“In the woods is perpetual youth.” Ralph Waldo Emerson shared this nugget of subtle wisdom in his 1836 essay, Nature. Originally published anonymously, Nature introduced a new view of life to the Western World. I feel it to be a view we could benefit from as the frantic pace of modern life reaches fever pitch. Nature is precisely where we can discover this wisdom for ourselves – as if for the first time, we can see our unity anew, renewing our purpose and our passion.
Nature is not outside of us, and yet it is all around. We are not separate from it. The same life in every tree branch and blade of grass is alive in us. If only for a moment we allowed ourselves to fall quiet and observe life with a calm mind we would see very clearly the singular intelligence of nature at work within and around us. But we need not run off to Alaska to connect with this force. We can see nature in the city, too, though the speed and noise of urban life often make it more difficult.
Nature moves through cycles. Many we can see. Some we speculate. Others we intuit. Despite our discovery of countless cycles and patterns in nature, I sense we are still guided by far larger cycles than we can see, the magnitude of which we can scarcely conceive. These wider realities may well exist beyond any scale or reason. Though many of us seem to have glimpsed the infinite potential of the source – life’s creative centre – and some attempt to express it, the deepest essence of life remains ever-elusive, immune to scrutiny. But that’s neither here nor there.
Nature’s cycles honour the law of balance, expanding to contract, rising to fall. Similarly, we find ourselves alternating between extremes, in equal need of work and rest. The manic pace of our society demands balance, and many are now awakening to its necessity. On one hand, racing alongside the arrow of time, we are most definitely on the edge of an ever-breaking wave, endlessly evolving, pushing forever onward. But we cannot deny that seasons peak. Nothing grows without eventual decay. Nature shows us this in our solstices and equinoxes. But it is difficult to sense these shifts while we are in the immensity of their midst. The folly of falling empires – as all fall – has been to project an endless reign, blurring the dual truths of now and forever. But eternity has nothing to do with time. Time is temporal, temporary. It comes and goes. Real life is always now.
It is nearly impossible to have perspective from within a picture. But we keep trying to capture the outer frame, convinced it exists. On one level, turning points are undeniable. But beyond all of these cycles and shifts, there seems to be something constant – a background of unchanging presence. What else could register change? Perhaps the calm, detached and unbiased clarity developed through meditation can allow for a greater understanding of wider frames of existence, perceiving shifts as they are taking place.
I recall reading several years ago about a significant global threshold being crossed – the human population had become more urban than rural. Within a few months of this news I read also that more than half of the world owned cell phones. I felt these turning points to be connected, and indicative of a massive global shift, the repercussions of which would surely be felt, however subtly. I thought it was strange that we could have pin-pointed these tipping points so precisely. I wondered if such a critical mass could even be so tidy and finite. Either way, I found myself keen to leave the city, more interested in the whisper of a silent breeze than the ongoing honking of horns. So I headed for the woods to become an earnest student of nature. It taught me a lot.
Caterpillars consume. That is how they spend their entire lives. They have a voracious appetite, which eventually turns inward. After enough consumption the caterpillar begins digesting itself. The butterfly that becomes from within them is born of their life of endless eating. The life of the butterfly is comparatively brief, though beautiful. Butterflies flit about very lightly, drinking a bit of nectar or tree sap, occasionally taking nourishment from dung, rotting fruit or decaying flesh. It is an incredible example of transformation. I imagine the butterfly’s perspective must be quite a shift from the slow and heavy life of a caterpillar.
Looking at it, I sense a parallel between the caterpillar/butterfly life-cycle and that of humanity. Our endless consumption of oil and sugar, among various other vices, will eventually leave us with little else to consume but ourselves. We have been acting like caterpillars for quite some time now. I wonder when we will find ourselves in a collective cocoon, digesting our culture’s fat stores? What will our flowering into butterflies be like? Has it happened before?
