"All things in the
plain are isolated; there is no confusion of objects in the
eye, but one hill or one tree or one man. To look upon that
landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is
to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life,
and this, you think, is where Creation was begun."
When I was a kid I lived close to the ground. The front yard
of our house in Dallas held worlds upon worlds to be explored
just beneath my feet. Tiny little blue flowers sprouted out
of the lawn, and clusters of fuzzy dark green leaves hosted
little purple-and-white blossoms shaped like fairy-tale princesses
in hoop skirts in little boats, floating down rivers of my imagination
to some charmed and magical destiny. There were ants and doodlebugs,
dandilions and oniongrass, butterflies and inchworms. I somehow
knew instinctively what was okay to bite into and what was not,
and tasted all the plants I figured were safe. I caught lightning
bugs in the twilight, kept them in a jar overnight and let them
loose in the mornings, was sad when a death occurred among them.
I cracked open rocks with a hammer to see what was inside. God
was in the details, and mystery and wonder everywhere. For the
longest time I thought it was trees who made that lazy hot-summer-day
buzzing sound -- cicadas were not in my vocabulary because I
was too close to the ground to see them, to attach the sound
to them and ask their names.
memories of your childhood, too
the smell of rain, the
feel of sunshine, the tangy fragrance of fresh-cut grass. The
first step in learning to read the land is not so much to recapture
those memories but to recapture that sensitivity, to reopen
those eyes. It might mean you have to unlearn some things you
think you already know.
For a couple of years I lived and worked in London. The English
have this wonderful way of packing whole landscapes into tiny
squares of earth in front of their row houses, and their climate
blesses them with a spring that seems to go on forever. The
first spring I was there, I used to walk every weekday morning
to the train that took me to work. Past all the gardens, through
heaps of blossoms on the sidewalk after a rain, and each morning
it seemed there was something new in each garden.
At one house,
my passage almost always coincided with what I took to be "leaving
for kindergarten" time for a mother and her small daughter.
Their garden was a particularly beautiful one, and along one
side grew an abundance of hydrangeas. I had been watching as
the flowers slowly unfolded and began, day by day, to turn from
green to lighter green to just a hint of pink. And on this one
morning, after a rare full day of sunshine the day before, they
had all burst into full color. The overnight transformation
was breathtaking! And just as I came up even with the house
I heard the little girl say, "Mommy!! Mommy, look!!!"
and I knew she had seen them too. Her mother said, "Yes
dear. They're hydrangeas."
rest of my walk to the train station, this little exchange hung
in my thoughts. I wondered, would this little girl forever associate
the word "hydrangea" with moments of wonder and beauty?
Faced with her first awesome sunset at the beach, the first
stirrings of romance in her heart, would she say to herself,
"It's just so
so hydrangea"? I didn't know whether
I wanted to laugh or cry. Because this has happened to all of
us in so many ways, this transformation from child full of wonder
to adult full of knowledge. We learn to label things, to compare
and categorize them, to call them by name -- "cicada"
-- and we file them away in our storehouse of information and
set about to collect more.
saying knowledge isn't useful, it can be. But gathering knowledge
at the expense of wonder is like collecting a library full of
books that are never opened and read for pleasure. The danger
is you just end up with dust in your eyes.
Try it for
a few days, just as an experiment. Get down close to the ground
and look at the details. Resist the temptation to put labels
on what you see. Allow yourself just to be in awe, without saying,
"How beautiful!" Take the first step toward learning
to read the land.
Break: Useful Maps and Tables