“…the silence of the forest is my bride & the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love & out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in the beds all over the world.”
Thomas Merton (1997), Dancing in the Water of Life (journals)
Among the earliest memories imprinted in my mind: Sitting alone in the sands of the Indiana Dunes when I was three, maybe four years old. Listening.
The late afternoon sun was cascading diagonally down through the canopies of oaks & cottonwoods above me. A squabble of Blue Jays appeared to be my only companions for well over an hour. I became mesmerized by their presences.
I sat in my corduroy overalls, my bare feet slightly buried in the sand to ground me, my ears wide open to catch the sounds all around me, & that is how I heard the Jays converse.
While the sun slowly set, I sat in rapture as they sang to me about the intimate workings of the wilderness world that could be found both around & within us.
Suddenly, another voice broke my trance. It was my mother’s voice, beckoning me to get up & come into the house:
“G.P.! Jeepee! Jeepers Creepers, get on in here, its dinner time.”
I could barely follow her command, for I was still lost in another conversation.
“Jeepers Creepers! Quit your day-dreaming! Get off your little butt & come in here before it’s too dark for you to do anymore daydreaming!”
I was being jolted out of my reverie & I was not yet ready to leave it behind:
“Shhhhhhhh! Mama, the Jays are still talking to me!”
“Look here, you little rascal. It’s your Mama talking to you, not some Blue Jays. Now get on in here right now before I give you a spanking!”
I moaned. “Mama, didn’t you just hear her? She really didn’t like that you said that!”
“Do you want dinner or a spanking? Those are your only two choices, Buster. Quit this nonsense & get into the kitchen!”
I was suddenly so grief-stricken by the pressure to choose between the human household & the wild kind that I could not keep from crying.
“Mama, don’t you ever say that again, or the Jays will come after you!”
I ran inside the house & hit under the bed, refusing to eat or to talk to anyone. Heart broken, my rapture dissolved into despair & divided consciousness. Perhaps that is how we fall from the garden, fall out of love & fall into a darkening cloud of doubt and abstractions.
Suddenly, our birth right of being intimate & in love with the world is challenged, & it takes both times & other kinds of love to recapture that rapture.
“Amidst this deepening sense of displacement & homelessness, we are witnessing a newfound urgency to discover language & practices that can help us situate ourselves more carefully & thoughtfully in the world, to help recover the art of what some have called “place-making,” the imaginative beholding, inhabiting & cherishing the particular places where we live.”
Douglas E. Christie (2013) The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology
Of course, love & intimacy eventually come around again. I believe I was five when a little girl from Pittsburgh walked into my life. Her father rented a house in the Indian Dunes for just the summer. I have no idea how we found one another & I can’t even remember her name. No matter. Words were not much of a deal between us. We spent most of our time together holding hands, walking in the oak woodlands that held the sand in place on the oldest, tallest dunes.
In retrospect, I can’t remember any time that we spent inside together. After I had served my sentence in kindergarten, my mother felt sympathy for me. She helped me take off my ill-fitting shoes, threw them away & told me to go play. I found this new friend down the street & neither her mother nor mine worried at all if we trekked into the nearest woods for an hour or two each morning.
In the glare of a hot summer morning, we would crawl barefooted & barehanded up the steep slope of a big dune. When we got to the top of it, we would disappear into the cool, dark shade of the forest & follow deer trails across a dunescape the size of football stadium. Because I had already explored the trails with my older brother, I became the native guide, escorting her to see & smell the hidden wonders of the wilderness.
I can only recall one or the other of us pointing to things, then feeling their textures, smelling their fragrances or tasting their flavors. We picked flowers & drank their honey-like nectar. We smelled the sap on the trunks of jack pines. We dipped our fingers into the tannin-rich water pooling in a rotting oak trunk, then sucked on our own fingers to discern whether it tasted like root beer, as the roots of sassafras did. We ate little raisin-like morsels found under bushes, which I later learned were rabbit droppings from my horrified aunt Jeannie.
Near the end of the summer, on what would become our last time in the forest together, we both squeezed into the lightning-struck hollow of an old sycamore. I was so close to her, I heard her heart beating. Her right hand, still held in mine, seemed to be hot to the touch, as if she had just warmed it in front of a campfire where we had come together to roast marshmallows. I could not be sure whether I was smelling her essence or that of the musky fungi growing out of the wounded heart wood.
I cannot remember her name, but I am still in love with that fragrance.
We squeezed back out of the tree & walked back into the bright light of the day.
When we arrived back at my family’s house, I noticed that there was a garter snake resting half-way up the flagstone stairway that reached to the top of the dune right at our front door. We did not dare to cross it, so we came up to our house from the back yard, where, just two years before, I had heard the Jays converse.
We each stood on a concrete block wall on opposite sides of the stairs, looking down at the snake curled up in the shade, saying nothing. We did not know snakes to be dangerous or certainly not phallic, let alone evil. Its deep greens and yellows were simply beautiful. Who would not be placed in awe by the mere sight of such a creature?
