Another essay I want to share. I’d rather have it sit here on narble.blog than hide in my directory structure. ~JimS.
It’s late evening. I’m standing on a front porch in Gearhart, Oregon, on the dune I’ve come to call my own. I see Polaris gleaming above the Japanese Cedar in my front yard. I can make out other stars too, quite a lot of them wheeling around Polaris, but slowly enough that I don’t get dizzy. Here on the North Oregon Coast we are blessed with darkness. On this side of the house the ever-present rumble in my background is the ocean—Pacific here, but it could be Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, I don’t care. I’m partial to the Pacific, because it’s right there; it’s my ocean, and the most misnamed body of water on the planet—placid is a rare state in the Pacific’s thunderous liquid mass of awe-inspiring community. On the other side of the house is the rumble of the Pacific Coast Highway, incessant during the day and intermittent when it’s dark. I am grateful every day it isn’t a freeway.
As a former temporary urbanite, during my sojourn involving a career and the tag-team guiding of two humans from patty-cake to career-make, I have to admit—cities are loud. I don’t miss that at all. Estimates say that everyday city noise varies between seventy and ninety decibels, even louder when a violent event cranks it up a bit. This violence can happen when two or more cars try to occupy the same space or a ridiculous argument erupts in a quiet café or bar. Normal conversation is about sixty-five decibels, but that’s only if the people conversing don’t have to yell at each other because of the silly argument at the table next to them.
So, what is quiet? Does it start at zero decibels? Not really. The way the human ear works, sitting calmly in a recording booth with the door sealed and nothing going on still registers about fifteen decibels. Quiet is very relative, but over the course of our lives we have developed an interesting relationship with quiet.
The sounds we hear have everything to do with our perception of them. Do I sit in my comfortable living room chair and dream about the rush of downtown taxis? No, but I do fantasize about the sound of water moving around the hull of a boat, the rustle of breeze through a stand of aspen on Steens Mountain, the circular spin of the windblown bows of the giant noble fir in my front yard, the quiet sigh my lovely bride makes as she falls asleep, the snort of my grandpuppy when he wants out, the suff of cards being dealt, the holy thrum of guitar strings as they vibrate rosewood and spruce, the gurgle of a tiny human in the crook of my arm, the exasperated sighs of my children when I think I’m being funny, the little grunts of recognition when a poem pries the lid from my heart. These sights and sounds are part of what I call the Quiet.
Back before we invented monotheism, reverence and awe were everyday occurrences. When Western thought gave all of creation to an individual supreme being, we conveniently received dominion over the earth and its creatures. Our reverence went off-planet. We put ourselves in the middle, between Mr. Supreme (gender-specific) and the rest of the Universe. We built a model that still works for multitudes of believers today. It turns out, I think, that we had it almost right. Yes, we are of the One, but we are part of it as it is part of us. And because of the way imagination works, the Supreme is part of the whole deal too and, as it should, the gender-specific thing vanishes. What the Catholics got right was the Mother part when they deified Mary and allowed her to embrace their world as her own spiritual being. The ritual, the miracle of the Eucharist, the kindness, all that, works for those who love the faith of it. But the patriarchic side of it missed the boat on the sin (Original Sin blames the female), the fear, the intrinsic violence, the giving up of the miracles of this life for a golden pie in the sky. (We’ll come back to the mom part in a few minutes.)
When one of our ancestors wasn’t hunting or being hunted, he or she must have found the clear night sky stunning. We still feel the old reverence when we can escape light pollution and look up from, say, the top of Steens Mountain, or better yet, the deck of a sailboat silent running with the wind in a total absence of man-made light. But when we look up to see the galaxy arm we call the Milky Way and know we’re looking at stars, an incredible vastness shrinks us to subatomic particles. When our forebears looked up, they must have been utterly mystified, and the shivers going through them were eventually translated into myth and legend. I wonder what they thought they were looking at. They were pragmatic. They had to be. They were predators, but they were also prey. Deciding how to describe what the night sky or a hair-raising electrical storm made them feel probably contributed to the evolution of our brains. Stories, poetry, and song are as old as we are.
Living in a city removes us from that common, everyday reverence of wilderness. We’ve allowed this to happen. Because ambient light floods our optics, we can’t see what’s really there. We are blind to the wonder still experienced by people living in the relative dark. I’m sure you can step out onto the porch surrounding a Nebraska farmhouse and fall up into the wonder of the galaxy. I know you can do it in the Malheur country of Southeastern Oregon and the broad Mojave of Southern California. If you have the patience, you can also find it here on the Oregon coast. You can find it anyplace where light pollution is at a minimum.
