A recent blog focused on the Atlantic Flyway and the great spring migration of birds from tropical regions to northern breeding grounds. It's thrilling to witness the many species of birds that pause in our urban parks to rest and refuel. Thinking about birds' great aerial passage is also an opportunity to consider for a moment a birds' eye view. Places--many familiar to us when we are dwelling or moving within them--can look vastly different from overhead. Patterns emerge and one can't help develop an awareness of the interconnections among localities and regions across the earth.
Artist Ben Grant explores this perspective in his book Overview. What began as an Instagram project is now a book with more than 200 breathtaking, high definition satellite photographs of industry, agriculture, architecture, and nature highlighting uncanny patterns and the impact of human existence. Says Grant, “From a distant vantage point, one has the chance to appreciate our home as a whole, to reflect on its beauty and its fragility all at once."
Grant's book is well worth perusing and exploring. His work not only offers perspective on interconnections across landscapes and the human impact on our planet; it can inspire us to be aware of what an overview perspective might offer us in our current location--how our familiar surrounding buildings, blocks, avenues, and parks look from above. We can take time to imagine this perspective, and we also can explore the perspective Google Maps satellite view offers as a way to notice our environments from overhead.
Beyond viewing location from above, we can consider the overviews available to us on a smaller scale, from our own, human vantage points--the forms and patterns observable to us at ground level as we move about or just pause to take it in. I think about a lovely New England lake where I enjoy swimming during the summer. How thick and robust its underwater vegetation becomes by mid-summer, with tendrils billowing in the murky water in a spectrum of shades of green, from deep olive to sweet pea. Skimming the surface stroke after stroke while gazing down through my goggles, I lose my sense of scale and imagine myself to be in flight, soaring through the air while peering down on a vast mass of flora below, a primeval jungle or forest.
There has been much discussion lately about colonizing Mars. SpaceX owner Elon Musk expects to initiate Mars spacecraft test flights as early next year and plans to land cargo spaceships on the Red Planet in 2022, with a manned landing targeted for 2024. Mars One aims for a permanent manned landing in 2032. One has to be in awe of the vision, science, and courage it takes to plan and participate in these initiatives.
Perhaps the desire to settle Mars is motivated by core characteristics of human nature, our innate curiosity impelling us to voyage ever onward to faraway reaches. From the time hunter gatherers traversed ice bridges across the Bering Strait and vast bodies of water on wood-carved canoes, humans have used their ingenuity to venture forth to distance lands. Even our origin stories, from the Navajo creation myth Upward Movement and Emergence Way to Old Testament desert wanderings in search of the promised land describe similar outward migrations. Perhaps colonizing Mars is the latest chapter in this narrative.
Yet, some of what is motivating consideration of Mars colonization appears to be an evolving sense of dissatisfaction with the condition of our planet, a sense of unease about political and resource stability and with this concern about the future survival of humankind. Two hundred years ago there were less than 1 billion people on our planet. Today there are more than 7 billion, with the population expected to exceed 10 billion in another 30 years. Population growth combined with the impact of climate change and resource depletion have prompted concerns about a dystopian future in which human life on Earth is at risk. Perhaps this is not dissimilar to what motivated our ancestors to migrate as well.
But the fact is that we have a pretty great planet right here. Colonization of Mars or other potentially habitable reaches of our galaxy requires addressing complex challenges regarding gravitational differences, oxygen and water production, food production, energy production and storage, building habitats, and countless other challenges. While human ingenuity could surmount these challenges let's be clear: Earth, our home, offers plentiful water, oxygen, and natural resources for food, clothing, and shelter, as well as for transportation, energy, and medicine, and if well-tended by us can support us for future generations. At the same time that we look to colonize Mars, how can we tend to our current home in a way that recognizes how much we are part of it and dependent on it, and in a way that secures it for future generations?
Our ancestors understood this, even if they too responded to yearnings to explore faraway reaches. Long ago, people lived in close relation to the Earth, highly attuned to this symbiosis. They understood that being human means being part of the natural world, having a sense of belonging and recognizing that the Earth nurtures. As Robert Wolff writes in Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing,
[Aboriginals] lived off the land or the ocean. They did not have to rely on the outside for any of their needs. They could find all the food they needed to sustain themselves, they could find or make material for shelter and clothing. They carved canoes and made blowpipes, they rolled a powerfully strong rope from the fibers of coconut husks. And beyond what they could find and make in their environment, they did not need anything, nor did they want anything more. They lived life. Life did not live them, as it does us.
