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Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Ah, autumn!

Every year about this time, for a tantalizingly short while-a week or two at most-an amazing thing happens here. The whole of New England explodes in color. All those trees that for months have formed a somber green backdrop suddenly burst into a million glowing tints and the countryside, as Frances Trollope put it, “goes to glory.”

Yesterday, under the pretense of doing vital research, I drove over to Vermont and treated my startled feet to a hike up Killington Peak, 4,235 feet of sturdy splendor in the heart of the Green Mountains. It was one of those sumptuous days when the world is full of autumn muskiness and tangy, crisp perfection: vivid blue sky, deep green fields, leaves in a thousand luminous hues. It is a truly astounding sight when every tree in a landscape becomes individual, when each winding back highway and plump hillside is suddenly and infinitely splashed with every sharp shade that nature can bestow-flaming scarlet, lustrous gold, throbbing
vermilion, fiery orange.

Forgive me if I seem a tad effusive, but it is impossible to describe a spectacle this grand without babbling. Even the great naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, a man whose prose is so dry you could use it to mop spills, totally lost his head when he tried to convey the wonder of a New England autumn.

In his classic Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, Peattie drones on for 434 pages in language that can most generously be called workmanlike (typical passage: “Oaks are usually ponderous and heavy-wooded trees, with scaly or furrowed bark, and more or less five-angled twigs and, consequently, five-ranked leaves “), but when at last he turns his attention to the New England sugar maple and its vivid autumnal regalia, it is as if someone has spiked his cocoa. In a tumble of breathless metaphors he describes the maple’s colors as “like the shout of a great army … like tongues of flame … like the mighty, marching melody that rides upon the crest of some symphonic weltering sea and, with its crying song, gives meaning to all the calculated dissonance of the orchestra.”

“Yes, Donald,” you can just about hear his wife saying, “now take your medication, dear.”

For two fevered paragraphs, he goes on like this and then abruptly returns to talking about drooping leaf axils, scaly buds, and pendulous branchlets. I understand completely. When I reached the preternaturally clear air of Killington’s summit, with views to every horizon soaked in autumn luster, I found it was all I could do not to fling open my arms and burst forth with a medley of John Denver tunes. (For this reason it is a good idea to hike with an experienced companion and to carry a well-stocked first aid kit.)

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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Perspiration incontinence

Best of all, the [summer] weather [in New England] stays at a generally congenial level, unlike Iowa, where I grew up and where the temperature and humidity climb steadily with every passing day of summer until by mid-August it is so hot and airless that even the flies lie down on their backs and just quietly gasp.

It’s the mugginess that gets you. Step outside in Iowa in August and within twenty seconds you will experience a condition that might be called perspiration incontinence. It gets so hot that you see department store mannequins with sweat circles under their arms. I have particularly vivid memories of Iowa summers because my father was the last person in the Midwest to buy an air conditioner. He thought they were unnatural. (He thought anything that cost more than $30 was unnatural.)

— Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself

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You first

There is not a person in the world that behaves as badly as praying mantises. But wait, you say, there is no right or wrong in nature; right and wrong is a human concept! Precisely! We are moral creatures in an amoral world…. Or consider the alternative…it is only human feeling that is freakishly amiss…. All right then—it is our emotions that are amiss. We are freaks, the world is fine, and let us all go have lobotomies to restore us to a natural state. We can leave…lobotomized, go back to the creek, and live on its banks as untroubled as any muskrat or reed. You first.

— Annie Dillard, as quoted in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism

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Tech-wise parenting has added wonder to my life, though, and that’s enough. The real world is so fantastic that getting a taste of it makes even the most jaded kid want more. Not only have I always known that wonder is out there; I’ve been taught how to search for it. No multitude of glowing rectangles will ever be able to replace a single bumblebee. And that’s the real legacy of tech-wise parenting for me. It has shown me where to look for what I need most. Wonder comes from opening your eyes wider, not bringing the screen closer.

— Amy Crouch in the Forward to Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place

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It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter. But Taylor’s account of disenchantment has a different accent, suggesting that this is primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.” Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally. The external world might be a catalyst for perceiving meaning, but the meanings are generated within the mind — or, in stronger versions (say, Kant), meanings are imposed upon things by minds. Meaning is now located in agents. Only once this shift is in place can the proverbial brain-in-a-vat scenario gain any currency; only once meaning is located in minds can we worry that someone or something could completely dupe us about the meaning of the world by manipulating our brains. It is the modern social imaginary that makes it possible for us to imagine The Matrix.

To sense the force of this shift, we need to appreciate how this differs from the “enchanted” premodern imaginary where all kinds of nonhuman things mean — are loaded and charged with meaning — independent of human perception or attribution. In this premodern, enchanted universe, it was also assumed that power resided in things, which is precisely why things like relics or the Host could be invested with spiritual power. As a result, “in the enchanted world, the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn” (p. 32). There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power (p. 35). Things can do stuff.

— Smith, James K. A.. How (Not) to Be Secular 

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I recently finished Teaching a Stone to Talk, my introduction to Annie Dillard. It was a fascinating excursion. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek has now moved higher up on my “To Read” list. If you’re unfamiliar with Dillard, here’s a good description from Sam Anderson’s review of The Abundance:

It’s unclear what to call Annie Dillard, where to shelve her. Over more than 40 years, she has been, sometimes all at once, a poet, essayist, novelist, humorist, naturalist, critic, theologian, collagist and full-throated singer of mystic incantations. Instead of being any particular kind of writer, she is, flagrantly, a consciousness — an abstract, all-encompassing energy field that inhabits a given piece of writing the way sunlight clings to a rock: delicately but with absolute force, always leaving a shadow behind. This is an essential part of what it means to be human, this shifting between the transcendent self and the contingent world, the ecstasy and the dental bill. We all do some version of it, all the time. But Dillard does it more insistently.

Dillard began publishing books in 1974. ‘‘Tickets for a Prayer Wheel,’’ a small collection of poems, was followed immediately by ‘‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’’ a long nonfictional account of her experience embedding, Thoreau-style, for a year of close observation of the titular waterway in Virginia. ‘‘Pilgrim’’ won the Pulitzer Prize and unleashed upon the world Dillard’s radical style: prose right on the border of poetry, dense with dazzling effects — strong metaphors, heavy rhythms, bold verbs, sudden parables, outlandish facts harvested from the darkest corners of the library. From the start, this has been Dillard’s mission: to crowbar surprise, sentence by sentence, into all the tiny gaps of our ordinary experience.

Above all, Dillard refuses to fall into traditional expository rhythms, to calm down, to be normal, to proceed with caution. She feels driven, always, to summon revelations out of nothing — to ‘‘call for fireworks, with only a ballpoint pen.’’

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Untitled by Rowland Hilder

Rowland Hilder (UK 1905-1993) February, 1988 pencil and watercolour 53 x 71 cm

Rowland Hilder (UK 1905-1993)

(via Lawrence Lee Magnuson)

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