A Reprieve from Myself: What’s Revealed in a View
by Sarah J. Hart, guest contributor
My last two years in Brooklyn I felt fortunate to have the view I did. My windows faced east, and, although the blank wall of another building loomed large directly in front, to the right grew a luscious tree and above was an unobstructed view of sky. I often woke at dawn and would stand on the fire escape and soak in the morning, while it still felt clear and clean.
Over the five years I lived in “the city” I learned to train my eyes away from a lot of what was around me: trash exploded from vandalized garbage bags; the grey on brown on dingy grey of sidewalk, street, and dirty buildings; tawdry advertisements; glaring lights. Instead I’d glue my gaze on any scrap of nature available: a leaf splattered on the curb; weeds flourishing in an empty lot; wheeling pigeons, making the sky sparkle with their sunlit wings. By the end of my five years in NYC I felt I struggled endlessly to find enough beauty that I might endure the ugly. “This is absurd,” I thought. “Clearly the city is the wrong environment for me.”
In January of this year I had the opportunity to move out and, with great relief, I did.
Now I live in the woods. There are no other houses in sight. I am on 40 acres, embraced in a bear hug of state land. When I look out my window, I see only beauty: layers of hemlock, bright clusters of beech leaves, spindly maples with slender branches that shatter the sky.
Whether it’s a sun-soaked day that impels me to shut my computer and go out for a walk (or at least to do something useful, like fill the wood box) or an overcast one with a moody sky and pinches of sleet, I see that there is always a perfect harmony in the colors and textures around me. In the woods I am humbled — in that way that’s also elating — with the reminder of all the living and dying and churning forth of ephemeral beauty that is happening around me all the time, whether I am paying attention or not.
Living in such an environment induces a certain shrinking down to size, and a correlating peace with one’s place in this world. Red squirrels and red maples do not seem to fret over the “good enough-ness” of their lives, and it starts to feel a bit out of line to do so myself. I see their perfection — the kind that is inherent rather than measurable — and find it easier to see that same quality in myself as well, ongoing toils notwithstanding.
But of course, I could have felt this in the city. Strictly speaking, the city is no less a natural environment than the one up here. It too evolved from the tumble of cause and effect of living things trying to survive. It is certainly no less vibrant an ecosystem. True, in an urban landscape the parameters of opportunity and constraint are mostly man-made, but they yield an abundance of variety equivalent to that in a woodland environment. There’s differentiation, specialization, and the endless burgeoning of micro-complexity within the larger landscape.
Indeed, there was a time when the city inspired in me similar feelings as the woods do now. I moved there at a time in my life of greedy growth, too hungry for the tidy flower box of a town I lived in. New York City had the appeal of wilderness — an expanse of unknown, potential, and gritty reality.
To love the city is to feel a great compassion for the swarms of other people around you. All those lives, all that urgent self preservation, the palpable vulnerability and ferocity. The beauty of it can break your heart.
“A man never discloses his own character so clearly as when he describes that of another,” an insightful person is said to have said. This observation is true. And it also applies to our descriptions of the world around us. What we see in the landscape outside the window is, truly, a window onto the landscape inside.
New York City lost its beauty not because it changed (if anything it has become thrillingly greener in the years since I moved there, what with the urban agriculture movement, the roof top farms, and so on) but because I lost my ability to see it. My dissatisfaction with the city increased in direct correlation with my dissatisfaction with my life and dissatisfaction with myself for failing to improve that life. The fewer hopes and ambitions I managed to fulfill, the fewer opportunities the city seemed to provide for peace, contentment, and happiness. I condemned it as a place of harsh judgment and didn’t notice that I was the harshest judge.
I moved to the woods to gain a reprieve from the city, but what I really gained is a reprieve from myself. Of course, the change of view outside my window is very real, and one I appreciate intensely, but I know the significant change is actually in my point of view. Bickering at the corner deli used to make me groan, but squabbles of the same order at the birdfeeder make me giggle. I wince at lurid colors in plastic, but delight in the same hues when discovered in lichen. Although I’m a bit of an oddity in the small town I now call home, I feel thoroughly comfortable, as I never managed to feel when in the midst of thousands of peers.
