Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman
This is what happened……
The setting is the dining hall at the Yosemite Majestic Hotel – when it was still called The Ahwahnee. This is a stunning, cavernous space, famous for its Native American décor, its elegance, and its restrained atmosphere. Coupled with good table manners and well-behaved children is an air of formal relaxation that buzzes with conversation.
One gray winter’s day, at lunchtime, a bobcat ambled along a path just outside the dining hall.
All at once, as if a tweet of the bobcat’s presence had shot around the room, dozens of diners dashed from their seats – some dragging kids behind – and raced to the windows in order to get a view of the bobcat passing by.
Oohing and aahing, they crowded around and pointed excitedly out the windows, over the heads of the folks dining at the window-side tables, unmindful of their rude behavior. Those with children pushed in closer to get a better view.
When the bobcat disappeared behind a tree and was lost from sight, everyone returned to their places and the dining hall returned to its refined state.
This is what happened too……
A Seder is in progress. Twenty people are seated at eight tables arranged in a large square. They are reading and discussing, answering the question, why is this night different from all other nights. They sample ritual foods that evoke the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom. To honor the rebirth that comes with the springtime celebration of Passover, the Seder leader reads lines from an anonymous poem:
The rains are over and gone,
the winter is past;
everything is created with beauty; go
in peace rain.
The reader pauses, and at that very instant, outside, in a sky that had threatened rain all evening, the sun breaks through and the room lights up. Two rainbows appear along the horizon, two arcs of stranded color, one poised above the other, fainter, colors reversed – red to violet – the two held together in perfect harmony.
All decorum breaks down. Squeals of delight. Oohs and aahs. Cell phones and cameras appear. Some in the group dash outside, unperturbed by the sprinkling of rain that has finally begun to fall. Some stand by the windows gazing silently. Finally, when the rainbows have faded, and the sky has darkened, and all are reassembled around the seder table, a hush washes over the room and hovers for a moment, creating a mood of collective awe.
What is that all about?
A bobcat walks up a path. A double rainbow appears in the sky. And a breakdown in decorum and a departure from valued traditions follows. Why?
Many things could account for this: novelty, rarity, predisposition to nature, a highpoint of a vacation.
But there are factors related to these two situations that might allow for a different explanation; not only the abandonment of good behavior, but the spontaneity and authenticity exhibited by the players in both of these stories. These were natural events, unrelated and disparate. Yet the response in both groups, in addition to being unplanned and uncensored, were identical.
Is it possible that these experiences had tapped into something deep-seated in the observers, something innate in their relationship to nature? Something primal?
Edward O. Wilson, the author of Biofilia (1984) might say that these people exhibited their instinctive bond with all life and their deep-seated urge to affiliate with life and life processes.
Author Bill Bryson, in his book, In a Sunburned Country, describes just such a feeling at his initial view of Ayers Rock, a.k.a. Uluru, a sandstone outcropping measuring 5.8 miles around and rising to an altitude of 1,142 feet in an otherwise flat desert area in the Australian Outback.
The thing about Ayers Rock is that by the time you finally get there you are already a little sick of it…..Even when you are a thousand miles from it, you can’t go a day in Australia without seeing it four or five or six times – on postcards, on travel agents’ posters, on the cover of souvenir picture books – and as you get nearer the rock the frequency of exposure increases….and then you see it, and you are instantly transfixed…..Somewhere in the deep sediment of your being some long-dormant fragment of primordial memory, some little severed tail of DNA, has twitched or stirred. It is a motion much too faint to be understood or interpreted, but somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level – perhaps even at a sort of tadpole level – and that in some way your visit here is more than happenstance. I’m not saying that this is so. I’m just saying this is how you feel…..
One comes across many authors, both contemporary and from the past, who, like Bryson, have articulated similar feelings about their connection to nature. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher stated in his memoirs, I felt close to nature, the earth, the sun, the moon, the weather, all living creatures…. Trees he saw as mysterious, direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life.
Oddly, once you open up to the idea of a human kinship with nature it becomes apparent that many people feel a sense of oneness with nature, each in a personal, unique way.
Speaking with individuals who claim to have experienced their connection with nature is like taking a trip into a world apart, yet it feels somehow familiar.
A kayaker who rescued a loon that had become entangled in a fishing line, said he believed the loon felt calm during the whole procedure because, when we looked into each other’s eyes, we communicated and connected. There was an instinctive understanding between us.
A lifelong backpacker remarked that he has had many momentary experiences of feeling completely whole and connected. I could be sitting on a rock looking into the San Joaquin River gorge and I suddenly become conscious of being one with everything.
A member of the Fresno 4-Wheel-Drive Club likes to explore in the wilderness. I am taken aback, she said. My breath just stops at the beauty and cleanliness of Nature. It’s so there. I reach out and hug the mountain. It’s what Nature makes you want to do.
A horse trainer said that when he is in nature it’s as though there’s an additional dimension, as if I enter a parallel universe where there’s balance and beauty of design and purpose, where I exist in a state of heightened awareness and consciousness.
When he trains a horse, before beginning, he establishes a connection with the animal. I might touch them in places where horses touch each other, he said. We might even breathe on each other. And then I wait. I wait and allow. He waits until the horse signals that he is ready. His eyes will open up, get bigger, but also deeper, as if I could dive into them. That’s when I know we’re really seeing each other, really connecting.
Three wildflower seekers come across a Pacific Pond turtle:
Driving along in the back country we pass a turtle crossing the road. The driver, ordinarily a calm, controlled person, screeches to a halt, dashes from the car, which sits in the middle of the road, and picks up the turtle. We dash out of the car after him and the three of us gather around. We are naturalists and have an intelligent conversation about the turtle. It looks like a Pacific Pond turtle. What a find. It’s native to California. We hold it. Turn it over and investigate its underbelly. Its flatness tells us that she’s a female. We flip her back to upright. Her head and legs are retracted into her shell. She is looking at us from inside. Her deep black eyes seem to pulsate. It’s as if she were demanding. Pay attention! And something happens. We obey. We finally look at her. Really look at her. And we connect and, in that moment we become concerned for her. We soothe her. Don’t be afraid. We’re not going to hurt you. Where are you going? We’re certain she’s listening, understands what we’re saying. Her head ventures out a bit. We’re excited. Look! She’s come out. She likes us. Her legs fly out, as if she wants to run away, and her head slides back into her shell. She’s had enough of us. We place her in the grass on one side of the road, but then we wonder, which way was she going? How do we know where a turtle wants to go? We choose one side of the road and set her down. Be safe, one of us says, in a final moment of connection, and we stand and watch her inch her way along the grass.
In her book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, environmentalist Terry Tempest Williams wrote, To hold an animal, to look into its eyes and have it look back at you; to try to calm its terrified heart; …..is to open the door to empathy and cross a new threshold of shared existence.
Next week we’ll take a look at empathy. In the meantime, see if you have the opportunity to hold an animal and look into its eyes, or to view a forest devastated by fire, or to watch a hawk circle in the sky in search of something to eat. Is Tempest Williams correct? Can we tap into empathic connection with the animal? The forest? The hawk?