Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. – Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac
There have been NO MUSHROOMS in Nanaimo so far this fall. With failing hope on my walk today I wandered from time to time off the trail, poking mournfully at the ground with my walking stick. Eventually I gave up and decided to just enjoy the walk. As I came around one curve in the path I stopped and looked at this scene:
Something in the way the branches filled up the space with horizontal lines, the autumn light, late in the day, and the deep reassuring stillness caused a sort of mental pop in my head. I felt it like a knot un-knotting. Pop, un-knot.
I was suddenly full of a warm shy contentment angling up towards joy at the edges. I smiled. It has been a very long time since such a feeling has come to me. I carried on down the trail, swinging my stick and breathing in the green smelling air, lungs not big enough to take in as much as I would like, shoulders not broad enough to throw back on my spine like a devil may care mendicant; but certainly I had knees enough to saunter and lips to whistle a gentle tune into the silent tree space, where pips of little brown creepers came back to me as a kind of distant echo.
Haecceity (from the Latin haecceitas) is usually translated as “thisness.” Duns Scotus is believed to be the first person to use the word to denote the wholly unique components that make a person or object unlike any other person or object. In a certain sense it is the emergent quality of a thing that we recognize as being one of a kind and therefore worth great value.
A sensitivity to “thisness” is one of the central muscles of a poetic mind. With it we move out of categorizing all stones as “stones,” which is a time saving device, into contemplation of this particular stone, which is a time occupying device. We pick up the stone, we turn it over, we appreciate it for it’s thisness. This of course is not a muscle exclusive to the poetic mind. The scientific mind also requires this working, this using of effort. In thisness the scientist and the poet stand together — in curiosity, in wonder sometimes, at the profoundness of this one unique thing, this anomalous data-point varying from all other data-points, yet clustering into that cloud of similarity that evokes the classification.
We make sense of the world by placing each thing into these clouds, these clouds of similar qualities, or similar appearances, or rigorous distinctions. Species, elements, personalities, types, kinds — the categories at least less numerous than the objects inside them.
The scientist must contemplate an objects thisness to determine which clouds the object belongs in, creating complicated Ven diagrams to nudge the object into understanding. Understanding arising out of the process of classification.
Thisness for the poet, however, is more about gratefulness, appreciation, and delight in somethings particular charm. While all rainbow trout are beautiful, this one is a little deeper in the belly, has a little larger tail, and those combinations make THIS trout more beautiful or significant or trouty than the others.
Finding the unique in all things is not possible for us, but perhaps is the pleasant task of God.
In Wabi Sabi for Writers I said that sabi “was refined over the years to emphasize a state of receptivity, fostered in remote natural settings.” The legendary Japanese poet Basho was among the first to use the word and he did so to distinguish his style of poetry from others. There existed a different but similar word, aware, which described the state of being open or sensitive to things. Aware is pronounced ‘ah wah ray’ but coincidentally has a similar meaning to the English word aware, as in awareness. The English word aware, comes from the German root, which is more about wariness, than artistic sensitivity, so we can’t quite equate the two.
Both sabi and aware have to do with an openness to poetic qualities in an object or place, especially when we are unhurried or alone. The emphasis is on sensitivity and emotional receptivity. Aware was part of a popular phrase, “Mono no aware” which is translated as “an awareness of the poignancy of things.” The poignancy comes, usually, from a things impermanence or transience. Howard Rheingold in his book, They Have a Word for It, writes of aware: “Would cherry blossoms be as poignantly beautiful if they bloomed all year round, or if they were as tough as walnuts?” Seeing the cherry blossom with the awareness that they are only here for a few days each year, makes them more valuable.
Basho taught his students that sabi was the color of a poem and gave examples of people who showed pluck or stamina. What makes sabi different from aware is that it includes a deliberate acceptance of things as they are. This deliberate acceptance makes sabi more than awareness, more than sensitivity. For sensitive souls, poets, song writers, artists, etc. sabi is more “spiritual” for lack of a better word. A person might experience aware when she sits in misery contemplating a fallen soldier, too young to have savored the freedom for which he gave his life. She is wracked with the pathos of the scene. Her sister, adopting a sabi mind, sees the same scene and feels the same pathos but moves it towards an aha moment.
Aware is the “ah” or “oh” of sorrow, and sabi is the ‘ah” or “oh” of insight.
For an excellent discussion of sabi in the work of Basho, see: Sabi, Nature, and the Relationship by Riley B. Irwin