The Gift of Gaze

Should we learn to love the planet’s torn places? As Trebbe Johnson explores in “Gaze Even Here,” her essay in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion, finding beauty amid ruin might be an exercise in both salvation and compassion. We asked Trebbe, who’s the founder of Radical Joy for Hard Times and the author of The World Is a Waiting Lover, a few questions about her essay in the new issue of the magazine.

Also: Join Orion for a discussion with Trebbe Johnson on November 13 at 7 p.m. EST—we’ll talk about the emotional impact of ecological degradation and how to retain a love of place through trying times. As always, it’s free and open to all, but registration is required. Register here.


You write that the French poet Francis Ponge believed we cannot truly see a thing until we allow it to “disarrange” us. That’s an important idea in the essay—can you say more about it?

I think the important word here is “allow.” The natural world is always doing interesting things that we notice at the periphery of our attention. If we follow Ponge’s advice, we won’t simply say, as we’re so often inclined to do, “Hmm, wonder what that’s all about,” and then hurry on; we’ll pause and hang out with what we’ve noticed for a while. We won’t try to figure it out, name it, or judge it—we’ll just become absorbed in it, because it is mysterious and fascinating.

What was the last thing to disarrange you?

Just yesterday I was driving down a country road, and off to the right I saw a broad-winged hawk skimming and swooping over a field, no doubt looking for mice. It was so graceful, dipping up and down, flying maybe twelve feet up in the air, then diving low to the grass.

I stopped the car and lowered the window and just sat and watched. Every now and then the hawk would hover just a few inches from the ground, as if it were about to pounce. A couple of times it flipped to one side, and I saw its white underbelly, the white of its open wings. That was definitely a magnificent disarrangement.

Your essay is titled “Gaze Even Here.” Why gaze? What is it about gazing that’s different than, say, staring or gaping or looking?

Gazing is a particular kind of looking—a relaxed looking, an inviting looking. As I point out in the essay, babies gaze. They are open to this brand new world they’re in and to the interesting things it’s revealing. Lovers gaze, too. They absorb the face of their beloved and make themselves equally absorbable.

Staring is a form of looking that’s greedy, and not only inquisitive but acquisitive. We stare at a movie star in a restaurant, a fight on a street corner. We grab onto these things, and demand something of them. As for gaping, that implies a kind of incredulity—the first response, mouth wide open—to a moment of surprise. So gazing is important because it is both open and relaxed about entering into a more intimate relationship with the world.

Holding a gaze is an important part of your work with your organization, Radical Joy for Hard Times. Can you tell us a bit about that work?

Radical Joy for Hard Times reconnects people with the wounded places they’ve loved. We are deeply attached to the places where we live and that we’ve visited. They’re part of our story, our spirituality, our understanding of the world. When those places are damaged—whether by pollution, development, mining, logging, or something else—we feel sorrow, but our culture gives us no way to deal with that pain. Often we end up ignoring the place or telling ourselves that it’s inappropriate to feel sad about nature.

Radical Joy for Hard Times acknowledges that we can’t heal the place, but we can heal the relationship between the place and the people who love it. For instance, we have a simple practice called the Earth Exchange that anyone can do any time. The first step is simply to gaze, to let the place in: spend time alone there, walking or sitting, letting the place reveal itself to you. Then share stories with others about what the place has meant, both before and after it was harmed. Finally, make a simple act of beauty from materials found on site.

In June of every year, we sponsor a Global Earth Exchange, when people all over the world go to wounded places on the same day to make beauty. People have made the most extraordinary things from stones, beach litter, ash, sand, twigs. This year, in Japan, a group made origami birds for victims of the tsunami and nuclear emergency.

To spend time with something painful—like the threat of climate change, or a patch of cut forest—is to accept a certain kind of burden. What does this give us, as well as take from us?

This practice is helpful in many ways. It enables us to confront things we had previously avoided, and knowing we can do this has huge effects on how we confront difficult things in the rest of our lives.

Also, coming together with other people and sharing feelings of sorrow, fear, anger, and guilt lessens the burden on each individual. And not infrequently people have a lovely, unexpected encounter with a person they had previously thought of as the enemy—the miner, the guy fracking the gas, the housing developer.

When we go to a wounded place we almost always discover that what we had imagined would be too painful or depressing to look at is not. That place we loved is still alive, and there is something beautiful about it, something surprising that will be revealed to us.

Trebbe Johnson’s essay in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion is available in print and digital editions. Go ahead, subscribe!