Even though we’re halfway through April, winter has been stubbornly impeding spring’s arrival. It delivered half a foot of snow in Juneau during the past few weeks. In the Sunday edition of Toe Toon, political cartoonist Tony Newman evoked impatience with the season by telling us “it’s time winter resigned.” Of course, winter isn’t a living being. But the practice of personifying nature might teach us how changing our world can start with small acts of affectionate observation.
We Juneauites are fortunate to live in a community where the natural world is still abundantly present. From the spectacular rugged peaks and stately forests behind us to the miles of sensuously curving shoreline at our feet, much of our surroundings have been unaffected by the pressures of human progress. In spring this place renews itself first with the sound of birds returning from their winter migration. And despite this year’s late snow, the native skunk cabbage is starting to show off its early spring dress all along the forest’s edge.
Not everyone has the same appreciation for the multitude of ways nature can touch our senses. From the visual perspective we could simply say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But appearance precedes seeing. The hood of the skunk cabbage is bright yellow even if we never see it. When we do notice we each react to its beautiful color differently. Yet the idea of response asks what we are responding to. Is it internal – in us – or could it be that the flower’s intention is to draw our eyes to look in its direction.
Asking such questions gives new meaning to the idea that nature is alive. However, personification of the inanimate world is usually only a tool for literary artists or used in casual conversation. It’s opposed by the objective regiment of science because imagining nature with human qualities or intentions is entirely subjective to human perceptions and biases.
Scientists are human beings too, though, so subjectivity abounds even in their dry professional journals. It’s a matter of individual interest that dictates how much attention any scientist gives to the object of their study. And doting over anything at all moves benign observation toward affection. So what could it be that draws a scientist closer to an animal, plant or even a rock?
There are some in the quantum physics arena who believe that the simple act of observation has an effect on that which is observed. And from the everyday side of life, consider that many people believe talking to their houseplants makes them healthier. So, is it really that far-fetched to wonder if the non-human living world wants attention from us?
Regardless of the degree with which we consider nature to be alive, the practice of personification begins with the act of noticing. We can’t write or speak using this kind of language without paying close attention to everything we see and admire. The more we notice, the more likely we’ll be moved from casual seeing to feeling affection for the living things around us.
Science will never explain why this happens. Mahatma Gandhi turns us to the spiritual realm by saying “when I admire the wonders of a sunset or the beauty of the moon my soul expands in the worship of the creator.”
If love and worship distinguishes us humans from the rest of the living world, then aren’t we most alive when these emotions are reaching into our hearts? And if “to be is to be perceived” as the 18th century Irish philosopher George Berkeley believed, then doesn’t it seem possible that we too are being observed when we are overcome with a love for life during an act of affectionate observation?
It takes practice to move from simply seeing to sensing with the heart. So as spring begins to reveal its intentions to send winter away, we can ask ourselves why the budding trees, blooming flowers and greening of the wetlands are calling for our attention. By wondering what nature wants in return for blessing us with so much beauty we might discover a small piece of Gandhi’s wisdom and begin to become the change we want to see in the world.
• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident.