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The Cult of Other


Photo by Errin Casano on Pexels.com

As a person living in California for a decade, I should be used to its landscapes. Yet, I find myself still entranced by the flaxen hills of northern counties, the neat vineyard rows at the edge of planned neighborhoods, the textured pastures of central valley, the leaning palms along the southern coast. When I first moved to the state I was caught in all the contrasts from my previous residence. There were no evergreen forests, no deciduous lined byways transmuting seasonal tones, no gabled roofs. I was homesick for the comfort of familiar terrain. I hated how the winter green knolls summered into yellow scrub as far as I could discern. The autumn rains did not bring red maple or yellow aspen leaves. I recognized few of the dun plants I saw dotting the multi-lane roads.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

So, I undertook an education into Californian nature. I thought if I learned to identify garden succulents and the birds accompanying my hikes I would belong more. After all, if you wish to know the world, you simply label its inhabitants. But, to name a thing is not necessarily to understand it. I had an easier time mooring myself once I began to notice how uniquely I interacted with my new surroundings — gasping for air due to steeper inclines, readjusting to the intensity of sun reflected off paler hued topography, managing my cracked and peeling skin in the drier atmosphere. These converted into problems I set out to solve; challenges between me and a locale I was determined to overcome.

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I am still struggling to navigate the world without positioning myself as the antagonist, the subjugator, the winner or loser of every encounter. It’s difficult as a rootless person to establish connection to place. A sense of wonder helps. A never-ending curiosity, as well. Staring out upon the purpling grape fields under an overcast sky, I pay attention to how the wind moves across the ridged leaves. I observe a hawk gliding, my entire body attuned to its tilts and turns. This is the relationship I want to nurture between myself and land — not one of checklists, mastery, and exclusion.

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The “Sensorio” exhibit by artist Bruce Munro juxtaposes the manufactured against nature through both troubling and seductive symbolism. Set in oak speckled fields of the indigenous Te’po’ta’ahl — in what is today called Paso Robles, California — six foot tall bulbous lights glow from color to color as the sun descends. Fiber optics clash and mingle with the undulating pastures, their wires an entangled network sprawlingly visible. As I approach the spherical lanterns, I think about how land can feel alien and intimate at the same moment. The darkening paths lead to various vistas where lamps begin to resemble luminescent blossoms, silhouetted trees echo sculptural cutouts. The distinction between artificial and organic blurs.

Photo by Bespoke Traveler

This interplay of technology and biome demonstrates to me the universe’s constant reshaping. Like a spider’s web — pluck a thread, snip a filament, or blow upon the mesh — the entire lattice modifies…shifts…adapts. In exchange, every reorder also affects me. As Octavia Butler states in the Parable of the Sower, “all that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you.” The incandescent fixtures determine where I can go, defining clear trails above and next to, but not into their clusters. Their metamorphosing tinctures sway my vision from hill to valley and back again, creating a time-loop of just-seen and yet-to-be-seen. The moonlit sky frames a backdrop for my imagination. Nevertheless, I feel an urge to step out of the marked routes, examine the glowing orbs, touch their eerie tentacles. The same urge has had our species invade uncharted territory, occupy the land others live upon, trample into the unrevealed. It’s not a question of can I, but should I — an interrogation we must each conduct with ourselves by determining what harm we are causing in return.

Photo by Bespoke Traveler

Exploring ‘Sensorio,’ I am also reminded how much I still have to learn about being human. Over and over technology enables me to come from a hierarchical judgement, a conqueror’s mentality of convenience which privileges my power. I turn instead, to my fellow entities. What would it be like to sit at the feet of one of these oaks and soak in their expertise? Can I lie down at the level of cyanobacteria to read their message? Is it enough to declare that since we can only view things from our perspective, we are doomed to live within those views? Or is it possible to break and expand what the word ‘justice’ means for a mountain, a river, a flying insect? Can I ever distinguish myself not apart from, but a part of this living community?