Then it suddenly uncoiled, and slithered up the stairs between us. It startled me & I lost my footing, falling toward the snake itself.
My head hit a flagstone stair just above my right eye.
I remember getting up and running toward the house.
I never made it on my own, passing out before I reached the front door.
Later on, I learned that the little girl ran into the house to tell my mother that I was bleeding. In the confusion, she thought that I had hurt the snake or the snake had hurt me. She started to cry.
My mother grabbed the car keys, ran out the door, picked me up & carried me to the car. She went back up the stairway & took the crying girl by the hand & placed her next to me in the front seat. She drove our ‘57 Chevy sedan down to a house on the next block & honked the horn to attract the attention of the little girl’s mother. When the women came to the car, my mother quickly explained why the girl was crying & said that she needed to rush me to a doctor’s office two miles away.
The next day when I awakened, my right eye was swollen shut. My face was black & blue. The girl was gone, the snake was gone, the summer was gone.
It was time to go back to school, for the first grade, but I was too ashamed to go until I could see out of my right eye.
I did not recognize myself. I had lost my first love. To make matter worse, I had to get used to wearing shoes. For several more months, I could no longer feel the warmth of the dunes sand on my toes, smell the fragrance nor hear the heartbeat of the girl clinging to me inside the hollow tree.
Although I never saw her again, her fragrance would occasionally come back to me years later, whenever I encountered certain conditions of blessed ferment in the dark warmth of a forest.
“A European legend tells of animals using herbal remedies to speed the healing of wounds. It is said that peasants in the Neydharting area of Austria, who have intentionally drunk and bathed in the local moor waters cure-all, learned its properties from as a watching wild animals. In memory of this legend, the coat of arms of a nearby village depicts a wounded buck bathing in the moor waters. …folklore asserts that it was common to see a stag wounded in the hunt drag himself to the moor, sometimes across great distances. There he would immerse his open wounds in the black muddy waters until he invariably recovered. The mud of the moor, used by contemporary European veterinarians in the treatment of wounds, contains over three hundred bioactive herbs, numerous trace elements, organic substances, sulfur, and many anti-microbials, vitamins and hormones.”
Cindy Engel (2002) Wild Health: how Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn from Them
When I was a teenager, a good part of my hometown was burned to the ground in the days following the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. When the Democratic Convention was held in Chicago, college-age brothers of my high school who were protesting the Vietnam War were knocked over by the force of firehoses, beaten with batons by policemen, or hand-cuffed and hauled off in paddy wagons to ”drunk tanks.” Mayor Richard Daly famously ordered his officers to “shoot to maim” if they found any protestors out in the streets after curfew.
Although I did not know it at the time (for I only began to read him three years later), the contemplative and anti-war activist Thomas Merton died that winter, electrocuting himself on the faulty wire of an electric fan at the Red Cross Conference Center in Thailand. Highly-volatile shocks seemed to be in the air that year.
I too protested the war by conspiring with friends to set off fire alarms in our high school, and I too spent a night in a drunk tank with friends, without ever having broken the law, just so a cop could “show us a thing or two.” Fortunately for us, the cop was caught arresting us for being out after curfew before the curfew had actually begun. But the odors I sniffed in the drunk tank were not anything like the fragrance of the young girl who held me tight, hidden in the dark wood.
Under such social stresses, I dissociated from my family, from mainstream society, and from most of my old friends. The remaining ones—among the youngest members of the radical Students for a Democratic Society—participated in increasingly risky behavior that went far beyond non-violent civil disobedience.
They were angry young men hell-bent on inciting a revolution, while I was not angry so much as I was heart-broken—the world as I knew it seemed to falling apart.
I still do not know what exactly triggered it—a virus or emotional stress from my parents moving toward divorce and my friends moving toward drugs and violence—but I had what they used to call “a breakdown.” I tested positive for Epstein-Barr, but it was not from the infamous “kissing disease,” mononucleosis. Perhaps it was what we now call “chronic fatigue” or fibromyalgia—we will never know—though I suffered a relapse of these symptoms a quarter century later.
In short, my immune system tanked. I was too weak to go to school, and when I did, I vomited or passed out. I slept for days on end, waking up only to urinate. I could not hold down food, nor could I remember what day it was or why I was not in school. I was absent from the courses of my junior year for so many weeks that I was essentially written off as “a dropout.” In fact, I never returned to enroll as a senior, and never received a high school degree.
But then, rather oddly and unexplainably, when springtime came, I asked my parents if I could go walk alone in the Dunes to get some fresh air and exercise; perhaps being bed-ridden was what was holding back my recovery.
