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Like most everyone else, I have been bunker hunkering, like some 1920’s gangster, holed up in a house, fearful of each approaching human. And like most everyone else, a bit of cabin fever intrudes. I peek out the window and see a yard across the street with a Bradford pear tree like a snowstorm of white, and the lawn is beginning to get unkempt. The temperature has moderated and the sky is filled with crisp, dry air. And so, I have to get out. 

For me, the best solution is to drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Its entrance is only a few hundred yards from my house. I can stay sealed up in the car but find a place where the horizon is still marked by the distance where the curvature of the earth bends the rest down and away from my sight. When you are stuck at home, it is easy to think of the planet as consisting of four walls; things are cubicular and static. But get out into the mountains, up high where you see for such a length, and you are again standing on the apex of a globe. Everything falls away from you, both geographically and emotionally. Anxiety thins. 

This century has redefined nature. In the 19th century of Thoreau and Emerson, nature was green and pleasant. To Emerson, nature was the outer manifestation of deity. Earlier, to Wordsworth, “There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight,/ To me did seem/ Appareled in celestial light.”

To Byron nature was so vast not even humankind could mar it. Our century has proven him wrong. For us, nature can no longer be the birds and beasties, the green leaves and burbling streams, the sky above and the soil below. We have filled the oceans — where Byron said man’s control “stopped with the shore” — with tangles of plastic waste the size of islands. In our cities, we have turned the transparent air into murk. We have left our rivers thick with the runoff of pigpens. 

The television nature programs I grew up with, that showed us the wildebeest swarming on the veldt and the flying squirrel gliding from tree to tree, have turned into chronicles of rapine and threatened extinction. Those documentaries are now alarums to wake the public to what it is losing. 

The Antarctic ice is thinning, the oceans are swelling, the bees are coughing and the once myriad cod have turned into shriveling shoals. It is hard to think of nature the way I did when I was young. 

“There hath past away a glory from the earth.” 

When I was in my 20s (which was 50 years ago), I was a bird watcher, a hiker, a camper, an amateur astronomer and a gardener. I knew the name of every tree and wildflower or weed. I had an almost mythic connection to the earth: It glowed every day, like a van Gogh painting, buzzing and whirling. Every bush was the burning bush. A surge of brain chemicals blasted my emotions. I was giddy. Now, half a century later, it is not now as it hath been of yore. “Whither is fled the visionary gleam?” “At length the Man perceives it die away,/ And fade into the light of common day.”

Career and responsibilities, the vicissitudes of living, the betrayals of love and the deaths of those we loved, have all risen to take too much space in our journals. And so, in my senescence I have drawn away from what we used to call nature, and that selfsame nature has itself decayed and left me. 

But not completely. I drive up the road into the hills, through the tunnels, into the high country where the sun shines and the wind blows the shadows of clouds across the flanks of the peaks. It is April and the dogwoods become galaxies of stars against the darker, still-leafless trees behind them. When I look down at the valleys, I see in the lower elevations the bright young leaves swelling from the buds. It is certainly beautiful, but it isn’t just beauty that makes this important. 

We are facing a new virus and most of us, and especially those of us on the shorter end of life’s measuring stick, feel an immediate threat. We may die. We always knew that, but now we can almost touch it and taste it on our fingertips. It is not theoretical. 

And so, I get out of my car in a roadside pullout and look down from the mountain into the woods beside the road and see the fresh buds and the tree branches that sway and the shoots springing tip first through the forest litter and I know that it is another spring, my seventy-second, and one more of millions that make a wake behind the present going back before there was any consciousness to know it. On the uphill side of the road there are stony outcroppings and those folded strata tell me of eons of continuity. 

I have heard, as you have, poets and essayists talk about the importance of nature, and I have at times winced at what seemed to me the perfervid sentimentality of such bromides. After all, everyone knows, or else, should know, that if nothing drastic is done, we’re all going to hell and taking the world with us. The news is 24 hours a day bad, or at least the talking heads tell us so. Over and over. 

But when I go to the woods, it is quiet except for the “small fowls that make melody and sleep all night with open eye.” And the hurly-burly slows and I am forced to know that there is a rhythm that is not that of CNN, that whether it is plague or influenza or corona virus, we have inhaled and exhaled this pestilence before, that the world endures, with me or without me. My frame of reference, like my horizon, expands.

So, it isn’t the simple beauty of the natural world that does me needed good. Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and they include such titles as “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me,” “What the Animals in the Forest Tell Me,” and ends with “What Love Tells Me.” And what they all join to say is a harmony and a flow. And so, as I drive along the Parkway, I listen to that music on the CD player and the outside and inside, the world and my thoughts and feelings, all twine together into a singularity, mind as mirror to the world, and world as mirror to mind. Pan awakes, Summer marches in. 

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“The older I get, the more the complexities of life narrow down to simpler components,” said Stuart. “The interactions become more complex, but the basics seem fewer.”

“Yes,” I prodded.

“I’ve been thinking about emotions, or more precisely, about how emotions are manifested by our bodies in terms of muscle reactions, hormonal dumps, brain chemistry — emotions as a physical reaction to external or internal stimuli.”

“Sounds clinical.”

“Well, I’m no scientist and I can’t claim any justification for this, but I’ve spent nearly 70 years examining my self — my inner self — and trying to understand just how I’ve reacted to the many events in my life, both the good and the bad.”

Stuart and I have both been around for a long time, been through many things, some of them together. Marriages, divorces, trips, jobs, houses, friends, pets, births, and more recently, deaths. 

“And I’ve come to believe that there are really only six emotions.”

