The Artist Date is a dream-child of Julia Cameron. We’ve discussed her book, The Artist’s Way, and highly recommend both the book and the weekly date. It can be life-changing. It can open your creativity like nothing else. This week, we’re looking in the mirror of the Milky Way.
Recently I found myself wrestling with a philosophical demon that would not leave me alone, so I did what I always do when such persistent problems come calling: I headed for an extended trek into nature.
Someone once observed that we have the power of all collected knowledge at our finger tips via the Internet and what we use it for, predominately, is to argue with strangers and post pictures of cats. An astute observation and not quite far off from the problem that was dogging me as I unloaded my paddle board from the roof of my car late in the day. Someone I had known for years had posted a comment on Facebook about how the scientific method could not be counted as a legitimate philosophical framework for understanding nature and that it stripped away humans’ (i.e. scientists’) ability to feel wonder and awe. This really bothered me and followed me around like a proverbial rain cloud for days.
When something bugs me that much, I have to retreat into nature to sort it out; so it was, as I launched my bright yellow paddle board into the waters of Mosquito Lagoon at dusk on a Wednesday evening. I chose that particular evening because it was a moonless night and the weather was to be very clear. All the fishermen and pleasure boaters were pulling their boats up on trailers as I was prepping to set off on my adventure. Curious glances were thrown my way, but one of the old timers, a guy I see all the time, waved at me and yelled, “Happy Countin’!” The locals are used to seeing me and other naturalists from the marine center going out at odd hours to observe and count local wildlife, even at night. I waved back and smiled, then launched my board and started paddling for the channel islands out in the middle of the lagoon, as the fire ball sun disappeared behind the mangrove trees.
I got across the boating lanes and to the islands in good time. In the early evening you can hear the sound of the shore birds settling down in their rookeries for the night. Somewhere in the underbrush you can hear the sound of a creature scurrying – maybe a raccoon or some other small animal?
As the light faded, I switched on a headlamp. I use the red light so it doesn’t compromise my night vision and to be visible in case a bigger boat comes along. I paddled over to a shallow area between two of the islands. If I wanted, I could step off the board and the water would only be up to my knees. No chance of getting hit by a speed boat here. I sat down on my board and took off my day pack and stuck it under the elastic riggings at the front of the board. I then carefully spun around so I was facing the rear of the board and lay down. Using the daypack as a pillow, I looked up at the stars as they came out.
The lagoon was very calm that night. There was a slight breeze, but not enough to disturb the surface of the water. The lagoon made an almost perfect mirror of the sky. All the tightness of the week relaxed inside me. My paddleboard and I were cradled by the lagoon and tented by the heavens. I began to take apart what it was that bothered me about the idea that one cannot use the scientific method as a legitimate philosophical way of knowing. Or was it the idea that scientists were incapable of awe and wonder? I slowly teased this knot apart as more and more stars came out. The lagoon gently bobbed my board to soothe me as I worked this through. I could hear some nocturnal bird hunting off in the distance.
Slowly I came to the words that I have felt all along—that it takes a fearless, unflinching love to accept the universe as it is, and for me, as a scientist and a poet, one of the tools I use is the scientific method. It is not a perfect tool, but none are; it does, over time, winnow out deception. It doesn’t give absolute truth because science is in a permanent state of revolution, but it can give an approximation of what we call reality. Once I had the words for what I felt, the annoying demon that had been following me around disappeared. I didn’t need to respond to the Facebook comment. I just needed to know what I thought very clearly. As if in agreement, I looked up and so many stars had come out that I could see the river of the Milky Way above me, and when I carefully stood up to leave I noticed it was reflected in the lagoon. It reminded me of the saying from my Chinese philosophy class, “As above, so below.”
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