Lord of the elements

By Mathias Maurer, May 2018

In measuring ourselves against the elements, we have our most deeply engrained experiences.

Be it learning to walk as a small child or later climbing up a rock wall, be it playing at holding our breath until our faces turn crimson or later doing the same diving into the water, be it burning our fingers on a hot pot or subjecting ourselves to the risk of watching an active volcano on the rim of its crater: we always go to the limits and try to tame the elements – a basic motif also in technical developments and our fantasies of omnipotence. Yet we quickly draw the short straw when the forces of nature unleash their full power – as we can see from some of the recent winter storms.

And yet – the elements with their own laws and interaction are not our enemies but our very first teachers. What do we experience when we put our hand into the earth and feel its warmth; when we are learning to swim and struggle for air as we dip under the water, swallow water and discover the realm under the surface; when we lose ourselves as we look into the flames of a camp fire and our faces glow with the heat; when we struggle to make headway on our bike on the way to school because of the gale blowing into our face, or when it makes the string on our kite snap?

Our culture robs us of the experience of the elements. With this loss, the most basic sensory experiences are also lost. Children play less and less in nature. The most ordinary daily experiences are interposed like a layer of cotton wool between us and a world whose virtual, digital image on the touch screen currently represents the apex of this alienated relationship. A comprehensive sensory experience is replaced with images and mental pictures. Everyone should test it on themselves: look at any video and then compare this with doing it ourselves.

It does not require catastrophic events like earthquakes, forest fires, floods and mudslides to bring the action of elemental forces back into our awareness, it surrounds us everywhere. When the child is welcomed at the classroom door: the warmth, coolness, humidity or dryness of their hand tells the teacher how the child is feeling that morning. Is their breathing calm, deep, shallow or rapid? Are they pale, overheated, sweaty, introverted or outside themselves? Do they move lightly within their body or are they weighed down with lead weights?

The crucial thing is the way the elements interact with human beings.

Since time immemorial they have been thought of as the building blocks of the earth; a fifth one, the essence, can only be formed by humans through love.

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