Who We Are At the Edge

“I become a transparent eyeball,” Emerson wrote. “I am nothing.”

I am always reminded of this phrase when I am overcome with inexplicable awe in the face of natural, untouched beauty. Never had I more fully resonated with this transparent eyeball sensation than when I stood at the edge of a shocking drop-off on a cliff in Yosemite. Looking down, it felt as if I was being swallowed by the enormity of the valley beneath me. The elegant ebbs and flows of the meticulously crafted edges of the mountain seemed to have been created with the sole purpose of holding within it luscious streams of sunlight.The endlessness and enormity of the view left me speechless.

I daringly sat at the edge, letting my hiking boots hang high above the valleys beneath me as I considered the importance of nature in my life. We humans — especially city dwellers like myself — find this constant need to escape into nature. In my endless pursuit to escape into it and then define what it means to “belong to nature,” I often run into an invisible but impenetrable barrier. By observing nature and so desperately wanting to belong to it, I am not existing fully within it.

It is in these moments of contemplation that my hiking boots suddenly feel clumsy and my intent gaze feels silly. The more answers I seek out, the more distant I feel, and the more of an appendage I become. My distance is evident in my awe. In my attempt to understand nature, I remove myself further from it. I seek to give it definition, but perhaps it cannot be defined. Emerson’s understanding of full immersion into nature became an ideal that I could not fully conceptualize.

It was when I found my gaze following a crow soaring through the sky that I found the beginning of an answer. It’s path effortlessly traced the irregular edges of Yosemite’s shape, plunging into the valleys below and then soaring into the clear blue sky above. So small was it in comparison to the grandeur of the mountain, yet it was so fully a part of the moment I was witnessing.

In my endless pursuit to find answers through the works of great poets, authors, and scientists and experiences of my own, I continued to solidify this thing called “nature.” In The Perception of the Environment, Tim Ingold writes, “For the world can exist as nature only for a being that does not belong there, and that can look upon it, in the manner of the detached scientist…” I was that detached scientist while “nature” simply did not exist for the crow. As I watched the crow ascend through the valleys, hugging the swelling curves or diving into the elegant hollows, I realized that nature was not a separate entity for the crow: it not only belonged to nature, it was a part of it. There was no effort in its belonging, no question of its purpose. The crow did not see what I did because nature was as central to its existence as the feathers on its body. Having never been separated from nature, it had never experienced it as an external notion. So I asked myself: would I rather exist as a human always in wonderment but drowning in a constant search to find meaning? Or would I rather be a bird, who may be blind to its beauty but splashes wholeheartedly in the sea of Yosemite?

Hypnotized by the artistry of the crow as it stroked the valleys of Yosemite, I became paralyzed for just a moment, a moment in which I realized what it meant to be a “transparent eyeball.” While I was fully absorbed in the scenery around me, the enormity of the mountains rendered me non-existent. I released my grip on my quest to understand nature, embracing my smallness as a form as invincibility in the way the crow had shown me. Compared to Yosemite, my existence will last the blink of an eye. I will be outlived no matter my strength. But by belonging to nature, I am imprinted into that undefinable character of nature which has no beginning or end, has no quantifiable quality, carries a constantly transforming identity and is ubiquitously present. That moment of full integration into nature bared a universal truth: I may not have the power to create a ripple in the still sea of undulating rock before me, but I can splash as wildly and imaginatively as I desire.