I’ve only made it through the preface of Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane—an “epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself”—yet rich quotes abound:
“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful. Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives). Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions). Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets). Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”
“Force yourself to see more deeply.”
“The underland is vital to the material structures of contemporary existence, as well as our memories, myths and metaphors.”
“Our ‘flat perspectives’ feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit, and to the deep time legacies we are leaving.”
“‘Deep time’ is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years.”
“When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”
I was on a solo hike a few weeks ago on a beautiful northern Californian day in Shasta Trinity National Park. It was a weekday morning, so I had the place to myself. I followed the Waters Gulch trail for about a mile or two as I trekked the path toward Packers Bay. The river (pictured above) was low, exposing the golden sediment beneath the thick green trees. It wasn’t long into the trail when the bustling world outside the Park faded and the world hushed. Though I knew I was walking through a vibrant and wild ecosystem of life in many forms, I was awed by its absolute silence.
Not a car. Not a plane droning above. Just my boots on the gravel. It was divine.
I wanted to capture that moment to take with me back into civilization, but I knew that some moments are better left uncaptured, free to roam on in time for the next eager seeker in need of some bliss. But I think some ought to be documented, if only because places like that — where noise doesn’t intrude on the soothing symphony of nature — are an endangered species.
And that’s why I suspect Gordon Hempton has the best job in the world. He’s an “acoustic ecologist” who records rare nature sounds and the few places on earth where silence still rules. He’s also the founder of One Square Inch of Silence, a research and advocacy project to protect the naturally silent habitats of the Olympic National Park in Washington.
I learned about Hempton through On Being, a podcast hosted by Krista Tippett I recently started listening to. It’s a great interview series featuring makers and doers of many stripes. Some recent guests include a Zen master and poet, a mathematician, a physicist, a pastor, and an oceanographer. Each has their own area of expertise and interest, but what I like about the series so far is how each show, despite the varying subject matter, still lives within the same sphere held together by the centripetal forces of truth, discovery, beauty, and meaning.
Tippett’s conversation with Hempton was so serene and poetic and enlivening. He defines silence not as merely the absence of sound but instead as “silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system.” He sees the world as a “solar-powered jukebox” and links our modern world’s lack of silence to our inability to listen.
I don’t need an excuse to seek out quiet. My introversion calls for a degree of separation from the world in order to recharge, and often that separation leads me to a quiet place, where I can only hear waves overtaking shoreline rocks, or rain falling on leaves. It’s so hard in an urban setting to escape the noisiness of the world, but it’s important to do so. Quiet, as Gordon Hempton says, is a “think tank of the soul.” We don’t have natural ear-lids for a reason.
When was the last time you touched a tree? I see them often, I walk past them, I benefit from their biology every day, but I rarely touch them. They are no longer an inescapable element of our daily mechanized, plastic lives. Perhaps we wanted it that way: the inception of brick and steel and drywall and kerosene and electricity allowed us to downgrade trees from tool and fuel to mere ornamentation. We protect trees now, in reservations and city blocks and forest preserves, but we’ve stopped touching them.
To touch a tree is to touch history. It’s to touch an impossibly, intricately beautiful creation that doesn’t need a plug in a wall for power. It’s to touch the wisdom of years we were born long after and will die soon before. The tree has seen the world and has seen you. The world will continue on without us, but not without the tree.
The tree doesn’t need our touch for validation or survival. It doesn’t need us at all. And that’s why you should touch a tree. Touch them soon and touch them often. Touch them before they figure out everything they do for us and decide they’ve given enough. Soak in by osmosis their total lack of regard for our lives and thank God everyday they think that way, because no one else is telling us how our mountains are really molehills and how we get our daily air.
Give them this day their daily breath, God tells the trees, but let’s see if they ever figure it out.
What is the meaning of life? Touch a tree and see.