An ode to untouched places

Beauty likes neglected places.”

John O’Donohue
Folly Beach, SC

One of the things I like about where I work is that it’s next to a protected natural area. We get to see a lot of wildlife that one normally only sees in large state parks or zoos or nature documentaries, which is just an amazing experience.

The thing that always strikes me the most is the silence. No cars, no human noise, none of the pulsating hum of civilization. The stillness is eerie when you first encounter it. You don’t realize just how accustomed you are to constant sound until there isn’t any.

I sat on the front steps of my office building the other day and just basked in that stillness. It’s meditative, in a way, to just stop, and be in a wide open, natural space that isn’t teeming with humans and all of our various turbulence. It’s really quite joyous…at first.

For me, the joyfulness of natural, still places is muddled by an unsettled feeling. Humans are herd animals – we like to cluster. A long, long time ago, we realized that we do better if we live in groups. Now there are so many of us that it’s kind of hard not to. So most humans alive today are used to a certain amount of background noise.

What a strange thing to have forgotten – the silence of true, natural stillness. Now, it’s a thing we escape to rather than a thing we escape from. It’s another one of those shifts in the world and in how we interact with it that we simply don’t think about anymore.

Stillness was not necessarily something valued by people who used to exist within or beside it – I delve from time to time into the world of faery stories and their origins, and it was often the fear of forests or other untamed areas combined with fears about things like diseases or natural phenomena that gave rise to stories of changelings and other meddling creatures. Humans are great Explainers of Things, even if the explanation is more imaginative or symbolic than factual.

If you have the ability, find a still place. Sit in it for a while. Just be. Think about a world filled with such stillness, how different it was.

We’ve lost something more than just our stillness, I think, in filling up the world with as much clutter as we have.

The faeries have disappeared

You can tell the difference between a dog and a coyote. I can’t explain how, exactly – but the first time you’re lying in bed on a warm spring night with the windows open, and you hear them in the distance – even though you didn’t grow up here, even though you’ve never heard the sound of coyotes howling on the plains – somehow, you know what you’re hearing.

It’s been more than a decade since I moved out here, and it still unnerves me.

A book I read said that faerie myths originated from fear. Fear of dark places. Fear of the woods, which were once wild and dangerous. Things that make no sense could be blamed on the small, dark creatures who crawled from the woods at night to poke about homes and peek in cradles.

When the world was wild and unknown, humans had to fear the night.

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“The closing walls and the ticking clocks”

Studies have shown that there’s a powerful link between scent and memory. I have personally found this to be profoundly true. One breath in and suddenly I’m transported into the past.

I have smell triggers. Lilies remind me of funerals. The smell of matches reminds me of burning candles late at night in my room as an angsty teen. The salty smell of the ocean reminds me of going to the shore during summers as a child, which was one of the few truly happy parts of my childhood.

Today as I was leaving a meeting at a local conference venue, I was greeted by the heavy scent of cigar smoke, courtesy of a sheepish-looking gentleman who was having a quick smoke in the parking garage of a smoke free property. He needn’t have worried – I’m the type who snitches on people trying to enjoy a simple vice.

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Constructing identities

I spent some time at the Denver Art Museum last week, and one of the current exhibits is a landscape exhibit which, according to the DAM, will show how various artists have blurred “the distinction between ‘observed’ and ‘constructed’ imagery.”

Observed vs. constructed is an interesting binary. Has the artist who took this simple (yet stunning) photograph below merely created something we can observe? Or is there an element of construction there?

One could certainly observe and move on. But I think the fact that the photo is in muted tones and that an image was chose that features an asymmetrical breaking wave is an element of construction. It makes me feel like I’m looking at a wild, stormy ocean. It’s beautiful, but fearsome. It should be admired, but also respected.

I would even argue that the color of the wall that the DAM chose to hung it on adds to/emphasizes that construction. Would the photo have felt different if it was hung on the beige wall instead of the gray one? What if it was hung on a red wall? Does that change the context?

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