By Nomita Khatri
A week into lockdown I read a news article from Northern India. Excitement and wonder were expressed in being able to see the Dhauladhar range from towns in the Punjab. India, at the time of writing this article, is on day 35 of a nation-wide lockdown in response to the virus Covid-19, that has stripped us of our normal reference points and brought with it a period of imposed silence from which to look at the world. Lockdown has allowed the old ‘normal’ to crumble. A normal shaped by an industrial society that separates people from the environment leading to the perspective that humans wield control over its non-human residents. A more breath-taking confirmation of the depth of our connection with the natural world, is hard to imagine as the Dhauladhar’s re-emerged from the air pollution that had until recently, obscured it.
Possibilities In Broken Routines
As humans, we cultivate routines while navigating familiar landscapes and places, day after day. We give little thought to the way in which we are seeing things and hence what we know. Phenomenologist James Cameron believes that this state of normal awareness or natural attitude can be broken consciously to question experience and consciousness. How we see helps to situate ourselves in our surroundings – an important skill to cultivate in this time between habitual-normal and the discomfort of the unknown-new.
As blue skies re-appeared across the country where grey-brown smog often made up the visible dome above, with the drop in pollution levels, our social media feeds began seeing an increase in #Balconybirding along with a plethora of non-human signs of life that surround us as another Indian summer unfolds. I am inferring two things from this observed pattern – the first, that nature heals herself remarkably without human intervention. Secondly, the disruption of our ‘normal awareness’ has brought with it a sharpening of our senses that makes lockdown a sensuous experience. That is, we are more attentive to the information our body’s senses are perceiving, connecting us to the outside, and in turn bringing our attention back to ourselves. In a world obscured by routine, seeing or gazing, if consciously cultivated, can allow the much needed shift in perspective we need at this time, because being responsive to beauty, being in love, alters our behaviour. A practice that might be the radical piece that helps us preserve the Earth and consequently our own species.
Deepening The Gaze
Contemplari in Latin, means to observe or gaze attentively.
I reached up to pluck a piece of plastic hanging off a branch, muttering to myself about the use of single-use plastic littered everywhere and found myself holding a snake-skin instead. The scent of a freshly watered garden is carried to my nostrils on a tepid wind blowing into my face. I gaze lazily at my find. The memory of a previous year in which I found a fragment of snake skin too shredded to ask for identification comes swiftly, along with the feeling of being under a sun fiercer in comparison to the one I was experiencing now. The rice fields are burnt, patch-by-patch, in readiness for the next planting season. This year I’ve smelt, then heard and felt two April showers.
The reminder that there is a time for everything to shed sits in my hands, connecting me to summers past and the non-human world who experiences it with me, visible to me or not. In most intellectual traditions words are used to communicate what we see by compartmentalising and pruning our felt experience to identify and describe things while being increasingly unfeeling to the relationships between them. Gazing has made me aware of the armour I live with, without which the experience of the world can be particularly painful. I experience it as an insensitivity marked by detachment, that keeps me ever-so slightly from connecting fully with it. Philosopher and cultural ecologist David Abram calls it, “collective myopia.” Perceptual psychologist Laura Sewall says, “as the visible world becomes meaningful and vital, we feel it in our bodies. The sensory world thus becomes directly embodied in us; the relationship is visceral, and subjective experience becomes sensuality. We fall in love.”
I watch the play of light on the scales as I twist and turn the snakeskin between my fingers. I hold its length marvelling at the three, four and five sided shapes lying next to each other to form a pattern decreasing in size as my eyes move towards its tail. Light from the setting sun catches in the place that its eye sockets would have sat, filling the translucent emptiness within, with shades of golden and brown. In the cycle that is Life -Death- Rebirth, shedding is vital.
To say that I literally fell in love with that piece of snake-skin, beautiful though it was, would be a stretch. The conceptual connection that felt more accurate to this visual exploration was the insight that humanity-in-lockdown was experiencing a time of shedding. I remembered that nature is not separate from me and in that moment felt a connection to myself, brought about by taking the time to observe colours, form and texture. I experienced, however fleetingly, the reactionary monologue in my mind long enough to step out of it. Not looking at the snake skin to simply name it as I normally do, with my boundaries tightly drawn, I feel softened in the moment.
To See Takes Time
A piece of writing by environmentalist Erazim Kohak comes to mind. Kohak asks us to, “set aside learned ways of perceiving the world as dead matter for your use and see if you can recover again your actual perception of the world as a community of beings to whom you are meaningfully related.” In the current storm that we find ourselves in, I have the privilege to be in the boat that allows me to use this pause to pay attention to how I see the connection between reports of poverty, pollution, ozone depletion, death of species and illness itself. By consciously choosing to simply gaze in the golden blaze of another setting sun I remembered that I too was an animal made up of the elements, earth, sky, wind and water and affected by it as much as my actions have an effect on it.
Georgia O’ Keeffe said, “to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”
Practicing softening our gaze to allow the natural world to permeate our compartmentalised lives to see the interconnections between our choices and its effect on the world brings alive our choice in how we choose to act. This means accepting that we are not in control. It also means learning to trust our animal bodies and to see with our imaginations and hearts.
Amidst the joys, discomforts and indeed pain that this brief pause from our old normal brings, dare we take the time to befriend ourselves? Dare we choose to act out of the remembrance that we are in-fact Nature? As we re-adjust our gaze and sense into the spaces between things, will we choose to learn to tend to the most vulnerable among us and to the language-less but viscerally felt non-human world?
- Laura Sewall, 1999. Numb and Not-Noticing. Sight and Sensibility: The eco psychology of Perception. New York: Penguin Putnam pg. 67
- Laura Sewall, 1995, The Skill of Ecological Perception. In T. Roszak, M. E. Gomes, & A. D. Kanner (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind (pp. 201-215). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books
Nomita is a Masters student at Schumacher College and the University of Wales Trinity St. David and part of The Curio-city Collective family. She is also a graphic designer and bio-dynamic gardener and lives in Goa. Some of her writing can be accessed here and here.