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Being in Nature

I have a Twitter account but, far from engaging in embittered political crosstalk, I enjoy it for some weird little hobbies. I am on a “Mudlark” feed, for example, that shows me pictures of interesting historical items dug out of the thick Thames mud at London’s low tides; I hear from a number of British nature sites about the flora and fauna of fens and bogs in East Anglia; and I follow a couple of artists whose work grabs me by the middle.

Among these is a Welsh painter named Jackie Morris, who, when she discovered that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has dropped words like newt, acorn, bluebell, dandelion, heron, otter and wren  to make room for terms like blog and voicemail, dedicated a painting to each linguistically  banished object. The result was  The Lost Words,   which has taken UK classrooms by storm and launched a movement to “re-wild” childhood.

These stunning paintings illustrate poems and spells by Robert Macfarlane, who, my twitter feed tells me, is perhaps the best nature writer in England today. Which sent me, of course, haring off after his books until I got my hands on Landmarks for some absorbing summer reading.

This is a book about the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. In his first chapter, he describes the twentieth century nature writer Nan Shepherd’s lifelong love for the area and how, in her lifetime of exploration and terrific climbs, she found them “’not of myself, but in myself,’” experiencing a profound sense, as Macfarlane puts it,  of “the inter-animating relationship of mind and matter.”

“While half asleep on the plutonic granite of the plateau she feels herself become stone-like, ‘rooted far down in their immobility’, metamorphosed by the igneous rocks into a new mineral self. Shepherd is a fierce see-er, then, and like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence.”66

An empiricist arriving at mysticism through immanence? And why does this series of abstractions, which probably leave you cold, fill me from head to toe with recognition?

Let’s start with some definitions

Empiricism:   Most of my friends are secular humanists, and this is where they come from: all of our knowledge derives from observation of what is going on in the material world and from applying the scientific method by proposing hypotheses and validating them by experiment.

Mysticism: This is where I am coming from. In the Gospel of Thomas, one of the 14 alternate Gospels declared heretical by the early church, Jesus locates the kingdom of heaven within creation, which includes the human individual and natural objects: “split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.” While official Christianity rejected materiality, declaring  human beings existentially flawed while valuing only what was  super-natural, mystics through the ages have continued to seek God in nature.

Immanentism: The belief that the world is pervaded with divinity. Or, as Spinoza put it, “God is nature.”

All right, but why does all of this move me through and through? Through and through is the point, here. One morning last week I was leaving Frankfort, Michigan on my way home from errands when I had a whim to take a walk along the Betsie Bay lagoon. 

The Path along the Betsie Bay Lagoon

That late in the morning, I doubted there would be any birds to see, but I took my binocs anyway and entered a path where willows shimmered in a light wind off the bay and the air was redolent with honeysuckle. Cedar Waxwings were dipping and swooping in and out of a grove of sumacs heavy with dried berries; a Warbling Vireo (a little grey and brown bird which I rarely catch sight of among the high canopy) was warbling away in plain sight; a Vesper Sparrow was sitting on a low branch, while within the sweetness of the honeysuckle a Yellow Warbler sang “Sweet, sweet – I’m so sweet,” a Common Yellowthroat called imperiously to declare his nesting rights among the reeds, and a House Wren hopped along the fence in full throat, like a bubbling little wooden waterfall.

Did I mention that I have been quite anxious lately, getting my knickers all in a twist over family worries  and my own ego dramas? All of that dissolved entirely away as I was seized from head to toe by the sight and sound, wind and fragrance I was experiencing then, on that path,  in that particular moment.

Did I “loose myself” in nature? No, I was right there in heart and in body and in mind,  profoundly embedded in nature as I took my place in paradise with bird and breeze, warmth and melody, mere element of rather than imperious thinker about a natural world shot through and through with divinity. 

Red Bees, Blue Bees

Red Bees

Henry David Thoreau felt that he would become “the laughing stock of the scientific community” if he tried to tell them what “branch of science” he pursued, because they would have no use for the philosophical (specifically, transcendental) basis of his observations. He was convinced that humans are not superior to the material world but endowed with the same spirit; his passion for nature had to do with the feeling of wholeness it instilled in him as a participant in rather than an outside observer of natural phenomena:

“I keep out of doors for the sake of the mineral, vegetable, and animal in me,” he wrote on November 4, 1852. “My thought is a part of the meaning of the world, and hence I use a part of the world as a symbol to express my thought.” (The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1836-1861 The New York Review Books and Classics).

His refusal to hold himself apart from nature did not prevent Thoreau from using the scientific method in his observations, taking detailed notes on natural objects and devising experiments to understand them better in order to arrive at viable hypotheses. That is what he and some  friends were up to in September of 1852, trying to figure out how honey bees went about their business:

“We were furnished with little boxes of red, blue, green, yellow, and white paint, in dry powder, and with a stick we sprinkled a little of the red powder on the back of one while he was feeding — gave him a little dab,— and it settled down amid the fuzz of his back and gave him a distinct red jacket.

He went off like most of them toward some hives about three quarters of a mile distant, and we observed by the watch the time of his departure. In just twenty-two minutes red jacket came back, with enough of the powder still on his back to mark him plainly.

He may have gone more than three quarters of a mile. At any rate, he had a head wind to contend with while laden. They fly swiftly and surely to their nests, never resting by the way, and I was surprised—though I had been informed of it—at the distance to which the village bees go for flowers.

The rambler in the most remote woods and pastures little thinks that the bees which are humming so industriously on the rare wild flowers he is plucking for his herbarium, in some out-of-the-way nook, are, like himself, ramblers from the village, perhaps from his own yard, come to get their honey for his hives.”

