Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Birds and The Art of Living

In Nature, Photography, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 5, 2020 at 9:00 am

Great Blue Heron ©Doug Bruns

I took a long pleasant walk along the water on New Years Day. Walking seems the most basic and perhaps profound thing to do as an upright animal and I like to begin the year doing something basic and important. A walk gets everything in order, both mentally and physically. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem too busy to get out and simply walk, or they think their time could somehow be better spent. It is not a surprise to me that a study of human creativity is a long history of walkers. (If you want to know more about my thoughts along on this line, read my essay, The Philosophy of Walking, at Medium.)

Long-billed Curlew ©Doug Bruns

I took binoculars with me on my walk. Wearing them, like wearing a camera around my neck, is a prompt to pay attention, to be on the look out, to be present in a moment, alert and ready. I identified twenty-two species of birds on my two-hour walk. There were probably another dozen or so that I could not identify. I am a long-time birder, but not a very good one, though I am always striving to improve.

Birding gives me an excuse and purpose to be out of doors. Fly fishing used to do the same thing, but the harm I was doing to the beautiful finned creatures of moving water became too much to bear. I most often go birding with my camera and a big telephoto lens. Photographing a bird I cannot identify in the field gives me an opportunity to study it on my computer screen when I get home.

Vermillion Flycatcher ©Doug Bruns

I want to be a better birder and am committed to sharpening my skills. I want to be a better human being and am likewise committed. I see the two notions as complimentary. Anything that draws you closer to nature, that heightens your attention to the world around you, I believe, simply makes you better. The more you appreciate the natural world, the more inclined you’ll be to cherish it, the creatures in it (human, as well as non-human beings) and do no damage.

Maria Popova in a recent Brain Pickings post made a comment about the creative process, which included the phrase, “…the way artists apprentice themselves to the work.” I very much like the use of the word apprentice as a verb, an active verb. The practice of learning a trade or a skill through an apprenticeship has sadly grown quaint. The idea of taking time to study under a master, to absorb carefully and with commitment, does not have much traction any longer. The Latin from which the word apprentice is drawn means “to learn, to take hold of, to grasp.” I attempt to learn, to take hold of, to grasp by birding with good birders and naturalists at every opportunity.

Brown Pelican ©Doug Bruns

If there is any art in my life I wish to apprentice myself to it and commit to the work involved in enhancing it. How best to live, in my scheme of things, is art of the highest order. How to be a better birder is largely the art of learning how to better pay attention, which is also one aspect of learning how best to live. As an apprentice to this art I am yoked to the idea that progress can be made, that there is knowledge to be grasped, wisdom to be exercised.

There is work to be done and I am committed to the long-haul of getting it done. Work is a wonderful thing. Without it we have no opportunity to practice our apprenticeship, no platform upon which to design and structure our path forward.

These are thoughts I considered during my New Years walk. They give me a heightened sense of purpose. There have been times in my life when true purpose seemed remote and now it appears less so. I am grateful for that. Gratitude too, I’ve learned, is part of the art of learning how best to live.

Happy New Year.

Greetings (of the Season)

In Death, Faith, Nature, The infinity of ideas, Wisdom on December 22, 2019 at 9:00 am
Stonehendge

Stonehenge, winter solstice

“We must be less than death, to be lessened by it, for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves.” ~ Emily Dickinson, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

      * * *

I want to ask you a question and you have to promise that you will not do any mental calculations before answering. Here goes, How many weeks do you think there are in an average lifespan? I recently stumbled across this little fact and was surprised at the answer. Before I tell you, I confess that I grossly over estimated. Here’s something to consider first: The approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia is about 270,000 weeks. And the answer to my question: The modern lifespan average is about four thousand weeks. Four thousand weeks! (I owe these factoids to Oliver Burkeman and his article, Life’s Too Short, in NewPhilosopher magazine, Fall 2019.)

100 years

24,698 days, 100 years.

I recall years ago as a young child looking at a hundred-year calendar contained on just two pages. Each year was represented by a box about three inches square, and within each box was a smaller box for each month, and like nested Russian dolls, within each smaller box, each numbered day. I was probably around ten or eleven years old and looking at those two pages I said out loud, “Somewhere in front of me is the day I will die.”

