Gaining perspective … to everything, everywhere
By Rama Sobhani
I was doing some reading the other day and was lost in a book, written by a friend of mine, that’s many years old now but particularly relevant to life around these parts.
The book is called The Coasts of Southern Indiana and it was written by Gerald Coomer, who is quite a remarkable fellow and a brilliant mind and writer. There was a passage in the book that really made me stop and think about what Gerald had written, specifically, and then of some greater implications.
Before I get to that passage, let me explain the book itself. The Coasts of Southern Indiana is a work full of reflections on what life was like growing up around this area. It’s rather a rare type of book, especially compared to ones written nowadays (Coasts was written about 20 years ago). I’ve read a few collections-of-old-memories-type books but they seem more to be a wistful, nostalgic trip into a lost past that the writers wish could have continued.
More than a memoir
But what I find captivating about Coomer’s work is that the tenor of his book is mostly just the opposite. Coasts is mostly reflections on life events and human interactions that have left the author somewhat damaged, like we all are by life and the people around us. It’s a condition of adulthood, I think, to suffer the realization that people fail us at some point and unless we’re truly callous, we carry the scars of those failures with us forever, despite whatever efforts.
The passage in Coomer’s book that made me take note was one in which he acknowledges that years of studying to absorb the great wisdoms of human history had left him, mostly, with nothing to show for it. And he, on top of all that, had not become anything more than a “despairing clod, one of the miserable of the Earth” for all his efforts.
I might take issue with his characterization of himself because I happen to think quite highly of Gerald, but I think his humility is something from which more humans can benefit, especially when we consider our relationship to the natural world around us.
Perspective gained from nature
As a lover of our natural world, I find it liberating to be conscious of just how insignificant we humans, with our troubles and grand schemes, really are. It’s being so close to nature that reminds me often that we really are tiny specks in the greater order.
Throughout Coomer’s book, too, he touches on the role that the natural environment played in his experiences in southern Indiana. There’s a tacit message in the book that while people were often unreliable and disappointing, for all its unpredictability, nature was always a constant presence, at least.
Coomer describes in alluring detail casual walks through the woods in Pike County and recalls a sort of spiritual experience at an abandoned house in the Morgan-Monroe forest. There’s a chapter on seeking out long dead ancestors in the graveyards of Pike County, who, themselves, have become, again, part of nature, perhaps its most predictable and reliable part. I’ve said before that despite the actions of humans, nature has a way of soldiering on. Life finds a way, as I said, to always be somewhere.
The spirituality of nature
There’s a spirituality, I think, in pondering nature, its persistence and our own insignificance in relation to it. On an earthly scale, visiting a nature preserve, especially one of the vast national parks, can inspire a sense of awe and the scale of life so we individuals can quickly restore a sense of humility.
I think of earlier this year, while attending a forestry class at the Purdue Southern Indiana Agricultural Center at Patoka Lake, we were learning about how forests should be cut to maximize timber growth while preserving some old growth.
While examining a section of the forest that had been cut in the “shelterwood” method, we were shown some very ancient white oak trees that were, in all likelihood, older than any living person. To stand, looking up more than 100 feet into the sky at such an old, living thing, really puts existence into perspective. Those giant, beautiful trees were here long before me and will be here long after I’m gone, making anything that I do or that happens to or because of me very insignificant.
Nature, like those trees, can be enough to make someone feel spiritual, and I can’t help but think about some famous figures from American history (I am an American, after all) who found spirituality, if not religion, in nature, too.
Reflections from famous American figures
Thomas Jefferson was my favorite president and Founding Father for his views on how government should operate and individual rights, and he was profoundly reverent of nature as what he believed was a reflection of God’s work. Nature, in fact, was the wellspring from which the rights of humans come, in Jefferson’s philosophy.
Remember the phrase Natural Rights? In fact, Jefferson so believed in the infallibility of nature as a reflection of the infallibility of God that he refused to accept the species could go extinct because God had crafted the natural world so perfectly. It was impossible, in his view.
Of course, the most famous lover of nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote prolifically on the spiritual connection between humans and the world around them. Emerson, much like me, was more inclined to spirituality than religion and found it in nature.
“The stars awaken a certain reverence,” he wrote, “because while always present, they are inaccessible.” Emerson also proposed that there’s a higher calling to be answered in man’s relationship to nature, writing that it “never became a toy to a wise spirit.”
We’re meant to be awed by the greatness of the world around us and how small a part of it we are. When we get to pondering things on a cosmic scale, I think we can’t help but be spiritual because only in the mind, conceptually, can humans ponder the vastness of the universe, an intangible pursuit, unless you’re in space, looking across the galaxies.
There’s a good bit of fairy tale in our American narrative, which tends to create unrealistic expectations about ourselves and other people. We could, perhaps, all benefit from stopping to think more about things bigger than we are and regain a little perspective. I find a walk in the woods to be particularly helpful in that regard. Perhaps, if my old friend is reading this column, he’ll come up to Ouabache Trails and visit with me sometime, so we can ponder some of those relationships together.
Rama Sobhani has been the superintendent of the Knox County Parks and Recreation department since 2012 and before that worked as a reporter for the Vincennes Sun-Commercial. He is originally from the West Coast, but became a Hoosier when he completed his master’s degree at the Indiana University Ernie Pyle School of Journalism in 2008.