Recently, I went for a walk–wandering around the neighborhood–and when I came back, I took a look around the house and was struck by a few particular moments of the extraordinary, waiting to be discovered in the ordinary. Every year around this time, all of nature usually comes alive simultaneously, and it is always a relief to once again observe the greenery coming back to life, but this year, nature seems to be bursting out all over the yard, and it almost seems to be trying to swallow the house whole. The image above was taken in a field near the house which I snapped while walking, and it felt relatively safe and ordinary as I paused to capture the scene.
Once I came along the sidewalk in front of the house, I was taken by surprise by what seemed like a jungle creeping up on the house, with our cat, Mittens apparently oblivious to the impending attack. On the right hand side, next to the yellow rose bush, what I had earlier dismissed as simply a small new tree, has suddenly taken root and shot up like a beanstalk. The ivy in the center of the image, which had always seemed like a nice decoration around the light pole at the end of the walkway, now appears to have engulphed the whole thing. Yes, there is a light post under all those leaves.
It won’t be long before the mailman will have to bring a machete with him to get to the mailbox!
The ivy is starting to take over the whole front of the house.
It’s even creeping up to grab anyone coming out the door.
It’s getting a bit ridiculous now.
But lo and behold! Sitting out on the back porch I notice that a maple seedling from the backyard tree has taken root in the space between the boards. In the most unexpected places, and against tremendous odds, nature has found a way to flourish! Even though it’s clearly doomed in the long run, I couldn’t help but stare in amazement at how persistent and unflinchingly the plants and trees and everything alive is growing all around me.
The natural world, of which we are an integral part, shows us even in these humble discoveries on an ordinary day, how it is that we can approach life as something extraordinary, which needs to be appreciated and which should provoke us with wonder and inspire awe. Imperceptibly, but relentlessly, every plant and tree persists under the most daunting circumstances. We cut it out, and it grows back. We rip it out by the roots, and the seedlings drop and the process begins again. Every year, with lethal intent, I decimate the ivy and chop it to bits, and no matter what I do, life finds a way.
Apparently unfazed by it all, our cat, Princess, seems blissfully unaware of the tumultuous orchestration of Mother Nature all around her, and found a quiet spot on an old carpet remnant to curl up for an afternoon nap. As the mammal with the big brain and a penetrating cognitive awareness, I find myself curiously undone by all of these ordinary wonders, and equally cognizant of the extraordinary aspects which serve as the foundation for all life and existence in our little corner of the world. Time to dig a little deeper…..
Paulo Coelho’s quote brings us to contemplate the very essence of what it means to be alive and what significance our lives may hold in the big picture. We cannot simply move through life oblivious to the deeper meaning that surely must exist at the foundation of our existence in the physical universe. The importance of our efforts in striving to discover what meaning there might be in our individual lives is really just a momentary “parenthesis in eternity,” but when we arrive at a place and time where we may actually begin to see how this meaning becomes real for us as individuals, it points to a much broader meaning which applies to all life and all existence.
Recent travels have inspired some serious contemplation of Coelho’s thoughts and while the natural landscape of Virginia is available to anyone with the means and the will to travel there, for me as an individual, this image holds a deeper meaning and has sparked many ideas that point to a broader meaning. I am hopeful in the months to come that I will be able to share more completely how this came about, as I am preparing to retire in a few weeks. So much has been quietly and patiently been waiting for me to arrive in a place and time where this will become real for me, and I am looking forward to dedicating much more time to this pursuit of discovery and sharing with all my readers here.
There is a deeper meaning to life that has been apparent to me for some time now, in spite of all the obstacles to spending time discovering it and sharing it with the world. As a father to six wonderful children, I have had a front row seat for life’s ups and downs, and have relished every moment of sharing this life with them, but when your own children start having children, the discoveries are increased exponentially. Holding two of my seven grandchildren in this image reveals a small window into how it is that being with any of them always fills my heart with a sense of a deeper meaning that is totally real. It’s not just biology and it’s not just because my granddaughters are wonderful. This is a precious moment.
