Yellowstone Opens the Doors of Perception

While I was sauntering through woods I mused how quickly the intensity of first impressions fade to extinction. How the frisson of a new place or a face we want to sustain with its original freshness never burns so brightly afterwards, like the turning down of a dimmer switch except the hand that turns it is unconscious.

I was in the backwoods of Montana last week at dawn. I was told to drive past the last ranch on a gravel track to where it peters out at the edge of a lodgepole pine forest that girdles a snow-capped mountain. Part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it is outside the Park and a better place for the only big beast on my list that I hadn’t seen inside. I followed the directions of a local man to signs posted for grizzly habitat.

I left the car to tramp into a dew-soaked meadow where there were wild forget-me-nots, bluebells and lupines in bloom, and crouching among the sagebrush there was a kind of golden sunflower. A Painted Lady flitted around, confused by the choice of flowers to suck for nectar. There was a powerful fragrance of pine resin breathing out of the trees, and it involuntarily triggered a memory flash of another forest walk long ago. The place was so silent only the ringing in my ears kept me from mental numbness. I stood soaking in the scene and scent for several minutes before starting along a forest trail used by riders in the fall who come to hunt elk and mule deer.

This is not a prologue to a terrifying bear story. Sorry! It was the hope of seeing one of those old men of the woods that brought me there, and I was alert because without rummaging in my backpack I wasn’t sure if in the dark cabin to avoid disturbing my wife I might have brought a can of hair spray instead of bear spray.

Ecstatic absorption in a scene obliterates other thoughts and pushes away anxieties, if only for a few minutes. I remember I had the sense of being naturally high before, not always on nature. It is a mysterious emotion of pure being the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart called is-ness, and the best word to capture my feelings for the object is love. As for the bears, I never saw or heard them, and yet wouldn’t exchange that lone stroll in the woods for lying longer in bed. But those feelings are becoming strangers as the days pass. The images, fragrance and silence faded as soon as I started back along the path to the ordinary day.

It’s tempting to wish to live permanently on the heights of exaggerated sensibility, to continue to enjoy the fullness of being in the woods, a new home, a new lover, and all those other special moments that are fleeting. But our minds quickly shut down inputs from our senses, which I suppose protects us from too much distraction in the business of normal life, or even from going mad.  Maybe that’s what T.S. Eliot meant by, “Humankind cannot bear too much reality.”

Arrowleaf balsamroot

Most of the time we look and do not see; we listen and do not hear; we breath and do not smell. That’s my experience. My brain diminishes the world, casting aside unnecessary details I only notice when they are fresh, making it less extraordinary and the experience of being alive less astonishing. Familiar stimuli quickly slip from the mind into a chasm of unconsciousness. The aroma of barbecue fades before the end of the meal, the stale smell of tobacco smoke is not so offensive by the end of the taxi-cab journey. I don’t notice dust on my bookshelf unless a visiting mother-in-law holds up an accusing finger she wiped across its surface. It takes concentrated effort to focus on the same object for long. I mostly achieved it when I was scanning specimens for rare cell types under a microscope, and when I used to draw and paint and had to scrutinize the subject for the finest details.

When the dimmer switch is turned down and our senses are no longer in rapt attention, the mind draws in on itself to internal thoughts and memories. I don’t think it is only introverts who will admit this. l can walk a familiar path without much consciousness of my surroundings, and am sometimes so absorbed in thought (including plans for the next blogpost) that if my dog didn’t steer me away with her leash I could walk into a tree or lamppost.

I wonder if my dog lives a much more sensate, much less introspective life than I do. Both predator and prey animals must remain alert to their environment to capture nuances that help them find food and to survive. Humans are relatively liberated from this urgency because we learned to provide more security for ourselves by controlling our environment and sharing responsibility.

Perhaps early hominids engaged the sensory world more acutely and more like animals, but it seems likely that big differences in natural sensibility exist between modern people. I doubt if this territory has gotten much attention from researchers because it is subjective, but I think artists like van Gogh and poets like Blake had this gift.

