LANDSCAPES GREAT AND SMALL
I have no answers, I just ask questions.
have a habit of holding onto things that are dead. I desire the
feel of the familiar, even if its empty and no longer useful.
Touch is something both open and shut: open for space to pass through
and shut against any full separation. There are many dead things
around me that I hold dearly. My bed is made from a dead thing.
So is the top of my kitchen table.
Both books, bindings and pages alike, and the shelf they sit upon in the
living room are made from things once living, although the ideas inside
them are alive.
My drawing pad and pencils are made from dead things.
So is all the paper I carry folded in my pocket baring the inscription
Novus Ordo Seclorum, and In God We Trust. By
holding all these things, I keep them from going back to dirt. Other dead
things pile on dead things in my kitchen. Cereal containers are shadows
of their former selves. Just how much respect do I have for a carton of
milk? How much do I respect a carton of anything when I didnt shape
paper from tree, or grow what it contains? Convenience allows me not to
assess my immediate impact. Respice, Adspice, Prospice. A Latin saying
regarding the examination of past, present and future. I did not fell
the tree that is now my living room cabinet. I have no idea where it came
from. It stands in my living room, away from the forest floor and certain
transformation. I dont know how my having it impacts the place where
it grew. The loss is outside my experience because I cant walk through
the clear cut; I cant touch it.
Do we, more than other animals fight the turn of the key? Other animals
have memories. Dogs, cats and primates, to name a few, can hold onto pain
and learn to mistrust if they are ill-used. In this learning, humans have
many companions. The re-learning, the deliverance, the emergence through
the manifestation of art is what makes us unique. We are the only beings
who emerge this way. All these dead things are not dead because someone
has made them into something else. My eyes are only half open as I walk.
These thoughts occupy the majority of my attention. I am forgetting to
look at ferns and their resurrections, count lichens, notice newly growing
Preoccupied, I am forgetting to see. My primary occupation on walks is
to notice things. The world around me is shifting and I am forgetting
to hold on.
Programmed for change, all these little growing things are moving on without
Why do I come, if it is not to watch them let go?
A co-worker, regarding a particular she has said, Its my
nature. Ive heard other people make the same comment. What
is nature human? I suppose it is important to separate things in order
to get a better chance to examine them, as long as all the segments are
put back together upon examination.
Sometimes, as I investigate, I feel like one of the five blind men in
that fable about an elephant. Each of the five stands at their separate
station feeling along the animal. Using their fingers to see, each is
all encompassed by their investigation. After exploration, each of the
five think they know all. Im over here. I have investigated the
tail and am now convinced I know every aspect of what I have been studying,
not realizing there is the whole rest of the animal yet to be explored.
You are down near the trunk. We will argue if you tell me your findings
are different from mine.
If everything is of nature, then nothing is unnatural. I am human, other
than animal. If I am human, and what I make is separate from nature and
animals, then is what I make natural? Nature didnt make it, I did.
If what I make isnt natural, art or otherwise, does that negate
my nature to be a creative being? Using this definition, human nature
means to be unnatural, to be beyond nature. If I am beyond nature, why
do I still need food, drink, sleep and shelter, both for skin, and a domicile
to rest in? Why do I need to touch, to dream? Why am I still stimulated
by what I watch, what I smell, what I hear? Are only parts of me natural
and the rest artificial? What about parts I may need, like mechanical
heart valves and fillings? Does having them, because they were make by
unnatural beings like myself, make me more or less human? The trees dont
make ferns, lichens or moss on their trunks, roots and branches. They
were made by nature. Dirt doesnt make seeds. Plants and trees make
them. Wasps build with mud and paper. Is what they make no longer natural?
What about anthills and beaver dams? If a squirrel buries an acorn and
it grows into an oak tree, is the tree artificial because it was planted
rather than dropped? Is bark that is ground to dirt by my feet less natural
than dirt that was broken down by the elements? Is consciousness a precursor
for the unnatural? I have no answers, I just ask questions.
Maybe you have some. You, after all, are standing at another part of the
Dirt and animals are both looked on disparagingly, as something other
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition, Unabridged,
defines dirt as Any foul or filthy substance, as mud, grime, dust
moral filth; vileness; corruption. Animals have
a duality about their definition. On the one hand, they are Any
member of the Kingdom Animalia, comprising multicellular organisms that
have a well defined shape and usually limited growth, can move voluntarily,
actively acquire food and digest it internally, and have sensory and nervous
systems that allow them to respond rapidly to stimuli. On the other
hand, they are, Any such living thing other than a human being,
or pertaining to the physical, sensual or carnal nature of humans,
rather than their spiritual or intellectual nature.
Attributes of dirt and other animals do make them different from human.