Most of us have ventured far from this way of life. We no longer live in tightly bound communities. We no longer live directly off the land, nor do we eschew material possessions, regarded by nomadic people as a burden to carry. Yet the truth remains that everything around us, ourselves included, derives from the Earth. We are nearly 70% water, and beyond that a combination of elements with a magical spark of life. Our food, our clothing, our shelter all derive from earth. The concrete underfoot in our cities, the metal comprising our cars, the elements that comprise the computer I am writing on and you are reading on, our sources of energy--all derive from the earth and the systems in which it exists.
On this Earth Day, take a moment to think about the threads that connect us to our ancient lineage, to ways of life closely tied to the Earth and its resources, and think about how the core of that lineage has not changed. While perhaps one day humankind will colonize Mars, appreciate the wonder and beauty of planet Earth and the many ways it nurtures us.
There's a massive movement afoot, or more accurately, aloft. I'm not talking about political awakenings, #MeToo, or teenagers finding their voices to combat senseless gun violence. I'm talking about the great spring migration, tens of thousands of birds, from tiny hummingbirds to large bald eagles, flying from the tropical climate of the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean to their breeding grounds as far north as the coast of Greenland and the arctic.
In North America, birds commute along one of four flight paths, including the Atlantic Flyway, which is routed directly over New York City. Over 500 species of birds take time to feed and rest in the New York City area. Central Park, an 800 acre oasis of green in the densely populated metropolitan area, offers a particularly diverse range of bird species. And with much warmer weather pushing into the New York City area over the past few days (yesterday and today are exceptions!), migrating birds have been traveling in this air space. Some species travel at night and some travel during the day. Recent sightings in Central Park have included American Woodcocks, Eastern Phoebes, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Blue-Grey Gnatcatchers, Green Herons, Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow Throated Warblers, Snowy Egrets, and Belted Kingfishers. A osprey was sighted in Inwood Hill Park a few days ago.
Non-migratory species are busy too, preparing their nests. Red-tailed hawks can be seen nesting on South Tower of the San Remo on Central Park West, in Washington Square Park, and at 927 Fifth Avenue, near 74th Street (home of the famous Pale Male). Screech owls are nesting in Inwood Hill Park, and a Great Horned Owl is nesting in Pelham Bay Park. Cardinals, Robins, Blue Jays, and Song Sparrows are readying their nests for their young as well.
You don't need to be an expert birder to appreciate this wonder (I am a relative beginner)! Simply having an awareness that this ancient cycle is taking place can add a sense of awe to your day. Think about the massive activity talking place overhead while you go about your day and while you sleep, precision hitchhiking on air current superhighways and singular wingbeats adding up to a journey of thousands of miles. Combine that with simply tuning into--noticing--bird songs. Even in well-trafficked urban areas--city midtowns, packed with tall buildings, people, and cars with horns blaring--birds, and not just pigeons, are abundant. Those curbside trees you may see bordering sidewalks and busy city streets are havens for sparrows with their delightful, melodic songs, and many other birds. And if you have a moment, wander into a green space or park. Sightings can be found everywhere this time of year. Bryant Park, abutting the west side of The New York Public Library in midtown, is often a resting and dining spot for unusual migrating species.
Add some song and color to your day, and awareness of ancient cycles, and think about the remarkable journey our feathered friends take every spring and fall.
Today at sundown marks the Jewish holiday Yom HaShoah, Holocaust remembrance day, commemorating those who perished and the heroism of rescuers and survivors. It also is a reminder of those who are persecuted today simply because of who they are. How does this day, remembering unfathomable human cruelty and the horrific consequences of science, and industrialized mass planning and coordination directed towards the darkest of purposes, relate to nature? What can we possibly learn about the power of nature in this context?
In Man's Search for Meaning, published in 1946, Victor Frankl described his experiences as a concentration camp prisoner during World War II. Frankl was a psychiatrist, and his agonizing situation provided a vantage point for observing how people reacted to extreme, dire circumstances. In this context, he perceived ways of thinking that facilitated survival, namely identifying a purpose in life that enabled positive thoughts and deeply imagining that outcome.
While reading the book recently, I was struck by Frankl's references to prisoners' observations of nature--how a glimpse of nature could offer a small tonic.
