Insight: Norman Track
impressions: norman track

John Stones window Every morning for over twenty years, I have been blessed to waken to morning sunlight illuminating a century-old stained glass window. As each day's light is unique, each morning I participate in a privileged moment. My fascination with natural light has aroused a passion to document through color photography the beauty in the world around me ranging all the way from clivia blossoms in my own front, east-facing, windows, the roses in my back garden, the hydrangea blooms around the corner, to the blooming plants and gardens, and landscapes and people I have seen in and around Toronto, and even as far away as China, India, Israel, and Japan. This passion, I have come to realise, is a basic human instinct, a quest for happiness - a searching for Eden.

For me, the search required an awareness and appreciation of the subtle nuances of nature; it involved exploration of and participation in the blooming of plants, in the gardens and the landscapes, until they became part of my mindscape. I had to invest time to establish a relationship in order that the images ceased to be it and so that I could enter into an I-Thou dialogue with them.

Nietzsche wrote that to succeed in life one must be a climber of mountains. He warned that there would be contradictions among the steps, and that after reaching a certain height the final climb would be under cloud cover. Reaching the top, the clouds would eventually clear and one would find oneself still in the foothills. Years later, after physically climbing many mountains, I now began to understand that the mind goes through a similar process of climbing in order to reach heightened levels of awareness. And Nietzsche was right that one still experiences many contradictions and is frequently mired in numerous foothills.

Searching for Eden mimics the ancient Chinese quest for unity with nature by meditating in a mountain retreat. Men have always regarded mountains as sacred precincts, the closest proximity to heaven and the gods. As a souvenir of such introspective journeys, the literati frequently carried home dreamstones, thin pieces of circular white marble displaying a blackish-grey pattern, often reminiscent of clouds floating over mountains. In addition, they believed that the dreamstones, which now graced their city residences, possessed the energy of the wild mountain landscape (a Taoist concept). After searching for wild irises in the mountains of Yunnan, in southwestern China, I found dreamstones in Dali which now, positioned on the mantle of my fireplace, give off energy of the wild landscape into the quiet of my daily life.

Tian Yin Library PavilionDuring my travels in eastern China, by serendipity, I found myself walking in the incredible mid-16th century Tian Yi Library Pavilion. Fan Qin, a high government official in Ningbo, followed three teachings in its design. Landscape, in Chinese, is derived from two characters - Shan Shui, mountains and water. The Taoists believed that the energy of mountains can be concentrated in rocks and that of forests in penjing (dwarf trees). Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529), a neo-Confucian philosopher, taught that 'Heaven and humankind are united as one'. Surrounding the library pavilion, in an expansive garden are rocks, a pond, and penjing. Thus, by visiting such a garden one might realise a waking dream and capture some of the precious energy of the distant wild landscape. Tian Yi, Heaven First, is a most appropriate name for this sacred precinct.

In the Japanese Zen Buddhist rock gardens I encountered yet another approach to Eden - the contemplative one. Sitting on the verandah of the Ryoan-ji Temple garden, in Kyoto, it occurred to me that nature's own life forms require the utmost sensitivity in appreciation if we are ever going to be able to express in words their optimum beauty. The achievement of a Zen garden is that it contains basic elements, rocks, and gravel, which stimulate a unique response and interpretation. Each visitor has the opportunity, through meditation, to amplify and change his own life. It is the person who changes, not the garden.

rock garden in Japan
Rock Garden at Kyoto Ryoan-ji Temple, Japan

I have climbed Canadian mountains searching for Eden. I visited Gros Morne National Park, in northwestern Newfoundland, to photograph alpine wild flowers. Here, the unexpected blessing, beyond the bouquets of wild flowers, the landscapes and seascapes, was to find myself walking in the most remarkable natural rock garden on the face of this earth. One is never the same after walking on rocks that are over 350 million years old. This experience reminded me of the biblical portion in which Moses sent representatives of each of the tribes of Israel to spy out the Land of Canaan. On their return, they reported to Moses, Aaron, and the whole community, that compared to the Canaanites, "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, so we must have looked to them." I had a comparable feeling - one of profound humility.

George Herbert wrote that "The eyes have one language everywhere". If only one exposure to an image is sufficient to register it for a lifetime, could this act of seeing be the activation process of the collective unconscious bank of eternal images? The Bible tells us that after God created the world, He formed every beast and fowl and brought them to the man to name. "Whatsoever the man would call every living creature, that was to be the name thereof." How could Adam name all these worldly creatures without any prior knowledge of them? Goethe wrote: "All intelligent thoughts have already been thought; what is necessary is only to try to think them again."

Why should this not also apply equally to all that which we have seen? Perhaps Wang Yang-ming was correct when he wrote that heaven and humankind are united as one.

©2005 Norman Track