From ants to elephants, from grains of sand to mountains, life and matter present in a spectrum of sizes, each bearing complexity. Each grain of sand contains micro peaks and valleys, variations in form from angular to rounded, and complex mineral composition, including varying combinations and proportions of quartz, feldspar, pyroxene, gypsum, amphibole, garnet, epidote and other minerals. Though on a smaller scale, a grain of sand can reveal the complexity of an entire mountain, much like how to an ant a field of grass is a forest. As the poet Gary Snyder writes:
As the crickets’ soft autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills
The iconic 1977 science film "Powers of Ten" explores the relative size of things in the universe and the impact of adding or subtracting another zero to their scale. Beginning one meter above a man and woman on a picnic blanket in a park on the Chicago lake front, the film extends out from the park at incremental increasing "powers of ten": 10 meters, 100 meters, 1,000 meters and so on exponentially, one order of magnitude every ten seconds, until it reaches 10 to the 24th, the outer edge of the known universe. The film then reverses course, zooming back to the picnic blanket at decreasing orders of magnitude. From there, it zooms into the man’s hand at negative powers of ten until it reaches 10 to the -16th and subatomic particles.
Conveying the universe as “an arena of both continuity and change, of everyday picnics and cosmic mystery” (as stated on the website of Charles and Ray Eames, the film’s creators), the film is one of my favorites. It reminds us that there are “worlds within worlds” and that with sensitivity to scale and perspective we can embrace these varying dimensions and the sense of wonder that comes with exploring them.
I invite you to take a look at the film, below, and think about what it can teach you about exploring the world on different scales.
The fourth nor'easter of the 2017-2018 winter season has hit. During a "pocket adventure" of a snowy morning wander through Central Park, I was reminded of a piece I wrote some years ago about a pocket adventure during another snowstorm, which happened to coincide with an apt exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History and performance at the Metropolitan Opera, and nods to my hero Max from Where the Wild Things Are, also mentioned in my previous post:
December 26 brings urban snow storm bliss to this woman who grew up reading tales of explorers of faraway places: nighttime cross-country skiing up Lexington Avenue, then into Central Park, breaking trail around the Reservoir bridle path. Trees groan in the wind and lightening zaps the sky bright for a moment. The snow bears down hard and drifts. By the time I come full circle on the bridle path, my tracks are gone.
After twenty-five years of living in the neighborhood and frequenting the park, I am used to the variability of this place, how it changes with the seasons and times of day. But, this evening, it is eerily transformed. All alone in this dark and wind-howling space, I am transported to deep winter in New England, or if I let my imagination go farther, to a place more remote: Antarctica. I am in the company of the ghosts of Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen, whose voyages to the South Pole are chronicled in the exhibit now at the American Museum of Natural History and who perhaps, by some supernatural force and dark sense of humor, brought on this storm to enhance the exhibit’s verisimilitude. If I listen hard enough through the wind, I can will myself into hearing the explorers’ sled dogs yelping, stirred to life and excited by the storm. I complete my evening adventure with a ski down East 79th Street and return to my apartment, feeling lucky to have shelter.
The next morning I awaken early to ski in the park while the snow still is pristine. Plows have been through overnight, clearing Central Park Drive and east-west pathways. But for this touch of civilization and the efforts of many now sleep-deprived snow clearing teams, all is quiet, still, and disguised by heaping drifts of snow. I am once again transported to a faraway place, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are, when his bedroom transforms into a jungle.
Lost in the rhythm of skiing and day dreaming about being a part of Amundsen’s courageous team, I barely notice the stranger trudging by ski-less. As I glide past, he says, “I once skied to the opera!” I am stirred out of my snow-induced trance enough to reply, “I’m going tonight. La Fanciulla.” I smile inwardly at the appropriateness of this of all operas, with its snow scene and gun-slinging, frontier-woman heroine not dying of consumption, a rugged character perfect for the rugged weather. My response evidently strikes a chord. The stranger senses an opening and asserts, “What’s with the over the top Magic Flute? Too much for an opera buffa! What do they think it is, The Lion King?” He continues, “And that Anna Netrebko, she’s such a ham. I mean that Lucia, singing with her neck hanging off the stage! What next, singing standing on her head, just because she can?” With Scott and Amundsen in slow fadeout, I realize it’s not a moment to debate the virtues of spectacle for bringing in broader audiences. I agree with the stranger, noncommittally. It’s time to ski along.
