The Poetics of Nature

Nature is a haunted house, but Art is a house that tries to be haunted.  

Emily Dickinson


How many of us can authentically answer the question: What is my relationship to nature? (and do I have one if any?)


Aside from the occasional news-stimulated debates on deadly serious issues such as climate change and dismal documentaries on other equally important environmental and ecological issues, I feel that in general, we must be living in the most artificial age in human history, the most abstracted from nature and yet the most terrified of it, or the most secretly nihilistically despairing towards it.  Our unexpressed but almost palpable, dire inability to envision a safe and sustainable future for the environment, which is ironically a result of our collective desire to be free of its limitations and inconveniences and wanting to flee from nature into a virtual utopia of continual diversions, desires and faultless, changeless perfections.


Nature does not teach that. If unmanipulated, it spontaneously shows the unexpected beauty of imperfection, of gratuitous growth and excess, of decay and of the ineffable beauty of inevitable transience.




Our 21st century cult of artifice is also an unfathomably far cry from the poetic “artificial paradise” envisioned by Baudelaire and the Decadent and Symbolist artists and writers of the late 19th century who many critics believe were precursors of modernism.  In many ways we are also living in the most juvenile of ages in history, obsessed by trivial distractions, narcissism, vulgarity, violence and ugliness that are all too palatable and rarely challenging in our desire for continuous entertainment that is completely bereft of poetry.

 People shopping in Mall_BZ


Intensely studying and exclusively writing the Japanese poetic form of the haiku for a period of several years, played a significant role in my development as a writer, and deeply affected my attitudes, perceptions and concepts towards literature, art and aesthetics and how they can and should be able to reflect a deep and authentic spirituality, for lack of a better word.


Poetry is the important catchword in the journey taken by this essay.


Aside from the haiku which developed relatively late in Japanese literary history, elaborate and deeply sensitive awareness and experience of nature played a primary role in the developments of classical Chinese and Japanese poetry.  Up until the early 20th century all Chinese civil servants and bureaucrats and anyone desiring a government position had to pass grueling exams that demanded intimate knowledge and recall of vast collections of Confucian classics of which a significant portion consisted of poetry and literature whose primary subject related to nature.


While adopting much from China including its writing, initially its civil service exam system and its elaborate literary culture, Japan had already well-established literary and poetic works that were equally dominated by natural references and influenced by its indigenous animistic belief system of Shintoism.  Japan transformed and elaborated on much of imported Chinese culture to form by the first millennium a highly refined literary culture at court where reputations and positions were made and unmade all on the ability to compose poetry in every communication that effectively referenced vast collections of both Chinese and Japanese poetry.  Japanese still will play, especially on New Year’s Day, a matching card game where you have to match the initial lines of a poem written over a thousand years ago with the card (out of hundreds of others!) that features the rest of the verse with an elegant stylized picture of the author.  This period known as the Heian period absorbed and assimilated a variety of foreign influences including Chinese literary and philosophical cultures that included Taoism and Tantric Buddhism (which had been imported from India) that was syncretized with Japan’s nature honoring indigenous religion of Shinto by the priest Kukai or Kobo Daishi who popularized the elaborate and aesthetic Tantric Buddhist rituals at court by convincing the nobility that the various tantric deities were Buddhist forms of the same native Shinto deities, and indeed the primary cosmic deity of Kukai’s tantric sect or Shingon is sometimes translated as the “Buddha of the Sun”.  Kukai was also known to have introduced a syllabic alphabet in order to translate Sanskrit texts that is still used alongside Chinese ideograms to depict the Japanese language.  The Heian period became thought of as a “Golden Age” of Japanese literature and culture that synthesized and developed some of the world’s most unique and profound aesthetic concepts.  Women dominated the literary arts of this period and Lady Murasaki produced the world’s first complex psychological novel in the Tale of Genji the predated Proust’s In Search of Lost Time by a millennium.


While not fully elaborated and systemized until the 17th century, key distinct aesthetic terms and concepts such as mono no aware, miyabi, yugen and wabi/ sabi, began to appear conspicuously in the Heian period.  While these are usually expressed in the Chinese based ideograms or kanji, it is doubtful that a Chinese reader would be able to recognize their meaning because of the unique references and connotations of Japanese culture.


Mono no aware, while certainly influenced by the abstract Buddhist teachings on impermanence, it is translated to a profound aesthetic feeling or effect that is not divorced from nature.  It is the subtle and aesthetic wistfulness experienced by reminders of the inescapable transience of all things and that even makes things and experiences more beautiful because of their finiteness.  While it would be consistent with the rasa of karuna in its pathos and compassionate realization it is also a perfect revelation of the subtle beauty of the shanta rasa through its ability to inspire a certain re-collectedness.


It is sometimes manifested in a preference for the falling leaves of autumn and in coming across an overgrown site connected to a person or place that was once held in great esteem.


