We keep each other alive with our stories. We need to share them, as much as we need to share food. We also require for our health the presence of good companions. One of the most extraordinary things about the land is that it knows this""and it compels language from some of us so that as a community we may converse about this or that place, and speak of the need.
Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want to not forget.
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The cold view to take of our future is that we are therefore headed for extinction in a universe of impersonal chemical, physical, and biological laws. A more productive, certainly more engaging view, is that we have the intelligence to grasp what is happening, the composure not to be intimidated by its complexity, and the courage to take steps that may bear no fruit in our lifetimes.
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In Galapagos, as elsewhere, things of the mind, including intellectual ramifications from evolutionary theory, and things of the spirit, like the feeling one gets from a Queen Anne's lace of stars in the moonless Galapagean sky, struggle toward accommodation with an elementary desire for material comfort... because so many regard this archipelago as preeminently a terrain of the mind and spirit, a locus of biological thought and psychological rejuvenation. The sheer strength of Darwin's insight into the development of biological life gently urges a visitor to be more than usually observant here- to notice, say, that while the thirteen Galapagean finches are all roughly the same hue, it is possible to separate them according to marked differences in the shapes of their bills and feeding habits.
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An oceanic expanse of pre-dawn gray white below obscures a checkered grid of Saskatchewan, a snow plain nicked by the dark, unruly lines of woody swales. One might imagine that little is to be seen from a plane at night, but above the clouds the Milky Way is a dense, blazing arch. A full moon often lights the planet freshly, and patterns of human culture, artificially lit, are striking in ways not visible in daylight. One evening I saw the distinctive glows of cities around Delhi diffused like spiral galaxies in a continuous deck of stratus clouds far below us. In Algeria and on the Asian steppes, wind-whipped pennants of gas flared. The jungle burned in incandescent spots in Malaysia and Brazil. One clear evening at 20, 000 feet over Manhattan, I could see, it seemed, every streetlight halfway to the end of Long Island. A summer lightning bolt unexpectedly revealed thousands of bright dots on the ink-black veld of the northern Transvaal: sheep.
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Because you have seen something doesn't mean you can explain it. Differing interpretations will always abound, even when good minds come to bear. The kernel of indisputable information is a dot in space; interpretations grow out of the desire to make this point a line, to give it direction. The directions in which it can be sent, the uses to which it can be put by a culturally, professionally, and geographically diverse society are almost without limit. The possibilities make good scientists chary.
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Something, most certainly, happens to a diver's emotions underwater. It is not merely a side effect of the pleasing, vaguely erotic sensation of water pressure on the body. Nor is it alone the peculiar sense of weightlessness, which permits a diver to hang motionless in open water, observing sea life large as whales around him; not the ability of a diver, descending in that condition, to slowly tumble and rotate in all three spatial planes. It is not the exhilaration from disorientation that comes when one's point of view starts to lose its 'lefts' and 'down' and gains instead something else, a unique perception that grows out of the ease of movement in three dimensions. It is not from the diminishment of gravity to a force little more emphatic than a suggestion. It is not solely exposure to an unfamiliar intensity of life. It is not a state of rapture with the bottomless blue world beneath one's feet... it is some complicated mix of these emotions, together with the constant proximity of real terror.
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The evening before I departed I stood on the rim of a lagoon on Isla Rabida. Flamingos rode on its dark surface like pink swans, apparently asleep. Small, curved feathers, shed from their breasts, drifted away from them over the water on a light breeze. I did not move for an hour. It was a moment of such peace, every troubled thread in a human spirit might have uncoiled and sorted itself into a graceful order. Other flamingos stood in the shallows with diffident elegance in the falling light, not feeding but only staring off toward the ocean. They seemed a kind of animal I had never quite seen before.
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I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled-Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan-I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.
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Lying there, I thought of my own culture, of the assembly of books in the library at Alexandria; of the deliberations of Darwin and Mendel in their respective gardens; of the architectural conception of the cathedral at Chartres; of Bach's cello suites, the philosophy of Schweitzer, the insights of Planck and Dirac. Have we come all this way, I wondered, only to be dismantled by our own technologies, to be betrayed by political connivance or the impersonal avarice of a corporation?
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I could not give up either of these worlds, neither the book I am holding nor the gleaming forest, though I have told you almost nothing of what is said here on these grim pages, from the sentences of which I've conjured images of a bleak site years ago. Here in this room, I suppose, is to be found the interior world of the book; but it opens upon a world beyond the windows, where no event has been collapsed into syntax, where the vocabulary, it seems, is infinite. The indispensable connection for me lies with the open space (of the open window ajar year round, never closed) that lets the breath of every winter storm, the ripping wind and its pelting rain, enter the room.