Interesting that these differences are something to disparage. If I am
of the Kingdom Animalia, then would not all my attributes as a human be
some aspect of the animal kingdom? It is the contemplation of attributes
that are found in dirt, animals and humans that make me shiver. I dont
like being compared with something foul or filthy. I dont
think of myself as moral filth;vileness;corruption. These
terms have been used to separate in a way that disparages the beauty of
all concerned. I have read that the most common element found in earth
Hydrogen and oxygen mix to fill the atmosphere, making that mostly water.
The majority of each individual human is liquid. The rest, bundles of
cells. Inside, we humans carry our own weather system, eruptions and drifting.
Once flush becomes arid as we slowly evaporate. Like the earth, each of
us is an ecosystem. Over time, production ceases in some places. They
become brittle. Others continue to crank out new product until the next
phase of existence; the great roller coaster glide back to the ground.
Whether we like it or not, as much as we hold on, we are pro creation.
We are pro mutability. We are also more mobile than many as we shift our
environment. We dig to untuck the tangible aspects of nature. Those most
tangible to us are the ones we make. And yet, with this untucking, we
push forth our nature to create, and make nature intangible by calling
it unnatural. Tables, doors and books are no longer called tree.
Sidewalks are no longer called shell. Lines of rock are still
called rock, with the qualifying title of wall
added for clarity. We fail to see the interface between what we do and
what happens in the rest of the natural world. What we make we view as
organized. What is transformed by natures nature we call disordered.
the Indian has assumed a deep ethical regard for the earth
and sky, a reverence for the natural world that is antipodal to the strange
tenet of modern civilization which seemingly has it that man must destroy
his environment. It is the ancient ethic of the Native American that must
shape our efforts to preserve the earth and the life upon and within it.
A First American Views His Land, N. Scott Momaday
We desire dominion. Unlike the original inhabitants of this country who
saw parallels and parable in everything, we see parallels and parable
in almost nothing. All our knowledge is scattered in separate classifications.
This separation is causing us to loose the very thing we are hoping to
gain, understanding. Biological divisions progress as kingdom, phylum,
class, order, family, genus, and species. Using these distinctions, we
can point and say, We are not the same as a beaver. We can
even use scientific classification for our argument.
Genetically, we are a different family, different genus, a different species.
Further, we can confirm our difference through simple observation. Without
x-rays our tails are invisible. Our teeth dont protrude in a manor
befitting wood chewing. Yet, we would be only half right if we made distinctions
based upon these things. We share a kingdom, a subphylum and a class.
We are both Animalia,Vertebrata, Mammalia.
Beaver buildings, called lodges, can be as wide as 5 feet
and as tall as three feet. They build entrance ramps to their buildings.
They build dams, reinforcing them with mud and stone. They build canals
to carry the logs they fell to their construction sites. They have even
been known to build on to dams humans have made.
Their dams create ponds, which can become woodland meadows. Native Americans,
through observations like these, called other creatures brother.
Does not science, using different terminology, also confirm this overlap?
Who is the more accurate, a Native American for saying brother,
or a scientist for identifying similarities that call us both animal mammals
I placed a jar in Tennessee, And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness Surround that hill.
Anecdote of the Jar, Wallace Stevens
Ironically, all these classifications are a heuristic device designed
to make communication flow more easily. With our one word classification
system, humans have found a way to delineate what we force into being
from that other elements of nature make.
Our accomplishments we call culture. We call them civilization. What nature
forces into being can be called anything from nuisance to disaster.
Admittedly, I dont feel much like a force of nature when I face
the prospect of a hurricane in New Orleans or an ice storm in Connecticut.
The idea of being in the presence of unseen microbes that could possibly
kill me doesnt excite me either. Faced with something that is so
much bigger than I am doesnt exactly make me feel like a force of
nature. But I am. With enough of the right materials, I could move a mountain.
Literally. Mining operations do it regularly, not to mention those who
construct the vast tubes and channels of the interstate highway system
that allows me to travel back and forth from Connecticut to New Orleans,
and anywhere else for that matter. Maybe humans dont fully grasp
our force because it is difficult to see during the course of daily life.
Maybe humans dont want to see it over the course of daily living
because it would remind us we are still small, life is still short and
we have only so much time before we will become something that will long
out last us : dirt.
clearing the last Section of trail by noon,
High on the ridge-side Two thousand feet above the creek
Reached the pass, went on Beyond the white pine groves
Above Pate Valley, Gary Snyder
a soft continuous roar comes out of the valley of the six-lane highway-
thousands and thousands of cars driving men to work.
© Karel Sloan May 2002
"Karel Sloane" firstname.lastname@example.org
Karel is a published
poet and writer. Most recently
published in VOICES ALONG THE RIVER,
a publication put together by the Connecticut Department of
Environmental Protection and the Kellogg Nature Center
and THE FOURTH RIVER, an online publication of
Chatham College's Masters in Writing program.
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More to come from Karel next week.