31 August 2010

Letting My 'Inner Mowgli' Out For Some Fresh Air

If I could create an ideal world for myself, like I was asked to in a writing group recently, I would be the female equivalent of Mowgli, Rudyard Kipling’s much-loved jungle boy, raised by wolves, friend of most, if not all, animals in The Jungle Book.  I sometimes wish I had been raised by panthers, bears, wolves—my very own Bagheera, Baloo and Akela.

In this world, I'm often tortured by my inability to say the "right" thing and my propensity to blurt out the wrong one. Some acquaintances, reading this post, may say to themselves, Ah yes! That explains it!  But maybe I'm a misfit in this world because there's another one I really belonged to once. Indeed, the places in my childhood where nature and I touched constitute my most clear and vivid memories. My earliest memory, at age 3, is peering into a robin’s nest at a freshly laid, vibrantly turquoise egg. Now, turquoise is the color of my studio walls.

I also remember a thicket...

It separated our yard from a neighbor’s. My mother (yes, I had one, an actual human) called it a gully and tried in vain to keep me out. When she wasn’t looking I wriggled up and down a scrubby apple tree whose fruit was so green and sour it gave me a bellyache every time I ate it, which I did often, on principle. Or, in the deeper part of the thicket, I followed narrow trails mother nature left for me, round and around, in a spiral. I sat cross-legged on the dirt at the center, smashed berries mom said were poisonous into a pretend stew with a stick. I told myself stories. I imagined myself as characters I invented. I became a writer.

Much of this took place in upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes region—lands the Iroquois settled before the Europeans, a far cry from New York City downstate. Seneca, Keuka, Canandaigua, Cayuga were the lakes close by, but I also remember Chatauqua and Otsego, and hearing and seeing Iroquois names everywhere. The lakes spread across the state's middle like slender, outstretched fingers on a pair of open hands. The water was clear, and rounded pebbles carpeted lake floors. I remember steep and rocky cliffs, gorges and waterfalls. Along one cascading stream I found a geode, its homely exterior belying a blaze inside: quartz crystal shards in shades of white and orange. I carried it with me to every place we lived after until we landed in flat, seemingly indistinct Indiana. The Finger Lakes were, to me, like what the Iroquois thought: God’s hands, in this case, rested upon my young life.

Back home again in…where?

Ultimately, it was the geology of New York state I missed more than friends or schools or neighbors when we moved. I often imagine how I might have grown up differently—better—if we'd stayed there. Odd that we ended up in a place named for Native Americans, in Indiana, a place I haven't always appreciated. But Indiana is where I found the man I'll always love. It's the place I came eye-to-eye with a fox in my garden—something he AND I will never forget! It's a place where I've watched saplings grow into shade trees in a yard of my own. And everyday I go on living here, Indiana surprises me. 

A few weeks ago, following one of the covered bridge trails in Parke County, something I saw took my breath away. Our car turned a bend and surprised a white-tailed deer—a doe—eating in a field of tall corn. Only her head was visible, dipping up and down, nibbling on the stalks' tender ears. As we slowed and steered to the shoulder, we saw two smaller heads—noses and ears to be exact. The threesome reminded me of musical notes, their bobbing heads a melody dancing across a page. A page of Indiana: What could be more "right" than a rolling field of corn?

The doe’s velvet ears stiffened at our presence, and before we came to a stop, before I could get my camera out—before I could say, Hey! Wait for me!—she bounded across the road and into a woods. She stood stock still and back far enough so that the forest hid all but her legs. She'd succeeded in calling our attention away from her babies. First one fawn emerged from the corn and crossed clumsily into the darkness, and then another, both still in their spots. My only photo is a blur of the last spotted brown rump being swallowed by the dim, silent forest.

What is silence anyway, and what good is it?

How hard it is in the world we inhabit to find a truly silent place! For even when you’re able to turn down the volume of civilization, something is always making itself heard. For me, silence steps forward when road noise fades—no singing tires, no squealing brakes, no revving engines. When I get there—if I get there—I inventory the multitude of other sounds that heretofore were hidden by everyday life. I hear water sloshing, birdsong, gurgles in the woods I surmise are made by a wild turkey, but I really can’t say because I see nothing in the stillness. If I lived in such a place—had been reared there—I would know the name of every one of those sounds—at least its “forest" name, and knowing would make it truer somehow. Or so I imagine.

How would it change the world, for instance, if we could hear the the prayer of the mouse as the hawk swallows it down? Or the missive of the fish, as it's scooped up by a bear? If only we could give ourselves over to that way of thinking about life, about death! If only I could...

At the least, I want nature to help me understand the hurts I see people inflict on one another, the hurts others do to me, the hurts I cause. But, all in all, spending time in the quiet of a deeper wilderness than my day-to-day one makes me care less about the world of people. How much better a use of my attention to watch a heron make the rounds of coves at Raccoon Lake, wade out into the shallows on straw-like legs, fish for his supper with his beak in the late afternoon breezes, after the skiers and their boats have gone home. Or to count the birds of prey (hawks? eagles? turkey vultures?) overhead—12, no 15!—buoyed on air currents exhaled by the interplay of water and sun. 

My favorite experience of nature, if I must choose just one, is wind. By itself it has no sound and can’t be seen. It depends on impedance—branches swayed, leaves rattled, water lapped against another resistance, the shore—to make its music and its paintings. Resistance is what gives the wind its character. And I know then I’ve come full circle. Resistance—impedance—also defines character in my messy, imperfect day-to-day life. Not only standing against something, but standing with it, bending, being bowled over or merely rattled or untouched.

I doubt I could last a night in a true wilderness, but I can glimpse one sometimes and let it fill me up. We all have an inner Mowgli, and we all need to let it out to breathe in. To breathe in silence and song and an idea of who we were before we "grew up." I'm told (but don't quote me on this) it helps the disposition. Leastways, it does wonders for mine.