Susan Smith’s piece in the “Answers to Go” section of the San Marcos Daily Record about a quote in the May edition of “Oprah” magazine may have caught your attention. The quote was from Susan Hanson’s book “Icons of Loss and Grace: Moments from the Natural World” and the quote is included at the end of this article with a handful of others. Susan teaches at Texas State and lives in San Marcos. SMGA has assisted with the honors class she teaches, Nature and the Quest for Meaning, by leading a hike through Purgatory Creek. And, her students later participated in the Bobcat Build clean up near the overlook.
Susan’s essays are poetic and read like a combination diary and daily prayer book, like a travelogue through selected hill country sets and a naturalist’s notebook. She can connect you to our earth with a few words of contemplation from her busy backyard or from under water during a near drowning experience while paddling down the San Marcos River. The readers in our area can savor every vignette, every mood or sensation evoked by our shared landscape. What a great find!
While reading Susan’s book, you may recall some of the language in the Ken Burns “docu-story, “National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” The series treats us to an engaging hike through the history of the National Parks. Television is a great medium for the telling this story as the imagery of those grand places, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Tetons, Grand Canyon, Great Smokey Mountains (and many others), helps us comprehend the grandeur of these places. The images of painters and early photographers, as was noted in our recent Naturescapes reception, are what helped convince the people in Washington and down home across America that these amazing places were worth keeping and protecting in perpetuity.
Burns’ story is replete with the people who experienced the profound joy and wonder of America’s unique landscape and the story of those who had to convince presidents, members of congress and cabinet members that conservation was a good idea. Rockefeller helped a good bit as did many landowners, clubs and Americans of all descriptions from across the land, some of whom would never get to see our amazing places.
The contrast between Susan’s personal, intimate scale with a landscape all of us see from our windows and the majesty of our great parks as portrayed in the Ken Burns series may seem disparate. But there is a strong sentiment in each depiction that binds them in a common understanding: our living earth can give us all the succor we need, from simple sensory pleasure to wisdom for our age. And, we must take the time to live within it and keep it.
From the essay “Homecoming”:
More and more, I realize, I turn to this natural world not just for beauty and solace, not just for pleasure and peace, but for the wisdom that I need to live. It teaches me things in a language I can hear and understand.
In the piece titled “Simple Pleasures” she ends with:
In short, forget to pay attention to the world, and what you end up with is a machine, cutting a swath through what is beautiful, alive, and green.
From “Naming Day” in a place where she reflects on a winter day near the end of the year about her place, her time.
…I am here my weary mind tells me, to be surrounded by things I cannot understand, by creatures I can glimpse but not possess. I am here to watch the leaves decay, to listen to the river utter sounds thta have no meanding for my ears. I am here to be gawked at by the birds, to be seen as the interloper that I am…
…Sitting under the cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, I will realize at last that it is ritual I’ve sought, some act to bring this old year, this old life to a close. And so, gathering twigs and leaves from atop the weathered rock, I will send them flying, one by one, into the current, naming them as they go. Deadlines, fears, anxieties of all kinds-taking the shape of cypress leaves, of bits of bark of grass, they will drift on the flowing water, will be weightlessly borne away.
Here to name what I am not, i will sit on this bank and watch as wave after wave spills over the polished rock. Here to forget, to remember that my life is more than any total of it parts, I will let the river wrap around me like the songs of birds. I will feel its sound wash over me like grace.
The Sound of Water
So, you tell yourself without alarm, this is what it’s like to drown.
Stunned that everything could come to such a sudden end-no warning, no premonitions, no time to be afraid-you think of your daughter, of what she will do when she hears. And then it stops. Your reverie is broken by a gasp. Pushed to the surface, you take a breath, cough, and fling your body hard against the toppled tree. It is all you can do, but it is not enough.
Some notes from John Muir:
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.