Photo by Bespoke Traveler

Perhaps it’s because so much of my experience remains strictly visual, my aesthetic standards informed by detrimental notions of beauty and ugliness, dirt and cleanliness. Perhaps it’s due to my lack of focus upon the expansion and contraction happening within the cosmos. A true realization will come when I dismantle my perceptions of matter and time. I will have to complicate my acquaintance with soil, moss, and pathogen. I will have to reexamine ways in which I bodily experience the familiar and the strange. I am eager to absorb a different enlightenment: one that doesn’t call impoverishment progress, one in which I dig deep to taste the earth, one in which I acknowledge I too am a parasite feeding off the labor of others.


TRAVEL NOTE: 

Historically known for its hot springs and acorn bearing trees, Paso Robles is Spanish for “Pass of the Oaks.” The Te’po’ta’ahl or “People of the Oaks” tended to this part of the land, developing a rich trading establishment for obsidian, fishing gear, and nut production. Today, Pomo and Miwok youth sell Acorn Bites, a health snack that honors their ancestral heritage, reclaims indigenous food sovereignty, and regrows severed cultural bonds.


In what ways do you feel more connected to the nonhuman world? How do you deepen your relationship with the place in which you currently are? Let me know in the comments below.

57 replies »

  1. This is such a wonderful post. I appreciate your willingness to plumb the depths of a situation, and often find I have to reread to be sure I was “listening” intently enough. This is a good thing.
    I am such a contradiction of right and wrong. I love the installation! It is so beautiful, and I can imagine how my heart would sing with its beauty being there in person. On the other hand I too, no doubt, would have thoughts like Lynn’s about the waste of resources to create it. And then I’d be smiling again at its beauty.
    I moved from Australia to Canada’s Yukon (for nearly 10 yrs) and then Vancouver, to the moist and green and lovely PNW. I found I had no trouble adapting to each environment, to connecting deeply to the land and nature. I lived for months on end in Yukon wilderness camps surrounded by untouched nature having come from a city lifestyle in Oz, and never felt happier. And embraced the cold and snow as if I’d been born to it. In Vancouver I hike in the forest every day and just today stood silent on a barely used trail and “spoke” with a hummingbird for a minute or two. I’ve seen them in the same place before, and heard them. They must nest there, and every now and then one will come to say hello. Wild animals find me.
    I was raised in an urban environment, but I’ve never had trouble connecting to the natural world, and the older I get the more it deepens.
    Lovely to hear from you again.
    Alison

    • Thank you Alison for such beautiful words of praise and for sharing your own experiences with various landscapes. Aren’t we all an equal contradiction of “right” and “wrong”? We live in multiple ways which both harm us and others, whether it is in how we love, how we cope with loss, or how we appreciate beauty…but, we are also capable of realizing the harm we cause and changing our behaviors. In this way we are a hugely adaptable species. I’m equally grateful that I’ve been able to be surrounded by nonhuman landscapes so often in my life. I appreciate it far more now than I did as a younger person. And, interestingly, I too had a delightful encounter with a hummingbird recently. Wishing you all the best.

  2. It’s funny, I talked about attachment to place through retracing my steps in my current post. I experienced something like what you did when I moved from NYC to the PNW almost ten years ago – the gray, the lack of strong weather patterns, the oppressiveness of those ubiquitous Douglas firs, so tall and dark, sucking the light out of the air. But there was much to love, too, and I dove into that wholeheartedly. Now that we’ve moved to a far less populated location it’s easier to feel part of the landscape. I rarely feel that it’s “other.”
    Munro’s installation has a paradox for me – why do we need all that electricity to see the land and appreciate nature? I bet it’s beautiful, I don’t deny that but it’s rather heavy-handed in terms of its footprint, isn’t it?
    As always, you’ve given readers a lot to think about and crafted a beautiful post – the photos are great, whether by you or someone else. I hope all’s well with you, take care!

    • “why do we need all that electricity to see the land and appreciate nature?” Perhaps because what we create ourselves feels ever “us” and in our continuous bid to repel the “other” we remain mesmerized by the artificialities… It’s a strange effect. On a road trip a couple of years ago up to the PNW I was so overwhelmed by how green everything was…quite a different world to my golden hills. Thanks for your lovely encouragement and for sharing your thoughts on this. I’m looking forward to heading over to read your own journey about attachment to place. Wishing you well!

      • The whole self/other dichotomy is so deeply ingrained and so destructive. I always sensed it wasn’t “right” and five years of serious zen practice helped me see that on a deeper level.
        Thanks!

