How Can I Keep From Singing

Found, a note to self from summer, 2003.

The very beginnings of my understanding of the wholeness and complexity of the natural world emerged during a time of great interest and concern about the state of the planet… a time a half century ago when the terms pollution and ecology were new words that young people heard and heeded and responded to by action and changes in their relationship to the Earth: its air, water, soil.

I was one of those young people. Having a natural yearning to extract meaning from nature, my first real job made this my business, attempting to teach students to see, to know and to care. The greatest reward was to hear even one “WOW!” on a field trip, telling me that young man or woman had connected to the life of a plant or protozoan or a habitat in a new and deeper way.

This exclamation said to me that a landmark had been put down on their map of the world, a flag planted in strange territory. They were developing a sense of belonging, a sense of place among the planet’s living menagerie. I continue to struggle to understand the ‘where’ of my existence and appreciate anyone who plant flag for me, even now, full-grown, but not entirely. Hence, much of my recent writing has been ‘about place’, both as a student, and perhaps to some degree, still in the role of a teacher.

In part, my focus on ‘place’ in my writing comes from the observation over decades that this connection with the natural world is steadily being eroded in our times by a dangerous and heady assumption that we have evolved beyond our need for and dependence on the world not created by man.

Many of us have the pernicious illusion that if you’ve seen one tree, or wildflower or forest, you’ve seen them all. The dangers of ignorance or apathy in this disconnect with nature are emotional and aesthetic, practical and spiritual detachment. It comes to mind that the word ‘religion’ literally means to ‘re-connect’.

I hope to play some small part in reconnecting untethered readers, whose hurried lives are removed in time and space from the benefits of connection with nature. Through these words and pixels, it would please me to bring a reader face to face with the essential beauty and truth that can come from a close and reverent attention to the particulars of where they live.

Joy and awe and wonder in the small and ordinary from this beautiful place where I have the great fortune to live brings an intimacy and familiarity that breeds respect. Over time, this kind of immersion will engender a deeper understanding of my own place in this created cosmos of order and my purpose in it.

Beyond the realm of poetry and esthetics and spiritual reverence, writing about place for me is an offering of hospitality. Readers are like visitors, neighbors, friends. It would be rude of me to have company drop by and not make them feel ‘at home’, and it would be thoughtless not so show them where things are, to describe to them the usual pattern and familiar routine of our day here in this quiet valley.

This is not the safest kind of writing, to be sure. There is an element of risk in writing about place in this way, requiring from me, the writer, a tearing down of walls and yielding of privacy. To write of place in this way demands a self-disclosure before my reader when I relate the details of my relationship to this place in every season.

In return for this vulnerability, my self-revelation may dispel distrust and distance and hesitancy, and build community. My house is your house; my creek and valley, likewise. Writing about place and having visitors ‘come here’ in this way allows me to have company without having to serve refreshments or make the bed!

As a new writer, I have faced the dilemma of finding my subject matter by heeding what is perhaps the most frequently suggested way to begin writing: Write what you know. I know how I feel spending a day in our little mountain valley in summer wading the nameless creek, turning rocks for stoneflies and water pennies under a canopy of a million living leaves filled with bright birds. I want you, the reader, to come with me, to get your feet wet and see what I’m seeing. And I want you to care.

The human senses are a magnificent gift often squandered in meaningless passive watching or ignored beyond mere survival utility. I want not to be guilty of either sin. Being here to see and smell, to hear and feel and know… is a vast and precious blessing. I am at last in a place waiting for me ‘since the foundations of the world’.

I know that I belong to this place more than it belongs to me, and feel it living through me. And in the words of a favorite old hymn, “How can I keep from singing?”