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The power of radiance

Radiance: tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) with butterflies in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada by Betsey CrawfordWe humans have brought ourselves to a fascinating and challenging point. By our numbers and our choices, particularly in the last 200 years, we’ve grown into an equivalent of the geological forces that have shaped our planet over its 4.5 billion year life. Our effect on the thin layer of atmosphere blanketing the earth means that we are potentially altering the ability of every living thing to prosper, or even exist. Our use of resources — forests, water, air, minerals, soil — is far outstripping the earth’s ability to replenish them. Millions of people worldwide are grappling with these challenges, which represent not just things to do but require new ways to think.

Radiance: checkerbloom (Sidalcea malvifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malvifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Now that we have become this force, where do we look for inspiration on how to act in our new role? To the universe itself, suggests cosmologist Brian Swimme amplifying the thinking of Thomas Berry, with whom he collaborated for many years. In 2005 Brian recorded a series of talks on the powers of the universe, the modes the cosmos itself operates by. These are the processes that gave birth to everything, including us. He chose ten of them: seamlessness, centration, allurement, emergence, homeostasis, cataclysm, synergy, transmutation, transformation, interrelatedness, and radiance. 

In 2007 I attended the earth literacy intensive at Genesis Farm, a Berry-inspired ecological and spiritual center. One of our projects was to choose a power and, after pondering it for a couple of weeks, create a presentation for our final evening together. I made a beeline for the CD that held the talk on radiance. 

Swallowtail butterfly and purple coneflower mandala by Betsey CrawfordJust before going to Genesis Farm, I had been at an art workshop where a fellow participant shared her mandala journal with us. So inspired by this magical way of responding to our world, I sat down to do my first mandala as soon as she closed her book. I brought this happy zeal with me to Genesis Farm and combined listening to Brian talk about radiance with this new way of meditating. From a butterfly to the stars, all was held in its shimmering essence. So, even though radiance is the tenth listed power, I’m going with the time-honored and delicious principle of eating dessert first.

Radiance may be the sweetest of the powers, but that doesn’t lessen its immense importance and complexity. We wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for the most radiant of all local beings: the sun. She, blazing wildly from the depths of her fiery furnace, sets our standard. She also has a lot of company. Since the primeval flaring forth, everything in the universe has been giving off light, in the visible spectrum and out, in the form of electromagnetic and quantum energy. ‘Radiance is the primary language of the universe, the way the universe communicates with itself.’ The way that it speaks to us. The sun and the earth, with all its emerging forms and beings, are part of the cosmos’s ongoing conversation. 

Radiance: monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

Our task, Brian says, ‘is to become the human form of radiance.’ We didn’t evolve to become consumers, or cogs in an industrial machine, or to allow the sublime beauty of this world to be destroyed for trinkets. We evolved to manifest 14 billion years of radiance. 

For this, we can turn first to our most luminous organ: our heart. Our most crucial organ, nourishing every single cell, every moment of our lives. But it’s not only an exquisitely designed pump. It receives, and radiates. Look at a mother watching her baby, he suggests. ‘You don’t need to talk her into the idea that she’s holding a magnificent beauty.’ And we, looking on, recognize the glowing love flowing from her, and our heart opens in turn. ‘What comes forth, what reverberates out, feels like it’s completing the beauty that’s there.’

Radiance: staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

Our heart’s radiance is both effects and science, body and spirit. It’s a sublime biological system and an electromagnetic field 100 times stronger than the brain’s. Its rhythms convey information to all systems, functioning as the information hub of the body. It synchronizes the brain, giving us deeper access to our frontal lobes, helping us process the world and make sense of our emotional experiences.

The heart’s effects — warmth, aliveness, love, compassion, joy, forgiveness — both reach into and receive the world. These capacities are the essential qualities of all spiritual traditions, which recognize them as the way into our kinship with all other beings. They are the traits that have always made life worth living, and are why turning to our hearts now is crucial to our complex path forward. 

