Saturday, November 8, 2008

Finding wonder in the everyday world...

I wanted to share some of my thoughts on the finding wonder in the everyday world.

Two of the many hats I wear from time to time are that of wildlife photographer and wildlife observer. I would argue, you can not really be one without being the other. Both can often be subject to the whims of cultural biases, even regarding wildlife observation.

For instance, in the region of the Puget Sound where I live there are many common species found in urban and suburban areas, which might include: American crows, feral pigeons, European starlings, mallards, Canada geese, house sparrows, ring-billed gulls, glaucous-winged gulls, raccoons, Norway rats and a handful of others. These species are generally ignored by people, and it might not surprise you, also generally ignored by wildlife watchers/naturalists and wildlife photographers.

It is easy to understand why if you consider how people in western culture view the natural world. If the creature in question does not inspire awe or fear or if the animals importance in the natural world is not immediately clear and of obvious benefit to humans, it gets ignored or worse.

Let us take Canada geese as an example. Though Canada geese have been native to the region for long before the white settlers arrived, a majority of the population you see around the greater Puget Sound that is present throughout the year is introduced by humans in 1968. Unlike the Canada geese that migrate through the region in Fall and Spring, this population stays put. It so happens that the urban/suburban areas around the Puget Sound with their plentiful waterways and adjacent mowed green spaces are very much to the liking of the geese. With few predators, lots of food and nesting sites the goose population has increased considerably.

People complained about the noise of the geese, and largely about the scat they leave behind on lawns, playing fields and walkways. The city of Seattle had so many complaints that since the year 2000 over 5,600 geese have been put in gas chambers and killed. The geese are still seen by many in Seattle as over-sized rats with wings.

Not many wildlife watchers in the Seattle area pay much attention to these geese, and some times they are even not mentioned when people are out doing bird species counts.

I have had the pleasure on many days to get to hang out with - and sometimes among - a flock or gaggle of Canada geese. As with many of the other species I mentioned as being largely ignored in urban areas, the geese have provided me with some of the most amazing wildlife encounters in my life.

From Urban Wildlife

From Urban Wildlife

The photos of a Canada goose drinking happened during one of those wonderful moments where things just come together beautifully. If we are observant and attentive, those moments are to be found all the time.

I was practicing a Taoist-inspired meditation in which you mindfully observe everything around you without judging. In this case, as I sat near the edge of an urban pond, several geese came slowly swimming towards me. One of them started to bob up and down in the water, and throw water over its back and wings. Like so many pearls of silver, the water drops rolled over and off of the goose's back. It took my breath away. Time seemed to slow down.

I was in the middle of getting my camera adjusted and did not capture that moment. Also, I did not want to be looking at nature from a "what can I get out of this" attitude that is often assumed as a necessity for successful wildlife photography. Instead, I wanted whatever came to me of its own accord to be what I would photograph.

As I slowly pointed the camera at the geese, one of them started drinking the water right in front of it's chest as it floated placidly. The light was perfect, and the camera allowed me to capture what I saw, exactly as I would have liked. The shimmering drops of water falling from the gooses bill are frozen in space. The painted ripples stopped in their graceful path. The moment is captured, as is the feeling that expresses so perfectly the simple wonder in the everyday world.

This photo is one that often brings me into a relaxed meditative state. It always reminds me to pay attention to the things close at hand, the seemingly common and everyday.

When I look at this photo with the eye of an animist, I can see easily how everything in this universe is alive and how it dances and moves together in such perfect harmony.

I feel that the spirits of the place: the spirits of the geese, the water and the light came together so seamlessly and gave me a gift. Even more than that, I was left feeling like I was truly part of that same fabric.

And that, is perhaps the greatest gift we can receive.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Virtue of the small

The contented man can be happy with what appears to be useless. He can find worthwhile occupation in forests and mountains. He stays in a small cottage and associates with the simple. He would not exchange his worn clothes for the imperial robes, nor the load on his back for a four-horse carriage. He leaves the jade in the mountain and the pearls in the sea. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he can be happy - he knows when to stop. He does not pick the brief-blossoming flower; he does not travel the dangerous road. To him, the ten thousand possessions are dust in the wind. He sings as he travels among the green mountains.

