AN UNCOMMON THOUGHT

"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

24 April 2017

Objective.


INTRODUCTION

For almost thirty years I have written an outdoor column devoted primarily to describing and creating moods about the world of nature. These columns were informed by a rural background and more than sixty years of outdoor experience as contained in field notes made at the time. They tap undying memories. These twelve essays, one for each month, relate incidents and events that contributed heavily to the mood of the time. They are based on columns that appeared in the Columbus Metro Parks News, Ohio Conservation Bulletin Mood of the Month, Wonderful World of Ohio Magazine Outdoor Ohio, and Columbus Dispatch “It’s the Season” as well as in Country Living magazine articles.

            Observation is more of the mind than of vision; our attitude is the secret of original observation. I choose the subjective approach to outdoor enjoyment. I did this after training in zoology and doing twenty years of field work as a wildlife biologist. I first became aware of the great difference between the subjective and objective methods when I read Van Wyck Brook’s New England: Indian Summer, a literary history, wherein the author points out that poets are often more accurate in their observations of nature than scientists. Early American poets described a hemlock woods so well that the description endures 150 years later, whereas contemporary scientific descriptions have been revised many times and still cannot match the revelations of the poet.  The differences were so profound that I began to notice and compare.

            Another example leading me to subjective observation occurs in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  In the third “On the Porch” sequence with which he ends the book.  Agee relates an experience that he and the photographer Walker Evans shared while awaiting sleep on the front porch of an Alabama sharecropper’s cabin.  They heard an unknown night call, one that was repeated, then answered by a fellow creature.  Agee’s description of the unknown sound and of the dialogue between the two calling creatures, his discussion of it, and the nurturing of the theme much as a composer might have developed it are superb.  They lend a dimension to the mysterious event (and thus to all existence) that mere identification could never have given and increase the enjoyment beyond reckoning.  Agee’s personal, subjective treatment of the event is what renders it distinctive.   

            The final proof of the value of subjective enjoyment came from reading Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  Proust would occasionally experience an unaccountable feeling of great happiness, ecstasy, certainty, release from his almost constant anxiety, and the purest joy he had ever know.  He noted that this state was triggered by commonplace experiences.  One day, for example, he ate a cookie dipped in herb tea and had the instant transport to this pleasant state.  He was puzzled and haunted by the mystery, and he sought an answer to the riddle. 

            Other experiences that affected him similarly included stepping on an uneven cobblestone street in a strange city, hearing a certain musical phrase, observing the glow of eventide on a restaurant wall, opening a childhood book, seeing a row of tall trees on a distant skyline.  There was no reasoned solution to account for this state, and he began to earnestly seek an answer to bring peace of mind and understanding to himself.

            Eventually he found the answer.  Individuals change constantly; reason is not equipped to deal with inner change resulting from the gradual accumulation of one’s past.  Only the sensual, the sense-receiving endowment, which remains the same throughout life, can recollect the past in a tranquil state.  Some of these sensual impressions at times of great joy slip into the subconscious mind unperceived by the individual and thus are untainted by thought. 

            Recollection, free of association with the present, recalls completely the freshness of the actual moment of occurrence.  During this magical spell of a return to the past, Proust actually lived in the hopeful atmosphere of that fertile time and had choices available to him then.  He had stumbled onto a way to go home again, only the trip couldn’t be willfully recalled.  It occurred when, by chance, some sensual experience opened the door of the subconscious for a brief return to the past.  This sensual recall is the only reality to an intelligent, imaginative person, Proust writes, for it is wholly and solely his, a completely individual experience.  Many reject it until too late because it is their own and they undervalue themselves.

            Such experience is the heart of individuality.  Since it is not subject to willed recall, it is necessary to explore the subconscious level of understanding.  There the answer may be found, and it is yours alone to find.  Here is Proust’s message for nature observers:  In observing nature, he writes, we pay more attention to the object than to our impression of it, thus ignoring the really original aspect, our own “view” of it.  In other words, we should learn to seek our own original view of what we observe.  We should live in a manner that will stock our subconscious storehouse with an abundance of original sensual impressions, which may later surface in our consciousness.  Thus we may find the reality (truth) that was intended for us from the beginning.  Do not die before the truth intended for you – your own individuality – is revealed to you.

To me, this is convincing proof of the value of the subjective method.  The scientific method is necessary to gain facts, but the manner in which one experiences the facts is what will determine their final value to the individual, and, perhaps, to society.  It eventually occurred to me that from my experience I had personally discovered romanticism two hundred years after the movement had its first stirrings.  Initially I didn’t recognize it because of my strong personal involvement in pursuing the subjective approach, but the knowledge had grown out of my dedicated pursuit.  It became apparent that each individual must experience the romantic movement for himself or herself.  When the discovery comes as a result of strong personal involvement, the person is convinced much more so that if he or she had studied the movement and intellectually decided to follow it. 

