Whether or Weather

It was a self-inflicted double feature.  I’d been pondering movies about the weather.  Tons of movies have the weather in them, sometimes even as a significant plot element.  Few films, however, take the weather as their central thesis.  These movies verge on horror as the weather is something much larger than we are and which is deadly.  Let’s face it, a film about sunny skies and light breezes doesn’t have much of a hook.  I began by watching The Perfect Storm.  I’d seen it before, of course.  Not much like its book, which is nonfiction, it follows the loss of the sword boat Andrea Gail in the eponymous storm of 1991.  Not all members of the crew get a backstory, and since nobody knows what really happened, it was a chance for special effects to drive the story just as massive waves drive the boat.  The weather, while central, is seldom commented upon.  The characters are motivated by trying to make a living but there’s not enough time to give all six of them adequate stories.  Add to that another boat with no backstory and the movie become disjointed and smoky.

The next feature was The Day after Tomorrow.  Again, I’d seen it before, but you know how one thing leads to another.  Like The Perfect Storm, The Day after Tomorrow introduces more subplots than the movie can handle, even bringing a Russian freighter up Fifth Avenue in order to have a wolf-chase scene that is simply dropped after it’s discovered that wolves can’t climb ladders.  Still, the latter story has an environmental message.  Aware that human activity does lead to global warming, it tries to picture what would happen if it were speeded up into a matter of weeks rather than years.  No  matter how long it takes, the weather will get you.

As I’ve contended before, the sheer scope of the weather practically makes it divine.  Although we live in different climatic zones we’re all tied together under a single, volatile, powerful atmosphere.  Early humans realized that their survival depended on the weather.  Drought kills as readily as sudden ice ages.  The key, it seems, is balance.  Nature isn’t kind to species who assert too much dominance.  One of the means of nature’s control is the weather.  Until the development of meteorology, and even after its first tentative steps, the weather was considered a divine bailiwick.  We may proclaim it entirely natural, but it still commands its share of awe and majesty.  And it can easily claim a few weekend hours searching the skies for some kind of meaning.

Hearing Nature’s Voice

Silence is a rare treat.  I enjoy music and witty repartee just as much as the next guy, but silence is revelatory.  At home and in hotels I sleep to the sound of a white noise generator.  You can’t predict the sounds of neighbors, and my hours are askew from those of the rest of the world.  Here at the lake, things are different.  I awake early, hoping to catch the sun as it trips over the mountain tops across the way, lighting successive peaks before it reaches the near horizon.  It is utterly still.  Perhaps it’s the interference of humans in the habitat, but crepuscular animals seldom wander past.  The stillness is divine.  For some the lake means loud jet skis and buzzing motorboats.  I come here seeking silence.

Our daily lives lack peace.  Even when things are good there are always more things to be done.  We cram as much as possible into days impossibly short, giving at least eight out of every twenty-four to those who deign to pay us for our efforts.  Sleep is troubled and interrupted.  There are noises in the night.  You can’t hear your soul.  As the first rays seep into the valleys across the lake the birds begin to greet it.  Their conversation may interrupt the silence, but it doesn’t break it.  Silence is finding one’s place in nature.  Taking time to be still.  To listen.

Thirty years ago I first came to the lake.  My wife had been coming here for years already before that.  There have been many changes even in my short time here.  I can, however, hear eternity in the silence, for forever is a whisper, not a shout.  As I watch the morning mist arise, skate, and dance over the surface of the water as still as the very mountains that cradle it, I strain my ears to catch any sound.  The twirling wraiths are as silent as they are ephemeral.  They spin away the last minutes before the whine of an early morning fisherman’s boat begins its sleepy journey to the deep water in the middle of the lake, herald of other daylight noises to come.  I will await tomorrow’s unction of silence, and although the baptism may be secular it’s redemptive after all.  Nature knows far more about the human soul than any measurements might reveal.  You only have to listen to hear it.

Reveries of the Fall

Just a quarter of an hour, studies show, of time in the woods can reduce stress. I suspect that if those fifteen minutes are spent running from a bear the opposite might result, but in general time in nature is an incredible solace. The weather hasn’t been particularly cooperative for October walks in the woods around here, but yesterday my wife and I managed to spend some time, along with many others, in Hacklebarney State Park, one of New Jersey’s gems. Living in the most densely populated state, to gather from the number of hikers we saw, encourages time in the woods. It was good to be reminded of the compelling scent of autumn leaves, the wonder of seeing their colors in the daylight when daily commutes begin and end in the dark. When work days are spent in the grayness of the city. Being out with nature, to borrow words from the Good Book, restoreth our souls.

