Seeking sweet refuge in the earth’s mystery and beauty
I have felt the comfort and reassurance of wet, wild places—the steady surge and flow of the sea on sand, water slipping over stones. There is meaning in the natural rhythms of dying and living, winter and spring, bones and leaves. Even in times of bewilderment or despair, there is the steadfast ground underfoot—pine duff, baked clay, stone turned red in the rain. I am trying to understand this, the power of water, air, earth, and time to bring gladness gradually from grief and to restore meaning to lives that seem empty or unmoored.
One autumn, my life became an experiment in sadness. A friend drowned. Another died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. My father-in-law faded away like steam from stones. Then another friend was killed in a head-on collision.
I don’t know what despair is, if it’s something or nothing, a kind of ﬁlling up or an emptying out. I don’t know what sorrow does to the world, what it adds or takes away. What I think I do know now is that sorrow is part of the earth’s great cycles, flowing into the night like cool air sinking down a river course.
To feel sorrow is to float on the pulse of the earth, the surge from living to dying, from coming into being to ceasing to exist. Maybe this is why the earth has the power over time to wash sorrow into a deeper pool, cold and shadowed. And maybe this is why, even though sorrow never disappears, it can make a deeper connection to the currents of life and so connect, somehow, to sources of wonder and solace. I don’t know.
And I don’t know what gladness is or where it comes from, this splitting open of the self. It takes me by surprise. Not an awareness of beauty and mystery, but beauty and mystery themselves, flooding into a mind suddenly without boundaries. Can this be gladness, to be lifted by that flood?
The snakes have spent the winter underground, thick and torpid in dark cracks between the rocks along the railroad. They tangle together down there, sealed in by a glaze of ice. In March, Frank and I checked all the snake tins on our land, thinking that a warm week might have tricked the snakes into coming up early. Snake tins are door-size scraps of corrugated metal rooﬁng that we’ve scattered along the fencerows. Snakes shelter there in the spring, warmed by heat collected in the metal folds. On a good snake morning, lifting a snake tin can be like opening a door to the underworld and peering into its dark, bare-earth tunnels, its flickering red tongues.
That early in the season, all we found were mice and voles in nests woven with dried grass. A large vole shot out of a nest and ran in tight circles, dropping blind babies from her teats like ripe plums. Under another tin, we found the skeleton of a mouse, its neck craning awkwardly and its eye sockets watching the sky, a mouse fearful to its very bones.
But now in April the snakes are back. They must have emerged while we were away, flowing across rocks with a sound like children whispering, and gliding under alders to the tins where new mice are being born. The rubber boas always show up ﬁrst, about the time when vultures return from Mexico and skunk cabbages poke through mud in the swale. When Indian plums bloom and varied thrushes begin to call, we start ﬁnding garter snakes. Gopher snakes emerge from the ground when the ﬁeld strawberries bloom.
It’s not just snakes that are emerging this Oregon morning. Steam rises from the creek. Blackberry shoots thrust through the soil. Barn swallows arc into warm air above the railroad, chasing midges. Rain that fell like dead weight all winter long deﬁes gravity in the spring. Mist floats over the river and drifts away east. Even my own spirits are lifting, as if heavy snow has melted off my shoulders and I am light again. I would not be surprised to see Persephone herself crawl on her elbows from under a mat of dead grass, dirt in her hair and snakes in her hands.
On our land, farmers long ago cleared away the fallen trees and sheets of bark that might have sheltered snakes. Hard luck for the snakes, because skunks hunt the fencerows and red-tailed hawks patrol the ﬁelds. So we put tins out 10 years ago, scrounging metal rooﬁng from junkyards. This was our children’s Father’s Day present to Frank, to carry floppy sheets of metal on their heads across the ﬁelds, drop them into sunny places that looked vaguely snaky, traipse back for another, all day long. Then we waited impatiently for the earth under the tins to ripen. Under a good, ripe snake tin, the dirt is rich and lumpy and crawling with food. There are slugs and earthworms, grubs, fat juicy ant eggs, nests of newborn mice sometimes, and black beetles—a dark, slippery, shining, damp abundance. Voles dig a network of tunnels and are eaten for their trouble.
I check the snake tins in the morning, before the snakes leave for the hunt. The ﬁrst tin is empty except for a centipede. But when I lift the next one, I’m startled by a huge coiled gopher snake. Dusty and mottled as dirt, the gopher snake lifts its tail and opens its mouth in a good-enough imitation of a rattlesnake. They’ll bite if they have a chance, and even though they’re not poisonous, who wants dirty fangs clamped on her thumb?
