Monday, August 22, 2016

The patience of nature; patience in nature

Yellowstone National Park is a busy place. This is partly because of its geography.  At its centre is a giant caldera or basin, part of which  you see here.  The mountains around the basin were created by massive volcanic eruptions that occurred 2 million years ago, again 1.3 million years ago, and then again 640,000 years ago.  After the last eruption, the centre collapsed, creating a plain or basin.  Visitors to the park are treated to the scenery around the caldera, where roads have been paved through the mountains.  So there are very few roads for a lot of people.

You meet a few of these people at the numerous overlooks that allow you to get out of your car and take a longer look.  You meet even more of them at some of the highlights like Tower Falls, where large tour buses stop.  Visitors come from everywhere in the world--you hear a veritable spice market of accents and languages as you patiently wait your turn to come to the railing that gives you an unobstructed view of the falls.  And of course, if they have come from Korea or Eritrea, they want to take a photograph of their family with the falls in the background.  This is where one of Bill's practices came in handy:  seeing a family being photographed by the person who is never included in the family album, he always offers to take a picture of everyone, and is greeted with delighted gratitude.  His gesture takes some of the impersonality out of the crowds:  for a moment, you are part of other people's experience and desires. 

But the crowds themselves are extraordinarily polite.  While for the most part we do not make eye contact--looking instead at the landscape--people did not push or shout or let their children--finally released from the car--run wild.  Interestingly, while I heard some crying children, who sounded frankly exhausted, I heard no shouting or fights, saw no wrestling or impromptu games of tag that used tourists as hiding places or barriers.

Part of it is that we are simply gobsmacked by nature, by its near-incomprehensible sublimity.  Shouting or wrestling or pushing here would be like shouting, wrestling, or pushing in a cathedral.  The calm crowd is doubtless an effect of the kind of people who choose to visit Yellowstone, rather than N.Y.'s Times Square, on a vacation.

But part of it is also nature itself.  My friend, Katherine Arbuthnott, has put together a brief synopsis of the research relating to our relationship with nature.  She notes that "a growing body of research consistently shows that contact with the natural environment improves our physical, cognitive, and emotional health."  Time in nature lowers blood pressure and decreases surgical healing time.  "Two large studies, one in Canada and one in the UK, showed that mortality rates from all causes decrease with more access to natural areas."  Time spent in the natural world has a positive effect on our emotional health, decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression, and, frankly, making us happy and enthusiastic.  Spending time in the natural world also "improves childrens' school performance, reducing ADHD symptoms."  Adults who spend time in nature are more creative.  Now you know why writers take all those long walks. 

So we weren't simply responding aesthetically and imaginatively to the grandeur around us.  Something inherent in nature shapes our response, which can be prompted as much by prairie grassland as by Yellowstone National Park.

 But I also like to think that we were also channeling nature's patience.  On our final day we visited "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River." While the canyon is certainly deep, that fact that Yellowstone consists largely of yellow stone--the colour of the lava--and its much smaller size, makes it less spectacular than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  Yet two stunning, massive, and powerfully noisy waterfalls illustrate a process that has gone on for eons and continues:  water eroding rock.

Here we see something as fluid and elusive as water shaping an environment, like a blind sculptor carving stone over millennia.

I like to think that we were also influenced by metaphor.  In the Norris Geyser Basin or at Mammoth Hot Springs (we didn't drive as far south as Old Faithful), we had a chance to see earth's inner life come to the surface in steam and liquid. 

You can't see it through the steam, but this pool is bubbling at a boil.  Although there have been no volcanic eruptions here for thousands of years, there is lots of activity and pressure under the earth's crust.  Maybe it hasn't exploded because it lets off steam a little at a time--a lesson my mother (and probably every other fifties housewife) could have benefited from.  And maybe all those well-behaved kids jumped on the beds when they got back to the hotel or ran rings around the picnic table while dinner cooked over the fire.  At least I hope so.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful place, the waterfall is particularly amazing and I loved your writing on it. 'Like a blind sculptor carving stone over millennia' is particularly gorgeous.