To be happy in this world, especially when youth is past, it is necessary to feel oneself not merely an isolated individual whose day will soon be over, but part of the stream of life flowing on from the first germ to the remote and unknown future.
Based on some readers’ responses to my previous post, I’d like to clarify that I absolutely intend to continue publishing this blog. In fact, I intend to broaden the range of topics I write about beyond just the narrow scope of photography.
Most of my working time these days is dedicated to my next book—Be Extraordinary: Philosophical advice for Photographic (and Other) Artists. In the coming months I intend to share some bits from the working manuscript. Occasionally these days, I also write poems I hope to use in a future book project. In time, I may share some of these, too.
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Thank you for your consideration,
Keen visitors to my website may have noticed the addition of a new portfolio to my (admittedly long neglected) “Arboreal Stories” series, dedicated to ponderosa pines. I was inspired to pull these images together into a portfolio after recently spending some emotional days camping in a local ponderosa forest, witnessing the arrival of autumn and contemplating how the place has changed in recent years. Like other native conifers in this region, these beautiful and iconic giant pines will likely be mostly gone within the lifetimes of many of you now reading and extirpated entirely by the end of this century.
In my local woods, practically 100% of ponderosas show obvious signs of imminent decline (browning of needles). Alas, what may seem from afar today as a verdant sprawling woodland will soon become a skeleton forest. To wit, while the image at the bottom of this post may seem deceptively lush, the reality of this forest is perhaps better illustrated by the image on the right, taken off a forest road no more than 20 miles away. (I should mention that logging, in this case, is not the primary cause of the decline. Climate change is. These felled trees were already dead or dying before they were cut.)
“When we try to pick out anything by itself,” wrote John Muir, “we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” This is certainly true of dominant tree species. When the ponderosa pines are gone, an entire vibrant community of life will be gone with them: a community I have shared much of my own life with in recent decades. Spending as much time as I do among the wild places of this high desert, I have witnessed in recent years profound changes to its various biomes.
It may be tempting to consider these changes in terms like destruction or decline, but in truth (and apart from the added temptation to assign blame) I think it is more apt to describe them objectively as transition and adaptation to a new ecological reality. Still, I can’t help a subjective sense of loss and deep sadness. My love of these places and the lives they harbor, my time exploring and living among them for so many years, have been the backdrops for some my fondest memories. But I also recognize the wisdom in W. Somerset Maugham’s words: “If change is of the essence of existence one would have thought it only sensible to make it the premise of our philosophy.” Alas, sensible is not always easy. But the alternatives—delusion, self-deception, willful ignorance, cognitive dissonance—are not within my power. “A man,” wrote Albert Camus, “is always a prey to his truths. Once he has admitted them, he cannot free himself from them.”
While the famed stages of grief may be inescapable, it seems wise to seek consciously the shortest path to the final one: acceptance. Ultimately, there is no point in bemoaning the ruthless laws of natural evolution. When environments change, species that can no longer survive in them become extinct and new ones take over. In time, new biomes are formed, always temporarily. The changes I am witnessing and grieving today will someday seem in (someone’s) hindsight as eminently important to the rise of whatever community of life will rule this place in centuries or millennia to come, just as what we call today the “Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event” some 66 million years ago, leading to the extinction of most dinosaurs (along with 3/4 of all plant and animal species of the time), has cleared the path to the dominion of mammals and the evolution of our own species.
In time (which will come), long after the ponderosa pines are gone, and likely after the species of great ape I happen to be is also gone, the very geography of this place will change, too. The sandstone desert below me and the vast volcanic plateau under my feet will erode away, seas and rivers will come and go, ocean currents will be re-routed, climate will change again and again, continents will continue to drift, collide, float, buckle, and subside. Perhaps another meteorite will hit the Earth and shake things up. In a quarter-billion years, it is predicted that a new supercontinent will form—Pangea Ultima—that will not be hospitable to mammalian life. A billion years after that (give or take), it’s unlikely that the Earth will be able to support any life at all. Not too long after that, cosmically speaking, the Earth itself, along with the entire Solar System, will wither into dust.
What may come later—billions or even trillions of years later—is still a matter of some disagreement among scientists, but one thing is certain: trillions of years will pass, and our universe (now in its infancy at age 13.7 billion years) will continue to expand, evolve, and change in profound ways. In this perspective, my life and the lives of ponderosa pines… all lives to ever exist on Earth… are equally important and meaningful—which is also to say, equally unimportant and meaningless in any objective way. The conclusion seems self-evident: life is only important and meaningful as the subjective experiences of those living, while they are living. Objective meaninglessness being as much a part of existence as change, it’s seems sensible that it, too, should be a premise of our philosophy.
What does one do with such knowledge? For starters, feel both humbled and liberated by the recognition of things in their proper perspective. On the scale of time and space as we know them (and with the realization that they may be far grander than we can know them), the transience and petty preoccupations of our (or any other) species become trivial. What remains pertinent is to decide how to best use what is by objective account a minuscule portion of time given to each of us to be conscious and alive in: the infinitesimally small span of existence over which we may have some (perhaps illusory) degree of control: our own lives. As Michel de Montaigne put it, “The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you.”
For myself, within whatever span of living I may yet have, I’d like to spend more time among the ponderosa pines, while I and they are still here, to savor their beauty; to soak in and to commit to memory as much as I can of their sights, scents, and sounds; to commune more often with the beautiful beings who live among them and whose home, like mine—like ours—will soon fade into the great expanses of spacetime. Why? Because in the years ahead I want to remember—as vividly as I can—what these experiences were like. Because, as Rebecca Solnit put it, “to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”
It seems sensible to me that, if loss is inevitable, I may as well strive to be rich in it.