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Posts Tagged ‘Wonder’

I have just had the great good fortune to view Jennifer Peedom’s documentary film, Mountain.

A product of her collaboration with Robert Macfarlane (script), Enan Ozturk (cinematography) and Richard Tongnetti leading the Australian Chamber Orchestra (music), Mountain is a feast for the eyes and ears. It is the most sensuously sumptuous film I have ever viewed. Not to be missed!!

Macfarlane drew the deeply insightful and poetic script from his bestselling book, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. Although written very much from a mountaineer’s perspective, the book is also about the human experience of mountains more generally.

Unlike Macfarlane, I have not had the climber’s extreme engagement with mountains, but I have trekked around them, across them and even into the glacial hearts of some. So I know first-hand the fascination about which he writes and can relate totally to his well-informed analysis of that fascination.

The label, “mountain”, is attached to all sorts of elevated landforms, some more hills than mountains.

Genuine mountains are characterised not just by height but also by the way ecosystems vary in layers across their vertical expanse (vertical or altitudinal zonation). To ascend a mountain is to pass from relatively warm forests to cooler grasslands and heaths, to cold, vegetation-free rock and scree and then, in many instances, to regions of permanent ice and snow.

Even the “baby” mountains making up the Australian Alps display something of this zonation.

That said, it is important to accept that our experience of mountains has to do more with how we perceive them rather than the facts of their geology, climatic variation and ecology.

As Macfarlane writes, What we call a mountain is thus in fact a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans – a mountain of the mind.

In his book, Macfarlane plots how the imagining of mountains has changed over time. In so doing, he draws our attention to the rich and unique impact that mountains have on the human mind and spirit.

These excerpts from Mountains of the Mind convey something of the extent and power of that impact.

  • Ultimately and most importantly, mountains quicken our sense of wonder. The true blessing of mountains is not that they provide a challenge or a contest, something to be overcome and dominated (although this is how many people have approached them). It is that they offer something gentler and infinitely more powerful: they make us ready to credit marvels – whether it is the dark swirls that water makes beneath a plate of ice, or the feel of the soft pelts of moss that form on the lee side of boulders and trees.

Mountains return to us the priceless capacity for wonder which can so insensibly be leached away by modern existence and they urge us to apply that wonder to our own everyday lives.

  •  By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.

At bottom, mountains like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to   lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans.

  • Mountains also reshape our understandings of ourselves, of our interior landscapes. The remoteness of the mountain world – its harshness and its beauties – can provide us with a valuable perspective down on to the most familiar and best-charted regions of our lives. It can subtly reorient us and readjust the points from which we can take out bearings. In their vastness and in their intimacy, mountains stretch out the individual mind and compress it simultaneously: they make it aware of its own immeasurable acreage and reach out, at the same time, of its own smallness.

 

  • Nowhere but in the mountains do you become aware of the incorrigible plurality of light, of its ability to alter its texture rapidly and completely.

The sky and the air, too, were found to be magnificently different in the mountains. At altitude, on a clear day, the sky was no longer the flat ceiling of the lowlands, but an opulent cobalt ocean, so sensuously deep  that some travellers felt themselves falling up into it.

  •  In the mountainous world things behave in odd and unexpected ways. Time, too, bends and alters. In the face of the geological time-scales on display, your mind releases its normal grip on time. Your interest and awareness of the world beyond the mountain falls away and is replaced with a much more immediate hierarchy of needs: warmth, food, direction, shelter, survival.

It is little wonder that people are still flocking to mountains in their millions, most to savour rather than climb them. As a friend of mine recently discovered, Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California is crawling with sightseers during the summer season. A comparable influx of visitors occurs in iconic mountain locations and resorts in other countries including Nepal, India, Switzerland and Canada.

Is my friend’s experience telling us that people’s love of nature is well and strong and that the evidence pointing to a declining involvement with nature in many Western countries is, in fact, misleading?

Regrettably it doesn’t – in part, because the evidence is from a range of reliable studies including large-scale surveys, and also in part, because the evidence can be linked to (and partially explained by) broader changes in lifestyle and recreational preferences within Western societies.

