Two ways at once

Last week my friend L. & I spent some time in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest – our third visit in less than a year.

We take our umbrellas walking, slower & slower.

I hear springs gurgling under the rocks. Small, dark pools appear among the rhododendrons. In one, a red maple leaf floats, already orange with autumn; the surface of another is covered with hemlock needles – tiny green rafts going nowhere.

We overtake a snail traveling in the same direction, gliding along under its spiral backpack.

Rain rarely reaches us unmediated by trees. The sun can come out long before rain has finished dripping from the leaves. As slowly as I walk, my glasses still fog up every time I stop.

The already wet trail grows wetter. One rock hisses under my boot.

We stop for lunch – instant ramen – and a spot of tea. I set my tin cup in the creek to cool, keeping watch to make sure the rhododendrons don’t drop a blossom in it.

With thunder rumbling in the distance, we dangle bare feet in the water. I watch a pair of crayfish battling a few feet away. The loser scuttles over & gives my ankle several exploratory taps.

I watch water flowing around a large rock, its translucent body a net of shadows as it folds back against itself. After ten minutes or so, I think I might understand something fundamental about water, its impetus to condense, to fall, to plumb the depths. But then I glance just a few feet to the left & am completely flummoxed by a large drift of foam. I had forgotten about tannins. The water is never just one thing, I think.

The storm breaks. Tree trunks become rivers flowing in two directions at once, outside & in.

On the way back, I stop to eye a large hemlock with limbs like reverse mouths for the sun. The tree reveals itself as a condensation of need, or needs. (Who knows if all aspirations can be reduced to a single breath?) Things turn inside out before my astonished gaze. With each footstep, I realize, we are helping to hold down an insurgent earth.

What I am calling need might be a kind of thirst or hunger, but it seems risky to try & grasp it through analogy with human desires, which are so wrapped up in surfaces. The non-human world seems much more rooted & constrained by custom. And what these others lose in flexibility they gain in the directness of their access to what we call the divine. For them, there is no gap whatsoever between spirit & matter.

A torrent of thoughts under my umbrella: Every element of Creation seeks redemption from its uncreatedness, its just-so-ness; death & decomposition represent only a temporary setback. Life is continual recomposition.

The life force, for lack of a better term, consists not merely of need but the energetic field surrounding it, which helps forge connections between beings. To feel those connections deeply is intoxicating – or, more accurately, leads to something like a contact high.

Spirituality is almost beside the point, considering that the body is already a temple and the digestive system is the most perfect altar imaginable. From the belly’s faithful service we can learn the art of letting go, a kind of sympathetic magic aimed at getting other things to let go of us. However hungry it may be, the panther knows better than to try & sever the jugular of a mountain stream.

Done scribbling, I glance up from my pocket notebook. An open space under the hemlocks is illuminated by a single, fist-sized clump of rhododendron blossoms. “What are you writing?” L. asks. “Oh, silly stuff,” I answer truthfully.

A half-mile farther, another open grove shimmers with the endlessly supple song of a winter wren. A second thunderstorm rumbles in the distance. The sky grows dark.

An hour later, we’re back at camp. I’ve carried my folding camp chair over to a house of boulders, where I sit admiring the arrangement of space & the spill of light where it opens to the sky. The boulders are green with moss, & each is capped with a dozen or more large, leathery ears of rock tripe. The resident hermit thrush draws near, playing his crystal flute. For several long moments I feel confirmed in whatever it is I’ve been trying all afternoon to intuit. Then a fly buzzes through without even slowing down – zoom. It is the most thorough & devastating refutation I can imagine.

And if you think the world is recalcitrant now, I say to myself, wait until you’re in your 80s.

I go looking for my hiking partner & find her sitting under another rock shelter, spying on the forest road below. I return to camp & start on supper. Later, she tells me that when a pickup truck finally did drive by, she couldn’t look.

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