Sunday, November 6, 2016

Revisiting smallness

We're in the midst of a cruel fall drought here, and until yesterday it was enhanced by weirdly summer-like heat. The temperatures have eased a little, but it still feels as if this will be the year without an autumn. The colors are muted, the dust heavy. There are no glorious leaves in flame, and those moody, mild gray days—soft with light rain and so perfect for walking and thinking—are AWOL. This somehow seems in keeping with the grim news out in the world. It's a cruel year all around.

This dry season has reminded me of a much worse one that hit us in the summer of 2007, when the drought combined with extraordinary heat. That, too, was a year when people kept saying, "I can't remember anything like this," and there was an ominous feeling that something was not quite right with the planet. Europe had its own heatwave that year, and there were terrible wildfires in Greece. And, of course, there was also correspondingly grim news directly created by humans. When is there not?

At the end of that terrible summer of 2007, the editor at the Nashville Scene asked me to write an essay about the coming fall. I hadn't given that piece a thought in a long time, but this year's crappy autumn made me curious to go back and reread it. I was surprised to see how much it echoed, in less mystical language, the quotation I posted last week from Robinson Jeffers — a passage I'd never read until shortly before I posted it. I knew Jeffers had a big influence on me (see the title of this blog), but I was a little startled to see the direct parallel.

Jeffers's aggressive anti-humanism, or what some call misanthropy, has become more problematic for me as I've gotten older. I have less and less use for rage, and there's no denying the rage bubbling underneath much of his work. And yet at the core of his vision there is, as he says, peace, freedom, and great, transcendent beauty. That's also what I find when I try to look beyond human concerns. In my essay for the Scene, I wrote:

Jettisoning our idea of ourselves as masters of our domain may not be very gratifying to the ego, but it frees us to interact with nature in the most intimate way. We can look at a spider web and really see it, without analyzing its architectural impressiveness or recoiling from its “ick, a bug” factor. It simply is at that moment. We can experience it as a manifestation of life on earth, not greater or less than ourselves—in fact, not separable from ourselves. When we put aside our expectations, and yes, even our sense of responsibility, then we can truly understand our very small place in the universe.

In a time of turmoil, climatic and otherwise, I find my smallness very comforting. You can read the rest of my piece, "Fall Disclosure," here.

Photo by BitterGrace, taken on October 24, 2016

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