And then there is the fact that the allure of mountains, especially the awesomeness of them, is like the Sirens’ call – very hard to resist even by those who are not otherwise drawn to nature. People will still be visiting mountains, even when other forms of nature experiences have little or no part in their lives.

Nevertheless, we can always hope that people will come away from their mountain visit with a new, restored or re-vitalised love of nature.

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Perhaps you saw the first episode of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, the documentary I mentioned in my last post, which is currently being screened in Australia on Channel 7. If you didn’t, or even if you did, please turn your mind off other things and take a few minutes to look at this promotional trailer.

Having watched the trailer and before reading on, think about some of the emotions that the scenes evoked. Did you experience awe, joy and amusement for example? Were your feelings more positive after the viewing than before? Do you think that looking at nature content like this improves your general sense of well-being?

These are the kind of questions that the BBC, the producers of Planet Earth II, also posed and sought answers to. They recruited a leading authority on human emotions and well-being, Dacher Keltner to help them.

Based at the University of California, Berkley, Professor Keltner is a social psychologist who is a leader in the study of the biological and evolutionary origins of the positive and benevolent or “prosocial” human emotions such as compassion, love, gratitude, awe, aesthetic pleasure and humour. Apart from his impressive academic publications, he is the author of the best-selling, Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. He is co-director of the Greater Good Science Centre (a visit to the Centre’s website is highly recommended).

As some of Keltner’s work has focussed on the impact of nature on our positive and benevolent emotions, he was a very appropriate person to undertake the kind of survey that the BBC required.

The way Keltner and his team went about the task was to sample adult members of TV viewing audiences in the UK, USA, Australia, India, Singapore and South Africa, 7500 people in all. The recruits were assigned randomly to view one of five short video clips: two from Planet Earth II (just like the one you may have just viewed), one showing a montage of news reports, one comprising scenes from a TV drama and the last presenting an excerpt from a DIY instructional video.

Emotional responses before and after viewing the clips were assessed using a questionnaire that measures positive emotions, a stress scale and facial mapping technology that measure a viewer’s subconscious (emotional) facial responses when viewing a video.

The producers of Planet Earth would have been very pleased with the findings of the survey. Watching content from Planet Earth II produced:

  • significant increases in feelings of awe, contentedness, joy, amusement and curiosity, but
  • reduced feelings of tiredness, anger and stress.

Some fancy statistical analyses demonstrated that these effects could indeed be traced to the kind of content viewed – natural history versus that in the control clips.

It is unlikely that Keltner and his colleague would have been surprised by their results. Evidence from 150 or so studies give scientists strong grounds for believing that exposure to nature, whether direct or via media of one kind and another, reduces stress, increases calm and improves mental efficiency and creativity.

There is also growing evidence that contact with nature produces “elevating” effects whereby our minds are expanded, our morality strengthened and our concern for others deepened. In short, “nature makes us nicer” (as well happier and smarter).

Given this scientific reality, why is it such a struggle to get people to listen to the message and to take advantage of it, especially as tapping into the reality can be done so easily? One minute of gazing at a stand of Tasmanian eucalypts in a university campus was all it took to heighten feelings of awe in young adults – feelings that were associated with a display of diminished self-centredness and heightened ethical sensitivity.

There is no suggestion here that a minute of immersion in nature is all it takes to change a person’s long term well-being and attitude to others. But the finding does demonstrate just how responsive the human brain is to the sensory richness, beauty, awesomeness, limitless diversity and, yes, humour of nature.

Keltner would agree, I am sure, that a worthwhile step towards “elevating” individual human behaviour and creating less violent and more compassionate human societies is to enhance people’s connectedness with the natural world.

And we need to be taking such steps in today’s world. Do you agree?

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I admit that I am not qualified to write about this topic, but my guest blogger, artist Natalie Maras certainly is – and a great deal more besides. The range of her work as a sculptor is extraordinary but unified by a deep commitment to communicating the essence of her subjects. That essence includes the “patterns of life” that scientists are busily uncovering (and often having difficulty describing to non-scientists) – Natalie has the distinction of being the first ever artist-in-residence at Australia’s prestigious Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Herbarium which is part of the National Research Collections. 

