Thursday, January 15, 2009


Steep Ravine Trail, Mount Tamalpais, December 29th, 2009
"The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion."
Elizabeth and I devoted the afternoon of my thirty-first birthday to striding down (and then huffing back up) the aptly named Steep Ravine Trail in Mount Tamalpais State Park. During our descent, we paused for a few minutes on a stocky wood footbridge spanning a shallow gully stream. I leaned against the bridge's handrail and appreciated the subtle play of sunlight on the forest's understory, then tilted my head far back to admire the towering canopy. A bird call punctuated the stream's casual susurration.

The impressive montane forest brought to mind a quotation I copied into one of my commonplace books some years ago. In his account of an interview with a Venezuelan native, the celebrated 19th century German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt claims that the Indian critiqued the Christian God of the European explorers and conquerors, observing, "Your god keeps himself shut up in a house as if he were old and infirm. Ours is in the forest and in the fields and on the mountains when the rain comes." Although no rain graced Mount Tamalpais this December 29th, the Indian's god was also mine.

Steep Ravine Trail, Mount Tamalpais, December 29th, 2009

Mount Tamalpais is located in southern Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco. The lush Douglas fir and redwood forests of the region are magical places. They served as inspiration for George Lucas's forested moon Endor and they call to mind the epic majesty of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. (In fact, some "Star Wars" fans reasonably suggest that Lucas named his verdant moon in homage to Tolkien. Tolkien, a celebrated linguist and scholar, invented languages for his fantasy fiction and in the Quenya tongue, one of the elvish languages he created, the word for Middle-earth is Endor.)

Of all Tolkien's creatures, the elegant and noble elves of Lothlorien especially appealed to me when I first read "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings." The elves are wise, fair and gracious beings, but also wild, intimately attached to the world of the hunter and to Nature's ambivalent magic. Twenty years after my first reading of Tolkien's fantasy epic, I still proudly characterize myself as a Nature worshiper.

The economist and sociologist Max Weber famously said that the secularization of society and increasing specialization of methodological inquiry had led to a "disenchantment of the world." Indeed, they have, but Baruch Spinoza's brand of naturalistic pantheism allows for a happy marriage of the material and metaphysical worlds. The two spheres, like the taijitu's yin and yang, are complementary parts of a whole. Necessarily, then, exclusion or disparagement of one of these two realms is limiting.

Although the Enlightenment's separation of reason and imagination, and of science and religion, has yielded exemplary human achievements, it also alienates us from the integrated aggregate. We no longer conceive of the universe (or our experience of it) as coherent or unified; since at least the 17th century, the prevailing philosophical current is Cartesian, depicting the universe as a random assemblage of disparate parts. As a result, those individuals who, like the brilliant 19th century critic John Ruskin, strive to reconcile "the broken harmonies of fact and fancy, thought and feeling, and truth and faith" are considered naive or fey. Even Gershom Scholem, the renowned historian of Jewish mysticism, described his philosopher friend Walter Benjamin's work as "an often puzzling juxtaposition of the two modes of thought, the metaphysical-theological and the materialistic." I align myself with the philosophical dissidents because, like Ruskin and Benjamin, I feel that the material and metaphysical realms are locked in a harmonious, reciprocal relationship. Framed another way, I believe that the mundane is the sacred; I deny the divisive "and."
"My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. So what we have to recover is our original unity."

Steep Ravine Trail, Mount Tamalpais, December 29th, 2009

That December evening, Elizabeth and I motored along Grizzly Peak's ridge line and, as the Pacific horizon took the sun, we admired the colorful strata deposited over San Francisco's hills, city lights and bay. Later, after a lovely dinner in Berkeley, we returned to Elizabeth's home and relaxed with her parents and brothers. It was a superlative day. Yet because I'm accustomed to spending my birthday in brooding solitude, it was also an exceptional one, and therefore I wasn't surprised when, driving to Grizzly Peak, I felt a twinge of regret.

To be sure, the day was nearly perfect, but I had to ignore the call issued by the deep blues and purples of twilight, an invitation to submerge myself in the gathering darkness. I remarked to Elizabeth that it felt very strange to observe my birthday without making space for rumination. We turned onto Grizzly Peak Boulevard. I watched the car's headlights rake across a stand of trees, frightening back the dark.

View of Berkeley and San Francisco Bay, December 29th, 2009

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton described his contemplative practice as "death for the sake of life." Merton may be guilty of rhetorical flourish, but one of contemplation's principal goals is the erasure of self or the death, if you will, of the self-conscious individual. I consider myself lucky; I once experienced release from the first-person, a rare gift in our culture of consumption and distraction. I consider those exceptional moments an ecstatic opening to The All, a glimpse of the integrated, infinite universe.

The word ecstasy is derived from the Greek word for "to stand out of place." On the dike at Heron's Foot, my conscious being was literally outside (or at least without) the self. For a time, the atoms, molecules, cells and organs that comprise "me" were undifferentiated from the greater web. Religious mystics usually refer to this variety of fundamental experience as "seeing God." That name bothers me less than it did in my militantly atheistic adolescence, but I prefer The All (or an apophatic counterpart, The Nothing) because the name possesses majesty and mystery but none of the unfortunate authoritarian baggage. Furthermore, the rituals of institutionalized religion and its "under God" subjects are no more or less valuable than the rituals of the heathen mystic. John Dewey's "live animal" might just as easily be awakened in the gropings of sex as in penitential prayer, and God is just as easily found in the forests of Mount Tamalpais as in the acolyte's cathedral. After all, there is nothing supernatural about ecstasy; it is only a mode of hyper awareness, a more immediate connection to the universe, or at least as much of one as our limited vessels can perceive.

Now, January already half gone, I sit at my day-job desk and look out on Manhattan's East River. The late afternoon sun's angled glow paints the 59th Street Bridge in peach-yellow and refracts off the west face of Citibank's glass obelisk in Queens. A herring gull flaps over Roosevelt Island and the river runs slack as it awaits the pull of outgoing tide. In "Rewriting Nature," an essay published in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik wrote "[Charles] Darwin disenchanted believers in Heaven, but he reenchanted lovers of Earth."

I concur.
"What we have to be is what we are."

Office window view; East River, Roosevelt Island and Queens, January 2008

Note: all indented quotations, Thomas Merton

Photo credits: all images, Hungry Hyaena, 2008


bioephemera said...

Those lush green photos made me reflexively inhale more deeply, as if I could somehow evict the urban air from my lungs through an image. (Who knows? Perhaps I did!) As always, you beautifully convey the dizzying expansion of self that accompanies truly deep meditation in a natural setting.

When I read your Heron's Foot post a year or so ago, I wanted to comment, then realized I had nothing to say but "yes." The times in my life when I have felt the most spiritual are those times when I was alone in nature and lost track of my existence separate from nature. It's a capacity I believe must be hard-wired into us as human beings, but which many people may never have the opportunity to use. I am very happy in my urban home, but a part of myself is defined by my reaction to Nature, and I am certain that part will continue to be defined so, no matter how long I live in a city.

Happy belated birthday.

Jack Christian said...

Chris- Thanks for the post and the ample links. This is a lot of the same stuff I've been thinking about.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Thanks for the thoughtful comment and the belated birthday wishes.


Both you and Jessica might find the Erik Reece essay "Notes from a very small island," originally published in the Nov/Dec issue of Orion Magazine, of interest. It touched me deeply, as has earlier writing of his.