A shift in perspective

Although I generally try to avoid clichés, it seems unavoidable to refer to the impression of my trip with Urban Sketchers Albania in the Kune-Vain Lagoon as a literary sketch. When an expression persists, bypassing it for a more impressive, sophisticated choice strikes me as untruthful. Of course, this submission to clichés should only occur in the case of those most determined to survive.

Before I present my outline of the trip, I must admit two things regarding this sort of outdoorsy group activity:

  1. Despite my considerable affinity for  beauty, vivid colors, greenery, water, I  instinctively associate the word “nature” with a botanical garden…a form of overwhelmingly beautiful but tamed nature which aims at satisfying the human senses. Here, nature is subservient to man. The “wildest” version of nature I’ve ever come close to is the sea, but a pleasant beach version rather than the primitive power which, with the whim of a great wave, could effortlessly destroy us all.
  2. Group activities go slightly against my simultaneously independent and lazy nature which dislikes the set itinerary, forced collaboration and familiarity that such endeavors require. I try to fight this inclination because, at times, it deprives me from enjoying pleasurable experiences in which I am willingly participating.

Yet, despite these two largely self-created obstacles, having always envied people who with a pencil and a few lines could quickly render their own version of reality, I set out on the trip determined to offer my own version of the experience using the only tool at my disposal – words.  A sketch composed of words would be added to the more faithful-to-reality drawings of the sketchers.

The first difficulty I hadn’t foreseen but which immediately struck me in the initial contact with nature was that the landscape, despite its overwhelming beauty not entirely perceivable by our limited minds, possesses a visual uniformity which does not exist in its opposite: the urban context, nature’s out-of-control, Frankenstein-like imitation.  In the city, even a small area of a regular building carries so many marks, and shapes that the possibilities of visually or verbally representing it are infinite. Instead, nature’s majestic harmony may leave one powerless and unable to act, react or interact with her.

The second difficulty concerns the crossing between two worlds: the “civilized” one, full of acoustic and visual noise, and nature, which, for  primarily urban beings, is less natural than the city’s sensory overload. As a result, because we often complain about the city’s lack of cleanliness, irritating noise, and other such problems, we expected – or rather I did – to feel the much-advertised inner peace and a sense of communion with the natural environment from the very first contact. But, things are rarely that simple and relationships do not form on demand despite our current proclivity to want everything on our own terms – when and how we want it, preferably timed. Life and nature mercilessly and slowly shape us to their will, mainly through exercising and forcefully increasing our capacity for tolerance and patience.

My first confrontation with the lagoon sparked the great desire to escape it, a desire caused by the reeds scratching my skin, the very narrow pathways, and the unexpectedly scorching sun. I kept walking disappointed with myself more than with the surroundings, all the while still attempting to feel the increasingly elusive sense of calm which, unbeknownst to her, nature had promised me. Yet, we all know that this kind of pressure and preprogrammed feelings defeat the very aim one is trying to reach. Tired, ready to surrender and accept my own inability to feel, I and J., my usual partner in adventures, sat in a coffee shop; in the middle of a natural environment, we opted for the most artificial and familiar choice. Slightly ashamed, I must admit that at that particular point, I had decided to spend the entire day there, a place which is so ubiquitous in my everyday environment – the city – that it may as well be its unofficial symbol. But, fortunately, a sense of chronic dissatisfaction which often makes me suffer  but also urges me to always want and look for more pushed me to continue my almost hopeless search of an emotion.

Yet, perhaps the hopelessness of it led me to the right emotional state. Bored and boring, I was dragging myself through the area’s narrow trails when, suddenly, I caught myself mid-comparison, likening the surrounding trees and greenery to the enchanted forests of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales. “A good sign,” I thought, “my brain is not entirely de-activated from the visual monotony and uniformity of the natural landscape.” At the very moment of this realization, J. was fittingly expressing her understanding of Adam and Eve’s abandonment of the Garden of Eden. Despite nature’s beauty, J. thought that this same aforementioned monotony and “innocence” had driven not only our fictional ancestors out of the garden but inspired humans’ creation of any trick – including the city – in order  to make their lives more varied and interesting.

While consciously discussing forms of escape and the difficulty of being stimulated by an entirely different context from the familiar one – the city – and subconsciously comparing regular trees to enchanted forests, we suddenly detected a place we aimed to find all along: a place on which we could comfortably sit, a narrow bridge on the lagoon, surrounded by hills and trees. The bridge seemed like an oasis; the presence of the water immediately eliminated the exhausting effect of the sun, the trees which had seemed identical thus far assumed a distinct and interesting identity and the sun and sky suggested the idea of an infinite sense of freedom, the rare sensation that anything is possible.

Deciding to rest on the magical bridge, I started to finally write something – only fragments but spontaneous rather than strained ones – and J. began sketching. I cannot exactly say that I heard the call of the wild or that I was miraculously transformed into an innocent child of nature.  But, I can claim with certainty that I thought of the two young adventurers, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, my own childhood in the city’s various parks and improvised playgrounds and a brief but intense sensual pleasure enveloped me. This momentary sense of well-being made me feel ageless and the elimination of measured time nullified all the fears which often seem insurmountable in the usual context. Then and there, I felt that our senses do exist in order to respond to all the various elements – air, water, the sun.

Instinctively I experienced what I’ve read in many books: every crossing between worlds, from the journey to the underworld in mythology to the movement from the natural paradise to the city of characters like Robinson Crusoe, requires its own time and mediator. In our case, in an almost too appropriate turn of events, the mediating element was the bridge.

Following this turning point, I realized that for me and probably for the others as well, the key element was finding the right place which, ultimately, as with every search, leads towards the self.

The rest of the journey became an almost childish experiencing of people, food, physical tiredness, lack of thought. Although the group of sketchers didn’t know us that well, they shared their food with us; we also walked a long way together without feeling the usual pressure to talk or ensure the establishment of a quick superficial closeness because this all happened naturally. This closeness- though perhaps temporary – simply happened because of a shared experience. Ultimately, this partial return to childhood resulted more powerful than my resistance towards group activities and a marked tendency to complicate experiences that should, perhaps, be simpler.

Afterward, thinking about the trip, I was reminded of the words of a contemporary artist, Robert Montgomery, who, in order to question or rather state the emptiness of contemporary life uses its greatest marketing tool, the billboard, against it. Addressing today’s man, he writes: BECAUSE YOU HAD TO GIVE NAMES TO EVERYTHING YOU FOUND, AND MAKE LOGOS FOR BAD IDEAS… YOU WILL HAVE TO LEARN TO LOOK AT THE SKY AGAIN.”

As every valuable experience, the trip can be considered a small step towards the real Ithaca: the search towards better knowledge of the self and experiencing everything with every part of it.