Collage jpg

After just an hour or two talking with Natalie and admiring her (sometimes quirky but never frivolous) creations, I knew that readers of my blog would be fascinated to meet her through her own reflections on art and its relationship to the natural world.

***

‘Hello children! My name is Jacques. I love the sea.’

I was a primary school student sitting cross-legged on the floor in our school assembly. I could hardly contain my excitement at clapping eyes on the man who was addressing us in person from the stage. He had a weathered face, spoke entirely in French, and to my delight he wore his characteristic knitted beanie. To me, he appeared as though he had stepped straight out of the photographs in my favourite books.

‘It’s Jacques Cousteau!’ I whispered hoarsely to my neighbours. ‘Cousteau! Can you believe it – here! You know… deep sea diving, aqualungs, submarines…?’ Their unknowing eyes plunged me into hush.

Apart from my frustration that day at being unable to share my utter joy with my peers, I felt something else. My childhood hero was a man who loved the subject of his lifelong studies. He was it seemed to me, with my childish eyes wide open, overflowing with love. ‘I love the sea. Do what you love. Never give up my dear children. I wish you all, from my heart, good luck!’

These days, I am in my late thirties, a professional artist and on a daily pilgrimage to the same primary school with my three now young children. I am privileged to demonstrate for them, and for many others with whom I now cross paths as an artist, the importance of doing what you love.

‘Are you an artist because you want to be famous some day?’ the assemblies of primary school children ask me… No. I just love a mysterious thing and like Jacques, I want to spend time with it. I sculpt in love with learning, and I carry the baton of pursuing what I love.

Bentwing Swift Moth

Bentwing Swift Moth

I love exploring the underlying patterns of life with my hands and with my imagination. In my studio work, I discovered that the mysterious underlying structures that appear in pollen grains repeat in viruses and bacteria and also vibrate at cosmic level among the stars. The pattern of musical notes when played through sand appears in sacred and primitive architecture as well as in flowers and turtle shells and receding water. The cycles of accretion and erosion in biological soil crusts are identifiable in seeds and in my own bones. Tracing these patterns of nature takes me into ancient time and far into the future, deep underwater, broad around the globe and high into the cosmos and well into myself. I am an artist because I grow in that endeavour, in love.

Pollen group

Pollen group

Someone once said of art that nothing great could ever be made by simply copying nature. I have been fortunate to meet the works of great technicians of botanical and wildlife art. I have exhibited among some of the technicians- at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney and most recently at the South Australian Museum. In museums and galleries around the world I have also encountered the works of many long-passed famous and anonymous artists and craftspeople. I agree now that merely copying nature is not an aspiration held by the world’s greatest artists. The greatest artists aspire to, and do, strike the Source.

Though I know there are lesser human copies of nature, which can bring tears to human eyes, to me, human aspiration counts. That aspiration marks human potential and marks the artist. To me if an artist produces copies for a copy’s sake, they are no better than a primitive natural architect – be it moth, ant or termite. After all, a single spider web, dewy in early morning sunlight, will conjure emotion. A single crystalline flake of frost on grass can wondrously steal the words from human lips. Nature presents things of beauty all around us, but this is not art.

I also accept that nature often cannot be copied- it sets a standard far too high for humans to reach. That moth, ant or termite actually outdoes the human maker. A humble caterpillar can weave such a cocoon as to put the cleverest human hands to shame. I have in my studio the remnant of a deep-sea sponge, Euplectella, whose spicules of flexible optical fibre defy the most advanced NASA engineering. The Baya Weaver bird has at least a dozen knots in its repertoire to make the most magnificent nests, which cannot easily be replicated. Twice as an artist in residence (at CSIRO) and guest artist (at the ANU) among scientists, I learned first-hand the limits of sophisticated scientific perceptions and technology.

