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Journal 1

Dear Journal,

This week I read Walt Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson. I was most amazed by Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”, which seemed to me to be more of a celebration of all of humanity, than a celebration of himself. This was the basis for the biggest of my  questions this week:

Who is the “Myself” in Song of Myself

To me, as I mentioned just a moment ago, Whitman intends not for the reader to perceive the myself as Whitman, but or the reader to perceive the “myself” as themselves; as I did in the book. For when he referred to “himself” I took it as my own self. By doing this, he makes a very powerful point; that we are all connected and a part of a shared universe. He says this blatantly in what is possible the most famous of quotes from this text:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

In the very first line he declares that this assumed separation between beings is incorrect, that all of the atoms that hold his body together could very well be mine, and the space between us is ours as well. Indeed, the first section of the poem is about how we are all part of the same.

One of my most favorite sections from this poem is #6 about the grass. In the beginning of the section, he muses about the grass and what it is. He shows us that we are the grass, and we are connected by the grass.

Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same,
I receive them the same.

Oh, and Journal, how I loved section 32, which I got to discuss with my group. He talks about the animals, and I feel with him the longing for the simplicity of an animal’s life, but moreover, the calmness and the wisdom that resides in that simplicity.

So they show their relations to me and I accept them.
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly
in their possession.

By this I believe he was referring to our shared ancestry with animals. Some people thought of the tokens as “pieces” of himself, but I see the tokens as being more ephemeral, for the tokens represent his connection to nature and to animals. He goes on to say:

I wonder where they got those tokens,
Did I pass that way huge times ago and negligently drop them?

When was it that we forgot our connection to animals? Perhaps that is my second question. We have indeed spent thousands of years as if our species is somehow detached from “lower” animals. For birds and reptiles can see light where we would see blackness. What unusual optimism for such animals we classify with words like lesser-intelligence.

And he talks about the stallion:

I but use you a minute, then I resign you, stallion.
Why do I need your paces when I myself out-gallop them?
Even as I stand or site passing faster than you

We have invented cars that can go many times faster than a horse, and where we but have to press down slightly on a lever and we are propelled, compared to a horse, who we have to work hard with in order to get anywhere.

Yet we have not forgotten our love for horses, as we race them around tracks of mud and sand, hoping to make ourselves money, another concept lost on animals aside from humans.

There are countless lessons to be learned about myself in this poem, for it –is- the song of my own self, and the song of yourself as well. The ink on this paper, from the oil that could have very well been sitting deep inside the earth for millennia; all this, I am connected to. And in that sense, the myself seizes to exist, for the myself may very well become the yourself, and the yourself the his-self. It is the song of the bird, the song of the tree, the song of the seed, and the song of the earth that holds the seed. This is what I took from Walt Whitman’s poem. And, I believe, it is what he felt as he wrote the poem.

Thoreau seemed to understand this relationship as well. He writes:

“The greatest delight which the field ad woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relationship between man and vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.”

It is the air we breathe out that feeds the trees, just as it is the air the trees breathe out that feeds our lungs. So it is the vegetables we feed and care for through the days of summer, that in turn feed and care for us. My dear journal, this is what I have learned this week.


Posted in Journal by Preston C. Palmer on January 23rd, 2010

Journal 2

Dear Journal,

This week I read Aldo Leopold and Annie Dillard and I was delighted by their faint wit as well as their enormous intellect. Aldo Leopold has quickly become one of my favorites, in a cute old grandpa sort of way. After some brief research I found that he was as simple a man as his writing. But in it’s simplicity lies something strong and occasionally heartbreaking; a statement about our responsibility to the environment and the eco-system. When I discovered that we were assigned to discuss with the class specific sections of the works, I was eager to sign up for Aldo Leopold’s chapter on February, for it bears a section that managed o bring tears to my eyes as I read it.

“Next morning, as we strolled over the sand hill rejoicing with the one-flowers and prairie clovers over their fresh accession of rain, we came upon a great slab of bark freshly torn from the trunk of the roadside oak… we mourned the loss of the old tree, but knew that a dozen of its progeny standing straight and stalwart on the sands had already taken over it’s job of wood-making. We let the dead veteran season for a year in the sun could no longer use, and then on a crisp winter’s day we laid a newly filed saw to its bastioned base. Fragrant little chips of history spewed from the saw cut… we sensed that these two pile of sawdust were something more than wood: that they were the integrated transect of a century.”

And in that sense, he writes the story of the oak moving backwards in time as he saws towards the center of the lumber. And in the history of the oak lies the history of conservation, particularly in Wisconsin. Over time, as humans discovered the wilderness throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Ay, I know what you are saying, Journal, you are asking me. But what does all this mean? But I dare say, that is exactly the purpose of his writing, to declare things as they are and as they were, and how things are different and how things are the same. But what amazes me the most is that, despite all this talk of history, or the movement ideas over time linearly, he ends February with a reminder of the cyclical nature of life. That despite all that has happened in the last century, since the time the oak “spread its first leaves to the sun,” it is the night that he recalls all this that the very oak sits in his fire, the ashes of which he plans to put at the foot of the sand-hill, so that they may come back to him as apples, or perhaps hold the ground where a squirrel can bury a new acorn.

