Drawing Inspiration from Nature in a Time of Ecological Collapse

Image: “Wildfire” by Annie Bissett. Courtesy of the artist. More information.

Editor’s Note: Landscape Music composer Ryan Suleiman contributes his first essay to LandscapeMusic.org.

This Saturday I’m looking forward to hearing the premiere of my new orchestra piece, Burning, commissioned by Pete Nowlen and the Symphony d’Oro in Rancho Cordova (Sacramento). The collaboration has been such a joy for me. The concert is billed as a celebration of the Earth, programmed alongside Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony No. 6 (one of my favorites) and James DeMars’ Lake That Speaks, two other works that engage with nature. The concert is also fundraising event for Whisker Warriors, a nonprofit that helps animals displaced by fires.

What does it mean for our art when the natural balance of the environment is in a state of crisis?

Beethoven, like many creative people, was deeply inspired by the natural world, talking walks through nature and retreating to the countryside to escape city life, recharge himself, get ideas. Scientific research has shown, as most artists have long known intuitively, that doing this is essential for one’s health and creativity. To state the obvious, there is so much fantastic music and art that is inspired by the wonder and beauty of nature. The clearest aspect of the beauty one finds in nature could be said to be the surface level. During a sunset, the sky is filled with vibrant colors. Mountains and trees in a forest create a striking form.

But of course, it is not just color and form that inspires us. It is the awe one feels looking at something so momentous as a mountain or an ocean and knowing that it has been here for millions and millions of years. It is knowing that it is part of a delicate balance and complex and dynamic web of life and death. Something bigger than oneself. It is also knowing that, as old as the mountains and the valleys are, they were literally completely different at one time, since they’re always changing. Or knowing that as seemingly timeless as the formations of California’s Central Valley are, they used to be an inland sea. It is the fact that nature provides nourishment and healing for us, but also can destroy us – it doesn’t care about us. It is the sublime. The reason we find inspiration in nature is because it contains both surface level beauty and these much deeper meanings because of our physical and spiritual connection with it.

So what does it mean for our art when the natural balance of the environment is in a state of crisis? Should we continue writing pieces about the idyllic beauty of nature in its most pristine form in order to encourage people to value it? Should we write protest pieces criticizing the inaction of governments and the elaborate cover-ups of corporations? Should we write pieces about the environmental catastrophes we see in front of us? Should we put our pencils down and become activists? What is our responsibility?

The idea to write Burning came to me in 2017 during the fires that devastated Santa Rosa. I was driving along I-80 towards San Francisco and I could never forget the eerie, thick blanket of smoke that caused the feeling of nighttime in the middle of the day. It was like nothing I’d seen before, visually stunning and deeply ominous at the same time. Ominous because of what it signified – death, destruction, and loss. A failure on the part of humans to live in harmony with California’s forests or to keep the earth’s temperature at a stable level. The piece I wrote draws its sounds from the visual imagery of thick blankets of smoke that are the new normal, but it draws a strong emotional impetus from the loss, suffering, and impending doom that this smoke represents.

Out of respect for the victims of these increasingly worse fires, I’m donating half of the royalties generated from Burning to a nonprofit working to promote healthy forests in California (still deciding where). I’m also dedicating the piece to wildfire victims, firefighters, climate scientists, and activists, who are all on the front lines of the environmental crisis.

While this may seem like a heavy piece (and it is), I think it’s our responsibility as artists and humans to really face what’s happening around us, both tragic and beautiful. In the last five years or so, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the interconnectedness of these things. About the comfort and beauty the natural world provides with the reality of its destruction. I think we have to look at both of those things, not just one or the other. We have to strike a balance between staying alert without falling into despair. I’m trying to breathe in the smoke that signifies the reality of our times, but also marvel at the beautiful sunsets that we still get to enjoy. In our troubled world, I try to think of the words of one of the greatest artists of our time, Hayao Miyazaki: “Even amidst the hatred and carnage, life is still worth living. It is still possible for wonderful encounters and beautiful things to exist.”

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Ryan Suleiman is a composer based in Sacramento, CA, and a member of Landscape Music’s composers’ network. Visit Ryan’s profile.

This essay was originally published on ryansuleiman.com, and adapted for publication on LandscapeMusic.org.

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