I’ve logged more experience than most with simplicity and the complexity you discover inside simplicity, minimalism and asocial behavior, endurance and landscape.
Here is the truth: I think some deep wisdom inside me (a) sensed the stress, (b) was terrified for me, and (c) gave me something new and hard to focus on in order to prevent me from lapsing into a despair coma — and also to keep me from having a jelly jar of wine in my hand.
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Leath Tonino is the author of the essay collections The Animal One Thousand Miles Long and The West Will Swallow You. He recently spent a month as an artist-in-residence in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, hiking, writing, and rolling his sleeping bag out in an orchard each night.
In this current pandemic the fear and upheaval drove Americans to hoard toilet paper and guns and ammo. Try to imagine a food shortage instead of a scarcity of toilet paper.
What I do is sit with the creek. If it’s hot, perhaps I’ll sit in the creek. Two or three times, assisted by an inflatable pool toy, I have sat on the creek. But the preposition of choice remains with.
With snow falling on blue spruce and a cardinal at the feeder and the fireplace’s crackly warmth easing into your bones and the final pages of a book about bears and the opening pages of a book about monks and no plans for the morning, the afternoon, the evening, tomorrow, next week, the rest of your life.
The reason we act when something threatens our family or our neighborhood is because we love these people and places. Maybe it takes a tangible threat to our home environment to make us realize that we really do love the earth.
I elect a climb of Precarious Peak that made me, and will forever keep me, humble as a pebble.
We think of apocalypse as a moment — a flash of light, then you’re gone — but if we study the earth’s history, we find that it’s not one moment. It’s actually a long process. In fact, it’s hard to see where it begins or ends. Like right now: evidence indicates that we’re experiencing the planet’s sixth mass extinction — a period when the rate of extinction spikes and the diversity and abundance of life decrease. Each such extinction event takes hundreds of thousands of years to play out, and it’s generally 5 to 8 million years before the previous levels of biodiversity return. So are we at the end or the beginning of a cycle? This could just be a temporary spike. The pattern could swerve in a different direction.
I prefer to ask what gifts the land offers. Gifts require a giver, a being with agency. Gifts invite reciprocity. Gifts help form relationships. Scientists aren’t comfortable with the word gifts, so we get ecosystem services instead. These terms arise from different worldviews, but both recognize the way the land sustains life.
But getting back to your question about poetry and prose: Poetry, by moving from line to line, can create shades of meaning that prose can’t. So, whatever else it’s worth, poetry is valuable because it gives us a different experience of language. It gives us an experience that we cannot have by other means. And without that, we live a more impoverished life. I’ve been as moved by novels as I have been by poems, but I’ve been moved by poems in a different way. I’ve been brought to laughter and tears by a different route.
There’s a Wang Wei poem in which an egret standing at the edge of a stream flutters up and then settles back down. That’s it. In the West we think there’s something missing, that there should be more to the poem. But if you remember that heart and mind are the same, then you realize that this perception, this experience of empty mind perceiving with mirror-like clarity, is also an emotional experience. It’s both the observation of the scene and the feeling evoked by the scene at the same time, the two together filling us completely.
Nearly 50 percent of the habitats where I’ve made recordings over the past forty-plus years have been so severely damaged that they’re now either biophonically silent or altered to the point of being unrecognizable.
One of my essays starts: “My cabin is located next to a stream that runs through a meadow, but it is not on any map.” It’s not on a map because the places I’ve lived and loved are labeled with my own names: Where Rio chases her stick. Rio’s favorite pool. Where Rio ran into the bear. It’s a private mapping, a personal geography projected onto the land. It requires a long time living in one place and studying its plants and animals. If you follow them and their lives, you gain a deeper sense of home.