  3. I feel very, very connected to the non-human world and always have. I’m not sure I can even explain it (or want to try), but I can almost feel my arms (and certainly my heart) reaching for natural features that attract me, and it is very hard for me to uproot myself from a physical landscape that I love. At the same time, I am always seeking new and different surroundings, so uproot I do and move along to the next place I fall in love with.

    Have you read “The Overstory” and its unique presentation of our interrelationship with trees and theirs with each other? It’s a very thought-provoking read, and it speaks to some of the concepts you mention.

    • No, I have yet to read “The Overstory,” though I’ve heard many good things about it. In return I would recommend to you Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work: “Braiding Sweetgrass.” (https://tinyurl.com/ye35xgca). As someone who loves the natural world and feels a deep connection with nonhuman beings, I think you would highly enjoy it!

  4. Hi BT,

    The “Sensorio” exhibit is stunning to look at, but as with one of your previous commenters, I wonder if there was consideration for wildlife and insect life. It covers such a huge area and the exhibit has been extended to September. That’s about 6 months of interruption to the natural landscape. In a part of the world that is seeing increasingly hotter temperatures and is prone to fires, this seems a bit concerning.

    I understand the natural landscape and open sky not only provide the backdrop for the installations, but they influence them. It’s magical for humans to see something so wondrous. I also know we are not the only creatures affected by it.

    Hope you’re well,
    eden

    • Hi eden,
      I haven’t been able to find any information about what steps they took to minimize the human impact upon the landscape. The exhibit began in Australia — another landscape prone to fires due to climate change — and was ongoing in Paso Robles even before COVID began. As I was saying in the post, there was so much that was both seductive and very troubling about this exhibit and it circles back to my question of whether we can ever hope to collectively return to a relationship with nature where we do not practice our power of harm over it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the exhibit. Wishing you well.

  5. It’s interesting that you open with not feeling connected with a place you’ve lived at for ten years, and then you go on to refer to yourself as a “rootless person”. I’d think most folks would feel established or settled in after ten in the same place? Or maybe it doesn’t matter how long you’re somewhere, you can still feel like an outsider.

    California is such a massive and varied state that I’d imagine someone could always wake up surprised and learn something new. I love how Californians embraces its agreeable weather (usually) and nature despite a concrete sprawl like LA getting much of the negative attention.

    I suppose I feel most connected in unblemished nature, when I’m in it, which is one of the reasons why we’re moving to someplace where I’m hoping we can have more of it. Just being in it or swimming, even if it’s in a pool, feeling the gratitude to move and play and be outside.

    • I absolutely think the idea or feeling of belonging comes from within us…but at the same time the more time I’ve spent getting to know the outdoors and the nonhuman beings of where I live, the more I’ve felt at “home” here. I too love that Californians have a culture of embracing their landscape. Cities don’t feel as sprawling up north. I’m happy to be able to live somewhere close to nature as I turn to it for so many reasons in my life. I hope that in your new place you’ll once again feel the freedom of being able to move and play outdoors. It is a privilege many of us took for granted before COVID.

      • Yes, good point. I hope we don’t revert back to pre-CV lack of gratitude levels.

        And good for you for spending more time getting in touch with the land. I’m currently reading about the Great Depression through Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, so my mind is already on your topic.

        Enjoy summertime! And thanks for the well-wishes. xo

  6. This is an astonishing artistic setting. You have incorporated it well into your essay. And I must say that The Parable of the Sower is a recently read book that has had a huge impact. I cannot stop thinking about it, and haven’t read the second book yet. Here in southern Tuscany we are deep in the yellow dry phase too and I cannot wait to flee for a month or so to Slovenia.

    • Thank you Manja. I never understood what people meant by saying a book could be life changing until I read Parable of the Sower. I’m so happy you feel the same. Octavia Butler’s words live in me in a way no other ever has. We are firmly in fire weather now and all that golden grass is starting to burn everywhere, unfortunately. Happy travels to Slovenia.

