Updated: Dec 11, 2020
Have you ever noticed that human beings are naturally wired to look just about everywhere but up? I don’t know if this is a feature exclusive to our species, and I’ll admit to my ignorance of the science behind the phenomenon. Still, it’s distinct enough to have drawn my attention, and I feel almost compelled to share my experiences with it.
The air was chilly, not quite cold enough to keep me inside at all costs, but enough to accept an itchy head as a worthwhile sacrifice for a little extra warmth. Light trickled down through the forest canopy from the clear blue sky, and mingled with the thin and sensuous spider webs that hung between the rugged deciduous branches. I stared out over the pond at the center of this Shangri-la deep in the woods of rural Ohio, yet to freeze over from the encroaching cold of winter. A thin layer of viscous green algae was laid out over the water like a burial shroud. I closed my eyes, hoping to accentuate the other sensations of the wood by denying myself the visual inputs that so often dull my other senses.
The air is never truly still. Its movements may be too subtle to notice without special attention, but it is always moving, and if you only quiet your mind and give proper regard to your senses, you will feel it. Perhaps our ancestors were on to something more profound than we care to admit when they divided the world into spirits of air, earth, water and fire. What better way to describe the playful stirring up of goosebumps by the wind, than the dance of whimsical and mischievous air spirits?
After taking in the expertly choreographed ballet of the breeze, I once again opened my eyes. A ray of light was caught there, and as I instinctively tracked it to its source, my field of vision was dragged upward, into the forest canopy. I was stunned. I had been walking through those woods for close to an hour, and not once had I looked up. It was beautiful, clouds and sunlight poking through the dense interwoven branches of the forest canopy. The mid-autumn colors of leaves destined to mix back into the fertile woodland soil and nourish fresh spring blooms, adding freckled pops of red, orange and yellow.
Common wisdom holds that we should keep our heads out of the clouds, but as I stood mesmerized by the majesty of the sky framed like a Monet by the bare limbs of trees, I couldn’t help but think that maybe common wisdom is wrong. How could anyone even think to buy or sell the gifts of the natural world from that profoundly humbling perspective? Seeing things through the lens of the heavens reminds us that we’re a part of something bigger. Mother Earth is ours, not just mine, or yours or the beetle’s or the tree’s. She is ours to enjoy, but she is also ours to nourish and sustain. Staring up at the forest canopy, the noise of modern life faded away, and in its stead nothing but a profound sense of connection to every other living being remained.
After what felt like hours and seconds all at once had passed, it was time for me to move on. That’s the thing about life. No matter what it throws at us, the heights of the sublime or the pits of despair, it never stops for our minds to catch up. Well, until we’re dead that is. My life as a college student continued, my perspective forever changed, if ever so slightly, by what I had seen in those woods that day. For the most part though, things carried on as they had before, and soon enough I had been lulled back into the blissful ignorance of nature so effortlessly fostered by our alienating modern existence. However, it seemed as if God, the universe, lady luck, or whatever you care to call the fickle currents which shape our lives far beyond our control, would once again conspire with the elements to shake me out of my complacency.
This second run in with the world above came at midmorning several weeks later, as I returned to my dorm to get started on the week's laundry. I had just left my eight AM philosophy class, mind buzzing as it traveled down new mental pathways the morning’s discussion had opened up. I was walking with a friend, who was very kindly humoring my spitballing about Descartes, or Hume, or whatever philosopher we had read that day.
A large bird pecked away at the scraps of something in a discarded plastic grocery bag. Its feathers a Stygian, midnight black, with thick muscular wings and powerful grasping talons. Being the scatterbrained eccentric that I am, I immediately derailed any semblance of conversation that had been happening before with a cacophony of excited rambling and frantic pointing. At first I thought the bird was a crow, but my intuitions that it was much too large were confirmed as we got closer. It was a vulture, animals we generally associate with filth and decay, but are in fact much more charming in person.
Birds have a certain undeniable air of intelligence and regality about them. Even this humble custodian of nature’s refuse carried itself with a dignity rarely seen in the chambers of national governments. The proud beast took its time, unfazed by us curious onlookers, and once it had eaten its fill, it flapped its sturdy wings in flight. As I watched the noble creature’s departure in awe, I almost gasped. It landed on the roof of my residence hall, among a flock of almost twenty other vultures that had somehow managed to evade my notice until that moment.
Like all of the most beautiful sights that nature can offer, as my gaze fixed on the vultures whose black feathers dotted the light gray concrete of the building’s roof, my mind was filled with a mingling of awe and terror. Vultures probably aren’t all that dangerous to humans in actuality, but seeing such a large group of the birds stirred something primal deep within me. An old kind of fear, not the debilitating and stagnating fear of failure, or an awkward interaction on the subway, but a pulse-pounding kick of hormones specifically tailored to get us ready to respond to existential danger. Yet with that fear came an intense veneration for the natural world, and a reminder that when I get too caught up in the stresses of my everyday life, all I have to do is walk outside, look up, and remember how small I really am.
It’s not that my problems are unimportant; every individual spark of life on this planet is profoundly important. Looking up isn’t about the annihilation of the self, but the expansion of it. It’s not an excuse to descend into ever-deepening nihilism in a cold and unfeeling universe, but a reminder that a small part of us is in each and every being we meet, and in turn a small piece of every being resides within each of us. We’re all the descendents of microscopic packages of DNA formed in the primordial stew of the early earth, framed under a pale blue sky on a pale blue rock, floating through the void of space as one earth. It’s weird to think that sometimes all you have to do to remember that is clear your mind, open your senses, and just look up.