I know there have been times in my life when I could not have appreciated this environment as I do now. And who knows, perhaps I’ll be ill content again someday. But I hope I do not forget that beauty is not a quality to seek, only to see.
Sarah Jean Heart is a writer, editor, and reporter living in Boonville, New York. You can read more of her writing and view more of her photography at The Perspective Project.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication for the On Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.
The Echoing Silence of Your Mind
by Hudson Gardner, guest contributor
Separating oneself from the natural, real world is like uprooting a plant,
putting it in sandy soil,
watering it only to keep it alive:
you may find yourself growing,
but there will always be something beyond,
another sort of subtleness,
by Daniel Johnson, guest contributor
This picture reminds me of a menorah, with the milkweed pods representing tongues of fire and the sunlit trees in the background strengthening the fire imagery. We are midway through the Festival of Lights, which is also known as Hanukkah. This festival is represented by the menorah, a candle holder with 9 branches.
Daniel Johnson is a community volunteer and former executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis, a faith-based mentoring program for kids in need. You can see more of his photography at Savoring Servant.
Q:Have you experienced Joe Hutto's "My Life as a Turkey"? Currently watching a program on PBS Nature. Some fascinating insights into imprinting, presence, and being... Enjoy!
I had seen previews on PBS for this Nature special several times but never found the time to watch it. Your question was the catalyst. Thank you. What a gorgeous film and what a novel way of seeing the world!
I’m embedding it within this reply so that others may watch it in the days leading up to Thanksgiving in the States. In many ways, characters like Joe Hutto and Alan Rabinowitz, whom we interviewed for “A Voice for the Animals,” are windows for our species. They’re eccentric characters that teach us about ourselves as a species and as a sentient beings through their interactions with wildlife. They also prove that we have a lot to learn when it comes to our sweeping generalizations about other species.
Here are a few of Joe Hutto’s words of wisdom that strike at the core of who this man is and how we can learn from his observations:
"And I realized that my involvement in this experiment was going to be a very personal, very emotional ride for me — and not just a science experiment."
"Each day as I leave the confines of my language and culture, these creatures seem to become in every way my superiors. They are more alert, sensitive, and aware. They’re in many ways, in fact, more intelligent. They’re understanding of the forest is beyond my ability to comprehend."
"Emotions are certainly not peculiar to the human experience. In their observation of death, the death of another turkey that is a member of their group, it’s a very conscious behavior as if they are trying to understand what the meaning of this is."
And, boy, I’d regret not commenting on the ending scene with Turkey Boy. My Life as a Turkey is a brutal reminder that with all of the kindness, the tenderness, and the social interaction between man and bird, nature and creatures desire not only to survive but to dominate and establish dominion.
Thank you so much for the reminder,
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Surfing a Wave of Mystery
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
When asked about surfing a world record 90-foot high wave (27 meters) above Nazare Canyon off the Atlantic coast of Portugal, Garrett McNamara comments in this Guardian video:
"This wave is very mysterious and very magical. It’s just such a mystery; you never know what you’re going to get out there."
Magical? Check. Daunting? Check. A mysterious place to meet one’s maker? Check.
Waves of Murmuration (video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
No, not a line from The Pixies. Liberty Smith and Sophie Windsor Clive will ensnare you in the majesty of this chance encounter with “one of nature’s greatest and most fleeting phenomena” — a collection of starlings rolling over a
kayak canoe on a lake.
Editor’s note: In the comments below, Maureen Doallas reminded me of two spots where I first heard about starling murmurations and thought I’d share them with you: Paolo Patrizi’s magnificent photos of murmurations over Rome and a BBC documentary. Both are definitely checking out.
Hat tip to Anne Breckbill for the heads up!