Numerous reports reveal the increasingly sedentary, disconnected and insular lives of American youth that no longer go outside to play and discover but prefer to spend countless hours in front of television or on the computer or tablet or who play hours of mind-numbing video games.  Rising rates of physical disorders, obesity and joint and arthritic conditions typical of much older adults as well as cognitive disorders such as ADD or autism and Asperger’s not to mention climbing social and sociopathic phenomena as school shootings and violence make one wonder how much the “bread and circuses” of digital consumerism is not only killing us environmentally but also physically, mentally and socially.


 Nature has played a large part in American literature’s quest of freedom through the self as evidenced in Thoreau, Emerson, Longfellow, Dickinson and Whitman. Especially Whitman.  It seems inevitable that the American literary heritages of unsentimental, independent and transcendent attitudes to nature would seek inspiration in the spontaneous, idiosyncratic and iconoclastic art and literature of the Chinese and Japanese Zen traditions and Zen- inspired artists and writers such as the haiku saint Basho, by the Beat writers of Kerouac and Gary Snyder.

road view


America began as an agrarian economy and now agriculture makes up only a small part of its GNP along with manufacturing and leaves “service” industries as the largest sector and an economy of an increasingly virtual nature that is more and more difficult to understand or to envision how all this will be sustainable.


Nature in today’s popular culture is almost exclusively portrayed as the backdrop or setting of a scene in which to engage in “extreme” sports and activities that speak more of our need to resort to the gratuitous thrills of danger and vulgar strenuous activity in order to assuage our flaccid and flagging sensibilities.  Yet nature as in Dickinson’s quote, is the one subject in its most humble forms that is truly haunted and replete with a mysterious presence all its own that art must labor to reproduce even a suggestion of its mysterious otherness and wonder.


Although Japan today is a very 21st century country that is inundated with popular digital culture, violent video games, wild and relatively uncensored ever present anime and every known digital mediated device, it still maintains an unbroken continuity of culture with its various religious spiritual and aesthetic traditions.


The call of doves echoes through the tall pines in the afternoon.


fir trees


Collections of classic Japanese haiku are traditionally organized by seasonal reference and not by subject matter.  Although contemporary haiku have abandoned the requirement of reference to nature, traditional haiku were almost exclusively expressed through an authentic relationship to nature.  Its brief form of syllable structure, without rhyme or meter or rarely metaphor, taken from the opening part of the older longer renga form, it seems to attempt to condense into itself the entire history of Japanese and imported Chinese poetry as well as to display a living profundity of a momentary contact with nature, or to even capture an almost completely transparent testament to a seemingly non-existent author where pristine perception and expression become one, yet still preserving a profound poetic sensibility through skillful suggestion.


Do we even know or have any sense of meaning for seasons anymore?  Aside from the increasingly commercialized drudgery of preconceived and prepackaged holidays, I propose their reinvention through authentic appreciation of real natural seasonal manifestations honored through original and creative aesthetic responses.


Mall Window 2_BZ


One of the most admirable traditions of Japanese culture is the public practice of seeking out places to communally appreciate the seasonal beauty of nature.  Whether it arose through highly refined court practices or through Chinese poetic influence, it became public practice for all classes of society to seek out the best places for natural seasonal displays of blooming flowers, autumnal views and the preference for moon-viewing.  Even in today’s Tokyo of hyper-modern, artificial hyper-tech culture, you can still see festivals and picnic parties to appreciate flowering cherry trees along with Shinto festivals with public dancing and shrines with sacred forests and deer in the middle of the city.


Aside from the haiku, almost all other forms of traditional Japanese arts, it is important that there be a seasonal reference in an authentic and often surprisingly creative way.  Even in cuisine, while in the proliferation of popular interest in cooking and food and restaurants, how conspicuously absent that is from our current global aesthetic.  The traditional arts of architecture, painting, ceramics, flower arranging, gardening, cooking and even the uniquely Japanese art of incense appreciation all become encompassed and reinterpreted in an ineffably transient, site-specific, multi-media performance of aesthetic ordinariness in the tea ceremony that embodies the spirit of wabi/sabi and that specifically ritualizes aesthetic appreciation.  Influenced by the personality and training of Sen no Rikyu who had serious Zen training and association (along with Basho, the recognized master if not the inventor of haiku as an independent literary form), the tea ceremony is thought of as an art of “ma” which emphasizes the gap, pause or interstice between things that breaks the continuity of perception and allows real opportunity for contact with sunyata, or emptiness or “mu” experienced in the midst of the ordinary (which is also a tantric Trika strategy).


top shot landscape


Roland Barthes refers to Japanese culture itself as a “decentered text” in his work Empire of Signs and certainly the fundamentally “decentering” element of the embodiment of the liberating aspects of the sunyata of Zen affected much of its traditional arts.  Thomas Merton quoted in his Zen and The Birds of Appetite an unattributed origin to the Chinese Taoist scholar’s preference for bamboo “because its heart is empty”.  Nature itself is the ultimate “decentered text”.  While the Kyoto school of philosophy attempted to integrate the non-dual philosophy of Zen into Western thought, there is room for cultural critique as well as technological and economic in the issue of climate change in terms of the moral and ethical issues concerning the destruction of long term environmental sustainability for short term economic goals.