He finds sheltering branches more comforting than red-gated mansions, the plow in his hands more rewarding than the prestige of titles and banners, fresh mountain water more satisfying than the feasts of the wealthy. He acts in true freedom. What can competition for honors mean to him? What attraction can anxiety and greed possibly hold? Through simplicity he has Tao, and from Tao, everything. He sees the light in the "darkness," the clear in the "cloudy," the speed in the "slowness," the full in the "empty." The cook creating a meal with his own hands has as much honor in his eyes as a famous singer or high official. He has no profits to gain, no salary to lose; no applause, no criticism. When he looks up, it is not in envy. When he looks down, it is not with arrogance. Many look at him, but nobody sees him. Calm and detached, he is free from all danger, a dragon hidden among men.

- Taoist alchemist and herbalist,
Ko Hung

The Taoist ideal is living in simplicity, in the most direct relationship with nature that is possible. It might be argued by some that this life style is perhaps not fit for everyone. Though, it seems to me that there is much to be gained from understanding this way of life, this perspective.

The Taoist mind is the mind of a child. Children respond to the world much more directly, simply and honestly than most adults. The word being alive is simply WHAT IS to a child. Communication with the natural world is engaged in often with joyous abandon by children who are presented with the opportunity.

So why does any of this matter?

To me, the child's mind is our original mind. It is a state to which we as adults can not only strive for but also reconnect with in a pragmatic, daily way. The world, the universe at large, is a wondrous and mysterious place. How much that is overshadowed by our fears and concerns as adults? Our concerns about being someone and about doing something important. Children know that what they are doing is important, whether that is eating ice cream on a hot summer day and having it run down their hand or its jumping around in the mud catching frogs or imitating them. The small things are important. The small things have virtue. These small things are really vital in life, yet so many adults have forgotten to experience them.

The virtue of the small, the weak and the dark are often ignored or looked down upon in our culture.

One interpretation of the TE in the Tao Te Ching is virtue. As Benjamin Hoff describes it in the Te of Piglet:

Te is not, as its English-langauge equivalent suggests, a one-sized-fits-all sort of goodness or admired behavior that can be recognized as essentially the same no matter who possesses it. It is instead a quality of special character, spiritual strength, or hidden potential unique to the individual - something that comes from the Inner Nature of things. And something, we might add, that the individual who possesses it may be quite unaware of - as is the case with Piglet through most of the Pooh stories.

How many people in western culture seek to be somebody? Or be somebody different? From teens to adults who never really matured, never really grew up fully because they never had a chance to get to know themselves. To get to know their te, their own personal, individual virtue.

So many adults I have met, no matter what age they might have written on their birth certificate still act out the drama that they never really faced as they transitioned from teens to young adult years.

Our culture lacks significant rites of passage for people in the major stages of life changes. Getting a driver's license. Reaching legal drinking age. Graduating high school, then college. These things are almost meaningless on the truly individual, personal level.

It lacks a way to truly acknowledge the sacred cycles in our lives.

So much time it seems is spent seeking youth, seeking to stay youthful. Yet in "becoming adults" people rarely seem to grow up, really. They bury their child's mind under fantasies, fears, and masks. For all their age, they seemed to have gained little that can be called true wisdom.

An truly matured adult might be described one who takes care and fosters a healthy relationship to the child's mind within them.

We have forgotten the virtue of the small to such an extent, that many of us worship BIG. We love powerful things, powerful people and personalities. Even when we look at nature, we tend to focus on the fastest, biggest, most dangerous, most frightening. When and if nature is talked about, we spend most of our nature discussions talking about these creatures.

Yet so much of the natural world depends on the work of the small. The bacteria, insects, spiders. The fungi that help break down the soil and decaying matter into nutrients usable by plants. Even the smallest mammals are mostly ignored for their true virtue.

Bats are one of those creatures that are so often recognized for the fear they inspire: for the way they suck blood (though only 3 out of several thousand species actually feed on blood, and they lap it up and don't actually suck), the way they can get tangled in long hair (thought many species can see even in pitch blackness something as fine as a single human hair using their echolocation), the harm they can cause by spreading rabies (which is rare and they generally die from the disease too quickly to be able to spread it to humans) and so on. What seems to often to be missed or ignored is the great care with which they use to tend to their young. They way that bats in a colony will groom themselves and sometimes each other. The acute awareness with which they experience their world. The longevity with which they can live, despite their small size... likely a testament to how well they take care of their bodies and especially, their teeth. Some small species can live for over 30 years. That's incredible, if you consider that another insectivore of comparable size like a large shrew generally does not live long enough to have its first year birth day celebration...

There is much wisdom to be gained in studying the virtue of the small...

From Bat Species Survey of Olympic National Park 2004