All of the efforts over the past seven years to speak to the subjective experience of human consciousness have given my life a degree of meaning, and the paths I have pursued in the search for discoveries that hold meaning for me all point to the truth contained in the quote from Stan Grof, a psychiatrist who spent many years researching non-ordinary states of consciousness. With so much yet to be discovered, it is my hope that our continued dialog and sharing of ideas will bear fruit that helps others see this deeper meaning.
Hope to share much more in the days and weeks to come…..John H.
View from Blue Ridge Parkway in southwestern Virginia
There are few experiences for frequent highway travelers that can compare with the exceptional countryside road views available along the highways within the Blue Ridge Mountain range, which stretches from northern Georgia all the way up to Pennsylvania.
Recent camping trips have resulted in several wonderful opportunities for both sustained hours of contemplation, and for producing some remarkable images along the variety of roads and some lovely trails leading through the scenic areas surrounding the campgrounds in Virginia. As a consequence of being able to enjoy these opportunities, a number of avenues of exploration have opened for me, and in the coming weeks I hope to share postings which will include the fruits of those opportunities, both in the visual sense through photo essays, as well as in a spiritual and philosophical sense through the expression of my contemplative efforts and recorded thoughts from the numerous visits to the various natural landscapes in these areas.
Traversing the countryside in a motor vehicle is one of the best ways to get a broad appreciation of the scope of natural beauty and wide expanses available to visit, and frequently you can encounter alternative and unfamiliar points of interest which you can either stop and explore immediately, or perhaps make a note to schedule a visit at a later time. Sometimes, while on the way to a planned stop, pausing to take in a scenic overlook can provide a wonderful opportunity to be inspired and to appreciate the advantage of serendipity for sharing in nature’s bounty.
By far, some of the most beneficial and inspiring scenes are more often attainable by stepping out of the vehicle, and hiking along the trails and visiting the many visitor centers which can provide helpful information about the most interesting sites contained within the state and national park system. Trails can vary from leisurely and easy walks through tried and true paths for the casual visitor, all the way to some of the more challenging hikes through rugged terrain.
One of my more recent trips into nature’s gardens provided an especially fruitful time in contemplation, and included the chance to review a volume of philosophical writings by Descartes received as a gift from my brother at Christmas. Safely nestled in the bosom of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I encountered a passage that seemed to be describing the very path of my life:
“As soon as I was old enough to emerge from the control of my teachers, I entirely abandoned the study of letters. Resolving to seek no knowledge other than that which could be found in myself or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth travelling, visiting courts and armies, mixing with people of diverse temperaments and ranks, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the situations which fortune offered me, and at all times reflecting upon whatever came my way so as to derive some profit from it…”
“…For it seemed to me that much more truth could be found in the reasonings which a man makes concerning matters that concern him than in those which some scholar makes in his study about speculative matters. For the consequences of the former will soon punish the man if he judges wrongly, whereas the latter have no practical consequences and no importance for the scholar except that perhaps the further they are from common sense the more pride he will take in them, since he will have had to use so much more skill and ingenuity in trying to render them plausible. And it is always my most earnest desire to learn to distinguish the true from the false in order to see clearly into my own actions and proceed with confidence in this life.”
–from “Discourse On The Method,” by Rene Descartes, published in 1644
In the weeks to come, I will be enlarging and expanding on the clear association between communing with nature apart from most all familiar modern amenities, (with the exception of the devices for photography and recording my thoughts for posterity) with the emergence of important life lessons, philosophical writings, and a greater well-being as an individual struggling with the meaning and purpose of his remaining years on this earth.
In a recent communication with a dear friend, I reported a brief defense of this association in this way:
“You can almost hear your heart beating in the stillness of early morning in the forest. There is a reflection of life across the still lake waters at dawn. It is humbling and life-affirming to look out at beautiful mountain vistas. All of nature reflects all of life…”
“And don’t forget to unplug your earbuds or headphones and to walk without any sound except what nature provides, and look within. There is more wisdom available in one hour of stillness in Nature’s gardens, than you could ever hope to find…(elsewhere)”
…more to come…
Yearning for the renewal of all life at the onset of Spring, especially after enduring the bitter cold nights and frigid daytime temperatures of Winter, is a common theme this time of year and my own yearnings in this regard are fairly predictable as the Earth begins its return to an orientation, which grants the northern hemisphere greater access to the warmth of the sun.
