The day before our October snow storm, at the Cape May Bird Count in north Avalon, scoters and cormorants and gannets were migrating off shore in huge numbers. They flew almost even with the horizon line in elongating, shifting wedges, looking like black, metal filings blown about by the wind. Nine thousand came through in one hour, 72,000 for the day.
The day of the storm I walked the dogs near the surf line just so I could be closer to the sea’s roar. The whole world was a study in grays – the cold, granite gray of the sand, and then where it was wet by the waves, it became a silver gray, and then in the water close to shore, a dove gray and then shifting teal and silver grays overcome by spray from multitudes of whitecaps close and far off. The clouds changed in their hues as the eye climbed – slate grays and then translucent grays. The rain came in squalls, off and on, whipping an empty beach except for Wolfie and Amigo*, who raced after each other, as exultant as I felt. Wildness is communicable. When I was younger, I felt this to be true, but I did not understand it. I did not know it.
Two days later in Avalon we saw an immature peregrine hunting sanderlings on the beach. He landed and allowed Patti to get within 15 feet before he flew off. He looked like a beautifully plumaged bullet. Later, while Wolfie tried to herd small shore birds, plovers and sanderlings probably, they rose up in a flock and wheeling at ground level came at us and split, and we were immersed in them. Their breasts and wings flashed silver in the light. We were immersed in them.
In their book All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly attempt to formulate a way to live that rejects the nihilism and cynicism that permeates so much present day discourse. In this passage they build upon an analysis of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and one of its salient features, the idea of physis:
“For the word physis in Homeric times wasn’t the name of some ultimate constituent of the universe; it was the name for the way the most real things in the world present themselves to us. The most important things, the most real things in Homer’s world, well up and take us over, hold us for a while, and then, finally, let us go. If we had to translate Homer’s word physis, then whooshing is about as close as we can get. What there really is, for Homer, is whooshing up; the whooshing up of shining Achilles in the midst of battle, or of an overwhelming eroticism in the presence of a radiant stranger like Paris …. In Homer’s world what whooshes up is what really shines and matters most.”
In wildness we can feel this “whooshing up”, and if we can blank out our inner voices just for a short time, that wildness can sweep into us and lift us into a transformative state of being. I’m not describing some eastern mystic oneness here, or some boutique awareness of prettiness, but a force available to anyone who will go outside consistently in any kind of weather, who will make him or herself available to nature and who will just walk, that’s all, just walk and look and suspend the damn mind for a while and allow nature to penetrate our hard, mind-full shells.
By nature and training I am skeptical of placid mystics, disdainful of all new-age hoodoo, and uneasy around gushing converts to any spiritual idea. A part of me wants to say that this transmission of wildness that can cleanse us is not spiritual, but something else – a temporary disarming of the mind and therefore a welling up of animal spirits into the resulting space – I can’t quite get it – I keep coming back to words like spirit, force, vision, exult – these all have religious connotations. Something in the body and its unselfconscious movement through open space under sky or stars, the bodies of birds and bears and wolves and dogs as well as our own, something about seeing that movement, being in its presence in a space not created by human beings, a space as free of artifice as is possible – the touch of the transcendent and holy is present in those moments.
During my freshman year at college on snowy nights I would walk away from my dorm and into the fields that then fell southwest of the campus, and I would stand in the darkness facing the wind, letting myself take its full force for as long as I could stand it because it felt right, because doing this made me feel more alive, because doing so broke something stifling inside me, because doing so filled me up with some strong, messy thrill of both release and joy. I could come back into the dorm with enough of a residue of the experience to let me sleep and whose memory helped sustain some indefinable quality of belief at my core for days after. For me that belief was the enemy of contempt and of a cynical weariness. It remains so.
A few days ago, in one field where we often walk, Wolfie stopped in front of me. His tail went up. His carriage stiffened and both ears peaked. Emerging from the dried, rattling corn stalks, a large doe stood transfixed by us, maybe 20 feet away. A beat of time. Two. Three, but it always feels longer, and then both doe and dog took off through the corn. Wolfie returned in answer to my whistle, smiling that mouth open, tongue lolling look all happy dogs share.
Back in Pennsylvania in a landscape of small songs and flitting, concentrated pleasures, at a friend’s home I saw a Great Horned Owl take off from a big oak, and huge-winged, fly to the east. The next morning while walking toward a bird feeder a Cooper’s Hawk swung back and forth through tree limbs two feet in front of me. My desk is positioned so that when I glance out the window to my left, I can see a bird fountain pulsing with water, and out the window to my right, one of my feeders. Chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, finches, woodpeckers and mourning doves come to both all day. On most mornings I watch Wolfie running in the crisp sun, his nose down; he looks all border-collie sly and low, delirious in a universe of scent. This is home.
Up early, I have my routine – Wolfie out and back in, upstairs with Patti; coffee brewed, one light on in the living room next to the couch, my book resting on the end table. It is dark outside and cold. Sometimes, before beginning to read, I touch the Weather Channel app on my phone. Of the four locations I have loaded, Elverson comes up first – 29 degrees and fair, then Bozeman and 21 and then Gardiner at 23 and then Yellowstone at 13 and snowing. On some mornings I give myself over to a vision of falling snow in the Hayden Valley and to a line of wolves in single file …appearing … in the distance and coming toward me.
*Patti’s parents’ dog: an Irish Terrier mix. He runs like a dirt bike; you can almost hear the RPM’s revving up when he takes off.