It clearly needed something more than the attention it had been getting. Had it been left to its own nature, this azalea would have slowly filled a shady corner of the yard with its regular pattern of stretch-and-radiate. Blossoms would have been sparse and scattered throughout every level of its inner space. But the single-minded attempt to keep it front and center and yet below the big bay windows, had produced a shrub so full of superficial foliage and flowers that one hot afternoon at the end of May had pushed it past its prime. From top to bottom, the flowers had wilted, and now lay stuck by their own dried nectar to the tightly matted green leaves around them. However, this was not my first impression of the burning bush on that day.
Over the past weeks, I had been immersed in preparing numerous properties for summer. The season of green days and fragrant nights rises and falls in one great breathing. At first, leaves stretch and branches reach. For a while this spring, it seemed like everything would keep expanding forever. But lately, the unfolding details had given me pause. Now, almost at its solstice, the world was finally coming to the surface, waiting to exhale. The azaleas were just this week’s example of the end of expansion. But over-all, I could feel we were headed for a time of giving way.
As first I looked at the azalea, seemingly sunburned, I awoke to the words “But I must decrease.” Was this some buried remnant of mid-summer meditations long past? I went on, attending to other pressing necessities of work, but the words kept insistently coming back to me from everywhere, “but I must decrease”, as if in answer to a question that had been buried even deeper in my searching soul.
I hold fundamental questions in me. The most basic description of what human beings do in the landscape is that we create a clearing in an otherwise natural place. In our presence, nature is visibly diminished. It gives way, and in its place, we impose our own will and intentions. I am a primary mover in this human effect. Though I see it as an inevitable artifact of the human presence in nature, it has never rested well with me. From this uneasiness, burns the question: What is the right way to relate to the natural world? And in that context, the words “…I must decrease”, that I kept hearing, as if spoken by nature herself, had an awakening effect. But not necessarily the effect that might spring sanguinely to mind. Biblically, they are spoken by the wild-man himself, John. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” What am “I” supposed to take from this?
This brings up a personal layer to the background against which I see this midsummer story unfold. As a toddler in the village of Tenom in the interior of Borneo, about 1955, I wandered out of the clearing where we lived, into the wild, perpetual summer of the tropical rainforest, and have probably never quite returned. On that day, my parents later related, they lost track of my whereabouts in the late afternoon. They called and searched for me to no avail as the short tropical twilight approached. In the tropics, the sun sinks directly, and disappears into the pool of night like a stone. By the time they found me, sitting under a jungle tree, looking at a trail of marching ants, night had fallen in earnest.
My father told us this story when we were a bit older, and added that it had gotten so dark that he never knew whether he had found his son or had picked up a baby orangutan for adoption. I was too young upon hearing this, to suspect that he was joking, and I remember sincerely wondering about my origins. “Orang”, as I had always known, means “man” in Malay. “Utan” means “of the jungle”. The fact, as my older sister pointed out soon after, that my name, ‘Fortier’, roughly translates from French to English as ‘forest-man’, only added to my questions of identity. The many layers of this prophetic metaphor keep unveiling themselves as I live out my life. I never have been able to trace in my own mind how I feel so comfortable in trees, or how I know the distinctly tangy taste of ants. Humble John, living on locusts in the desert, has always held more than a little personal interest for me.
“I must decrease.”, the wild man says. “I must decrease.”, the burning bush reminded me, reminding me by its context, of that other burning bush which has also occupied my meditations at times. What were the flames that Moses saw? If I remember the story, they did not consume the bush at all, in the way that the sun and the season had scorched the azalea. The “I AM” that sounded out of those flames does not seem to be the same “I” that the wild-man or the passing azalea offered to diminish. So what must give way at this point in time? And for what to arise?
Throughout my study of the natural world, I find that something greater always arises when something lesser withdraws. After the azaleas get pruned, I move on to deadhead the roses, which have been pushing out flower buds for a month. Roses are one of the first to green up in the spring and to flower completely from this year’s growth. At first, the leaves expand, grow strong and toughen up, attended by their phalanx of thorns. But this dense vigor soon passes over into a tendency for the stems to branch and elongate. Leaves are more tentative at each passing node, and the tendency to thorns eventually fades completely on the thinning stems. As the stems become translucent and the leaves become mere whisps, flower buds swell to set the next stage. As if in anticipation of the rose itself, “I decrease”, say the forces of the leaf and thorn. The flower too, eventually fades to a tiny, crisp star at the end of the hip, and the hip then disintegrates as the seeds ripen and expand into the wide reaches of the environment in the bellies of birds. The leaves, flowers, and hips each take their humble place far below, in the background of a grander scheme of things.
Just having these examples from my observations of nature, helps me see a path through this great personal wilderness. Having these powerful stories from ages wiser than our own, is utterly invaluable. I do sense that we are coming to a time where giving way means me stepping back from the headlong summer rush into my sense bound self, my Natural self, my Wild-man self. This means me actively making way for the greater, inner, universal self; the flame that did not consume the other burning bush but really let it shine in all its glory. That would make a clearing where both a natural and human world would join in a sacred landscape.