This wildness moves us, but the very nature of wilderness is changing. True wilderness knows no master other than the earth herself. When most people think of wilderness, images come as mountain and forest, as vast plains and desert, as endless seascape. But all of what comes to mind has been, and is being, affected by human activity. Plastic nanoparticles are everywhere in the ocean and, likewise, in us. Climate change, probably a natural cycle but direly exacerbated by humans, is touching what we call wilderness every day. We are even replanting in wilderness areas so that it looks more like we think it should. How can we call that wilderness?
So, what’s different? From breeze on smooth water to the sternum-rattling thunder of a supercell, nature is being perceived as something apart from us. The galaxy for many young people is fast going small instead of vast, but who’s to say inner space is any less huge than outer space? When compared to the natural world, the difference is that this digital space so rapidly absconding with society’s established predilections is completely manufactured. Without humans present, you can’t find the digital world on the Upper Rogue River, or by a tarn reflecting the Eagle Cap in Oregon’s Wallowas. The digital world is brilliant, but we made it. It wasn’t already here for us to wonder about. There is no intrinsic humility. We are its creators, and we created it in our own image.
Instant gratification—constant stimulation—is addictive. Some people feel utterly lost if they’re not connected. “Connected to what” is a question still being answered. The web has become the new Milky Way, but without the reverence. There is no I-am-a-speck-of-dust in an awed moment of stunned self-realization. Maybe we invented religion to make a word for that pervasive awe, to make it accessible through ritual and repetitive reverence, to chant the word over and over to quantify and encapsulate an imperfect snapshot of that feeling there really is no word for, no sentence, no paragraph, no novel. We called it God, capital G.
The digital world probably weakens us in ways we don’t yet understand. How it may strengthen us is also unknown. The connections we forge in the natural world are deeply emotional and personal. We are completed in ways that defy description. We find that place for which there are no words to describe what we’re feeling and experiencing. The connections we make in the digital world, in social media, are all about words, labels, and definitions. They are invisible-person-to-invisible-person. Peaceful contentment and excitement can certainly be found there—community too—but how deep does it go? When we find online photographs of the natural world, we imagine the feel of it, the water, the sun, the rain, the wind, the air, but we are not there. We are seduced by it, perhaps, but what we experience is several times removed. Seduction, in all of its nuances, is what the digital world is about. We do, after all, call it virtual. There is no visceral understanding of the beauty, just as there is no visceral comprehension of the astonishing brutality that is also, undeniably, a part of the natural world. We edit our perception of what we see in a photograph or video, or painting.
Now, back to the mom part. Before we’re born, we spend an average of nine months inside our mother. During the first third of that, cells cluster and begin to pulse, forming our heart; synapses begin to develop; and the spine starts growing from the tailbone to the brainstem. We start stretching, curling, and wiggling digits. During the second trimester, we begin learning to work the mechanics of breathing. Are we aware? Maybe not until the cortex starts to form and grow. That happens throughout the last three months of our water-borne amphibious state. Again, are we aware? We can learn stuff while still in there, nudging the warm soft bulkhead of our amniotic home, so maybe we are in a rudimentary way. I’m guessing we can feel something, some hazy prenatal emotions. If those little emotions get associated with some sort of rudimentary thought, whatever that thought might be can become very powerful.
In a good situation, most of that amniotic ride is pretty peaceful, warm, safe, and we are one with our mother. Mother is the universe. We bob about in the dark. Life is good in the quiet.
Suddenly, our environment develops a catastrophic leak. We are forcibly squeezed through a portal smaller than our head and enter an unbelievably loud place. It is deathly cold and bright. Our skin shrieks. Our eyes explode with light. Our diaphragm pulls a searing volume of air into our wet lungs. Hello, pain.
Do we remember any of this miracle? Does any creature? I remember my daughter’s scrunched-up little face going completely calm when we put her bloody little self into a tub of warm water. Her eyes opened wide, and she relaxed. It’s hard not to put thoughts in that brand-new air-breathing human brain. I have no idea what she saw. But she seemed to say, “Oh, hello. Where the heck am I?”
The trauma of our beginnings must stay with us at some deep level. When we experience something that fills us with awe and reverence, like looking up at a night sky when it’s the brightest thing we see or hiding in the middle of a dozen heart-pausing thunderclaps, does it somehow relate to our memories of the quiet and the dichotomy of being born? Are we reunited with our mother in some way, somehow closing the loops of our memories? Our desire to reconnect with something profound, to find a place where we are one with everything, where we satisfy that longing to bob about in a warm peaceful place, where we are but a drop in a vast, powerful torrent—maybe that’s what reverence is all about.
The Quiet is where gratitude finds us. It’s all about recognizing our place in the world, admitting that our understanding of it will always be incomplete, and being at peace with who we are and who we might be.