A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Essence Of Juniper

In the chapter Cliffrose And Bayonets from Desert Solitaire Abbey wrestles philosophically and emotionally with his favourite juniper tree: I've had this tree under surveillance ever since my arrival at Arches, hoping to learn something from it, to discover the significance in its form, to make a connection through its life with whatever falls beyond. Have failed. The essence of the juniper continues to elude me unless, as I presently suspect, its surface is also the essence. Two living things on the same earth, respiring in a common medium, we contact one another but without direct communication. Intuition, sympathy, empathy, all fail to guide me into the heart of this being - if it has a heart... At times I am exasperated by the juniper's static pose; something in its stylized gesture of appeal, that dead claw against the sky, suggests catalepsy. Perhaps the tree is mad...
Another significant, highly charged passage - so typical of Abbey. I think it's complex what he means here, a complexity which truthfully reflects our ambiguous relationship with nature. Just look at it closely. He has the tree "under surveillance"! What an interesting and revealing choice of phrase, suggesting both a stealthy wariness (it's almost as if the tree were up to no good or were suspiciously reluctant to bare its secrets) and also a certain clinical, scientific observation.
Abbey goes on to reinforce the idea that "surface" is also "essence" (an idea which should be familiar from my previous posts) - yet at the same time this isn't enough for him. He's obviously frustrated as hell at not being able to penetrate any further into the tree's essential tree-ness. He's actually "exasperated" that the tree is motionless, seemingly comatose, possibly "mad"! Despite his best intentions, he's anthropomorphizing the tree - something he philosophically never wanted to do!
So it seems inevitable and necessary that we have recourse to human words and emotions in order to relate to the non-human world, to bridge the gap between culture and nature. I would go further and say that it is good and right that we do so, and that we've now come full circle from the concept that words and feelings and human culture can alienate us from the natural world to the idea that they may in fact be the very things that connect us to it. But more of this tomorrow when I'll give support to this view from the English nature writer Richard Mabey...

7 comments:

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Forgive me, SW - I have tried to understand this from a philosophical point of view, and feel a bit closer to understanding what Abbey is striving for than I did yesterday. But I confess, I was shaking with mirth as I read his words about having the tree under surveillance. It immediately conjured up in my over-imaginative mind the image of CCTV and a futuristic nanny state. My eyes were streaming by the time I read 'Perhaps the tree is mad ...'

Now I've calmed down I'm thinking seriously again about the sentence, 'Two living things on the same earth, respiring in a common medium ...' This puts me in mind of conversations I had with a friend many years ago about the 'Chi' in everything, including trees. It's not something I know much about but I would like to. A wordless communication, but empathic. Not anthropomorphic.

Val said...

"So it seems inevitable and necessary that we have recourse to human words and emotions in order to relate to the non-human world, to bridge the gap between culture and nature."

Solitary, you have given me some serious food for thought with this. I can assure you I'll be mulling this over for awhile...

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

In the end, to quantify and correlate knowledge and thought, we must deal in communication. Though communication comes in various forms—music, painting, etc.—it is words, or words interiorly as thoughts, that provide the most precise way to communicate.

It goes against the scientific grain, but I believe in regarding nature, anthropomorphizing is often better and truer than cold description. Abbey used this means fairly often in his various writings—not in a Disneyesque fashion, but to reveal the essence or impression of something.

We will never be able to relate to anything beyond ourselve except through ourselves—through those things that make us us instead of them.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I think trees - rather than Juniper, which is more of a bush- are the one living thing, outside humanity, which we feel almost a need to communicate with. They are not only the largest living things, but also often the oldest. I think if you stand in a wood of ancient trees you can almost feel a connection with them - but you can't put it into words. Not very philosophical, Robert - but I know what I mean even if I havenm't described it very well.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for all these comments! I find them all so interesting, and they add so much to my original post, I can't tell you how much I enjoy reading and pondering over them.

Anonymous said...

ah, edward abbey. cycling from seattle to costa rica through the rockies i recalled his saying in the wonderful desert solitaire how we gain access too easily to the beautiful places of the earth. we should suffer and struggle to have the privelege of entering such places. how i agree. gwen maka

The Solitary Walker said...

I agree. Access is far too easy to many places of wonder. Too easy access robs them of their enchantment.