The Dawn Collector: On
My Way to the Natural World.
2005. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 1-930066-31-7
Certain key motifs recur not only as a convenience to readers not perusing these pages consecutively, but because they're second nature to my way of seeing, which is incorrigibly religious, though I may be the only one who thinks so.
Mountains are time we can see. For that matter, so is the eye that sees them.
Countless creeds offer explanations for the scope, complexity, and temporal death of all we belong to, usually doing so with lots of pat answers and no questions whatever. Sadder yet, not long ago - and even today in certain countries - saying "nobody knows" was punishable by death. Yes, that was then, but we're still far from any truth equal to the evidence. Meanwhile, orthodoxy's narcissism offers denial as insight.
Well, my religion finds our world all the more intriguing for being ultimately unknowable by anyone, now or ever. In the very nature of things it is, therefore, a mystery religion. Because that's where we are.
People who have lost a child would rather not talk about it, and only other parents can know why.
Our eons-earlier ancestors, with their fallacious ideas of cosmic matter and dimensions, lived a world view greatly mistaken, along with almost all conclusions they drew from it; but that, too, is understandable. Less so in this new millennium is the persistence of relic supernaturals arisen when our avatars hadn't the faintest idea about the immensities they were part of.
Feeling an evacuated universe intolerable, feeling it must have a voice and a soul, we lend it ours. From something that lent us ourselves.
For twenty minutes or so afterward, I wandered half entranced, strangely contented just looking at this and that: whiskery clumps of winter-killed buffalo grass, snow patches, golden stalks of wheat grass, maroon boulders mottled gray-green by lichens miming lizard skin. Taken with whatever I saw, I belonged to my breath in a deep way, roaming about, pleased to be effortlessly happy, no idea why; aware my mood was a rightness unbidden, unimprovable, and like no other I'd ever known. Brain chemicals? Serotonin narcosis? I certainly wasn't "on" anything except light on this earth, and on me. As if for once I'd become the wisdom of my luck.
Amid a culture exhorting us to multiply experiences instead of deepening them, it's easier and easier to keep in touch with everything but yourself.
For now, it's enough to admit that if going forth year-round to watch sunrise from a stance on the mesa does have a quasi-religious tint it's because, except for the nearest star, other gods refuse to appear. Strange to say, all religion is made credible through their refusal, which our human nature has turned inside out by deeming nonappearance the surest sign of divinity. Hence we've erected cathedrals and mosques, stupas and temples, monasteries and convents, to honor deity's utter transparence. Hence the countless stones carved and bronzes cast as moving images of the gods' strict invisibility. Their pedestals say more than their statues. So, too, in that vaulted chapel of Monteoliveto, men's voices sounded all the more profound for echoes of the sacred absence.
Turns out, every deity lives at the far end of hearsay. A god is what you have to take somebody's word for.
A leaf, a stone, the sun. Theirs are the scriptures I believe in.
What Darwin - whose patient tenacity staggers the mind - was too neurotically cautious to say, I now add: If evidence counts for anything, the Creator of a world with the global suffering of ours would have to be seen not as divine but diabolic. That doesn't leave me any whit less passionately grateful for the dazzle and range of nature's intricacies, just all the more aware of my luck. Sheer luck.
If in Darwin's youth "the mystery of mysteries" was the origin of species, for me it's being alive while riding at unimaginable speeds amid the planet's millions of creatures making up life biological as we hurtle along.
As endorser of the see-for-yourself mode I cite no less a witness than our single most-quoted American, Yogi Berra: "Sometimes you can observe a lot by just looking." A Zen master couldn't have put it more deftly. Just looking - that's me. Besides, what good is happiness if you keep forgetting you have it? My mesa walk's a reminder. And why my boots draw me forth where just looking clues me in. On whatever it is that I am.
We know too well the feel of not wanting anything to tamper with our grief, as if consolation might lighten its dim, grim perfection; as if we wanted to touch degree zero, wanted some drowned hope to sink clear to the bottom. Is there a perverse logic in that? After all, what's left to dread once the worst has happened? Maybe Heraclitus meant as much by saying, "The way down is the way up." But Greek wisdom, any wisdom for that matter, consoles us only when we're offering it to another.
… spring's return is far more certain than our being on hand to greet it …
Whether done in by raptor, fox, coyote, or climate, a marmot's failure to survive only meant good eating for some other creature. Certainly it meant nothing to nature. As personified by Romans, nature is the ongoing copulation of a process embodied by Venus and Mars: love and slaughter all at once, all the time. How else could we be here?