“Surely, there are an infinite number of emotions,” I said. “At least an uncounted number. ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ ”

“Yes, it sometimes seems that way, but I think it is more like the taste  buds on your tongue. Only a few, but the combinations of them allow us to identify a huge range of flavors.

“The six emotions I have winnowed it all down to are: sadness, anger, fear, contentment, joy, and finally, desire — erotic desire. Each of these manifests itself in a distinct part of the body, or combination of corporeal locations.”

“I know where desire is felt.”

“Well, yes, but I don’t mean this as a joke. Let’s take them one by one and examine them.

“I start with sadness, because that’s the one most proximate, at least for you.”

“You’ve got that right.”

“Sadness — and I mean sadness, I don’t mean depression, which is a lack of affect and therefore, the opposite of emotion — sadness wells up in the eyes, in the higher portions of the chest, in a pursing of lips graduating into a pulling apart of the corners of the mouth and stretching of the neck ligaments. 

“Each of these emotions is a range, not a single thing. Sadness can run from a kind of wistfulness into a full blown gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.”

“Been there.” 

“Fear hits the pit of the stomach and the back of the neck; it widens the eyes and tightens the throat. Anger tenses the whole face and focuses the eyes, tightening their orbits; it also stiffens the back of the throat and may also clench the fists. 

“Contentment is a warm feeling throughout the body, a relaxation of tightnesses. It is what we most often call happiness. And it is very different from joy, which is an inhalation, or alternately, a holding of breath, along with a swelling of chest and perhaps a throwing back of arms. You almost escape your skin. 

“And desire — and I mean specifically sexual desire, not just the inclination to acquire what one doesn’t have — desire swells the loins.”

“And what about love? Isn’t that one of the big emotions?”

“In my way of thinking about it, love is a cause of emotions, not an emotion itself.

“Think about it. When you are young, at first flush, love is a combination of joy and desire; as you age, it may become contentment and desire, then, perhaps contentment alone. Certainly it can also cause anger in one, or fear, and ultimately, love can be expressed through sadness. You know about that all too directly. These are all the pipes attached to the keys of the organs, from flute to diapason.”

“And hate?”

“Likewise, it triggers a range of notes: anger and fear mostly.”

I can never tell just how seriously to take Stuart. His enthusiasms are certainly genuine, but they are not often long lived. He gets on a topic, drives it to its logical or illogical end and than, like an infant tempted by some new shiny object, moves on to something else. Still, there is often something to be learned by looking at the world from an angle outside even the periphery. 

“I imagine some sort of sliders on a sound studio mixing panel, pull up the fear and anger, deaden the joy and contentment. Fingers constantly pushing the controls up and down.

“Again, my disclaimer: I am no scientist, this is all just self-examination, but science does seem to have correlated certain hormones and neurotransmitters with emotional reactions. Fear and adrenaline, contentment and serotonin. Endorphins and joy. Cocktails mixing them make for some astonishing complexity. We all know it’s possible to love and hate at the same time. Shaken, not stirred.”

“You have me remembering a girlfriend I had many years ago, in Seattle,” I said. “I was crazy in love at the time, but her reaction was that ‘Love is just pheromones.’ Rather knocked me down a bit.” 

“I remember her,” Stuart said. “Nothing blonder than her hair but the sun.”

“Yes, that’s her.”

“Well, it started me thinking. We almost always pit emotion against  rational thought, as if they were opposites. Bones and Spock. What if thought was the same as emotion — a physical and chemical reaction that the body washes over us? Are there peptides and purines that channel or produce reason? Is it all ‘just pheromones?’ We privilege reason over emotion in our culture, but let’s face it, reason does not always provide better outcomes than emotion. Remember Halberstam’s book with the ironic title?”

The Best and the Brightest.”

“Yes. Logic, I’ve always said, is a provincialism of our culture. I blame Plato.”

“You usually do.”

“Or maybe Zeno. His paradox only works in language, not in reality. The tortoise will always be passed by Achilles in just a couple of bounds. Yet, the logic proves that Achilles cannot possibly ever catch up. I have doubted reason ever since I thought that one through. 

“So, I’m imagining a gushing brain chemistry that makes us divide each question into ones and zeros, yes or no, black or white, salt or pepper, chocolate or vanilla. Is there a bestiary of thought as there seems to be one of emotion?  You love Beethoven’s late quartets, right?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“And what have you always said about the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ or the cavatina? ‘At its highest levels,’ you said, ‘thought and emotion cannot be told apart.’ Isn’t that right?”

“To quote a First Century prophet from the Levant: ‘You have said it.’ ”

“So, I’m trying to work out another mixing board, one for thought. Or, is it the same mixing board, but turned sideways? Does thinking create facial expressions or muscle contractions the way emotions do? When I’m lost in thought, I can feel me face go all flabby as I’m lost in thought — or sometimes the reverse, I screw up my lips and nose as I work through a knotty problem.

“At the very least, I’m convinced that the body and the mind are not separate entities, but rather a single thing looked at from different ends. We get all flummoxed when we divide ourselves up between thinking and feeling, between body and soul, between heaven and earth, between realism and idealism. I imagine it all as Medieval humors, only with modern, scientific names like urocortin and oxytocin. They didn’t have microscopes and magnetic resonance machines, but those Medieval people were not simple-minded idiots. Their brains were just as good as ours. It’s just their research facilities were underfunded. And they didn’t have as many giants on whose shoulders to stand.”

“So, she was right? It’s all just pheromones?”

“Perhaps. Remember, I’m no scientist, and even if it is all just pheromones, it doesn’t feel as if it is.”

“Well, I think it’s dinner time and I’m feeling hungry. Let’s go see what we can cook up. I’ve got a new pasta recipe that I think Genevieve will like.”