Distantly, the year’s first shrill waves of the cicadas’ call signals the coming languor of the summer.


While many of the sayings of Jesus, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, could have come out of the mouth of a Zen master, Christianity as a religion has not had an easy relationship with nature.  Originally it began as an urban phenomenon that quickly sought to supplant earlier pagan myths and deities rooted in nature with a mono-narrative of salvation and an endless waiting for an Apocalypse.  Such narrow belief systems that claim exclusive truth as their goal in a world denying flight into an abstract heaven should also be questioned as a potential impediment of the effectiveness to preserve life on earth for future generations.  The Siva Sutras state that the “universe is Siva’s body” and Trika thought maintains that introverted absorption is only an expedient means and that final realization is the “open-eyed” absorption in the Divine as the universe.


I encourage a revision of sacred space to be primarily rooted in spaces and places in nature.  One of my favorite local natural spaces that embodies characteristics of natural sacred space is an arboretum with a unique mission to preserve the natural habitat in a large wooded area with minimal interference consisting mainly of creating discrete pathways through wild forested terrain that is left to grow in natural effusion without manicuring or manipulation that displays a kaleidoscopic beauty in its gratuitous decay as well as its unexpected growth.  It reminds me of the 18th century fashion for creating wild un-landscaped gardens influenced by a proto-Romantic Rousseauistic view of nature and the French misinterpretation of the English complexities of their natural gardens by creating spaces simply left to grow “wild”.


I am also inspired by Shinto sacred spaces in Japan ranging from the Shrine of Ise made of humble natural materials that must be ritually destroyed and rebuilt in exactly the same specifications every twelve years, or simply rocks, trees or waterfalls considered sacred and are encircled by straw rope or a folded paper chain.  I think of the importance not only of the preservation of the natural habitat in certain parks and spaces but of also honoring the sacredness inherent in such spaces and places and of the mysterious elegance of shrines that mark the boundaries of “civilization” and that honor the indwelling spirit of place.  I was delighted to learn the name of a commercial brand of asafetida that is of a goddess who is a protector of the forest.


Around 2002 the concept of “wabi/sabi” was marketed as the new “feng shui”.  I for one am glad that it proved to be a miserable failure, not only because they are vastly different and incomparable since feng shui is a whole science of geomancy and placement while wabi/sabi is primarily an extremely subtle aesthetic that is inherently averse to all the main assumptions of consumer culture.  Arising from the unique cultural alchemy of Heian Japan, in fact there is a scene in The Tale of Genji that is supposed to embody the aesthetic of wabi/sabi perfectly; it has many layers of meaning and association that makes it truly one of the world’s most unique aesthetic stances.  It is one of the most challenging concepts of beauty, that while deeply influenced by various philosophies, it remains rooted in a deeply organic context and a profound sensibility to nature.  While not coming from Zen directly, many Zen masters and artists eagerly adopted and elaborated on it such as Rikyu.


Wabi/sabi glorifies everything that popular consumer culture despises: imperfection, the mysterious elegance of decay, dignified obscurity, extreme sparseness, transience, asymmetry and incompleteness and the quiet humility of neglected things.  On first glance it may seem like minimalism, but it is not as it is also averse of modernism.  It suggests the profound abstraction of sunyata, the subtle beauty of deliquescence, or recogimiento or vimarshana, of inner satisfaction that needs no outer display, of the beauty of things emerging from and returning to the un-manifest, all with a deeply aesthetic artlessness of nature.


Nature is at the heart of our primal collectively human urges towards the aesthetic and also of religion for that matter, and I encourage everyone to spend as much time appreciating it in authentic encounter as one would “fine art”.  As much as we try to escape into the virtual realm of technology, we still “live and breathe and have our being” in the natural realm.  In my opinion one of the best legacies of Indic-based religions and philosophies is the emphasis on ignorance as the cause of suffering and evil in the world.  While we may be living through the Kali-yuga age of decline, I find the passage strangely reassuring in light of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of climate change by Boris Marjanovic in his introduction to his translation of Abhinavagupta’s commentary to the Bhagavad Gita: “According to Abhinavagupta, the sole purpose for such a [fully realized] yogin to remain engaged in activity is to educate people”.


After the heavy rains, night exudes cool humidity.  The distant chorus of frogs heaves in waves like the snoring of the somnambulant saturated earth, punctuated by the sharp chirping of small tree frogs.



© Paul Smith, 2014


Images Courtesy of: Dennis Dodson (USA);  Dharmendra Singh (India), Bridget Zhang (Scotland)




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