Friday, July 24, 2009

DUCK DEFEATS DOG: Seeing Nature's Courage

At sunset, walking along Carte Madera Creek, I spotted a mother duck leading six duckings in classic formation. To my left, a huge dog, a Labrador, charged down the bank, leaped into the water and paddled toward the ducks. The mother quacked wildly and sped away, the ducklings in swift tow. The dog pursued them. From my right, an egret, white wings spread wide, squawked and swooped over the dog. Undeterred, the dog gained on the ducks. Still quacking, the mother duck wheeled around and charged at the dog. The egret circled and swooped at the dog again. The dog turned and head for shore. Two ducks flapped into the scene and planted themselves, wing to wing, in the water between the dog and the mother with her ducklings. The dog climbed onto the bank and shook the water from his fur.

When I usually walk along this waterway I delight in the beauty and variety of the birds gathering food, preening their feathers and gliding the air currents. To see this individual and collective show of courage opened a connection I can't put into words yet. It has something to do with the shared journey of the soul dwelling on the earth, something to do with what connects us through our different appearances as ducks, dogs, egrets and humans.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Power of Anonymous Art & Nature

One of the qualities of nature that is never mentioned in attempts to dwell in harmony with the earth is that nature creates anonymously. We may call a mountain "Everest" or a lake "Tahoe" but the mountain and the lake never claim those titles. They are too busy with other work to worry if they are the tallest and the most beautiful.

This thought was sparked the other day when I heard about an art exhibit where the doors opened before the staff had a chance to put the names of the artists and the titles next to each painting. The people attending the exhibit we confused; they didn't know how to evaluate the work and whether the person who created it was worthy of respect or not. Some were angry; not having the names posted was so unprofessional. Few, if any, looked at the art and opened to a direct encounter with it. Without the conceptual framework of name, style, price, and all the other things that they believed made something worth their attention, the art lovers were lost. Many artists whose work would be shown in such an exhibit would have been outraged; how will I get paid? How will people know I created this great work.

What if nature took a similar approach. What if bees only buzzed around flowers labeled with the maker's name? What if water only flowed along approved waterways? What if an apple tree only produced fruit with a copyright and the assurance that its would get a percentage of each use of its apples? Nature, in it's anonymous flow, doesn't worry about the concerns of naming, categorizing, and controlling that drive so much of our activity.

The problem isn't that we want to draw attention to ourselves or receive benefit for our creations. It's that labeling and listing what we see limits our experience of life. The moment we jam a tree into the box and divide it up into "tree", "oak", "quercus", useful, beautiful, cost to maintain, historic or not, etc, we jam ourselves into a mode of perceived that looks at the past and future. We miss what's happening at the moment of encounter. We miss the encounter and interact with our ideas about the tree and not the tree.

On the other hand, our minds are made to label. Its helpful to remember that walking through poison oak, then taking a hot bath, will put you into a world of hurt. The problem is not the narrative, it's believing that the constant talk of the mind is the reality of the oak tree and the poison oak. Seeing through the narrative and opening our perception to what is actually before us is the way great artists make breakthrough art. Maybe its the way we can dwell in actual harmony with the earth.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Architecture of Healing

We've forgotten the power of architecture. The thought thunders through my brain as I descend into the Great Kiva at Aztec New Mexico. Three-foot thick adobe walls wrap the circular room. Overhead, massive tree-trunk beams weave a latticework roof. Stillness charges the space. My lungs sigh. Mind hums. At the midpoint of the ceiling, a shaft of sunlight blasts through a square opening. Wheeling Sun churns stable Earth. Opposing forces unite and swirl. This structure is not designed by a clever ego. It did not arise from the same worldview that built the sterile new hospital a mile down the road. This is not a place of fear and wounding side effects. Instead, the kiva frames the mystery of being and becoming. It is an architecture of healing.

In the kiva that day, I saw that most attempts to create healing places are based on the belief that we can separate ourselves from the processes of living. It's a world that says we can divide life into parts and keep the "good" while tossing out the "bad." In the process we fail to see that attempting break life up is what causes breakdowns, mentally, physically and spiritually.

On the other hand, the kiva embodies what I have encountered in sacred, healing places around the world. It concretizes the truly holistic worldview that provides a space where all the forces of life are invited to play out their roles in the cosmic earth dance. Birth, growth, decay, death and renewal are embraced as sustainers of the bodies of individuals and the world. To me, these sacred places say, "Fighting with life and trying to control it is wounding. Embracing its uncertainty and its change is healing."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Music in Everyday Architecture

"I call architecture frozen music." It's easy to catch a buzz of inspiration from Goethe's famous phrase, then move along through the day. If I stop for a moment and take his observation to heart, I see the buildings and city around me as a world of suspended rhythms, melodies and harmonies. Like bells ready to intoned or guitars ready to strummed, the walls and windows I pass are ready to be seen in ways that resonate their silence into sound. The shapes of roofs and pillars are primed to be encountered in ways that reveal their rhythmic structure. When you add in shifting sunlight and shadows, patterns of color, textures of stone, wood and other materials, the symphony is staggering.

From this perspective, designing architecture is akin to composing a song or a sonata. In fact, this was the organizing principle of architecture for centuries. "...the numbers by which the agreement of sounds affects our ears with delight, are the same which please our eyes and our minds...We shall therefore borrow all our rules for harmonic relations from the musicians to whom this kind of number is extremely well known, and from those particular things wherein Nature shows herself most excellent and complete," wrote the Renaissance architect, Alberti.

With this in mind, look around the room you are in. Take in the forms, colors, textures and qualities of light. Imagine them as sounds and rhythms and see what you discover. The next time to set the table for a meal, imagine you are arranging the notes and beats of a song. See how it changes your experience of the objects. Maybe the music frozen in the design of each thing will melt and into a more connected and fluid experience of place.