The heart’s opening always leaves us vulnerable to grief, but grief can be transformative.
I wonder what you call it–that experience of unexpectedly entering into a space of intense, almost heartbreaking, awareness. It happened to me this Saturday, and I’m still wobbly.
The occasion was a meeting sponsored by Defenders of Wildlife in Seton Village outside of Santa Fe. The site is the Academy for the Love of Learning, and the purpose was to introduce us to the story of how artist Ernest Thompson Seton had arrived in New Mexico in 1893 as a “wolf killer,” only to be transformed into perhaps the most effective conservationist in history.
My primary purpose in going to this event was to introduce two friends to Seton Village, where Seton built a home called “the castle.” I had been there before on a brief outing and had read a summary of the encounter with wolves that had changed his life. I thought my friends, who are very attuned to nature and rather new to Santa Fe, would enjoy the event, which they did.
It was arranged that attendees would sit in a circle in the Seton Gallery, which I had not seen before. The walls are hung with varied examples of Seton’s art, and we were invited to move around and look at them while we waited for everyone to arrive. Within minutes I was so overcome with emotion that I struggled to function appropriately.
During the course of the meeting, we were asked to focus on one picture and to say what memories or thoughts it inspired. If I could have spoken without breaking down I would have commented on the beautiful oil painting of a sleeping wolf.
Wolves are beset all over the country right now and particularly in Idaho where there is a plan underway to kill about 450. Every beloved dog that has ever lived, from the Great Dane to the Chihuahua, is descended from the wolf. What I would have said had I been able to speak, is that for this reason alone we should cherish the few remaining wild purebreds of that ancestral line.
I struggled throughout the rest of the meeting, but I learned something in the course of it that may explain the powerful impact of the art on the wall.
David Witt, historian and author of the beautiful book, Ernest Thompson Seton: The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist, led the discussion. At one point it came up that the art did not represent a kind of academic naturalism. Instead, most of it was actually portraits of creatures that Seton knew; and his respect, fascination, and even reverence for each may have been palpable. Ah, the power of art.
Whatever the explanation, I was profoundly affected by the experience. The impact endures as a result of my concern about how climate change will devastate the creatures that still remain in the natural world.
Saturday was an emotionally draining day, and the trend continued on Sunday. That morning I sat at my kitchen table reading an article on the urgent recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The article said that the Panel’s report is likely to increase the pressure to create a global climate treaty that would take effect in 2020. I took off my glasses, put my head in my hands, and started to cry. This is way, way too late.
This much emotion is not like me at all. However, I was suddenly swamped with certainty that change will advance much faster than we have imagined. Whereas we humans are the agents of our incoming misfortune, the creatures in the natural world are wholly its victims. It was for them that I wept.
That evening came the third influence–that critical three-thing afoot again. I watched on YouTube the first episode of “The Years of Living Dangerously,” a wonderful new documentary on climate change. As I watched, I wondered how any one could see this and not be affected by it.
However, to be respectful, I must acknowledge that there is a different path to awakening in each of us. For Seton it was an encounter with a pair of wolves–and I will share that story a bit later. In my own life, it came with years of walking in beautiful natural settings with a wonderful dog. Not everyone is so fortunate.
This change in consciousness is not something that can be forced. It comes in its own good time and in its own way, if at all. Many resist it and for good reason. The heart’s opening always leaves us vulnerable to grief, but grief can be transformative, as was the case with Seton. I hope that’s not what we need as a nation to mitigate tragedy.
This is a heavy subject and I need to leave it for a while. I will resume in a few days with the story of Seton’s life-altering moments with the “King-wolf” Lobo and his mate, Blanca.
(You can watch the first episode of “The Years of Living Dangerously” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brvhCnYvxQQ.)