the wildest things you cannot see or even imagine are real
Thought, like memory, inhabits external things as much as the inner regions of the human brain. When the physical correspondents of thought disappear, then thought, or its possibility, is also lost. When woods and trees are destroyed -- incidentally, deliberately -- imagination and memory go with them. W.H. Auden knew this. 'A culture,' he wrote warningly in 1953, 'is no better than its woods.'
― Robert Macfarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot
I’m currently reading Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert MacFarlane. MacFarlane explores the worlds beneath our feet, reminds us that everything has connection to everything else and to us. He takes us around the world and lets the narrative unfold through his experiences in these spaces and places. With lyrical writing MacFarlane takes us on a journey through time—that of the earth and of humanity, as well as his own, having written this book over the course of a decade. He describes the land as a destination for our sorrows—literally, for we bury our dead. He describes the hyphae of the woodlands as part of a teeming city beneath the forest floor, and this has forever changed the way I experience the forest.
I began reading Underland shortly after lockdown of March. I savour it slowly, never wanting it to end, reading it in sips like a smooth beverage into my brain. I am still reading it. I still savour my time spent with this magical book. MacFarlane tops Murakami in rigour of language and lyricism. He tops Solnit in ability to draw out the human condition from the landscape and hold it gently, with all its frailties and complexities. His writing exudes the oneness of all, a concept the Sufis refer to as Tawheed. All is from the same source. Humans often find comfort in forests and nature because these places remind us of our connection to a life-force larger than our own. We often spoil the experience though, or misunderstand and set out to consume nature, take something from it, as opposed to experience ourselves in our vulnerability within its wildness.
Underland reminds readers that forces lie beneath the picture we see with our naked eye. It reminds me that context and connections matter. It reminds me to conceive beyond what I believe I can see. When you see the world of people around you with a curious and neutral gaze, they come alive to you. A vision emerges that judgement obscures. Tribalism, which is ultimately collective ego, erodes resilience and it muddies vision. When faced with serving truth versus serving the tribe, many individuals lack the fortitude to choose truth. What if we understood this about people, and left room for mercy? We would need to believe enough in ourselves to extend this mercy. What if the work of true social justice (not woke social justice, which is neither social nor just) requires self acceptance first and foremost, before doing any work to engage with the external world? What if we lived in a world that promoted resilience and self acceptance?
When I worked 12 hour night shifts as a hospital RN, around 4 to 6 am felt like a nadir. The darkness outside reaching its zenith, my entire self sapped of energy—I felt spent, like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the hill right before it lurches and rolls down the hill away from him. If I had a patient close to death in my care, death would typically come for them during this period of the shift. A psychiatrist whose cat I looked after a few years ago told me that that research does bear out this experience of a nadir, and that more people actually do die at this particular point of the earth’s rotation upon its axis than at any other.
What if humanity cycles out like this? What if collective societies experience their nadir? What if now is one of those times—a nadir? I have, of late, felt the weight of the lies which humans are telling themselves in the name of ideology. It feels heavy to carry. To witness the harm that happens, to see and hear the stories of human collateral damage feels crushing. To see the blind oblivion in the face of this suffering, which seems to me hidden in plain sight, feels still more crushing. Which hurts more, that tribes thought they could purchase their vision with human bodies and human suffering, or that others watched, knowing, and chose to do nothing effectual to challenge the flow of suffering? I haven’t decided.
Today Safi Kaskas, my favourite and most trusted of Quranic teachers, posted a request for prayers. His message reminds me of our thrumming human frailty. Others feel this too, Pema Chodron’s voice echos inside my head. La hawla wala quwwata illa billah says the Arabic prayer, God does not burden a soul with more than it can bear. Dr. Kaskas’s post reminds me that, yes, others feel this too—even the seeming most formidable and merciful and resilient minds and hearts experience a nadir, a moment of vulnerability. You can be on the right path and it will still feel like you’re languishing at times. My friend Chris reminds me often this is a marathon and not a sprint. Indeed. My heart grows impatient. My passion burns furiously. My intellect overheats—they had to build a concrete wall around reactor number 4, you know.
The time of year which approaches I find socially the darkest and most difficult to bear. This year Covid-19 has reset our consumption habits and this angers many of us who live to consume our way through every psychological difficulty encountered. I find myself amused the Grinch may win this year. Bismillah. Perhaps it may help us grow wiser. It will definitely build resilience, whether we like it or not! Misery and sorrow always provide opportunities for transformation and this gives hope. You can choose to focus solely on what’s missing or you can also choose to see the opportunities that the losses provide. With every loss we face we have this power. Hold space for both sorrow and hope. Make room for mercy. Bismillah. May you find peace. May we all find peace.