May 28, 2013

A good walk through the woods

I had a good walk through the woods the other day. It is both refreshing and instructive to observe those parts of the world that remain largely beyond the regulatory influence of human beings. Contrary to what some might think, plants and animals get on pretty well without our intervention. They flourish and decline by turns with the fortunes of the seasons. Trees struggle slowly, invisibly, upward towards the sun, competing against one another for the holes made in the canopy by storms and disease. Animals strive to eat without being eaten. Their lives, for the most part, are brief – but I think not wholly miserable. The turtle that sits on the log in the river, warming itself in the sun, does not convey a sense of desperation. There is room in this world for pleasure and pain, for life and for death.

The woods is, of course, a wonderfully complex Darwinian engine. The term “ecosystem” is popular now, but I prefer the 19th century word “engine” because I think it captures the essential dynamism characteristic of living things. Seen as a whole, a woods is a solar-powered machine. It is composed of an enormous number of different parts all working together with complete indifference to their collective result. The sycamore does not think “I must contribute this much shade, and this many places for birds and insects to live.” It doesn’t even think “I must push toward the sun.” It just does what it does. The sycamore is a machine itself – in the purest, broadest, most sublime, most beautiful sense of the word. “Ecosystem,” to me, sounds like a bureaucracy. A sort of a closed box of plants and animals, every pigeon in its proper pigeonhole, limited, with overtones of deliberate cooperation and a shared desire for collective success. A theoretical place, more than a physical one. “Nature” as the mind imagines it. “Engine,” too, I realize, is only another rough description of that which stubbornly eludes the trap of words. Nothing in the universe survives the passage into language true and whole. But then, I’m a symbolizing animal. It is just what I do.

When I am paying enough attention – which is to say, when I am living in the physical world instead of in my head – I find “nature” both humbling and uplifting. Most of the time I am trapped, along with the rest of humanity, in one kind of social game or another. We weigh the merits of this person or that person, or what someone did, or will do, or might do. Most of it is not only trivial but nonsense – only real because we make it so. The woods is full of reality – right down to its roots. It overflows with reality. A minute spent in the woods, or on an empty beach, or on a mountainside, makes a minute spent in any city on the planet almost embarrassing. A paltry knock-off of life. A crude impersonation of reality.

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