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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.