Death is not something we talk about much. I have my thoughts about it and you have yours. Regardless of our notions on the matter it is coming for us. Thinking about it, philosophizing about it, building temples and formulating doctrines around it makes no difference. It cannot be avoided.

This is the holiday season and you may think me growing dark with talk of death. The season, no matter what you make of it, is supposed to be about birth and new beginnings. Consider the ancient Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, Saturnalia. This holiday spanned December 17 through the 23rd and was associated with the “freeing of souls into immortality.” Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday which falls this time of year, is about celebrating liberation and finding light in the darkest of times. solsticeI read recently of a new archeological discovery in Great Britain. It was a neolithic structure with but just one window. This single window, strategically placed, afforded light to the room only one day a year, the winter solstice. (As you may know, yesterday was the winter solstice.) Regardless of the event, be it a Walmart blow-out Christmas sale, or a Druid celebration of the coming of the light, this is a time of year that has for as long as we know, afforded humankind an opportunity for reflection—and if you’re inclined, worship.

So reflect on the weeks of your life and how you’ve been chipping away at the average. How many of the four thousand do you think you may have left? How do you think you ought to experience them? The same as all the others? Or do you wish to change it up?

I am moved to these reflections by something I read recently in the book Figuring by the indomitable Maria Popova. “Questions of meaning are a function of human life,” she writes,

“…but they are not native to the universe itself—meaning is not what we find, but what we create with the lives we live and the seeds we plant and the organizing principles according to which we sculpt our personhood.”

The ancients built meaning and ritual into the universal occurrences of nature. Sadly, we have moved away from nature, think ourselves removed from and something other than born of nature. In the gap we’ve created, the ancient rituals have become rote and corrupted by commerce, politics, and indifference. I obviously don’t know how many of my hoped for 4000 weeks remain to me, but I take seriously my responsibility to use them wisely. I take seriously my responsibility to make something meaningful of them.

The laws of nature, including death, cannot be avoided, despite our inclinations to ignore and dismiss them. We are subject to the same laws as that which prompts the trees to shed the leaves, the river to freeze, the beloved to die—and still the sun will rise. As I said previously, I’m not someone who traditionally has practiced ritual or acknowledged the import of spirituality, however that may be defined. Frankly, I am comfortable leaving all that aside. Instead, I wish to focus on what is in front of me, life. I wish to focus on infusing what remains to me with meaning and meaningfulness. That is, perhaps, the nature of my faith, my ritual, my spiritual practice. I wish to turn my thought from death to this moment while I am still breathing. The light is coming, the room will be illuminated as the blue planet turns in compliance to the laws of nature. I am no different, subject as I am to that from which I was born. I must obey…

I hope you have a meaningful holiday season.

Reaching for the Stars.

In Life, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on October 13, 2019 at 8:00 am

Photo by Denis Degioanni on Unsplash

The last few nights in Colorado I got into the habit of stepping outside and looking up at the night sky. Head tilted back I released my attention and simply stared. The Milky Way was a dash overhead, like a pale splash of paint against black felt. I did not try to understand the sky, did not try to identify anything about it. I simply released myself to the vastness and attempted to absorbed it.

The ancient Greeks had a practice of studying the night sky in a similar fashion. For them it was an exercise in humility. When one places oneself in the cosmos the notion of individual place and time slinks away. It is only our ego that positions us in comparison to such unknowable vastness. The ego has it’s own Milky Way and it’s own universe and it is hellbent on convincing us of our individual importance in the grand balance of things. But like much the ego attempts, it is in error, and will only lead us down a blind alley. “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars,” said Emerson. Look at the night sky, breath it in, and tell me your ego does not run off embarrassed and humiliated.There is no defense against such a vast and empty truth.

You cannot expose yourself to a backdrop of significant beauty and grandeur without a converse arising of self-doubt and humility. Much of life’s larger experiences require that we drop the self-narrative and simply expose ourselves to what is. This is not easy, as we think we know what is. There is a school of thought which suggests the self is nothing more than a stitched together string of experiences, that no such thing as a self even exists. Modern psychology is bearing this out. All that is fine, but still we struggle. We struggle with humility. We struggle with ego. We struggle with a false personal perspective. It is likely hard-wiring. It is how we, as a species, survived. But that does not make it necessarily the reality of things. It is not necessarily what is.