My dear Journal, that is the first rule of ecology, everything either works in a cycle, or the whole thing falls apart. Life is indeed a two way street.

While Leopold chose to observe ecology through a more scientific and logical perspective, Annie Dillard set out to observe it almost as a child watching fire-flies in a glass jar. She chose to be the pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where she fancied a warm and wonderful cabin which she could retreat to after days of seeing the universe in and beyond her own back yard.

In the 6 chapters assigned to read, the first two sections that caught my eye were as follow:

1. I was astounded by the section on the frogs, never before had I imagined that such a creature could exist that punctures it’s victims; poisons it with enzymes that paralyze the animal and dissolve its muscle, organs, and bones; and then sucks out everything except the still in tact skin. I will remember to scare my friends with the presence of such a creature. For starters, she proposes that such animals remind us of the miracle of life; that there are always predators lying in wait, and that all things beautiful as we see them, are a gift. But then, what of the giant water beetle? Is it subject to being chastised because of its crude eating style?

My favorite of quotes from this chapter is as follows:

“If these tremendous events are random combinations of matter run amok, the yield of millions of monkeys at millions of typewriters, then what is it in us, hammered out of those same typewriters that they ignite?”

I found myself repeating this a few times after I read it, to make sure I understood it. I believe she is arguing that the acts that must have been taken to create the frog, or the giant water beetle, could not have been random events.

Ay, my Journal, there are so many words in each sentence I could float for hours upon each one of them, for they go beyond deep. She has woven a delicate tapestry of poetry together here. “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” What a clever and transcendent metaphor. But it means that there are great limits to what we know, even when we try and expand our horizons.

2. The second piece that I particularly enjoyed was the piece on seeing. Where she described patients who had been blind their entire life, received surgery so they could see. It was truly fascinating to learn of all these new facts about the experiences the patients endured. Having been blind their entire lives, the world of color and detail was scary and daunting to some, to the point that some wished they were blind again. However to others, seeing the world for the first time after having experienced it for so long without vision, was a fascinating and beautiful train of discoveries. And all this served to remind us of the power of our own vision, and posing the great question, how much do we see? Or perhaps more importantly, how much do we ignore? How much beauty do we pass by every day?

Perhaps it is the appreciation of things that makes more things beautiful. In that sense, to see is to love. And to love, is to see. How beautiful.

Posted in Journal by Preston C. Palmer on January 30th, 2010

Journal 3

Dear Journal,

This week I continued my reading of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim At Tinker Creek in which we turn from seeing the meadow, the country-side, the trickling stream, and the dancing leaves; to being one with all that is in nature. In the final nine chapters of the book I found incredible the way Dillard seamlessly wove religion, science, and her own knowledge, to create a paste of wonder and admiration for all of the world that surrounds her, and surrounds all of us. As I read through the chapters, it became increasingly clear how determined Annie Dillard was to incorporate all of life in to her own being, in a way. And this meant not only looking at the beautiful, not only being with the beauty, but also being with the ugly, being with the disgusting, and being with the frightening, as they are all a part of life.

In chapter ten she submits herself to procreation, the act that all living beings commit.

“I do not know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.”

My dear journal, she says she does not know, but she knows precisely. There is a truth in her words that frightens me. My own life, the life that I value, is as easy to make, as it is to break. In a way, she points to the fragility of life and of all living things. If our value was determined by how easy we are to make, then we are but pennies at the bottom of a forgotten well.

In an almost dramatic switch, Dillard declares optimism her newfound weakness, as she brings us into a startling realism, where the world is so much more than beauty. It is a world of grasshoppers and locusts, moths and wasps. Though the terrifying bits of nature are not all, for humanity is nothing if not for its dark-side. Fecundity, the surprising ability for things to behold birth and growth, which we take so much for granted, is the same process that sets families of mice where scraps of food are forgotten on the floor. It is the same process that puts cockroaches beneath our bedposts. It is indeed the process that we curse and fight against.

It is almost laughable human’s insane ignorance and self-centeredness. For, as we pride ourselves with the ability to grow, we forbid it of the rest of the world. But nature does not care; it is a beast of self-preservation and ingenuity.

This relationship with nature fascinates me. To some, it is as if we are locked in battle. Man vs. Nature. Man builds a skyscraper; nature causes a earthquake and knocks it down. What are we, unhappy children at the beach?

Some say that nature punishes us because we are at the top of the food chain. But I question that statement. What exactly are all of these writers trying to say? Aren’t we living on this planet? Aren’t we connected to nature? Who, I ask, is the punisher?

Man builds levies by the ocean to suppress the important work of the swamps and the trees that once protected that land, years later a hurricane come and disaster strikes the homes of thousands. Yet if those levies had never been built, while the economy may not have supported  such a city being built near the ocean, the environment would have supported it. Who, I ask again, is the punisher?

Nature is not the evil force we must defend against, but simply the reminder that when a rubber band is stretched far enough, it must snap back or break, that when a soda bottle is shaken long enough, the cork will pop.