Radiance: fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California

I might also say turning on our hearts. Since everything is connected, it makes perfect sense that our heart’s energy field would interact with the universe’s many interwoven fields. For the past ten years the Global Coherence Institute, part of the Institute for Heart Math, has been studying just this. A recent study “showed that human heart rhythms of participants synchronized with other participants, even in some cases…hundreds of miles apart. This indicated that the participants were all synchronized to an external signal in Earth’s magnetic field environment.”   

This is utterly fascinating, and Heart Math’s research, devoted to the science behind our most radiant organ, is full of such gems. But we don’t need studies to know we are in the presence of a big heart, or a tender heart, or a joyful spirit. Or that the heart leaps with joy at the sight a velvety sky full of stars, or a loved one’s face. Brian calls radiance a mode of perception as well as a power. The heart gifts us with the intuition to read other hearts, to read the earth itself. Our response is a reciprocation. When we see with compassion, or hope, or joy, when we recognize and react to beauty, we don’t spend those capacities, we enlarge them. 

Radiance: tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

We’ve been operating under distorted perceptions — that the earth is merely a resource, that some humans are less worthy than others, that economics is more important than love. All of these come from the basic distortion that everything is separate. When we allow the radiance of the universe to speak through our hearts, we can both perceive and radiate our deep interconnection with every manifestation of the unfolding cosmos.

Of the heart’s qualities, scriptures the world over tell us, the greatest is love. We have thousands upon thousands of poems, songs, paintings, stories of love. I think most of us would say it is the most important element in our own lives. We are passionate about, even obsessed with love. And yet the culture we have created devalues it, just as it is capable of trashing so many other manifestations of radiance. 

Radiance: autumn peach leaves, Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey by Betsey Crawford

Autumn peach leaves, Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

The recent outpouring of love-fueled outrage in response to the border crisis reassures us that love is powerful. But the decades of policy leading to this crisis in all the countries involved were, and continue to be, fueled by greed and domination. The disconnect between the depth of feeling in our hearts and the crushing power of corporations and governments makes love seem like a weak force. 

And yet we feel — in our hearts — that it’s not. It’s there that we know, as Brian says, ‘that something glorious is streaming into us.’ Knowing that the radiance of the universe is beating through our hearts can give us the strength to move through the frantic constructs of our time toward the vivid future we yearn for. This is not a ‘love, sweet love’ invocation; it’s not limited to that dimension. The sun doesn’t set us an example of placid radiance. Hers is wildly fierce, life-giving, life-altering. It makes everything possible.

Radiance: sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

But the universe also tells us that sweet radiance is powerful. Plants turn the sun’s ferocious energy into sugars, nourishment to feed themselves and to sustain the millions of years of evolution that radiated out after the appearance of photosynthesis. Out of this sweetness, plants create luminous petals, delicious fruits, aromatic essences to nurture other beings, including us, whose brains and senses have slowly evolved to hold consciousness of the beauty of life, and lives. 

Loving this incandescent bounty anchors us to the earth we rose from. We seek to create it, live it, share it, save it. We derive courage, strength, dedication. We respond with loving radiance. We are emboldened to take action. ‘We discover who we are in the midst of the deep voices of the universe.’

Radiance: wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

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Happy Halloween: ghosts in the landscape

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Cotton grass (Eriophorum angustifolium) Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

When I first thought of the title for this Halloween post, I had fun in mind — white flowers that have ghostly or skeletal effects — and there are those, like the cotton grass above and the trillium and others below. But the more I thought about white flowers, the more questions I had. How did they become white? Is it a loss of pigment or a color of its own? Why are there so many of them? Depending on the region, they can far outnumber flowers in the blue to red to orange range, and outstrip the numerous species of yellow flowers. Studies show that pollinators, given a choice, will gravitate to colors. So what’s the evolutionary advantage of white? Is there one? It turns out that white flowers are full of mystery. Which is, indeed, fun.

White flowers: Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California by Betsey Crawford

The very ghostly newborn petals of Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) Blithedale Canyon, California

The earliest angiosperms, more than 100 million years ago, are thought to have been white, cream or pale green. Since Darwin, people — including me — have been happily saying that the more vivid colors slowly evolved to attract pollinators, whose vision long predated the flowers. And that appears to be true. Or, at least, there’s no strong body of evidence saying it’s not true. But, as it turns out, there’s no strong body of empirical evidence saying it is true. Empirical evidence implies that we can see something happen in real time, and it’s hard to see an evolutionary process in our brief lifespan. 