As the ducks and geese flew down their flyways from Canada to the southern shores of Lake Michigan, they, like me found a wilderness stopover—a sanctuary of sorts—in the marshes and moors of the Indiana Dunes. I would go there alone, and spend hours listening to them honking and lucking. I waded out into the still cold water of the wetlands, rubbed the marsh’s mud and slime all over my body, and hid in the cattails so I might see the waterfowl without them seeing me.
When I got hungry, I pulled up cattail stalks, peeled them like a scallion to rid them of their muddy film, and ate their crisp flesh. When cattails could not stave off my hunger caught frogs and toads, snapped their legs off of them and ate the rare flesh around their leg bones like one might do barbecued spare ribs.
When summer came, I moved out of my parents’ broken home and into a screened-in porch that sat by itself atop a sand dune overlooking Lake Michigan. It was on the property of one of my mother’s oldest friends who lived right next to the house in which I was born.
I stayed there all summer—a hermit of sorts—making sketches of plants and animals, and reading. Early one morning, I rescued a roadkill woodchuck, took it back to my picnic table, and sketched its image with pencils for forty-eight hours straight, until it began to stink. I borrowed from my elderly hostess a few of her books by Walt Whitman and Herman Melville and Rachel Carson. She directed me toward the dunes naturalists of her own era, who quickly became my heroes: the reclusive Diana of the Dunes; the world-famous wildlife tracker, Edwin Way Teale; and the lover of Great American trees, Donald Culross Peattie. In fact, the first “nature book” I ever owned was Peattie’s Flora of the Indian Dunes.
But I did not peruse that fine local flora simply to “key out” and “name” the native plants that were flowering all around me. Instead I used it as a palimpsest, a rudder by which to steer me toward a safe harbor, a refuge. I was looking for secure anchorage in an otherwise uncertain if not tumultuous world.
That said, I did not think of myself as a naturalist, nor did I keep any notion that I was about to embark on a career in the natural sciences. I was simply trying to rid myself of heartbreak and sorrow by the only way I knew how: to go errant, to play hooky, and to leave the human world for another.
I suppose that I was endeavoring to heal myself by immersing my broken heart, mind and body in the healing mud of the world.
“Yesterday I was sitting in the woodshed reading and a little Carolina wren suddenly hopped on my shoulder and then on to a corner of the book I was reading and paused a second to look at me before flying away.”
(Same wren just came back and is singing and investigating busily in the blocks of the wall over there.”
“Here is what I think.”
“Man can know all about God’s creation by examining its phenomena, by dissecting and experimenting, and this is all good. But it is misleading, because with this kind of knowledge you do not really know the beings you know. That is to say you create for yourself a knowledge based on your observations. What you observe is really as much a product of your knowledge as its cause. You take the thing not as it is, but as you want to investigate it. Your investigation is valid, but artificial.”
“There is something you cannot know about a wren by cutting it up in a laboratory and which you can only know if it remains fully and completely a wren, itself, and hops on your shoulder if it feels like it.”
“…The wren either hops on your shoulder or it doesn’t.”
Thomas Merton (1997), Dancing in the Water of Life (journals)
By the end of that summer, I was turning toward the warmth and love of a massive, glowing energy field that I had largely ignored or dismissed since I had become a teenager. And yet, it was suddenly undoing and redoing who I was, and who “it” intended me to be.
Without even so much as a GED, I entered a small liberal arts college in the Midwest on probation, but within six months, I went truant, abandoning classes to work as a volunteer at the Washington D.C. headquarters for the first Earth Day. I do not even recall how I learned that the first Earth Day was being planned for April 1970; I do not even remember how I got to the District of Columbia or found a place to live, for I was still seventeen at the time that I hastily made the decision to drop everything for the love and defense of Mother Earth.
I became a journalist- intern for the headquarters’ news magazine, Environmental Action. At that moment in my life, I did not know how to write prose. I spent most of my waking hours writing poetry, drawing pen-and-ink sketches or crafting cartoons. My “boss”—a civil rights and anti-war activist named Sam Love—didn’t seem to know any more natural science than I did, but he somehow encouraged all of us to explore and express the connections we felt between “the environment” and “social justice.”
We did not even know of the phrase “environmental justice” at that time, if it existed. Instead, we sensed that it was hiding somewhere in the woods, and would call out to us with its own grace note when it was time to do so.
A month after I turned eighteen, I was sent out from Earth Day headquarters On the East Coast to a small Christian College in the Midwest that overlooked the Mississippi River. My memory often fails me these days, but I believe it was Augustana College, where one of my favorite Lebanese cousins later taught. I remember only four features of that first Earth Day: the spring rains were falling hard; the water level in the muddy Mississippi was close to surging over its banks and sand bags to soil everything in sight; I was the youngest speaker on stage that day; and I could not remember a single word that I had planned to say that day.
No matter. It wasn’t about me anyway, it was about something that was calling to us and through us.
All I knew for sure was that the Blue Jays were still calling me, and I was certain that their voices mattered.