Enchanted Islands

Now also at Urbanwildland.org

A long, thin, dove grey cloud hung over the Nordhoff ridge, floating like an island in the sky. Enraptured by its color, morphology and juxtaposition I stood and watched as the water vapor slowly changed shape: a shoreline receding here, a mountain swelling there and an islet calving from the mother island's northern promontory.

In those last days of June, it was preternaturally still, unusually humid and very warm.

Early in the morning the sky is awash with a pale silver that my right, metaphor seeking brain reads as ocean and the darker, grey clouds as land or occasionally Cetacea. Come evening, the intense blue canopy has spent the day being over-written by blossoming contrails and criss-crossing wind strewn wisps of stratus (belying the thick stasis at the ground) while bright clouds have drained towards the horizon and sit glowing atop mountain ridges.

Earlier, there was bird song, swirling across the morning - in a shrill punctuation of the temporal equilibrium. The silhouettes of diving, jinking, spiraling creatures paper time and space: black or brown, sometimes with flashes of white against sky or the massed shrubs of the chaparral - they are birds mostly unknown to me, but eerily familiar. One stands out for its sleek raffishness. Almost all black, revealing flashes of under-wing white only in flight, it is crowned with a ragged, gothic crest. It has the distinction of being the only bird in either Sibley's or Peterson's Field Guide to Birds that has no common name. It is known simply by its Latin genus, Phainopepla. Our specimen is almost anorexic in its slimness, crowned with punkish head feathers - aloof, alone and attitudinal.

At last light, the sky is washed almost clean of cloud; a few vaporous bruises to the west flush with pink, Venus is a bright jewel and just above, a more reticent Jupiter; an almost full moon has risen over the eastern ridge - it's light glittery behind a last remnant of wind-frayed cloud.

A realignment of the human presence on planet Earth, such that it is symbiotic with the rest of the natural world, rather than antithetical, might begin with such an embrace, by the collective human consciousness, of the enchantments that nature offers. Theory: I am enthralled by the physical, emotional and spiritual emanations of our enveloping life-giving atmosphere and its ecosystems so there's a chance that that makes me more concerned about their stewardship – and that chance, I think, is worth propagating. So I try to be alert to these experiences, and when sufficiently moved, to write about them.

Many have written of our relationship with the natural world (of which we are intrinsically a part) by enveloping this association in myth, fairy tale or Jungian archetypes. Nature both mirrors and impacts our psychological demeanor and in literature it is routinely evoked to suggest mood: the titles, Under the Volcano (Joseph Lowry, 1947), A High Wind In Jamaica (Richard Hughes, 1928), The Man whom Trees Loved (Algernon Blackwood, 1912) and Jean Giorno's Song of the World, 1934, all denote works where natural elements have agency in shaping human destiny.

But increasingly, nature is seen as a place to establish facts rather than mood: to be experienced objectively rather than subjectively. The divide, between those who see the natural world exclusively as an arena of empirical study and those whose embrace encompasses a more pluralist range of enquiry is neatly summed up by the descriptors, Scientist and Naturalist. More broadly, the prism through which one views nature offers a spectrum that spans from science to religion. Locating its value is dependent on your viewpoint. The British Romantics and American Transcendentalists sought a universal spirit that an etheric nature might reveal while those with a more materialist bent, shaped by a rationalist intellectual tradition founded in the mid-seventeenth century, seek scientific information and biological wealth that might add to humankind’s comfort, well-being and prosperity. Both positions demand something of nature.

In calling for an ‘ecocentric spirituality’ Patrick Curry in Ecological Ethics, 2006, suggests that the problem lies with our firm distinction between the material and the spiritual, inherited from Platonism, Christianity and modern science. He writes that “We shall never be able to understand and appreciate nature until we re-learn to see it both as ‘spiritual’ subject and ‘natural’ object”. Desacralizing nature, a key feature of the modernity project, is the pre-requisite of its commodification, and to that extent resacralization is critical to any solution to the global environmental problems caused by such exploitation.

How we achieve such a thing presumably begins with childhood experience. With some friends in the Arbolada, sitting around an outdoor table, with crickets chirping and frogs croaking as sonic background to a velvety Ojai evening, talk turned to the issue of grandchildren growing up with i-phones and Androids and by extension, missing out on the self-made nature play with which we had all grown up. Richard Louv summed it up in the title of his 2005 book, The Last Child in the Woods, Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. E.O.Wilson has developed the notion of biophilia, by which, as a part of our array of adaptive mechanisms, we are all instinctively drawn to nature.

Given such an innate predilection, only opportunity, it would seem, needs be provided to ensure continuation of this bucolic tradition. I certainly enjoyed opportunities both at home, where my father route-marched my sister and me over hill and dale and the village school where so-called nature walks were an essential part of the curriculum. My early education was thus still very much under the influence of the nineteenth century naturalist Louis Aggasiz, who insisted that children study nature not books. This pedagogical approach worked well at the local Parish school I attended where only the most precocious students learnt to read before moving on to Secondary school at age eleven. I was a veritable prodigy and mastered the art at age nine, and quickly went on to devour the entire Enid Blyton canon.

Based on my experience, early-reading might be as big a culprit as the availability of electronic media in keeping children out of the woods. The Waldorf curriculum of early childhood education developed by Rudolph Steiner, actively attempts to inculcate a sense of wonder in children by deferring reading until nine. Children are encouraged to believe in elves and other elemental spirits that then animate a mysterious natural world. Reading nature thus prefigures a more conventional literacy. Is it far-fetched to believe that this might facilitate what Curry calls “a pluralist, embodied and locally engaged ecological spirituality”?

I haven’t seen the Phainopepla these last few days. Our Houston weather (as someone described it to me) has broken and normal service resumed: a thick marine layer in the mornings shrouding the towns of Ojai and Santa Paula - we, up above it all on the upper reaches of Bear Creek - then warm and sunny days. This morning, a sea of fog lapped at Black Mountain at the west end of the upper valley, its cone shape (as seen from Koenigstein) circumscribed by the enveloping fog, creating the swirling, vaporous shoreline of an enchanted island on the land.

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