Sunday, November 29, 2009

Paying Attention to Nature

Long ago, a great-aunt who was a great artist in her own right, with a reputation for eccentricity even in her youth taught me an invaluable lesson. Living in the house next to hers, I had the task of bringing her meals at one point and making certain that all was well with her.

When I arrived with her breakfast one morning, she was filled with enthusiasm. She told me to sit down next to her, as though we were about to watch the premiere of a new film at a cinema.

'Look!' she commanded, directing my attention out the large picture window where a large branch had fallen from one of the trees and lay in the road.

She was not concerned about the impact on any possible traffic but rather had become enraptured by the shape of the branch, the shadow it cast on the road and the way it had fallen, creating a new landscape for a woman who no longer ever left her home.

A talented composer and musician in a very musical family, she had a very profound spiritual connection to life that could not be defined by any organised religion. Although senility made her behave rather irrationally at times in later years, she nonetheless always had some new insight into her world that continued to energise her at a point where the familiar landmarks in life had dimmed for her.

After a difficult night, I went outside this morning to sit in the sun. It is rather cold, but the sun is warm. The juxtaposition of hot with cold reminded me a little of sunbathing in Zermatt in Spring.

I shut my eyes in order to turn my face to the sun, to soak up the sunlight and gradually became aware of the extraordinary wealth of sounds. Surrounded by trees, the birds tend to congregate here, but I never realised how many different varieties of birds there were at any given moment. I began to focus on the sounds, and rather to my surprise, there were even more than I first had noted. As birds came and went in the large tree in a neighbouring garden, the melody would change.

My awareness of the cold diminished as I focused both on the warmth of the sun and the song of the birds. Despite the urban blight in this neighbourhood, despite all the automobiles gunning their motors, the shouts of irate parents or couples, the occasional small aeroplane or helicopter, the song of the birds, when noted, overrode everything else.

What is sad, however, is the way that people in this neighbourhood choose to chop down existing trees that are a natural habitat for birds and other creatures. They claim that falling leaves and berries are a mess, that trees require too much 'maintenance' and end by paving over the soil and grass that once allowed gardens to exist in the middle of a city.

Personally, I tend to subscribe to the ancient animist view that does not restrict a 'soul' to human beings, but recognises that everything in nature has its own unique spirit and power. In the same way that every bird has its own song, every tree has its own breath as well as form.

The ancient Etruscans, like my Aunt Mimi, 'read' the landscape and followed the flight of every bird, the fall of each leaf, creating a discourse with Nature based on her every movement. The Romans inherited this belief to some extent. In Asia, there still are those who practice animist religions. Even within Christianity and Islam, there are traditions of animism, clothed in new guises but nonetheless following ancient beliefs. Sacred springs and wells, whether attached to the lives of saints or to ancient myth, remain sacred through the millenia. The waters of Zamzam, like the waters of Lourdes, continue the ancient promise uniting Earth with the powers of Heaven. The fig tree that sheltered Miriam or the sapling carried by Joseph of Arimathea to England to become the Glastonbury Thorn are but two examples of ancient beliefs woven into tapestries of 'newer' traditions.

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