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. From The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake

The author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, experimented with mescaline from the peyote cactus and with LSD to induce psychedelic experiences for mimicking the experiences that inspired William Blake’s art. He wrote about the intensity of visions and red-hot poker plants in his book The Doors of Perception, which became a handbook for early hippies. But drugs provide an artificial and forced escape without the fullness of an experience that comes free from nature and empties the mind for liberated senses to fill. Coming out of the internal cavern spontaneously to experience a “high” in the woods was so much more rewarding for being rare, taken by surprise, and not bent under pharmacology.

Next Post: Eunuch Dog on Stilts

 

 

 

Autumn Leaves have Fallen

I remember leaves falling precipitously in Quebec during September when the sugar maples create a blazing mosaic of gold and ruby on forest floors.  But the first snow blots over the colors as it quietly descends layer on layer with few melts over the next months. But here in south-east Virginia fall doesn’t arrive until late October, and then comes on hesitantly, one tree species shedding after another until Christmas, and snow is a stranger.

bronte-poem

Fall is the first love of Quebecoises, but they have more passionate ardor for the first cold kiss of winter when their skis are brought down from attics to wax for the slopes and forest trails. Virginians love their long colorful season, although if you ask gardeners you might hear them groaning.

Lawns turn from greens to browns, and flower borders from dainty asters to crinkly blankets. It is the time to pull rakes out of garden sheds and turn on leaf blowers, which will roar for weeks around the neighborhoods. The red oaks keep their canopies until shortly before Christmas, and if I go outdoors after a windy night I have to tramp through leaves deep and crisp as cornflakes after a tremendous dump. Then the rake comes out again.

I estimate over 50 million leaves fall on our property. Only beech stays covered until spring buds nudge them off. Every species has its reason, except the human kind which has a perverse attitude to leaf fall.

Although the season is now long past, serried ranks of 40 gallon plastic bags still wait at the end of driveways to be carted off to the county dump. Trash to most people, they are bags of treasure to me.

The first neighbor looked puzzled when I asked for his bags, and then curled a smile. “Why sure. Go ahead and take my other trash and a dead animal too.” I didn’t ask others after that. I just threw their bags on the back of the truck, hoping they would be pleased to see an empty driveway.

The leaf thief
The leaf thief

I brought home 75 bags of dry leaves which, on average, weighed 40 lb (18 kg) for a total of some 3,000 lb or 1.5 short/ US tons (slightly less in Imperial tons). Wondering how many leaves I collected, I counted a sample of 1,000, which weighed about 1 lb. According to rough estimates, my haul rounded up to 3 million leaves, but that didn’t include the countless number I raked in the yard. According to an agronomic library used by the Druid’s Garden to estimate chemical composition, I brought home 1,500 lb carbon, 48 lb calcium, 30 lb nitrogen, 7 lb magnesium, and 3 lb each of sulfur, potassium, and phosphorus. Why, you might ask would a leaf millionaire want more? And what makes him a scavenger?

Taking away leaves has the same impact as cropping. It depletes the topsoil of precious minerals and removes carbon captured by trees during the warm months. Returning their goodness replenishes the soil by making chocolate humus. It avoids the need to buy chemical fertilizers to feed the ground and mulch to protect flower beds because dry leaves look attractive, and of course natural, in a woodland garden.

In the right places they are beneficial in every way, and over time they restore soil fertility where it was impoverished by hungry crops, like tobacco which was grown here as a former plantation. Leaves that are not spread around are pressed into leaf bins and baskets to make leaf mold, but they are placed far from tree roots that would try to suck out the nutrients. Black walnut is the only unwelcome species because every part contains toxic juglone.

If practical arguments leave you cold then consider picking a leaf for meditation. To paraphrase William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “To see a world in a bunch of leaves, And heaven in a green leaf…” Leaves capture carbon, exhale oxygen, transpire water, recycle minerals, provide food and shelter for the “little creatures who run the world” (E.O. Wilson), and of course they feed nations with nutritious chow and inspire us with color.

Next Post: My Hunt for a Hellbender