Category Archives: nature

John Masefield Sonnet on Mystery of Life

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.

This witty and insightful little poem has amused me for nearly three decades, helping me to maintain caution given a tendency myself to overthink. But this “thoughtfulness,” combined with deep-rooted passion is what has produced poetry of the sort found here in a John Masefield sonnet, showing it can have value! (My commentary below is in italics.)

What am I, Life? A thing of watery salt
Held in cohesion by unresting cells,
Which work they know not why, which never halt,
Myself unwitting where their Master dwells.
I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin;
A world which uses me as I use them,
Nor do I know which end or which begin
Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.

The “unresting cells” are seen to both drive mankind on, to use us even while simultaneously giving us agency to “use them.” Modern science was captivating this young poet. When only 13 years of age, his guardian aunt sent him to sea to break an “addiction” to reading. Thus her “cells” were using her to introduce him to a major dimension of his literary opus, the sea.

So, like a marvel in a marvel set,
I answer to the vast, as wave by wave
The sea of air goes over, dry or wet,
Or the full moon comes swimming from her cave,
Or the great sun comes north, this myriad I
Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.

“Like a marvel in a marvel set” made me think of a line from W. H. Auden poetry in which he described life as “a process in a process, in a field that never closes.” Masefield did not see life as static as his ancestors certainly had. The “tingling” of his “I” made me think of what Kierkegaard described as the “giddiness of freedom” which others have described as simple existential anxiety. Human awareness, “not knowing how, yet wondering why” will introduce one to giddiness.


Awareness is All

“Awareness is all” states a bumper sticker on a friend’s car.  I believe this is so true but there is a catch—“awareness” always means to contemplate that our “awareness” is not complete and never will be.  So this “awareness” has a built-in catch-22 so you will always understand that you only see part of the picture. This morning I do think I have some degree of awareness but an important dimension of this “awareness” is that my view of the world is always filtered by biases and preconceptions so that I’m rarely under the illusion that I have complete awareness.  Earlier this morning as my wife and sweet dachshund Elsa sat on the back stoop and watched the dawn unfold, in deep admiration of the experience of the moment, I quipped to them, “Our view always tends to block our view.”  I was aware that as I watched the flycatcher birds cavorting about, scouring for food for their new born, I had witnessed moments like this many times in my life but had never seen the beauty unfolding as I was at that moment.  The process of growing awareness works toward allowing us to grasp our beautiful world in more of its pristine glory.  And I watched the sun beginning to light Taos Mountain for another day, flickering different permutations of shadow and gentle light on these mythical mountains, dressing them for another day of bringing magic to this lovely Northern New Mexico community. As always, Elsa was doing her part to quicken the moment, just setting there on her cushion in all of her exquisite, innocent beauty, licking her ribs and fantasizing about the exciting world she would get to play in another day.

My quip came from the realization that this pristine beauty has been with me from the earliest moments of conscious life.  But like all humans I learned to take it for granted, often seeing not the beauty of the world but my usual image of the beauty, “my view of the view,” not humble enough yet to approach the whiff of “the thing in itself,” less encumbered by the blinders of cognition. These blinders are, albeit, a very necessary part of life but they can become so familiar to us that we never venture beneath the surface and flirt with the aforementioned pristine beauty.

The poet Carl Sandburg understood this truth in his poem, “Precious Moments.”  Bright vocabularies are transient as rainbows./Speech requires blood and air to make it./Before the word comes off the end of the tongue,/While diaphragms of flesh negotiate the word,/In the moment of doom when the word forms/It is born, alive, registering an imprint—Afterward it is a mummy, a dry fact, done and gone.

Sandburg realized that a word is “alive” only one moment, in the “moment of doom” when it is formed after which we will be left only with an imprint.  But this beautiful poem was encouraging us to explore the depths of our heart and discover that flirtation with the pristine beauty of life can be rewarding. This exploration will help us to understand how that our view of life often blocks our view of an intrinsic dimension of life.  This is what Jesus had in mind when he challenged those who live on the surface of life, having “eyes to see but seeing not, ears to hear but hearing not.”

Thinking about Momma Nature

A Facebook friend just shared a paean to the tree by Herman Hesse which I will share here when I conclude.  Hesse so eloquently puts into words a passion I have had for the past twenty years or so for trees, part of the love affair I’ve been having with Momma Nature.  For a long time I’ve been telling friends and family that when I pass away,  “Don’t buy flowers.  Plant a tree!  Plant a tree in your yard, in a friend or neighbor’s yard, in the woods, in a park, but plant a tree!!!  There is nothing I feel would honor me more than the planting of a tree, and Hesse’s narrative helps me to understand why.

Nature is a calming presence in my life now.  I see daily the beautiful sights of Northern New Mexico and understand that I’m seeing the handiwork of God.  I’m now an avid gardener and take great delight in finding out what plants and flowers are native to this desert environment and can survive.  My sun room becomes a seedling nursery in late winter and even now still has seedlings ready to find a home outside.

