Shakespeare said, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” (Troilus and Cressida, IIIiii)
Andy Goldsworthy is an artist who touches nature in that way—he befriends the things he touches. He’s like a little boy going out to play, he forms a close kinship with the world around him.
“There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.” Whitman
Andy Goldsworthy has an abundance of that child-like quality. He stacks sticks into symmetrical sculptures; he gathers stones, sorts them, organizes them, and suddenly that pile of stones satisfies something in him, and in us—in the human spirit. We have a natural hunger for beauty—we satisfy it, in part, by reconnecting with Nature.
Andy reconnects: He breaks bunches of icicles and then sticks them onto either side of a rock so the attached icicles appear to penetrate the rock; he gathers leaves and using thorns he attaches them to one another fashioning them into a long strand, and then floating them like a flat green serpent, moving snake-like on the surface of the flowing water, as if they are flowing with time…reminding us that we are floating on the surface of eternity.
He forms big pieces of flat ice into five-foot-high cones and then he watches with that little boy’s sense of awe as the tide comes in and washes his big ice cone away, like Frosty the Snowman melting in the afternoon sun.
Andy Goldsorthy goes outside and arranges things into poems, the way Whitman did with words, the way Emerson did with carefully crafted sentences, the way Thoreau did by living alone in a little cabin at Walden Pond, watching the red ants fight the black and writing about it.
I marveled at the beauty of Andy Goldsworthy’s work as I watched him do his outside art on a documentary film titled Rivers and Tides: Working With Time.
‘Watching’ isn’t quite the right word for what I was doing. It was more like ‘witnessing,’ in a religious sense. Almost immediately I was ‘taking it in,’ the way I did when my children made sand castles at the beach and I knew, in that moment, that something sacred was happening, and I was there not only as father, or grandfather, but I was there as a living witness to the miracle of unfolding life, and I felt blessed, and I knew that some deep need in me was being satisfied—some need I didn’t even know I had until I felt like it was being ‘met.’
By watching Andy work I remembered similar work I had done, when the kids were little—I rolled the snow into big balls and piled three of them, each one a little smaller, making a snow man, using a carrot for a long nose, small stones for eyes and pebbles or a stick for a mouth. And eventually the snowman would melt away. There was a magic in those moments that has stayed with me, long after the snowmen have melted.
Those are the moments in time that stand outside of time, and in those moments of timelessness there’s something happening in me that I choose to call ‘my soul.’
The soul isn’t something that sits inside like the pituitary gland; but the soul influences growth and maturation, like the pituitary gland; except the growth and maturation of the soul is the sense of awareness of being alive; the sense of appreciation for the gift of life; the sense of awe and wonder that turns an ordinary moment into a miraculous life. The soul is a verb, of course; it’s the verb ‘to be.’
These mature years that I’m experiencing now, are intensified by the awareness of time—both time past and time present, each of which flows like a river into the future: the soul works with time; the soul is nurtured by beauty; it grows with acts of kindness and of love—those in which we’re directly involved and those we witness.
I am more sharply aware that I need to feel re-connected to the natural world—and when I am reminded that I am connected to the natural world then this thing in me I call ‘soul’ is activated.
I’m reminded of its origin—the birth of the soul is the child of love, but not the love that is sold over the counter, not the love that most of the Valentine’s talk about (though that’s an aspect of love that is to be valued)…but the birth of the soul is the result of forgiveness; it’s the result of grief and mourning; it’s the result of beauty in all its forms; the response to witnessing beauty, in all its manifestations.
The birth of the soul requires active participation between me and other persons; it requires active participation between me and this changing-failing-faulty self that feels humbled in the face of the huge task of becoming a person.
The soul senses, intuitively, that it is (that I am) part of all that is, and ever was, and ever will be. And that cannot be explained rationally; it’s is an intuition. You don’t have to believe it, you don’t have to accept it. It’s like the black hole in the center of Andy Goldsworthy’s rock art. The hole, for me, represents that part of faith that ‘leaves the best untold,’ as Whitman put it:
“Henceforth I will never have to do with that faith that tells the best; I will have only to do with that faith that leaves the best untold.”
Andy Goldsworthy doesn’t try to explain what his work means, except that he’s drawn to do it—to do his work with natural objects that he knows will be washed out with the incoming tide, or that will melt with the sun’s warmth, or that the breeze will soon blow it away.
It’s very Zen-like. “If stones are gathered into a circle and no one is there to see it, is it a piece of art?”
Zen emphasizes being ‘in the moment,’ and accepting the flow of life. Life is change. All things flow into the river of time; all things are washed into the vastness of the ocean as the tides ebb and flow twice in twenty-four hours.
When Andy Goldsworthy gets an idea and acts on it–to rearrange the rocks on the beach, for example–he becomes (for me) a poet; he becomes a priest insofar as the work of the priest is to hold up the ‘sacred,’ and to feel that the source of the sacred is in our own minds and hearts.
As priest, Andy makes natural objects sacred by the way he handles them, the way he moves them into position; he reminds us that there is something sacred in the world, and we make sacred whatever we touch in a loving way.
He becomes a servant of God, a spiritual teacher…he becomes the Buddha serenely sitting under the bo tree.
The Buddha’s most famous sermon was non-verbal. The story says that when the Buddha was ready to retire, and to pass on the responsibilities of leadership, he gathered his disciples for a special service.
His disciples anxiously waited to hear what he would say. They knew that this was an important gathering—something was in the air. The Buddha stood before them holding a flower, a single flower, and he waited, Zen-like.
