Monday, September 28, 2009

The Scripture of Nature

The calendar turns the page to autumn, and the weather responds with a few warm days, sultry even, reminiscent of summer. You need to go outdoors first thing and walk through the soft, shady air of the back garden in shirtsleeves, thinking of nothing in particular, with no need to analyze what’s doing well (or isn’t) and what needs watering. The mood is gentle. The sun is low; it’s a semi-shade garden now that the sun is low. The morning glory, as if responding to the late warmth, has one of its spectacular days, big light blue and pink flowers; some smaller dark ones, a minor key complement. Other fall flowers: the asters are peaking. The garden mums (“garden” apparently meaning perennial) are just about to open. The toad lilies (the flowers are spotted) not quite; they are true late bloomers and will wait for October. I walk the path, and the day has a soft, reclusive, in-a-quiet-way ambience. No construction rumbles, no lawn machine noises anywhere, no kids, no traffic, I can’t even hear the trains from the square, so after a moment or two I become aware of the natural sounds. One cricket, probably the kind of green-winged thing I see continually hopping out of reach as I walk among the plants (so possibly some kind of grasshopper?) keeps up a tenor solo as I take my solitary walk through the garden maze. It’s a late summer song. Give him a few more degrees, and he’s back and still at it: here I am, here I am, still at it! (Though it’s hard for an outsider to see what the purpose can be this late in the year.) He quiets as I draw near, within a couple of feet, then starts up immediately when I take a half step away: gotta sing, gotta sing… The next voice is less attractive. Up in the arboreal highway, the place where the branches of the oak tree leverage over to the branches of a maple tree, squirrels can handle the crossing, easily, no sweat. The squirrel perches on the oak tree side of the bridge and beeps his barking little horn. Generally, this scolding signals squirrel confrontation. But I look, and I can’t find another. Is he barking at me? Oh, the cat is underfoot. Does her bland and indifferent presence merit this display of dissuasive noise?
Plants – natural places – are thought “sinks,” emotion sinks, agitation sinks. They absorb the agitations of the world, the way on the chemical level plants, forests, salt marshes, etc. are “carbon sinks,” absorbing excess carbon dioxide. This is why – the mental side, not the carbon – gardens have always been planted all over the world. Why the monks worked in them, walked in them. Walking in a garden is a little prayer.
But who invited that tacky squirrel?

The phrase “the scripture of nature” comes from watching the first part of the Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks last night. The idea is that wilderness must be preserved because in experiencing it human beings who spend their lives in a manmade world “come home” to their own beginnings in the wild. It was a spiritual notion for the park system’s founders because nature is “creation.” Experiencing the world in its wild, original state gets us close to God; we need untrammeled nature to feel divinity in our bones.
No one would call our little yards and gardens wild or untrammeled nature, but the same forces live here, close to home, as they do in Yosemite and Yellowstone. The Big Nature of the parks is creation on the grand scale; our gardens are miniatures. As the poet says, we can see the universe in a grain of sand.
Another phrase stayed with me too – the description of Yosemite as “a grand landscape garden.” Creation, whether divine or purely material, works on a big canvas, gardeners work on a little one.