change is somehow a little less relevant.

And it is so much easier to go with the flow, to make lemonade, to take it easy.  But those aren’t the stories we tell.  The story of uncle so-and-so who “was never particularly satisfied with his lot in life, but he made it work.  Day in and day out he just got along, kept on.  Sure, somewhere deep down he had something like passion, a dream that he always said he couldn’t remember, but what he was really good at was going with the flow, taking it easy, playing it safe.”  We don’t tell that story – because success depends on adversity.

Weird, eh?  Why should that be?

And great advances are always perpetrated out of necessity, not luxury or privilege.  It is too hard to swim upstream – unless you have to, unless there is no other option.  Think of pacific salmon that die after struggling to invent the next generation.  (And listen to the inspiration in that: struggling to invent the next generation.  It gives you chills.  But I wonder whether if the salmon had a choice, they still do it?  Would they still swim up stream?)

Looking back we say it was all worth it, but in the moment, how can we know?  We can’t.  In the moment, we trust.  Change requires either necessity or faith – which is belief without support, believing in something despite the evidence (not purposefully believing in something that is contradicted by evidence – some people do that and that practice is perverse.)  But, you don’t always need evidence to know something is true.  Or right.  Or apt.  Or necessary.  That’s intuition.  And as the poet Rumi says, “There are many ways of knowing.”

A Landscape of Sound

These Eastern Woods, pine and hemlock, maple and birch, are a place of sound.  I am habituated to depend on my eyes – as are most of us, I believe – but this place is so full of ambient sound that if I were deprived of my sight, somehow prevented from sensing with my eyes, I feel sure this place would come alive for me through sound.

In fact, I have found, puttering around this stout cabin, these shady lands, that in this place hearing is more keen than eyesight.  How often I have heard a whistling birdsong or the echoing knock of a woodpecker – and not seen its maker!  When I can’t see, I can still know.

Two days ago an enormous crack split the woods, a precipitous sound both startling and exciting.  I was inside but I heard it plainly.  Then, following close, the wrenching sound of falling, the breaking of branches and the upheaval of earth.  It all culminated in a booming thump and crash that seemed to roll through the woods like thunder, lingering in the air and falling off slowly.  The lasting reverberations I felt more than heard.

(When a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound.  Be sure of that.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.)

My first thought was of the kids and I hurried out to the front porch.  I didn’t know where they were at that moment and for all their scampering and knocking about in the woods, I thought it could have been them pushing over a tree. (!)  An absurd thought it was and easily dispelled.  The kids, of course, were safely perched on their favorite boulder and just as rapt by the sound as I.  They sat there, all three, frozen where they had been when the first crack sounded, staring off through the timber with wide eyes.

“Did you see it?” I called to them.

They hadn’t.  “It was over there!”  They all pointed.

“What was it?” my youngest said.

The instinct to look for what one hears is not mysterious.  With just a few notions – evolution, self preservation, natural selection – it is easy to see, so to speak, why we do it.

But much goes on in the woods that I hear and never see, and my world, the suburban world of career and commute, is seldom so invisible.  It is disconcerting at first to be so suddenly reacquainted with the significance of sound.  But it is a necessary upset.  It is disconcerting in the way one knows one needs to be disconcerted, a healthy kind of growth.

It is like recovering from an injury I didn’t know I had sustained, learning to hear again.  I didn’t know, wasn’t aware, that I was slowly going deaf.  Like seeing through prescription lenses for the first time – I hadn’t known what I wasn’t seeing.

Ultimately, the desire to see is too strong, the spectacle is irresistible.  Later that afternoon, we all went to investigate the epicenter.  A large white birch, having grown over the years on a bending angle in search of light, now lay in an awkward sprawl across the road to the upper header.  It had taken with it two other trees, both small hemlocks.  We stood and surveyed the scene.  The ground uphill where the tree had stood and the roots had broken was a chaos, like a bomb crater, stones and soil, moss and roots still hanging in the air.  The heavy trunk lay where it had landed, ponderously inert in the deep rut it tore in the ground.  You could almost hear the reverberant thud all over again.

“Wow!” my youngest said.  It was all any of us could say.

The acoustics of this sylvan venue, this landscape of sound, are astounding, enviable for any theatre, lecture hall, or symphony space – because the woods are, of course, all of those things.  But the imagination is always second to the real thing.  A live encounter always requires actually being there.

A Place in the Forest

Early morning in the Adirondack woods – north of Albany, just inside the park.  The forest is of hemlock here, mostly, and white pine.  There are birches, white and black, beech, red oak, basswood, and maples.  Their leafy branches are more noticeable, more conspicuous than the needled foliage, and one would tend to call this forest deciduous.

But it is not.

Those whose habits are in walking the woods, those who watch the trees and come to know how each individual grows, know different.  The tallest and straightest trunks in every direction are evergreen.

The light from the east has not yet penetrated the stands of timber that surround our little house, though it is quite light by now.  In the growing ambient illumination, the hues of green intensify, vary, and the forest deepens as lighter shades of green appear beyond others in long views through holes in the foliage.  The forest is waking up, and the color comes on, grows as things in the forest begin.

The air is still still, though just barely, and the mist that took all night to gather still hangs in the trees, though not for long.  It is not like the fog where I come from that lays in thick sheets, condenses, and drips from eucalyptus branches.  This is a true mist, gossamer, subtle and immaterial, like an ambient quality to the air, a characteristic of atmosphere more than a presence.  So thin you have to ask yourself if it is really there.  Maybe your glasses just need cleaning or you still need to shake off your sleep.  No matter.  As soon as the sun needles its way low through the trees and lights on branches, it will be gone, dissolved back into the fabric of the air, the forest itself shaking off its own sleep, the torpor of the night.

I see it now, through the mist that rises from my mug of coffee, the first bright rays of sun.  It will all begin in moment.  My wife will be up and padding in for coffee, the kids will rise not long after that, and my attention will be needed elsewhere.  But for now, I am here, witnessing the advent of day in the northern woods.  And I feel lucky.  The sun’s rays for now newly shine through the leafy and needled canopy.  But in a moment, that too will be gone.  There are clouds in the sky today, perhaps showers are in store, and the sun will likely be periodic at best.

Sitting here in the slow waking, I feel myself blending.  The boundaries blur and what separates me from the world of trees and rocks and flowing water grows thin.  Couldn’t I just stay here?  Blend in?  Grow wild and lean with original energy?  Maybe I would grow hair, become long in tooth and claw.

That temptation is always there for me in places like this, calling from somewhere pure and permanent.  The instructions to blend are written indelibly in me – I suspect in all of us – and this place feels like my first home.

But I am not wild, not only wild, that is.  I am not wholly wild like that chipmunk, not merely wily like the trout in the stream or the coyotes I heard through the dark last night.  And I am not solely dependent on my wits to survive.  I am a creature of comfort and society.  My fate lies in the company of people, in love and language and thoughts and plans.

But here, for a time, I am closer to original being.

It is not hard to feel.  Give yourself moments of quiet to watch what goes on around you in wild places and you feel it seep into you – the immensity of what we are living, the indifference of nature that takes care of you not for love or obligation, but because somewhere underneath the routines of career and commute, you still know how to live in harmony with nature and nature’s laws.

It is permanent, inscribed where you cannot erase it, your place in the world.