The Senses





When I was a child, there was a huge old flowering crab-apple tree in our backyard. When it was in bloom the fragrance was intoxicating, filling as it did the fresh, unspoiled sense of youth. I planted one on our farm just after we got here. In this late spring, it is just about to open its flowers, releasing once again that familiar perfume.

But I don’t need to wait. I can remember the fragrance vividly. There is somewhere inside the space of my mind where I can breathe it in. If anything, the fragrance is more penetrating, more directly delivered through the walls of whatever nerve cells register such information.

My friend recently had a virus that gave him a cough for a week or two. After the cough died away, he discovered that his sense of smell was almost gone. Since this sense of his had been heightened ever since his exposure to the chemical sprays used on the fruit trees he picked in his twenties, this was a curious thing. I began to imagine for him what it would be like not to smell the cherry blossoms on my walk up the hill. Not to be able to smell the lilacs beginning to bloom by the barn. Not to smell the roses that will be opening in May. What if that external sense were blocked?

As have most people, at least in their childhood, I have often tried to reconstruct the experience of the blind by binding my eyes and trying to navigate my house. I have tried to experience deafness, but mostly in my imagination. You can always hear a little something when you plug your ears and I can’t afford those big blocking headphones.

Once I even tried to create what it would be like to lose the sense of touch, but it quickly becomes complex. Touch tells me about the condition of my muscles, the rhythm of my heart, whether my shoes are good for my feet, the texture of a tree’s bark, the heat of a stove or fever in my head, the cold of an ice cube or the chill in my bones. It communicates through delicate neural traceries the spreading fire of sexual response.

But, if I become quiet and look around in the internal space, I can feel the touch of a feather on the palm of my hand, the softness of a rose on my cheek, the way the wind blows and tosses my hair, the roughness of cedar bark. It’s harder to block the external sense of touch and imagine what it would be like not to feel that  jab of a stick on a fresh burn or what it would be like not to experience the touch of the air on my skin or the pressure of a rock on my knees as I weed in the garden.

If I close my eyes and go into that infinite space, some internal set of eyes allows me to see so many things from my memory, my dreams, my imagination. With that interior vision, parts of some scenes appear darkly, bits hidden in background. Others are bright landscapes where it’s possible to turn my gaze from one place to another and, as with the twist of a camera lens, focus on the details of a stained glass window, the plants, the insects, the fallen leaves on the forest floor, or even the mundane objects on the desk in my last office.

Faces are more difficult. Features of even the dearest faces seem to retreat repeatedly into the mist. Emotions that cling to the connection between us eclipse the actual appearance of a nose or a cheek. Although I can often see into the eyes, the sparks, the iris, the depth, that blur of feeling persists in keeping the other details from me.

I can hear, as I walk a trail in my imagination, the call of a certain bird I heard only once, the sound of the wind as I stand on a rocky overhang halfway up a mountain, the clang of a metal bar dropping somewhere at the train station. But the voice of my son, of my daughter, of my dead mother. They are almost impossible to hear with any certainty.

But it is the sense of smell that comes to me most vividly in that internal landscape that turns the universe inside-out. I can smell the power of that deodorant my son used as a teenager. I can smell the stew my son-in-law cooks for us or the warmth of my daughter’s hair. I can smell the particular fragrance of the wild roses that grow along the road where we ride our bikes in May and then shift to the distinct spicy fragrance of the big, fluffy heirloom rose I planted in my garden. I can smell the loamy smell of the old-growth forest floor I’ve walked in Northern Idaho and the smell of the old, pink snow clinging to the granite in the Absoroka Mountains in July.

If I can explore that endless interior space with all my senses, where is the division between the body I seem to walk around in and the rest of the universe? Between the space inside what I call me and the space inside what I call you?

To My Friends Who Are Being Eaten By Fear and Anger

You may well not like this, but listen to me.

Don’t be fooled. So far, things are going pretty much the way they have been since at least 1970.

We have been committing inexcusable aggressions around the world on a fairly regular basis. Our international actions have been creating the opposite result from that which we purportedly desire. Policies of at least the last nine presidents have reinforced the hold of mega corporations on the real political power. They have all catered to the military. They have undermined education again and again. They have screwed up every chance to have a humane healthcare system. And certainly, they have given in repeatedly to the naysayers rather than do anything significant about climate change. I don’t care that you think they have political excuses. Why is it were you not horribly afraid a year ago?

It was predictable that Trump would run into the same quagmire that previous administrations have both had a hand in creating and have been forced to wade. And now there he is.

