Turning toward the light

peonies at dawn

At first light, peonies catch the sun they have grown toward, facing upward like brilliant trumpets. All around creatures adapted to the dark move toward places to hide. For them, dawn is a chaos of territorial warbling. The steady change they craftily evade empties their nightish niche of its mystery, leaving them dull in their gray hollow. They creep and amble for cover. The world has turned.

The earth tilts a little more toward the sun, and the snows melt and the flowers restore themselves. The gardener returns to his rounds, the daily tasks that join his small doings to a vast progress. He leaves the news unread on good days, ignoring the losing battles, the rebels against reality.

Thinking is better than wishing, as the days lengthen and light floods the landscape’s forms and colors. What was hidden or forgotten returns. It’s the season of real work. Meaning is dependent on truth, which resonates like God’s thunder in the distance, behind the pirouetting retreat of the dark ones, moving through a forest they cannot name.

Waking to the dawn

Mountains at Dawn

Dawn does not come suddenly; instead, the transformation is vast, steady and sure. Things are changing, so there’s an urgency in the bird songs, borne of both exhilaration and defensiveness. It’s an astonishing cascade of beauty, driven by intense necessity. There’s a peace in it, if peace is understood not as idleness but as endless replenishment. “If we can’t find Heaven, there are always bluejays,” said Robert Bly.

First the robins and then the thrushes, before dawn, with their rich, fluty notes and vibrating trills. The singing is both proclamation and invitation. A lot may depend on the right song, at the right moment. I listen in the early morning dark, participating in the great change that has already begun, and that nothing can slow or turn back.

The “dawn chorus” begins in April, as the neotropicals return, full of mating vigor. It will last until mid-July, when things are more settled. Many male birds sing throughout their breeding season, then are mostly quiet for the rest of the year. In the morning, first the robins and thrushes–large eyes, worm eaters. Second the raspy trills of the wrens, insect eaters. Last the seed eaters, the bell-like tinkling of the finches and the whistling ke-chee of the sparrows.

cedar waxwing

Cedar waxwings’ high, thin shree, a series of single notes, is easily missed in the morning chorus.

The dawn chorus is a complex phenomenon, doing many things, including social signaling about territory and mating. The air is tranquil and sound carries perhaps 20 times as well as at noon. Birds awaken at dawn, before insects are active or there’s enough light to see tiny seeds. The chorus is beautiful, in the ways of this world. It’s a beauty rooted in need–a need to make or keep a relationship or to hold onto a place. Creation is work, awakening.

Armies also awaken at dawn. There’s a terrible beauty in the bugles, the shouted orders, the rustle of getting ready, and the vast assemblage of ranks filled with restless men on the move with things to do, things to hope, things to fear.

Some predators are most active at dawn. These crepuscular hunters include bats, cats–house cats but also ocelots and jaguars–stray dogs, ferrets and rats. Hyenas, bears, skunks, nighthawks and owls are also about, stealthy and opportunistic. A lot is undecided in the early morning, as fresh energy floods the earth, stirring our blood and calling us to the day.

Through me the landscape thinks itself

Butterfly on zinnia flower

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail on a yellow zinnia, which is a showy flower rich in nectar—butterflies love zinnias. It’s growing amid a patch of calendula, in front of a stand of blue salvia. The constant work of the pollinators, mainly bees but also some birds and butterflies, is one of the more vivid reminders that a garden is not a “thing” so much as living process. It provides resources for many participants on endless levels.

As I’ve engaged the garden more mindfully, the constant movement of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds drawn to the pollen and nectar has become more vividly present to me, in the course of the slow awakening that is a garden.

At first thought, it’s clear that it is I that am awakening, as what becomes present for me was there before I knew it. But then, I am the garden’s consciousness of what it is—”Through me the landscape thinks itself,” as Cezanne observed. So the garden needs me if it is to awaken to itself.

The garden has less existence without me. I don’t mean my labor, though that is part of it, so much as my awareness of the structured and articulated place I have engaged, without which the garden would be what Nietzsche said the world was without the engagement of a conscious being: “a chaos of sensations.”

So being present to what is present is part of the work—an attentive listening.

When reality is luminous

The growth of grass and trees is directional, as is reality.

The growth of grass and trees is directional, as is reality.

When we have time to relax, we are drawn to places where nature has an epic quality—the seashore, the big sky. At Flathead Lake yesterday, the waves came ashore in endless variations of something ceaseless, an aspect of eternal calm. I felt the familiar trust in the constancy and the lastingness of being, the semblances of order deeper and stronger than trouble.

