“A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
We can divide the world and everything in it into two great piles: that which was created or evolved—it doesn’t really matter which at this point—and that which was engineered. The two are threaded together in innumerable ways and cannot be extricated except by the imagination. Yet when we look at the world we see the ‘natural’ and the human constructs. Concrete, oil, broken glass glinting in the sun, heat radiating off the pavement, a guard rail twisted, two parallel prints where tires bit deeply and then abruptly lifted off—elements we glimpse as we churn by at 60 mph. All this happening on the skin of the earth as it suffers our constant abrasions.
I sometimes try to imagine what these forests and low hills of Maryland must have looked like 200, 500, 1,000 years ago. We are not far from one of the oldest ranges of mountains in North America, the Appalachians, worn down through the millenia to a gentle slope, lying patient as a cat in the sun, and dropping roughly northeast to northwest through the Mid-Atlantic states. Even traversing the landscape atop six inches of tarmac, aggregate, sand, and bedrock, one can sense the vast body of the earth, breathing quietly, flexing now and then, the deep silence of its presence there beneath the furious assault of midday traffic.
By some counts we are losing a species every 20 minutes of every day of every year, year in and year out. But how would we know, encased within our tin boxes on wheels, speaker systems thumping with the imprecations of the latest urban prophet of conspicuous consumption? These particles of information arrive quietly through the research of scientists who pick their way through the Amazon, scour the Outback, jounce over dusty trails in the Southwest, and hover over the Great Barrier Reef. Occasionally, the tip of a message surfaces in the media tide pools to the effect that scientists speculate we have, at best, a decade or slightly more, to turn the effects of global warming around. And then the local anchor will chirp brightly, “So, Candy, what kind of weather have you got for us today?” Candy, just back from the ritual hazing of weatherpersons during hurricane season, assures us that tomorrow we’ll be done with all this awful rain and that she’s doing her best to gift us with sunshine. But these days scientists must pitch their findings in six words or less, the bulk of their work submerged under the surface of our collective skittishness.
I used to think that if people could just put their stuff down, stop their twitching and gyrating, and just stand silently in the midst of a forest for a few minutes, they’d be blessed into awe and wonder. But for many Nature is an acquired taste and one that they have little patience to savor. We get our minimum daily adult requirement of ecology from advertising these days, corporations having learned the value of ‘going green’ to increase the net return on investment.
As a teenager, growing up in the foothills above the Napa Valley, I roamed the woods with my friends on the weekends. We came across a simple tragedy one winter Saturday, as we jumped from rock to rock across a foaming creek. A doe had broken a leg as she tried to cross and had apparently drowned in a pool at the base of a cliff. We approached cautiously, thinking she might be alive and not wanting to alarm her. But the body was cold, the eyes blank. We hauled her beyond the rocks to an open space under the dripping trees, and it was then that we discovered she was swollen with pregnancy. We could see the outlines of the fawn in her belly. We decided to open her up. With a hunting knife we carefully slit her from sternum to hindquarters, and there it was: a tiny fawn, perfectly preserved, hooves white and soft like almonds, its long lashes plastered wetly, its fur dappled with patches of white. We gazed at it in silence, feeling perhaps, amidst the thunder of the creek waters and the fog between the trees, that mysteries were there for the seeing.
There was little sentimentality about it; we buried the doe in a shallow grave and covered the spot with branches. We carried the fawn through the woods, clambered up the cliffs above the creek, and eventually found our way to our high school biology teacher’s house. He came out at our knock and listened patiently as we excitedly told him the story. Then together we found a box, placed the stiff little body in it, and dug a grave in his backyard. The man never blinked. I think he felt that what we’d learned that afternoon was deeper than anything he could have said in the classroom.
When I look back on it now two things stand out on reflection. One is the utter physicality of the moment: the weight and denseness of the doe’s body, the graceful arch of the fawn’s neck, those tiny hooves not yet hardened and black. There was the story of a life on our sweet, old Earth, a moment’s wavering on a slippery rock, a crack of pain and a brief struggle alone in the forest. The fragility of our existence, any existence, magnified through the lens of adolescent wonder. And the other thing, as fresh now as it was then, is the steady realization that this other world, the one that pulses just out of sight, is our true home.