Updated: Oct 23, 2021
Is there anything you think about every single day? And if that thought isn’t carried by joy, but by impending loss, or fear of loss, do you wonder at its toll? Do you sometimes blurt out unexpectedly - I am so tired – and do you consider it’s not because of how you slept last night, the blistering heat, or how hard you worked in the yard, but because there are certain thoughts that shadow you everywhere?
Curious about what might be contributing to yet another sluggish day, I give myself a writing prompt: I am so tired, bone tired… The pen hangs suspended above the blank page for only a moment, then, like a divining rod, the tip pulls downward and skitters off in a rush of words:
Every day, on my deck, I look down the slope below my house and then raise my eyes all the way to the horizon defined by the Santa Cruz Mountains, admiring every acre in front of me. Then, unbidden, I see orange flames and imagine a wildfire, burning out of control. What will be left standing, I wonder? This cone-studded pine below the deck? Those gracious oaks down the road? Or just my chimney?
Every day I reconsider what more I can do to defend my land from fire. Which shrubs to trim, which trees to limb higher, what ground to rake? How much can I do today, this fire season? The autumn heat slowing my labor reminds me of the heat of flames, and I push to work a little longer.
Every day I can’t help but ponder: When the order to evacuate comes (which it will, if not this year, then another), how much time will I have? What will I take, what will I leave behind? How do I choose?
And every day, in the midst of such thoughts, I watch the lizards, songbirds, rabbits, and chipmunks that gather. I think of the foxes, coyotes, and owls; animals I don’t often see but are here. Who stays, who flees? Who survives, who dies? Who cannot outrun the flames? And who returns to rebuild a home?
I put down my pen. A hummingbird hovers out the window, dipping its head back and forth as if the feeder were still hanging there and not in the kitchen sink being cleaned. Less than an ounce of ruby red and glinting emerald green, the tiny bird circles empty space. I too sometimes circle the void: what used to be or what I fear will come. Feeding apocalyptic images to myself is as depleting as the hummingbird expending precious energy pursuing phantom feeders.
When I gaze out at the tree-covered mountains before me, can I learn to breathe in the green without always seeing red?
My dog Benny prances by. There he is, voraciously sniffing, chasing his tail, tearing up the hill. He shakes off delight like water droplets.
I remember that joy lives here as well.
Joy is as simple as a cool evening breeze after a day of shocking heat, wrapping itself around me as I watch the day turn into night. Stars appear, one then another and I spot Venus and the moon, descending in tandem, like old friends. Joy is my astonishment each time I see an oak seedling sprouting out of the hardened sandstone beneath my feet. No soil nutrients to speak of, no rain in half a year, yet the thin shoots persist month after month.
Joy is the serendipity of seeing a turkey vulture land atop a bleached limbless pine up the hill. It gracefully extends its wings, six feet across, with outstretched primary feathers reaching north and south. For half an hour this raptor holds this pose – like a god, like a totem - as the rising sun evaporates morning dew, feather by feather. Entranced, I stretch my arms wide, like a fledgling.
These are my feeders, the nectar of everyday life that can momentarily counterbalance my anguish over fire, pandemic surges, accelerating extinctions, and overarching climate breakdown. Still it is exhausting, this tipping back and forth, as if a cosmic scale is constantly re-calibrating impending loss and present largess.
The hummingbird, needing to consume twice its body weight in nectar each day, zooms off, wisely pursuing neighboring feeders and fall blossoms. For me, a daily fare of evening stars, sprouting plants and mesmerizing bird behavior is essential but not sufficient. When my being is bone tired and depleted, I know I must tap a deeper reservoir, my equivalent of the oak seedling’s invisible sources of resilience in harsh conditions.
An image surfaces: a vast three dimensional web of shimmering strands, connecting me and everything else – and I mean everything - to each other. This is what I need to remember, this is what I must re-experience in order to thrive - that the world is truly alive with dimensions that I may lose sight of but are nonetheless there.
The classic mystics and transcendentalists knew this. Poets and philosophers, ecologists and physicists know it. It’s built into the wisdom of indigenous cultures: the presence of ancestors, reciprocal relationships with plants and animals, dreams as messengers, the awareness of synchronistic phenomenon. Capacities that our modern cultures dismiss as irrational magical thinking are, in fact, our most precious inheritance.
When I am able to create the spaciousness to access these deeper relational dimensions, it changes everything. It enlivens my conviction that we live in a responsive world. But how do we open ourselves in this fast moving, mechanized world we’ve created, anxiously fortifying ourselves against perceived threats? How can I thin the membrane between me and everything else so that I can access the quivering of other nodes in the web?