A Quest to Save the World’s Biggest Cats and the Story of a Man Who Found His Voice
by Krista Tippett, host
Alan Rabinowitz was a discovery, and this interview is as full of revelation and beauty as any I’ve done.
This is in part because he is an extraordinary person. How many people have stories of looking jaguars and lions in the eyes in the wild and walking away? Or of encountering pygmy humans believed to be lost? Or of discovering an unknown primitive species of deer? But the inner odyssey that has taken him towards all these experiences, and that he has taken in response to them, is as remarkable.
Alan Rabinowitz was born with a stutter, before this condition’s neurological base was understood. His difficulty in speaking was so profound that it masked his intelligence and personality for the first 20 years of his life. He was isolated in school, put in classes for “retarded children.”
After being mute all day, as he tells it, he would come home and be able to talk to his animals — a redemptive experience, he tells us, that is shared by many stutterers. Out of ignorance rather than cruelty, his parents essentially left him alone with his pain. But his father did notice that the “Big Cat House” at the Bronx Zoo relaxed and delighted his son, and that after these visits his speech was a bit easier. For Alan Rabinowitz, these were experiences of relief, pleasure, and a painful empathy. He deeply internalized something I think many of us have felt in the presence of powerful, wild creatures circling in cages — a wild, heartbreaking animal with grief and longing. Alan Rabinowitz looked those jaguars and tigers in the eyes and said, I’ll find a place for you — a place for us. A few years later, after rapidly distinguishing himself as a wildlife biologist, he began to do just that.
He is very clear, though, that his earliest exploits of tracking raccoons and bears in the Great Smoky Mountains were as much about getting himself away from people as anything else. In the meantime, he finally found a therapist who helped him thrive in the world of speech, to become the “fluent stutterer” he is today. Soon he began to help create some of the world’s most innovative wildlife preserves where big cats could roam and flourish — first in Belize, and later in Thailand, Taiwan, and Burma.
Here is where a defining irony — a humanizing and deeply moving irony — of Alan Rabinowitz’s story comes in. Having traveled to the most remote places on earth, driven by his passion to save animals, he kept bumping up against people in unexpected, life-changing ways. He discovered the last 12 members of a community of human beings, Mongoloid pygmies. He had no common language with them, stuttering notwithstanding, and yet he tells us movingly of connecting with the elder of this tribe in a way that transcended words. With this man who was the last viable male of his race, and who could no longer find a mate, Alan Rabinowitz came to understand that he was ready to marry the woman he loved and begin a family.
I am fascinated, too, that in the span of his career, the science of wildlife conservation has made its own version of this circle — integrating a concern for human thriving as essential to the work of animal preservation. Within a few generations, scientists have learned that the model of isolating endangered big cats in large protected spaces is not a defense against extinction. They need to move far more widely, need to exchange their genetic material, need in fact to coexist with human beings. The projects Alan Rabinowitz works on now are called "genetic corridors." And his organization invests in the flourishing of human communities as part of its investment in the survival of big cats.
There are so many amazing moments in this conversation, especially a story Alan Rabinowitz tells of facing off with a jaguar in a jungle in Belize in a preservation area he had created. The eye contact they shared transported him back to those moments of longing in the Bronx Zoo. But this time they could both walk away and both be free in ways he could not have imagined as a child. And today, as he tells us, he is facing a new inner frontier. He has been diagnosed with a slow-moving cancer that is forcing him anew to see the urgency of his life’s choices — to keep protecting the animals who need him and to be there for his family, including a son born with a stutter, who means the world to him now.
Alan Rabinowitz is as whole and healed as anyone I have ever encountered, by the definition of healing that my wise guests have imparted to me. He has incorporated his sadnesses and wounds, his suffering and grief, into his very identity. They have become part and parcel of the gifts he has to offer to the world. I am better for experiencing his passion and his generosity of spirit towards both animals and humans. I feel grateful to have been in his presence — the presence, indeed, of his wonderful voice. I think you will be too.