Read an Excerpt
The Sacred Earth
Writers on Nature & Spirit
By Jason Gardner, Denise Gardner
New World LibraryCopyright © 1998 Jason Gardner
All rights reserved.
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As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for that wildness which he represented. Once or twice, however, while I lived at the pond, I found myself ranging in the woods, like a half-starved hound, with a strange abandonment, seeking some kind of venison which I might devour, and no morsel could have been too savage for me. The wildest scenes had become unaccountably familiar. I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one, and I reverence them both. I love the wild not less than the good.
— HENRY DAVID THOREAU Walden
I am up before the sun, and make a fire. The water boils as the sun ignites the peaks, and we breakfast in sunshine on hot tea and porridge. A nutcracker is rasping in the pines, and soon the crows come, down the morning valley; cawing, they hide among long shimmering needles, then glide in, bold, to walk about in the warming scent of resin, dry feet scratching on the bark of fallen trees.
Since Jang-bu cannot reach Tarakot before the evening, we have time. I walk barefoot in the grass, spreading my gear with ceremony: today, for the first time in weeks, everything will dry, a great event in expedition life. Then with my stave I prop my pack upright and sit back against the mountainside, my face in cold shade and hot sun on my arms and belly.
Pine needles dance in a light breeze against the three white sister peaks to the northwest. I sit in silence, lost in the burning hum of mountain bees. An emerald butterfly comes to my knee to dry its wings, gold wings with black specks above, white polka dots beneath. Through the frozen atmospheres, the sun is burning.
In the clearness of this Himalayan air, mountains draw near, and in such splendor, tears come quietly to my eyes and cool on my sunburned cheeks. This is not mere soft-mindedness, nor am I all that silly with the altitude. My head has cleared in these weeks free of intrusions — mail, telephones, people and their needs — and I respond to things spontaneously, without defensive or self-conscious screens. Still, all this feeling is astonishing: not so long ago I could say truthfully that I had not shed a tear in twenty years.
— PETER MATTHIESSEN The Snow Leopard
In the autumn of 1985, a strong hurricane ripped across suburban Long Island, where I was then living as a student. For several days afterward much of the populace was without electricity; power lines were down, telephone lines broken, and the roads were strewn with toppled trees. People had to walk to their jobs, and to whatever shops were still open. We began encountering each other on the streets, "in person" instead of by telephone. In the absence of automobiles and their loud engines, the rhythms of crickets and bird-song became clearly audible. Flocks were migrating south for the winter, and many of us found ourselves simply listening, with new and childlike curiosity, to the ripples of song in the still-standing trees and the fields. And at night the sky was studded with stars! Many children, their eyes no longer blocked by the glare of house-lights and streetlamps, saw the Milky Way for the first time, and were astonished. For those few days and nights our town became a community aware of its place in an encompassing cosmos. Even our noses seemed to come awake, the fresh smells from the ocean somehow more vibrant and salty. The breakdown of our technologies had forced a return to our senses, and hence to the natural landscape in which those senses are so profoundly embedded. We suddenly found ourselves inhabiting a sensuous world that had been waiting, for years, at the very fringe of our awareness, an intimate terrain infused with birdsong, salt spray, and the light of stars.
— DAVID ABRAM The Spell of the Sensuous
I delight in the spare landscape out the plane window — ice oceans and ice mountains and clouds full of ice. So much of what Americans live with is an economic landscape — malls, stores, and movie theaters, ski slopes and theme parks — in which one's relationship to place has to do with boredom, undisciplined need, and envy. The Arctic's natural austerity is richness enough, its physical clarity a form of voluptuousness. Who needs anything more?
The first time I visited Greenland was two summers after a near fatal lightning strike. My heart had stopped and started several times, and the recovery from ten thousand volts of electricity surging through my brain took years. To live nose to nose with death pruned away emotional edacity and the presumption of a future, even another sunrise. Life was an alternating current of dark and light. I lost consciousness hundreds of times, and death's presence was always lurking — a black form in the corner. Life was the light hovering at the top of the sea.
Greenland's treeless, icebound landscape appealed to me so much then that now, three years later, I've come back. Its continuously shifting planes of light are like knives thrown in a drawer. They are the layered instruments that carve life out of death into art and back to life. They teach me how to see.
— GRETEL EHRLICH "Cold Comfort: Looking for the Sun in Greenland's Endless Night" from Harper's
I WAS SITTING OUT BACK ON MY 33,000-ACRE TERRACE, shoeless and shirtless, scratching my toes in the sand and sipping on a tall iced drink, watching the flow of evening over the desert. Prime time: the sun very low in the west, the birds coming back to life, the shadows rolling for miles over rock and sand to the very base of the brilliant mountains. I had a small fire going near the table — not for heat or light but for the fragrance of the juniper and the ritual appeal of the clear flames. For symbolic reasons. For ceremony. When I heard a faint sound over my shoulder I looked and saw a file of deer watching from fifty yards away, three does and a velvet-horned buck, all dark against the sundown sky. They began to move. I whistled and they stopped again, staring at me. "Come on over," I said, "have a drink." They declined, moving off with casual, unhurried grace, quiet as phantoms, and disappeared beyond the rise. Smiling, thoroughly at peace, I turned back to my drink, the little fire, the subtle transformations of the immense landscape before me. On the program: rise of the full moon.