Much like sugar speeds us up, packing a condensed punch of energy, I feel oil has similarly sped up our collective evolution. With the rapid extraction and expenditure of energy that has been stored in our planet for millions of years, we have accelerated our civilization so wildly that we are only slowly coming to terms with it. As with any form of growth, experiencing growing pains is common, along with often sloppy leaps forward. It takes time to come to terms with these changes and to level out, eventually gaining clearer perspective in hindsight.
So perhaps Western civilization has peaked and we are just realizing it. It’s not a radical suggestion. There are many signs of this around us. Detroit, once the centre of an unparallelled industrial and economic boom, has been in decline for decades, emblematic of our present direction. The home of the automobile, the birthplace of modern worker’s unions, the city where the assembly line was perfected – have these (albeit valuable) developments reached their peaks? I really don’t know. Might their decay give rise to new and greater structures?
It seems there is some remnant momentum from the early westward settlers of the New World, then encouraged to continue pushing the frontier, told to ‘Go West’. But where does it end? Is the Occident an accident? It may be time to reorient ourselves, to seek balance. We went all the way west, and the wave hitting the coast has been settling for some time now. Some hit the coast and leapt across to the extreme East (whether physically or philosophically), but otherwise, a general mellowing occurred, despite the crowds still flocking there. California, as well as Oregon and Washington, seemed to pave the way for the widespread acceptance of yoga and organics, generally waking people up. It is no surprise that it happened out there first, all the way west, and is now spreading back. Perhaps it will eventually settle us all into a natural balance. But many are still clinging to old habits, patterns and structures, very reluctant to relent. I wonder how much the caterpillar struggles as it becomes a butterfly?
If indeed we are in the midst of a great shift, as many sense, the new phase of life need not be seen as a negative. A ‘recession’ or ‘decline’ is a natural cycle of life, and can bring us into closer contact with the things that truly matter in life. Money is not among them. The buzz of our consumptive guzzle muddles our vision. Even the faintest trace of greed clouds our sight. We need to refrain, to reframe and retrain ourselves in order to see clearly. But the suffering caused by this consumerist chaos is sufficient to alert us and shake us awake. Balance is asserting itself, effortlessly – at apparent peril to many. Whether as active pacifists, passive activists, generally apathetic passengers or any other creative combination of character, our collective excess is awakening many to the madness of our ways, giving rise to a more conscious hand in our continued evolution. But this is a dynamic dance, and we must honour the grunts and nudges of mother nature. Technology need not fade away, but we must first listen to and respect the needs of our host, our home, the centre upon which we spin. We must surrender our short-sighted desires for the demands of life. The more we resist change, the worse it will hurt. All attempts at total control will eventually implode – we are seeing this now. So let’s let go together, with great care and attention, sensing the inborn course of nature, and serving it wisely, easing the transformation. Maybe we will all end up butterflies flitting about lightly, dancing delicately in the dynamic creative centre of life (whatever that might mean).
This has been quite the rant. It is largely unedited and very much ‘off-the-cuff’, chewing on and spewing out a few notions that have been rolling around inside a while. If you made it through it all, please take in what suits you and discard the rest. It looks as though I am railing on cities at times, which have their obvious benefits, though they seem to separate us to the same extent that they press us together. However, I guess our perceptions and behaviours are ultimately up to us. Whether in the city or otherwise, as we become more conscious and respectful of nature’s balance, I believe our society can serve nature instead of stripping it. The planet will cleanse itself of our presence if we are unable to come back into balance. And I sense that we are waking up and responding to this call. As we do so, cities are becoming healthy hubs. But we cannot forget to check in with life in the old-fashioned forest. Am I biased? Would I know for sure one way or another? Maybe I am just ready for some time in the woods. That’s where I am headed. Right now. I wrote much of this last night, in order to keep up with my Monday posting schedule. I am off to hike for a week in Killarney Provincial Park with a friend. I will check in again next week to let you know what I found out in the woods – aside, of course, from perpetual youth.