“Audubon’s real gift to us is awareness. And in that awareness is the beginning of all true conservation.”
-from Audubon, the Film
The air was warm, yet the trees were dressed only in their winter bones. The paths were thick with the mud of a false spring. As we traversed the tongue of land between two freshwater reservoirs, white ribbons of water on either side of us gleamed through the stripes of bare trees. Patterns of icemelt fascinated my eyes: swirls, dashes, almost violent-looking collisions between zones of ice and water. Or was the thawing process gentler than it looked? Thick bitter ice hanging on even under the glare of un-January-like sunshine, but then the edges relent, easing themselves into a bath of adjacent meltwater, and the swallows of the lake welcome the previously frozen into its deep, dark belly.
It was a short walk that day, the first in quite some time. Hibernation comes so naturally when you live in the concrete confines of a city. The Middlesex Fells are only a 15-minute drive from my house, and though the thrum of the expressway is never far from your ears, one can get lost in a new world of towering white pines and constant surprises of water views. Mostly, though, it feels like arriving home after escaping jail. Between the branches and boulders, the rock upon which you sit to contemplate the shifting lakes, and the dappled light only possible in a true forest, peace and understanding waits.
Though guilt does arise. I wonder what has taken me so long to get here? How could I forget myself for so long? Later, I watch a trailer for “Audubon: The Film” about the 19th-century artist-naturalist John James Audubon. I see a man who dedicated his life to immortalizing beautiful creatures, to observing them and sharing them with the rest of the world. “A man who genuinely changed art and genuinely changed science”, he taught the rest of us to see what we couldn’t see. To be aware of what we didn’t know was there. Where else do art and science cohabitate more inextricably than in the depths of wilderness or even the odd urban forest? Back in our compartmentalized human-built grids, we are forced to choose a direction, rather than drinking from all senses, all directions, like in a moment of stillness at dusk when a wood thrush’s ethereal call echoes and bounces alongside fading sunlight in the trees. Unlike the forest, the choices in our world seem to carry so much finality to them, so much consequence. Even when you’re lost in the forest, you can turn around and retrace your steps; and yet, though your progress is backward, it seems as if you still receive as many gifts on your way out as you did on the way in. But when a choice is wrong here in “real life”, it can bring you to more and more confusing places, tangling you up in a tight knot. Blocking out inspiration and truth.
Awareness is elusive. And by definition, then, so is the conservation of the self. The only thing I can conclude is that one’s awareness needs guidance, a teacher or mentor, to be constantly maintained. John J. Audubon, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau: somehow they all maintained their own awareness, and became teachers to the ones who needed external guidance. How few of those mentors exist now! Where are the voices that cry out in our modern world that all goodness depends on saving ourselves and saving the wild? There are activists, yes, and environmental initiatives. But how many people truly know the wisdom of the forest? How many go to sit on rock and ponder- not only to bag a peak, or bike a new trail, or walk the dog- but really just sit and listen with all one’s senses? And how many of those actually share this wisdom loudly enough to be heard above the noise of the city? Is it even possible, though, for those enlightened voices to be heard? Is it too late?
The progress of our world is spectacular. In our societies, we are inching closer to freedom among people, to equality of ideas. One wouldn’t want to erase such progress and turn back time. But if I could at least travel back to the days of the eloquent and celebrated naturalists, and bring a few of them with me to present day, I would. The world needs them more now than ever.