We are nature. The life around us is within us as well. As nature we remember that our work is to enable the conscious evolution of life and bring our dream of the world into being.
I kept thinking this as I performed a piano recital for National Park staff and guests in the great room of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park one late November morning. The piano was a beautiful rosewood Steinway concert grand, played by photographer Ansel Adams almost a century before.
A persistent rain was falling outside, and snow was collecting on the higher peaks, including Half Dome four thousand feet above us. A fire crackled in the hearth, throwing sparks up the chimney. The enchantment of places, and particularly of wild places, was in the minds and hearts of those of us around the piano.
I had conducted a workshop with the Yosemite Leadership Academy in the Park the previous three days. My colleague and director of the Academy had called the park administration office a few weeks before to arrange a piano for our sessions.
“What do you need a piano for?” she was asked. “Isn’t this a leadership training session?”
My colleague explained that the session was to explore the shift in world views from the prevailing linear machine-based model of leadership to a living-systems model, one that is more organic and nature-based. “Music and nature tell this story perhaps even more powerfully than words,” she added.
With these few words my colleague echoed an observation about leadership that Plato offered more than two thousand years ago:
This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence… a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.
My experience of music and nature as a living being has always been seamlessly connected. At the piano I was learning to listen and in nature I was learning to see.
I’d had to leave this more enchanted view of the world behind once I arrived at school. Their wholes were reduced to parts, and the magical became mechanized and controlled. With this managed world we have made great progress, but we have also sacrificed intrinsic qualities that make life worthwhile, including our relationship with nature and art, our gifts and imagination and our deeper humanity.
Many of us live in a world in which our sense of duty and obligation to a linear way of thinking overrides our deeper intuition and good judgement regarding life and what we believe to be true. This deeper truth is that we are who we are - not despite nature, but because of it. To make our world whole again we need to re-engage in an environment in which nature - including what feels most natural within ourselves - serves as the dynamic central force to which all else is related.
My own intimate connection with the natural world was reawakened while accompanying a modern dance class years ago. Unsure about what might be expected of me, I arrived at the first class with a box of sheet music and set it carefully underneath the piano.
Cynthia, the dance instructor, entered the studio. Thirty students were doing warm-up exercises on the stretch bar along the south wall.
“Welcome, Michael. I would like to begin with some improvisational movement with the class… could you play some music with the feeling of rain in it?”
‘Rain…’ I thought to myself. I had played Chopin, Beethoven and Schubert - but not rain. I searched my sheet music for something with rain in the title, like “Raindrops Falling on My Head.”
“No, not written music, Michael. Just something like this!” - and Cynthia played some notes in the upper register.
She rejoined the class and I continued playing her sequence of notes. As I did so the dancers moved out from the wall and across the studio floor, making gestures that looked very much like rain.
As the music and the movement started working together Cynthia called out, “Now play wind!”
‘Wind…’ I thought to myself. “I was just getting good at playing rain.”
But soon I found the feeling and the music became even more expansive as the dancers responded with great leaps across the floor. As the music and the movement built to a crescendo, Cynthia called out for lightning and thunder - and in that instant I remembered a relationship I had once had with the world.
I recalled my years at a summer camp on the remote shores of Georgian Bay in the central Ontario wilderness. I remembered the hot breezes on July afternoons; the muggy air and the deep vibration in the granite rock underfoot that signalled a thunderstorm forming in the western sky. This was the summons - a call to drop whatever I was doing, go down to the piano in the camp lodge, open the screen wide and play to the storm.
It was not the idea or the concept of the elements that I wanted to master but the magic of the place around me. To be the rain, the wind, the thunder, the lightning, the sparkling light on the water’s surface; to express the power of nature in a musical form.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “I believe there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.” It is this magnetism that helps us become more present to the world, to sense what cannot be clearly seen and to know what is needed only in the moment. This is how we form a reciprocal relationship with the natural world. But nature cannot speak to us when we see the land once only as an economic resource or a backdrop to our daily plans. With this loss, our window into Plato’s living world is closed to us as well.
Whenever we pause to step outside and look around, to listen, to feel the air and experience the scent of fresh-cut grass, our senses are enlivened once again with a dream of the world that cannot be broken.
With this dream nature shapes us. Through the manifestation of this dream we, in turn, become partners in creation and reinvent our world anew.
We are nature. And this is what the land is for.