LIFE, THE WONDER OF IT ALL
Chris Maser and Reese Halter
Chris: I am particularly blessed in touching and being touched by the miracle of life—a miracle of which I am an inseparable part. I have been privileged to travel in many lands, near and afar, from ocean strand to lofty mountain, from parching desert to steaming jungle, and through all the seasons of the year. In each have I found beauty unsurpassed: it may have been the unimpeded view of the Southern Cross in the night sky over the western desert of Egypt, the odor of jasmine (from the Persian yasmin, “gift from God” in Arabic) along the Nile, or the smile of a Nubian child with whom I played; it may have been the iridescence of a Nepalese sunbird in the deep forest, the exquisite flavor of a ripe mango in the Terai, or the grandeur of a Himalayan peak seen from timberline; it may have been the fuzzy face of an Austrian edelweiss or a mountain meadow in the Swiss Alps, where a teasing, summer breeze caused the grasses to sway and the flowers to dance; it may have been soft touch of a giant fern in southern Chile or the alert stance of an exquisite, spotted tiger beetle on a jungle trail in Malaysia; it may have been the Pyramids of the Sun and of the Moon in Teotihuacán, Mexico; or it may have been the intricate structure of the Grand Shinto shrine in Ise City, Japan; or it may have been the leaping glide of a flying fish in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Every such encounter is for me a harmonious experience along the continuum of my evolution in consciousness through which the undying wonder of life unfolds.
Beauty in form is clearly visible to our senses, from the microscopic to the infinite, from the delicate design of a diatom to the violent death throes of a star. But the beauty of function is often hidden in the act of living—be it a “lammergeier” or bearded vulture riding the thermals high in the Himalayas, a male rufous hummingbird performing its courtship dive in my garden, a polar bear wandering the Arctic sea ice in search of seals, or the “emergent properties,” by means of which termites in the Australian savannah construct their twenty-foot-tall towers. Each of life’s actions represents participation in a feedback loop whereby life serves life along the evolutionary path of Planet Earth, a lesson that began for me many years ago in a humble roadside ditch.
To me as a little boy, the ditch was a marvelous thing. I loved the ditch and all its mysteries. I neither thought about nor cared a whit whether the water was being brought to or removed from a particular place, or what the reason might be. It had only one purpose, to be my playground.
“My ditch” was a place of innocence and wonder; a place of mystery and of boyhood imaginings; a place to touch the Earth, the water, and the sky. It was a place where the green arms of cattails; sedges; rushes; and the tall, swaying grasses enfolded me, hid me, and bade me stay while I learned the songs of the seasons.
It was a place where the water spoke quietly of the harmonious cycles of life, where grasshoppers and crickets trilled, and gray-tailed meadow mice scurried along their secret runways. It was a place where wandering breezes carried the perfumes of flowers and the melodies of birds, where gaily-colored butterflies dotted magical afternoons. It was a place brimming with life, a place where the harmonious cycles of the sun, moon, and stars guided a constant becoming as life flowed through death into life and the seasons melted one into another. And it was the place where I learned about the wonder of friendship and love.
But most of all, it was the place where I first began to understand that the smallest piece of anything was still a part of the whole and that to understand the whole, I must value the pieces. I not only began to see the eternal flow between the pieces and the whole but also began the long, slow process of being born unto myself in the greater context of the universe as one of Nature’s pieces reflected in the spiritual and ecological perfection of that infinitesimal spot on Earth that my friend, Billy, and I called “our ditch.”
It was here between the ages of six and twelve, that I was simply open to the mysteries of the universe, and they were revealed to me in all their splendor. Here, within the banks of a humble, roadside ditch, I saw the crowning jewel of the universe unfold. I saw life and death and change. I saw Creation, and I found the Eternal Mystery, which many refer to as “God.”
