Streams and Visions

I’d like to be behind a car with a bumpersticker that says, “Big Baby On Board.”  Seems that way sometimes, doesn’t it?  I’ve imagined one that would say, “I’m Not Racing You.” You know, for all those who are on the highway to “win”?  The best one I’ve dreamed up says, “Bumperstickers” with a red slash through it.  I love that kind of irony.

We live in a time of some sort of bumpersticker mentality, or sticky attention span (cranial post-it notes).  Headlines and “Breaking News!” (why is news always so breakable?) grab us and shake us numb.  Sound bytes constantly nibbling at our brains.  I often call a new idea that pops up in my head (news “breaks;” ideas “pop”) a “Brainsticker” because I hope it sticks in my mind, and someone else’s, if they care.  An essay is an expanded form of a brainsticker, and I suppose each of the ones I imagined above relate to how I view this unique form of writing.  An essay is a way to say “I’m here to whine a little” (the Big Baby essay; “I’ll cry if I want to!”), or “I’m expressing My ideas, not competing with You” (the Not Racing essay; not here to Win, folks) or, and this may be the ultimate, “Let’s stop all this whiney, need-to-win mentality and stick our brain on something else” (the intellectual equivalent of a Red Slash).  I’m sure there are more fancy and sophisticated (snobbishly so) views of The Essay as an art form and all.  Here, you get what you get. . .so get over it.

The best brainsticker I can superglue on my consciousness is Nature.  Plain, simple, wildly UN-simple Nature (yes, with a capital “N” because I want to!  Big Baby alert).  We are stuck to Nature, in it, with it, and Nature (Cosmos, Universe, Every Damn Thing) is stuck with us.  If Nature gets a Big Red Slash through it, so do we.  I think this may be helpful to unpack a little more before you get stickied up tramping around in the adhesive collection at hand.

Nature alone.  Alone in Nature.  Never alone.  We can’t get enough of Nature (how could we?), and Nature is, well, has to be, enough.  In the natural order (colored and flavored with ample chaos) there are myriad ways of understanding where we stand in relation to a universe we could never be un-related to.  Like our greatest philosophers, we understand that we just don’t understand, we don’t get it.  But we want to, and we try.  And sometimes we guess, and have a hard time admitting when we’re wrong.  You see, it’s always circular, puzzling, perplexing, pixelated with irony.  This “it” we call Nature; this Universe we are intricately, intimately inter-related with, yet know next to nothing about.  We are quite un-versed with it.  Some take the easy way out and make the intellectually suicidal leap off the synaptic spans of the mind, imagining a Super-Nature will catch them in a huge, holy hand.  And as they fall, they shout out to the Super they conveniently call “God.”  They imagine the face of their own species on the marvelous unknown and fall to their knees (falls are popular among the faithful).  Boy, do I know it, somehow that comforts.  Humans are such humorous humus!  We lust for that relation, that connection, that “sacred intercourse;” we are desperate to feel a cosmic embrace, a symbiosis, an Inter and Inner anything that hope-against-hope immerses us in some mystic wireless link to the Great Electricity, the Mighty All, the Creative Force (probably the most honest to say we want our Mommy or Daddy; Big Baby definitely on board).  So, we piece together the hardware, plug our piety into a great comfort machine and we invent an artificial hookup we call Religion–and we power it with something we don’t know what to name but Faith.  The manual becomes a “holy book” and we upload software we call “creeds” and “theology” though we claim it was downloaded, maybe from some cloud.  Get it?

Feel like some fresh air?  Me too.  I could use a refreshing walk (as Muir says in his Thousand Mile Walk, “Glad to leave these [religious] fires and blunders, I joyfully return to the immortal truth and immortal beauty of Nature”).  So I walk and write; I think and interact, and write some more.  Live and breathe and listen and live some more, and now and then make the attempt to say something about what I know I know next to nothing about.  Somehow just saying that makes it better, doesn’t it?  Not sure why.  Don’t ask.

I lived a long time as a “person of faith” (with lots of beliefstickers on my car and in my brain) and you can read more than you’ll ever want to know in my longwinded Life After Faith (one early review comment used the delicate word “belabored”–I was offended, but only in a Big Baby way).  You can skip that and go straight to the seventy odd (quite odd) stories collected in My Address is a River.  I keep making these attempts to scribble down this laborious journey with the Supercharged-Natural, and stumble into some other way of expression.  So here and now you hold a fresh collection of exploratory essays.