Unlike other presidents with political experience, connections and savvy, he and his staff are creating chaos and confusion. In confusion is an opportunity for re-direction. Think of any natural catastrophe. Those acting with calm, rationality and conviction in its midst are those who can most effectively shift the force of response. 

The terrible things that are happening to environmental policy, educational policy, immigration policy, criminal justice, overall tolerance and international affairs are finally knocking people awake. Hillary would have been at least as hawkish and would, with her determination, be spurring on the military with more confidence and ardor.

The confusion Trump is creating around the world may even have some positive outcomes. Who knows? The dangers we feel surrounding us now already existed. They were set in motion and steadily worsened by the actions of previous administrations. Those administrations worked to make their decisions seem well-reasoned and principled even when they were disastrously misguided. If Trump actually followed his campaign rhetoric and pulled the US out of many areas of international intervention, the situation for millions of people around the world would likely gradually improve. The US, in policing the world, tends to create many more problems than it solves.

Unfortunately, in this respect, Trump is being pulled into line with the policies Obama began and Hillary would have elaborated more vigorously. He has not, at least to date, been pulled into creating a No-Fly Zone in Syria. That may be next. It has been on the agenda for the last few Obama years. Since he has no discernible cohesive approach, he, for the moment, leaves the world guessing. Perhaps not a strategy, but, as a strategy, it could be better than most. It might produce better results than the “policies” the US has been promulgating in the name of democratization around the world.

For me, the world’s lack of a cohesive approach to global warming is the most frightening nightmare. I have been living with that fear since 1969. In attempting to have our cake and eat it too we have allowed even the more “liberal” administrations to water down any meaningful approach to solution.

Sure, it’s disturbing to see the only efforts our government has made being torn down, but where are we even now? On the expressway to dire climate change. We have probably passed the last exit ramp.

Where was your present terror when the last presidents did so little to reverse climate change that it was, in its result, practically worse than doing nothing. Yes, the air we breathe is a bit cleaner than it could have been with no regulation of polluters, but policies initiated in California, where they could barely breathe the air, can take the bulk of the credit for that. Rivers and waterways are cleaner, but those efforts were only initiated after massive work on the ground by distressed citizens. They were not the brainchild of any Democratic administration.

Alternative energy solutions like wind and solar take massive capital inputs of petroleum energy. We should have been in full production mode for the last forty years. Organic farming was co-opted by governmental certification making it nearly impossible for sustainable farming to get on its feet. Presidents from Eisenhower to Obama have supported Agriculture bills that favor the inflation of Agribusiness with the resultant near destruction of a sustainable food supply. Were you terrified as this was happening?

It is good you are afraid now. Fear is justified. But it has been justified since the day you became a conscious member of our Great Society.

If you direct it all at Trump and his cronies, will you go back to sleep if they disappear? If things were in the kindly hands of an Obama, a Hillary Clinton or even a Bernie Sanders would you continue marching to make sure the US starts drastically cutting back its consumption, doesn’t send drones to foreign lands where “collateral damage” is hardly noteworthy, supports sustainable agriculture, supports true education, creates free health care for all, etc. etc. Would you give up anything? Would it still be a looming priority that you attend to every day, every minute? You could have been using justifiable fear to do that ever since you started thinking for yourself.

Just take the fear burying you now and imagine it is rich compost that is piled not just at the end of this particular row, stifling all life underneath but has been spread out evenly over the whole broad field of your life. The compost of fear will then be just the right thickness, the right density. The growth of your own creative response will now unfold, breathe and push up into the light.


Hyperbolic Space

Stories. Why are they so important? I, for one, have always had a terrible hunger for ways to explore the senses of another consciousness. I have always suspected, despite what seems, that there are other consciousnesses beside the one I’m in. 

Other people talk. I hear their words. The meaning penetrates into my own experience.

Other people walk down the road I walk. I watch them from the window. Some look at their feet. Some look straight ahead. Some are evidently listening to something coming through attachments in their ears (I know because I have done this occasionally while weeding). A very few look around at the world they are passing through.

One or two I’ve seen have expressions on their faces  I think I understand. The muscles in their face seem soft and relaxed. There is, perhaps, a soft smile on their lips. Even from some distance, I can see a little sparkle of light in their eyes. Their head turns to focus their eyes around into the fields and woods, to wander to the houses and the trees around them. Their heads tilt back to look up into the sky and seem to focus on clouds and birds flying. 

