Henry Miller wrote of the Big Sur coast south of San Francisco:
If the soul were to choose an arena in which to stage its agonies, this would be the place for it. One feels exposed—not only to the elements, but to the sight of God. Naked, vulnerable, set against an overwhelming backdrop of might and majesty, one’s problems become magnified because of the proscenium on which the conflict is staged.
The Sur coast is a landscape of immensity. The western horizon encompasses a vast expanse of empty ocean where humanity leaves no track, no sign of our passage, no imprint upon nature’s harsh indifference. The eastern horizon is bound by steep waves of stone—the coast range hills—mountains cleft by ravines where the sound of rock slides rumble and cliffs fall sheer to the sea. It is a landscape naked and exposed to the sight of God.
Big Sur coast at sunset. Photo attribution: Rick Pawl, flickr.com.
Where the nature of the Sur coast is immensity, the northern coast of Washington is one of intimacy. Clouds descend to the earth, fog rises to the sky, dampness drips from leaves like rain, and the horizon encloses you like a polished shell. It is an equally dramatic coast but a different drama. To paraphrase Henry Miller, “If the soul were to choose an arena in which to dream, this would be the place.
We have no mythology of place,
no stories to explain our experience on the land.
The thing is, we have no mythology to explain either landscape. Unlike the aboriginal peoples who lived here first, we have no mythology of place, no stories to interpret our experience of the land. We have no technology of the psyche other than psychology which, like the rest of our technology, seems external, manipulative, coercive and utterly inadequate to explain our place in the world.
I think we have been driven mad by our lack of a compelling mythology. How else explain our unchecked rampage toward extinction? We have turned on the earth as if it were an enemy and made war against our gods.
Perhaps the medieval alchemists were right: As above, so below. Perhaps the vast reaches of the landscape reflect the vast space within ourselves, as if galaxies spin like Catherine wheels in the space between our cells.
We’ve lost our place in the world. We’ve come adrift and feel ourselves forsaken.
Maybe there’s a modern myth that appeals more to the vocabulary of our time—the holographic universe. Any piece of a hologram contains a complete image of the whole. Each shard of a shattered hologram contains all of the information of the original, a complete replica. We mirror the universe in ourselves. As above, so below.
Washington coast in fog. Photo attribution: Jody Miller, flickr.com
But we’ve lost our place in the world. We’ve come adrift and feel ourselves forsaken. In our anger we thought to slay the gods, the high gods and the local gods of place. Instead we turned sharp blades upon ourselves.
Tragedy looms for our species
…if we can’t regain our balance,
…if we can’t find again that sense of mystery that makes the world holy,
…if we can’t believe that the universe resides within ourselves,
…if we can’t acknowledge the sanctity of earth and sky, sea and shore.
If we are not here, the sun will still set on that nameless southern coast and polish the ocean like brass and the clouds will still entangle the coastal forests of the north like a landscape of dream. Over time, the earth will regain its balance. Nature will spin off new complexities like sparks from a Catherine wheel. But what we might have become will be lost and also lost what we might have contributed to the whole if our sense of responsibility had kept pace with our power and we had not descended into madness.