Humans are a mass of contradictions. I know I am. As an atheist I stand under the night canopy and long for transcendence. I pray at the alter of science, yet yearn for the transformative mystic experience. I relinquish myself to a ruling rational perspective, yet sit in meditation attempting to release all cognitive ambition. I have, I think, finally arrived at a place where these opposing factions are no longer warring. We spend too much of life attempting to resolve the inner contradictions. The only resolution is to accept them and face the truth that we will never be rid of them. They are us, we them. Make room for contradiction. Accepting the fluidity of the human condition, moment to moment, requires a release that does not come altogether naturally. For some of us, that release is an ongoing effort, the work of a lifetime. That seems, at the core of things, the essence of being human. Yet we war against it as if attacked by an opposing army. But there is no army laying siege. There is only the vacuous loneliness of the frigid night sky. We can go to war, or we can release. Or better, perhaps, embrace.

Sitting by a stream Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), no shrinking violet, wrote “all was dark and cold, and still. Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover.” At that moment “there passed into my thought a beam from its true sun…which has never since departed from me.” And what was the nature of that thought? She later wrote in her memoir, “I saw that there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered.” I think Fuller, like many others before her and since, tapped into a fundamental reality. Let’s not take anything for granted, especially that which we think we know for certain. Skepticism is a loose-jointed stance and resilient because it flexes when pressed. Certainty is uncertain. “What do I know?” said Montaigne. A self? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a natural resistance to release. It is the antithesis of control and we are so very fond of control. In death we all ultimately release. But until then I work to lesson my resistance, it too being a practice. Fundamental to our being is a sense of self. But I see in my grandchildren a construction of the self, a building of self, not an innate revealed being. The ego we construct and the resulting self—can it be released? I believe in, and subscribe to the idea of the purification of human character. Admittedly, there is a degree of the absurd about this. But what is life if not absurd, as Camus noted. There is sufficient evidence as to the worth of transcendence. We are, after all, the stuff of stars, as the poets remind us. Let us celebrate the awkward stance of fully human, a being fulfilled. Let us reach for the stars.

“Indian…Moose.”

In Death, Dogs, Nature, Philosophy, The Examined Life on September 24, 2018 at 1:04 pm

On his deathbed in Concord, Mass., Henry David Thoreau, drifting in and out of consciousness, muttered two works, “Indian…Moose” and died. His mind had gone to Maine and his adventures in the Great North Woods. I thought of Thoreau on this morning’s run. Lucy and I have made this run up the ridge all but two mornings since arriving in Colorado over four months ago. It has taken that long for me to build the endurance to make the run up the mountainside without stopping. I am soon to turn 63 and have the lungs of a 63 year old. Too, there is the matter of being at 9075 feet elevation.

I thought of Thoreau because, if I am lucky, perhaps on my deathbed my mind will turn to these mornings with my dog, these mountains, the chill of the valley shadow and the wild brilliance of sunrise as we crest the ridge. “Come ‘on, Lucy girl,” I call as we get up top. She will have stopped to sniff a tree or chase a chipmunk. One morning last week I spotted a red fox sitting in a beam of morning light. The fox saw me but didn’t move. They are frequently bold if nothing else. I called Lucy and gave a little sprint to distract her. She caught up and did not notice the fox, fortunately. There is a sign at the trailhead stating that the area is populated by moose. Not a morning run has gone by where I don’t wonder what I’ll do if we encounter one. Lucy once spotted a moose from the truck when we were in Maine. She went nuts. This morning two bald eagles soared above us, chirping one to the other.

I have talked here at “…the house…” about my affinity for the morning and won’t belabor it again. I think it is to society’s considerable detriment that our morning is consumed with rushing off to work, with rushing kids off to school, with missing the sunrise. This is a curse we have placed on ourselves, the damage of which is only comprehended when we are released from it to realize the deliberate potential of another day of existence. From the outset our days are numbered and there is no double ledger accounting of where the balance lies.

* * *

As a reader of “…the house…” you are aware of my life quest to live a proper life. In that pursuit I have considered any number of responses to the question, How to Live? Consider my Zen studies and my meditation practice, for instance. In that spirit I have again signed up for International Stoic Week. This year’s theme is living happily.

