The Fragmented World and Earth as the last Sanctuary
— Sep. 2021. Vemo Hang
The modern human civilization, best represented by the organization of today’s cities, is created on the principle of controlling all relevant factors and to create a manageable, predictable“constant”. Everything “natural”, therefore, represents the largest source of risks and variables. With this background, almost all natural elements are reduced in a human habitat to a functional and accessory minimum. The plants are mostly introduced into the cityscapes for decorative and at best recreational purposes; Season of the year plays no significant role as temperature in any indoor spaces are always easily controlled. The air gets purified. Whenever allowed, we would also often prefer artificial light over natural light, since both help us to see, but the former is adjustable.
To borrow an American cultural historian and geologist Thomas Berry’s words:
... we, the people of the industrial world, no longer live in a universe. We in North America live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order, a cultural tradition, a Disney dreamland.
...We seldom see the stars at night or the planets or the moon. Even during the day we do not experience the sun in any immediate or meaningful manner… Ours is a world of highways, parking lots, shopping centers. We read books written with a strangely contrived human alphabet. We no longer read the Book of Nature.
Even the notion of our human“life” --- a phenomenon born of biological, natural basises, is also often primarily defined according to every other economical, political or ideological criterias other than that in relation to the greater nature on the earth. While this perspective renders the Earth into a commodity, so does it render human lives a part of this greater subjugation and self-alienation.
Entering the second summer of a world affected by the corona virus crisis, I moved my home seat in Berlin from a bustling multi-cultural city neighbourhood to a location at the north edge of the city. My life previous to this point mostly mirrored a distinct feature of our globalized time: while living in one place, either my body or my mind was always linked with another place of the world. It certainly is related to the way how our modern technologies, such as airplanes and the internet, with their ability to connect different locations on earth, transcends our bodily experience of a “natural” time and space. With the pandemic kicking in, never before in the modern era has human’s bodily mobility been so restricted. As if suddenly over the night, one gets disenchanted from the idea of a frantically, abstractly existing and interconnected global world, but rather is forced to look around and appreciate the immediate, surrounding living world.
My newly acquainted neighborhood is an area of the city, which is often otherwise considered “boring” --- no fancy gastronomy, no nightlife, no urban flair. What exists there instead are three historical public parks existing merely a few kilometers away, sewn together by a small river that delivers day and night vitality to the surrounding lush forest of dark greens.
A great multitude of lives are sustained by this blood stream. The running water nourishes the water plants and grass inhabiting the shadow of trees. They in turn sustain the moisture in the soil, providing the right humidity environment, making habitats and hunting grounds for myriads of insects and small creatures. Many of the trees in the park could easily embody condensed histories over hundreds of years. Very often I find some random passersby stop by these giant creatures and spend minutes, if not longer, to study the form in front of them closely. These creatures are not the same as their younger fellas. These trees are, without exception, full of character; each scar, each bend, each twist, the colour of their tree barks and the way they grow upwards towards the sunlight, are all manifestations of the silent vital energy that carried them through time.
While the light plays mostly an ornamental role in the city landscape, in nature, it is the center of all earthly lives. It is the one of the most important principles, according to which all earthly lives organize their place and action in relation to the others. The economy of the distribution of light amongst plants, from top to down, creates a both mathematically rhythmical visual order, which is not static but something constantly changing and shifting, determined by the smaller life cycles of the creatures and the greater cycle of the environments they dwell in.
For a person used to seeing a more tamed version of “nature” in a city, one could not help but feel surprised by the level of vigor, livelihood and autonomy to be witnessed in those “city parks”. To step into one of them, one leaves behind a world of objects and returns to a world of subjects.
In Chinese, a word equivalent to the word of “Nature” is “Zi Ran”, essentially meaning “self-created” or “naturally become so”. The term both acknowledge certain integral agenda or natural course of action that are unique to certain species or constellation of substances, such as the tree or the rock, the water or the mountain, but also consider there to be existing a greater order and cycle of evolvement, some call it a cosmic order, some consider it to be the great breath of vitality, that not only encompasses but also runs through all of its subordinate subjects.
This ancient cosmology, evolved and refined and modified over thousands of years in the continental China, encountered most apparently starting from the late 19th century, a sudden but also perhaps expectable brutal rupture. This ideologically and economically self-sustaining kingdom, perhaps too satisfied with their philosophy and doctrine, had long been determined to direct their gaze only to their internal affairs, but not to the vast and pervasive scientific development taking place in other parts of the planet. The land had always been led by a group of elite scholars who uphold the stiffened version of Chinese doctrines stemming from the ancient cosmology, which despises anything that diverts itself from the “great cosmic order”as corruptive and immoral, such as sophisticated machinery technologies.
In comparison, their East-Asian neighbor Japan was much more alert when first signs of alien technology appeared in their vision, when the first “black ships” appeared at their coastal horizon, and were immediately able to react and adopt the strategy of “total westernization”. In comparison, China remained in their self-containment for another half a century, until the outside world brought change upon itself by force.
What appears to be a technological challenge, in reality is one that challenges the fundamentally underlying cultural philosophy and cosmology (Weltbetrachtung). The total breaking down of classic doctrine also turned the gaze of the Chinese people away from their classics, their cosmology inspired code of morality, their history, their calendar, their mountain-water painting, and even their language, and embarked on an painful journey of relentless and desperate self-invention, recreating oneself through the adaptation of the great modernization process, along with the Christan values and and Marxism, as how the history has evidently proven over the last nearly two hundred years.
