Beauty – essential connection in a time of diminishment

Posted June 10th, 2011 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Beauty – essential connection in a time of diminishment

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

The weather news has been harsh all year long in many parts of our world. This country has seen some bad stuff, no? Floods, drought, tornadoes, scorching heat waves, wildfires. The other night, in anticipation of the cold front breaking the back of our heat wave, we had storm warnings unlike anything I had heard of around here – predictions of life-threatening damaging winds in excess of 100 mph. Fortunately, by the time they got here, they were below hurricane level.

Sunlight on fog creates arc across Lake Michigan

Still, it was an awe-striking 30 minutes or so.

Arizonans have never seen anything like it, this raging wildfire still out of control. Could burn for weeks. Is headed now into New Mexico and threatening electric power lines that could darken many cities and towns just as the summer heat takes hold. This isn’t just result of the long drought but also the mismanagement of the forests. People don’t want their forests to burn, even though nature has been burning them periodically from time immemorial as a way to control growth. But now you have houses and resorts and legal battles over how to manage the trees and the lumber (the word used when forests become commodities) and so you have the mix of drought and forests that are now too dense with too much underbrush. An errant campfire, a gust of wind, a record-breaking wildfire with a ferocity that gives it a life all its own.

Florida continues in extreme drought. Lakes are sinking, water sources for farms and people are threatened, wildfires are breaking out. All across the south, drought is threatening to put the lie to all that development, all those economies that thought more folks moving in and more water for development of energy sources and housing and retail would be a great boon to local pocketbooks and tax revenues.

All this as we emerge from months of record flooding all along the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, and now in the mountain west where record snow pack is melting under higher-than-normal temperatures. Scientists are telling us that this extreme abnormal weather is the new normal. And this only the beginning of the climate impacts to come.

A walk on Lake Michigan May 15

You’d think a species emerging out of a habitat would care for it rather than rip it to shreds. Just another reminder of the mistake we made when we came to believe that we were given these brains of ours as a sign of our superiority over nature rather than a gift from it and of it. Our minds, too, are nature and need to remain in their proper place within the whole. Any part of nature that gets out of whack will impact everything else.

And so we have changed climate patterns, overused the living systems of our habitats, ripped living systems apart, altered water flows, spread our toxins everywhere – and still we are surprised with every shock that reverberates from our abusive behavior.

Which made me want to write about beauty as essential to our experience of connection with nature. Our sense of beauty, which has created cultures and religions and art and song, comes out of nature, not out of our heads. As we go through our days staring at little screens, driving on congested roads, going to jobs that sap our spirits rather than nurture them, visiting shopping malls rather than the woods, cranking up the volume rather than listening to the sounds of wind and rain and waves rippling on the shore – we are also losing our ability to feel, to experience, the vast diminishment that is going on all around us, what I like to call ‘The Great Unraveling.’

As the richness of our exuberantly diverse natural world frays and diminishes, so does the human spirit because there is no disconnection between the two. We see it in the ongoing incursion of a mono-culture of global capitalism that has spread across the planet, and in its wake leaving frayed cultures, peoples groping for meaning and identity as we lose our sense of roots and ‘place,’ those things that give rise to culture and meaning.

Fog burns off Lake Michigan shore

And yet, and yet, frayed as it is, it is not gone, and I believe some of the most important work going on in response to the diminishment is the reclaiming of roots and place, a fierce defense of the community of living and non-living beings that anchor us and our identities, a passionate commitment to the beauty that remains knowing that as long as it does remain there is hope for renewal and regeneration, of new expressions of life and creativity within the vast community of evolutionary unfolding of which we are a part.

I am fortunate that, while living in a city, I have only to walk out the back door of my beat-up little flat and walk across the park to be at the shore of Lake Michigan. It is a compromised eco-community, withstanding a couple of centuries of assaults by westerners, uprooted Europeans (like my own ancestors), missionaries and fur traders, tradesmen and beer barons, railroads and truckers, commercial fishermen and shippers. It is polluted, threatened by invasive species, its fish too toxic to eat (though many still do). Some see it only for its recreational purposes, assaulting it with jet skis, leaving the beaches littered with plastic bottles, beer cans, and condoms.

One of my neighbors

And yet, and yet… What creates such a dedicated network of environmentalists, nature lovers, non-commercial fisherpeople,  hikers and bicycle-riders, birders and photographers, is that, despite all that, it is still beautiful. The water still changes color everyday with the color of the sky, the waves still lap on the shore or rage in a storm, the sunrise is still glorious and the moonlight cuts a path across the water at night.

It is worth protecting. It is for me, and so many of us around here, not an opportunity for development of luxury condos with a lake view, but opportunity to rediscover our sense of ‘place,’ of who we are here, of what makes us unique. Its beauty is what we claim as a superior value to the profit-motive of the developer, or to the shipping industry that rankles over new regulations to protect the lake’s ecosystem, or to those who think it a great place to drink and party on a summer night.

It is what makes us human, this nature that is within and all around us. Reflecting on it, finding meaning from it, our place, our beings – it’s what makes us human. Without a sense of beauty, we are not human. Without beauty, we are not human. Without beauty, we die as a species. The more we connect, the more likely we will become fierce defenders and protectors of what we love, what we need to be human at all.


All photos: Margaret Swedish

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