Learning From the Natural Environment
As I am writing this, I am sitting on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon Arizona USA. I am experiencing a range of emotions and senses, including an overwhelming appreciation of the natural beauty that surrounds me. My eyes dart from one detailed micro-landscape to the next, with stunning abstract visual forms occupying at least 180º of my vision. I am also alive to the winds and sounds of this place, and the experience is accompanied by a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I feel as if, at any moment, I could burst into tears. There is also a very real sense of danger (vertigo) that is gently stirring a flight or fight reaction in me, and earlier, although not so much now, there was, surprisingly, also a dull sense of disconnection with my surroundings. Perhaps this was caused by the lack of perspectival information, or my inability to ‘take in’ what I was seeing. Or perhaps, although I do not dare to admit it, a small part of me preferred to dismiss the image entirely. In any case, I am pleased to say that I am not experiencing this sense of disconnection now – I now, in fact, feel very much connected to what I am seeing.
Perhaps this experiential explanation is enough; however, I feel compelled to delve a little deeper and examine my feelings from a psychological perspective. Firstly, the staggering dimensions of this 3-dimensional space (1 mile deep and 10 miles wide) seem to automatically supply me with a means of ‘expanding’ my inner self. I have experienced this before in other locations, but what is different about this setting, is the immediacy of time passing over millennia - that is the time that it has taken for the rocks to accumulate in various strata/layers, and to then be eroded away by the Colorado river. Science offers a surface-level explanation: The stratification has occurred at an average of 1mm per 1000 years, over 2000 million years building the rocks up to a thickness of 1.6 KM. At times the accumulation has been much faster (and much slower too) - for example, when undersea, the accumulation was roughly 1m per 1000 years. At the very bottom of the canyon, where it has taken the Colorado river 6 million years to reach, I can clearly see the dark grey and massive ‘Vishnu Mountains’ - an ancient range that formed 2000 million years ago. And now (departing from science) it is as if the river has cut into the very heart of creation itself – into the very flesh of my archetypal and primordial history that extends back to a time before time existed - when serpent-like creatures and God-like forces freely sculpted the earth. The two types of immensity - space and time, are overwhelming my capacity to perceive them.
As I experience this phenomenon, I am acutely aware of ‘placing myself’ in all this vastness, and that there seems to be a natural inversion taking place between my own intimacy and this stunning immensity. Both space and time are at my disposal. My most intimate self extends throughout this immensity as far as the eye can see, and my immediate ‘now’, instantaneously becomes the eons of time past and future eons to come. My juxtaposed spatialities and temporalities have become one system, which excites me greatly, and renders me spiritually charged, but also exposes deficient qualities in my biological self, including a feeling of insignificance and impermanence. In this moment I am forced to change my worldview from my ordinary ego-centric awareness, to one which embodies all things including my insignificant self - and in pondering this, I feel a little sad. I would not be exaggerating to say that I feel a slight sense of loss - like longing for a distant loved one.
In summary, it seems that my vision of immense eternity is freely inverting with my feeling of intimate finiteness – or to put it another way – both images are united, and mostly indistinguishable in their spatiality and temporality.
John Coulter June 2013
Expanding on this point a little further, the precise point of connection between the intimate and the immense – between the Sonic Artist and the natural environment is stated, according to Milosz, below. The extract is taken from Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.
‘As I stood in contemplation of the garden of the wonders of space,’ Milosz writes, ‘I had the feeling that I was looking into the ultimate depths, the most secret regions of my own being; and I smiled, because it had never occurred to me that I could be so pure, so great, so fair! My heart burst into singing with the song and grace of the universe. All these constellations are yours, they exist in you; outside your love they have no reality! When you felt so alone and abandoned in the presence of the sea, imagine what solitude the waters must have felt in the night, or the night’s own solitude in a universe without end!’ And the poet continues this love duet between dreamer and world making man and the world into two wedded creatures that are paradoxically united in the dialogue of their solitude. (Bachelard 1962:189).
Later in the text Bachelard offers an elaboration: “It would seem then, that it is through their ‘immensity’ that these two kinds of space – the space of intimacy and the world space blend. When human solitude deepens, then the two immensities touch and become identical. In one of Rilke’s letters, we see him straining towards ‘the unlimited solitude that makes a lifetime of each day, toward communion with the universe, in a world, space, the invisible space that man can live in nevertheless, and which surrounds him with countless presences. This coexistence of things in space to which we add consciousness of our own existence, is a very concrete thing”… The being-here is maintained by a being from elsewhere. Space, vast space, is the friend of being. (ibid 1962:203, 208)