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We Are All Connected

Finding unity, elegance and bliss in the wild

"Lake Mountain from Rainbow Lakes." Susan Marsh's sketch from 1987 embodies the bliss she finds in the mountains, a feeling that nature and art can acutely give rise to.
"Lake Mountain from Rainbow Lakes." Susan Marsh's sketch from 1987 embodies the bliss she finds in the mountains, a feeling that nature and art can acutely give rise to.
by Susan Marsh

To connect—whether with people, wild nature, or a work of art—invites an opening into bliss. Bliss: it’s a word I don’t often use to describe my state of mind. Delight, enjoyment, contentment, yes. Often. But like awe, bliss arrives rarely, unbidden and unexpected. Joy bubbles up from inside as a reaction to a pleasant experience, but bliss feels as if it comes from far beyond the self.

As suddenly as bliss fills me, it begins to fade, leaving an enduring palimpsest underlying the hours and days and years that follow. Moments of bliss live in memory as times when my solitary self became deeply connected to the greater whole.

Very few occasions are so memorable. One of them happened while I was on a backpacking trip in the mid-1980s. After organizing camp and cleaning dinner dishes, I wandered out beyond the shelter of stunted firs near an alpine lake. In the cirque basin, outcrops of glacier-polished granite intertwined with low willows
and mountain heather. A deep, narrow creek meandered around black-moss boulders, already settled into evening shadow, while the upstream lake and high peaks surrounding it were lit with gold from the late-day sun.

All at once, bliss poured into me. I forgot myself, one lone human figure stepping across granite slabs. I merged with the rocks and each low rattle of creek water, each bit of sun gleaming against the side of a cliff, each thick-leafed twig of mountain heather. Together we were gathered into the warm woven threads of the all.

I struggle to put this sense of connection and completeness into words that come close to suggesting how it felt. It’s easier, I believe, to say what an experience of bliss is not. It’s not exuberant joy, the way I feel skiing deep powder on a cold sunny day, or reaching a summit from which miles of mountains spread in all directions. It isn’t wonder, which I feel under a sky full of stars or watching a moth emerge from a cocoon.

I might describe bliss, perhaps counterintuitively, as a dampening of self-awareness and cognition. My awareness expands to encompass what surrounds me in a way that leaves behind mere thoughts, words and explanations.  
Moments of bliss live in memory as times when my solitary self became deeply connected to the greater whole.
This feeling might be similar to what saints and mystics describe in their writings, a sense of being one with God. It might be a slight suspension of my physical and temporal existence, one of those cracks that let the light in. All I can do in words is describe the feeling with metaphor, for the gift of bliss is ineffable.

I contrast the bliss I felt on one summer evening in the high Absarokas to a walk along the ocean shore on a winter night. I followed the narrow and changing strip of not-quite land and not-quite sea, where the sand was wet and solid underfoot, where the sound of the waves seemed to pound from all directions.
Walking the line: "not-quite land and not-quite sea." Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
Walking the line: "not-quite land and not-quite sea." Photo courtesy Susan Marsh
The experience was memorable, but neither singular nor one of bliss. The ocean asked for an empty and contemplative state, neither sad nor joyful. It asked for the kind of attention that is best given in solitude, in winter, at night. I felt more like a witness to the power and immensity of the sea than an integrated part of it. I am a land mammal, after all.

Beyond a fundamental connection with wild nature, among our deepest is with music. First you hear it, then you become conscious of the sounds. It might draw you in. You stop, listen. If you love what you’re hearing, you invite it in. Perhaps it’s a piece you recognize, remembered from youth or last summer’s concert. You find yourself humming while doing the dishes. You coexist with the music, deepening your connection.

I suppose our greatest connection to music comes by playing it. You are creating the thing you love. A rare few are able to compose, much to the delight of the rest of us.

This can happen with any kind of art, but music is an art form that lives in the air we breathe. It is perhaps the oldest of the arts, predating humanity as birdsong, thunder, the sound of moving water.
I might describe bliss, perhaps counterintuitively, as a dampening of self-awareness and cognition. My awareness expands to encompass what surrounds me in a way that leaves behind mere thoughts, words and explanations.  
Some art can be enjoyed in solitude, but music—and its close cousin, dance—creates an atmosphere of community. Music exists in all cultures, an innate part of being human. Rhythm, percussion, heartbeat, earth beat, bringing in all to become one under the same tempo.

I’ve been playing piano lately after decades away from a keyboard. I find, to my disappointment, that I have as much trouble reading the notes for both hands simultaneously as I did when I was taking lessons as a child. But I find to my pleasure that I can still pick out a tune without reading the music sheet at all.

I think this means that music inhabits me. My brain forgets, my fingers remember, and my ear tells me how I’m doing. It’s physical instead of thoughtful, like the bliss I find in the mountains.

One reason music strikes me as different from other art is its airborne physicality. Paint, clay and charcoal are physical as well, being made of earth and its products.
"Lake Plateau," Susan Marsh, 1987
"Lake Plateau," Susan Marsh, 1987
But they seem to remain inert—a damp lump, a cracked scrape of dry pigment, a charred stick—until I pick them up to make something. Musical notes seem to come alive from out of nothing when a vibration begins, formed by sound waves with specific frequencies traveling through invisible air.

It’s like magic, but science tells us it’s real. The wave lengths, amplitudes and frequencies of all kinds of radiation, light and sound are phenomena of nature; how the universe works.

Just how the universe works can be partially described in the language of mathematics. If dance is music’s cousin, math is music’s twin. I recently finished reading, or rather meditating upon, Alec Wilkinson’s A Divine Language, in which he describes mathematics as something humans discovered, rather than invented. He suggests that math is evidence for a universal intelligence.

This idea put a puzzle piece into place for me.

As a child, I spent the majority of my free time in the woods adjacent to my parents’ house, accompanied by the trees I climbed and talked to, the native blackberry vines that bore the most delicious fruit, and the birds and small animals that still lived in that 10-acre woodlot surrounded by a growing suburb. The red ants, upon whose nest I sat as a poorly considered experiment at age 4 or 5, accompanied me home one day as well. There was also a presence I felt in those woods—gauzy and nebulous, without a name.

Wilkinson writes that he felt something with and beyond him as a child, an undefined presence. Perhaps children are better tuned into such things than distracted and busy adults, but I could strongly relate to his experience, even now. It is the source of bliss. My nameless sense of something beyond me now seems to have a stronger foundation. A foundation made of concrete. Or maybe mathematics.

The child I was had a rudimentary sense of the unity, symmetry and elegance of all things. I took that sense into adulthood, and decades later I am somewhat better at articulating it. It is a comfort to feel that I, and each of us, can be part of the unbreakable connections in the universe.

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Susan Marsh
About Susan Marsh

Susan Marsh spent three decades with the U.S. Forest Service and is today an award-winning writer living in Jackson Hole.
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