Remember that old philosophical phrase? Descartes uses it in Meditations on First Philosophy. He does not define it, but we can figure it out. It’s a kind of intuition or insight. A special shift in perspective. When it shines, we see clearly.
Last week, I saw something new by the light of nature.
At home, my family was being…dynamic. So, to get some quiet, I went out and sat outside. Specifically, in my neighbour’s yard, near her front steps. She is a professional gardener. So, you can imagine how beautiful her tiny front yard is. Trees, grasses, flowers, vegetables, aesthetically arranged. Each is placed exactly where it can best grow. Where what it puts into the soil is exactly what the plant next to it needs.
It was a partly sunny day. Breezy, with clouds of all different shapes moving overhead. So, you can also imagine what the garden looked like. A kaleidoscope of light and shade and colour and shape, continuously in motion.
So, I forgot all about my raucous family. Instead, I pulled out my notebook. Then, I tried to describe what I was seeing. But the words that came out were completely inadequate. Light, shadow, colour, yellow, green, brown, moving. Maybe those words look fine to you. But, for the magic of the moment, they just looked completely conventional. As if I were striding by an ordinary garden. On an ordinary day. Noticing familiar things out of the corner of my eye. But it wasn’t like that at all.
So, I tried to describe the play of light without using any words related to light. Not “bright” or “beam” or “shadow” or “shimmer.” Nothing in that word family. Instead, I tried to describe how I felt uplifted when a yellow circle of light suddenly appeared on the ground. How breeze my tickled my hand when the shadow of a leaf moved. And how, for an instant, the smell of the world changed.
Gradually, my experience of the place shifted. Obvious sensory information faded into the background. Instead, I felt like I was listening to an underlying symphony. Light, wind, and life each wove a melody line.
Then, I looked down at the plants near my ankles. Skinny, overgrown grass stalks waved their grains at me. Low to the ground, dandelion, clover, and wildflower leaves spread out. Even lower, drying grass stalks were turning into new straw. Under them, older leaves, damp reddish brown, decaying into mulch. Chunks of mulch dissolving into soil. At every level, tiny insects worked, played and explored.
So much is going on here, right under my feet. Yet, normally, I dash from here to there. I try to perform, produce, achieve. Own a home, secure a legacy. Establish my place in the community.
But, what even is that community? What is that place? Here in the city, we humans compete to own or lease lots, homes, apartments. But crows, too, have divided the city into family territories. Cats claim their hunting grounds. Coyotes shelter in green spaces. We are, I am, just a fragment.
And I saw this through the light of nature. An insight, a shift in perspective. Leading to a clearer vision. In this case, of nature. The world of non-human species, that is.
Nature isn’t a thing. Instead, it’s a lot of things, moving and changing. There’s no separation between human and non-human worlds. Instead, there are many species. Overlapping, defining, and re-defining their lives.
In my neighbour’s garden, I gave up on the word “light.” Yes, it was a familiar word, easy to find. But the word also made it hard to see clearly. When I let go of it, I saw new things. New details, processes, lives at work.
The word “nature” is like that, too. So, from now on, I won’t use it. Instead, I’ll speak of forest and garden. Coyote and crow. Plant and insect. Soil and leaf. And I’ll make it my business to know what I mean.
For a post-colonial critique of the words “wilderness” and “nature,” see this blog by William Cronon.