December 16, 2012

North Cairn: Rays of light, phragmites, then bliss

An exquisite moment of peace struck me at an odd hour, in a strange place, overrun with invasives.

I was embarked on a routine household task, retrieving laundry from the basement and climbing back up the steep bulk-head stairs, preoccupied mostly with the effort of not pitching backward down into the cellar. My head and shoulders, and then, of course, my line of sight had just cleared the top step of the underground, when in the dark, I saw the phalanx of phragmites standing with their plumes high and feathery, like regalia, for battle.

But the almost-night was completely still and quiet, and they seemed momentarily out of place, so impenetrable, so warrior, without the wind ruffling them or the sun draping them in the diamonds of dew. As one, a form in the dark, they seemed to be watching me, taking notice of no threat and presenting none, just tracking me -- one more creature of the countryside.

It was so arresting, the sight of them in the dusk gone almost to dark, their ivory-colored plumes the smallest light left in the afternoon, that I was stopped in my uncertain tracks up the stairs. I literally dropped the laundry basket into the yard and clambered up the last few concrete steps, out of the dark beneath the earth into the dark above the earth.

I stood there, suddenly aware that if I could achieve some out-of-body awareness, so that I could observe myself at that exact moment, I would have thought I was holding still in fright, as a cottontail might, or a chipmunk, sensing the predatory presence of a hawk.

But I was interrupted absolutely, if only for a few seconds, by marvel, and awe, and wonder. What I was taking in by absorbing the slight, indistinct forms, what suddenly seemed so stark and precise, was one of those rare split-second realizations that the world -- though not generally considered anything approaching perfect -- was just right, just for an instant.

What is it, I wondered, about the play of the least light or the proud reach of a reed as it stretches without effort toward the sky or patiently endures the dark and awaits the return of the dawn -- what is it about these little glimpses into the order of things that have nothing to do with our authority that is so mesmerizing, so numinous, so brimming with reverence and delight?

Of course, part of it is that a rarefied experience of nature -- and we as part of it, not above it -- is humbling. It makes us feel small, and that seems the suitable size for humans in the context of and comparison with the magnitude of the natural world and the majesty of its commonplace wonders.

But it is something more, too, that has to do with the interruption of time as humans calculate it. By my watch, at that moment, I think, it was somewhere around 5:30 or 6. It was the end of the workday, the start of the dinner hour, the beginning of winding down for bed during the days of the year when darkness comes so early and clings to the earth like a fog at dawn.

But by the timepiece of the natural world, rest for the daylight world had come hours before, when the dusk first began to settle. Simultaneously, it was the hour of awakening for all the nocturnal creatures that soon would be abroad in the landscape -- coyotes, raccoons, opossums and the like -- and busy in the walls and cellars -- the field mice, a muskrat digging at the foundation, maybe even a tenacious squirrel, hanging onto the day's work in hopes of clearing a path into the attic or the eaves.

Whole worlds were going on around me, and the phragmites, suddenly, with their beauty reminded me that this is always so. Within a month or two, the great horned owls would be back to their customary haunts, hooting their mating calls, low and mournful in the night, as though nothing cold could be lonelier than the chance for a mate not yet won, a work in progress reiterating in the dead of night.

I know for a fact there is a coyote hovering in the brush, sometimes even making a cut-through in the wetlands out back where the reeds and sedge prevail, on its way to the tidal marsh. I hear him sometimes -- or her, perhaps -- uncertain only because I haven't yet gotten close enough in daylight to know for sure.

For now, I have to settle for the unsettling, the sound of something big and heavy pouncing in the yew, the dried hydrangeas and the drooped azaleas, a stranger moving quickly on. The animal is like a specter, so quick, so agile, so large -- some presence the mind might be quicker to yield up as death or devil.

But I recognize something better in the brush: difference, an other, a co-dweller in this space of earth and time.

When I am out in the evening now, tending to clothes left through the night dew on the back clothesline, or lugging the heavy doors of the bulkhead closed like a sarcophagus, I stop to listen to the night, to breathe in the darkness, to sense the decline that the end of every day foreshadows. I no longer think of death as separate from life, or that this earth is my property or the landholdings of my kind. There are worlds upon worlds of inhabitants here, from the meek sowbug or slimy snail, to the elegant egret preening in the marsh, to the incomprehensible whales with their gigantic brains navigating the seas from pole to pole.

I have given up on knowing where it all goes or how it all begins and ends. I am hardly a cog, barely a bud. It is enough that I am partial, and in that, whole.

Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com

 

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