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The Cult of Other

Photo by Errin Casano on

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

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.

Photo by Bespoke Traveler

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.

Photo by Bespoke Traveler

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.


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.

65 replies »

  1. I live in Southern California. The beginning of November I visited a friend in Northern California. The leaves on the trees were changing color and there were puddles on the ground from light rain. I was in heaven. The iconic image of California is of palm trees and sandy beaches with an endless blue ocean. Although that is partly true, there is so much more. When people visit LA for the first time, many are surprised to learn we are surrounded by mountains and with a short drive can be in the middle of a desert… not to mention the rocky shores further up the coast and the acres of agricultural fields in the center of the state. I know other states also enjoy diverse scenery, but in my humble opinion, nothing compares to California! Thanks for the beautifully written piece and the lovely photos in this post!

    • Oh, thank you for those kind words and for your own beautiful description of California. As a lover of this landscape you understand the magic it holds for me beyond those palm trees and beaches. Wishing you well!

  2. Beautiful feel with your photos and words with the post ~ finding yourself in a new place with such a different environment is a challenge, especially finding a connection to a place. However, you show that with your sense of wonder and curiosity, the newness of the area is an adventure to be had and the Sensorio exhibit is a great example. Your photos capture the spirit and creativity and I think very fitting for California ~ and also for this day & age. Creativity astounds me, it is always flowing and enlightening 🙂

    • Thank you. I agree with you that the Sensorio exhibit seems fitting for spaces like California. Previously I believe it was shown in northern Australia. In similar landscapes to what is experienced in the current show.

  3. Strange, isn’t it? California was the aspiration of so many. Beach Boys, Mama Cass, golden days…did we have it so wrong? I desire only to cause the least damage. But the problems of the future are not mine to solve.

  4. I loved what you said about land feeling alien and intimate at the same time. Beautifully said.

    The light/landscape exhibit is fascinating. It’s so beautiful – as are your photos – yet it’s somewhat troubling, as you pointed out. It’s a breathtaking invasion of a landscape.

    • Yes! What a way to put it — was exactly that: “a breathtaking invasion of a landscape.” Thank you for your kind words and for stopping by to share your thoughts. Wishing you a wonderful week.

  5. I am very moved by your essay on being and belonging.

    Particularly struck by “I am still struggling to navigate the world without positioning myself as the antagonist, the subjugator, the winner or loser of every encounter.”

    Art & nature both are powerful mediums to trigger pondering & explore feelings; in Sensorio, these come together in such a stunning and awesome manner. I can only imagine how you must have felt immersed in the expanse of light and dark.

    • I’m honored that my post affected you in this way. I agree with you — if we are willing art and the world we live in can be powerful mediums for internal change. Thank you for your very lovely thoughts. Wishing you well.

  6. Surely great photos!
    Other than that, it sounds very complicated.
    I tend to only perceive everything visually because I like silence around me so that I can hear my thoughts.
    Your photos speak of universe.
    I think I just want to be here for now and explore my closest surroundings.
    We can find the entire globe in a leaf of a plant also.
    Beautiful post as always!

  7. Well, what can I say?
    I moved from my birthplace a little bit south of the Tropic of Cancer, where the ocean and deciduous forest is the norm, but I was not unfamiliar with the desert, or jungles since I had Grandmothers living there, neither the high country with his pine forest was strange to me, since driving up into the Sierra Madre for some miles from my town you could be there, a thing my father did often, and took the family along, specially in Summer to escape the heat and humidity of the coast. I’ve lived and worked on the three California’s -Baja South, Baja North, and Southern California, since I was eighteen years of age until today, and I am familiar with California, from the South in the Cabos to San Francisco the furthest North I have ever been, (South I had been all the way to Ecuador).

    An old friend of mine, now gone, a sort of mentor to me, we were outside by the side of a building on an unpaved street in Ensenada in Baja, somewhere in the early 70’s. It was a beautiful day, blue with no cloud on the horizon, he had arrived in Baja in 1954 from Venezuela, and now completely familiarized with the place, and weather. With an exclamation of joy at the beautiful day, and the view of the yellow hills on the horizon, he said:
    “What a lovely day! Just look at this lovely blue sky, and those hills, I love this weather, this air, those yellow hills!”
    Suddenly a car passed by raising some dust, and he exclaimed still in joy: “This dust!”

    I did not like the dust, then, but I guess you get use to everything, with time, and the right attitude.

    Beautiful pictures.

    • 😁Your mentor and old friend knew how to appreciate the planet. Perhaps some day I too will grow into being such a person who can accept and find delight in all the marvelous landscapes and climates earth has to offer. Thank you so very much for sharing this story and for your kind words.

  8. The photos of Sensorio are remarkable. I enjoyed the one on Instagram as well. I find it mesmerizing. Having a brother in California we have visited often, sadly not recently. I have been amazed at the diversity of landscape throughout the state.

    • Thank you. I agree with you about the diversity of landscape in California. It still boggles my mind how vastly different regions can be…I constantly feel as if I’ve stepped into another country while exploring the state.

  9. Tes photos sont magnifiques et font rêver. J’adore ces champs lumineux, on dirait de petites lucioles, quelle merveille. Merci pour ces photos qui sont un magnifique partage.
    Je te souhaite un très bel été avec mes amitiés.

  10. Those photos of scensorio, are amazing. Actually, all your photos are wonderful. This post makes a good point though. When we change habitats and environments it can require adaptation and adjustment, especially if the terrain is foreign to us. For me having grown up in South Africa, many parts of California that I have seen and experienced made me feel very at home. The succulents, the dry air the aloes, the desert plains, the foliage, the weather all reminded me of where I grew up. Sadly by 2050 Califonia will most likely all be scorched desert due to climate change, the increase in forest fires in the state and the lack of water that will no doubt impact everything and everyone. Of course it is not the only place impacted, quite on the contrary yet I have been reading predictions and following climate trends and their impact in their region. Interesting and beautiful post.


    • I agree the scenario you detailed is the foreseeable future for California…and other parts of the world which share similar biomes. We shall all have to adapt to the many ways in which climate change will affect the places we inhabit…and migration will continue to be a larger fact of humanity for all social strata. Thanks for your kind words and for stopping by to chat.

  11. What interesting musings, Atrayee. Your photographs of the art installation are incredible. There is so much food for thought here. I agree that a sense of wonder helps a lot when a rootless person tries to forge a relationship with the land. There are so many barriers between us and nature that we really need to work hard at this relationship in urban areas especially.

    • “There are so many barriers between us and nature that we really need to work hard at this relationship in urban areas especially.” I so agree! Perhaps some people have an easier time with this than others. But, I continue to struggle with how to meet nature on an equal footing without trying to exert my own powers in how I observe or interact with it. I appreciate your understanding.

  12. I am drawn to your images perhaps because these landscapes don’t exist in Vancouver. They are completely opposite to our rain forests. I wonder how I’d feel if I lived in California rather than just visiting? Maybe I would miss the lushness and even the rain (though we are experiencing terrible heat/drought right now). You have definitely created a sense of wonder with your images. The light exhibit is amazing.

    • Yes, I too wonder that about places I visit…seeing a new landscape as a traveler isn’t the same as experiencing the terroir as a resident. It took a long time to get used to the northern California setting and now when I return to the east coast it feels very foreign to me. Thanks for your kind words.

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