— EDWARD ABBEY Desert Solitaire
One July weekend my partner and I tried the Chouinard-Herbert route on Sentinel Rock, a 1,700-foot face normally done in two days. Mid-morning on the second day, after a bivouac on a ledge, we killed our last bottle of water — we had badly miscalculated our need — and climbed ahead into the ninety-degree afternoon. We became so weak we couldn't finish the climb by dark, though we had reached the easy ledges near the top. We spent another night, sleeping like stones as the brightest colors I have ever seen flamed through my dreams. In the morning we made our way to the top, there to find an enormous orange-barked ponderosa pine, standing alone. It seemed to glow from within, a tree but more than a tree, an emblem of being itself. And the stream we finally came to, after what seemed hours of stumbling descent down the dry gully behind Sentinel, was no ordinary stream with a fringe of plants — how green those plants were — but the very Garden. We knelt there, feeling the icy glow of water inside us with our booming and skittering hearts.
— JOHN DANIEL The Trail Home
Once I climbed Brandon Mountain with a friend. It was a fine bright day as we set out from the bridge at Brandon Creek. By the time we had ascended a thousand feet, clouds had rolled in from the sea. At 2,000 feet we entered an unbroken cover of cloud. At the saddle between Brandon and Masatiompan we cautiously hesitated, turned south, and moved carefully along the ridge toward the summit, mindful of the steep cliffs that fell away sharply to the east. And then an amazing thing happened! As we approached the summit of the mountain, our heads popped out of the clouds; for a moment our decapitated heads rested on white cotton like laboratory specimens. Another step — shoulders emerged. Then torsos. Step by step we lifted our bodies out of white fleece into a sky of stunning clarity and perfect blue. The summit of Brandon Mountain was an island of rock that protruded ten feet above the cloud, a hundred square feet of solidity in a universe of air. From horizon to horizon the top of the cloud stretched as smooth and uninterrupted as the surface of the sea. White cottony cloud! It seemed as if we could have stepped off our island onto it. It seemed as if we could have walked across it to those other islands to the south, the distant summits of McGillicudy's Reeks. A temperature inversion of remarkable definition had reduced our world to a clean slate, a featureless interface of blue and white, a tabula rasa, a fresh creation. A borrowed metaphor came to mind: Knowledge is an island surrounded by a sea of mystery. On Brandon's cloud-truncated summit, that metaphor was made startlingly real.
— CHET RAYMO Honey from Stone
My wife, Joanne, both enhances and distracts from what I see in nature alone. She asks questions and enthuses; we talk. In striving to articulate what we feel, how each of us reacts to the land, we use language earlier than I would alone to recreate the feel of light on sandstone or the smell of cliffrose. In some ways, I use up the words by sharing the experience; alone, I hoard them, secreting them away in my journal. Talking with the woman I love about the places we pass through makes the experiences warmer, simpler. The landscape becomes a part of everyday life, and I have trouble separating from it sufficiently to describe it as a writer.
At the same time Joanne sees what I do not. She points out details I would miss. She questions things I take for granted; interested though untrained in natural history, she asks about birds and behavior and ecological patterns in an observant way that demands clarity and understanding in order to answer. She makes me think beyond where I might have stopped.
On the Black Rock Desert, we once took turns leaving each other. One of us would step out of the vehicle with no gear — no pack, no camera, no water bottle — and simply stand there in T-shirt, shorts, and thongs, with the silence ringing our ears, while the other drove out of sight. Each of us had a few minutes alone, turning in circles, trying to orient ourselves in the endless miles of barren clay — a near-impossible task. The disorientation was stunning; it was delightful.
When Joanne drove back, the distinction between aloneness and sharing overwhelmed me. The difference was palpable, although both can bring joy.
— STEPHEN TRIMBLE The Geography of Childhood
The nights at Shey are rigid, under rigid stars; the fall of a wolf pad on the frozen path might be heard up and down the canyon. But a hard wind comes before the dawn to rattle the tent canvas, and this morning it is clear again, and colder. At daybreak, the White River, just below, is sheathed in ice, with scarcely a murmur from the stream beneath.
The two ravens come to tritons on the gompa roof. Gorawk, gorawk, they croak, and this is the name given to them by the sherpas. Amidst the prayer flags and great horns of Tibetan argali, the gorawks greet first light with an odd musical double note — a-ho — that emerges as if by miracle from those ragged throats. Before sunrise every day, the great black birds are gone, like the last tatters of departing night.