One of the faulty perceptions I learned in my youth was that mankind was separate and distinct from the earth.  In fact, I learned that it was ours to master and control and not Gaia to live in harmony with.  But I’ve matured to the point where I can handle paradox and contradiction, realizing that yes we are “separate and distinct” from the earth but simultaneously “dust of the earth” just as the Bible teaches.  We walk, breathe, live, and die in the Unity of All Things.


For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. It wants to be nothing except what it is. That is home. That is happiness.


The following picture is the Rio Grande meandering alongside Hwy 68 south of Taos, Nm.

blog pix.jpg





Wendell Berry & “The Peace of Wild Things”

One of my readers responded recently with a note about the value of his “dogs, garden, and wild life” in his spiritual life. His response really spoke to me and reminded me of my own affinity with the natural world and helped to ground me on that occasion, bringing me down from the lofty heights of the aether that I often get intoxicated with when I trot this “stuff” out. I have two dachshunds who just thrill my soul each day, a desert garden that I hope to see bloom again real soon, and birds, bunny rabbits, skunks, and coyotes that live in the neighborhood. This earth, and this “dust of the earth” of which each of us is a particle, is the only thing that is in a very real sense. And all this “stuff” that I discourse about…though important…is only about a context that gives meaning to all of this beautiful world.

Here is a link to Wendell Berry reading one of my favorite poems in which he recognizes the “Peace of Wild Things” and notes the comfort he finds there. And he speaks of the “wild heron” which adorned the lovely Beaver Lake on which I lived for 21 years in Northwest Arkansas before I moved here to New Mexico. And he noted how that these beautiful birds and other “wild things” do not “tax their thoughts with forethought of grief.” Berry was telling us of the importance of living in “The Now” which is the term that Eckhart Tolle coined to speak of the Presence which is the only thing that ever is. Our culture teaches us to live in the past and in the future and rewards us for doing so; thus it is a real challenge to ever-live in the present. I’m sure having trouble doing it!

I blogged several months ago about “the unity of all things.” It probably will continue to be a recurrent theme in my life as I see…and feel…its truth in the whole of my life. And, with my heart being more open now, I have intuitive knowledge that I was intently conscious of this unity very early in my life, much longer than one should if he is going to “join the human race” on schedule. (That is a story for another time.)

This discovery in my adulthood can probably be attributed to my marriage in 1989 at the age of 37. I think marriage for both of us was the onset of an exploration of the phenomena of “otherness.” This exploration is a boundary issue, a daring pushing of boundaries in a new manner which has led to profound changes in my life, changes in the depths of my heart. The Universe offered me a little hint at what was coming in the Spring of 1990 when I plucked a lovely tulip in our front yard to take in and give to my wife. The thought immediately flashed through my mind as I plucked this tulip, so taken with its exquisite and intense and beauty, “I don’t know if I’m plucking or being plucked.”

Immediately I knew this flashing thought was “interesting” and revealing. I thought, “Oh, wow! This is psychotic” for my knowledge of psychology had given me the awareness that this was an experience that could be the onset of a psychotic break. But, at the same time I was not alarmed in the least for I knew that I wasn’t psychotic but that this experience merely reflected that my boundaries were beginning to become fluid, that the rigid distinction between “me and thee”, between “me” and the object world was becoming less pronounced. I also knew enough about linguistics to quip later, “My signifier is beginning to float!” My life since then has been a steady but mercifully slow story of my “signifier” learning to float and my learning to adapt to the resulting duress of a new view and experience of the world.

Just last week I was having coffee with a new friend of mine who has had a similar experience in her life.. She is a retired corporate “uppity up”, highly intelligent and accomplished, and with a keen spiritual intuition. We were talking about this phenomena of boundary subtlety and the complicated nuances of having this awareness. I shared with her my tulip anecdote and some other similar “adventures” and she shared similar anecdotes, all in the context of a discussion of spirituality. Suddenly, I abruptly noted, “You realize that someone listening in on this conversation would say that we are psychotic?” She paused briefly and then noted, “Yes, but there are layers to reality but when I experience the unity of myself and a tree….for example…I simultaneously know that this is not how the rest of the world experiences it and also know that if I went around announcing it everywhere I went I would get myself into a lot of trouble.” Our discussion then ventured into the multiple dimensions of reality and how that “common-sense reality” allows only one, one that can be summed up as that of time and space, a linear and thus sequential world.

Reality is multi-dimensional. Yes, my experience with the tulip was a valid and meaningful experience but it is fortunate…and a sign of mental health…that I had the immediate understanding that there were other ways of looking at my experience. There are always “other ways of looking at my experiences” and learning this has helped me to be a little more open-minded and more tolerant of difference, or “otherness.”