Finally one of his disciples ‘got it.’ He understood the meaning of the sermon and the Buddha simply handed the flower to him in an unmistakable gesture of handing over authority and responsibility.
There’s a Buddhist saying, “When the student is ready the teacher arrives.” The Buddha is standing here, right now, flower in hand—or smooth white rock, icicles, leaves or sticks in hand.
Nature invites us to recognize our personal authority and to assume the responsibility that comes with it. Nature stands before us, inviting us to step out of the small, ego-centered self and to trust our intuition—to be liberated from the narrow bond of time and space, even if only for a fleeting moment—it cannot be sustained.
But those moments are precious. They can’t be forced, but they come whenever we see beauty, or hear what we consider beautiful music: that’s the ‘seeing, hearing, tasting, touching that lifts us from the no of all nothing,’ to which E. E. Cummings referred. ‘Alive, again, today…’
We know that our mode of living alienates from nature, to one degree or another. I’m not advocating the kind of utopian community promoted by Bronson Alcott—a back-to-the earth way of re-connecting—I like central heating!
I simply want to suggest, by holding up Andy Goldsworthy’s work, and comparing it to Whitman and Emerson, and Thoreau, that real religion helps us to feel connected with one another, and to feel reconnected to our ever changing self, and to feel re-connected to Nature.
Too often the religions add to our sense of alienation from one another, and from our so-called sinful self, and certainly to feel unconnected from the natural world, by creating a super natural god.
The Genesis story says we should ‘subdue the earth’ and have dominion over the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and over every living thing.’
The God of the Bible is often portrayed as a supernatural being–not part of the natural order; not part of nature.
Andy Goldsworthy befriends Nature, he collaborates with Nature—he works with Nature to create his art—he uses stones, ice, leaves, found feathers, driftwood, twigs, sand, branches and flower petals; he uses the snow, rain, hail to create art forms. He works with the rivers and the tides; he works with time. You and I are working with time, too.
He says, “Movement, change, light, growth and decay are the lifeblood of nature, the energies that I try to tap through my work…Nature is in a state of change and that change isthe key to understanding. I want my art to be sensitive and alert to changes in material, season and weather. Each work grows, stays, decays. Process and decay are implicit. Transience in my work reflects what I find in nature.”
“I don’t think the earth needs me at all, but I do need it.”
“I do need to be alone at times…I enjoy being by myself…there are people’s company that I do enjoy and there’s probably is a social nature too, and I feed to some extent…I think I am drained by people.”
By fashioning natural objects into beautiful moments Andy Goldsworthy has developed what Emerson referred to as an ‘original relation to the universe.’
Emerson said, “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religionby revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us”
He goes on to say, “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul”
Emerson asserts: “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature…In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows. Nature says, — he is my creature…
“The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.
(I become) “…conscious of a universal soul within or behind (this) individual life…” says Emerson.
Goldsworthy says, “There are moments when a piece of work emerges extraordinarily beautiful…those are the moments I just live for.”
This past week as I walked the sidewalk along Compo Beach I smiled as I realized that my walk was part of my sermon preparation! With Andy G. on my mind, I was noticing things I might otherwise have overlooked. Oh, I certainly would have noticed the way someone had balanced piles of stones, but this week when I walked past those balanced stones I wondered if someone had been watching Andy’s Rivers and Tides.
I noticed the tidal marks in the rippled sand; I noticed the Mallard ducks moving together in pairs, and the crying gulls flying so close to the water it looked like their wings would slice a line across it, and the squawking Canada geese flying v-shaped, calling out to one another.
I found myself paying closer attention than I might have, if it wasn’t for Andy. On Wednesday morning the bright red sunrise made me want to shout back at it—I swear I could hear the sunrise singing to the morning—and the sky was laughing out loud!
Just as Andy collaborates with nature, so does he collaborate with his filmmaker, Thomas Riedelsheimer. You can’t watch that film without realizing that a good cinematographer prolongs magical moments. The making of the film is itself a creative process just as much as the art that Andy makes. Sometimes the filming is even more creative than the forming.
About the idea of transience, Andy says, “I haven’t simply made the piece to be destroyed by the sea; the work has been given to the sea as a gift and the sea has taken the work and the sea will do more with it than I could have ever hoped for.”
Then he says, “And I think that if I can see in that way of understanding those things that happen to us in life that changes our lives that causes upheavals and shocks…” He stops, mid-sentence, thinking. Not for effect—he doesn’t seem to have a pretentious bone in his body, it’s not in his nature. At the end of the pause he says, simply,” I can’t explain that”
He left the best untold. That’s a faith to which I feel attracted, a faith I can live with.
At one point he says, “I am so amazed at times that I am actually alive.”
Well, you and I are alive, too. To be, and to be in the process of becoming, human, involves us in the process of growing a soul…of nurturing that thing we call ‘the spirit of love,’ which we affirm in our worship when we say ‘love is the spirit…’
Most of us are not artists, in the sense that Andy Goldsworthy is an artist; but we’re all involved in the art of living. We are engaged in the process of taking what we can find in ourselves and creating the person that’s emerging—this thing we call the self.
The God of Hinduism says, “I am the Self that dwells within the heart of every mortal creature; I am the beginning, the life span, and the end of all. Whatever in this world is powerful, beautiful or glorious, that you may know to have come forth from a fraction of my power and glory.”
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
May we find our own ways to touch nature, including our human nature—that’s how we grow the soul, working with the time we have—that’s how we touch the eternal. Rivers and Tides: Working With Time