— PETER MATTHIESSEN The Snow Leopard
We heard a coyote yipping in the meadow yesterday afternoon, barking in the wind. The tops of all the trees were swaying gently, but when I looked at the wall of the forest, it seemed that the trees were all standing at attention, standing there watching me, and barely moving — just up high. Cottonwood puffballs blew through the field. The woods will either have me or they'll send me home. Every small sight, every small action, counts. That coyote's barks are accumulating, becoming part of my life, and I am turning away from my old life and walking into a new one....
— RICK BASS Winter
At the high point of the bluff, where the road began a slow curve and descent, I stopped to look out over the river in the growing dusk. Light lay over the water, on the islands and the hills of the distance, so pervasive and steeped in its yellowness, it was hard to tell if that light came from the evening sky or welled up from somewhere in the autumn earth itself.
I listened to the pebbly sound of the river falling through diminished channels below me. And for a long moment I felt myself a part of that landscape with its shaggy, black islands and pale sandbars, one with the coppery gleam of water coiling and darkening, the distant country of night.
— JOHN HAINES The Stars, the Snow, the Fire
Thousands of small fish are moving along in the shallows: a flock, a flight under the weight of the water, dipping and rising, loose-spined; their fins, rowing, are minute and precise; they are energy-packets; six would fit into a thimble, all gauze and glaze, and all translucent — the pipeline of appetite clear in each body. Thousands and thousands — a throng of rainbows, a pod, an enormous pack, yet they swing along as a single rainbow, one wing, one thing, one traveler. Their mouths are open, fierce colanders scooping in the diatoms. They turn to the right, the left. They dash and hover....
It is summer, the long twilight. I stare and stare into the water. I say to myself, which one am I?
— MARY OLIVER Blue Pastures
One spring evening a couple years ago, I was sitting in the brown leather chair in the living room reading the newspaper and minding my own business when I became aware that I was no longer alone.
Looking up, I discovered that the three big windows that run from floor to ceiling were covered with frogs.
There were hundreds of them, inch-long frogs with delicate webbed feet whose fingerlike toes ended in round pads that enabled them to cling to the smooth surface of the glass. From their toe structure, size and light-colored bellies, I supposed them to be spring peepers, Hyla crucifer, and went outside for a closer look. I had to be careful where I put my feet, for the grass in front of the windows was thick with frogs, waiting in patient ranks to move up to the lighted surface of the glass. Sure enough, each pinkish-brownish frog had a back crisscrossed with the dark markings that give the species its scientific name. I had not known before that they were attracted to light.
I let my newspaper go and spent the evening watching them. They did not move much beyond the top of the windows, but clung to the glass or the moldings, seemingly unable to decide what to do next. The following morning they were gone, and I have never seen them at the windows since. It struck me as curious behavior.
— SUE HUBBELL A Country Year
On my travels in Tibet I was always delighted by the tradition of sky-burial. The human body is cut up and the bones broken to the marrow and left for animals, mostly birds. Later the bones are pounded and mixed with tsampa — a roasted barley — and again offered to the animals. Finally everything is gone, gone back into the cycle. Recently, when a friend lost her beloved dog, she carried it out to a beautiful view of the mountains, covered it with wild flowers, and left it for the coyotes and ravens and bugs. We should have the courage to do the same for ourselves, to re-enter the great cycle of feeding.
The moose incorporates the willow, taking the life of the willow into its own life, making the wilderness of the willow reincarnate. I kill the moose, its body feeds the willow and grouse wortleberries where it dies, it feeds my body, and in feeding my body, the willow and the moose feed the one billion bacteria that inhabit three inches of my colon, the one million spirochetes that live in my mouth, and the microscopic brontosaurus-like mites that live by devouring the goo on my eyelashes. The great feeding body is the world. It evolved together, mutually, all interdependent, all interrelating ceaselessly, the dust of old stars hurtling through time, and we are the form it chose to make it conscious of itself.
— JACK TURNER The Abstract Wild
I remember camping out on a small island in the lake. We ate freshly caught bass by the campfire. When darkness fell, a shooting star streaked across the sky. I was told of an ancient belief that it was the soul of someone who had just died. We slept under blankets on the ground. Waking up at first light, I saw a fiery red squirrel scolding me from the top of a pine tree, like a little masthead of the dawn.
The trees marched up the hills and moved into abandoned pastures, claiming ancient rights of possession. The white pines, with their long, glistening needles, would swing in limber rhythms with the wind. The heavy boughs of the hemlocks dipped their dark shadows toward the ground and lifted up again. Bordering the lake, where thrushes sang in the evening, the leaves of white birch, gray beech, and maple stirred and danced in the breeze. Varying airs pushed small ripples across the lake causing its surfaces to flash in the sunlight. In sandy shallows close to shore, the sunfish circled, waved their fins, and laid their eggs. Farther out in the waters of that sun- and star-crossed lake were the black or big-mouth bass, like ambient shadows.
— JOHN HAY A Beginner's Faith in Things Unseen (Writing about his family's New Hampshire summer home)
Excerpted from The Sacred Earth by Jason Gardner, Denise Gardner. Copyright © 1998 Jason Gardner. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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