This book is a kind of confluence of streams that mark the extreme edges of spirituality.  Welcome to the wilderness!  Each stream erodes those edges and cuts through into unknown lands full of an explorer’s mad delight in the pure pleasure of looking around, kneeling in the dirt, climbing the trees, discovering, learning, all the while pushing on across strangely intriguing landscapes where the only guideposts are Nature’s doing and they all start to look like rough and ragged question-marks covered with ancient moss.

It seems to me, and I could be wrong, that we are at a junction in the trail standing before the intersection of many streams.  The Masks of God identified by Joseph Campbell have fallen and what’s unmasked. . .well, it’s not pretty; the history of Religion and the march of faith have led to a moment of fearfully agitated self-reflection, discovery and decision. A Mel Brooks kind of Inquisition has arrived.  Time for serious inquiry.    This is our secular Come-to-Jesus moment; this is our kairos, as the Greeks put it, our time to convert or revert, to be saved from needing “salvation” and to sin boldly. The armies of faith, with their banners and swords held high are desperately trying to hold their ground. But, no one’s told the Emperor of the “Exceptional Empire” that he has no clothes; it isn’t his ground anymore.  There are too many of us who have deserted, stole out of camp in the dead of night into the light of day.  We have waited too long, much too long, to make our break, to forge our own liberating way, truth and life beyond the ancient books and beliefs and gods.  Each individual is choosing for the streaming Secular Way, heading down the trail humming the Phil Ochs song from the sixties, “I ain’t marchin’ any more.”  Not to that tune.  Not my fight.  Not my stream.

That gives some sense, I think, to the backstory, even the backside of “spirituality” and the front-end of something else, something far better, something perhaps nameless, coming along (Nameless as the Tao?).  Maybe.  Maybe it’s Wonder.  It could be Wonder (as a young brain-injured man used to say to me, about nearly everything, “I Wonder!”).  I sure grow curiouser and curiouser.

My first book, Meditations of John Muir, has been mildly yet wildly successful with ten printings in ten years.  Alongside his trail companions, Burroughs, Emerson, Fuller, Thoreau and Whitman (and new adventurers I’m discovering), Muir continues his role as a pathfinding trailguide for me.  He and his wild friends have each sent their stream rolling, bubbling and tumbling into my own twisting tributary.  When all their wise thoughts mingle in my mind and flood across the paths it all becomes one muddled, muddy and mineral-rich mess.  I like that.  Not that it’s comfortable or comforting.  It’s just refreshing and rejuvenating; I get re-energized to go out more, to think and write more–to never tire of participation in Nature’s essay collection written for me, and you, and for no one in particular.  Oddly enough, there is a sense of settling even on boggy footpaths and in the dark, murky ponds.

As I say, I’ve written a good deal of my story elsewhere in books and blogs. Now, here, I’m opening up some rain-soaked, earthy and edgy essays that tell more of this landscape within–what I think about and feel about in relation (or disconnect) with the human and non-human landscapes without.  This little collection in your hands or on your screen is nothing more really than a small hoodoo pile of reflective explorations, simply marking the way, showing that I’m still actively, creatively cutting my way, seeking something called simplicity, the simple life, for myself.  And, the “Nature Chaplain” within me wishes it for others.  I’ve been spending more time turning the torn pages of my past, looking back on the pathways cut and chopped, dug and boot-raked, rather than being too concerned or distracted by the not-yet-found trails of an imagined land called “the future.”  But I remain convinced of the underlying root or stream or ancient footpath behind and beneath these essays.  I have a contentedness in knowing that whatever I find in the woods and meadows and swamps and rivers and mountains and wildlife of my life, as well as my mind, will be a good composting of lessons for me.  If I can pass along a handful here, you’re welcome to it (be careful, some of it can be very sticky, and slippery too).

What you have here is about Nature, about a radically wild idea I call Sacred Secularity, about a few comments on Currents (contemporary streaming events) and a bit or two on Last Things (you know, like death).  No conclusions.  No “divine” wisdom.  Only muddy slipping along the edges of the riverbanks, the lakes, the ocean cliffs, with a few hollows and hollers and, you might expect, a couple of images to carry in your brain pocket as you slide along your own path.  I assure you, it’ll be enough, for now.

Alright, on to the essays.  Some are quite short, some no doubt too long, but together they are a scattering of scat along the paths mixed with the juice of berries squeezed from the brain.  Oh, forget that!  Not a good image for what I’m handing you.  Just read, think, and let me know what you think.  But please, don’t belabor it (and no Big Babies, please!).

Chris Highland

Marin County, California

Spring, 2013


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