On a recent "day trip" we stopped for just a few moments at Big Talbot Island State Park, between Jacksonville and Fernandina Beach in northeast Florida. Like all the Florida State Parks I've been fortunate enough to serve (as a young man) or visit (across my whole life), Big Talbot Island is a place of outstanding natural beauty. It holds a special place for me because in my younger days - before the island was a part of Florida's award winning State Park system - my friends and I frequented the place. There are stories to be told of flounder gigging and the nonsense that went along with that activity. But I think I'll keep those chapters of life to myself for now (wink, wink)
Red Cedar at Fort George Island, FLThe coastal barrier islands of Northeast Florida were once home to many beautiful ancient Red Cedars. Most have been destroyed. This specimen shows the fluid form typical of these twisted giants. The island was once the home of many ancient Red Cedar trees, once a common species on the barrier islands of Florida's coast. Most were destroyed by greedy people who didn't comprehend their value. That too is another story for another day. The Red Cedar shown here was photographed on Fort George Island, another nearby property managed by the Florida Park Service. If you have never done so you really should explore the wonderful parks of that region stretching from Fort George Island to Fort Clinch State Park in Fernandina Beach.
That is the trip we made on that day when I visited Big Talbot Island for the first time in more than thirty years. Like coastal hammocks everywhere, the trees on the island have been shaped by the climate in which they grow. The prevailing sea breeze has bent and twisted their trunks into beautiful forms that leave no doubt about the direction of the ocean. And the salt spray borne by that breeze has pruned them beyond the ability of any arborist. These trees, as surely as those of the mountaintop, could serve as models for the artisans of Bonsai.
Just as the trees in the photograph were shaped by their climate we are shaped by the climate of our world. As my mentor and friend Jim Armstrong points out in his book,"Change: Reflections on Personal Growth & Social Transformation",
"The word climate has more than one meaning. It denotes 'meteorological conditions,' but also it means, 'a prevailing condition in human affairs.' It is not only atmosphere, it is attitudinal."
Yes, we are shaped by our climate. We grow into a shape influenced if not dictated by the prevailing winds and pruning of our lives. The food we eat, the environment in which we live, the activities we pursue, the people with whom we surround ourselves, the notions and beliefs we hold, and more, make up the climate in which we grow. All shape us in body, mind and spirit. (That's why my sister can adopt a pose in the photograph below that only great trauma could induce in me. She has chosen to care for her body in ways I have not. ) If I grow in a climate of guilt, shame, and blame, I am likely to feel guilt and shame whether or not they are warranted. Perhaps, just as those coastal trees point the way of the wind, such a climate will influence me to point my fingers at others in blame and judgement.
Yoga TreesAt Big Talbot Island State Park the trees are shaped by the sea breeze into beautiful, leaning forms. My sister becomes a part of the natural setting as she assumes a pose that would hospitalize me. There is an important difference between humans and trees though. The trees growing on the barrier islands of Northeast Florida did not choose their climate. The oaks didn't pick Fort George Island as acorns and decide, "this is the place for me." I didn't choose the climate into which I would be born and spend my youth either. As grateful as I am (and that's one helluva lot!), I didn't pick the era into which I would be born, a time of vaccines and air conditioning and burgeoning technological advances. I didn't choose to grow up in a privileged, white, Roman Catholic family in the United States. Most certainly I didn't choose parochial education (the nuns seem much kinder and gentler at the distance of a few decades than they did in the immediacy of childhood!) As a child I was as stuck with the climate I was given as are the trees.
But since adolescence at least, I've been able to make some choices about the climate surrounding me. I could pick my friends. Whether to participate in extracurricular activities, and which activities those might be were up to me. (Drama Club, Junior Achievement, and Photography fit me; sports not so much.) And of course as an adult the range of choices is broad.
Trees continue to grow and therefore to be shaped by their climate for the entirety of their lives. That is true of us as well. As Tony Robbins is quoted as saying, "if you aren't growing, you're dying." Just as we continue to grow in every stage of life, we continue to be shaped by the climate that surrounds us. Perhaps we can't change the climate of Washington DC (not directly or immediately, at least.) But we do have choices.
So I ask myself, "What choices of attitudinal climate shall I make today?" Do I choose an attitudinal climate of fear and xenophobia, or one of openness and acceptance of 'the other'? Will I protect what I think I know and believe and hear only the voices that reassure me, or will I risk ambiguity and uncertainty in order to discover what has until today remained beyond my comprehension? Do I choose the winds of victimhood or the fresh breeze of self determination? In my losses do I see myself denuded of all I care about, or in that pain am I pruned into a form I may not recognize but is just as much and perhaps more essentially 'me'?
May what I choose to eat today, the music to which I listen and the programs I choose to watch, the articles I select to read, the people with whom I converse, and the direction of my awareness in solitude bend me, twist me, shape me so that my (increasingly ancient) form may, like those with whom I stand, point toward justice, truth, peace, and the source of them all, which is love.
It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see. Henry David Thoreau