Sometimes the most experienced artistic hand, or even the most naïve hand, is graced to convey a

Weedy Sea Dragon

Weedy Sea Dragon

universal pattern of life. I say ‘graced’ advisedly. Making art, as I know it, (and caution, dear reader, I have not passed through formal art school!) involves long and careful training in seeing things- from the inside and the outside. It also involves long and careful training with different materials, each with their nuanced behaviour (affinities, hostilities and different states in different conditions). As with our oldest friends, it takes time to know materials and accept their limitations, quite apart from our own. Then there is training to ensure that hands and eyes work together harmoniously allowing space for the artist’s ‘voice’ to enter and more importantly… to exit. Sometimes talent and inspiration arrive spontaneously and ferociously bypass concerted technical efforts. Art can arrive by ‘accident’.

By now I understand in my practice that the training I have accepted as my calling is long and arduous and has nothing whatever to do with fame and fortune. I do not seek to copy nature for its own sake. I do not copy nature because I dare to imagine that I am good enough to do this. I copy nature in an effort to refine my perception so that I resonate with influences intended for me. I can accept that I was not intended to understand some aspects of life. Some things will forever remain beyond me. For now, nature sets the best standard to which I can aspire as a sculptor, until grace arrives.

Tragic carpet

Tragic carpet

*** 

To follow Natalie and her progress, visit http://findiflooshki.com/ or email findiflooshki@gmail.com

 

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When my bushwalking friend, Jane, told me her “conversion” (or her “how she got it”) story, I just had to share it. Here’s that story in Jane’s own words – delightfully told.

According to most of the bushwalkers I meet, I am a recent convert to walking. I didn’t start walking in my youth but rather left it till I was much, much older. I admired those who could walk for days covering large expanses of ground in often remote areas. I was not one to don a backpack filled with dried peas and a waffle iron, walk for hours and sleep the sleep of the righteous under the heavens on a flimsy bit of foam.

I’m still not. In some ways that hasn’t been such a bad thing. I didn’t “use it” but I was lucky that I didn’t “lose it”. My knees after resting for nearly 40 years are still able to clamber down hills and ford streams. And its all still a bit of a novelty.Jane blog a

Today I do love walking and I have been able to sleep under the stars. These days I sometimes walk in the bush. I sometimes walk in New Zealand forests. I love walking in alpine regions. And wherever possible I include a walk when I travel overseas.

This small contribution to “Our Green Genes” is about how I got hooked on walking.

Where was I before I got interested in walking ….

I am now well into my 50’s but still think of myself as middle aged. I am recently retired from a senior management role in government. I live on the upper north shore of Sydney but grew up on the northern beaches in the 60s surrounded by beaches and bush.

I enjoy the theatre, spa treatments, champagne, nice wines and good food.

I married an ageing bushwalker in my 30s.

It took him until I was in well into my 40’s to talk me into buying my first pair of walking boots. Before that I thought walking was just a means of getting around the shops.

My first pair of boots….

I was driven to buying walking boots in 2008 out of necessity rather than desire, I would have preferred an Oroton handbag which was about the same price. According to my husband, I needed these boots to “walk” in Tasmania where there was the potential of running into a “tiger snake”.

What? There are tiger snakes in Hobart?

No. But we had booked three days at Cradle Mountain Lodge for a romantic getaway and while I had my eye on the spa package and the restaurant menu, he had his eye on taking a walk in the national park.

So, I ventured into Kathmandu in George Street Sydney. I had never been in the store before. I hurried there between meetings. The salesman was most helpful. He sold me my first pair of walking boots with ankle support in the colours of gelato. The whole process took about 10 minutes. I bought the first and only pair that I tried on. I think I also bought a matching pair of socks. I didn’t care what they looked like. At that stage I was not planning on wearing them too often.

The first walk……actually walks!

Cradle Mountain Lodge offered an afternoon guided walk around Dove Lake. A mere two and half hour stroll around the shore in a group of about twenty. It sounded right up my alley. Off we headed with the new boots. We walked around the lake with the rest of the group of tourists who chatted continuously and “oohed” and “ahhed” at the lovely vistas across the lake to Cradle Mountain.

The guide was very good. He showed where the Overland Track headed upwards to Marion’s Lookout and described a lovely walk at the start of the Overland from Ronny Creek across the button grass and around Crater Lake cutting back across the ridge to Dove Lake. It sounded delightful…Overall around 10 kms….I dismissed it immediately.