I cross the ﬁeld to the next tin. By now robins are calling their morning songs and sunlight comes in sideways. This is usually a good tin, under the oaks at the edge of the ﬁeld. I’m not disappointed. Here are a garter snake and three little boas in a pile. I don’t bother the garter snake. It will try to bite, but that’s not the worst of it. Pick up a garter snake and it will force its way through the cracks between your ﬁngers; your ﬁngers are not strong enough to resist that push. You will ﬁnd yourself pouring a snake from one hand into the other and back again. Once you put the snake down, you will discover that your hands are marked by brown snake-stain with a smell you can’t wash off—like skunk, but not so lemony. More like dog manure.
But the rubber boas! Soon I am cradling a boa in cupped hands. The temptation to caress a rubber boa is almost overwhelming—its skin is so clean, its darting tongue just a tickle, its little lips pitted with warmth sensors, its eyes like flakes of gold no bigger than the head of a pin. Even the females, the biggest ones, are barely two feet long—brown on top, yellow on their bellies, and uniformly thick for their entire length, so they look like gingerbread dough pushed out the big hole of a cookie press into long, looping piles. Their tongues are red and forked. When a tongue flicks out, it gathers molecules from the air. When it flicks in, each tine of the fork sticks into its own little pit on the top of the snake’s mouth, and the essence of the air surges straight into its little brain—not tasting, not smelling, but in another way directly knowing the acid of adult eagerness or the sweet milky warmth of the morning.
You can scoop a boa into your hands and it will sit there in a pile, until your blood warms its muscles and it uncoils almost imperceptibly and winds itself smoothly around your wrist. Sometimes the prehensile tail will grope over your hand and grip one ﬁnger, like small children do. Then you can sit with your back to the spring sun and cradle a snake in your hands and rejoice quietly, and the snake will settle into the warmth and stillness.
Scientists surmise that a snake, like a mouse, has more than 400 genes for receptors in its vomeronasal system, this sensory system that somehow reads the air. The genes encode the receptors, the chemical streambed that carries the dark world into a snake’s centers of fear, lust, hunger, thirst, and satisfaction. The human genome has multiple receptor genes too, probably 139. But all but 2 of them are broken and degenerate. I can hardly bear to think of this loss: 137 ways to drink in the world are lost to us, crumpled in our exalted minds.
Humans still have rudimentary sensing organs tucked into their brains, Jacobson’s organ. But they are withered and useless, the remains of the vomeronasal system that still sends messages from the snake’s tongue to its brain—withered and useless, like the two rudimentary leg bones tucked under a boa’s skin, left over from the time its ancestors scuttled like lizards. Now humans can no more sense the full meaning of the air than snakes can walk. If I were to sit in damp grass in the dark, I could only listen, mourn this terrible loss, and breathe deeply of what is left to me of the world.
One night, Queen Hecuba left her daughter Cassandra alone in the temple. The small girl, her skin golden in moonlight, lay still among the glossy snakes, listening as only a child can listen, and learned the great truths that the snakes had brought up from the underworld. What, I want to know, did they tell her?
Maybe this: that there was a time when humans could breathe love and danger, when we could breathe the shape of strawberries and the presence of children, when we could breathe lions and sweet tubers, when the whole effervescent world poured into our consciousness like music. If the snakes’ story is of this loss, I’m not surprised that Cassandra stood by the city gates and tore her hair and howled.
Or maybe the snakes taught Cassandra the importance of backward-pointing teeth, to keep dying mice from crawling out of her throat. Or maybe they taught her the secrets of constriction: Hold on tight. Swallow everything whole. Or, do not be surprised when your skin itches and you want to be shed of it—maybe this. Snakes, licking a child’s ears clean and closing her eyes. Snakes, with their soft flanks, smoothing the hair off her forehead. Whispering. Listen: You cannot make your own warmth. You must go to warmth, you must accept it. The ﬁres long ago went out in Hades. The underworld is damp and cold. Whispering. Hide your head under the coils of your body and stick out your tail; better to have your tail bitten off than your head. Whispering. You once were as wise as a snake. You have forgotten so much more than you know.
But the cells hold their memories.
Do not be surprised that the return of the light lifts your spirits. Do not be surprised that warmth on your back calms you and makes you glad. Feel your spirits lift as the sun rises higher in the sky: This is part of you, this snaky gladness, part of who you have been for a million years. Find the warm places; do not expect them to come to you. When you ﬁnd them, stay there and be still. Be still and watchful. In this quiet, taste the air. Lick up the taste of it. Listen. Listen with the full length of your body against the ground.
In the afternoon, Frank and I ﬁshed for halibut. With two small ﬁsh in the boat, we were headed back to the cabin. Frank had just brought the skiff around the point and opened it to full throttle, so we were moving fast when I shouted to him.
