Shelter in the Eternal Night.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
My hike last week, brief though it was, raises many questions. The questions stop me in my tracks. I haven't been able to get past them to write this letter to you. Until now. Enough is enough.
Question: How is wild nature different from the tamed city?
Question: How much influence does the one have o'er the other?
Some days before the trek, engaged in driving my true love to the land of the Choctaw in Durant, Oklahoma, I stopped Godzilla at a rest stop and spied a monarch butterfly splashed against the radiator grill. Godzilla is the family name for our Honda Element, a motor vehicle from Japan. Dumb beast that it is, Godzilla played no conscious role in the traumatic fate of the monarch. No amount of personification can make it so. Question: Did I?
Burnt orange and black, the butterfly, despite having been split in two by the impact, weakly waved its wings. Lifting it from the grill, I cradled the mortally wounded creature in the palm of my left hand. I called out softly to my true love, who took the butterfly from me and laid it to rest in soft grasses beneath a sapling beside the asphalt.
Cloven or Whole?
Question: If we are divided — cloven, faceted, layered, and alone — then how do we become whole? Question: To what branch of faith, school of thought, or method of recovery do we cleave for guidance back to the garden? Question: Do we even want to be whole, want to return to far-away Eden?
Pardon me, but I've decided to use the universal "we." It's a risky rhetorical device, riven with the potential for pomposity and pretentiousness. I'll qualify the risk. I don't pretend to speak for you, not even for humanity — but I do like the prospect of unity in the idea of "we," and how effectively it can stand in opposition to the insular "I," which is a singular and limited thing with intimations of self-absorption and separation.
I've read that we as a species — humanity, Homo sapiens vis-à-vis Homo erectus — are ill-equipped to cope successfully with the world we've inherited, that our brains by the teeming billions are too deeply rooted in the primal and the primitive to distill our societal madness into an elixir sufficient to the cure. The World Gone Mad becomes rooted as a recurrent theme of popular culture. I sometimes think I need a cure. As for THE OTHERS, they can deal with it in their own way.
Several Thousand Steps Too Many.
I didn't hike alone. Buckaroo my loyal dog trekked with me. We left the city the morning of Thursday, October 11, arriving at Devil's Den in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas well before noon. We had come to walk the Butterfield Hiking Trail, fifteen miles of rugged backcountry up and around Olive Mountain.
Fifteen miles didn't sound like much. I was packing about forty-five pounds, Buck about seven. Fifty-thousand steps, give or take a thousand or two, and thirty hours later, we were done. I was almost done for. Buck managed more gracefully.
An act of will got me to the finish. In a few ways unrelated to hubris, I had underestimated the challenge of the path. Once ago I was an infantryman. I wore the crossed rifles of the United States Army. The long-dormant spirit of the cadre rose-up to carry me home.
Connected, or Severed?
Sometimes when the winds are right and the air is fresh with promise, I think I'm vitally connected to the natural world. Other times in the electric night of the city, encased behind a glass window in concrete and steel and lumber, I know I'm severed from nature — but (question) am I? This is what I'm trying to figure out; it's a reason why I left the city for the wilds.
Along the trail I found something, a crow's feather on the final slope as a gift for my true love. I found another treasure, too, deep in the beating of my heart, a perspective on the fleeting moment that I feared had been lost in the passage to becoming old. Maybe one day I can express it again.
Thursday I made camp early on a smooth saddle to the east of a watery, rocky fissure called Piney Hollow. Behind me to the north were bluffs and great boulders. To the south and east the land sloped gently, falling off to the basin of Blackburn Creek. Its rippling waters over the billion stones were just out of earshot.
Where Are the Wise Old Trees?
I pitched the tent on a bed of leaves within a circular space defined by a host of very young hardwood trees. Most all of the trees in the national forest are young and thin, the byproduct of multiple clearcuts. The first hungry harvest of lumber took place very early in twentieth century. Another, maybe two more followed, but it should be a while before the lumberjack's rapaciousness strikes again. Every tree in sight I could hug and touch hands.
Too tired to make a proper backwoods fire, I opted for a stout pot of coffee from water boiled on the alcohol-fueled Trangia stove. Buckaroo munched on biscuits, nuggets, and a rawhide bone from his backpack saddlebags. Clever beast that he is, he also procured more than a few morsels from my dinner of Swiss cheese, wheat crackers, tuna, nuts, and raisins. I sat on the soft earth beside a lichen-encrusted limestone rock that served as camp table, scratching Buck's ears, listening to the cawing of a crow, and watching the pale yellow rays from the falling sun illuminate the bark of the thin trees.
About six miles of remembered trail lay behind us. It was nearly dusk. The wind blew cool and soft, fifty degrees and dropping. Both of us were positively, deliciously exhausted.
Sprawling, Peaceful, Snugglin' Close.
I climbed into the tent, struck a match to the candle lantern, snuggled into the unzippered sleeping bag, and began in a familiar way to contemplate the Great Work. My thoughts were sprawling and peaceful in the gathering early night. Soft of foot, Buck entered the tent and snuggled close. I turned to gaze at the singular flame of the candle. It gained luminous strength as the solar light faded, faded, faded away.
Fire. Air. Earth. Water. Agrippa writes that understanding the relationship between the four elements reveals the sure path to mastery of philosophical magic. From the elements through thought comes creation. A limestone rock is shaped into a tool. Or it is broken and crushed to become pavement. Or it is stacked with others to make a rocky wall. Matter is transformed into things. From these things a civilization is built.
Now the wilds were giving way, imperceptibly, to the primacy of thought and its dreamy attendant, contemplation. I began to wonder what shape, if any, I could give to my life. Predestination, destiny, free will. . . . I had entered a line of inquiry stretching deep into the generations W H E N,
of a sudden,
Buck rose up, ears pinned back, nose to the wind, and announced in the unmistakable body language of the wilds that something, perhaps untoward, had arrived on the scene.
Then I heard the guttural, rutting snort. It rose from the lower region. Outside the tent, quick and quiet, I knelt beside Buck and gazed in the direction of his alert. There in the last few minutes of dim light I could see murky figures, two large life forms, moving slowly amid the trees, fifty meters, maybe less, to the southwest. It registered: a mature white-tailed buck, grazing with a doe. Buck and I watched until the critters disappeared into the dark.
Away with the Cold and the Cruel.
Back in my bed inside the domed shelter on the forest floor, I retreated into the solitude afforded me by the wilds, retreated from the world of
THE OTHERS — their world, the one I too often see as cold and cruel. It's not always so, not always mean and indifferent, this vast planet of women and men, especially in the land of plenty that is Arkansas, United States of America. But I see too much, feel too acutely — and the world becomes too much with me almost all of the time.
From the north came the startling, wondrous cry of a great horned owl, announcing its mastery of the night. I snuffed out the candle light. From the bright and distant city came a memory, an admonishment from one of my teachers: "You can change the pattern of the day, the eternal moment, and recreate your world in an image of health, happiness, and security." The teacher taught me how to do it, too. I am a slow learner.
Outside, Buck watched and listened, his eyes fixed in the direction of the snorting buck. Too exhilarated to sleep, I drifted from directed streams of thought into a mish-mash of idle internal chatter, then back again to purposeful meditation. It was only after the coyotes began to raise their yipping, hellish voices to the heavenlies that Buckaroo, true-blue and strong-hearted, rejoined me in the shelter to sleep away the eternal night.