We carried on around the lake. We took photos. We were back in time for happy hour. I brushed off the boots and packed them away. Wifely duty complete.

However, I got talked into the OTHER walk. The “carrot” was a massage at the spa to be enjoyed afterwards.

This walk was to be unguided and minus the crowds.

We headed off early on the National Parks and Wildlife Service shuttle bus to Ronny Creek. We were the only ones to get off the bus. We headed off on our own across the duckboards and through the yellow button grass plain.

It was so very quiet.

And it was flat. Then we came to a hill. I plodded over the top and descended down to Crater Lake where there was a small walkers hut. We stopped there for morning tea.

It was so very quiet.

We left there along a well-marked trail that swept around the lake and then branched off over the hill to Wombat Pond. It was on the way down the hill we headed through the most perfect snow gum forest. We stopped.

It was no longer quiet.

Snow gums during autumn imperfectly shed their bark. Dead bark comes off in large, irregular strips before eventually tearing away from the trunk. The stripped bark reveals trunks of blonde wood. The bark after a little rain takes on a dark red colour. The gentle breeze off Wombat Pond was rising up through these snow gums and causing the long bark strips to flap slowly like giant flags unfurling. The noise was like the clapping of many hands. The smell was bush; eucalypt, damp moss, mushrooms, truffles, wet socks, earthy.

Jane getting it at Cradle Mountain

Jane at Cradle Mountain where the magic happened

We stood and listened. We didn’t move and we didn’t speak. We just stood there smiling like happy idiots. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. .

It was then I “got it” ….I understood why my husband and many others walk and love it. Places like this are unique. They can’t be replicated by man. They can’t be built. And they make you grin like a fool.

We just stood there for 10 minutes enjoying the show. We then walked in silence down to Wombat Pond where I took my first “boot shot” – a photo of my boots with background scenery to mark the occasion. I was hooked.

This was my first real walk and the first photo of the travelling boots. Since then I have taken about 30 boot shots. Nearly every time we walk, I take a photo of the boots. The boots have travelled everywhere; they have seen a fair bit of Australia, have been to New Zealand a couple of times completing two classic walks, Africa twice, Italy, France, Canada and the US. And while I was still working, the travelling boot shots adorned my office to remind me of better things that lay outside.Jane blog b

And who would have guessed back in 2008 that six years later we would return to Tasmania and complete the Overland Track from Cradle Mountain to Lake St Clair albeit as part of a “supported walk” guided tour. We only had to carry our personal items and we slept in lodges with hot showers, great food and cold beer. But I still did it and I did it in the original boots.

The Overland marked the death of my first pair of boots. I am now on my second pair which I agonised over their selection paying much more attention to fit, sole, water proofing and lacings. I think I spent about an hour trying on different ones.

I have plans to complete many more walks. Here’s hoping that I have at least another pair of boots left in me.

PS I have yet to see a SNAKE!

If there is someone you care about who still has to “get it” as far as nature is concerned, perhaps Jane’s story will encourage or even inspire them. Why not share it with them?

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This is not exactly a pet rock, but it is a treasured one. It was found for me by my daughter, Wendy, on a trek up the mighty Kali Gandaki River to Upper Mustang in northern Nepal.IMG_2077 Its shape indicates that it had been carried by the river for a considerable distance, being rounded and smoothed along the way. Its composition of dense, tiny grains tells us that it is formed from mud deposited in a large, shallow, gently moving body of water. In the mud there was decaying vegetation which is responsible for the rock’s dark grey, almost black, colour.

Just a common old, run-of-the-mill lump of shale, you might think – that is, until you see what’s inside.IMG_2079 What’s there is an ammonite fossil with its typically ribbed, spiral-form shell. Ammonites lived in seas between 240-65 million years ago, becoming extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs. This particular specimen lived in the Tethys Sea which existed until 60 – 80 million years ago between the continents of India and Asia. As the tectonic plate on which India sits drifted north into Asia, part of the Tethys Sea floor was concertinaed and pushed upwards to become the mighty Himalayas of today. So it is not surprising that this ammonite finally came to rest thousands of metres above present-day sea level and many hundreds of kilometres inland.

