Notes from the Interns

Nature's Biggest Letter

Posted on: January 16, 2017

By Jonathan Duerbeck, weekend naturalist

"L!  There's an LYW!"  Alexandra, age 4, was triumphantly pointing out alphabet letters in the woods. And by now, the capital letter I had become too obvious to bother with.

I said, "I wonder if you can find the biggest letter?"

After some interesting finds, we came to a high field with long views. I don't recall if I pointed it out directly, or asked so many hinting questions that she found it herself. But there it was: the place where the earth meets the sky. Tracing the horizon with a finger, spinning in place, revealed a vast letter O. You can try it yourself--I'm sure it's still there, encircling everything.  

Alexandra and I were not the first to notice this, of course, not by a long shot. The giant O was laid out with circles of rocks hundreds of years ago in southwest Canada, is made with hoops by the Cherokee, was carved on stones by the ancient Norse, and it can be found basically all over the inhabited world. Often it contains an X, or a cross, or a dot. In North America, it has sometimes been called the Medicine Wheel. 

The ancient Hindus used the circle with a dot to represent the Creator of the Universe, and the infinite potential of space.  Since the circle meant space, they used it as a number sign for empty space. And then Arab traders modified it to make our familiar number zero. So ironically, the biggest letter is also the smallest number.

The giant O became important to me after I saw a film called Powers of Ten, created by Charles and Ray Eames in 1977. You can find it on YouTube. It shows a man in a park in Chicago, and then zooms out progressively to finally reveal many clusters of galaxies, still with the man in the park in the exact center. Then it zooms back in all the way to the subatomic particles flitting around a proton in an atom of the man's skin. Here's the relevant point, for me-- if I was a lot bigger or smaller, my world would look stunningly different. My experience of the world depends on me, and to understand the world I see, I need to accept my place in it.

Each of us is in the giant circle right now. Even indoors or downtown, if you knock down the walls around you, there it is. Everyone shares it, yet it's unique to you. Yes, you are in the exact center of nature's biggest letter. Your own personal Medicine Wheel, your very own giant letter O. And the highest point in the upside-down bowl of sky is always straight up over your head. We are all in the center of our own circle. No one is in the exact same spot as you or me at the exact same time, so you are the only one who sees the world from your point of view.  

I've tried to escape the center of my O, but no matter how fast I run, drive, fly, or think, I'm still in the middle of the biggest letter.

The main way I try to get away is by telling myself that I'm supposed to be somewhere else. I'm supposed to be at work, not in morning traffic. I'm supposed to have made a series of different choices.  I'm supposed to understand the things that confuse me. Unfinished things are supposed to be done and broken things are supposed to be fixed, and once I get there, then everything will be OK and then I can be happy. It's not true.  

To me, the giant letter O, like all letters, brings a message. It tells me that I have complete permission to be exactly where I am right now. I belong. Everything else belongs here, too. What I see depends on me, and the only way to make anything different is to start from where I am. When I am out in nature, if I can stop and fully accept what is happening around me, it becomes beautiful, and I feel that I belong here.  When I really get into it, even rusting junk seems to have been set there by an artist.

We call our land a nature CENTER, and I think it's a good place to be centered, at peace in our horizon-tal circle (or in our personal upside-down bowl of sky). As Bill Creasey reminded us in an earlier post, the Nature Center land is a sanctuary.  To me, sanctuaries are for experiencing what is beautiful, good, and real. With that in mind, I invite you to try something that often works for me.  When you're on the land, stop. Find your circle and be where you are, right now. Nothing else. Accept everything around you in its honest "ordinariness"…and see what happens.  

Photo from Powers of Ten