Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

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.

“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.

Demands of the Gull

In Nature on April 2, 2013 at 6:00 am
Gluttony by Jamie Wyeth

Gluttony by Jamie Wyeth

I was accosted while walking home from Flat Bread Pizza last night. The culprit was a three-pound herring gull intent on seeing what was in the left-over box. Slyly, I tore off a piece of crust and knelt down. I extended my arm, crust offered. The bird approached. I studied the beast as it cautiously waddled toward me. It’s breast was white, and broad, and the color of fresh dry snow, beautiful and reflective. I noticed for the first time how the nostrils of a gull are etched into its yellow-ivory beak, how delicate its knees, and the fine webbing of its feet.

The approaching bird turned its head side to side, back and forth, keeping one eye on me the other over the shoulder, scanning for danger. Each pausing step was accompanied by half a dozen head rotations. The eye was marble-like, reflective, and I noticed for the first time how the lid was rimmed in red, etched crimson against pristine feathers. Penetrating and unblinking. Beautiful. Then it tilted forward and looked at me, square, eye to level eye. The bird was perhaps two feet from my extended hand. Look at me, the gull demanded. Look into my eye. Do you see me now? You see me everyday, but you do not really see me. Look at me. Look!

She was a good teacher and I gave her amble crust offerings.

Snow Under Boot

In Nature, Philosophy, Writers on March 18, 2013 at 6:00 am
The Maine Woods

The Maine Woods

We still have snow here in places, especially in the north, and certainly in the woods where the pine-tree canopy  shades the forest floor. I took a little hike yesterday and there is nothing like a crunching late-season snow, blue-bird sky, and scent of pine to fine-tune a person.

Not a lot came of this fine-tuning and maybe that is the best result of all. Maybe a walk in the woods should remain largely and exactly that: a walk in the woods. As Thoreau relates in his essay, Walking, “When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, ‘Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.'”

In anther essay–to me, his most important, Life Without Principal–Thoreau writes:

“If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen.”

Two paragraphs above this passage, the sage of Walden, invites us to “consider the way in which we spend our lives.”

_____________

imgres-1

Library of America, Thoreau

I brought my copy of Thoreau to my desk this afternoon because I wanted to say something about activism to perhaps refute my comment of last week, “We have mostly rolled over.” I wanted to suggest that perhaps we have not, indeed, rolled over, now that I think more on it. I brought Henry David with me because he usually has guidance when I most need it. I was certain he would point the way in his essay Civil Disobedience. But I never made it there, lost instead in my reverie of a walk in the woods.

And as you can see, I found his guidance, just not the guidance I expected. He would approve, nonetheless, I think.

Sunday Repost: Out of Ambivalence

In Nature, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on March 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
Morning, Moosehead

Morning, Moosehead

Two weeks ago [original post, June 2010], Carole, Lucy, and I went north to Moosehead Lake for a few days of North Woods camping and canoeing. At one point, as the sun set and the stars emerged, I stood on the shore and looked across the lake. I was peering perhaps two miles across the water. I studied the silhouetted landscape up the lake another couple of miles, then down the lake, to the south, maybe three miles. There was not a light to be seen on any shore, in any direction. It was complete and utter remoteness.

The filling aspect of this experience is found, for me, in supplementing experience with an element of the wild–that is to say, nature, and the compliment to a singular experience it affords. (I am encouraged by remembering the Zen philosopher Dōgen‘s comment, “Practice is the path.”) I don’t subscribe necessarily to the idea of the transcendent. Indeed, I don’t wish to transcend. Rather, I strive to enhance, to experience a world that spans wide(r) and forces me out of ambivalence.