As I glide away, I think about how I love New York, still itself even when costumed in two feet of snow. I arrive home, and although it’s breakfast time, I have some hot soup, like Max.
Dressed in his wolf suit and wreaking havoc in his home, Max is sent to his room without any supper. Magically, his room transforms into a forest. Max sails to the land of the Wild Things, who eventually coronate him as their king, with a wild rumpus to celebrate. In time, Max tires of the land of the Wild Thing and sails back home. He returns to his room, where soup his mother has left for him is still hot.
Alice tires of sitting by her sister Lydia along a riverbank and listening to her read a book without pictures when she notices a white rabbit scurrying by. Following after him down a hole she encounters a hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts, Mad Hatter and others. On the verge of being beheaded, she finds herself back at the riverbank with Lydia.
And in The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, the Pevensie children--Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter--enter the magical world of Narnia through what appear to be an ordinary piece of furniture. There they encounter Aslan the lion King, the White Witch, and others and grow into adulthood, only to one day tumble through the wardrobe back into the "normal" world and learn that no time has passed.
Where the Wild Things Are, Alice in Wonderland, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, remind us of the ability of imagination to expand time and experience. In what turns out to be very little little time at all, Max, Alice, and the Pevensie children encountered elaborate adventures, experience courage and fear, and grow--and, in the case of Alice, shrink too. Were all of these characters only dreaming? Children would question that assumption; they know that with a little imagination adventure can be found at almost any moment, and imaginary encounters can feel just as authentic, if not more so, than "normal" life.
Can we as adults, in the context of our daily lives and our many responsibilities, and without relying on technological distractions, find moments to venture to where the wild things are, including our own inner wildness? How can we find the rabbit holes or wardrobes that enable us to discover liminal worlds that offer not only a break from the ordinary but also a chance to get in touch with aspects of ourselves, and perhaps more authentic aspects, that don't get a lot of attention?
For Max, noticing trees growing in his room led him on his adventure. For Alice, it was a white rabbit in a hurry. And for the Pevensie children it was sensing the crisp cold of snow. While we may be many years from childhood, we too can use our senses and imagination to augment and enrich our daily lives, to discover "pocket adventures", and we can do it by noticing nature.
Clocks, stopwatches, rulers, odometers, and compasses are just some of the many tools we use measure time and distance. Measured in this way, we identify time and distance as fixed, data to be posted on a graph's x and y axes and tracked with exactitude. And for many good reasons, we value this exactness, lauding trains that run on time, watches that tell time precisely, and apps that track how far we walk in a day and ensure we are getting enough exercise.
Yet, we know that time and distance are not always experienced with exactitude by us. When waiting in line, 10 minutes can feel like an eternity. A walk of 10 city blocks can feel like nothing to a pedestrian commuter chatting on his cell phone, but can feel monumental to a person with a foot injury. The world record for the 100 meter dash is 9.71 seconds, less time than it will take me to walk to the kitchen for a snack. For Usain Bolt it was epic, with each second and microsecond unfolding and well worth his traveling for hours across the globe to Beijing to run.
Over centuries philosophers, scientists, and artists have grappled with ways to characterize our relationship with time and space. Isaac Newton asserted absolutest measurement. Centuries later, Maurice Merleau-Ponty postulated that we filter the world around us through our senses, leading us to interpret the world in ways that are not necessarily consistent with the exactitude of scientific absolutism. A sensory-mediated approach to the world also promotes an awareness we too are part of the world, rather than the separate, remote, and strictly rational observers suggested by Rene Descartes with his declaration "I think therefore I am."