            The elements of this method are simplicity, a reliance on spontaneous sensual and emotional reaction to experience for the most creative pleasure, and a return to nature, supplemented by imaginative interpretation.  This results in a highly personal vision, one which may be mystical and often highly symbolic.  The method lends force and vitality to the person and to the pursuit.  Thus, the heart of romanticism—the subjective approach—gives man a sense of his energy and of his limitations.  It is the purest realism, contrary to its critics, for it is entirely the individual’s own.  It enables him to identify fully with the world about him and to express what he experiences lyrically and often dramatically, coloring his observations with richness and variety.  Balanced with a sound basic knowledge of the outdoors, it permits the individual to make creative growth, to move away from cold conformity.  He becomes a more natural person.

            The subjective approach has brought me great personal satisfaction and pleasure; it has resulted in a greater understanding and appreciation of nature.  In the process, I became what I was originally intended to be when I switched from an objective, scientific attitude to a highly personal subjective one:  I am much more natural and at ease following natural gifts than following a learned approach. 

            Each person should learn to read his or her own book.  Contacts with Mother Nature are an excellent place to start.  The enjoyment of the outdoors should be purely subjective for the greatest personal reward.

            The order of the material in each essay is as follows:  weather, diagnostic events, vegetation, birds, mammals, other wildlife, agriculture, the wild harvest, and finally, a summary of the mood of the month.  There may be repetition from month to month because there is repetition in the events of nature.  Each month has ins mood established primarily by the cycles of nature and only secondarily by man.  The Indian moon names are purely of the North American continent; they arose from living with nature rather than exploiting it.

            The wild harvest is important simply because it comes from untended nature.  Carl O. Sauer, a cultural geographer, writes of the evolution of agriculture in relation to the development of man, and he emphasizes the importance of the wild harvest to early man and its contribution to the development of farming.  Sauer’s strong feeling for this development helps to explain why so many have such a strong atavistic urge to participate in planting and harvesting, and in gathering wild harvest.

            I have included much on agriculture because of its importance to the landscape we view, and also because of my farm background, which greatly influenced my attitude toward the world of nature.  Man’s relation to the soil is strong because of this early contact with the earth.  It accounts for the need to get back to nature.  For this reason, all forms of outdoor activity are dealt with, the many forms of nature study and the various ways of the ancient harvest:  hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering wild plant products—potherbs, roots, fruits, and nuts.  Modern man has such great need to reestablish relations with the earth that any form of enjoying the outdoors is extremely valuable to society; all should be encouraged. 

            Phenology and the sense of seasonal progression are of constant concern since they contribute so greatly to the mood of any given time.  Old sayings and folklore are also included as an important part of the mood process.  Finally, the trends of land use and wildlife populations are mentioned because they are interrelated and so striking to the observer.

            One of the most intriguing aspects of nature study involves time.  Time has been defined as the sequential arrangement of events or as the interval between events.  This arrangement gives a sense of progress, order, and change to existence.  Time and space cannot be separated.  Our experiences in space are meaningless without a sense of time. 

            Time is an unending flow, one with which we change.  But, if a person constantly changes, what endures?  Memory!  The present is meaningless without reference to the past and anticipation of the future.  Human life might be defined as the consciousness of time.  Therefore, time is highly personal, and the subjective attitude is extremely crucial for human identity.

            Since subjectivity is the reality of time, one’s attitude and awareness cause it to go fast or slow, or cause one person to be keenly aware of its passing and another to be unconscious of its flux.  Time flows continuously, and our sense of it is colored by association.  Dynamic, unique events are milestones in our memory. 

            The inner world of experience and memory exhibits a structure causally determined by significant subjective associations rather than by objective connections to which we usually attribute it.  Values and emotion strongly color memory and influence our sense of time.  The serial order of time may be changed by memory.  Time is meaningful only within the context of personal experience;  it thus becomes qualitative whereas scientific, measured time is purely quantitative.

              Memory is the self; it is creative imagination.  In memory, the quality of an experience is preserved in its original state; there it attains an eternal essence and becomes more real, in a sense, than the original event.  Memory research, as it might be called, can turn up rich and unsuspected facts of one’s self and one’s world, and outdoor study can amplify such efforts.  Indian moon names illustrate the relationship between nature and the seasons.  The Indians, entirely dependent on nature, had ample time to observe, and important events lodged in their memory, coloring it by dynamic association.  Hence, their subjective moon names capture an eternal essence of the time, revealing far more about the period than the European names for the months.

            In the time of primitive man, regular occurrence of the changing phases of the moon was one of the most readily observable events in their world, and it became the most logical means of dividing time.  It was short step from using the cycle of the moon as a unit of time to using names to distinguish one moon from another, and the moon names that evolved were rich in meaning.  The names grew from conditions and characteristics of the particular moon period, such as changes or beauty or danger, and these conditions led to hope, joy, fear, or dread—attitudes expressed with wistfulness, gentleness, or harshness.  They served as reminders from one generation to another of the important events for the tribe during particular moon phases.  Moon names thus tell much about the people who devised them and of the region in which they originated.  The names reflect and preserve a sense of values. 

            I sincerely hope this book conveys to the reader the impact of the many dynamic wonders of nature. 

Merrill Gilfillan, from his book, Moods of the Ohio Moons: An Outdoorsman's Almanac

Thank You, Jessica, for Your keen awareness and hard work!

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