Man in the Cave

April 4, 2012

Prehistoric cave art: my personal pilgrimage

In the beginning, Man and Nature were One. This oneness is an enduring truth, but the difference was that initially, Man felt at One with Nature. Somewhere along the way, we have lost our sense of oneness, or at least most people have, especially in “advanced” societies. But Nature herself is guiding us back into her embrace, which can be rather fierce at times, as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan so graphically showed.

Several years ago, when I was first thinking of myself as a writer, I wondered if I would ever write a book, and if so, what would it be about. I thought that I would want to write a book to my children about the importance of “religion” to their lives.  I knew that”religion” was important, because earliest prehistoric man had painted drawings of sacred animals on the walls of caves. Our “religious” nature was therefore an innate part of ourselves that we should not ignore.

I even sat down to write an outline of this book. When I did, I discovered that I knew nothing more than what I have just written in the paragraph above—that early man had painted pictures of animals on the walls of caves, and that this behavior seemed important to me. Period.

So I put my book-writing plans aside and went on with my life. It never occurred to me that my life’s activities were preparing me to write this very book. I noticed that the world’s major religions contained many similar messages,  so I read Huston’s Smith’s classic book on world religion to learn more. I read Elizabeth Lesser’s The New American Spirituality, described on the cover as an “account of a modern pilgrimage.” I explored mysticism, and learned that the mystic traditions of all religions all had Love at their core.

On my own blind pilgrimage, I became disenchanted with what I perceived to be the regular doses of guilt dished out by the Presbyterian church I attended regularly.  I explored the history of the Christian church and the integral role of the Roman Empire in shaping church dogma. Gaia & God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing was ground-breaking for me, ushering in the understanding that the story of the garden of Eden was the story of Man’s divorce from union with Nature. In this story, not only was Eve subordinated to Adam, but all of creation was decreed to be under the dominion of man.

On a personal level, Inside Out by Larry Crabb made it clear that individuals must attend to the needs of their souls, especially to be successful in such rigorous interpersonal relationships as marriage and child-rearing. A personal breakdown made it clear that I had failed to attend to the needs of my own soul. During my recovery from that breakdown, the books that I needed to read seemed to literally fall off library and bookstore shelves into my hands.

But nowhere was my learning more profound than in my garden.

Tomorrow I set off on my journey to visit the prehistoric caves in southwest France. First, I will visit my daughter in Seville, Spain where Christian and Muslim religions have been intertwined for centuries, often catastrophically so. In France, Neanderthal man and Homo sapiens coexisted for a time, until Neanderthals failed to survive the evolutionary struggle.

The Neanderthal brain did not have the ability to articulate symbolic thought, which is what the cave drawings represent–a symbolic depiction of man’s interrelationship with the natural world. Ivory flutes have also been found in these caves. So our early ancestors even created music, perhaps the most transcendent, spirit-touching art of all.

I hope that I will bring back from these caves a spirit-touching message for our own times. 

How does my garden grow?

February 26, 2012

Mother Nature is a gentle teacher

I have acquired what I think of as wisdom by observing and thinking about nature, including my co-evolution with my garden.

I grow a lot of native grasses and wildflowers from seed. Each year, some plants take over more ground and some recede. I can choose to intervene and change the mix more to my liking, or I can let nature take its course, que sera sera. I have an overall plan for my garden, but within certain boundaries, serendipity plays a big part.

I like it that way. For one thing, it is a lot easier to work with nature than against it. In the end, nature usually seems to win, but not always. For instance, by relentless pulling of  a certain invasive weed, I succeeded after a number of years of ridding my property of that particular intruder. More often, though, I allow desirable plants to expand their turf if they are prospering, and I simply observe the effects as the mix of grasses and wildflowers changes each year, a garden kaleidoscope. But it is totally within my purview to give a favorite an assist, like when I moved some black-eyed susans so the summer phlox could spread its wings.

Plants that make me happy one year because they have spread quickly become a nuisance in following years when they become overgrown and must be divided and moved.

I learn a lot about evolution, and about life, working in my garden. I have learned that evolution is an iterative process, and that it is not possible to reach your goal all at once, but only through a series of small steps. Moreover, fixed goals are hard to reach in an ever-changing environment. Nature can seem to conspire against you, but sometimes in the end, the results are even better than you could have imagined.

Some of the iteration is between my garden and me. I know a little more each year because of what happened the previous year.  I know which plants flourished and floundered, and sometimes I’ve figured out why. I have a better idea how much sun and shade each spot gets at different times of the day and as the seasons proceed, an important factor that is constantly changing as leaves come and go and the trees grow.

I give unknown plants a chance to show their stuff before yanking. I admit that this policy has sometimes had undesirable results, such as colonies of weeds that must be purged. But the prettiest thing blooming in my yard right now is a wild arugula, returned to its natural state from the hybridized plant I grew in my yard last year.

Vibrant and full of promise in May, overgrown and stressed by the August heat, refreshed with late bloomers and a little pruning in the cool of fall, structural and quiet in the winter, a garden is a cyclical thing. It refreshes me to participate in this natural cycle.

And, as with our spiritual selves, nothing degenerates more quickly than a garden that is left untended.


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