Driving east from Annapolis toward the bridge, once past the tollbooths, the world opens before me, as if I’d exited a tunnel and fallen into the light. The Eastern Shore spreads out ahead of me, low and green, and to the north and south, the expanse of the magnificent estuary we call the Chesapeake Bay presents like an inland sea. It’s all about open spaces, the peculiar way that these expanses reverberate with something deep inside us as if the openness out there mirrors the infinite space already existing inside each of us. Open expanses speak to the stuff of eternity that course through us with the regularity of heartbeats. There’s a distinctive feeling this scene awakens in me every time. It feels something like a release.
Poet Emily Dickinson locates herself in this space this way:
Behind Me – Dips eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term Between
The wind sluices through the cables and stanchions of the Bay Bridge and I can see the gulls plunge and soar. They search for the wind, and like surfers waiting for the big one, they steady their wings and catch the wind while effortlessly riding its currents. I suspect they’re doing it for the sheer joy of flight, experiencing the exhilaration of transcending gravity, the way children enjoy jumping or skipping. The gulls need lots of space for this maneuver. It’s our regional scenario that bespeaks the harmony and grace with which the ecological phenomena plays out all around us in our tidewater home.
Leaving the bridge, I soon arrive at Kent Narrows. Crossing the Narrows Bridge, I can see row upon row of lusterless gray townhouses, built upon the edges of the fragile marshlands. The sight is depressing. I imagine them weighing down the marshes. If they were providing homes for local residents, it might make some sense, but many of these townhouses serve only as second homes and except for weekends, are left vacant.
A lovely place carries the latent seeds of its own destruction: its existence is an invitation to live there.
There was a time in human history when to get to civilization we had first to travel through wilderness. Today we have little wilderness left and we get there only when we pass through civilizations.
I welcomed Tom Horton’s recent article in the Spy making a case for the unsustainability of today’s growth patterns. “Development” and “growth” have been the American mantra in our consumerist era and are spreading like carcinogenic cells, which, when left unregulated, destroy the host on which they live. To develop means to bring something to its destined fullness and fruition. Proper growth is the process through which this happens. In my mind there is no question that the proliferation of malls and tract housing is not being governed by an enlightened vision of ecological growth or development, but primarily by corporate profit. Big money manipulates small towns while the land is given no rights in the negotiations. Our contemporary vision of “development” regards our landscapes as commodities to be turned for profit.
In addition to the abuse of overbuilding, this postmodern attitude has spiritual ramifications. As much as we regard ourselves as more “civilized,” than our Native American cousins, they enjoyed a sense of place that included a reverence for the land. They lived on and were fed from the land and didn’t need to own it. They even regarded certain land as “sacred space.” They did not dominate the earth, but cooperated with it.
Mikhail Gorbachev, a leader of the former Soviet Union once headed Greenpeace. In an interview, he once said about the excesses and abuses of the industrial age, where more is always reckoned as better, that we had no sense of “enoughness.”
Humans hunger to experience beauty. It reveals itself in the universal need to decorate our homes and to create gardens. My guess would be that most wallpaper images are variations of flowers, leaves, shrubs and vines. Exposure to beauty is as critical for being fully alive as access to food is. In the ugliness so apparent in urbanization and in our social and political scene, not having the inspiration that beauty awakens leads to brutality and cynicism that today dominates so much of our social and political lives. A sense of openness and space sooths our human spirit, promotes a sense of mutuality, cultivates gentleness while fostering feelings of gratitude. Witnessing beauty reminds us that the life we’ve been given is not an entitlement but a gift.
“For it is only framed in space that beauty blooms,” writes Anne Morrow Lindbergh. “Only in space are events, objects and people unique and significant – and therefor beautiful.”
She writes from an island surrounded by water, not unlike our Eastern Shore. In walking the beach she says, “We can have a surfeit of treasures – an excess of shells, where one or two will do.”
In 1989, Dr. Roger Ulrich studied the relationship between exposure to nature and psychophysical restoration of medical patients. He was able to demonstrate that patients regularly exposed to water views and greenery recovered more quickly, used less pain medication and were given fewer negative evaluations than patients who had views of only buildings, parking lots and other urban structures.
As I write this essay the sun has just come out. I walk a short distance outside my studio. I see how the shades of green on pine needles still wet and dripping, vary from the leaves of deciduous trees. They all glisten as the sun strikes the lingering droplets from the recent rains. The flowers we planted recently are now radiant white, yellow, red and orange and the grass, usually scraggly and thin in front of the studio, with all the rain has become thick and verdant.
Happily, the open spaces surrounding my house are uncluttered except that they are filled with the fullness of empty spaces and lots of birds.