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View of the Great Salt Lake near Smithson’s Spiral Jetty

I was introduced to the writer Barry Lopez after reading his thoughtful introduction to John Fowles‘ timeless book, The Tree (more about that here.) One of the essays included in the collection, About This Life, describes a trip Lopez took to the remote landscape of Antarctica. Titled Informed by Indifference, this essay could have been written about a number of landscapes I have known and that have moved me deeply.

Antarctica retained Earth’s primitive link, however tenuous, with space, with the void that stretched out to Jupiter and Uranus. At the seabird rookeries of the Canadian Arctic or on the grasslands of the Serengeti, you can feel the vitality of the original creation; in the dry valleys you sense sharply what came before. The Archeozoic is like fresh spoor here.

I took several long walks in the Wright and adjacent Taylor Valleys. I did not feel insignificant on these journeys, dwarfed or shrugged off by the land, but superfluous. It is a difficult landscape to enter, to develop a rapport with. It is not inimical or hostile, but indifferent, utterly remote, even as you stand in it. The light itself is aloof.

The dry valleys are breathtakingly beautiful. The air is so clear the eye can fasten effortlessly on the details, on the sharp break of shadow creases, in distant mountains, making binoculars curiously redundant. The hues of yellow and brown, the tints of orange and red that elevate the sedimentary rocks above the igneous layers of granite, take the starkness out of the land but do not alter its line, which is bold, balanced, serene. Classic.

The stillness that permeates these valleys is visual as well as acoustical. On foot, traversing a landscape that is immense but simple, your point of view, looking right and left at the mountain walls or up the valley, changes only very slowly. I had sought this stillness; but unlike the stillness I’d found in similarly austere and deserted regions of the Earth—on the tundra of Ellesmere Island, in the Namib Desert—this stillness had an edge to it. I felt no security with the Earth here, no convincing epiphany of belief in the prevailing goodwill of human beings, which always seems in the offing in these irenic places. However the Earth consoles us in the troubling matter of civilization’s acquisitiveness, its brutal disregard, this was not the landscape for it.

I know the detached disregard Lopez describes, and its impact on me is solemn and stilling. And yet I am drawn back to those landscapes repeatedly, the ones where I am an interloper who wants a glimpse into forces and scenarios so much larger than myself and my human world. Coming up against the harsh reality of our smallishness feels like a dose of the take no prisoners treatment my grandfather used to dish out. There was no monkey business with him. And there is no monkey business with a landscape that is stripped, naked and ready for whatever shows up.

Lopez ends his essay with these words:

Whatever one might impute to this landscape, of beauty or horror, seemed hardly to take hold; my entreaties for conversation met almost always with monumental indifference. I have never felt so strongly that unsettling aloofness of the adult that a small child knows, and fears. It is hard to locate the reassurance of affection in these circumstances. And yet this land informs, some would say teaches, for all its indifference. I can easily imagine some anchorite here, meditating in his room of stone, or pausing before a seal shipwrecked in this polar desert.

Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want not to forget.

If you returned it would be to pay your respects, for not being welcome.

Wild parts of Utah are like that for me. I’m headed that way tonight for 5 days. We are going out for the memorial for my mother-in-law who passed away at 89. But hopefully I’ll also get a chance to taste some of that not being welcome as well. It is the best way to a reality reset.

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Only one tree in my Brookline neighborhood is hosting a playful colony of shell-like parasols

My last post elicited several provocative comments and instigated a number of compelling conversations over the last few days. As a result I have continued to sit with several of ideas presented in The Tree, by John Fowles. It is winter in the Northeast after all, a season that inclines us to the warm fire, big armchair contemplation of our place in nature. And as the face of nature moves into its most extreme expression for us in this part of the planet, we meet it with preparation, protection and respect.

Here are a few more memorable paragraphs from the book. The selection below is actually from the introduction by the environmentalist writer Barry Lopez:

The Linnean mentality, which fussed endlessly to make nature seem categorical, serves in turn to introduce us to the differing approach of science and “the kind of experience or knowledge we loosely define as art.” Science pounces on chaos—on “unphilosophical, irrational, uncontrollable, incalculable” nature. Art perceives no threat, no great evil in unlimited chaos; the engagement with nature is personal, intimate, and without objective…

Fowles sets down what he believes is the most dangerous of all our contemporary forms of alienation—“our growing emotional and intellectual detachment from nature.” He suggests the remedy for this lies with recognizing the debit side of the scientific revolution, understanding especially the change it has effected in our modes of perceiving and experiencing the world as individuals.

“Science is centrally, almost metaphysically, obsessed by general truths…but all nature, like all humanity, is made of minor exceptions, of entities that some way, however scientifically disregardable, do not confirm to the general rule. A belief in this kind of exception is as central to art as a belief in the utility of generalization is to science.”

Lopez points to Fowles’ use of paradox to illuminate and explore. Paradox it seems is elemental to a discussion of these issues.

The key to this paradox is the distinction Fowles makes between art and science. There is not the space here to elucidate, which is perhaps the coward’s way out on this, but some paradoxes are forever unresolvable and therefore, like koans, provoking and valuable. The best books about nature, like this one, drive you back out there, to the inchoate, the chaotic, the unresolvable.

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