“If we cannot establish an enduring or even a humanly bearable economy by our attempt to defeat nature, then we will have to try to live in harmony and cooperation with her.”
–Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food
On Sunday morning I like to venture outside on a bicycle ride. This morning Mai, my wife, and I are going out together. This makes it double paradise. On recent rides I’ve been keeping it simple and leaving my camera behind. But sometimes I can’t resist trying to record what I see, so I pull out my cellphone camera from its Ziploc bag in my back pocket, and take pictures.
I like cycling because it immerses me in the world. The aim is not to conquer the world, but get a feel for it. I feel excited because every time I pedal I extend my understanding. But I’m always humbled at my small place and the limits of my knowledge. In a way this is scary, to know I’m at the mercy of forces larger than me, but centering, since I only need to manage my small part.
I am awestruck by the size and scale of this landscape here surrounding Albuquerque, New Mexico. It is good to feel like a kid in this regard. Walter Isaacson says Albert Einstein’s genius depended on this wondrous sense of the world. Beethoven’s sense of mystery came through in his music even though it was written with mathematical precision. Sensing awesomeness does not necessarily mean you will produce works of influence, but it keeps us excited about life, and makes it possible that we may add meaning to the world by fusing poetic imagination with scientific or practical rigor. We should try to feel and describe it, realizing that being awestruck is only one part. We are obligated to apply our intelligence and abilities in a studious fashion.
I’m amazed at the tilt of the Sandia Mountains and the long line of the alluvial fan skirting down from the mountain toward the river shore. I close my eyes and imagine the whole river system, all 1,896 miles of it. The fresh snowmelt from Colroado’s La Garita Mountains, and all the white peaks above those small towns in the San Luis Valley, places like Mosca, Blanca, La Jara and Crestone. I see the river slipping southward with a quiet gushing through the narrow volcanic chasms below the enormous high mountain peaks and the broad desert plateaus Sagebrush and Juniper roots in, where rabbits, coyotes and deer make their home.
The Rio Grande flows past more small villages north of here. There is small scale farming where possible in the valleys below the high mountains. In these parts luminous stars in the night sky clearly out number TV’s. Elk bugle wildly in the fall, and you can see bighorn sheep skylighted on rocky outcrops. The river flows past the State capital in Santa Fe, and gravity keeps it flowing all the way through New Mexico onward to Mexico and Texas on its long journey to the ocean.
I bicycle on Sunday morning to touch base with all of this, and to do the same thing Wendall Berry says local farmers, and the Land Institute in Kansas, sets out to do: “They are interested merely in improving our fundamental relationship to the earth, changing the kind of roots we put down and deepening the depth we put them down to….Harmony between our human economy and natural world–local adaptation–is a perfection we will never finally achieve but must continuously try for.” Bicycling keeps me busy trying, and summons up something inside of me that reminds me why life is humbling yet worth striving at every day. Instead of reducing the world, it expands my sense of it. It guides my work and gives me a wellspring to draw from.