“A grizzly bear stripping fruit from a blackberry vine in a thicket is more than a bear stripping fruit from a blackberry vine in a thicket. It is a point of entry into a world most of us have turned our backs on…”
So writes Barry Lopez in his essay The Invitation, a beautiful account of the lessons he gathered from years spent travelling with indigenous people. An environment, he describes, is ripe with such points of entry, but most of us fail to see them – and for that we are poorer.
The problem lies in the ever-increasing gap that separates us from place, and our warped notions of what defines primitiveness. Moreover, the little attention that we do pay to the world is done by our own definitions. We put the words in the world’s mouth.
Modern societies cultivate reductionist thinking. We seek to understand through cause-and-effect, itemising and analysing. Nature is boxed up; ergo, a grizzly bear stripping fruit from a blackberry vine in a thicket is no more and no less. Lopez describes such an existence as “A series of dots, which I would try to make sense of by connecting them all with a straight line”. A linear equation, nice and neat.
This type of worldview contrasts starkly to that of the indigenous people Lopez travelled with. These people, he learned, let the world unfold around them without any urgency to deduce its meaning. Stories reveal themselves along a continuous timeline to which humans are privy only for discrete moments. Over time, with attention and patience, the patterns created become the literature of the land, read and remembered and recalled. The world becomes understood for what it truly is.
There is immense value, Lopez argues, in having such a relationship with a place. Particularly, through the reciprocity of a relationship with a place – for you knowing it and it knowing you – life incurs meaning. It is the ultimate antidote to the senses of futility so ripened in modern societies. In applying this outlook to his own life, Lopez describes that he came to learn how “to remain in a state of suspended mental analysis”. Such suspension, he found, allows a person to always gather details from their environment, from moments, even without being acutely aware of it. These details are stored within us, adding to the tapestry of our knowing a place. Little by little, our compass bearing shifts. Our relationship to the world at large changes.
Putting aside our preconceptions of the world is not easy. Each us of has formed views and ideas of how things are and how they ought to be, moulded by a lifetime of experiences and interactions. This translates directly in how we travel through life. For me, this shows up strongly in the things I read, think about, write about, and photograph. Whether this is good or bad is a moot discussion. What matters, I believe, is being aware of our own tendencies, and recognising how personal they are and how deep they run. If we’re aware, we might grant ourselves far more opportunities to engage with the world without bias (or, at least, less of it). It might allow us to at last see those points of entry to engage with all the grizzly bears of the world, and see that they are so much more than things that eat blackberries.
This post was inspired by an environmental literature group that I am a part of at university. It articulates so well the states of mindfulness and, in effect, minimalism that I have been working on in my life over the past year or so. The road is rough sometimes, but overall it is very rewarding.