Monday, April 10, 2017

An Eternity in One Day

I’m beginning my 31st year today. In the past few days, I’ve often been asked what I want or what I want to do. I’ve mainly been reflecting upon the coming year, as it will be a big one; my daily life is going to change quite dramatically. I am giving myself the greatest gift of all this year, the gift of living in a way that’s better for me and the ecosystem I eventually settle in. But, I’m not going to write about any of that. Instead, I’d like to share a magical day that I had recently, the kind of day I’d like to have more often. If you know me, you’d know I rarely (if ever) have used the adjective “magical!”

I woke up feeling refreshed and ate a hearty breakfast. I stopped by the garden that Joseph and I share at a generous neighbor’s house. I sowed some carrot seeds, the ones that make beautiful purple, orange, and cream-colored carrots. They also happen to taste fantastic. I had a huge realization about fresh food about a year and a half ago after eating some straight-from-the-field asparagus at a friend’s farm. I’d never tasted anything like it. I’d just about call truly fresh asparagus a different vegetable than store bought asparagus and say the same for other vegetables. Anyways, with my knowledge of wild edible plants growing, I gathered Japanese knotweed shoots, dandelion, and Pennsylvania bittercress at the garden.

After feeling the warming morning sun and spreading some cayenne pepper over the seeded areas (to keep the other animals away!), I headed to Lake Needwood archery range. There was one other archer there, just finishing up with his recurve bow. It was peaceful at the range, just the way I like it. I was on this morning, though I hadn’t shot in a while. The arrows were flying particularly true at 5, 15, and 30 yards, guided by my hands and state of mind. The beauty of an arrow arcing from a longbow at 30 yards and hitting its mark is unbeatable. A year and change of training in how to hold the bow, come to full draw, release, and follow through was showing. Everything was flowing, though I still have a ways to go to be a master!

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Smith

In the middle of my practice, I heard a rustle and saw some deer coming out of the corner of my eye. They showed no signs of noticing me, until they sensed that I noticed them. I ducked behind the hay bale target and just watched. These beautiful and graceful creatures had been my prey months earlier, but I was now just intrigued by them. They bounced through a small patch of trees, crossed a gas pipeline clear-cut, and disappeared into the brush beyond. Was this an omen of the rest of the magic to come that day? The middle finger of my right hand started to go numb, so I figured it was probably time to wind down.

I drove down to the lake, with the rough idea that I’d sharpen my foraging skills. Many great days have come from being flexible based upon what comes, rather than trying to force the day to conform to my wishes. I had the stinging nettles patch in mind that I’d picked from the other day, along with a vague stinging sensation in my hands! Stinging nettles are my favorite green, and I love the way they smell. I got distracted by all of the plants near the road and the path leading to the bigger woods and took a nibble of a few plants here and there. I identified cat’s ear in its early rosette - another plant friend to be aware of.

Now where were those nettles? I went back to where I thought I had found them. I doubled back, and saw a small clump, but my attention was taken away by a rustle somewhere else. My senses were attuned to what was going on around me, just like I’ve trained them to do. Frogs were diving into the creek while I walked around with boots on my hurried, clumsy city feet. Didn’t end up finding that nettle patch, anyways.

A different stinging nettle patch

It was getting warm. I longed to take my shirt off and feel the sun, but I still had this feeling that I needed to get somewhere. Finally, I slowed down and took my shirt, boots, and socks off. Ah, that’s what the ground feels like! I thought about the last time I walked barefoot in the woods. Once, for a short time, but before that, never. I've been missing out! I noticed some small fish in Mill Creek. Now that I felt more connected with my surroundings, could I catch a fish with my stealth and bare hands? I crept into the creek to stand on a large rock. I stepped on a branch that I thought would support my weight - SNAP! Most of the fish disappeared. I laughed at myself but still gave it a go. A few small fish were still hanging around and I stuck my fingertips in the water. They seemed to be interested but didn’t come close enough.

I eventually moved on and that’s when I heard a SPLASH! A bit later, another. Something was going on beyond the creek bank that I couldn’t see. I walked over in my bare feet, just like I would if I were trying to sneak up on a deer. I got down on all fours. To my surprise, I saw some sizable fish, maybe a foot long. They were swimming against the current. From talking with friends who are knowledgeable about fish, they were likely a type of sucker fish. I watched them for a while until they noticed my presence and shot upstream.