Perhaps they are also listening. I sometimes see them tilt their head a bit as they walk, ear pointed towards some bird calling, airplane flying over, power saw buzzing, cow mooing, or dog barking.

Since we walk the same road, I suspect a consciousness that has some congruence with the world contained within me. But how do I know?

Stories. The ones in books I’ve read, mostly. An occasional story from a friend. A story from the childhood of another being walking around on this ground we seem to talk about as a planet. These stories have passages that point in that direction—the direction of congruence. They are not quite the same as the universe within me, but they seem to contain some of the same flavors, hints of perceptions that could be what I am sensing, just with different twists. Those bodies were not, after all, walking the same road, at the same moments.

And then, what of the differences in a shared slice of time and space? I walk along with my dearest friend. We travel the same road at the same moment. Yet, the report from his body is not the same as in the universe I inhabit. He may report about things that have happened that he now carries as thoughts. Perhaps he finds their strands somewhere in the winds of space and ties them to another strand.

He may draw attention to a part of all the life around us. His words convey ideas. The sounds carrying the ideas come in through all those tiny bones I imagine are hidden in the openings of what I call ears on the sides of my head. They transmit those vibrations coming from his mouth into neural messages in my brain. These messages travelling as energy somehow transmit what we call meaning to the space of my universe. The transcription is full of errors.

Often a clear sense of a perception appears in what I call my mind. Sometimes there is a struggle to see the image that is somehow contained in those vibrations. And to see it the way it appears in the universe of another? What colors were in the original? What physical sensations accompanied the thoughts before they were translated into muscular impulses in a larynx that would then emit them as a symphony of vibrations? What hormonal baths did the thoughts receive before becoming the frequencies we call words?

Such a simple thing–looking out from this space of the only universe I know, seeing what the group of colors transmitted through these eyes in my head allows my brain to call a person. Recognizing in that form all the similarities to what I see in a mirror and deciding, in that scintillating wave we call a moment, that this form then contains a universe somehow similar to the one I inhabit.

Does it? Such a leap! I must devour more stories! I must absorb all that data from all those receptors until it is woven into the infinite expanse of the universe I inhabit. There, they are re-imagined and become woven into its essential matter. Or was it that they were there all along?

More than one infinite space? How could it be?




“…Above all
Did Nature bring again that wiser mood
More deeply reestablished in my soul”
Wordsworth, Prelude


Approaching home after my walk, beginning to wonder again about plans and decisions after clearing my mind, a great bird flew across my view from west to east.

It was so large I took it at first for the heron, so long, wings spread so wide, tail like some darting dessert lizard.

But then I saw a bit of curved beak in the profile of the head. A Golden Eagle perhaps. Since the head wasn’t noticeably white, it couldn’t be one of the Bald Eagles that perches in the big cottonwoods on either side of our fields. As I watched, it flew to one of these tall dark trees at the back of the garden.

I walked into the orchard behind the house to get a better look. It was perched high up, far enough from my place on the ground that I wasn’t able to make out the true color of its head against the grey and misty sky. It was so large, so tall, impressive there in that grim still-winter tree. It seemed to be some huge, mysterious bird, neither this nor that. I stood and watched for some time, trying to make it out, until it took flight again, swooping low behind the barn up the hill.

It must have found some prey there in the grass. After I had come in and taken off my muddy shoes and walked through the house to hang my coat, I saw it fly into the biggest cottonwood at the entrance to our drive. Through the dining room window, I watched as it began to peck and tear at something hidden between its feet on the branch. A group of starlings and crows gathered in the branches, one flying in, another flying off, slightly below and to the side. They eagerly caught particles of what it ate as it pulled off morsels with abandon and gobbled them, head thrown slightly back.

Through the binoculars I grabbed from the kitchen drawer, I could see the feathers on its great head were wet and ruffled, plastered to its head leaving bare patches between the rows. The feathers were not yet white but, from the shape of that head, the glimpse of an eye, they clearly would become so. Its forehead sloped into the large hooked beak, its body substantial and heavy, balanced on strong legs. It must, in fact, be the offspring of the pair of eagles from the nest behind the house on top of the big hill to the north, maybe from two or three years past, coming back to find a territory of its own.

Maybe it has been the one to claim the huge nest where it was hatched, reinforcing it with twigs and mosses as have his ancestors, year after year, maintaining its ancient continuity. I’ll watch as I go about my business day after day and see if it returns to the big cottonwood, itself to watch and wait with the patience of nature’s flow.