Is the forest in a constant state of change? Or is it resolutely unchanging? The author looks at both sides of the debate, with the help from all his senses and guidance from several Greek philosophers.
- by James Inabinet
At this time of year cicadas provide the background for all forest sounds. I turned my head in all directions and listened closely to perceive the roar’s nuance. At first it seemed monotonous and unchanging, but by extracting the song of a single cicada from the cacophony, I could discern a single note of several seconds duration, followed by a pause, before another cicada chimed in.
Though the cicada’s song was ever-present and continuous, it was not unchanging. More like harmonic waves than a monotone, a single cicadic note produced a song of subtle varying rhythms when combined with many other single notes to make the continuous, ever-present roar. This set up my thinking for a while about the nature of change in a forest versus the way things seemed to stay the same and ended up dozing.
I awoke to the sound of rustling at my feet and looked down to see an anole darting by. A faint smell of skunk [?] wafted on the breeze. Gazing about, I noticed chain fern along the bluff edge and titi leaves turning red in the face of impending fall. I noticed sumac turning as well, and black gum’s splotchy, red-black leaves, all signs of fall changes.
I looked for other signs. A clump of bluestems were grown now, fully replacing last year’s ghosts. The brushy ones were already in seed. Purple-clustered beautyberry fed cardinals and jays. Goldenrods had just begun to bloom. By the solstice, their fully-formed achene fruits would be blown about helter-skelter by winter winds to await spring’s promise. A gulf fritillary flew by, the first one I’d seen this year.
All the forest beings were engaged in a flurry of activity, each recognizing in its own way the transformative fall season of the summer’s order passing into winter’s death. Seeding grasses fed mice all winter. Squirrels buried acorns in a cache. The cicadas sang their exuberant song, even while producing their young that would winter underground to later emerge and sing their song. And yet, even as the forest was changing, it was still the same forest.
Inspired by this experience, I initiated a ritual practice of seeing, an integrated form of “seeing” that I call horse-medicine-seeing. With this kind of “seeing,” a person’s focus is not only on what’s right in front of them, but also on the surroundings and how the whole experience makes them feel. I had been conducting similar long, deep observation/meditation sessions at many sites on the land and surrounding ecosystems for an entire year, focusing alternately on individual organisms and whole ecosystems.
I noticed an incredible degree of dynamic order everywhere, whether in field or fen, forest or creek bank. Within the dynamism of ever-present and continual change, a sense of overarching order seemed to endure. I observed individual organisms, squirrels and water oaks, beech drops and millipedes, as they performed their unique style of being and doing. As the seasons changed, they changed.
I confirmed these observations noting that all beings, as well as the milieu itself, ever acted in the mode of Heraclitus: a mode of constant change. Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, called change the overarching form of order in the universe: “Everything flows and nothing abides . . . nothing stays fixed.” Indeed, change appeared so pervasive to him that he declared that no one can step in the same river twice because both river and person changes.
Yet even as I sat near the field, watching the bluestems change through time, from summer’s growing tall, to fall’s flowering and seeding, and finally to winter’s death to be replaced entirely in the spring with a new growing plant born from the roots of the old one, I was struck by the enduring nature of the field as a whole that seemed not to change very much at all, but acted in the mode of Parmenides: a mode of stasis, one of no change.
Parmenides, another ancient Greek philosopher, declared that “the true reality is absolutely unitary, unchanging, eternal, ‘the one.’” He considered stasis to be the overarching form of order and any and all change only apparent. Indeed, field and forest seemed eternal; through weeks, months, years, they endured. Its denizens alternately grew and withered and through it all, forest remained forest; field remained field.
Ultimately, I think both modes to be viable ways of looking at nature, each directly dependent upon how one looks at what is seen (or heard). As long as my focus remained on individual beings, I saw dynamism and change everywhere as all beings were in a continuing process of becoming. This is analogous to the single notes of multiple cicadas, flowing and ebbing–changing.
If my focus, however, remained on forest wholes, I saw stasis everywhere I looked. The forest endured year after year, remaining largely unchanged. This is analogous to the overall cicada roar, which seemed to be a monotonic, unchanging roar. Perhaps Heraclitus and Parmenides were both right.
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