– – –

As we draw close to the end of the book, there is a spiritual catharsis, as Dillard, and myself in this case, submit ourselves to the nature that is.

“I am a sacrifice with cords to the horns of the world’s rock altar, waiting for worms. I take a deep breath, I open my eyes. Looking, I see there are worms in the horns of the altar like maggots in amber, there are shells of worms in the rock and moths flapping at my eyes. A wind from noplace rises. A sense of the real exults me; the cords loose; I walk on my way.”

The section above comes from the penultimate chapter, and supports my belief that she did not, in fact, write this book for us, so that we may read it and be awed by her intellect and the things she found, but instead that she wrote it for herself.

Some say that she writes so that she may point out to us the things we do not see too often. Indeed the words “point out” are used grossly, as I see no pointing, simply seeing and yielding. Searching for points, in my opinion, will lead more often to bloody fingers than to new understanding. Is she trying to tell us something?

Perhaps, but it has already been said. She is but one more messenger with a gift, a present that we may take and bask in it’s beauty, its wonders and marvels; or that we may throw away or give to another.

Oh, Journal, this week I learned and remembered the complexity of beauty, the hideousness of reality, and my karmic bond to nature. I learned that Annie Dillard was one of few who found enlightenment though seeing and submitting.

This week, I submit myself, and I am one.

Posted in Journal by Preston C. Palmer on February 6th, 2010

Journal 4

Dear Journal,

This week I read Edward Abbey and continued reading essays by Aldo Leopold. In Desert Solitaire I was taken to the barren rocky landscape of Arches National Monument where the hero, Edward Abbey, begins a new story for his life as a ranger.

He sets big goals for himself, ones which should not be taken lightly.

“I am here… to confront the bare-bones of existence, the elemental and the fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us, I want to be able to look at the juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as it is in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. To meet God or Medusa face to face, even if it means risking everything human in myself. I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.”

To the Buddha, this would have been heard as the Ultimate wish, the quest for enlightenment. But as it relates to this topic of discussion, Abbey seeks to go beyond seeing as Annie Dillard did in the end of her book. He seeks to interact and be with nature as is what we are delving in to for the next few weeks. Interacting with nature is much more powerful than simply seeing, and it is something I wish I go the opportunity to do more often.

There was one fall evening when I sat on a bench in Loring Park and watched a squirrel for 45 minutes as he dragged a large piece of shredded bark around a tree, attempting to rip pieces of it off but not having enough leverage to tear it. So instead the adorable animal ran around the tree dozens of times, pausing when someone would pass too near.

To most, and to many it is an ignorable event and an ignorable animal. Squirrels are remarkable for their patience and tolerant species to live to closely to humanity. They are the beings that make me fear domestication. The thought brings images of conversion camps, where schools of squirrels are taught how to behave properly around humans, else they are sent to the cellar where they are starved. Again I am reminded of my previous learning that seeing is appreciating. Yet what is ignoring?

However I cannot set aside how powerful the above paragraph truly is and I must state my worry here in this journal before I enter any sort of discussion. For he states his yearning for enlightenment while understanding almost precisely what it is. The paradox between what is human, separate, individual, and is at the same time part of all that is, universal, whole.

From there he chooses his subject and writes a meditation devoted to it, with the intention to find the wisdom hidden in all of the mysteries of the desert. Amazingly to me, he found wisdom in snakes, which visit him in the second chapter. He sees two gopher snakes dancing with one another, and to get a closer look, he sneaks up on them. Curiosity driving him he crawls closer, until the two snakes realize his presence and charge for him. He scrambles back out of their way and they take their leave. But the learning comes in his cowardice. For, the second they come after him they lose their human qualities and become dangerous snakes. He writes:

“Precisely what did those two enraptured gopher snakes have in mind when they came gliding toward my eyes over the naked stone? If I had been as capable of trust as I am susceptible to fear I might have learned something new or some truth so old we have all forgotten it.”

With Leopold’s writing I was once again breath-taken by his marked specificity and tact. Nothing is simply told, but it is brought into and recognized. In Chihuahua and Sonora he begins:

“The physics of beauty is one department of natural science still in the dark ages. Not even the manipulators of bent space have tried to solve its equations. Everybody knows, for example, that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms if conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead. An enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost… the significance of which is inexpressible in terms of contemporary science, A philosopher has called this the numenon of material things. It stands in contradiction to phenomenon, which is ponderable and predictable, even to the tossings and turnings of the remotest star.”

He continues that the Thick-Billed Parrot is the numenon of the Siaerra Madre. And I must admit it is the discussion of the physics of beauty that fascinates m even more than the life of the parrots. Though they do embody a sort of beauty for the eye to behold.

Alas all of the animals discussed fascinate the senses and help us question our connection to nature. We see how the squirrel goes about its day, how the snake finds a lover, and how the parrot finds its breakfast, and suddenly we begin to think differently about those animals that are forced to live us. So, I end with the words of Edward Abbey.

“All men are brothers… We are obliged therefore to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.”

Posted in Journal by Preston C. Palmer on February 20th, 2010