Monday, October 12, 2009

Slowing Down

Adopt the practice of voluntary simplicity and you'll drop the manic aspects of modern life. Sanity will return as you seek and eventually find a more natural rhythm to your daily activities. Humans were designed for the slow life, we've just forgotten that little kernel of wisdom. We need time to acclimate and adjust to shifting rhythms and energies.

When the price of gasoline began climbing upwards a year or two ago, I learned to slow my driving way down. The speedometer usually stays around 60 now (sometimes as low as 55 or as high as 65) while I'm on the interstate, instead of my old 75, 85 and beyond.

Because of an odd time-sharing arrangement with my ex-husband I'm on the interstate a lot, driving my son back and forth to and from his school which is 92 miles away from the end of my driveway (don't ask, please). So for over four years I've been able to experience the shifting energies as I travel back and forth between these two geographic points.

The first few years were rough. I was always drained and often had awful headaches after making the trips. At the same time I began to notice things. Each place I travelled through had a distinct energy, even a personality. Wiggins hill (a ten or fifteen mile stretch over rolling rangeland) had a downright spiritual energy. Insights would come to me there. I noticed the effect that hill had on other drivers--hypnotic, sleep-inducing apparently. I once watched a guy dream himself an exit ramp and very gracefully exit off into the grassland. (He was okay, and the idiot was back on the highway again in a minute or two.)

But it's only been since I've slowed down that I've begun to understand the impact the land has on me. Once I slowed down, the fatigue diminished and the headaches became fewer and far-er between. I realized that 75 mph is not a human pace. We need to arrive in each place, acclimate to the shifting energies before we move on. You can't do that at highway speeds. Even my 60 mph is too fast, but it's a heck of an improvement over 80.

We were designed to engage with our environment at a walking pace, adjusting to shifting energies with each footfall. In my favorite book of all times (David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous) Abram quotes stories from both Gary Snyder and Bruce Chatwin that illustrate what happens when indigenous culture meets up with the fast-paced automobile.

In Snyder's account he was travelling in the Australian Outback with a Pintupi elder and the man suddenly began to talk to him very rapidly, telling a Dreamtime story. As soon as that story ended he rapidly began telling

another story about another hill over here and another story over there. I couldn't keep up. I realized after about a half an hour of this that these were meant to be told while walking, and that I was experiencing a speeded-up version of what might be leisurely told over several days of foot travel.

Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), p. 82

Bruce Chatwin's account tells how he was travelling in a Land Cruiser with an aboriginal man who sat motionless in the front seat until he crossed parts of his songline, at which point he'd launch into frantic action.

As Arkady turned the wheel to the left, Limpy bounced into action. Again he shoved his head through both windows. His eyes rolled wildly over the rocks, the cliffs, the palms, the water. His lips moved at the speed of a ventriloquist's and, through them, came a rustle: the sound of wind through branches.

Arkady knew at once what was happening. Limpy had learned his Native Cat couplets for walking pace, at four miles per hour, and we were travelling at twenty-five.

Arkady shifted into bottom gear, and we crawled along no faster than a walker. Instantly, Limpy matched his tempo to the new speed. He was smiling. His head swayed to and fro. The sound became a lovely melodious swishing; and you knew that, as far as he was concerned, he was the Native Cat.

Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (London:Penguin Books, 1987), pp. 293-294.

You might be thinking, So what? We don't have stories and songs embedded in the landscape. We don't need to slow down because we don't have parts of ourselves embedded in the landscape. It's not like we need to retrieve something there. We can just skim the surface, get from point A to point B (as quickly as possible). After all, the land is only a backdrop for our human activities. It's not as if it actually pertains to us.

But we've forgotten something. The land creates us. We've only to look at cases of environmental deprivation (like the horrific case of little Dani in Florida a few years ago) to see how true this is. The mind we create in here, behind the sheltering encasement of our skulls, is really just environment that we've internalized. Without the environment, the land, we literally would have nothing to know.

I've started to think of the land as our true mind. What's inside our skulls is simply a storage and retrieval device. It's not mind itself. David Abram, in reflecting on the anecdotes I quoted above, said it's as though

at such times, it is not the native person who speaks, but rather the land that speaks through him as he journeys across it.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996), p. 174.

What are we? Nothing but globules of land that grew feet and consciousness. Look at evolution in high-speed. Watch the earth begin to excrete life. Watch those globules of life organize themselves and coagulate and complexify, watch some of them crawl ashore, grow legs, grow consciousness. And here we are, globules of earth and we think we're separate from the earth? We think our consciousness is not the consciousness of the earth? What is it then?

If we were disembodied spirits floating in the ether, what could we know? With no points of reference, how could we even know we were? Consciousness requires physicality. With no physicality, no Self and Other, no Point A and Point B, there can be no knowing.

My favorite definition of genius is the keen ability to make novel associations. And what is an association? It's comparing A to B and seeing similarities. Could we do that in the rarefied ether? No, we need the land. The land provides all points of reference. Genius, knowledge, information, consciousness--those things reside in the land. Gaia and Mind, they're one and the same.

I still need to get a hold of Edith Cobb's book, The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. She studied the lives of geniuses and found that insights often came to them when they returned physically or mentally to the landscapes of their childhood. It's as if that land was an extended neural network--knowledge and wisdom existed out there and these geniuses returned to retrieve it.

Why is it important for us to slow down and let the land begin to speak through us again? Because that's where wisdom resides. When we live in our puny little egoic minds, skimming over the surface, riding fast, guess what we do? We abuse the surface, we destroy countless aspects of Mind, we diminish the ways in which we can know ourselves, we limit possibilities and we ignore all of the harmonious solutions that want to rise through us out of the land.

We are globules of land and the land will speak through us if we slow down and let it.


  1. I very much enjoyed reading this post. Recently i started a voluntary job that involves walkign along the same patch of river once a week - it is an amazing way to connect with a specific place and the species that grow and live there. I've always gone on a lot of walks and still walk every weekend too outside this area, but this regular walk in the same place is something that is deeper than that.

    I don't have a car and always travel on foot or by public transport

  2. Crafty green Poet, I envy you for living in a walkable town. What I wouldn't give to be in your shoes! Years ago I lived in a walkable town and would walk the four miles to work everyday. Part of the walk took me through a beautiful little hollow, with cow pastures and woods. I walked that stretch in all seasons and in daylight and pitch darkness and moonshine. There's nothing that can beat that kind of intimacy with the land.

    I still go for plenty of walks here, but it's not the same as using your feet daily as your primary mode of transportation. You can't help but be present with your surroundings when you walk. In our hectic, fast-paced world, few people know how to be present in each moment.

    Your weekly river walk is quite a blessing.