A ditch starts out as a raw, naked wound; a furrow in the skin of the Earth, for whatever reason it had been dug. Then Nature takes over, molding and sculpting the furrow with erosion, using wind, water, and ice as implements. Slowly the gapping furrow begins to round and crinkle as flowing water moves jousting grain and shifting pebble here and there. Little by little the ditch bottom loses all sign of human tool, and the once-raw wound becomes a labyrinth of nooks and crannies, each with a pair of eyes silently watching the world.
As the ditch’s bottom transforms, Nature plants seeds along its banks, creating a backdrop of swaying grasses and brightly colored flowers, of protecting shrubs and stately trees. On this stage unfolds Nature’s play, enacted with the animals that live along the ditch, burrow in its banks, and visit with the seasons, wherein each adds a touch of creativity to the overall effect. Crickets lead the orchestra, with birds as minstrels and butterflies as the chorus line. Add two little boys, and magically you have a portrait of the ditch that was to be such an integral, formative part of my childhood. Then, as I got older, I saw a ditch as habitat for small creatures wild and free and as a mural for Nature’s seasons.
Now, as I follow the labyrinth of contemporary life through the decade of my seventies, I increasingly understand that everything in the universe is connected in a cosmic web of interactive relationships powered by the eternal exchange of energy; all entrained in vibrant, ever-changing, self-reinforcing feedback loops. In turn, each relationship creates a never-ending story of novelty manifested through the dance of cause and effect, stories that began with the original cause—the Eternal Mystery.
As Providence would have it, I met Reese Halter in my sojourn on this magnificent Planet Earth and found a friend who, in his own way, not only sees the beauty of Nature but also writes about its wonders.
Reese: I grew up on the Northern Plains of Canada on land my family owned along of the Assiniboine River within the city of Winnipeg. I spent my early childhood summers exploring glacial Lake Winnipeg. My earliest memories are of my Dad, my brother Jason, and me planting trees every spring either on our land or at the lake. After the long winter, I relished our spring tree-planting ritual.
Springtime on the prairies bustles with activity, and it all seems to happen at once. We had a wood-duck nesting box strapped onto an old Manitoba maple tree. Each year, for as long as I can remember, I would go down to the river carefully and climb the nearby tree to see if the box was active. Avoiding being dive-bombed by the male, I thrilled to finding the box occupied.
One year, however, the river was extremely high with a late-spring melt, jammed with ice crunching at break-up. I couldn’t get down to investigate the box. I was eager to reach the box when the waters receded, but saddened to find no signs of nesting. A couple days later, while investigating another part of our yard, I noticed some unusual activity in an old elm tree. Sure enough the wood ducks had returned! They were living in an old woodpecker cavity instead of our box near the river.
Later that spring, I witnessed two remarkable events. Eight wood ducklings left their nest for the first time, in an epic 11-foot fall. Each miraculously survived hitting the Earth, bouncing a couple times before coming to a stop. Their mother, anxiously awaiting their arrival, lined them up and marched them off on their first trek to the river’s edge, 1,600 feet away.
Equally memorable was the interaction of the wood ducks with our family dog. She was a Doberman named Bruni, gentle as a lamb, but with a bark that would stop you in your tracks. She too happened to be in the vicinity of the ducklings’ inaugural march. As she started toward them, I bellowed a command, stopping her in her tracks. She sat down obediently, and we both watched as all eight ducklings waddled to the river.
One of the most pleasant times of my childhood was autumn. I loved the odor of autumn on the prairies, raking leaves, and making leaf forts. I admit to enjoying burning leaf piles. I can’t tell you how many maple helicopters, winged maple seeds, I picked and threw, but it must have been thousands. I always marveled at how active all the squirrels were as they assiduously collected acorns, maple seeds, and any other seeds they could find before the onset of yet another long and cold winter.
My blissful experiences observing Nature as a child fostered a deep appreciation for the natural world. And it was in those formative years that I knew my passion for nature would somehow lead me into the study of forests. I studied at three universities, spanning both hemispheres, being duly admitted to a doctorate in tree science from The University of Melbourne, Australia.
