Sunday, August 8, 2010

Big Thoughts on Small Things

On the seemingly interminable drive from Acadia in Maine back to suburban Chicago, we listened to the audio version of Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns’ National Parks: America’s Best Idea. As a side note, this was a nice follow-up to our east-bound listening, Eaarth by Bill McKibben. They complimented each other in an odd way, and I would recommend both, although I would not read Eaarth if you have an inclination for depression. It definitely made me want a Prozac… it essentially described how humans have gone past the point of no return in terms of wrecking the planet, and that our only hope for the future is an immediate re-definition of our expectations and lifestyles. It made me glad I don’t have children; in fact, it made me wish I was old. Because I don't think people are any closer to listening to this advice now than they were when The Limits to Growth was published in 1972. Actually, I suspect we're further away. And although I'm one of the people that would enjoy McKibben's prescribed changes more than most, I don't see them happening to our society voluntarily, and the involuntary way seems pretty scary. Some of us are going down. But back to the point.

National Parks, on the other hand, described the same as one of the great and hopeful innovations of America. Although it was balanced, and presented some of the unsavory and disappointing aspects of the NPS, the book, overall, made me proud. It even made my eyes tear up a bit. It also made me think about my relationship to the national parks, and to nature in general.

At Acadia, one of my favorite things was the trail around Jordan Pond. If you’ve been there, you know that this 3.3 mile trail is one of the few in the park that is completely flat… elevation change: 0. It doesn’t climb a mountain or take you to the edge of the Atlantic. It does offer some spectacular views of a pristine lake surrounded by pine-covered hills. I, like the other thousand people that visited the park that day, (or at least like all the ones that got more than 100 yards from the store and restaurant) snapped a picture of each perfect view.

Unlike everyone else, my scenic view photos will be couched in the photo album between a great many close-ups of lichens and fungi, berries and bugs. I remarked, as we were traversing a boardwalk through a mossy forest, that this was a place in which I could spend 8 hours exploring and not get five feet from where I’d started – not even notice the clear mountain lake reflecting the landscape around it.

I think I have a very different relationship with natural spaces than John Muir. At least as described in National Parks, he sought out the grand views – the mountains and waterfalls. I like those as much as the next guy, I suppose, but that’s not where my head is really at. I seek out and celebrate the small things…

It reminds me of my first real job interview. I was 24, and had spent a few years after college doing seasonal environmental ed jobs. I’d interviewed for them over the phone and never, honestly, doubted I’d get them. But for this interview, I dressed up in a suit (probably overkill) and went in person to the Nature Museum in Chicago. And the moment I remember, the question that sticks out in my head, was “Describe your personal relationship with nature.” What? Certainly I had a relationship with nature. I’d spent a year living in the northwoods in Minnesota, outside every day. I’d spent a year on the Georgia coast soaking up sun and learning the intricacies of ocean life. And I grew up in a family that went camping pretty frequently. For many years, my parents took us west each year, to spend a few weeks in Colorado or one of the magnificent parks described in National Parks – Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Tetons, the Grand Canyon… but I grew up in the suburbs, not in the back country, and so I had the confused relationship to nature you might expect from someone with such a duplicitous upbringing. I really hadn’t spent a lot of time defining this relationship. Certainly, this was not one of those interview questions that you typically prepare for when getting ready for an interview…

Part of me answer -- the part that I still remember discussing word for word -- was that the relationship was really based on small wonders. I see magnificence in the ordinary, in the things that most people walk by every day while they're searching for the perfect mountain vista, or even on their way in from the parking lot or whatever.

So... here is a collection of my small wonders photos. I would like to note that

1. This is just a small selection of the photos of moss, fungi, lichens, parasitic plants, etc. that I have, so I did some major editing... and

2. I recognize that I probably should do some more, but I can't pick!

You're still scrolling down? OK, these last are a little different, but from the Jordan Pond hike so I've included them here. I also did some sketching, and later I will scan and put that in too...

1 comment:

  1. I am crazy about your fungi shots....especially the pinkish-capped one on the top right...looks as if a mushroom has been baked into a cupcake paper.