  7. As always, your post examines important questions, and your photographs are magical, but the show itself strikes me as an appalling intrusion into the environment. I hate to strike such a negative, and possibly self-righteous note in raising this, and I hope I am wrong. I tell myself that surely the impact on the wildlife that live there must have been thoroughly considered. For instance, how does this affect fireflies? Do they live in Paso Robles? These nights, in New England, in my own little patch (which I try to make as benign and beneficial to bees, pollinators of other kinds, birds, etc., as I can), I see just a few flickering fireflies. Worldwide, their numbers have declined precipitously. What about Paso Robles’s nesting birds, the dragonflies someone mentioned…?
    “Determining what harm we are causing in return”–that is a requirement of artists as much, if not more, as of any other human being.

    • I couldn’t speak to what considerations and adjustments the artist made for wildlife. If he didn’t it adds to all the other reasons I found the work to be both seductive and troubling. Like fireworks — which are both incredibly harmful to the natural environment, but continue to mesmerize our species with its fury and brightness. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this and thank you for making your garden an invitation to all the little beings who help us live a connected life to this planet.

  8. It isn’t hard to see why some people like to call the epoch we’re living now as the anthropocene. In such a relatively short time, humans have altered the planet like no other species had done before. Anthropomorphism is the norm as we tend to view things from our perspective, although I’m seeing more and more people trying to understand the view points of other dwellers of the Earth. Even now we understand trees and plants a lot more than before. We know how they are way more intelligent than what we have for so long perceived them to be.

    • I agree. It’s taken science a long time to “discover” what many indigenous cultures knew — that the beings who inhabit this planet alongside us are intelligent in their own ways. I don’t know if we’ll ever truly come out of the Anthropocene…if we can move forward to a time when we view one another and the Earth as worthy of our respect and honor…
      Thanks, as always, for your keen insights. Wishing you well.

  9. Great post; thank you. I think it’s becoming very important to detach from the technological; nature needs to be respected as it is and as we are a part of it. Growing up as a species means recognising that it’s stronger than us.

    • Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I don’t know if it’s possible to return to a true relationship with nature given how enamored we are of exercising power over one another and our environment. But, one hopes for the best! Wishing this finds you well.

  10. I’m convinced many if not all of our troubles are caused because we have separated ourselves from the “living community,” to the detriment of all living beings on this planet, and unless we change our attitude, everything will only get worse.

    • I agree. But, how many of us are willing to sacrifice the many conveniences this separation has brought? Most of all the illusion that we are in control of our environment is hard to let go. Thanks so much for stopping by to chat…I always love to hear your thoughts.

      • You are right–most of us are likely not willing to make significant sacrifices to our lifestyles. But I’m afraid there will be a time (and I don’t think it’s far off), when we will no longer have a choice. As a species, we don’t take the long view to our own detriment and that of all other species on this planet.

  11. Hello dear friend, so happy to see another wonderful post from you. What a privilege to view such stunning landscapes, each with their own history. As has been mentioned, we can learn so much from around us, if we are willing to open our own hearts and minds. “Our sense of belonging comes from within us…” – that really resonates with me. Hope you are continuing to stay safe and well.

    • Thank you dear friend and I hope this finds you healthy and safe as well. I constantly remind myself how lucky I am to be able to be so close to natural landscapes and to spend so much time exploring various places. I continue to learn and grow from theses experiences and consider them one of the best gifts in my life.

  12. What a hypnotic art installation that is. Mesmerizing. You know I’ve lived in and traveled to so many places that now the connection comes naturally. I believe this is because I’ve come home to myself. I spent 7 years in Southern California, back in the years of my deepest angst. It’s one place I felt both disconnected from and attached to, but not in a healthy way. So nice to see you here again. Hope you’re enjoying the summer, dear one.💚

    • Thanks, dear friend. I’m very lucky to be able to spend my summer communing with dragonflies and squirrels in the golden hills and valleys of Northern California. I’ve come to love this different landscape now as I’ve spent so much time in it and learned to become more adaptable. Wishing you a marvelous season in your precious neck of the woods. ❤️

  13. Last night, PBS had part of Ken Burns National Park series. Some of it focused on John Muir. You’re desire to learn from each part of nature sounds like show they described Muir. Lovely way to acquire wisdom.

    • I appreciate that. I feel that the world around us and the indigenous who have tended for it through the generations have so much to teach us, if we are willing to actually learn the lessons. Thanks so much for stopping by to read the post and for your wonderful words of encouragement.

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