Below are several such excerpts, from Ilse Lasch's translation. I reference these not to suggest that nature somehow negated the unfathomable atrocities experienced by concentration camp prisoners or others in extreme dire situations. Yet, it is noteworthy that during such dark times nature awareness was helpful, if only as a distraction from one's immediate horrific circumstances. If nature awareness can be helpful in the most extreme of circumstances, one wonders how it can assist those of us encountering life's more benign ups and downs:
"As the inner life of the prisoner tended to become more intense, he also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before. Under their influence he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances. If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor--or maybe because of it--we were carried away by nature's beauty, which we had missed for so long." (p. 39-40)
"One evening, when we were already resting on the floor of our hut, dead tired, soup bowls in hand, a fellow prisoner rushed in and asked us to run out to the assembly grounds and see the wonderful sunset. Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors, from steel blue to blood red. The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky. Then after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, 'how beautiful the world could be!'" (p. 40)
"Pointing through the window of the hut, [a young woman] said, 'This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.' Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. 'I often talk to this tree,' she said to me. I was startled and didn't quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations? Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. 'Yes' What did it say to her? She answered, 'It said to me, '"I am here--I am here--I am life, eternal life.'"'(p. 69)
Next time you feel the blues coming on, or that sharp sense of worry, see if you can notice nature--perhaps the leaves of a potted office plant, a view of the sky outside a window, or a bird chirping rhythmically in the background as you walk along a busy street. See whether noticing the natural world beyond yourself changes your emotional sense, if only for a little while.
The rain was falling lightly during my walk to work today. It cast a sheen on built surfaces, transforming sidewalks and streets from gritty and dull, light-absorbing flatness to illuminating mirrors. Puddling in the depressed edges of sidewalk squares and in random fissures and crannies, it highlighted the imperfections in the controlled straight-line geometry of our built environment. Rivulets of small steams ran curbside, the water braiding in patterns as it found its way down micro gradients that barely were perceptible when the surface was dry.
Gently, the drops hit the ground with a light, feathery drumbeat. Falling on puddles, each drop created rings of concentric circles, with small waves expanding outward and intersecting neighboring circles in a dance of geometry as wondrous and revealing as my childhood Spirograph toy. Drops gathered at the tips of tree branches like little crystals reflecting light. As we know, each drop fell from the sky, part of "the water cycle" we learned about as children, a cycle that connects land, sky, and ocean and stretches back hundreds of million of years.
Walking along the city canyon of buildings, my line of vision is limited. But I think about what this weather system looks like from overhead or at a distance. I think about how in wide open vistas one can observe the rain from afar looking like a dark column connecting deeper gray clouds in the sky and earth. Some Native American tribes have referred to these columns as tall women moving across the Plains.
Rainfall in a field or forest is delightful, with water enhancing deep greenery and dripping off leaves. But rain in a city reminds us that nature and its cycles are always with us. It transforms urban micro plains and surfaces, enriching their colors and calling out asymmetries and forces of gravity and nature that even the most focused efforts of humankind to tame cannot overcome.
Consider taking a walk on a rainy day.
Spring is here and trees are budding. Leaves are poised to burst forth in an array of forms and symmetries: oval, triangular, heart-shaped, elongated, fan-like, ribbed, lobed, smooth-edged, saw-toothed, waxy, ridged; positioned opposite one another on stems, alternating, in clusters, singular, compounded. Flowers, seeds, spores, and fruits soon will emanate, stirring the attention of insects, birds, mammals, aides in the reproductive cycle, an orgiastic bounty on the cusp of emergence.
Okay, you knew that. It's April; it's "spring". But did you notice it? Knowing and noticing -- the former intellectual, inside our heads, and the latter coming from observation and awareness, from paying attention to what is around us.
Take time over the next few days to notice the curled, consolidated packages dotting the branches of trees in your surroundings. Think for a moment about their potential, what will unfurl and unfold, how each leaf embodies the capacity to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight to energy and oxygen, absorbing the carbon dioxide we exhale, creating the oxygen we inhale, a paramount example of human-flora symbiosis experienced in every breath we take over 20,000 times a day. Leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds will emerge, summoning birds and insects, stirring them into activity and their own cycles of life. Cycles overlapping cycles.
And, with vibrant colors of flora about to burst forth, think about those long winter months of apparent dormancy. But how dormant was it really? Though not visible to us, action was taking place underground, through a root system as expansive as the tree's crown, gathering moisture and nutrients to enable growth and development. All of this was happening beneath the sidewalks and streets, structures that encrust our surroundings and separate our bodies from touching raw earth, but really are negligible lamina on the broad scale of the powerful forces of life.
Spring is here. Take notice.
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.