Why I Make Art

Big Butt Trail
acrylic on canvas
12″ x 16″

You Have a Belonging Here

The hermit thrush has a song
that tumbles from his throat
like a spring from the oldest stones,
a water that cascades through the mist-laden air,
a song that caresses your skin and
falls into your body,
you, an unintended listener,
rapt in the code of thrush love.

And the wake robin has a bloom
wavering in the cool air,
built in the architecture of ancient triangles,
red as blood, and yet

And yes, the wind has a body
that rustles through the smallest leaves of May,
through stiff spruce needles
and limber branches,
a body that flushes through the forest
to suddenly
breathe upon you.

And you have a belonging here
you did not expect.
You could have walked in with your camera and your checklist
but instead you said a prayer
that opened the temple gates of your own body.
And look now what has come in.
Look now what has come in.

Stephanie Thomas Berry

Do you have a birthday tradition? Mine is hiking Big Butt Trail. Last year my husband and I were drenched in a thunderstorm. I was certain I was going to die by lightning strike. On my birthday. This year, however, the weather was fine―overcast and chilly and perfect weather for trilliums, which bloom in absolute profusion in mid-May on this trail. Hence the tradition.

I know it seems silly, but when I wasn’t swooning over Wake Robins and Hermit Thrushes and Rosy Twisted Stalks I found myself wondering what exactly is the benefit of walking a trail? I mean, obviously we like to be in Nature, it just feels good. But what’s happening, inside us, energetically, when we walk through the forest?

A photograph of the wildflower Rosy Twisted Stalk
Rosy Twisted Stalk

The obvious answer is found in the Japanese concept of forest bathing. We can purify ourselves by bathing in the energies of the forest. But I’ve been wondering about this a lot. It feels like there’s more to this story.

Lately been spending a lot of time in the forest. Something happens in that community of trees and wildflowers and medicine plants. It makes me think of a favorite quote I’ve stashed away. It’s not about forest bathing at all. In fact, it’s about Islamic design, and from the opening paragraph of the book by the same name, by David Sutton:

The role of sacred art is to support the spiritual life of those whom it surrounds, to instill a way of perceiving the world and the subtle realities behind it.

You could, easily and perfectly, insert forest bathingin the place of sacred art.

The role of forest bathing is to support the spiritual life of those whom [the forest] surrounds, to instill a way of perceiving the world and the subtle realities behind it.

Because it is those subtle realities that wash over you, in the forest: the thrush’s song, the bloom of the Wake Robin, the wind singing in the hollows. Something is happening. Meditating in the forest is a fine way to feel it. Especially on your birthday.

Just for fun, consider how inserting hiking into this quote has a less impressive effect.

The role of hiking is to support the spiritual life of those whom [the forest] surrounds, to instill a way of perceiving the world and the subtle realities behind it.

Perhaps that’s part of the question I asked myself as I trudged up a steep section of the trail. What is happening within as we walk in the forest? In that physical challenge I considered the dichotomy between our culture’s emphasis on action, which I was very much engaged in at that moment, and our very human need for something softer, quieter…our need to purify our energy, to nourish our spirits. With forest-bathing. With art. With poetry. With ceremony.

In our coffee culture of productivity worship, these precious practices can seem less valuable. Less worthy of our time. But I sense that tide is shifting. Meditation is mainstream. And as Christianity, the long spiritual tradition of the West, becomes more brittle, and science dominates how we see the world, there is a rising search for practices that nourish the spirit. And there is a quality of refined feeling to these practices. As if, by becoming very still, we can feel the beauty of the world in a way we couldn’t before. As if we are relaxing into the sacred pattern of the Earth that is constantly holding and nourishing us.

That sacred pattern, by the way, is a cornerstone of Islamic art. David Sutton closes his little book Islamic Design with these thoughts:

Traditional Islamic ornament is eminently functional — but its function is not utilitarian. It seeks to compensate for the spiritual losses of civilisation by re-establishing something of the primordial beauty of virgin nature, and to transport the viewer from immersion in the mundane to serene contemplation.

Serene contemplation. It’s as if all these soft, quiet things reach into the same deep well within us. Little wavering buckets reaching down, down, down into the well of Life that shimmers in us all. Only with our intent can we bring its nourishment into our active, everyday world.

And that’s why I make art, why I write―to bring into awareness this water of the Spirit. To create an image that speaks to a different way of perceiving the world. An image that strengthens our perceptions of the subtle realities and the sacred patterns of the Earth. A poem that affirms the feelings that wash over our skin when we pause and listen to the quiet, effervescent, courageous Song of Life bubbling through time, through the forest, through us all.

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