“There is nothing in nature that can’t be taken as a sign of both mortality and invigoration… Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.”
Living among and in emblems that evoke a deep longing for permanence is what we do. Our homes are made up of haikus of brick. We can easily lose our homes to death and neglect. And our bodies live inside these boarding house for stardust. All along, as life keeps living itself through us, we keep casting ourselves in the role of living it — that is what makes all the uncertainty bearable. But deep down in the animal marrow of being, we know that it will end, and that no wall or wish can make it otherwise, and that the only measure of our aliveness — the only redemption of our mortality — is how attentive and awake we are to the savage beauty that fills the interlude between nothingness and nothingness.
What it means and what it takes to be more attentive and alive is what Gretel Ehrlich explores in her classic essay collection The Solace of Open Spaces (public library) — a living affirmation of Emily Dickinson’s pronouncement that “‘Tis good — the looking back on Grief,” written in the years following a devastating loss that had dislodged Ehrlich from orbit and sent her a thousand miles from home, into the arid heart of the landmass. There — in the savage desert of grief, amid the austere hundred-mile views of Wyoming and the rugged kindness of its people — she discovers canyons that “curve down like galaxies to meet the oncoming rush of flat land” and a new kind of toughness that is “not a martyred doggedness, a dumb heroism, but the art of accommodation”; she discovers what she is made of: something transient yet tenacious, not dismantled by loss but recomposed by it.
Ehrlich wrote in the preface
I had suffered a tragedy and made a drastic geographical and cultural move fairly baggageless… It had occurred to me that comfort was only a disguise for discomfort; reference points, a disguise for what will always change.
Friends asked when I was going to stop “hiding out” in Wyoming. I found it luxurious, despite the fact that they saw it as an area of intellectual backwardness and lunar desolation. The first time I had ever been able to settle down on the planet without any alibis and no self-promotion schemes.
The detour, of course, became the actual path; the digressions in my writing, the narrative… As with all major detours, all lessons of impermanence, what might have been a straight shot is full of bumps and bends.
Looking back on the experience and the otherworldly world into which it took her, she reflects on what it taught her about life and the life-reckoning we call art — which, of course, is the only value of experience:
My goal for the best art in every work is to make it look like earth. It would have the same properties as the weather, light and sunlight. The lessons I learned from impermanence have taught me that loss is an unusual kind of fullness, and despair is a source of an insatiable hunger for life.
She learns what we all do once some cataclysm awakens us to the finitude and fragility of life — that this appetite for life is best roused by the most prayerful of acts: the act of paying attention; that to see the world more clearly is to love it more deeply.
The world has changed dramatically because of your keen observation. Each movement makes the landscape seem engorged. People are charged by the air they breathe. Each day unfolds, surrounded by their own music. The night becomes hallucinatory, dreams prescient.
The Northern Lights were visible as we made our way to the ranch from the shed. They looked like talcum powder fallen from a woman’s face. Rouge and blue eyeshadow streaked the spires of white light which exploded, then pulsated, shaking the colors down — like lives — until they faded from sight.
A Kiowa friend invited her to attend an old Sun Dance. She also read in the news about astronomers discovering an infant solar structure around another star. With an eye to the centrality-calibrating poetry of the cosmic perspective, she reflects:
From one to four last night, I was seated in the pickup’s bed with my friend. As meteor showers hotly danced over us in small sprays of tiny suns that looked almost like white orchids, we sat down in our beds. It was hard to believe that there would be daylight with so many stars around me. Our sun is just a star that will eventually burn out. The time scale of its transience so far exceeds our human one that our unconditional dependence on its life-giving properties feels oddly like an indiscretion about which we’d rather forget.
And yet this cosmic perspective, this sublime invitation to unselfing (to borrow once again Iris Murdoch’s splendid notion), is readily available everywhere we look, right here on Earth, so long as we are actually looking. A century after Hermann Hesse observed that “whoever has learned how to listen to trees… wants to be nothing except what he is,”, Ehrlich writes:
There is nothing in nature that can’t be taken as a sign of both mortality and invigoration… Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.
The Solace of Open Spaces — a ravishing book as old as me — remains one of those rare founts of wonder, like Rockwell Kent’s journals and Whitman’s poems and Lewis Thomas’s essays, that you revisit over and over across a lifetime and find yourself refreshed, renewed, recomposed each time.
Giving = Being Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your own life better. Every dollar counts.
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