Her Dark Materials

Dull days of spring rain here. In college, one of C’s professors required his class to observe an animal for a half hour and take notes; C chose a capuchin monkey at the zoo. The monkey did, she said, nothing—it sat on its mock-branch fringed with leaves, groomed itself, and looked around cautiously.

The immediate lesson we can draw from this is that animals are boring. Or, beyond that, that nature is unnarrated. Watching Life on Earth (or, lord deliver you, African Cats) on mute, you see how silly any story is that you attach to the life of an animal, how arbitrary the edits look. The music as a cheetah hunts can make your heart race, but then it’s tomorrow, the mother nuzzling her cubs in the dust, paws still bloody. Or could it have been any day later, the cubs grown?

The larger lesson seems to be that there’s no place to see nature from, no place it can be seen in reference to. A monkey seen from outside its cage, a cheetah or jellyfish on DVD, only seem understandable to us because of our vantage. But what legitimacy or completeness does a sight like that have? I stand in the woods and hear leaves give the breeze a form and I feel the suggestion of a bright universality of purpose in nature, feel what I think is peace that passeth understanding, but even that peace means nothing, nothing but my day’s particular story.

And over and above the stories? I suppose nothing we can describe except the enormous ongoing is-ness of nature around us, unimaginable and more than complete, aware of all the suffering and drama of flagellum, cactus flower and flesh wound inside it, and moving.

For those of you who made it this far, remember Nature smiles as unreadably on Randall as she/it does on David Attenborough:

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1 Comment

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One response to “Her Dark Materials

  1. Jenni B

    “The larger lesson seems to be that there’s no place to see nature from, no place it can be seen in reference to. […] I stand in the woods and hear leaves give the breeze a form and I feel the suggestion of a bright universality of purpose in nature, feel what I think is peace that passeth understanding, but even that peace means nothing, nothing but my day’s particular story.”

    Cannot one observe captive, tame or wild plants & animals, in woods or man-mediated environments, and see them all in reference to each other? They are all of nature, even if removed from wild nature, and all do their utmost to live. The documentaries are good when they let us become acquainted with wild behaviors, of the interweb of living and eating. It is true that it is hard to disengage from the reference point of humanness; this is why I imagine hopping through leaves as a squirrel.

    Have you ever read Osamu Tezuka’s “Phoenix” comics? The fourth volume is probably my favorite work of eastern philosophy.

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