What is a happy life? It is peacefulness and lasting tranquillity, the sources of which are a great spirit and a steady determination to hold fast to good decisions. How does one arrive at these things? By recognizing the truth in all its completeness, by maintaining order, moderation and appropriateness in one’s actions, by having a will which is always well-intentioned and generous, focused on reason and never deviating from it, as lovable as it is admirable.                                                                                                                                                                                                            Seneca, Letters, 92.3

                            

I invite you to follow the above link and spend seven days living like a Stoic. I hope to share some of my insights and experiences here and invite you to do so as well.

Thanks for reading!

“The things I cared about…”

In Camping, Nature, Wisdom on June 24, 2018 at 9:26 am
The Morning Run_edited

Our morning run starts and ends at the lake. Lucy takes a water break.

I can run again, if you call it that, since the hips were changed out a few years ago. It is a wonderous thing, replacing a body part, as if the truck broke down then got a new gasket. It helps to stay off pavement so I don’t run in the city. But here in Colorado, it’s a different story. The trail to the ridge behind us is dusty earth, not pavement, and that helps, as it seems a tad softer. Earth can be like that, forgiving, if you let it. As a younger man I ran a lot, which is probably why the system–my body–broke down as it did. I had something to prove: faster, faster, farther farther! Now, as I awkwardly transition into old age (YIKES!), it is the simple promise of movement that gets me out the doors. I have nothing to prove. Mary Oliver has a lovely line: “As I grew older the things I cared / about grew fewer, but were more / important.” That sums up much that is true about this stage of life.

At nine thousand feet elevation it takes me a while to get up to the top. I take it slow, and try to maintain an easy pace. I’m not kidding anyone and have no compunction about stopping if I need to. When I stop to catch my breath I try to turn my focus to the landscape, the lake and the surrounding mountains. Peak One and a few other peaks are still holding snow, though a fishing guide told me the snow pack melted too early and too fast this year. The earth can be like that also, not soft, but a reflection of our heart, too often rapacious and unforgiving. Nature is not something out there. It is us and we are it. This seems especially obvious to me this summer.
We’re into month two of life in the mountains and have more than three to go. I’ve not spent so much time out of doors since my summer camp days. We’re living in an Airstream trailer and hosting a campground in the White River National Forest. My morning runs underscore the personal transition that is occurring: that nature is not a thing “out there” so much as it is a place within, as well as without. It is easy to forget that we are born of nature when our lives are spent so often removed from it. With repetition–from the house to the car to the cubicle to the mall to the store and back to the house, repeat–with repetition, we forget the ancient connection to the larger world; we accept the notion that we are separate–separate from the natural world, and separate from one another. There is great danger in that, the belief of “otherness.”  We are seeing a good bit of this currently: people who are “not us,” a natural world for served up for subjugation, the want of civility. It would be best if everyone moved out of doors, took a run to the top of a mountain, and stopping to catch their breath, looked out over a morning valley. Everything seems fitting and orderly when this happens.

How to Think

In Life, Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life, Wisdom on May 9, 2018 at 8:00 am

Moleskine notes

Three weeks ago I left southern Virginia, west-bound. Today I entered Mountain Time. And I saw a Western Kingbird. I must be heading in the right direction.

* * *

I’ve spent a lot of time, years even, contemplating how to best live. But the real question is not How to Live, but How to Think. Everything follows our thinking, including our happiness.

“A man is as miserable as he things he is.” ~ Seneca.

Conversely, is a person as happy as he or she thinks they are?

* * *

“At the break of day, when you are reluctant to get up, have this thought ready to mind: ‘I am getting up for a human being’s work…I am going out to do what I was born for…plants, birds, ants, spiders, bees all doing their own work, each helping in their own work, each helping in their own way to order the world…do you not want to do the work of a human being…to follow the demands of your own nature?” ~ Marcus Aureluis

* * *

Man in restaurant behind me just returned his water because it had a lemon in it. “Oh my god,” said the waitress. “I’m so sorry. And I totally brag about our water too,” she said.

I must be in California.

* * *

It is late in the afternoon and the sun is low. Lucy is asleep beside the river. I am thinking about something Seneca said: plunging oneself into the totality of the world. What does that mean, I wonder? I don’t know precisely, but it must have something to do with the flight of the terns over the lake this evening. It must have something to do with the way the bark of the willow over there is gnarled. And yes, it must have something to do with that fish who just pierced the surface and the rings that are radiating toward me. Yes, that must be it. The totality of the world.