An experience comes to mind. Right before the pandemic hit, I flew to New Jersey to see a renowned acupuncturist who specializes in eye issues. I have progressive Macular Degeneration. Since Western medicine has no curative treatment, I hoped to stave off future decline through Dr. Rosenfarb’s week-long intensive clinic. I arrived with a mixture of anxiety and hope. Towards the end of my stay, I had a dream:
I come upon a young ailing deer who has fallen to the ground in a grassy hollow and appears to be dying. She is trying to heal herself by drinking fluid out of a carton. The deer is losing strength, so I hold the container, letting the liquid flow into her mouth and down her throat. I lower myself to the ground to wrap my body around her, offering my warmth. For a moment, the deer becomes my beloved dog Shadow, who died several years before, but then morphs back into the deer just as an ill water bird, a very large loon, joins us. I feed both of them the liquid and then the loon lays by the deer, encircling it with its wings and I lay behind the loon, my arms embracing us all. I put out a plea to Shadow to come. We begin to revive. I wake with hope, a longing for Shadow, and this sentence: “I cannot turn away from the animals, I cannot turn away from the dream.”
After the next long day at the clinic, I walked back to my bed and breakfast rental several miles away. I was essentially sleepwalking, so immersed in the previous night’s dream that I was oblivious to the physical presence of three story houses set back on grassy lawns until I almost bumped into a young boy sitting astride his bike. He pointed behind me, “Look at that. Look!” I followed his emphatic finger. A buck with massive antlers stood in the boy’s circle driveway, staring at me, perhaps the biggest deer I’d ever seen. For a moment, I was convinced he was a moose.
I was disoriented, straddling realities. Was this a continuation of the dream, had the dream animal stepped out to meet me? I wanted to follow the buck, but he briskly trotted into the backyard. I asked the boy, who seemed like a character on a movie set, “Do you see deer here often?” He replied, “We see deer sometimes, but never in the driveway. And not so close.” For five days I had walked back and forth to the clinic. Not once had I seen deer anywhere in Westfield, New Jersey.
As I walked on, a middle-aged woman approached, pulled by an energetic young dog. I impulsively blurted out, “What a beautiful dog, do you know his breed?” His black and white coloring reminded me of Shadow. “He’s an unknown mix, a shelter dog” and just as he was about to jump up on me, she gently admonished: “Shadow, come here.” I told her that was the same name of a dog I had. What I didn’t say was that it now felt like Shadow has found me, the dream story wrapping itself around me, as if it had arms.
The next day I was on a plane back to California, feeling encouraged by the treatment results and energized by this larger story. It took synchronistic encounters with two animals and the overlap of waking and dream life to remind me that life proceeds at many simultaneous levels. I had heeded the dream’s instruction, not turning away. Engagement is an active process.
And now I'm reminded of a very recent experience. I had finally taken a break from my incessant fire prevention yard labor and settled into a book about a woman’s search to know her Irish ancestors. Moved by a passage, I paused as I began to imagine my own ancestors, the ones I miss dearly and those I don’t even know by name but are in my DNA.
As this reverie settled over me, a hawk suddenly landed on the deck railing just five feet away, staring boldly into my eyes for long moments. Raptors have had a mythological role in my family history, appearing during significant passages such as illness and death. Even the most scientifically minded family members have described unusual hawk encounters during such times, feeling comforted by the visitation.
Finally, the hawk flew off with two strong wing beats, navigating the airy corridor between trees. In the empty space on the railing, I felt the comforting presence of my deceased mother, father and grandparents.
It’s been weeks now, but that bird keeps landing in my mind’s eye, as if perched on some internal railing. I’m nourished by connection to my kin, to the animals that come close at just the right time, and to the mysteries I can’t fully explain, such as the vast, three-dimensional web of shimmering nodes. None of this will prevent wildfires from sweeping through nor does it solve the messes we’ve made on this planet. But my being lightens, as if I too could now rise with two strong wing beats, more able to navigate what lies ahead.
Author's Note: I find that many pieces I write are like nodes in the same web, each connecting to each other, reverberating with themes of interconnection with the more-than-human world. The nodes most strongly reverberating with this piece are the following: Something More, Part 1 and 2, That Which I See, and Fire Series #3: Returning: Renewal of Vows.
To listen to this story read out loud, click below.
The photos in this essay were downloaded from Pixabay, except the one below. I woke one misty morning to this shimmering web, made startlingly visible by the alchemy of moisture, sun angle, a nocturnal spider's diligence and my attention. What is around us all the time that we may only rarely glimpse?
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