This morning, as I sleepily trudged my way out to the kitchen, I was struck by one of the surest signs of Spring to which I have become accustomed throughout the almost thirty years of occupancy in my humble home, when the sun finally had the opportunity to shine through the kitchen window well enough to illuminate the area around the coffee pot.
The timing couldn’t have been better from my perspective, as I approached the kitchen window and opened the blinds. My heart filled with a reassuring rush of warmth, and my spirit lifted immediately upon the discovery of the pattern of the sun’s rays lighting up the counter near the coffee pot, as it does only when the tilt of the Earth heralds the arrival of the Spring season.
After pouring myself the first cup of the day, and just savoring the moment which included the delightful coffee aroma, the wisps of steam floating up into the sunbeams, and the anticipation of the calm and quiet of an early morning ritual on the weekend, my thoughts turned right away to what other signs might be available for observation. I stepped out the front door to retrieve the newspaper and was again reassured to see the very beginnings of blossoming flowers at my feet in front of the house.
It won’t be long before the budding plants start to sprout in the flower beds out front, and the daffodils, which did not appear to flower last year, appeared to be struggling to maintain their composure with temperatures in the upper thirties most of the morning.
The predicament of the harbingers of Spring clearly echoed my own uncertainty as I contemplated the changes which are about to take place in my own life, as well as the challenges which are looming for the immediate future. As lovely and reassuring as the walk around the yard proved to be in the brilliant sunlight and among the many hopeful signs of Spring, it was chilly enough to chase me back inside to consider my thoughts in a more comfortable setting.
This June I will be retiring from my position which has employed me for the last seven years, hopefully preparing for a new routine which does not include going to a job outside my home, and entering a new chapter in the continuing saga which is my life. All of the transitions which accompany these changes have inspired both anticipation and anxiety to different degrees, but they are both necessary and expected as are the change of seasons each year.
As I turned to continue with my chores for the day, a glance backward caught my eye as a kind of hopeful sign, captured in the image above. The brilliance of the sunlight streaming through the windows as it only does in the Spring, illuminated the greenery of my favorite houseplant, which has been waiting patiently to return to its perch outdoors. I could almost feel the joy it might be experiencing as only a plant can, of the promise of warmer days ahead, and a chance to begin again in the renewal of all life, as the Earth welcomes the surest signs of Spring.
November has flown by with a swiftness of a fleeting blink of an eye. The autumn this year was reluctant to begin, with summer-like temperatures holding fairly steady well into October in the Northeast corridor, and the delay in arriving at more seasonal weather seemed to mute the changing colors when they finally began to change in earnest. As I came slowly to consciousness this past Saturday morning, I awoke to the sound of a robust and formidable wind stirring the trees outside my bedroom window. Since I had no urgent events scheduled for the day, I was able to awaken slowly and reflect for a bit before rising.
I sat up for a moment or two once I had gathered my wits and took a few photos as the day began, and then settled back down again to contemplate the day’s beginning and the events of late that accompanied the strangeness of the reluctant autumn taking place all around me. I generally try to capture some seasonal images as the earth alters its course around the sun each year, but this time around, it seems that mother nature had other ideas, and stubbornly withheld the expected changes until just last week.
In the yard next door, my usual view out the window on that side would have displayed this scene a month ago, but only last week came into full blossom with many of the leaves already missing. In just the last few days, most all of the foliage in the trees lining the street was gone. The wind had wreaked havoc on whatever plumage remained and the tree now appears almost totally bare. This experience goes against the traditional one I generally expect at this time of year, and as I lay in bed pondering these changes, I looked back over several extraordinary life events that led up to the strangeness of my early morning awakening.
Beginning in late August, as I traveled to the first of three family gatherings as autumn approached, the sky above me looked so strange and peculiar as I rode astonished at the sight, that I had to capture the event, as though it were an omen of some sort. I couldn’t decide if this sky was ominous or simply extraordinary.
Gliding down the highway in silence, almost mesmerized by the sight of it, it gave me shivers as I held my eye up to viewfinder. What an amazing sight!