It may seem too obvious to mention, but the waves have direction as do the growth of grasses and trees. So do the passing of the sun and moon and stars. So do we. The cosmos is order within order. The progress of humanity has occurred by perceiving order in the cosmos, then rendering it in the order of our thoughts, our gardens, our cities, our nations. Reality, as we know it through history, is directional, from seed to fruit, from hut to city, from hunger to plenty, from weakness to strength.

We experience the directional tendency in our souls as longing for a higher reality, something beyond the mundane that we glimpse with emotion that has been described as both joy and grief, or both at once. It’s easy, like Gatsby, to mistake the longing, thinking that it is Daisy that we want. Alcohol and promiscuity are low, inarticulate manifestations of the quest. We all feel the pull of desire drawing us toward something more. When we become conscious of the nature of the longing we can begin living into that desire, pursuing joy in earnest.

Philosophers and prophets have through the ages expressed the sense that reality is moving toward a culmination, and that growing consciousness of that movement, the moments when reality becomes luminous, aware of itself in our consciousness, occur as we drawn from wonder to reason, to clarity, and we find words for what we see.

Getting out of nowhere

The person who cares for a garden gets the most benefit from it.

The person who cares for a garden gets the most benefit from it.

I went to a wedding high up on the hill in Bountiful, Utah, which is one of those towns where you can make a reasonably precise estimate of a person’s wealth and status by how high up on the hill their house is. This was a newly built residence, with the steep hillside tastefully terraced and the terraces landscaped with dozens of flowers and shrubs.

Bountiful is zone 7 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while I come from zone 4 or 5, so there were lots of plants I didn’t recognize.

When I met the owner of the new house, I asked him what a particular plant was, by way of making small talk. He looked toward it as though for the first time, the look on his face vaguely between puzzlement and blankness.

I saw that the landscape was not really his garden. It was an amenity he had purchased, with the cost probably including delivery and installation. The plants didn’t constitute an aspect of his consciousness as is the case with a gardener in his garden. They were just “over there.”

His body was in the garden but it was not in him. Besides not knowing the plant’s name, he also did not know where it was in its life cycle, whether it was thriving or just getting along, or what it might need before winter.

Chimpanzees can't watch a baseball game, even standing on third base.

Chimpanzees can’t watch a baseball game, even standing on third base.

I quickly changed the subject to the weather, but the moment reminded me of an illustration I sometimes use to evoke the hierarchical structure of reality. Imagine a chimpanzee at a baseball game, maybe standing on third base. He can see the batter, the runners, and the glittering lights of the scoreboard. What he can’t see is the game.

There is a level of reality that isn’t accessible to him. He can’t comprehend what’s involved in a situation characterized as bottom of the ninth with two out and the count 3-2. He could never figure out what a bunt is, let alone why it might be used. He can’t wake up to a reality that, for him, will never exist.

We’re all like that to varying degrees. We’re all surrounded by levels of play to which we are oblivious. Things are happening that we do not see, though they are right in front of us. The homeowner could see the colors and the plants. He probably knew how much it all cost. But he was not there, was not present the way a great ball player is in the game.

Writers on place have talked a lot about the how easy it is for us to slip into being nowhere, to have heads full of abstractions that filter out the world around us. In modern America, commercial landscapers play a role in nearly any new development. People move past such places without seeing them in the way that gardens are seen. They can have a kind of perfection, similar to silk and plastic flower bouquets that represent flowers but lack the essence of flowers. The dimension of time—the unfolding, developing, blossoming, fading, drying and decaying—has been minimized, leaving only an aesthetic composition.

Typically, the makers of commercial landscapes rely heavily on hired labor and annuals grown in greenhouses then transported to the location and set in place already blooming. This limits the palette to shallow-rooted and fast-growing flowers likely to flourish in spite of the disruption and to flowers that bloom all summer. Pansies, marigolds, petunias and geraniums are common. Rarely does one encounter columbines, lupines, or surprises.

Sturdy shrubs with trouble-free mulch exemplify the low-maintenance aesthetic, which is driven by converting care, the gardener’s joy, into maintenance, an expense. They are ironic constructs because a carefree garden is nearly an invisible garden. We are left with the sense of a garden, in somewhat the way that Pizza Hut gives us not Italy but a sense of Italy.

The modern mall may be the archetypal modern garden, organized to entice, to evoke what is becoming our primary function: wanting. Desire is the spell such places are designed to cast. We move through an aura of well-being maintained by unseen care and stripped of any sense of time as transience. We move along in our dreamy business, undistracted by care, maybe with a vague sense of wanting something we can’t quite name.

Breaking the spell is easy. We just need to ask what it is for, what it means. This restores the real game, which is to see more, understand more.