Yesterday, wandering at dusk in the brown hills that rise from this condo-sprawl called Palm Springs, California, I spent half an hour with a long-eared owl. I tell you most sincerely that there are few creatures as stirringly strange and spookily awesome and mystically mystical as birds from the order Strigiformes. Very much the griffin of legend, these birds — that is if the griffin of legend upped its weirdness by a factor of, say, eleven.
Dinosaur feet. Shaggy sheep legs. A body of feathers and fur and leaves and twigs and shattered bits of light and shadow. Of course, the face is part human, part cat, part seal, and affixed to a head that twists 360 degrees. If that’s not enough, this vision, this being, this power, my how it launches into the air and glides silently on — no, can’t be possible — on 40 inches of wing!
I hate to make a bold statement (hyperbole, my nemesis) but it feels more and more that every single time I go outdoors I am buckling up for some kind of borderline hallucinatory experience. The natural world just does not fail to provoke in me awe, wonder, vibes of fear, tingles of trepidation, and a kind of meditative drift-state wherein all the senses knit all their sense-data together at once into a kind of synesthetic carpet, a magic rug upon which I sail off to who knows where. Did I tell you about the desert blister beetles I ran into recently, Lytta magister in nasty gooey sexed-up swarms? As Harvey, my old redneck neighbor from childhood would say, Sheeeit. To spend ten minutes with these beetles, damn, you better be buckled, maybe even helmeted.
A week ago, hiking solo in that very same parched, rugged, so-brown labyrinth of hills, that topographic maze flanking the commercial shitstrip of mega churches, payday loan pawnshops, car dealerships, windborne litter, bearded men masticated by a brutal economic system and subsequently regurgitated back onto the street with only junk-filled shopping carts to call home — hiking solo in them thar wacky hills, I couldn’t even put my hand down to touch things, like interesting rock-things or plant-things or stick-things.
The reason I couldn’t touch, say, a strange stick that drew my attention, and that a considerable part of me did badly want to touch, was that my hands, my flesh, my integument, was almost scared to do so. It was like these hands, which are so freakin’ sensitive, would just gather too, too, too much information, too, too, too much vital presence and place-specific truth. My feet were sheltered by leather, soled with rubber. My body needed that mediation. The hands, though, were and are naked, literally naked, naked nonstop.
It’s interesting, don’t you agree? We all recognize that if you show up at work buckass, birthday-suit nude you will feel very awkward, the entire experience intensified, altered. Pause here. Consider. That’s what your hands do every day! They live outside, with nothing to hide behind. Bushwhacking around last week, as mentioned, was very odd indeed: I was nervous to even lay a wee digit on this sweet dry earth.
Granted, there was probably one more thing at play, which is the prickliness and poisonousness of the desert, the possibility of camouflaged snakes and spiders and scorpions and whatnot (the equivalent in the mossy green Vermont of my youth would be putting your hand down on a huge slug or something, maybe a rotting possum, a sodden deer carcass). And that loops back to my initial point regarding the nearly hallucinatory quality of a simple, routine, back-of-the-shitstrip-at-dusk walk: Any moment it can feel like some griffin or mystical face is about to pop out and look at you with huge yellow eyes. It can feel like a stick beneath your hand might not be a stick but the body of a serpent, or a mass of writhing ants, or some small something that has a soul and a voice and will speak across the self-other boundary. It can feel like you might be encountering — the divine?
Once, camping on and with a big Coloradan mountain, heart of the heart of winter, blue moonlight washing over snow, me sitting in that snow, no tent, no plan, just sitting there in the middle of a clear-cold night’s vast crystalline silence, a fox pawed up within five feet, looked me in the eye, hung out, swung its tail, then walked away. I will repeat that: A blue moony fox faced my face, eyed my eye, hung out, came rushing in (the sparking electric current of unadulterated perception!), then walked away.
Reprinted from Camas: The Nature Of The West (Summer 2017), which is a journal of the environmental studies graduate students at University of Montana.
Leath Tonino is the author of a book of essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long, about explorations in Vermont, where he was born and raised.