The Significance of Nature

In California, someone made a sculpture of a tree. I saw it in the New York Times. It was a simple dendrite, no leaves, elegant in a clearing surrounded by real trees. I guess it was life sized.

That got me thinking: what is it with trees? Self replicating patterns, poking out of the ground. Moving, growing shapes. Shapes that in a different time frame, a longer, more patient time frame, thrash about wildly, doing battle with one another, as with rock and beast and insect.

When we are children, it is nearly impossible to think of a tree being dangerous. We live in small time and love the tree because we can climb it, beat each other with its fallen branches and dig for glass eyeballs in the shade of its leaves. As we grow older our perception of time stretches. We become conscious of the threat posed by the vegetation.

Think of a tree growing up out of its designated soft space in a city sidewalk. Some protesters are standing under it. Its root system - let's say it's a poplar - its root system might penetrate twenty-five feet into the ground and stretch laterally in a ten to fifteen foot radius so that the tree, the whole organism, is under and over the protesters at the same time. I'm not claiming the tree poses a threat. I'm just painting a picture. I'm trying to get at the essence of nature.

Nature is absurd. Pods fall down out of the shrubbery and lie there, nonsensically on the dry ground. The little things in life are beyond reason. Chickens throw dirt all over their own backs. Look at them out there, doing their grimy, backward dances. A step, then another step, then a bob of the head. All day long they make gargling noises and kick the leaves around like sullen school children. There are also wild boars. Wild boars don't even have to do anything to be absurd. I mean come on, wild boars?

Humans also exist in nature and are likewise pretty strange. Humans have built Flying J super-marts where you can buy Paisley Klein little girl tees with lace around the necks and Racing Wives butter that comes in the shape of a V-12 engine and two liter bottles of semi-carbonated Weam and animal skulls painted with day-glo flower patterns that make nice lamps. I have one in the bicycle shed. Beams shine out of its eyes. Humans continue to build these places although it takes hundreds of thousands of man-hours and a complex global economic and political system and armies and propaganda and color coded two by fours and trucks that keep cement fresh while they cross state lines.

Five miles down the highway or rural route from one of these Flying J marketplaces, humans have built geodesic domes out of hard pine and hemp and no nails. When you walk inside they say "hey brother, lose the shoes." And if you mention innocently that you prefer the sound a banjo makes to that of a guitar they ask "can the foot say to the hand I am better than you so I will cut you off?" and you're like "No, that would be absurd." Still, you prefer the banjo, at least in an outdoor setting, on account of the acoustics. Listen, this is only the beginning. Humans have also created beach towns and religious denominations.

The hard pine and hemp domes are pleasant to look upon. They resemble native log dwellings or Swiss airfields the way they take structural cues from their environment. You can tell that the people who built them care about the way things look, but not in a superficial way like American tourists preparing for a swinging holiday in Brazil. We have a responsibility to build things as pleasing to they eye as possible although we also have a responsibility to avoid superficiality although we also have a responsibility not to enforce some kind of asceticism on people who are naturally inclined towards soap dishes that resemble little golden scallops. We are called to love and encourage those kinds of people only we mustn't let them be in charge of religious architecture the way the Catholics do.

Sacred architecture is a mystery and a balancing act that I know very little about. I've never built anything other than a lean-to out of car doors and jumper cables that ended up almost collapsing on and seriously injuring my sister. She got a few cuts and a long scrape on her shin but fortunately that was all. I remember feeling so guilty to see her little orange canvas shoe poking out from underneath the grill of a Continental. That particular structure wasn't designed as much to inspire a contrite heart as it was for playing cards and doing nitrous. Enough nitrous, though, should inspire some degree of contrition in a reasonable person.

I sometimes neglect to do it, but I feel like I should be describing the landscape once in a while since that's what seventy percent of this place is really about. I'm not an animist, but I am out here in nature with the chickens and the trees and several unfathomable species of wasp and fantastic biting fly and even larger, more calculating beasts, supposedly. If I didn't see any significance in nature I'd be lost. I'm supposed to become like a little child, am I not? Wide eyed with appreciation and stumbling through life as if drunk only without the belligerence and the onion breath? I've come up with some childlike opinions about humans and nature. Picture two parallel sheets of tightly stretched cloth being pulled together and embroidered. This embroidery is the original camp or camp fire, the original encounter between nature and man. Humans don't fundamentally mix with nature. We don't go into solution. We're sewn haphazardly into the world.

Once I was part of an experimental theater troupe whose goal it was to describe this fractured relationship. I was supposed to be a forest ranger only I didn't have any scenes in the forest. I hung out around the information gazebo all day with one of the guides, played by the playwright's sister.

Me: I'm the only genuine forest ranger in this place

Her: You most certainly are, big boy.

Me: You're not a forest ranger.

Her: Not in the slightest.

Me: You don't even know what you are.

Her: True, but I have it narrowed down to two possibilities. You see, I started with the assumption that I am a woman, as evidenced by my big, my beautiful...

And then she would start to unbutton her blouse, but I would protest. I was supposedly a prude, but my motivation was never clearly established.

Her: You find my femininity distasteful? Maybe your provincial attitude is a clue as to who I really am. As I was saying, I've narrowed my identity down to two possibilities. As a woman, I must be either A: a mother, or B: a prostitute. Currently I'm trying to support or refute either of these possibilities with hard evidence.

Me: Evidence, you mean, from the text.

There was this unexplained text lying open on her desk that we were supposed to be interacting with.

Her: No. Evidence from life, the only kind that's worth a hoot. Either I have sex with men for money or I have a child, possibly children.

Eventually we were allowed to perform it in the basement of a Russian bar. The owner was also a plumber, a large red-faced Russian who wore his plumbing boots even at the bar. When we asked him he took forever to decide. He looked at the floor of bar as if there was something special down there, like a whole civilization with crime and eggplant recipes and everything. The audience looked like they were having a good time but everyone involved in the production felt like it was a failure. We hadn't convinced them that even nature was absurd.

I went to the glass house today, despite my misgivings about spiritual architecture. It's a hexagonal structure set apart for meditation and prayer. The first thing I noticed was that it faced everything as opposed to one thing. I didn't read any meaning into it, only noted that it was unusual for a contemporary building. The second thing I noticed was that the hanging chair I sat in by natural inclination faces the sign that reads PLEASE DO NOT EAT, DRINK, SMOKE OR WEAR SHOES. I thought that was cute. The third thing I noticed was that the world is a very strange place, like a videogame, designed to test us. There are certain scenarios programmed into the world that can modify and filter one another. There are not many of them, maybe eighty or forty basic scenarios. We torture ourselves, we tempt each other, we get bored, we draw false conclusions, we move on.

It's hard to think clearly, linearly, when you're in the glass house. It's because you are at rest. We are not supposed to think when we're at rest. There is something else we're supposed to do. It makes perfect sense but we have forgotten what it was. And the mosquitoes were as big as wolves. If it weren't for them I would have slipped into a coma out there. They kept me waging my war against reality. I learned something though. Just because a mosquito is near you doesn't mean she's trying to bite you. Sometimes they sit and do nothing just like us.

About the author:

Matthew Kirby is a frequent contributor to