Mankind has been inspired for millennia to express experience with the natural world. Petroglyphs, cave paintings, Indian mounds, and Stonehenge would exemplify forms of pre-historic human art. The creative impulse to capture a moment, evoke a feeling inspired by a natural phenomenon, express praise or awe for vast natural splendor, or simply to say thanks continues today. Fine arts take many forms (musical, verbal, literary, dance, dramatic, and visual) and despite our technological wizardry , the roots of each artistic form date back to pre-historic times and the ancient legacies are not hard to discern.
What is it about contact with the natural world which inspires such an enduring human effort to express our reaction to that interaction? Humans have been forged by natural forces which provided nurture and peril in equal parts. Just as a child learns to “read” its parents, so does a species learn to “read” Mother Earth’s signals. Perhaps there is a cellular mechanism which activates when we encounter a plant, animal, or vista. Whatever the specific communication link is, humans are wired to respond to the natural world. That wiring, combined with our human drive to express, leads us to create artistic responses to our environment.
Art forms aspire to express the inexpressible just as science aspires to understand the unknown. Between the two we have the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual components of human experience. Those are big deals, so it’s no wonder the impulse remains to express what we experience.
A few weeks ago, Down to Earth featured a reading list. Most of the reading suggested in that column would fall into the scientific rather than the artistic category. This edition will feature a small, personal sample of artistic expressions inspired by rubbing shoulders with nature. You will have your own favorites, but perhaps this column topic will inspire you to continue pursuing your own personal forms of expression as well as that of others. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be artistic, each of us is still quite capable of a quiet moment of pleasure. Perhaps a heel-clicking jump-for-joy or a whoop of excitement is more your style. Doesn’t matter. Stop and take note of the sublime.
Henry David Thoreau writing about his time at Walden Pond and William Wordsworth who penned “Song of Myself” have name recognition. Scott Russell Sanders is less well known. He observes in Staying Put that “In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, at-homeness, a knitting of self and world.” Chris Offutt takes note from his seat by the Iowa River that “Twenty-five hundred years ago, a Greek named Heraclitus said, ‘You can’t step into the same river twice.’ I climb down the bank and remove my shoes and socks. The river is warm on my skin, a continuous flow that is immediately gone, yet remains. The water surrounding one leg is not the same as around the other leg. Sediment drifts away and it occurs to me that you can’t even step on the same bank twice. Each footstep alters the earth.”
Poetry is to prose as espresso is to coffee; intense, efficient, powerful. Emily Dickinson’s work embodies those qualities for me.