A World Bigger Than Ourselves

by Katie Poore

A few weeks ago, I journeyed up to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc during a work vacation. I went with a few friends of mine, embarking from our homes in Chambéry, France, taking a train to Annecy, and a bus to our final destination. I was outrageously tired, having stayed up until some ungodly hour of the morning playing, of all things, Just Dance.

After shuffling around Annecy for a few hours, laden down with luggage and waiting for the arrival of our bus, we were on our way into the so-called heart of the French Alps. As badly as I wanted to sleep, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the changing landscape, framed through immense bus windows. I pressed my forehead against the glass and turned on some music, hoping to block out any sounds of more mundane humanity for just a moment. Views like this always felt too sacred for human chatter, for the faint rumble of an engine. I couldn’t do much about the vibrating of the bus, or the fact that I was on a bus at all, but this I needed: a world composed of only those things which have taken great thought and time.

For me, this was those mountains and Gregory Alan Isakov, a singer-songwriter and farmer based near Boulder, Colorado, who writes his songs in a barn-studio plastered with giant pieces of paper scrawled with potential song lyrics. He calls songwriting “laborious” in an interview with Atwood Magazine, but this labor gives way to music that is something else entirely: quietly transcendent, aching, longing, at once fragile and formidable. It feels clear that these songs are constructed slowly, scrupulously, mined from the depths of feeling. Anyone familiar with that so-often agonizing creative process might feel the erasures and changes, the takes and retakes, the immense and fatiguing degree of ceaseless thought and emotion that slowly amalgamates to form each of his compositions.

It felt like the only proper music to which I might listen: carefully composed and somehow soaring, a perfect sonic accompaniment to the mountains whose formations might well be described the same way.

It was this thought that gave me pause: my near-subconscious grasp for metaphor and analogy, for some unity between art and nature, between my own human experience and that of the world around me. Why did I care so much if my internal experience—the headphones in my ears, funneling sounds only I could hear into my brain, coloring everything I saw outside—were coincident with my perception of what those mountains were? Why did I care so much to attach them to something that felt beautifully human: to poetry, to song, to voice?

It’s difficult for me to make sense of this tendency to seek continuity between man and nature, but it is a tendency that has almost always been championed by certain Americans, seeking and dissatisfied by some ineffable something. Think of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who, in his essay “Nature,” tells us that when the human immerses itself in the natural, “The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles.” There is Cheryl Strayed, too, whose memoir Wild details her pursuit of healing in the face of devastating loss. She, like thousands of others each year, embarks on a 100-day hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile footpath extending from Mexico to Canada. There is Mary Oliver, whose prolific career was mainly characterized by poetic odes to the natural world and the insights it offers us. There is of course Henry David Thoreau, with his famed Walden Pond experiment. Even Maggie Rogers, breakout singer-songwriter, wrote what many consider to be her first commercially successful song, “Alaska,” as an ode to the Alaskan wilderness and the healing and peace she found there.

When confronted with these grandiose and wordless wonders, it seems we have a tendency to grasp for meaning and a medium for expressing it. This is, of course, characteristic of the human race: one could argue that any pursuit of artistry or language is an attempt to make sense of our human experiences. But I couldn’t help asking myself why this might be—why staring at snow-capped peaks, running on four hours of sleep, listening to Isakov meld meditations on heartbreak and love with odes to enchanting night skies and raging storms felt important, and even necessary. Why during our hikes, I liked to sometimes walk in relative solitude. Why I’d warned my travel companions beforehand: “If I get really quiet while we’re hiking, please just leave me alone. I’m thinking.”

Perhaps I’ve simply got a flair for the dramatic, and it presents itself in pensive and extended silences spent gazing at the peaks of the French Alps. But if I do, I’m not alone in this tendency: this summer I led backpacking trips for high schoolers, usually between ten and twelve of them. Like most teenagers, they were talkative. Many of our evenings were spent with them essentially screaming: songs, stories, political opinions, declarations of affection and friendship.

But during each session, my co-leaders and I took our kids on one particular hike. It is in the Roan Mountain Wilderness of western North Carolina: a giant, grassy bald with an immense vista. North Carolina unfolds in all directions, soft blue undulations disappearing into a haze that sprawls toward Tennessee in the north. It quickly became one of my favorite hikes, and one of my favorite places.

Upon emerging from the treeline, our charges would usually falter: some broke into a run, others got remarkably quiet. But one of our groups was so enchanted that all twelve of them eventually burst into a sprint, turning into tiny dots on the face of a vast, bare mountain. When I later went for a head count (many had disappeared from sight), I found almost all of them sitting silently, and alone, staring at the endless and varied textures of blue before them, being whipped by the wind. They were moved. This thing meant something. This voiceless vastness was speaking.

I think it’s the vastness that necessitates—and catalyzes—our need for metaphor, for art, for expression, for thought. There’s something primordial and fundamental about feeling so incredibly small, something that sharpens one’s vision of life until we’re forced to dive into questions of what life could possibly mean, and where we fit in a world as expansive and colorful and broken as this one. There’s something about vastness that demands us to bring something into it: to sit in its silence and then offer what that silence gives us, in the form of words and song and thought and wisdom.

Perhaps it isn’t like this for everyone. Perhaps not everyone needs to cover up a rumbling engine with something that feels a bit more profound. Perhaps not everyone’s stomach flips when they catch even a hint of a ridgeline in the distance, and perhaps not every encounter with something beautiful and endless results in a bewildering whirlwind of longing and joy.

But these vastnesses are necessary, and they remind us of our humanity: our frailness and beauty, our twin tendencies toward love and hate, our need for silence and space and wind and green. They remind us, too, of what we are losing.

I mention all of this simply to say: this natural world in which we find ourselves, whether by divine and benevolent intent or mere and improbable scientific fact, can make up vast portions of our individual frameworks for meaning if we let it. If we look with eyes open for the metaphors and the truths, we’ll undoubtedly find them. And we need to.

In every direction lies brokenness. It sometimes feels like our world is fracturing, dangerous and deep rifts forming and growing so quickly that they’ll soon be irreparable. Any sort of wholeness and unity feels like something of a pipe dream. But to look at the natural world is to see something that exists only through codependence, through unity, through a cultivation of interconnected difference in the name of survival (this is, it is always worth mentioning, profoundly threatened by climate change and the environmental destruction we continue to inflict).

I think there’s something to be said for finding the quiet places, or the breath-stealing places. For feeling a part of something larger. As I wrote earlier, I don’t believe this necessarily means we must all seek out the grandest peaks and most sublime landscapes—there are entire worlds in the minutiae of our front yards. But it does mean we ought to reckon with our place in things, and our responsibilities toward ourselves and our world. It means opening ourselves up to seeing this planet as a whole, and as something larger and more precious than our closely-held prejudices and dreams. It means imagining that those hazy blue ridges will roll on forever, and knowing that in some ways, they do. It means sitting in silence, and listening to what silence can tell us. It means sharing what we learned. Writing it down. Speaking it out. Enacting it in love. Mirroring those ridges, at once distinct and indistinguishable, to find our way back to one another.

Let’s cultivate better eyes and ears, to see beyond ourselves and to listen beyond our voices. Let’s hear what wisdom, what metaphor, this world might offer us. Let’s try to honor it in whatever ways we know how.