On Pine Needles and Politics

July 28, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

 

 

Toadstool and Pine Needles, 2013

In My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), John Muir offers the following account of sketching a sugar pine tree in the Sierra Nevada.

 

I never weary of gazing at its grand tasseled cones, it's perfectly round bole one hundred feet or more without a limb, the fine a purplish color of its bark, and its magnificent outsweeping, down-curving feathery arms forming a crown always bold and striking an exhilarating... At the age of fifty to one hundred years it begins to acquire individuality, so that no two are alike in their prime or old age. Every tree calls for special admiration. I have been making many sketches, and regret that I cannot draw every needle. [1]

 

In the midst of a creative act, Muir discovered that "no two [trees] are alike." So intense is his insight that he longs to sketch each and every pine needle because one cannot substitute for another without loss. Muir was smitten by the power of particularity.

 

Artmaking opens up this power of particularity in our lives, evoking a deeply felt sense of the irreducible uniqueness of the single thing in front of us right now. Under its spell, we linger over the minutest detail, offering it a long, loving, sensuous gaze. As we do, everything else fades temporarily from view. It is as though time stops and we are wholly absorbed in the intricacy of this and only this thing. We come to know it immediately, intimately, and vividly. We lose ourselves in it only to find ourselves again, but now we are richer for having been woven together intimately with the object and the felt mystery it makes present.

 

As we sketch, photograph, or paint the pine needle, we are so keenly focused on its particularity that the boundaries between subject and object dissolve. The anxiously patrolled borders of the self become porous, fluid, and elastic. The self relinquishes its drive to control -- physically, emotionally, and cognitively. The ego discovers itself open, receptive, and vulnerable. Curiosity dissolves control, empathy replaces hostility, love banishes indifference. Before the pine needle and the felt sense of mystery that envelops it, delight, wonder, and hospitality crowd out fear, hatred, or violence. The self makes room for the pine needle and allows it to be what it is, fragile, beautiful, vulnerable. And now loved.

 

This kind of artistic awareness is very much like the mystical awareness treasured by the contemplative traditions in nearly all of the great religions of the world. These are not experiences of flight from the world, from the ordinary, from the particular. Rather, they are experiences of a radically new way of being present to the world, to the ordinary, to the particular. When we linger over the beautiful thing, suddenly we and it are cradled in the arms of the Whole, the mysterious Whither and Whence of all being. We have celebrated Communion.

 

There is a deep paradox here, and it is this. When we severely restrict the scope of our attention to a single being, giving it our total attention and devotion, it becomes a portal onto the Whole.  In seeing the one, we awaken to the All. Only by restricting our awareness does it become expansive and capacious. If it is Logos we find, it is always first incarnated.

 

This graced form of awareness is not the exclusive possession of professional artists or the mystical virtuosi. It is available to all of us, but we must cultivate it. Among the ways we do so is by exercising creativity, by making art. Many of us gave up artmaking when we grew up, shamed out of it by the demands of adulthood and "serious" living. But creativity and art-making are deeply spiritual, transformative practices, capable of renovating our imaginations and reorienting our total affective and cognitive posture toward life over time. When we neglect them in our adult lives, we do so at our own peril.

 

But what do pine needles have to do with politics? At this moment in American political life, we are a deeply divided people. Beneath our political, cultural turmoil is a deeper spiritual turmoil. We are a people governed by fear, alienation, and isolation. Our fractious politics and lack of empathetic connection to one another are a symptom of our traumatized souls. We are closed off from one another and from ourselves -- angry, alienated, and desperately in search of political messiahs from any end of the political spectrum who we hope will magically rescue us from our problems. But down deep we know that no politician, party, platform, or election will do for our souls what needs doing.

 

What is required is work rather than magic, and it is work that we the people rather than a single political messiah must do. It's local, particular, grassroots work. It's slow, hard, and risky work. And, as silly and naive as it may sound, I believe that some of this work must be the joyful work of making art. We need to discover or rediscover the bliss of creativity. We need to sketch, photograph, and paint that pine needle right there, right now. We need to do this creative work so that we might discover the transformative power of particularity. Attending deeply to this pine needle, the one right there in front of us now, is one way of practicing ourselves into openness and receptivity to the distinctive colors, qualities, textures, and scents of every unique, irreplaceable being.

 

Creative work will enable us to sit first with a pine needle and later with a particular person. Schooled in empathy, connectedness, and communion by the pine needle, we will become porous and fluid, able to receive a particular person who is different and strange. Schooled by the pine needle, we will learn the name and face, the particular story, the unique gifts, the peculiar fears, and the concrete hopes of a particular other.  Creative work thus generates the fundaments of love and community.

 

Sketching a pine needle may make it easier to sketch the particular life of a single African-American person and for the first time learn what a particular black life looks like. Only then will we know what's at stake when we say "black lives matter." Others of us will need to sit and sketch the life of a working-class, rural white man and learn about the seeds of his anger, fear, and alienation. Others of us will need to sit and sketch the life of a Muslim, a person suffering homelessness, a police officer, a single mom, or an LGBTQ person. All of us will need to sit and sketch our own particular lives, for these have become as foreign and dangerous to us as the lives of others.

 

This creative work will teach us the dangers of abstraction and facile generalizations that repress the moral sentiments and sever the affective bonds that knit our particular lives together into genuine community. Only when we have fully entered into the texture of another's particular life, will we learn what is lost by "all black people are...", "all white folk are...", "all blue-collar men do...", "every rich person is...", "all police officers do...". Such objectifying abstractions and weaponized generalizations are often defense mechanisms of our anxious, wounded, and fearful egos. Creativity and pine needles can help deliver us from them.  And while we may eventually be able to make some helpful generalizations based on shared insight, we will make them more carefully, hold them more loosely, always testing them against the pine needles.

 

So, go, sketch a pine needle, that one, right there, right now; the one caught on the far side of a dangerous divide.

 

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[1] Quoted in Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 29.

 


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