Not unlike Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, Einstein's theory of relativity offers a valuable framework for considering how variably a fixed period of time or distance can be experienced. It asserts that the way anything except light moves through time and space depends on the position and movement of someone who is watching. Indeed, from Cezanne's saturated blotches of color to Seurat's pixilated renditions of landscape scenes, visual artists have expressed the experiential, sensory-mediated approach to encountering the world around us. Likewise, Modernist authors have drawn attention to the expansiveness and nonlinear ways we experience time, with James Joyce depicting an Odyssean epic in the course of a day in Dublin in the life of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses and Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway blending the past and the present as thoughts and memories cycle through her mind.
Like Einstein's theory applied to principles of physics, Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, and the works of Impressionist artists and Modernist authors, so much of our perspective on time, space and distance depends on our sensing selves and the frame of mind we are in. In the next few blogs, I'll be exploring frameworks for rethinking how we engage with time and space in our daily lives. By adjusting our perspective or modifying our awareness, we can discover nature and find adventure in even small windows of time and space.
The alarm clock blares. You wake up and while still in bed reflexively reach for your cell phone to check your email. You don't want to miss anything important that has come up while you were asleep. The phone's bright glare invites you in further, and you peruse the news headlines. So much has been happening lately; you want to stay on top of things. The emails and news of the day make you agitated. A colleague misread your comments. You're frustrated by the political climate. And now it's time to get out of bed and continue with your day.
Here's an alternative: In the same room you awaken and notice the soft light of the morning sun. You hear a dawn chorus of birds chattering in interweaving patterns. You take a moment to stretch your body. Then you turn your attention to your breathing, noticing its rhythm. A new day has arrived. It is time to get out of bed and continue with your day.
Which feels better? Which feels more sustaining? Each approach is a possibility, an opportunity. How can we gravitate towards what sustains us?
Welcome to Over the Edge, the Urban Edge Forest Therapy blog. In this blog I'll be exploring ways you can hack your daily life to develop a connection with nature and a deeper connection with yourself, leading to greater happiness and wellbeing. The strategies I'll be writing about will be helpful if you live in a city or densely populated area, or if you just want to enhance your connection with nature, for any reason. I live in Manhattan, a place not generally known for its ready access to nature. That's why I am writing this blog. The fact is that nature is everywhere in New York City, but it helps to know where and how to look for it. I'll be discussing simple and creative ways to enhance your nature awareness.
In 2008, humanity passed a milestone. More people live in cities or highly populated areas than in rural areas, and this trend will continue, with over 75% of humanity predicted to be living in cities by 2050. What does this mean for us? Sure, it's convenient to live in densely populated areas and to have many of the resources we need nearby, such as schools, stores, and work places. And, urban environments can facilitate social networks, support abundant arts and cultural offerings, and provide vibrant energy to fuel the growth of ideas.
At the same time, we risk losing something. Our species has spent all but the past 150 years living close to nature. Our bodies and our senses are designed for that connection. We don't yet fully understand what we lose when we reduce our contact with nature, but a number of people, like Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, and Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, are exploring this, and medical science, discussed elsewhere on this website, is proving how important it is for us to connect with nature. And, just as a disconnect with nature can adversely impact our physical and mental wellbeing, it also can impact--at our own peril--our stewardship of nature, the ultimate life support system. We protect only what we care about.
In this blog, I'll be writing about how to reengage our urban environments and day-day-day rituals, how to adjust the ways we notice the natural world around us, whether during our commutes, inside our homes, in office spaces, or outside. Aspects of this might seem familiar to those who have explored mindfulness. But we will go beyond mindfulness and venture into some pretty mind-bending ways to connect with nature.
By noticing nature around you--everywhere, even if you're in a subway or high up in an office building--you can tune into your "sensing" and "being" self, sustaining parts of ourselves that are often overlooked in our fast-paced, modern lives, and you may find yourself in a more joyful and fulfilled frame of mind.
As you will see, I will focus on a sequence of themes. But, like every good walk in the forest, sometimes I will veer off the path to turn attention to something forest therapy-related that feels timely or relevant.
Please join me on this written journey as we explore ways that a forest therapy perspective applied to daily life can improve the wellbeing of urban dwellers, and click here to be added to our email list for notice of new blog entries!
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.