The rock that forms the ammonite’s sepulchre has special significance for Hindus. It is a sacred and venerated stone, known in Nepal as a Shaligram.

I have my Shaligram on display not only because it is interesting to look at but also because it serves to remind me of the wonders of rocks in general.

In my blog posts, I have talked about all sorts of natural features – forests, flowers, trees, lakes, rivers, beaches, waterfalls, the blue sky, the night sky and so on – but not rocks, at least not directly. Of course, many natural features are formed totally or largely from rock and their particular attributes reflect the nature of the rock from which they are made. But it is rock as rock that I have not written about.

I feel a little neglectful about this because I get a great deal of pleasure and interest from rock. Take my Shaligram, for example. I marvel in the fact that it is not simply an object but a record of events that happened tens or even hundreds of millions of years ago. And because the geological processes at work today are the same as have operated throughout Earth’s history, we can imagine some of those events.

We can see in our mind’s eye, for example, a slow moving, muddy stream winding across an oceanic delta gradually depositing its load of mud particles. We can imagine the ammonite in its buoyant shell floating above the layer of mud and then falling into the mud at its life’s end. We can also imagine the first of countless layers of mud being deposited on the dead creature until the layers were finally compacted into a rocky mass under the pressure of their own weight.

I get a tingle of excitement when rock connects me to a very distant past and indeed part of our planet’s story in this way. It helps me in a small way to get my mind around the immensity of geological and even cosmic time. When I can hold in my hand or simply look at something that has taken million upon millions of years to form, it somehow makes the vastness of that time a reality that is slightly more comprehensible.

And beyond a rock’s history, there is its present – which can be a source of great aesthetic and other pleasure.

This beautiful colouring, for example, is in very ancient rock at the base of Ormiston Gorge in Central Australia.ck Colours of Ormiston 4 There is a different kind of rock beauty in these stained and sculptured rocks not far from my home in Sydney. IMG_0349P1180283_1024

For Australians, Uluru is THE rock to admire and talk about of course, but the domes of nearby Kata Tjuta are equally breathtaking in my view. al The famed sunset view of Uluruaw View from one of the Olga domes

And in addition to enjoying the beauty of rocks, we can always “play” on them. IMG_0441

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Central Australian Night Sky

The recent conjunction of  Venus and Jupiter, the two brightest planets in the night sky, had me doing a spot of star gazing. This brought back a memory from my days leading a bushwalking and camping course. The course was for adults and comprised a graded series of activities spread over five weekends.

The second of these weekends involved a car camp where participants could do some bushwalking and practise basic camping skills without the added demand of carrying a full pack.

The camp was located in a the Garden of Stone National Park, which is part of the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains National Park west of Sydney. Much of the sandstone in the Garden of Stone has been sculpted by nature into picturesque and impressive pagoda-like formations. Sandstone pagoda country a Sabdstone pagoda country c

A short walk from the campsite was an easy-to-climb pagoda where it was comfortable to sit or even lie down. As the track to this particular pagoda was very broad and easy to follow and involved a short walk through a disused railway tunnel, I occasionally took participants on a torchlight walk to the pagoda. We would stay there for half an hour or so quietly talking and gazing at the night sky.

For some, this simple excursion was the highlight of the course. This is really saying something as the course gave people some of the best walking and camping experiences on offer in the Blue Mountains and other National Parks around Sydney.

I believe two things were at work to make the time looking at the night sky so special for my people. First, there was the novelty of seeing a bigger and brighter sky than would have been possible from their homes in heavily light polluted Sydney. Second, and probably more importantly, there was the awesomeness of the stellar display itself.

We don’t need science to tell us that the night sky possesses a unique power to stimulate our senses, thoughts and emotions. It has been a constant source of fascination for humankind since antiquity – inspiring religious thought, belief and practice along with scientific observation, measurement and speculation as well as, poetry, music and art.starry-night

And as the great science writer, Carl Sagan, reminds us:

Before we invented civilization our ancestors lived mainly in the open out under the sky. Before we devised artificial lights and atmospheric pollution and modern forms of nocturnal entertainment we watched the stars. There were practical calendar reasons of course but there was more to it than that. Even today the most jaded city dweller can be unexpectedly moved upon encountering a clear night sky studded with thousands of twinkling stars. When it happens to me after all these years it still takes my breath away

Most certainly, taking time to look at a clear night sky is a deeply enriching – some might say sacramental – thing to do. It is one of the most convenient and direct ways of connecting with nature. It can be done very simply by just gazing or it can be done purposefully and mindfully, with the aid of telescope and sky chart, for example. If you want to expand your sky gazing and you live in Australia, you will find very helpful information and resources by clicking on this link.