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Why we should believe in wolf children seems somehow easier to understand than the ways we distinguish between what is human and what is animal behavior. In making such distinctions we run the risk of fooling ourselves completely. We assume that the animal is entirely comprehensible and, as Henry Beston has said, has taken form on a plane beneath the one we occupy. It seems to me that this is a sure way to miss the animal and to see, instead, only another reflection of our own ideas.
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Once I was asked be a seatmate on a trans-Pacific flight... what instruction he should give his fifteen-year-old daughters, who wanted to be a writer. [I said], "Tell your daughter three things." Tell her to read... Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she's reading to be trash. No one can fathom what happens between a human being and written language. She may be paying attention to things in the words beyond anyone else's comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind... Second, I said, tell your daughter that she can learn a great deal about writing by reading and by studying books about grammar and the organization of ideas, but that if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn't come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing along information, of which we are in no great need. So help her discover what she means. Finally, I said, tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don't necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things. Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar. Every writer, I told him, will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three I trust. - from "A Voice
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Up there in that room, as I see it, is the reading and the thinking-through, a theory of rivers, of trees moving, of falling light. Here on the river, as I lurch against a freshening of the current, is the practice of rivers. In navigating by the glow of the Milky Way, the practice of light. In steadying with a staff, the practice of wood.
Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader: each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can help or harm a community of which he or she is a part. When I write I can imagine a child in California wishing to give away what he's just seen- a wild animal fleeing though creosote cover in the desert, casting a bright-eyed backward glance or three lines of overheard conversation that seem to contain everything we need understand to repair the gaping rift between body and soul. I look back at that boy turning in glee beneath his pigeons and know it can take a lifetime to convey what you mean, to find the opening. You watch, you set it down. Then you try again.
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It is, I think, the rarest of leisure, hard work mixed with hard pleasure, to refine one's time of deep thought or light regard into the utterly self-absorbed and equally and abundantly outward-seeking shape of the personal essay - a story comprised of found fact, of analyzed emotion, of fictive memory.
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I watched the enormity of the clouds for several minutes. What I wanted to experience in the water, I realized, was how life of the reef was layered and intertwined. I now had many individual pieces at hand: named images, nouns. How were they related? What were the verbs? Which syntaxes were indigenous to the place? I asked a dozen knowledgeable people. No one was inclined to elaborate- or they didn't know. 'Did you see the octopus?' Someone shouted after the dive. Yes, I thought, but who among us knows what it was doing? What else was THERE, just then? WHY?
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I remember sitting in this cabin in Alaska one evening reading over the notes of all these encounters, and recalling Joseph Campbell, who wrote in the conclusion to 'Primitive Mythology' that men do not discover their gods, they create them. So do they also, I thought, looking at the notes before me, create their animals.
Watching the animals come and go, and feeling the land swell up to meet them and then feeling it grow still at their departure, I came to think of the migrations as breath, as the land breathing. In spring a great inhalation of light and animals. The long-bated breath of summer. And an exhalation that propelled them all south in the fall.
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What does it mean to grow rich? Is it to have red-blooded adventures and to make a 'fortune,' which is what brought the whalers and other entrepreneurs north? Or is it, rather, to have a good family life and to be imbued with a far-reaching and intimate knowledge of one's homeland, which is what the Tununirmiut told the whalers at Pond's Bay wealth was? Is it to retain a capacity for awe and astonishment in our lives, to continue to hunger after what is genuine and worthy? Is it to live at moral peace with the universe?
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If I were to offer any advice to young writers, it would be this: be discriminating and be discerning about the work you set for yourself. That done, be the untutored traveler, the eager reader, the enthusiastic listener. Put what you learn together carefully, and then write thoughtfully, with respect both for the reader and your sources.
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Conversations are efforts toward good relations. They are an elementary form of reciprocity. They are the exercise of our love for each other. They are the enemies of our loneliness, our doubt, our anxiety, our tendencies to abdicate. To continue to be in good conversation over our enormous and terrifying problems is to be calling out to each other in the night. If we attend with imagination and devotion to our conversations, we will find what we need; and someone among us will act""it does not matter whom""and we will survive.
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When we enter the landscape to learn something, we are obligated, I think, to pay attention rather than constantly to pose questions. To approach the land as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation. And to stay in one place, to make of that one, long observation a fully dilated experience. We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine, and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language. In these ways we begin, I think, to find a home, to sense how to fit a place.
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The land retains an identity of its own, still deeper and more subtle than we can know. Our obligation toward it then becomes simple: to approach with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard...be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there.
To allow mystery, which is to say to yourself, 'There could be more...things we don't understand,' is not to damn knowledge....It is to permit yourself an extraordinary, freedom: someone else does not have to be wrong in order that you might be right...This tolerance for mystery invigorates the imagination; and it is the imagination that gives shape to the universe.