I’ve been spending a lot of time in Toronto’s green spaces: the ravines, the parklands, the rivers. Partly, it’s novel research. But also, it’s keeping me grounded. Rooted, if you will. (Terrible pun. Sorry, not sorry.)
Over the past few months, I’ve realized something. When I move through the urban streetscape, it’s a very visually oriented experience. Yes, traffic rumbles and horns honk and the stoplights all have auditory signals, but I’m mostly relying on my eyes. And it goes without saying that this is my experience: someone differently sighted will have an entirely different way of interacting with the city.
But in the ravines and along the ponds, I rely on my ears much more. Rustling leaves and sudden splashes, birdsong and squirrel yells—that’s how I put together the thousand tiny dramas unfolding all around me. Sight comes later: you hear a plaintive warbling, then spy the baby bird in a hollow tree. Catch the whisper of a cattail blowing the wrong way, then notice the frog chilling in its shadow.
Really, though, it’s all the senses working together. Except taste. As lovely as the ravines are, it’s probably not a good idea to lick anything you find in them. Digression aside, the trees become a sort of tapestry around you, with eye, ear, nose, and touch all working together to create a living, holistic picture of what’s happening.
It humbles you. To become part of that scene, you need to become part of the scenery, too. And so, you must become quiet. You must become still. You must get outside your own head and worries and actually notice the chipmunk and squirrel staring each other down in the branches above.
I’m not articulating this well, but—it’s like moving from first-person to third-person. We aren’t the centre of the universe, in the woods. We’re one more drama, one more set of noises. And when you start to let go of all the preoccupations—when you actually listen—the details start emerging more and more quickly, like stars coming out in the evening. First one, then another, and another.
Lurking frog. Dragonfly landing on water lily. Fish cruising in its shadow.
And it occurs to me that writing can be the same way. Writing isn’t about us, the authors. It’s about the stories. But I think, like people blustering through the woods, scattering birds and breaking branches, we sometimes get so caught up in ourselves that we can’t hear what the story is doing. We can’t become part of it because we are so focused on ourselves: the Writer.
So we need to become quiet, still, and get outside our own heads. Actually listen to the story: that sure little voice inside, persistent as birdsong.
For me, if I can get into the headspace I find in the ravines—calm and open, joyful and humbled—I think the writing should start to pick up. I hope so, anyway.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Jauchzet dem Herren,” by Heinrich Schütz. We’re doing it in choir soon, but it’s been in my regular listening rotation for a few years. I like double-choir pieces, where one choir answers another or follows the first like a round. Seeing how they fit together is immensely satisfying, and you get this super exciting building effect from the echoes.
So I had a visitor recently that did the whole, “Don’t you wish you lived in the 1800s?” thing, and I gave my usual response of enjoying twenty-first century plumbing, medicine, and women’s suffrage. But then he asked,
“Is there anything you like better about the past?”
And I had a think. Because, yes—there is something I like better.
I appreciate the closer ties to the natural world and its rhythms. I passed our raspberry bushes today and the raspberries are all gone: their season is over. It’s a sign that summer is winding on. Conversely, the hops are developing later than they ought. The vines themselves are fairly lush (one seems to have become particularly virulent) but the blooms aren’t as far along as I’d expect.
But hey, the Queen Anne’s lace and thistles are coming into their own, and soon enough the leaves will turn (the maple by the front gates first—always—probably in another three weeks if it keeps to schedule), and then I’ll be able to get good Ontario apples again.
The geese will fly south; the frogs and turtles will disappear for a little while. The Summer Triangle will dance offstage, and we’ll all greet Orion before the winter holidays. Then sometime in March, I’ll be on robin-watch.
I live in Canada’s largest city.
While I like indoor plumbing and heating, the insular nature of modern living is something I do regret. For many people…well, it doesn’t matter what season it is, does it? Turn on the lights, adjust the furnace/fan/AC, and it can be a bright and balmy 25 C all year around. There’s a convenience to that, but it also fills me with a vaguely horrified, un-moored feeling.
I need shape to my year. I need it as surely as people did centuries ago, with their patterns of saints’ days and agricultural markers. The raspberries are gone, and that means something to me. Being aware of the greater tapestry grounds me. It brings me outside my head, and I’m learning—if I’m too much within my own thoughts, I burn out. My nerves wind too tight to create, to write.
Beyond my day job, I’m trying to find ways to keep this contact with nature and its seasons. Whether it’s slipping out into the ravines more, or finding more of Toronto’s parks and gardens, or actually heading up north next summer.
I’ll be waiting for the hops to bloom.
What I’m Listening to this Week
The liturgical calendar also structures my year quite nicely. And we’ve hit the part of summer where I dearly miss my choir. “If Ye Love Me” is a delightful old chestnut. Particularly love the altos’ harmony around 0:30, and the cascading repetitions of, “That he…” around 0:40.
I feel like if you’ve sung this piece, you fall into one of two camps: “E’en the SPEERT of truth,” or, “E’en the SPRIT of truth.” (I am the latter.)