“Everyone has a listening point somewhere – some place quiet where the universe can be contemplated with awe.”
Sigurd Olson, Reflections from the North Country
Although it lies only sixty yards from my front door here in Indiana, I have come to this special place to think, to meditate, to try to comprehend if you will. There is a stand of timber here, a remnant of the great deciduous forest that once stretched eastward to the Atlantic Ocean. This grove is sanctified by the presence of oak and ash, walnut and maple. The understory is graced by dogwood and redbud, jewels of the Indiana spring. The forest floor sprouts toothwort, spring beauty, and mayapple. Here too are morels, turkey tails, mosses, and ferns. Although long ago timbered, and now regrown, it is a good representation of what a temperate deciduous forest should be.
Within this forest meanders an intermittent stream. Sometimes it exists only as a dry, rocky bed. At other times it is a raging torrent. Just now the stream is flowing gently and here at my spot it pours over a ledge in the sandstone bedrock. Time and the movement of liquid have carved an intricate series of steps and passageways through this rock. Now, the stream funnels through these miniature canyons and drops over the shelved stone. In doing so, the little stream broadcasts that most exquisite of natural sounds –the flow of water over rock.
Often my visits here are fruitless. Yes, I always enjoy the water music, the warm sun filtering through the leaves, and the sound of towhee and phoebe. But I have come for something more. I have come to feel the pulse of this forest. But, to do this requires a concentration. For a while I must put aside mundane distractions. My meditative search will brook no interference from the need to weed the garden, fix a loose board, or adhere to a schedule. What I search for requires a calmed mind, a willingness to bide one’s time, and a desire to listen with the soul as well as the ears. And so, quieting my mind, I sit and I wait. And sometimes, I am extraordinarily fortunate.
Naturally, it is the water melody that first insinuates itself upon my senses. I noticed that as soon as I neared the stream. But now, in my new mode of listening, I hear it more deeply. Now I hear not just a small stream flowing amongst the rocks. I hear a river of fused hydrogen and oxygen atoms responding to gravity’s call and making their way seaward. My mind wanders back to my school days when I learned to picture these water molecules as tiny Mickey Mouse images. The large oxygen head capped by the two hydrogen ears set at angles of a little over one hundred degrees from each other. The atoms in this water are ancient. Forged in a long-dead star, they have been here since the earth’s foundations were laid those many eons past. Over and over again have these elements been used. The hydrogen in this water may have once helped build a trilobite which crawled upon the floor of a long-vanished sea. The oxygen now locked in the water flowing at my feet may have issued forth from a fern frond. Perhaps this fern once grew in the coal-producing swamp forests which covered this land three-hundred million years past. This hydrogen and oxygen may have helped build ground sloth and Glyptodon, mammoth and mastodon, chipmunk and Chippewa. This water, and its component atoms, will be used again.
The soil along the stream is infiltrated by a multitude of moisture-seeking roots from the nearby forest trees. Countless numbers of water molecules are moving across the thin membranes of root hairs and beginning their journey toward the sky. They are linked by their tendency to cohere and their adhesion to the walls of the xylem tubes in which they travel. These molecules move ever upward into the canopy. Here some of them will be released into the air from pores in the undersurfaces of leaves. As each water molecule escapes, it exerts a gentle tug upon its nearest neighbor in the long freight train of water molecules extending back downward through the tree’s heartwood. Thus may a large oak pass thousands of gallons of water back into the atmosphere each year. The trees may encounter this water again in the form of rain, snow, or sleet as the hydrologic cycle turns upon itself. Not all the water being drawn into the tree is lost to transpiration of course. Some of it is incorporated into the sugar being produced in the leaves. The water supplies the twelve hydrogen atoms needed to make each molecule of glucose produced in the chloroplasts of the leaves. The oxygen atoms, released when the water molecules are torn apart within the leaf, pass into the atmosphere. Joining a partner, they form molecules available for living things – like me – whose respiring cells demand them in constant supply.
The dignified trees which comprise this forest require more than water. They crave the waste gas from my lungs as well as that from the ground beetles, chipmunks, fox squirrels, and pileated woodpeckers that thrive here. Within this gas are carbon and oxygen, the other vital constituents of glucose. I sense an exceptionally miraculous thing occurring around me now. Millions of leaves, in their species-specific shapes, are busily working away. Green, biochemical factories they are. Now, in my mind, I hear a soft pulsing background noise as of some mysterious, hidden machinery at work. The muffled sound I imagine, as though great forges and presses are at work, represents water and carbon dioxide being ripped apart and assimilated. It is protein and carbohydrate, oil and nucleic acid being built. With sunlight as their energy source, the trees are using the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen they have garnered to build bark and twig, root and flower, seed and nut. No, miraculous is not too strong a word to convey what is occurring around me.
