Bleak, stark, lifeless, pallid: winter landscapes aren’t the most inviting climes for a study break. A few paces from our door reveal only colourless dead space populated by shadows and chills. Oh sure, snowmen are always a possibility. But a corncob pipe and a button nose are no replacement for the magical appearance of an uncanny visage on the grave face of a resting stone. No friendly faces appear here. There is only snow, the earth buried and gone. Rockhounds of the world unite in boredom during winter; snow prevents the discovery of geologic treasures, of fantastic finds that brighten a day. And yet, just knowing that there’s noble rocks buried under a snowy veil can impart mystery all its own. Creative minds feed fearlessly on an apparent lack.
Few things trigger greater imagination than that which remains unrevealed. Where first are only suggestive bumps along that snowy carpet, ripples and curves the eye can barely see, the living essence of disguised rocks begins to appear. There’s countless stones under the snow and what tales of glaciers and landslides and volcanoes might they tell. Instead of running for a snowblower and getting a bit carried away in unearthing these treasures, now can be the time to cherish the mere idea of rocks, which is really the magic of enjoying them to begin with. Unlike our academic selves who march ever farther toward our goals, rocks immured beneath snow have nowhere to go and nothing to be. Like our own lives, we make of them what they are. So let’s go snowshoe amidst buried rocks as we recharge our mind’s batteries. In the deep of winter, and at the nadir of nature’s visible growth, we may discover the apex of our creative potential. Out of the appearance of nothing all things become possible.
While pondering, the interpretive framework of the mind falls away like desiccated leaves. In such moments of silence reality emerges silky as a breeze carrying snowflakes to alight on our cheek. “There are no facts, only interpretations” famously said Friedrich Nietzsche and how true this is when we set aside the need to look up the name of a rock or the species of a plant or the breed lineage of a pet. Fidelity to the name of something is rational but such sentiments fall short of the creative human spirit. As the sociologist George Ritzer wrote, “irrationality means that rational systems are unreasonable systems. By that I mean that they deny the basic humanity, the human reason, of the people who work within or are served by them” (https://www.azquotes.com/quote/1352923). Our essence is creative and yet we harbour and tame ourselves with certainties and knowledge, all of which cover over and reduce to mere suggestive form the reality of life’s flow. Winter snow is the great epistemological equalizer; appearances morph into ambiguities and this means that anything’s possible.
Sitting Like a Rock, Sitting With a Rock
If you’re like me you’ve a ready supply of rocks on a shelf in the house from years gone by. Occasionally these migrate to the garden as they are replaced and rearranged. Just to sit a moment with a rock you’ve gathered can be as great a break as a walk through fresh foliage. Just be there with them and discover the ‘it’ that you both share. Mystical though this feeling appears, it’s key to our human reserve of expressive energy to allow abundance to overwhelm the bounds of our knowledge. If any rock could talk it would describe glaciers coming and going, being buried and unearthed, forged and formed, over timeless times like some reincarnated avatar of divinity.
Minerals have been invoked and adored in Asian cultures for eons. One reporter states that “the tradition of rock reverence has a lot to teach us; that wisdom can hang off bits of the natural world just as well as issuing from books; that we need to surround ourselves with objects that embody certain values we’re in danger of losing sight of day today”
A rock’s life story belies its humble appearance. Likewise, to be truly present in time is to cease to give a name and meaning to ourselves or anything else. It’s no wonder the 1970s fad ‘Pet Rock’ occurred; there’s something ridiculous in how busy we become when caring for and managing what we have decided to care about. To take a break means to take a break from not only our activities but also our methods of thinking. Thus, a part of being interested in rocks is to simply accept their outdoor inaccessibility during winter. But, if we have a rock collection, now is a great time to spend some quality time with it.
Dusty old Rocks, Dusty Shelves of Books
Rocks and books have much in common when they sit on shelves. Both give inspiration if only we spend some time with them. Revisiting old textbooks is a great way to gauge how our ideas have evolved in tandem with our learning and growing. Books reflect who we were when we read them in the way Asian cultures saw moral attributes in rocks: “Mi Fu writes a treatise on rocks that enumerates their four main aesthetic qualities: shou, an elegant and upright stature; zhou, a wrinkled and furrowed texture; lou or cracks that are like channels or paths through the rock; and tou, the holes in the rock that allow air and light to pass through”
Rocks, like books, may provide comfort or solace on those lonely winter days of scholarly study. Another character from ancient China illustrates this:
“Turning my head around, I ask the pair of rocks:
‘Can you keep company with an old man like myself?’
Although the rocks cannot speak,
They promise that we will be three friends.
Through rocks we can learn to respect the dignity of what has been marked by ageing and time”
To Think is to Inspire, Anything the Inspires Breathes Back
We’re not bags of hammers or sacks of rocks here at AU; thinking isn’t neutral for us because our learning fundamentally alters our actions. As our learning breathes life into our minds, so too do outdoor study breaks rekindle our fires for knowledge. The key thing is to remember that we impart meaning to our surroundings in ways that transcend the trivialities of rote memorization. What seemed as nature is no longer natural to a scholar.
The philosopher of science, Daniel Botkin, wrote that the space between humans and nature is itself a mere illusion; we are what we experience, describe and share within our surroundings. We animate the inanimate and in turn become more alive by this interaction. Botkin notes that “we need to think within nature, not against it” and that means appreciating our surroundings without expecting technology to classify the world and do the hermeneutic labour for us. For we at AU the outside world is our canvas of creativity on which there are no blank pages, only moments waiting to reveal our capacities.