The human species is wildly and wonderfully imaginative. We plunge into the tiniest intricacies of our world—exploring DNA and finding the parts of a molecule. We compose music so energetic it alters our thinking and so sublime it transports us beyond ourselves. We search the stars and we go on chasing the mysteries of consciousness. We make art and literature, pursue philosophy and science and so much more. Things that our near-ancestors would have thought magical or impossible are all around us. Ideas, as Ursula Le Guin noted, are in the wind, they are everywhere.
And yet we are a species of ego and delusions. And a species capable of unspeakable violence and destruction, even to the extent of destroying the planet that nurtures us. What we so often lack is not imagination but perspective, particularly the ability to take the long view. We live urgent lives, often with blinkers that are all about what we want now, bogged down by small but pressing matters that so easily blot out the wider, longer view,
But we need clarity and perspective to accompany our amazing imaginations. I love that the etymology of ‘clairvoyance’ is simple clear sight. Seeing ahead isn’t about elite and spooky hidden knowledge but about finding the right perspective.
With the clarity of trees
Some of the oldest living things on our planet are trees. And as we learn more and more about the communities of trees in our surviving forest, they become an increasingly powerful inspiration for slowing down, listening and connecting with a wisdom that has nothing to do with being busy and blinkered, nothing to do with living on stress and making bad decisions from lack of insight and clarity.
There are Yew trees, for example, that have persisted for hundreds, even thousands of years. The Llangernyw Yew in Conwy, North Wales is 4,000-5,000 years old. And the yews are not alone in theri longevity. There’s a Patagonian Cypress tree in Chile that is over 3,600 years old and a Meditaranean Cypress in Iran that is between 4,000-5,000 years old.
And the list goes on—an ancient Bristlesone Pine in California, known as Methusaleh (though the pine has outlived Methusaleh by almost four centuries) and another in the Great Bason of California that is even older. And then there are trees that clone themselves to form clonal colonies that persist for millenia like the Norweigean Spruce in Sweden known as Old Tjikko that have been there for over 9,500 years or the Quaking Aspen of Utah that have replicated for over 80,000 years.
Anything that lives so long offers a model for a different perspective, a different way of thinking. And yews are also remarkable in their toxicity, which nonetheless contains powerful medicinal substances, even for chemotherapy; a model of boundaries and healing working together. It’s hardly surprising that in myth and folklore yews are symbols of both death and resurrection, standing in graveyards as metaphors of transition and reminders of our ancestors, but also as symbols of hope as they plant new parts of themselves back into the earth.
The long view, the larger perspective, that yew offers, is something we can learn from. Our physical vision is effected by what we regularly see. It’s not so much that working on screens for long, long periods damages eyesight (though it may) but that being outside and looking towards longer horizons is beneficial to our sight. And of course vision isn’t only physical, we use it metaphorically for how we see and conceive our route through life— how we become ‘clairvoyant’.
From the vantage point of galaxies
But even the perspective of trees dwarfs when we look to the stars.
The astronomer Maria Mitchell gives a wonderful sense of this perspective. She was the first woman to teach at Vassar College in the USA and completely rewrote the curriculum, producing a cohort of world-class astrophysicists. Mitchell’s other great love was poetry and she held poetry-writing parties to the stars in the college observatory. Her regularly repeated advice to her students was:
Mingle the starlight with your lives, and you won’t be fretted by trifles.
It’s another version of taking the wider or longer view. Our perspective become myopic when it’s all about the small irritations of daily life. Standing under a sky of stars puts it all in place. The poet Pattiann Rogers captures this beautifully in her poem ‘Achieving Perspective’ from her collection, Firekeeper.
Straight up away from this road,
Away from the fitted particles of frost
Coating the hull of each chick pea,
And the stiff archer bug making its way
In the morning dark, toe hair by toe hair,
Up the stem of the trillium,
Straight up through the sky above this road right now,
The galaxies of the Cygnus A cluster
Are colliding with each other in a massive swarm
Of interpenetrating and exploding catastrophes.
I try to remember that.
And even in the gold and purple pretense
Of evening, I make myself remember
That it would take 40,000 years full of gathering
Into leaf and dropping, full of pulp splitting
And the hard wrinkling of seed, of the rising up
Of wood fibers and the disintegration of forests,
Of this lake disappearing completely in the bodies
Of toad slush and duckweed rock,
40,000 years and the fastest thing we own,
To reach the one star nearest to us.
And when you speak to me like this,
I try to remember that the wood and cement walls
Of this room are being swept away now,
Molecule by molecule, in a slow and steady wind,
And nothing at all separates our bodies
From the vast emptiness expanding, and I know
We are sitting in our chairs
Discoursing in the middle of the blackness of space.
And when you look at me
I try to recall that at this moment
Somewhere millions of miles beyond the dimness
Of the sun, the comet Biela, speeding
In its rocks and ices, is just beginning to enter
The widest arc of its elliptical turn.
Other astronomers have also communicated on the perspective we gain from considering how tiny we are in the scale of the universe. One of these, Rebecca Elson, was also a poet. She led a team at Cambridge university, analysing images from Hubble Space Telescope to discover more about the nature of the dark matter enveloping the Milky Way. And she did so while suffering from a rare and terminal blood cancer, which was diagnosed when she was 29. She was also a poet and in her final decade wrote an exceptional collection, A Responsibility to Awe.
Let there Always be Light (Searching for Dark Matter)
For this we go out dark nights, searching
For the dimmest stars,
For signs of unseen things:
To weigh us down.
To stop the universe
From rushing on and on
Into its own beyond
Till it exhausts itself and lies down cold,
Its last star going out.
Whatever they turn out to be,
Let there be swarms of them,
Enough for immortality,
Always a star where we can warm ourselves.
Let there be enough to bring it back
From its own edges,
To bring us all so close we ignite
The bright spark of resurrection.
From the perspective of the writer
Finding ways to widen and challenge our perspectives as writers is what enables us to use the wonderful power of imagination not for ego but to witness to and challenge the way our world is. We have models in nature and in the universe and we have models in the extraordinary diversity of human and living experience on this planet.
Here’s to enlarging the perspective of our stories.