“We have been brought up to experience ourselves as isolated centres
of awareness and action, placed in a world that is not us, that is foreign, alien, other—which we confront. Whereas in fact, the way an ecologist describes human behaviour, is as an action; what you do is what the whole universe is doing at the place we call here and now. You are something the whole universe is doing in the same way a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.”
– Alan Watts
A few weeks ago I spent 5 days in Yukon and northern BC. The timing was perfect. I’d been stuck trying to write this essay about “Nature as Path”. What is nature? Huh?! What isn’t?! Aren’t we all an expression of ‘nature’?
On the other hand, there’s of course a tacit sense of what we mean by ‘nature’ in this context: the not-human-made stuff. Usually beautiful. Trees. Lakes. Bears. Flowers. Stuff that kind just kinda does its own thing without us and seems to serve as Yin to human activity’s furious Yang.
So, I decided that part of this trip was going to be about letting this essay sit on the back burner while I soaked in the majesty of the northern landscape, hoping I might come out the other side with some clarity and inspiration.
After 20-hours-a-day of sunlight, kayaking on a deep greenbluepurple lake, and riding a helicopter over a glacier to a beach (where we broke off chunks of 20,000 year old ice that we would later enjoy in a glass with some scotch), I was pretty relaxed and satisfied. I found myself soaking in hot springs just outside of Whitehorse, reviewing the weekend’s glacier adventure on my mental screen: the intense blue lurking in the cracks and folds of the ice, the milky olive drab of the silty lake that swallowed the base of glacier’s white icy bones, the colossal flowing highway of ice and rock that wound down through the mountains from way up, beyond visibility.
At the other end of the pool, I heard a woman recounting to friends her own recent glacier ascent. She said, “I felt insignificant. In a good way!”
Insignificant – that was it! The thing you always heard when someone confronted the awesome scale of nature. It was how I felt staring at mountains while sitting a kayak in the near utter stillness of Atlin lake. It’s how one might feel looking up into a vast starry night sky. Or during a menacing rain storm when the rumbles and flashes give way to waves of rain blanketing the roof with brown noise. It’s how I feel in the moments that I gaze from a window seat on a plane at a field of mountains or an ocean of clouds. Insignificant.
But why does it feel good? Feeling insignificant can often feel hurtful: invalidating, dismissive, unloved. Yet in these situations it somehow feels … freeing.
When what we usually consider to be ourselves (our self-referential thinking) is rendered ‘insignificant’, we taste a brief moment of just being. Not just in nature, but as Nature. The distinction between us and nature collapses. Maybe this transcendent experience frees us to merge with the beauty that floods our sensory awareness. To be reunited with the larger, indivisible nature seems to bring a sense of relief. There’s a sense of freedom from the exhausting make-work project of being, as Alan Watts put it, an ‘isolated centre of awareness and action.’ It invites us to rejoin the magnificent incomprehensible system of which we are a part.
For those like me who live in a controlled urban environment, it might take paddling on a lake in the remote north to get a taste of ourselves as an inseparable expression of nature. But if we start to consider and cultivate how this already-always-happeningness of nature shows up for us – not just in the mountains, but in the dandelion that exploits the crack in the sidewalk, and even in our inner landscape – might we begin to experience a deeper connection to others, to ourselves, to the planet, to Nature? A connection that leaves us feeling more and more insignificant. In a good way!