Saturday, July 26, 2008


Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

-Mary Oliver

I got back to the condo mid-afternoon and took the dog for a walk. Sultry and limp and damp, only the usual rag tag band of wildlife was braving the heat: the mourning dove cooing and hooing its misery in the far trees, the forest shrieking with cicadas, a horrid and surely errant slug sliming across the sidewalk, a muddy turtle in the road, and two frogs twanging for all the world like banjos in the mud of the sometimes-marsh.

Nighttime I went out again, still hot, the only sound distant fireworks. Nine o'clock and the light was hanging on—sky not black but a deep, shuttered blue. No stars yet but looking for them I caught movement and so caught the bats. I watched, head thrown back, neck swiveling to follow the flight, fast and chaotic—rags of brown velvet hurtling and tumbling through twilight, lapping up insects, crying into the night. Dizzy, I followed the oddly exotic scent of petunias home, Tessa herding a tiny toad around the breezeway.

I make a list of creatures in my immediate world: doves, blue jays, red shouldered hawks, ospreys, blue-tailed skinks, slugs, bats, tiny toads, spiders, box turtles, blue herons, beavers, woodpeckers, various and sundry butterflies, moths, and scuttling beetles.

Sunday morning I walk Tessa in the woods behind the high school. It's months since we've done this, too long since she (or I) has had a good run in the trees. I know we are first on the trail because I'm the one catching all the dawn spiderwebs. Mostly these are fragile, cobwebby affairs but I walk face-first into an orb spider's net that pastes its tough, sticky self across my face and hair. The web crackles as I pull it off me, and I wait for the feeling of spider legs scrambling down my neck or along my arm. As I untangle, I hear the sharp wail of a hawk in the tree above me and watch as he flies, startled, down to the creek, startling in turn two great blue herons who fumble their way upstream. I feel badly about destroying the web—its only sustenance we're all after this early morning—fish for the herons, mice for the hawk, bugs for the spider, a taste of wildness for Tessa, distance and solitude for me.

The creek is lovely, all blue ripples and green reeds and water plants. A woodpecker blunders through the branches then continues his loud breakfast excavations. A beaver makes a great splash in the shallows and a striking black and yellow box turtle scoots to one side to let my running dog pass by. Tiny pure white mushrooms looking dipped in confectioner's sugar cling to the clay banks. Here there is nothing, and here there is everything. Nothing of the burdens and laments and chores and people of everyday life, and everything of the miraculous we so rarely notice. That astonishing life rumbles on, regardless—the importance of finding food, of surviving flood and heat, of flying and eating and singing and weaving. To dive into it—to allow the dog and I each the freedom from our daily restrictions—seems imperative. I remember a few years ago I was working on a book and found, surprisingly, I required miles of long walking to allow my ordinary thoughts to subside and my writing thoughts, sometimes as fragile as morning cobwebs, to show up.

Perhaps, I tell myself, I need to begin again—to walk, often, in the hot and empty woods, to walk into this wild life, to let it paste itself across my face and insinuate itself into my heart and soul. Perhaps this is what, in the end, sustains us.

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