To think better, to think like the best humans, we are probably going to have to learn again to judge a person’s intelligence, not by the ability to recite facts, but by the good order or harmoniousness of his or her surroundings. We must suspect that any statistical justification of ugliness and violence is a revelation of stupidity.
―Wendell Berry, “People, Land, and Community”, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
That black, maddening firmament; that vast cosmic ocean, endlessly deep in every direction, both Heaven and Pandemonium at once; mystical Zodiac, speckled flesh of Tiamat; all that is chaos, infinite and eternal. And yet, it’s somehow the bringing to order of this chaos which perhaps has always disturbed me most. The constellations, in their way, almost bring into sharper focus the immensity and insanity of it all – monsters and giants brought to life in all their gigantic monstrosity; Orion and Hercules striding across the sky, limbs reaching for lightyears, only to be dwarfed by the likes of Draco, Pegasus, or Ursa Major. Then bigger still – Cetus, Eridanus, Ophiuchus, and Hydra, spanning nearly the whole of a hemisphere, sunk below the equator in that weird underworld of obscure southern formations. You try to take them in – the neck cranes, the eyes roll, and the mind boggles until this debilitating sense of inverted vertigo overcomes you…”
―Mark X., Citations: A Brief Anthology, edited by Jasper Siegel Seneschal
A beam or pillar can be used to batter down a city wall, but it is no good for stopping up a little hole – this refers to a difference in function. Thoroughbreds like Qiji and Hualiu could gallop a thousand li in one day, but when it came to catching rats they were no match for the wildcat or the weasel – this refers to a difference in skill. The horned owl catches fleas at night and can spot the tip of a hair, but when daylight comes, no matter how wide it opens its eyes, it cannot see a mound or a hill – this refers to a difference in nature. Now do you say, that you are going to make Right your master and do away with Wrong, or make Order your master and do away with Disorder? If you do, then you have not understood the principle of heaven and earth or the nature of the ten thousand things. This is like saying that you are going to make Heaven your master and do away with Earth, or make Yin your master and do away with Yang.
For the moment, the jazz is playing; there is no melody, only notes, a myriad of tiny jolts. They know no rest, an inflexible order gives birth to them and destroys them without even giving them time to recuperate and exist for themselves. They race, they press forward, they strike me a sharp blow in passing and are obliterated. I would like to hold them back, but I know if I succeeded in stopping one it would remain between my fingers only as a raffish languishing sound. I must accept their death; I must even will it. I know few impressions stronger or more harsh.
Modern man lives isolated in his artificial environment, not because the artificial is evil as such, but because of his lack of comprehension of the forces which make it work- of the principles which relate his gadgets to the forces of nature, to the universal order. It is not central heating which makes his existence ‘unnatural,’ but his refusal to take an interest in the principles behind it. By being entirely dependent on science, yet closing his mind to it, he leads the life of an urban barbarian.
Some trees require fire to germinate their seeds and begin their life. Is there a metaphor here for human creativity?
Public Domain Image via Pixabay
For much of the last century, Americans sought to prevent forest fires, unaware that the seeds of many forest trees require fire to germinate. The result is that, in most places, the great trees have not reproduced, but the forest floor has filled in with smaller plants and scrub, as well as the skeletons of old trees as they grow old and fall. In protecting the forest ecosystem from adversity, we were creating a weak forest. In addition to being old and sickly, these forests burn uncontrollably when they do catch fire, because fire takes out the undergrowth first, using the the dry wood of dead trees as kindling.
This picture, Germination, is my first canvas. The photo is a decent representation, although I don’t have the technology to capture the texture and shading properly. It’s a different experience using brushes and colored paints rather than pencil, but it was fun to explore. I paint the same way I draw, automatically, just following what my hand does with my eye. I chose the colors I would use, prepped the canvas and started with nothing in my head. Experimenting with brushes was fascinating, and the process of blending colors was eye opening and wonderful, allowing tone and shading. The paint used here is acrylic and the canvas was something I found in a closet from a project that didn’t turn out. From small beginnings come new things.
One of things that impressed me about painting was that, often I would get an edge or a combination that pleased me, only to have that element deleted as I added another color. In the end I was pleased with the piece overall, and I realized that those tiny touches that I had so exulted in were actually holding back the entire painting. I know have done this in life–been so pleased with the way that I sang or performed some detail that I missed the wholeness of what I was doing. Have you ever felt that?
After I paint I try to decipher what I have made. If you look at the left side of Germination, you will see order, featuring seedpods and flowers, while the right is chaotic, featuring fire. There is a shape angling out from the three ovoid seedpods that reminds me of a woman wearing a skirt, with a large seed pod on that skirt. Hugging her body are the roots of a tree, which lies between the ordered and disordered zones of the painting. The tree is burning, holding back a spectacular firestorm from the seedpods. In the right hand corner is something that looks like an animal made of flame. The skirt and the seedpod have caught fire from the head or the tail of this beast, but the conflagration quietly peters out into a gentle hue as it reaches the flowers on the left side of the picture.
To me, this picture speaks of the unity of human beings with nature and the necessity of fire and death. Sometimes we want happiness so desperately that we insulate ourselves and our children from the pain of being human. Remind yourself and those you love that it is okay to be unhappy, to hurt, to experience death. When we hold it all together for others, we invite the wildfire to consume us and take those around us too.
It is the fiery chaos that makes the ordered life possible, and the ordered life that gives the fiery chaos meaning. Beginnings do not just happen. Space has to be cleared and heat applied for new life to begin.
What do you see? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.