When looking at the night sky we are, of course, looking at the universe,  or rather, a tiny piece of it – enough, however, to get a sense of its incomprehensible vastness and mystery. This can be both awe inspiring and overwhelming. It can make us conscious of grandness but equally of our smallness and insignificance.

But the world renowned astronomer, Neil de Grasse Tyson, prefers to dwell on the positive response. He points out that the chemistry of our bodies almost exactly matches the chemistry of the universe. In our bodies, hydrogen is the commonest chemical – just as it is in the universe. Next in order is oxygen, then comes carbon, nitrogen and “other” – again, just as in the universe.

So that when I look up at the night sky, de Grasse Tyson says, I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small ’cause they’re small and the Universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.

There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like… a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive…

For de Grasse Tyson, the fact that the universe exists in us is enlightening, ennobling and enriching. And he finds the accompanying sense of connectedness “almost spiritual”.

Perhaps the night sky can give you this same sense of connection – or it may speak to you in different terms. Sarah Jio tells us that “the stars have their own language”. This language may well be that of poetry rather than science, as it was for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. For him the stars were the blooming “forget-me-nots of the angels”. What are they for you?

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When it came to writing an introduction to my book, Claim Your Wildness, I sought an effective and catchy way of explaining what “claiming our wildness” means so that potential readers could understand immediately what the book is about.

This was a problem to begin with, but when I received this photo of my young friend, Pippa, I knew I had the answer.rotherham-girls-and-echidna-3

Though only a toddler when the photo was taken, Pippa’s encounter with the echidna provides a compelling image of the experience I call claiming our wildness. Pippa was obviously captivated by the creature as it used its powerful front feet to burrow away from her friendly but unwelcome attention. The intensity of her interest, excitement and wonder were clearly displayed in her face and posture.

She was claiming her wildness simply by watching the echidna. Since then, Pippa has had countless opportunities to claim her wildness in all sorts of other ways including playing in a stream near her home.

Pippa and dog

The natural world in Pippa’s playground and the fun she has in it is obvious even from just this photo.

What an advantaged little girl she is – advantaged not only because nature is her playground but, more importantly, because of the many short and long-term benefits she gains from her nature play. For example:

  • She is at reduced risk of myopia or short-sightedness (natural light stimulates healthy eyeball maturation).
  • Regular exposure to sky-blue light enhances her sleeping, hormonal and chemical rhythms, moods and alertness.
  • She is receiving the colour, depth and motion stimulation needed for the development of full visual powers.
  • She is constantly developing and fine-tuning the fundamental movement skills that form the basis of an active lifestyle and a reduced risk of obesity.
  • Her rich sensory engagement with the natural world stimulates brain chemicals that activate curiosity and improve learning efficiency.
  • She is constantly challenging, exploring and finding confidence in her physical capabilities (just note the poise and assurance that is displayed in the photo of her running through the water).
  • She regularly gets the chance to build self-esteem, confidence and resilience by doing things that are “adventurous”.
  • Her exposure to the beauty and wonder of nature is laying the foundation of life-long interests and a commitment to the welfare of the natural environment.
  • Her empathy is being cultivated through her interactions with native creatures as well as her pets.
  • She is constantly gathering first-hand knowledge about the natural world and learning how to be part of it.
  • There is no risk that she will be fearful of nature and contemptuous of whatever is not “man-made, managed or air-conditioned”.

It is worth saying that every item in this list is validated by reliable research findings. Just as science tells us that children need love to thrive, it is now saying they also need nature. Pippa and her equally fortunate siblings have both in abundance. Advantaged and fortunate children indeed!

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