With the rise of Homo sapiens, as Aldo Leopold in his Sand Creek Almanac recognized, there appeared, for the first time since our planet's birth, a creature able to feel deep and dear concern for species other than its own. Earth has given rise to marvels abounding, though perhaps none more remarkable than that.
We outdoor types are happiest when mistaking pain for pleasure, suffering along the trail and telling ourselves we love it - as if packweight were virtue, making us worthy of wilderness by earning our presence there.
… the erosional sandstone forms that make Utah a wind-church …
When alone except for yourselves, with your tiny campfire looked down upon by cliffs whose hulking features haven't changed expression since amphibians and reptiles were the only land animals around … well, you do not talk big.
… though knowing that DNS's blind turns have left armies of species behind to go extinct and fossilize, we shy from thinking that nature made up our minds for us without any real mind of its own. That's why we tend to personify evolution, as if to assume something mindful is driving. After all, it drove toward us, didn't it? We prefer feeling intended, but desert heat makes it hard.
Over brown-red "soil" not soil but grit, flora was so sparse it hurt. Every living plant looked half-dead, and the truly defunct ones sun-blasted. Grayed out yucca lay flattened and black at the edges. Rare tufts of rain-famished grasses. Salt bushes - dwarfish ones, barely calf high - keeping their distance from each other to make the most of themselves. At the base of each, pallid and brittle leaves lay scattered like ashes. Dried puddles like eye sockets. Little creek beds athirst. Their tongues of red sand. It was life at the edge, and more than ugly; it was the face of something we prefer not to think about.
Our innermost moods occur beyond language. At the approach of words, they distort and fade like nocturnal dreams whose intimations melt away even as our waking minds try to unpuzzle them.
For more than ten unrepeatable days we had lived completely on purpose. And so, ever after, their miles have recurred for me as a flow of radiant images. Days of passing red walls overhead, cloud blossoms scudding above them. The roll and spurt of cliff swallows hurtling high, then suddenly veering on a wingtip to skim fast and low over the water. Days of great, red-terraced bends we paddled toward, rounded, and left behind at the same rate they were taken into memory. Of our traipsing together up side canyons, sandy washes. Scrambling past rock falls amid every color of the desert's grand desolation. I even recall my own sly smile at the microfine grit I kept feeling in my wallet for months after returning to Boulder. And our quiet times, too. Our cook fires, our twilight evenings. Their desert hush. The closeness we didn't need words for. The sunset river's rolling gold. Its flow of reflection has become one confluent souvenir of our passage, traced on the changing faces of water. In any lifetime much that we hope for never happens, but thinking what has, I think of that.
Unlike the spiny truculence of desert flora, low-growing plants in alpine tundra aren't angry, just grateful not to be stone.
Stars looking brand-new and snappy throng the high places of eternity. Two particular stars - or planets? - flare so brightly my eyes have to look aside. Constellations crisp and clear, as if I were among them. Which, of course, we all are.
And good boots build character. To don a pair is to aspire. Take me, for example. Out of hiking boots, I'm an eroded and ink-stained wretch, but in them stand taller, a man for all weathers: lion hearted, expectant, transformed.
Just as raw sun, unsoftened, would quickly turn us to crispy critters, daily we subdue daunting realities through the self-censorship called denial, without which Homo sapiens would become an astronaut left naked on Mercury or Neptune to sizzle, choke, or be fast-frozen. So the Church was more right than it knew. Actualities too true to be good are thus relegated to our personal Index of Prohibited Thoughts, lest they suck us into black holes. The healthy mind needs an immune system vital enough to deny what it knows while, paradoxically, retaining that knowledge. Otherwise dwelling overlong on what's implied by all that sidereal fire could beget dark thoughts we might not survive.
Although I've given it the best years of my life, the cosmos and I aren't exactly a long-term relationship.
A naked universe wears no diadem, keeps no promises. It makes none. Some persons, therefore wryly mention the "cosmic joke" as if they'd been invited to a social affair whose host never showed up. When they then conclude that if the universe isn't about us it isn't about anything, their hurt pride is also comprehensible.
As for me, moving to and fro inside an infinite mystery feels worlds more intriguing that life within the confines of some well-meant but historically fixed explanation.
An ancient Greek named Proclus
said that to contemplate the universe makes it worth having been born. I agree
- though not every day. Not at all hours. For me, the cosmos is now as it always
was .. the one true story. About what? About only itself. Thus, about nothing
we'll ever know, and told past all imaging.