The Shine Journal

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Elizabeth Bernays 



When we were children we were told to look into the distance at intervals to rest our eyes.  And now, when I write I like to be by a window so that I can focus on something far away or not at all.  Today, writing in Wyoming, I sit on the deck of my studio and look into the distance– there is so much of it. There is the middle distance of cottonwood, willow and box elder trees, their autumn colors just coming. Beyond them is a field of bright green alfalfa with Colias butterflies cruising above, and heads of mule deer emerging from the green. On the far side of the field is a big red barn embedded in a grove of tall trees.  Further away, golden prairie grasses cover the dry folded hills that wrap around the wide valley, and miles away to the west are gentle blue-gray mountains, and in the far distance, pale crags of the Bighorns, which in the clear morning light shine with patches of snow.


I am distracted at intervals by a red-shafted flicker, by the swarm of box elder bugs on the sunny wall, or the rustling dance of leaves on a cottonwood, but I spend more time looking at the view, letting my mind go into some place that has no anxiety for the past, no concern for the present and no apprehension about the future.


Why the views please is not known, but I feel that the diversity of lines and shapes and colors matter.  I think the sight of horizons makes me aware of something beyond. I think the complexity of details and the quality of changing light matter. Apart from some elemental aesthetic, the distant vista seems conducive to wide thoughts and a contemplation of the world, whereas the dense forest seems an introspective thing, and I wonder how such differences have influenced philosophies, cultures and the history of peoples who live in such contrasting environments.


In the woods of Southeast USA I was fascinated by all the biology close at hand, the minutia of insect life and leaf shape, the pattern of dappled light on my deck, lichens on the bark and fungi at the back door. I had no view beyond the dense tree trunks and green foliage of the nearby trees. I thought about photosynthesis and wood, nutrient cycles, and the amount of water dripping from the condensate collected at the tops of the trees from the mists in the early morning. I saw little sky, no horizon, no sunset or sunrise. Everything was close range and my feelings confined.


It is different here in this western place. I look far away and fall into a reverie, enveloped by peace and a feeling of harmony with all that I see there. Unexpectedly, a little piece of a psalm comes back to me from my childhood at a Presbyterian girls’ school: I life up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.


Mountains are part of the love for views. All over the world shrines, rituals and stories are associated with mountaintops and a sense of connection to heaven.  For thousands of years people have climbed mountains to meet with their god and gain perspective. Deserts with their almost infinite feeling of space have been favorite places for spiritual experiences, and the gentler views of green places have been subjects for an almost religious sentiment among humanist poets.


As I sit here relishing the long views there is also nothing to stop me enjoying what is close at hand, and I do look at those fluttering quivering cottonwood leaves and examine the little box elder bugs all over the window screen. Yet I can cast my eyes into the distance to watch a gaggle of geese flying over the fields honking, watch the clouds making and breaking over the hills, search the wavy horizon - or simply look with unfocused eyes, and feel the view with all my senses.


I am still exploring meanings. The distance brings to mind so many words: possibility and promise, horizons and heavens, space and safety, vista and vision. Are there more possibilities and promises in the long views, more to imagine with the distant horizons and the big skies, a feeling of freedom with the great spaces, an ability to think beyond the present and envisage something new?


I have met people across the United States who have lived for a while in one of the western states and when I tell them I am from Arizona they get a dreamy look in their eyes and say, “Ah, the west,” or “I have to go back.”  There are plenty of reasons for this special nostalgia, but I think the long views contribute to it. There is a longing in us all for the vision of distance.


Many have expressed the view that the awesome nature of big views makes us aware of our relative insignificance, and makes our worries seem less important or easier to manage.  Psychology researchers have demonstrated that the experience of being in the natural world actually reduces stress and improves mental abilities. The enjoyment of contemplation that seems to be enhanced when one is in the natural world is perhaps at its height when the natural world is a distant scene - a big sky, rolling hills and prairies, a high mountain view, the wide ocean.  Gretel Ehrlich, in The Solace of Open Spaces, writes about Wyoming, “In all this open space, values crystallize quickly.”


As I try to understand the how and why of this love of space and distance I wonder if it might be better to just forget the reasons, to return to reverie and bask in the feeling of delight without the explanation, to take the joy and harmony I feel and not try to unpiece this peace.



ELIZABETH BERNAYS  grew up in Australia and then traveled around Europe before becoming an entomologist at the University of London, England.  She worked in Britain, India and several African countries before emigrating to the United States as a professor at the University of California Berkeley.  After her biological career she retired early, obtained the MFA and now spends more time writing.  Last year ELIZABETH won the XJ Kennedy award for an essay about her long affair with insects.  Says Bernays,"I also write memoir and have a book manuscript about art."  


"I write because I have to. The explosive nature of my sensory experiences require expression and I find that, wherever I go, the scenes captivates me with their natural history detail and create a sense of wonder.  In Wyoming last summer at a retreat near the Bighorn mountains I loved the feeling of great space and distance and was stimulated to write The Long View. Click here  --> Elizabeth Bernays to see more of this author.




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