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I suppose there’s nothing really logical about it. We’ve built civilization to protect ourselves from nature. Solid walls to keep predators out. Heat, running water, and electricity so that we can surf the internet without ever going outdoors. Permanent settlement always within reach of cell phone service and work email, we are the scions of civilization. Being unplugged just for an hour or two—even fifteen minutes—can feel like salvation. If that fifteen minutes is spent among rocks, trees, and the peculiar light that reflects off a lazy river. The internet will always wait, won’t it? Thoughts of work can be suspended until Monday, can’t they?

Hiking among the other expatriates of civilization in what used to be the Garden State contrasts so sharply with the image we project to the world. The Chris Christies and Donald Trumps who bluster that nature is there to be exploited. They may not say so with words, but lifestyles speak so much louder than syllables. Gaining wealth requires putting one’s own agenda first. We’re out here picking our way carefully over a rocky path. We have to stop frequently to let others go by the other way, or to let those faster than us pass by. But we’re all out here for the same reason. It’s a beautiful autumn day and spending it indoors feels wrong. I know that even getting online now feels like my time is being demanded by a million distractions. Unplugging, walking at a moderate pace, feeling the cool air and breathing the aroma of fall deeply into tired lungs, I can feel the stress draining away. If only for a day.

Finding Your Way

lost-artOnce while visiting the house of a friend, we took a walk in the woods. It was an area I didn’t know and after a few minutes it became clear that we were lost. There can be nearly no other feeling more frightening for a child. We wandered in the trees shouting for help for what seemed far longer than the maybe twenty minutes or so that my friend was disoriented. The message was clear: never go somewhere unless you know how to get where you’re going. I’ve been lost a few times since then and the gut-twisting fear is the same. Where am I? The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs, by Tristan Gooley, is an amazing book for anyone who’s had that experience. We are residents of earth and we should know how to find our way around the place. Instead, most of us live in urban environments and never spend a lot of time outdoors learning that nature provides many, many clues to finding your way. You just have to know what to look for. I found myself wishing I could memorize large sections of this tome, assuring myself I’d never be lost again.

There is an irony about reading such a book during the commute to Manhattan. Apart from his small chapter on navigating in cities, Gooley spends most of his time offering advice on spotting hints in nature. I can’t believe the behavior of the mice, rats, pigeons, and cockroaches I’ve seen in the city is any less neurotic than that of the people. In nature trees, plants, land forms, weather, fungi, and the stars can all be used to guide a person home. There is a touch of quaint Britishness to the book, but the tips included quite often branch out to specifics in the United States, or even elsewhere. What all of this means is that in its own language the earth makes sense. We need to learn this language. Although Gooley doesn’t say it here, when we destroy our environment we’re increasing our ability to get lost.

One of the more interesting sections of the book used churches as a means of orienting oneself in unfamiliar country or a town. Church architecture, at least initially, followed a regular logic with an eastern orientation and opinions about the sacredness of the ground on the north-south axis as well. Knowing this holy geography, along with the ability to read lichens growing on the outside and finding the clues on tombstones, you can often find your way. There’s some poignancy here. There was a time when churches, synagogues, and mosques were natural means of showing people their cardinal points. We’ve come to rely on our devices to show us the way, and it’s a little early to know if that’s been a mistake. And if it weren’t for work today, I’d be outdoors, taking a walk and trying to learn to find my way through nature.

Nature Worship

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Here I am in a natural setting, with nature close at hand. From these windows I can see mountains, a mercury-smooth lake with fish breaking its silvery sheet, and trees aspiring for the sky. I hear a red squirrel chattering from one of those trees, and the call of a lonely osprey looking for its morning meal. It took a day of arduous travel to get here, and I am staring at a computer screen as nature puts on her show for me. I think, “it’ll still be there when I get done.” Then I think about what I think. Will it be there? This world we’re creating in our own image demands more and more of the planet we inhabit. To which we feel entitled. As I stood at the airport staring at the monitor, I couldn’t believe that my flight had been cancelled. What? I arrived at the airport at 5 a.m., flew countless miles, only to have you tell me my flight has been cancelled? Am I not owed better than this?

This attitude, I reflect, may be what brought us to such a place to begin with. This incredibly beautiful world was never ours to own. We’re guests. Invited perhaps, but guests nevertheless. And we all know that guests are supposed to be gracious and to act as if they wish to be invited back. So why am I rudely sitting here, ignoring my host? We are part of nature, but we tend to think of those closely attuned to nature as “uncivilized.” They don’t dress like city dwellers. Their hair is worn differently. They value things money can’t buy. They don’t play the entrepreneur’s game.