Honey Bee Endangerment

Alas and alack, these are the very bees that human civilization, which Thoreau so distrusted, has endangered under the belief that we can do anything we want to nature without suffering such consequences as the  “colony collapse disorder” now decimating the bees upon which our agricultural depends:  10 million North American bee hives died off between 2007 and 2013 ”from “a combination of agricultural chemicals, diseases, parasites and stress.”

Nonetheless, every time I step out into my modest flower garden on a sunny day there are bees everywhere and of all different sizes,   tiny bees in the tiny flowers, medium sized bees in the medium sized flowers, and bumblebees rummaging around in the hibiscus. Then, being a transcendentalist myself, my ego vanishes into the sunshine and I feel myself, as did Wordsworth, part of “something far more deeply interfused” than my day to day chores.

Although some larger wild bees like the bumble bee are also in distress these days, many smaller wild bees that are native to our countryside seem to be doing quite well, and one of those is the Blue Bee frequenting the blooms of almonds and fruit trees in our national’s orchards.

 
Blue Bees to the Rescue

The United States Department of Agriculture informs us that “In recent years, the blue orchard bee (BOB) has become established as an alternative orchard pollinator in North America. With a strong preference for fruit trees, BOBs are highly efficient pollinators; in fact, just 250-300 females will pollinate an entire acre of apples or cherries.  BOBs forage and pollinate under cloudy skies and at lower temperatures than most other bees.  They are easy to manage and rarely sting.”

Farmers trying to manage Blue Bees quickly learned that they are much more Thoreauvian in their love of autonomy than the more social imported Honey Bees. Here is they are instructed on:modernfarmer.com:

“Blue orchard bees might be efficient pollinators, but they’re terrible employees.

What makes blue orchard bees enticing to farmers, aside from the fact that they’re inherently cool and native to this country, is that they’re actually much more efficient pollinators than honey bees. This is partly as a result of their solitary nature and partly a result of the fact that they collect pollen with their abdomens, rather than their legs, which is what honey bees do; BOBs perform this goofy sort of swimming motion within the flower to get pollen to stick to them. This swimming motion is really great for spreading pollen from one plant to another, if not quite as great for actually collecting pollen to give to their broods”

If, like Thoreau, the farmers had painted their Blue Bees red, they would not have observed them returning to village hives but, as he to his beloved Walden, to autonomous little dwellings – holes in the ground, actually – more suitable to their distaste for bee socialization and theirlove of solitude

And so it is that modern farmers have learned to poke Blue Bee larvae into the ground near their orchards or to bury carefully measured little tubes here and there where mother bees can lay their eggs in the solitude they so cherish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Our Darkest Hour

Now the dark is upon us. The late afternoons are suddenly devoid of light, plunging our spirits into an ancient human fear that the sun will never return.

Our national world  plunges into a deeper and deeper darkness; the lights of democracy flicker. The movie we go to see on a lowering winter afternoon, Darkest Hour, echoes our dread exactly. We tend to forget how dim English hopes were in1940, when, the politicians wanting a “peace agreement” with Hitler having very nearly forced Winston Churchill to abandon all resistance, invasion by the Nazis seemed inevitable.

Most Republicans have struck an agreement with an American President who, in tones unnervingly similar to Hitler’s,  thunders  his misogyny, racial supremacy, homophobic and anti-immigrant tirades down upon us while ecstatically applauded by thousands of followers.

Many of us, following Robert Reich’s Churchillian refusal to normalize the tyrannical features of this presidency for a single moment, have thrown ourselves into political resistance.  Nevertheless, several of my women, LGBT, progressive and Jewish friends have found the dread darkness of our time so unnerving that they have actually sunk into depression.

Like many of our ancestors, when the darkest nights of the year fall upon us, we feel a profound need for light.   We set candles on our windowsills, challenge the night with outdoor illumination, and string our Christmas trees all about  with brightness, hoping in our feeble way to turn the darkness into light.

The Celtic peoples believed that the world was created out of a vast outer darkness, which, when the light of creation shone forth, was never absolute again.

Toward the end of Fly Out of the Darkness, the second novel in my Infinite Games series,  the world of my Marshlanders  was as dark as ours is now, everyone feeling puny and weak before the forces of an engulfing evil.  From somewhere in my imagination a character named Father Robin had emerged, a priest of the banished old (Catholic) religion (I don’t know how he got into my novels; one day he was just there). At the midwinter solstice, the darkest night of the year, as my heroes prepare for a final engagement with their enemies, this wispy old priest mounts a wooden box to preach his last sermon.

“Fear not evil,” the ordinarily soft spoken little man shouted forth suddenly. “The universe is luminous with good. There was only one utter darkness, and only that one time, into which the light poured that is all around us, even to this day.

I am not denying that evil can touch us, and mark us, and wound us, and even kill us.

What I am saying is that evil is a shadow, and a shadow is always cast by a light. If you crouch in a shadow, you are holding yourself back from the light that casts it.

That brightness does not shine from afar, it shines from within. The light of the world is in you and in me and in the heart of our beloved community!”

Have courage, friends.  Light your candles in every window, so that we can find each other to go forth together in courage and fortitude to combat the darkness. 

With wishes for a blessed solstice to all.   Annis Pratt

October

The Prairie Fellowship, a beloved Unitarian community that provided me in anchor in my peripatetic years, used to spend a weekend every October in the Wisconsin Dells. One year I was asked to read autumn poems out of doors and so, on a warm-enough sunny morning, I sat under the forest canopy all ablaze in gold and crimson to await any participants who might come.

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