To summarize, a tulip spoke to me! Now if I ever feel that a tulip literally speaks to me and perhaps communicates to me, “Don’t pluck me! Don’t pluck me,” I’m gonna be alarmed! In fact, I will go down to “Wal Marts” and buy me an hypodermic of industrial strength Haldol just in case! But the tulip did “speak to me” in a powerful way, a message that has reverberated through my life to this very day.

And each day the whole of the world speaks to each of us, every bit of this beautiful world offers a word to us–flora, fauna, fellow man/woman. All we have to do is listen but to listen we have to first realize that we have a deep-seated inclination to not listen, to pay attention only to the self-serving whisperings of our own unconscious needs. We have “ears to hear but hear not, eyes to see but see not.” And truly understanding this wisdom of Jesus is something we just don’t like to acknowledge, even we Christians who love to quote it!

One caveat here. Now suddenly if the whole world opens up to us and speaks to us, if it suddenly cascades in upon us, all at the same time, you might want one of those aforementioned hypodermic needles! This could be a psychotic break. We merely need to be aware of the need to listen and to observe and at specific moments we will have the opportunity to listen to and see the subtleties of our world. The rest of the time we will dutifully go about our day to day life keeping this dog-and-pony (linear) show afloat.



Here is a link to a BBC story in which the interconnectedness of the forest is explained, illustrating one dimension of “the unity of all things.”

For further explanation of “floating-signifier,” you might see the following link:

Here is a beautiful description of the sense world collapsing in upon the ego, and the ego being saved from catastrophe (psychosis) by poetry:

bewildered with the broken tongue

of wakened angels in our sleep

then, lost the music that was sung

and lost the light time cannot keep


there is a moment when we lie

bewildered, wakened out of sleep

when light and sound and all reply

the moment time must tame and keep


that moment, like a flight of birds

flung from the branches where they sleep

the poet with a beat of words

flings into time for time to keep


words in time by archibald macleish

Hamlet, Depression, and Boundaries

I quote from Hamlet more than any of Shakespeare because I identify so much with him.  For example, my momma too could have said when I was young and moping about the castle, “Look yonder.  The poor wretch comes reading.”  And, I too am full of thoughts and ideas the sum of which “if quartered, would be one part wisdom and three parts cowardice.”  I am also very violent, as was Hamlet, but like he…in reference to his mother…”will speak daggers to her, not use them.”

Hamlet had serious boundary problems.  If I’d have been  his therapist, I would have diagnosed him with “depressive disorder” but only because I tended to be cautious when possible and avoided the “major” label to diagnoses.  But he simply suffered from “porosity of boundaries” as one psychiatrist I worked with once said of a patient, meaning that his boundaries were “holey” and “stuff” got through which did not get through for most people.  And it is no accident that there is an incest them in the play and boundaries are always skewed for every member of an invested family even if they were not the “victim.”

As Hamlet moped about that castle at Elsinore, people began to talk about the young prince and expressed worry.  Hamlet caught ear of these whisperings and at one point said, “My heart has in it that which passeth show. These are but the suits of woe.”  He was saying, “Oh, sure I’m depressed.  But heck, you don’t know true half of it!.”  He was saying that they only saw the outward “suits” or appearances of his emotional torment but inside he the unmitigated, nameless anguish, “that which passeth show.”  For, when boundaries are impaired, feelings that all of us experience are experienced more intently and his step-father noted at one point, “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”

The most striking theme that I see in Shakespeare is his emphasis on the depths of the heart, the sub-text of life, which most people meticulously avoid. Most people see only the “show” and dutifully live out the “show” or play their role on the stage of life while the heart is never delved into.  But, unfortunately this “Ozzie and Harriet” existence deprives them of the meaning in life, a meaning which is found only by “Diving into the Wreck” of the heart’s ambivalences.  (“Diving into the Wreck” is the title of a book of poetry by Adrienne Rich.)  And let us not forget the admonishment of Jesus who asked, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”

Be Here Now!

This admonishment used to make no sense to me and even used to perturb me for I knew it came from “one of them there damn hippies” though at that point in my life it was probably “dang” rather than “damn.” And, of course it is so meaningful to me now because it is not about “sense” (or reason run amok) but is about “presence” which is a more fundamental dimension of existence than reason. Most of my life has been spent in absence, in not “being here now”, but being immersed in my own little cognitive grasp of the world, a self-imposed prison like the one most people spend their whole lives in.

At present moment I think I “be here now.” I have just awakened and have taken my perch for “bird theater” with my cup of coffee, awaiting my three puppies to join me—two dachshunds and my wife. The darkness will lift shortly and I will again watch the birds engage in their ritual frenzy at the feeders and will be taken with the beauty of the moment. I will “be here now.” I often think of the words of Jesus at this moment, and apply a bit of literary license to his description of “the birds of the air,”  noting that they do not fret and stew but merely go about each day of their life “birding” the world. And I also often recall a beautiful poem by Wendell Berry who described finding “peace in wild things” when beset by despair, wild things who do not “tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

Be here now.