White flowers: Ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

This one is actually called ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora) Anza Borrego Desert, California

There are studies that show, for example, flowers becoming redder in as little as a single generation as more hummingbirds pollinate them. Further studies show that when given choices, pollinators will choose colors over white flowers, though that may be because the colorful ones stand out more vividly against green foliage. Finding flowers efficiently is crucial to the success of both flower and pollinator, so the easier the flower is to see, the better. Very important, the stronger the relationship a pollinator has with a specific color, the more likely it is to bring matching pollen from one flower to fertilize another in the same species.

White flowers: Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Sitka burnet (Sanguisorba stipulata) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

So, we know that pollinators have an intimate relationship with flower color. Or, more accurately, with the color’s wavelength, since the purple we see is not what the pollinator sees. But, with the explosion of genetic information in recent years, there’s also a growing appreciation for other factors that are at play, especially in how white flowers have evolved. Flowers in the blue to purple to red range use anthocyanins to create their color, the chemicals that make foods like grapes and raspberries so good for us. If the dominant anthocyanin is delphinidin, the flower is purple, if pelargonidin, red, if cyanidin, magenta to lavender. Other flavonoids, such as anthoxanthins, along with a variety of carotenoids, create yellows and oranges. 

White flowers: Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Single delight (Moneses uniflora) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

In the course of mutations that alter the expression of specific enzyme and protein pathways, the amounts of these color-inducing chemicals can vary, changing the color of the flower. Mutations may also cause the pathways to stop working altogether. The resulting loss of function can return the flower to its primordial white, a state that’s likely to be irreversible since it would take a series of very specific mutations for those particular pathways to work again. 

White flowers: Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

There is a widely accepted division of flower/pollinator relationships: bees prefer flowers in the blue range, while hummingbirds gravitate to red, butterflies to pink, moths and beetles to white. And studies do back up these general preferences. But there’s a lot of variation. If bees weren’t interested in pollinating white flowers, we wouldn’t have almonds, apples, plums or any number of other fruits in the Rosaceae family. Thus, other factors are apparently important, among them scent, availability, abundance, learned behavior, competition, as well as the match of plant shapes to pollinator characteristics. It also may be that the subtle pinks that make white apple blossoms so poignantly beautiful to us are neon signs to bees. More mysteries. As every study says, ‘more research is needed.’

White flowers: Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California by Betsey Crawford

Fried egg plant (Romneya trichocalyx) San Ramon, California

As fascinating as I find all this, I’m somewhat resistant to the idea that the gorgeous hues of reds, purples and lavenders I love so much are a result of ‘the number of hydroxyl groups attached to the B-ring of the molecule,’ or that tender, luminous whites are due to the functional failure of these groups. Reducing something as magical as color to the action or loss of enzyme and protein pathways seems like a comedown. On the other hand, my seeing and treasuring these colors is possible only because my body relies on similar pathways. Which brings another mysterious dimension forward: the fact that flowers and I share biological functions and genes, and, in sharing them, share each other.

White flowers: white thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White thistle (Cirsium hookerianum) Waterton National Park, Alberta

Not only that, but without a strong connection to a variety of pollinating animals and insects, and the biology and genetics we have in common with them, neither flowers nor I would be here to begin with. All those pathways need constant nourishment. Like me, the pollinators depend on flowers for nutrition and survival. Flowers depend on these friendly forces, which can include me, for reproduction. We all depend on a huge array of microbes and fungi to create the nutrients we thrive on from the soil at our feet. We depend on the movements of air currents, the hydrology of water, the minerals released from rocks. 

Sitting among flowers on a forest path, or the desert floor, or out in a meadow, we’re held in a vast array of interlinking pathways, beating our hearts, feeding our cells; moving water, air, nutrients; creating color, vision, scent. All mysteriously designed to keep every one of us — flower, leaf, dirt, human, bee, bird, beetle — alive and blossoming. 

White flowers: White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta by Betsey Crawford

White paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis) Waterton National Park, Alberta

More beautiful white flowers can be found in the gallery Luminous Whites.

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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