The natural world is all around whether we are in urban or rural settings. Yet, what it really takes is to be aware of it. Some people seek out a wilderness experience, but local parks or preserves are sanctuaries for many. Each season has truly distinct scents, sounds, sights, and tastes. I encourage you to take your children to these special outdoor places so they too can experience Nature’s seasonal wonders.
Chris and Reese: If we humans are willing, there is much we can still learn in our immediate surroundings about ourselves as a species, about the geological processes of Planet Earth and the universe, and about the reciprocal partnership we must forge with the land if we are to enjoy and pass forward to all generations any semblance of the environmental integrity bequeathed to us by Nature. So, with this background, we invite you to come with us, and together we will explore the wonder of life.
“Bravo, bravo! It was an absolute joy to read. As you’ll see from the long gaps between comments, I often became so immersed in the story that I forgot I was reading to see what was missing. You both weave together rich ideas, science, personal narrative, facts, and exposition in a very nimble way. What I appreciated most was the time you spent on everyday subjects: hummingbirds, copepods, tea, and Chinese emperors—and how you made these things relevant to universal experiences. You truly evoke a profound sense of wonder for LIFE. Better yet, you inspire readers to examine the makings of their own LIFE, as a trustee, beneficiary, and participant in this ongoing narrative of relationships.
“At first I was hoping for some more philosophical discussions of what we’re to make of all this, or how we ought to live—not in a prescriptive sense, but more in the way of ideas. But, the end really drives this home.”
“Let’s go back to a very important beginning, a childhood event with mystery and emotional connection that exposes us unknowingly to an uncontaminated truth of the human spirit for the first time. An ancient union with nature, although we are no longer trained to recognize it. Having had a similar childhood experience as those described by Chris Maser and co-author Reese Halter, I wanted, but could not find, a willing ear as a child to describe the resulting feelings, much less avoid mockery, which reflect the loss of important cultural connections. This book recognizes these critically valuable events with nature as a portal to ancient wisdom and happiness. Although, as individuals, we may allow these experiences to affect us, we usually tuck them away to be lost in the illusions of modern economics instead of the miracle of natural systems.
“This book reminds me, with strong scientific descriptions, that we all should cherish those first insights right up front, like a totem to tell again our relationship to all else. Chris Maser masterfully integrates different areas of science and ecological principles into a holistic understanding, like no one else I have ever known. Assimilating the scientific and its philosophical significance with cultural history, Chris sends the reader to peek above the clouds of political spin, economic growth models, agricultural production models, and general utilitarian nonsense to vividly see the parts with the whole and the reason we must all take responsibility to protect ourselves (with a far greater understanding as to what, when, where, and why) from loss of the very elements of nature that make life worth living, and so prevent our own demise.”
“The overall concept—tracing life’s myriad interconnections from the big bang to the Earth’s present sorry state—is wonderful! You have given us many moments of beauty: your wondrous ditch; the miracle of dragonflies; the notion of conduit; the fall of snowflakes. For me, the narrative itself is at its best when it focuses on these specifics. Of course, you need the larger concepts to hold it all together, but it is these small and individual moments I look forward to as a reader.
“By the time you get to Nature’s Commons, and introduce the concept of living trust, I realize how carefully you have laid out the steps of the journey. I think you have prepared us well for the emperor’s wise gardener and the notion that each of us internalizes the wonder you have described.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to read and comment. I believe this will be a volume many of us will treasure: read, pass on but insist on getting it back for a second and third read.”
Jane Braxton Little
Life, the Wonder of It All. Global Forest Society, Banff, Alberta, Canada. (2013) 370 pp.
If you want more information about this book or want to purchase it, visit “BOOKS” on my website.
Text © by Chris Maser and Reese Halter 2013. All rights reserved.