Last month brought me once again into the emotional rollercoaster ride as Father of the Bride. As we gathered for the marriage of my youngest daughter in the spectacular landscape of rural Virginia, the anticipated autumnal awesomeness was only barely underway as we prepared for the outdoor ceremony in the afternoon of Saturday, the 21st of October. Driving through the beauty of the sun kissed scenery, my heart already primed for the flood of feelings and memories, I was struck by the contrast with the previous driving experience, and could barely contain myself as I soaked in the spectacle before me.
On the first morning in Virginia before the wedding, I awoke at sunrise in the mountains, and was able to observe the first light while chatting with my daughter who called me on the phone. It was a compelling moment of many that would occur during the trip, but all the more poignant as I was able to share some fatherly advice with a nervous bride.
The view off the deck of the rental house above was taken on October 23rd and offered only a hint of Autumn’s colors, and while the temperatures were mild during the day, it was still chilly in the morning and that helped to remind me that we were indeed experiencing the autumnal transition. The thoughts passing through my mind on that morning turned to one of the most poignant moments that occurred over the weekend, when I first saw my youngest daughter in her wedding dress. I nearly fainted!
With one day available to me after the wedding to relax and look around, I decided to travel to nearby Charlottesville, Virginia to satisfy a lifelong desire to visit Monticello–the home of Thomas Jefferson. Ever since I was a small boy learning American History in school, I had wanted to visit this historical home, and it was another monumental and emotional experience on a weekend full of them. I will be writing a separate blog post about that visit soon, but I wanted to include an image from that day. The visit and tour of the estate will remain as one of the most significant of the many I acquired in any autumn season.
There have been so many moments throughout the season before winter this year that seemed to overwhelm my ability to process them well, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the confluence of each of these events and what the meaning might be for me personally. The perspective of years of memories of past autumns has run the gamut from the most stunningly beautiful to the personally devastating, and all along the way, every variation in between has contributed to the auguries of autumn for me.
It is sometimes said that a person in their sixth decade of life is approaching the “autumn of their years,” but I wonder now just how close the winter might be, and what wonders await me.
I found myself traveling today along the rural back roads near my home, on my way back from visiting with my children, and I had the rare opportunity to enjoy a pleasant drive through brilliant sunshine and vibrant blue skies, surrounded by farmland and the exquisite greens of a late summer afternoon. My heart has been burdened lately with a host of concerns that have made settling down to write here on my blog a bit problematical, and today it finally seemed like the sun was poking through within me, just enough to gather a few words to share with all of you.
As I traversed the beautiful byways between where I was and where I was going, I decided to insert the soundtrack to the film, “Amadeus,” into the CD player, (yes…some of us still do that…) and the music brought me to a place that nearly always is provocative and contemplative simultaneously–the musical landscape created by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The traffic was light today, so driving down the road alone, taking in such spectacular visual delights as I listened, allowed my mind to wander a bit, and also to connect with the creative human spirit which was Mozart, opening my heart and mind to both the nature and the nurture possible in such circumstances.
The visit with my son included an opportunity to enjoy the play of light and the elements that make up the environment where he lives. Lounging in the old fashioned kitchen was the perfect prelude to the journey through the rural landscape, and before I headed out on the highway, I took a few minutes to capture several images of the magic light which always seems to illuminate the kitchens in our family.
As I turned out of the driveway, I slipped in the Mozart CD and was surprised by the power of the music to fill in the gaps of the silence within me; it seemed to accompany the passing sights perfectly, particularly two choral renditions, one from his opera, “Don Giovanni,” and the Requiem, K626. The performances were nearly hypnotic in their effect, and I thought it a bit synchronous for the music which was created so many years ago, (Mozart lived from 1756 to 1791) to be able to match perfectly this 21st century road trip.
My inner landscape also seemed to match the outer one as the excursion progressed, and I briefly felt completely one with all the elements of my experience, placing those concerns and delights into a temporary state of equilibrium. A recent conversation with a dear friend who encouraged me to continue with my work here, gave me just the push I needed to find a moment to bring it all together and share it with all of you.
