WWTD (What Would Thoreau Do?)

April 29, 2007 by susan
120 Gulls on a Beach

A Meditation on Nature and All the Rest of It
by Perhansa, Clothesline regular

26 April, 2007
Brighton, England
I sit at the desk of my hotel room where Charles Dickens once stayed. To my left is an open window through which I can see the Brighton Seafront and the English Channel as the sun sets. I've been here a few days teaching for a client, and while away, I've been following the events back in the Motherland from the Grand-Motherland. They seem both surreal and infuriatingly absurd. Time and distance hath given thee a new perspective.Ponder on.

The hotel I'm in is 200 years older than the petulant wild child that is my own country back home. The older generation looks on with a tsk tsk and a cup o' tea. Perhaps I sit where Dickens once sat, but I am communicating via Wi-Fi not quill and inkwell. What a difference a couple hundred years can make.

In the land of Shakespeare, time hath invaded my thoughts and dreams for a season. But it's much more than hundreds of years. It's more than a mid-summer night's dream. These years are in millions. I'm in the land of Darwin. Things are old here. Walk the beach and it's scattered with grey and white stones that have rolled beneath endless waves. Dig deep and you find layers of shells. They have the character of fossils and bones. I felt the earth aging around me. Thoreau went to the woods to find out who he was. Darwin went to the Galapagos and came back with a revolutionary perspective on life and longevity. I get sent to England and something bizarre took over my soul.

I sat on the beach the first afternoon I'd arrived. I sat on a spot of shore where the only thing I could see was the endless water and sky. I could see no man-made structures, neither ahead, or in my peripheral vision. The pounding waves drowned out the sound of human voices and machines. It was just me, the sea, the wind and the gulls. And then it happened. Time slipped as though on a banana peel. I fell into a mental time warp, and though I was still rooted there on the shore, "I" disappeared. All that remained was a pair of eyes and ears looking backward through the millennia to a time when man was not. I imagined that if I turned around I would see the panorama of a great rainforest behind me; I saw dinosaur tracks along the water in the sand. Man hadn't arrived. The gulls created no gods, they were troubled by no sin. The ocean rolled and heaved like a great belly with each inhalation and exhalation. I felt the timelessness of nature, her innocence and her indifference. I felt, no, it wasn't an "I" that felt, nor saw, it simply was: THUS.

I turned to my right and saw in the other direction a time when man had come and gone. No footprint remained; no structure, no machine, no trace--only water and sky. Then the sea dried up and the ground sprung up green. It looked like a tall grass prairie. Strange beasts I've never seen grazed, others flew overhead. The millennia rolled on. The earth was at peace. I came back to my senses and walked slowly back to my room.

The latest news of the petty machinations of George and Dick, Karl, Alberto and Condi made me deeply sad and regretful. I'd seen similar behavior on the beach--a flock of gulls fighting over a lobster claw. One gull strode around in the sand his wings back and his head high and mighty as though to say, "Look at me, I'm the Decider." Off to the side a wounded, craggy gull looked on somewhat disdainfully at the others. He'd seen the battles and grown old and bitter. Others screeched and pecked at each other and I thought of Karl drawing back and screeching at the pretty white gull pulling at his wing. We may have big brains, but we are animals nonetheless--every last one of us. Strutting, striving, and fighting for food and sex and survival. We are nature, carrying on as though Time gave any notice, as though the earth wouldn't forget us after a few waves storm the shore.

What a dark and frightening vision Darwin must have carried in his heart on the voyage back from the Galapagos. As he sat in his study back in England and tried to imagine the great expanses of time and species that must have gone before and would come after. He had to wonder: Where is man in all this? I find myself wondering that very same thing. But I can't just let it all go and flow with the Tao. What would Darwin do? What would Thoreau do? The woods are equally dark and deep. A man (or woman) can get lost in the folds of her garment and never return. I am nature at the heart. I've never felt it more strongly in my bones than I did today. And nature must act, will act, even though the play has short run. Perhaps it was a moment like mine that made Shakespeare pen: "The world is a stage and we are but actors upon it, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." What would Shakespeare do? Act. Carry on. Be a part of the play.

Thus endeth this particular play.

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Poet (not verified) | April 30, 2007 - 12:26pm

Perhansa, I have stood in the midst of plains grass swishing in the wind grass and sky to a horizon of distant mountains so far that they seem but a vague purple haze. Inside of the woods is a stillness "too silent to be real" as Gordon Lightfoot immortalized in his Canadian Railroad Trilogy.and had similar feelings. To be outside of manmade contrivance as a human can seem like being the only disharmonious note in a beautiful symphony whose melody seems at odds with all that is "civilized".

I both admire and wonder just exactly how Native Americans managed to resist the seduction of manmade contrivance and live in such harmony with their surroundings. These were not ignorant savages, but rather people who used htier inginuity to figure pout how to live in harmony with their surroundings and supported a civilization in the tens of millions prior to being conquered by European conquistadors of various nations.


susan | April 30, 2007 - 4:34pm

This modern contrivance, the one I'm writing on, has not improved the quality of my life. Like so many things that seem at first a miraculous advancement (Lookey here, said moi meme, I can stay in touch with my daughters who are living in Africa!) or a fine tool (Lookey here, said Eleuthere duPont, I can blow up a whole hillside with this fine black powder.) it comes with a big price. The world is too much with me, in fact, it's in my lap. It travels from the screen into my eyes, into my brain, back down my arms into my finger tips and back onto the screen. More and more I lose touch with the more vast, more elegant, and more forgiving world of nature.