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Bull Hill
by David Rothenberg : Editor, Terra Nova

What We Won't Know About Nature

I'm looking for a story.  I bet I could scour the cultures of the world in search of this story and I would never find it.  It's the story of human confusion in the face of actual events.  It's about how little we actually know about the natural world around us.

There is no creation myth in my story.  We don't know where the world comes from.  There is no myth of progress-nothing to guide society forward to a better and future way.  No hope of a great beyond, no escape from the bounds of a weighty earthly life.  This story is what's happening to us right now.  And it answers none of my questions. 

They always tell us to write about what we know, but I feel the need to write about what I don't know.  What we don't know can hurt us, but it also is what allows us to go on living, wondering, not hoping that we will find the answer and thus some kind of peace, but that we can live forward into the questions and be able to survive and enjoy the fundamental uncertainty that grounds human existence.

We will never know if we are part of nature, or apart from nature.  Humanity comes from nature, but we step back to reflect on nature.  The moment we start to wonder who we are and why we are here, we step back from the process, not satisfied to live inside the process.  Not only do we think, but we change the face of our environment in order to live in it. 

Once we build cities we then can escape the cities and are moved to tears by the raw natural power of the wildness far from our heavy omnipresent structures.  Then we want nature once more and strive to go back to it, and imagine what it would mean to live back with it, and think how many ways our culture has pulled us away.

But one cannot return to nature before inventing nature.  And if it is a good invention it will always be just beyond our reach. 

Everything else alive is safely part of nature.  We have pulled ourselves up out of nature and wonder why it is that we, we alone, must work so hard to find our way back.  Then when we're back there we find nothing that wants us. 

The human tragedy may be just this: to realize the world doesn't need us, that only we elevate our own importance so much so that we seem significant.

This all may seem abstract, and if it does, then you know why I need my story.  I don't want to explain what matters.  I wish I could evoke it.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger said all we had to do was sing.  You might have heard other things about him, good and bad, but remember he did say that the Earth needs humanity in order to sing it into existence, to give it word, name, not substance but story.  Much as I too want to sing I can't quite believe that.  The world is wonderful because it doesn't need me at all, except perhaps to save it from the sum total of human mistake.

Is just to be here a mistake?  If we are part of nature, then each species is opportunistic, doing the best it can, rarely holding back with any sort of prudence.  There's not enough self-hatred in me to call our species a cancer on the planet, growing black, deformed and ugly until we kill our host, but I don't mind being a weed, that flourishes due to stamina if not ingenuity.  We've spread far from our native savannah habitat, and there are too many of us to want to go back.

Sing:  The Earth needs us!  Uh huh, do something, save the planet from ourselves.  Planet goes on beyond eons of destruction time takes no prisoners, doesn't even care about life, because it can start it all over again.  We want the world the way we want the world.  We are a better species if we go against the grain of species, and think for more than for ourselves.  Nature does not tell us to do that.  We expand our circle of care:  no more slavery, no more cruelty to animals, but more concern for the world that surrounds, that envelops us as we flow out into it.

Martin Heidigger
"All we have to do is sing."  Martin Heidegger

I want to go in there, I want to expand, but I do so with trepidation.  There is something about this direction I do not believe.  Because to imagine we are nature seems to reduce the scale of the unknown, and the unknown is where I want to be, and I will only be there if I do not know where I am.  Not to be too comfortable on the edge inside of nature and out, but holding my own in the wind so that I can be always reshaping the edge of the wave, the contour of the ridge, touching that cloud that perhaps looks like something else but in the end just looks like a cloud.

The best things humans have been able to say about nature are inherently ambiguous.  Nature poet Gary Snyder calls his book of collected poems No Nature, and writes in its foreword that "we do not easily know nature."  Petrarch climbed Mont Ventoux in the thirteenth century and enjoyed it so much that it began to compete with his religious belief that only the human soul was really worth contemplating.  Around the same time in Japan, Zen master Dogen in the Mountains and River Sutra wrote that "the blue mountains are constantly walking...  He who doubts their walking does not understand his own walking."  So if we don't fold back unto ourselves we can dare to inhabit movement at such a huge scale so different from our own.  Try that on your own place and see how the significance of your own humanity gets easily lost.

I live by the edge of a river.  This river has been around longer than anyone could ever care to remember.  Humans have imagined it to be many things through history.  Once it looked like the dreamed-of Northwest Passage across the only hazily understood continent.  A few hundred years later it was the paragon of scenic beauty for the new nation, overpainted, overrhapsodized as the ideal of the picturesque.  Later after they dug a northwest passage and called it the Erie Canal the water was just a quick way to haul stuff from the sea to some Great Lakes still not really so far northwest.  Then my river was a polluted brown sewer with poison muck on its bottom.  Then the electric company wanted to deface it with a huge underground hydropower plant.  Then we fought to clean it up and it looks better than it has looked for a century.  You can dive into its waters from a sand beach at sunset and surface to see the soft sublime haze of the Hudson River school of painting.  The illumination has survived.

And do the mountains care?  Does the current notice?  Does the tide mark the years or only follow the moon?  I want to believe that they do, but I think they do not.  Faith and reason here disagree.  We are the species of worry, concern, and the idiotic power to lay waste to it all.  We need to save this nature from one errant part of itself, or else change our mission into something that is worthy of the place that has made us possible.

It's a tough spiral of survival, the hunt for an excuse to make necessary the human race.  The race for transformation, improvement, development, and renovation of the world.  The need to believe we have moved forward from yesterday to today when all natural signs point to recurrence and return.

There is human time, and earthly time.  It could even be said that the earth has no time, because it does not record its own movements from one eon to the next.  Nature happens.  We pull away from it and notice.  At that moment we are outside.  Reflection, as I reflected above, is not natural.  It is dangerously unnatural, as it pulls a part of nature apart from nature.  Centuries apart, millennia apart.  We who want to get back to the wild garden fight our own destiny.  Every species is all set to lose.  They have their time at the top, and then recede to give the next guy a chance as the climate changes and proliferation gets out of control.

But humanity rises to every challenge.  Reflection comes not from idleness but struggle.  I want what matters to be hard, not easy.  We want to be tough, we want to show we can do it.  Sure, change the world, make it matter, but don't sing the praises only of what now is no more.  We must celebrate the real world, the rough world, the natural human and human nature red in tooth and claw.  There is no calm and easy escape from civilization into the eternal woods once you know what is going on.  There is no easy way into the turtle clan if you want to pick your totems well.  Have you asked the turtles if they want you?  What did they really say?  You can only dream your place in a nature indifferent to your concern and consequence.

This does not mean there are not right and wrong ways of living with regard to the Earth.  But these are human matters, no choices that will be settled out there in the state of nature beyond our rules and projections.  Only if we take it upon ourselves to protect the Earth and transform the human into something worthy of fitting into the natural will we improve today's situation.  We will have to believe this is a path worth taking, and not look for justifications out there to make nature necessary or essential to some human sense of progress, changing, moving, heading forward with no goal ever set forth of what we'll do when we win.

Let's decide that what we want is to fit in.  To a world beautiful and complete, one that doesn't need us unless we change our indifferent ways.  Wait?  I thought nature was indifferent, we the worriers?  It only gets more confusing.  All species are opportunistic, and think just for themselves.  So are we no different, just another selfish part of the mix?  We're too reflective, too powerful, have extended our reach like the starling, loosestrife, or kudzu.  Weeds all, successful in the new environment without having to work too hard at it.  But we should be smarter than a weed, we should know how to hold back.

Paradoxically, that might be less natural.  More human.  Unprecedented.  Timely, not timeless. 

Inhabit the ambiguity, don't try to resist it.  Keep spiraling in and away from the center at once, doing all you can to make it hold.  Move on without despair.  Sing it all into significance.

I'm staring at a photograph I took of the Estonian Sea.  There are four large stones sticking up out of the water in a shallow bay that extends many miles out.  The water is gray-green, the sky is blue-gray, the clouds press down like a heavy weight from above on a light and flat Earth. 

The stones are perfectly arranged in a design clearly natural, what Zen gardens aspire to but cannot ever reach, how stylized they remain with the gravel of human touch.  The moment was snapped, static, captured out of the unending flux.  The scene has become an image, an arrangement of darkness, through color, to light.  That piece of the world is only a fragment to me now, a work of art.  It sings without voice, is silent music, an image pure and detached from its distance from me right now. 

Maybe this is all Heidegger wanted, the old Nazi, to apprehend the world as purely aesthetic far from the dark workings of people and their senseless cruel fights.  Aesthetics do not take over politics.  He knew it was wise and good to stay put in the forest only imagining the ocean waves, but he couldn't stay there.  None of us can.

We who want answers, or even questions, in nature lose interest in history.  There is only the now, the world is at it is and only humans want time.  We will never know how it all began, because we can't have been there.  Hopefully we will not know when it will end, because that time will be long beyond our time, far past the end of the keeping of time itself, stuck in the cycles, nature once more all and one ever more than our attempt to confine it inside image or idea.


David Rothenberg's latest book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2011. His latest CDs are Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and You Can't Get There From Here. His next book, Bug Music, will appear in 2013. Catch up with him at www.DavidRothenberg.net.
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