“There’s something wrong with that water.”
He slowed down to see what I was pointing at. Only 50 feet ahead, a large ring disturbed the water. Inside the ring, the water was rising into a dome.
“Stop! That water’s not right.”
Inside the circle, herring started jumping for their lives. Then straight up through the dome rose humpback whales, enormous and powerful, like a space shuttle launch, like a school bus launch, seven or eight, I don’t know how many, my god, the pressure wave! Their huge mouths gaped open. Water flooded off their flanks.
“Back up!” and Frank found the gear.
The whales toppled and fell.
Beaten by the roiled water, we ground backward as fast as the boat would go. I heard a sound that I had never heard before—a roar like trumpeting elephants. Then the whales were back, diving and dodging in a confusion of black backs and white water, as they crashed after the broken and fleeing ﬁsh. Gulls shrieked down to snatch wounded herring that the whales left behind.
Has a Buddhist monk ever seen this? The giant rising up of what had been hidden?
We are camped on the empty beach of a desert island in the Sea of Cortez. It’s just ﬁve of us—Frank and me, our daughter Erin, and two friends. We have a cache of canned food piled in a sea cave in a sandstone cliff. Salsa casera, refried beans, canned peaches. Our rice and tortillas are in a cooler, which, entirely lacking in ice, is simply a way to keep ring-tailed cats out of the food. The tequila is wrapped in a jacket and stowed in the hatch of the most stable kayak, safe from all hazards—rolling stones, sun, stray lizards, pirates. We have The Log from the Sea of Cortez, Steinbeck; Ed Abbey’s Desert Solitaire; and a photocopy reduction of Rachel Carson’s book The Sense of Wonder. Plastic carboys of water, a porta-potty—we will survive until the panga that delivered us picks us up again in a week.
The sun set suddenly not long ago. First it was there, slumped on the water like an egg yolk, peppered by frigate birds settling onto Isla Pelícano for the night. Then the sun was gone as suddenly as if it had exploded, spraying yellow streamers into a wild lavender sky. The color faded, and then it was night.
Utterly night, dark and shining. There is no glow from a distant city, not an anchor light or a running light on a passing skiff, not a moon. Just black, black night, stars beyond counting, and the lustrous cell membrane of the sea. Like night-roosting gulls, we settle shoulder to shoulder on the high-tide rim of the long sweep of beach. The surge slides silently, invisibly up to our feet, sighs away. We can hear thuds from distant bat rays. The rays fling themselves into the air, hang there like panicked picnic tables, and thunk back into the water. There is no seeing this tonight, but we know that heavy sound.
We sit in the dark and listen. The breeze is cool, the water is warm, the tequila sharp on our throats. We lift our heads like deer, turn them like owls. Nighttime creatures we have become, moist-eyed and urgently eared. Finally, Frank says what I have been thinking.
“Does anybody else hear breathing?”
Ah. I have heard this too. Not inhaling, but rhythmically, almost explosively exhaling. Without a word, Frank and I grope for life jackets and launch the kayak.
I’m afraid of a lot of things—the suction of open cliffs and deep water, venomous sea snakes, mouse diseases—but night has always seemed friendly to me. It feels good, out on the water, warm and cool at the same time. We paddle without headlamps, sometimes with our eyes closed, balancing with our bodies, navigating in a rough sort of way by the darker mass of the cliff that forms the cove and the swell that rounds the point. When we have left the bay, we stow our paddles and let the boat float. Dark on dark on dark, the air, the water, the cliffs; darkness not so thick you could cut it with a knife, but hard and shining and glassy. It would take a stone chisel to flake the darkness of this sky.
A swell lifts and drops us. The bow slaps the water. Sparks scatter and drown. The bow sparkles again on the next swell. “Bioluminescent algae,” Frank whispers. “Pyrrophyta, the ﬁre plants.” It’s the ﬁrst either of us has spoken. I nod invisibly, then smack my paddle, raising an angel’s wing of sparks. We have seen this on other beaches, the light from millions of one-celled dinoflagellates. When they are disturbed, a chemical called luciferin and the enzyme luciferase pulse from their separate pockets, mix together with oxygen, and release a blue-white flash.
We are quiet again, wondering, listening, rising and falling on the azure-lightning illumination of the face of a wave and the bending reflections of countless stars.
We hear it then, the breathing, approaching off the starboard bow.
Suddenly, streaks of light splatter toward our boat. They leap from the sea and patter against the swell, thousands of them flying clear of the water. They hit the boat like pebbles, clunking and bouncing off the hull, sparking back into the sea. I duck reflexively and brace my paddle for balance, but the lights strike the paddle blade too. The sea is alive with them, plunging toward our boat. They dive and flash. In the midst of the melee, a large blur of blue light surges toward our bow. Sparks glint to the heavens. Starlight plummets onto the sea, the fallen stars, the Lucifers. Their spread wings blaze one last time, then slide under the dark waves.
