It’s a quiet, foggy morning here in Seattle, and I’m thinking about ontology — the philosophical study of the nature of existence.
For a few reasons. First, there are passages from Emma Restall Orr’s The Wakeful World playing in my mind against passages from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous, both of which have been my nightly reading recently. Then there is this post by John Halstead from the Humanistic Paganism blog, exploring “tropical rainforest ontology” as an alternative to materialist reductionism. Unfortunately, the alternative that Halstead offers is all too familiar: an ontological hierarchy, with human beings at its apex. Although in naturalistic philosophy hierarchy no longer needs the divine sanction of a god to justify it, the supremacy of human culture and human consciousness remains unchallenged, the assumed pinnacle of evolution, with the masses of quarks, quasars, oak trees and elephants relegated to the same old mindlessness of mere objects, only so much stuff.
I admit to being disappointed. There is something deeply dissatisfying about our only choice being between reductionism and hierarchy, for both seem to me equally wrong. Here in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, there exists a messy, thriving tangle of lifeforms coalescing into communities of meaning and mindfulness on every ecological level. As I go stumbling along on my hikes through the forested mountains, clunky boots thumping heavily on the moist earth with every step, I can almost hear the chorus of beings laughing good-naturedly at the very idea of such neat, clean hierarchies and my species’ claim to supremacy.
But rather than go into any more detailed analysis of these dense and sometimes unwieldy philosophies, instead I want to talk a little bit about fog.
In early autumn, the rains have only just returned to Seattle after the annual summer drought. For a few months every year, the landscape here in the rainshadow of the great Olympic mountains becomes dry and brittle. Even the ubiquitous carpet of moss and lichens crunches slightly underfoot. When the rain returns again in the fall, the ground itself seems to drink gratefully of the refreshing waters. Small creeks swell that had only weeks before been reduced to mere muddy trickles, the moss plumps up again lush and soft, intricate spiderwebs suddenly seem to be everywhere shimmering with morning dew, and the banana slugs venture out from the damp, dark protection of the leaf litter to brave the exposure of wooded paths in the city parks. Most mornings this time of year begin in fog.
I sometimes think that, like the proverbial Eskimo words for snow, we should have far more words for fog. There are a few near-synonyms in English: mist, with its connotations of cool, damp breezes; haze and steam, clinging to the landscape with sticky heat; the unappetizing murk and the polluted hybrid smog; even the obscure, poetic brume, a dark, chilling thing that stalks through the coldest winter months. But when I look out my window this morning, what I see outside is not quite any of these. It is undeniably, simply: fog.
It is the kind of fog that arises from the earth itself, exhaled slowly into the still morning air, dense and quiet and lingering. It is the kind of fog that transforms the landscape into a soft, gray canvas on which distant trees are painted in watercolor greens, sketched in with a few thin strokes of graphite. This is a fog that you can only see by looking down the road aways. It doesn’t curl around your feet like an affectionate cat — it keeps its distance, withdrawing as you approach, always just out of reach.
As you walk down the road, houses, fences, gardens and stop signs emerge from the light-infused obscurity to arrest your attention. In such a fog, nearby objects seem to put themselves forward to be examined minutely in their singular beauty. The diffuse light reveals an interplay of texture, color and form that a harsher light of stark contrasts might obliterate.
If you keep walking west, eventually you will reach the shore of Puget Sound. Standing on the beach on a clear day, you would be able to see the craggy peaks of the Olympics on the horizon across the water, their heights a dappling of light and shadow, snow and stone.
But in this fog, from your place on the shore, the world seems to expand around you only a few hundred feet before disappearing altogether into anonymous silence. You stand at the heart of clarity and light, so that your own body is a landscape of creases, joints and goosebumped skin that appear infinitely more complex to you than your muted surroundings.
In such a fog, it’s all too easy to forget the mountains, to forget the trees and the houses — to imagine only the gently rocking waters of the sound extending forever in every direction in a smooth, unbroken simplicity.
You are completely alone in the universe.
Except that every now and then a solitary gull sweeps into view, its wedged form coalescing out of light, water and sky, with a cry that sounds like the sea.
Photo Credit: “gull6,” by Mike Marcotte (CC) [source]