6CO2 + 6H20 + sunlight + chlorophyll —-> C6H12O6 + 6O2
Others benefit from the work of the green, photosynthetic factories we call trees. I watch as a white-breasted nuthatch clambers down a trunk searching for insects to glean. A squirrel busily chews at a walnut husk, eager to reach the prize lying within. A red-bellied woodpecker flits onto a nearby snag and tap, tap, taps at the bark harboring its prey. Some nearby goldfinches and cardinals suddenly take wing and the forest falls suddenly and strangely silent. A second later the cause of this abrupt stillness rockets by on fixed wings – a sharp-shinned hawk. The small birds have escaped this time but inevitably the hawk will feed.
The soil beneath me also teems with life. Earthworm and mole continue their eons old game of hide and seek. Untold numbers and kinds of bacteria are at work breaking down dead bodies and converting nitrogen into a form useable by plants. Members of the vast tribe of fungi form a network of mycelia within the soil which live symbiotically with the roots of trees. Here they help the tree take up water and nutrients. In return they share the tree’s sugar resources. Other fungi infiltrate the dead leaves, twigs, and whole trunks of the trees which have run their life course and fallen. In the process of decomposing, the bacteria and fungi return vital nutrients to the soil. These are taken up by the plants and once again incorporated into living tissues of wood and berry. Through white-footed mouse and barred owl these nutrients will pass. Nature is the ultimate recycler. Thus a paradox; the mass of living tissue of all the organisms that have lived upon the earth exceeds that of the planet itself.
As my vigil continues I am rewarded with the insight I have sought. This forest is not simply a stand of timber. It is the manifestation of a profound concordance. Water and air, soil and light interact in an intricate opus played out within the lives of the plants, animals, and unseen microorganisms of this ecosystem.
There are producers of food energy, predators, prey species, and scavengers here. Once there were none. Four and a half billion years ago our earth was molten rock. Now, by merely strolling outside, I encounter a world of the most extreme beauty, complexity, and biological diversity. And here my mind is flummoxed. The sheer existence of all of this life, let alone the extreme intricacy of its interconnections, mystifies me. Surely this vast parade of time, and its consequent evolutionary explosion of life, has meaning. Such a world must be more than a collection of stage props in front of which we humans act out our lives. Are we to imagine that this astounding natural world has come into existence to do nothing more than provide us with pleasing scenery? Is the multitude of wild dramas enacted every day nothing more than fodder for an Animal Planet script?
It is a spiritual discipline to root the mind in a particular landscape . . .
Scott Russell Sanders, Secrets of the Universe
No, there is a miraculous reality in these woods. There is evidence here of something truly momentous. Granted, contingency (chance) is a player in the grand scenario of the universe story. We see that today with every roll of the germ cell dice by which new life is created. But in addition to the ever-present element of coincidence, the underlying trajectory of the Cosmos exhibits purpose and direction. Whatever the enigmatic nature of the Creative energy driving our universe may be, the fossil record and today’s astonishingly prolific biodiversity make one thing clear. Over time there has been an incremental proliferation of biological complexity and diversity here on planet Earth.
Then on a still night, when the campfire is low and the Pleiades have climbed over rimrocks, sit quietly and listen for a wolf to howl, and think hard of everything you have seen and tried to understand.
Aldo Leopold, Song of the Gavilan
Contemplation of this profoundness is here for the taking for those willing to sit quietly and listen; for those prepared to patiently indulge eyes, minds, and hearts. And yet the astonishing depth of the marvel that is life on earth seems to go unnoticed by so many. This puzzles me greatly. A good many in my neck of the woods seem to regard the natural world, the source of our own human emergence, as a rather irrelevant interlude on their journey to some final glory. Others pursue an impossible dream: the belief that status or material possessions alone are enough to bring contentment and wholeness to one’s life. We now know that exposure to nature carries many benefits for humans. Tensions, as well as waistlines, are reduced. Depression can be lessened. Among children, inventiveness, creativity, and attentiveness increase with exposure to nature. There is no temporal hierarchy to this experience. Young and old are offered the joys of discovery and contemplation.
The natural world which surrounds can also, in the final analysis, provide a powerful lesson. We humans are very clever in manipulating our environments. But we should understand that ultimately our species is just as dependent upon the cycles of air and water, soil and energy as the lowliest organisms which burrow in the soil of my much-loved forest. Perhaps this, aside from the pure joys of discovery and examination, is the final moral to be understood from an intimate bonding with the natural world.
And so I end my reverie. Back toward home and the everyday affairs of life I turn. But I judge my time at my listening point as well spent. Here, through the simple practice of mindfulness, I have been allowed a tiny glimpse into the reality of the Cosmos. My soul has been nourished by the contemplation of a wonder: the astonishing complexity, diversity, and beauty of the natural world -our true, native home.