The glow veers away, and the sparks fade. Sharp exhalations echo from the port side now, receding into the distance. We are left rocking on the suddenly dark sea. I can feel Frank brace a paddle to balance the boat. Somehow, I have lost my own paddle over the side. Neither of us says a word. What is there to say? I have never seen anything like this, the whole hard world come to astonishing life.
Eventually, I collect myself enough to retrieve my floating paddle and pull it across the boat. Glory.
Frank holds a flashlight over the side and flips the switch. The response is instantaneous. Small ﬁsh leap and carom around, knocking their heads into the boat. He flicks off the light. They vanish.
“I’d say that was a porpoise,” he says, “attacking a school of sardines. When the sardines see a big bulge of bioluminescence coming toward them, I think they know to get out of the way.”
And suddenly it was all the more marvelous. Not just light careening around, scudding through outer space, dropping from stars, splashing from waves, exploding from the streaming protoplasm of cells—but light running for its life. Tiny leaps of light, synapse to synapse, behind the bright eyes of fleeing ﬁsh, the bright flash of fear or the driving light of hunger. What sparks sizzle between what synapses in the microscopic spaces of a mind and in the streaming dark dome of the sky? I don’t know. This is new to me. All I know is that the world has revealed itself as more wonderful than I had ever imagined.
When I was young, I waded every Sunday in Rocky River, a stream that flows through a beech-maple woods under the western approach to the Cleveland airport. Back then, my father was park naturalist at the Trailside Museum and his job was to lead people along the water, enjoining them to poke with sticks at the green strings of algae, turn stones to ﬁnd caddis fly larvae in pebble cases, sniff at the muskrat mud piles marked with pee. “Shh. Listen,” he would say, and we listened: a towhee scratching, a woodpecker drumming far away.
My mother dredged knee-deep through warm water, through the pea-green smell of the river, and brought back a canvas bucket of water. Then we all pressed around to see what we could see, these mysteries drawn from a place hidden to us: I remember fairy shrimp monstrous and hairy through my mother’s hand lens.
I never understood why my parents, so in love with that river, arranged that when they died, their ashes would be interred in a brick wall in their church. For whatever reason, the preacher had pushed an envelope of their ashes through a mail slot between the bricks, ﬁrst my mother, then, 10 years later, my father. It seemed wrong to me, I told the church secretary at my father’s funeral, that people who had lived so lightly and died with so few regrets, people as thin and joyous as birdsong, would now be bricked inside a chimney.
The secretary thought hard, her cheeks flushing. “There isn’t much room in the wall, you know,” she conﬁded. “So only a pinch of each person goes into the chimney.”
“Where is the rest of my parents?”
She looked hard at me, dropped her eyes.
“Generally, we put extra ashes in the trash cans behind the church. I suppose they go to the landﬁll.”
The stench of cabbage rotting in the rain and the rush of crows’ wings flooded my mind, the flurry of black feathers, and the calls of crows rattling over the mounds of trash. I didn’t know what to think of my mother and father flying so completely away. But they would get a kick out of that, to be taken up into the body of a bird, their calcium crusting against the open spaces in the bones that lift its wings. And if they stayed for a while in the landﬁll, I don’t think they would mind that—just a dogleg in their journey into what my father called “the stream of living things.”
That’s how my father explained death when I was young. Maybe because he was the only biologist in a small town, he ended up with all the dying animals no one knew how to save. My sisters and I would take the shoebox delivered to our door and lift rags to ﬁnd a droop-necked crow fallen out of a tree or a clutch of baby rabbits, their nest run over by a mower. Rabbits, nestling birds, naked possum babies: We tried to save them. We put them in a box of rags over the pilot light of the clothes drier to keep them warm and took turns dripping milk into their grimacing mouths. They died, all of them. We buried them one by one under a big maple by Rocky River.
When you die, my father told us, all the elements of your body wash into the stream of living things. Back then, I pictured Tinkertoy calcium molecules and phosphorus and all the fortiﬁed nutrients in Raisin Bran flakes tumbling down Rocky River, oxygen eddying around submerged rocks, nitrogen pouring over the lip of a rocky ford, all drifting downstream into some other life, an oak tree maybe, or a gosling. “You don’t cross a river to a new place when you die,” he told us. “You become the river.”
Kathleen Dean Moore is an essayist, philosophy professor, activist, parent, and lover of all things green or flowing. Excerpted from the book Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature (Trumpeter, 2010).