What nowadays the intellectuals in the post-modern west criticize, the whole idea about “progress” and its subsequent by-product of endless expansion of human consumption at the cost of earthly resources, was at that time, for the revolutional young minds in China at the beginning of 20th century , a brilliant ray of hope. Never have they heard the idea of linear history, a sense of singular and ultimate direction for good. It was the tool to help them to set themselves free from the image of an ever-cycling sense of history, which appeared to be nothing but decaying, numbing and weak. Hence from there began the land’s total embrace towards “progress” until today, a time when global environmental crisis kicks in, a time when all inhabitants of the earthly community face the same challenge of needing to rethink their relationship to nature and invent a new definition of themselves and of history.
Compared to almost all other world metropolises, Berlin is certainly the greenest one. Until I moved my homeseat close to these parks, the river, the bustling lives in those blue-green tree shadows, never before have I felt at home in this foreign land. Paradoxically, I wouldn't feel at home even if I were back in my home town Shanghai, since I was always moving around since I was young. I feel at home in those mountain-water paintings, idealized landscapes that elevates the human from their small blood-and flesch to the level of the greater cosmic resonance. The woods along the river feel to me in a similar fashion, perhaps because they simply speak the same language and embody a similar kind of vitality.
Some years ago, I got a chance to stay a few days in a mountain area in central China. The mountain range had an average altitude of 1000 - 1400 meters, a height elevated from the flat-land while not over-exposing its ecosystem and climate to the strength of high-altitude sunlight. In those days, I often found myself indulging in the activity of watching the formation and transformation of the ocean of colorful clouds surrounding the not so distant mountain peaks. Only when one could witness these fleeting dances exchanged between the cloud, the sunrays, the moisture, the mountain wind, the warm air rising up and cold air sinking down along the elevation of mountain ranges, would one understand, that these phenomena are not mere a romantic appreciation of “nature”, but the essential processes determining the climate of an entire surrounding local regions, hence determining further the nature of all surrounding living species, including the human dwellings. Only when one would watch and watch these phenomena over an extended period of time, when one’s eyes begin to sore, the body begin to tire but these phenomena simply endlessly proceed, would one acknowledge the smallness of the human existence, despite all its ambition and effort to exert control, compared to the scale of such great processes. They are taking place simultaneously everywhere, ceaselessly, effortlessly, all the time in the world, with or without our presence and company.
Not long after moving to northern Berlin, at one of the early evenings, I walked out of the house to have a walk through the quiet neighborhood to reach the woods. During the walk, as the world becomes quieter approaching the resting time, it appeared to me that the clearest indicator of the passing time, accompanying the rhythm of my own movement and breath, was the extremely slow and subtle, but irreversible sinking of the surrounding world into a indistinct light and color condition that is predominantly blue.
It's a kind of blue that is hard to define. It is this kind of light condition, as opposed to the black night, to be the opposite of mid-day sunlight, a time in the day when light waves are so strong that light particles bounce off the surface of all objects into all directions. In the blue hours, the noises from the activity of light particles are tuned down, All the surfaces and substances on earth stop participating in the busy sport of bouncing back direct sun rays. Instead, they start to reflect indirect light.
Under such a light condition, the atmosphere full with scattered floating particles refract the light stemming from the sun already setting below the horizon, delivering the last remaining energy to the entities on the earth. Here comes forth a vague sense of homogenization, void of the strong hierarchical light-shadow contrast imposed by daytime sunlight. While the day is a solo stage for the sun’s symphony, the transitional period between the day and night, taking place two times a day, is a time when illumination comes from all directions and corners, simultaneously enriching and reducing everything into humbler but illuminated contours. All entities in this light begin to exist in a network of mutual correspondence with other entities, including with human spectators.
I encountered similar lights back then when I visited the mountains. Once as I was returning to the hotel around the time of sunset, it felt to me as if my own movement from the mountain top downwards coincided with the speed of dimming of light on the mountain way. By the time I was close to my destination, I looked towards the neighboring mountain hills, which were fully covered by dark dense forests, with no parts of earth to be seen. In the deepest pitch of blue, the forest was wavering as an entire mass in slow gentle motion, as if breathing in and out. The ink like blue was so vague and vast, in which one could no longer define any border between one’s own contour and the contour of the surrounding road, forests and mountains.
Could there be at all a reasonable link to be drawn between the mountains in China and the woods in northern Berlin? Is the sun rising and setting at the horizon at every corner on earth the same sun, that brings people a common ground of experience? Could this logic of greater nature become the only source for a sense of coherence and unwavering reality, in a time when other forms of cultural, historical, political, ideological, and economical realities are tearing human experiences further and further apart from one another? Could these activities in the human realm--- our favorite game of creating isolated fragments and constructs, really satisfy our bodies, minds and souls? I personally find myself not eligible for answering any of these questions. It’s only that I am soothed by these little traces and evidence, which point to the interconnectivity of all earthly or cosmic beings. With that my nostalgia for something impossible is a little relieved, and I could somehow manage to find a way to remain patient, alert and hopeful.