I travel to “get away from it all.” That which I’m getting away from is my life every other day of the year. How did we come to call this “civilized”? There’s no denying the creature comforts of a place to call home and a routine that seldom varies. But sitting here, amid nature, I realize the tremendous cost. Even as soon as it began to warm up in New Jersey we tried to carve out the time to explore local parks. To be outdoors among nature before heading back to the office on Monday. The whole point of worship is to break the flow of everyday time. To stop and think of the good that we have been invited to enjoy. I find myself amid this splendor, and I sit at my computer while nature awakens around me.

Nature’s Voice

SpellSensuousCivilization isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it’s got its moments—modern medicine, indoor plumbing, Honey Boo Boo—but often it’s artificial. It’s like somebody made up a set of silly rules and those who dare violate them are treasonous barbarians. Over the past few years I’ve been reading books that consider our biological development and what nature seems to indicate about how people might exist more holistically in the world. I don’t mean New Age outlooks, although, surprisingly, such treatments often aren’t far off base. I’d never heard of David Abram or his book The Spell of the Sensuous. (For those who think sensuous means only one thing, the subtitle is Perception and Language in a More-Then-Human World.) Although somewhat dated, this is an insightful book. The basic premise is that we are, by nature, part of a much larger world but we have, like spoiled children, decided to take it all for ourselves and isolate our species from all others, claiming a superiority that none dare challenge. In the process we’ve lost much of what it benefits us being animals, and have separated ourselves from the wonders of the world all around us. Working in Manhattan, I have to agree.

Basing his observations on having lived among aboriginal peoples, Abram notes that although anthropologists have denied the tenets of Christian missionaries on the religious front, they have continued in that teaching concerning biases against nature-based belief systems. Peoples who live close to the land observe things which seem superstitious to the “civilized,” but which are, in reality, simply astute realizations based on watching how the world works. Like Thomas Nagel, he notes that consciousness pervades the natural world. Animals, plants, even the earth itself displays forms of awareness that we ignore in our rush to exploit and gain “wealth.” In reality, we suffer for having made ourselves something we’re not.

There’s a lot in this book, far more than a single blog post can say. I don’t agree with all the points Abram makes—that writing may be responsible for our dilemma is a bit of a stretch—but there is great wisdom in this tome. At several points I had to stop and ponder the implications of what he was saying. Yes, nature speaks. Creating a world where “success” is measured in removing yourself as far from nature as possible requires elaborate rules. As far as I can tell, obeying the rules means that if you’re one percent of the one percent you’ll have nothing to complain about. If you have enough money—itself an artificial construct—you can run for president with no other qualifications. Meanwhile, nature suffers at our hands and may only recover once the world is forced from our hands and the sensuous once again takes over, doing what it has always done.

Le sacrifice humain

The thought of lying tied to an altar while you know someone is about to murder you is a terrifying one. For several reasons. Clearly, you don’t want to die. A more potent fear, however, may be that a darkly savage deity lies behind the dead. An angry, demanding god who desires nothing less than your annihilation. A story in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaplan suggests new findings by anthropologists now suggest a much more frightening rationale behind the world-wide phenomenon of human sacrifice. Kaplan reports that the article in Nature suggests human sacrifice was a means of social stratification. Maintaining control. Surely it must be obvious that those sacrificed are never the powerful and elite, unless, in a reversal of power structures, they suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the might that makes right. Think of England’s King Charles I, for example. The societies scrutinized in this study, however, are less “civilized” and human sacrifice is a means to remind people who’s in charge.

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What I find interesting about this is how easily the discussion slips into religion being part of the mix. Those of us who’ve spent our professional youths earning advanced degrees in the field have long realized that there is a political element to religion. Temples, yes, were built to the glory of their gods. They were also built to help finance the monarchies in power. Even the temple in Jerusalem was only erected after the monarchy was finally entrenched. Priests supported kings and kings supported priests. They were the elites of society. As Nathan so aptly pointed out, you don’t sacrifice your own lamb when you’re rich. You take someone else’s. Thus it has always been with the exercise of power.

The Nature study examines stratified and egalitarian societies. Human sacrifice is most pronounced in the most stratified. Those where—let’s not be too blunt here—the top one percent want to demonstrate their obvious control over the rest, human sacrifice is most common. Is it really religious? I think the answer is obvious. The gods people worship are those that are most like themselves. The difference is largely one of power. Might, despite all protestations to the contrary, does make right. Or at least right-wing. Human sacrifice still occurs. If the new study is right (and who can argue with science?) there is only one way to avoid being at the wrong end of the sacrificial knife. Or stone. Or torch. And it is to sacrifice the potential to become rich in order to ensure true equality.