I walked upstream, loving the warmth on my skin and the various sensations underfoot. I have to say I also felt a bit exposed and vulnerable. What if a snake lashed out at me? This thought stayed in the back of my mind as I tread carefully, realizing that I was equally likely to step on broken glass. My caution helped me to move slowly, which is the key to seeing more and blending in. I did nearly step on a frog or toad. Sadly, I don’t yet know the difference between the two!

As I moved along, I saw some movement and heard a squeal from the creek bank. I threw a few pieces of bark that way, assuming the creature would fly away if a bird, or run away if something else. Nothing happened. The movement I was seeing struck me as odd, but likely reptilian. As I got closer I saw the frog (or toad?), then the snake, then the blood. I felt a rush of blood to my own face. Past the initial feeling, I started thinking. Should I intervene? The pitiful sound of Frog made me feel so sorry for it. Frog’s leg was in Snake’s mouth. Frog was still fighting, pulling Snake’s body forward by grabbing any twig in front of it, but Snake would undulate and pull Frog back. I was incapable of doing anything but watching.

Can you see Snake and Frog? (center of picture)

My feelings of exposure and vulnerability crept back up. I felt for Frog. I was confused about what to do. I was suddenly aware that I could be at risk. I pictured myself as a frog. I then felt guilt as an apex predator - because, in fact, there are very few things out there that could harm/kill me. The experience awakened something primal in me - a fear that humans once had: that they were walking meatballs*, and had to be alert at all times to avoid being eaten. Snake released Frog, perhaps feeling threatened by me, and scurried away.

I walked longer, checking out trees, standing on a fallen oak, feeling the density of the wood. I stopped and puzzled at some trees with my ID book. I was enjoying the sun and the feel of the ground, following deer trails over some ridges as I looped back to where I started. I sat among some mugwort, which I looked up and saw could be used as insect repellant, among other things. I also remembered that it can be used as a bittering agent in beer, like hops. It has a wonderful smell!

As I got back to where I left my boots, some deer snorted and took off, tails flagged. I started walking through a swampy area, and vicious snakes popped into my mind again. I doubt it was even a rational thought, but I was just thinking about the small snake nearly swallowing that frog. As I write, I remember that being alert is all part of participating in the ecosystem. Things can happen out there. I could get bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, or I could get bitten by a snake. I should take caution and be prepared, but I am out there as a participant, as part of what’s going on. Things are constantly eating and being eaten. Easier to say all this when I’m hiding behind a keyboard instead of sneaking through a swamp! Again, I take both solace and a hint of guilt from knowing that I am at an advantage to the other animals out there with the availability of medical treatment, my car, and well established trails that I can always retreat to.

As I walked back along to the area where Rock Creek and Mill Creek meet, I saw a flash of white near the creek edge. Then came the quick adrenaline pulse when I saw the snapping turtle! My alert system went down as I was able to dismiss any threats. What an awesome sight: the snapper had killed a fairly large (about foot long) fish, and was standing next to it. I think Snapper noticed me, because he/she didn’t go for the fish, and slowly poked his/her head out of the water. I took that as a signal of, “stay away from my dinner!” I stayed still, and eventually Snapper lunged at the fish and took a bite. Snapper then proceeded to use its front claw to push and tear pieces off of the fish. The whole affair was just mesmerizing and I was honored to be a fly on the wall. I eventually let the turtle be and looked for those nettles one more time. No luck!

I headed back to my car nettleless, but with immense satisfaction and the feeling that I had lived and seen an eternity in one day. Many beings lost their lives out there and others were nourished. This is the kind of day I hope to have over and over: one where I immerse myself in an ecosystem and play a part. Right now, I have the luxury of opening up my senses, wandering and observing without purpose, not worrying about finding shelter, potable water, or food. I am growing and reconnecting with my ancestors from long ago, and I couldn’t be happier or more contented in those moments. If ever I was meant to do anything, this was it: to be a human animal, to immerse myself in my ecosystem, to live within it, not above or next to it. How good can I be at that? Time will tell.

*Credit for this term to Richard Adrian Reese

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