The challenges are great for me at present, but I have been journaling and recording ideas for expanding my mission and my vision, even though none of it, so far, has made an appearance here. As I contemplated what I might write about this particular day, it occurred to me that having to endure situations like mine is one of the reasons God sent us Mozart. He was like a brilliant shooting star across the skies of life in the 1700’s, but his music and his genius have endured across the centuries to fill in the gaps of our inner silence, even today…
…more to come…
An image from the Cassini spacecraft shows Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.
Credit – Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA
Thanks to the leaps in satellite technology, undertaken by NASA and others, as well as scientific advances as a result of humanity’s efforts to conduct space travel, there now exist many unique images of the Earth, taken from a number of different perspectives, and as living, cognitive beings in the 21st century of recorded human history, we have been privileged to have the opportunity to view the earth in ways that were impossible only 60 years ago. Many creative and innovative methods of photographing the Earth from above, from aerial photographs taken by kites, balloons, and even carrier pigeons, to those from airplanes and early attempts at rocketry, all contributed to our perspective in interesting ways. It would take several years after the advent of human space flight to finally accomplish the task of taking a photograph of the entire earth. On November 17th, 1967, the NASA/ATS-3 synchronous satellite, orbiting the earth at a distance of 22,300 miles, directly above the Amazon River, took the image below utilizing an Electronic Image Systems Photorecorder, transmitting the image to the Weather Satellite Ground station in Rosman, North Carolina:
I received a print of this photograph from the original negative, described as the “first color photo ever made of the entire earth,” as a result of my father’s employment at the Missile and Space Division of the General Electric Company, engaged in the effort to put an American astronaut on the moon. The souvenir photo was presented to me at age 15 as a gift intended to inspire and encourage my interest in all things related to space travel and to astronomy. I have lovingly preserved the image these many years, and although it is beginning to show its age, it still holds a particular fascination for me, and continues to inspire and encourage my interest in the perspective only possible to achieve from stepping away from the earth-bound view of life.
Most people remember the iconic image of the Earth from the moon taken in 1968 by the Apollo astronauts on their way to orbiting that nearest extraterrestrial orb, and in some ways, the simple fact that it was a cognitive human person recording that image on his way to the moon that gave it much of its appeal, but it was on August 23, 1966 that we first got to see the Earth from the vicinity of the moon, in an image taken by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter I:
Many astonishing and beautiful images of the earth from spacecraft orbiting the Earth have been recorded over the years, from John Glenn’s initial orbits of the Earth in February of 1962, to the many views of our planet recorded from the space shuttle flights, all the way to those being made available regularly from the International Space Station. As our technology progressed, we found new and interesting ways to record our place in the universe, and the image below, recorded in 1977 by the Voyager I spacecraft, shows both the Earth and the Moon in the blackness of space:
The image at the top of this post, recently sent from the Cassini spacecraft, recorded at a distance of only 900 million miles, is reminiscent of the very last image from Voyager II in 1990, which was taken just before the batteries ran out, at a distance of approximately 3.7 billion miles away. Carl Sagan famously used the photograph as a launch point for his book, “Pale Blue Dot, A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”
The perspective available to us as a result of these accomplishments, aside from being humbling and awe-inspiring, is one that we have only recently begun to appreciate more fully. We still have all the squabbling and competition among peoples and nations all over the globe, but we have far less of an excuse for not recognizing just how small our home planet looms against the immensity of the galaxy and indeed the whole known universe. We will eventually have to recognize the need to bring all people and nations together into a cooperative organized union of nations in order to preserve the Earth for future generations. Our place in the universe is not yet fully developed, nor do we seem any closer to bringing the people of the world together when we look at the conflicts and trouble spots in the world.
We hold the future of our species in our hands now. We are the caretakers of the earth presently, and the path ahead has some real challenges if we are to leave a sustainable and reasonably livable Earth to our children and grandchildren. Our place in the universe is uncertain in some ways, but we can work toward a greater understanding of our fellow cognitive beings and what it is that gives us our unique perspective. This is my hope in contributing to this blog–to join with all the other voices that are pressing us forward to a more sustainable future, and to achieving a greater appreciation of our privilege as Earth’s caretakers. The subjective experience of consciousness is the door through which we bring to fruition, the future of our fragile place in the universe.