Recovering Our Elemental Imagination

Everything we have in our civilization is grown or extracted from the living earth; we will never escape this truth. How this truth influences our creativity, and how creativity influences our capacity to live this truth is a pivotal question.

Written By

Justin Ralls

Old growth forest

Landscape is the culture that contains all human culture. — Barry Lopez

Imagine a city where every rooftop is a garden, every building a home to different plants and animals as well as people. A city filled with monumental parks, where agriculture and recreation are combined. The rivers in this city teem with life and the sky is filled with birds. Now imagine in this world, this garden city, what music would be made—ringing out amidst the soundscapes of birds and animals, winds and waters.

Everything we have in our civilization is grown or extracted from the living earth. This includes our ideas, our culture, our arts, and our music. No matter how removed from the living, dynamic non-human world we feel, we will never escape this truth. How this truth influences our creativity, and how creativity influences our capacity to live this truth is a pivotal question.

From an animistic perspective, the imbalanced relationship between human civilization and the earth is the clearest source of our social ills and distress—climate change, resource depletion, chronic and epidemic illness, and all forms of structural and physical violence. Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our culture tends to hypnotize itself, reflecting us back upon ourselves. It is all too easy to forget the landscape which contains us. This ecological crisis then becomes a cultural crisis.

This past spring I had the opportunity to stay as an artist-in-residence at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Founded in 1948, it is the most studied forest in the world. Sponsored by the National Forest Service, Oregon State University, and copious grants, the goal in the Andrews forest is both complex and utterly simple: study the forest ecosystem over time and use this knowledge to inform our relationship with it. This mandate has illuminated vast scientific insights and controversial ideas of policy and purpose. The Andrews forest is home to some of the last remaining old growth forest in the world (500-800 year old trees), and it inspires many long-term studies and programs as a result. One such program is the Long Term Ecological Reflections (LTER), an international project documenting how “humans and the forest change over time.” The LTER project in the Andrews Forest, which began more than a decade ago, is scheduled to last 200 years, from 2003-2203.

Being part of a creative project that will outlive you is deeply humbling but not unfamiliar to a composer. Our education is steeped in cultures of the past, informing our own creations. Staring up at a tree whose life spans nearly the entirety of Western music history does make one wonder. To be present in a forest is to be present in a place of primal creativity. When we are in nature, we infuse ourselves with the creative energies of the life around us. Many composers have embedded this energy within their work. Beethoven, Sibelius, Takemitsu, Lou Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, and many others all held the natural world as an integral part of their creative journey. Takemitsu even said, “Music should have a profound relationship with nature,” and you need not be in Yosemite or an old growth forest to commune with it. The natural world is all around us. Like any practice, the more time and energy you devote to it, the more insights, experiences, and visions you will receive. The more we infuse the energy and experience of nature into our own imagination and music, the more vibrant and nourishing our cultural relationship with the earth will be.

Like music, our experience in nature is often intuitively understood. I’ve noticed while hiking or just meditating in the forest, ideas and potentials come to me with inspiring clarity. Whether they are creative solutions to a piece or life-long career projects, ideas enter lucidly into view. These are visions. In the presence of ancient trees it is easier to remind myself that I am merely a “vessel” (to quote Stravinsky). These visions do not originate in me nor am I the end of their journey.

Old growth forest

Trees in an old growth forest in some ways never die, spending half their existence as slowly rotting logs. Here the ancestors are not in the sky but among the living. These are nature’s epic poems, they are what scientists call “biologic legacies”—they are the culture from where we originated and, once our exhausted civilization finally collapses, like the tree we too will sink back into the earth. Theodore Roosevelt said that when he heard of a species gone extinct it was like “some great work of art had been lost”; when we lose a species, we lose the ability to learn from and grow with that being. Just as the arts speak to us across time with wisdom and insight, so does the natural world. When we deny ourselves the experience of communing with the natural world, we sever our connection to this creative potential and story.

In the forest we find a metaphor for our own relationships; art itself is a receptacle of experiences and relations passed down over generations. The composer creates a mythical sonic landscape, places which inspire and enrich our experience. Composers inspired by each other interact in communal creativity. The same is true when we experience nature. The indigenous peoples of the Northwest sacrificed a tree and carved into that tree animals stacked on top of one another—a clear metaphor for the ecological relationships inherent in the culture of the forest. Art and nature combine to tell a communal story. When a tree is transformed into a totem pole, such a tree is an honorable ambassador between human culture and the natural world.

Imagination, scholar Harold Goddard observed, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two—as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend—the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”

Could music be such a mediator to heal and reawaken our senses to the greater culture of life? Shall we create music and art that reinforce the values of the civilization we have now or a different one we shall create? It was Orpheus who led the trees and beasts with song, and whose lyre soothed the fiercest spirits, whose music swayed the Argonaut’s ship away from destruction. Seek out your own elemental imagination, create the music of your own garden city.

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