Flowering weed, little sun – dandelion
Spring continues to unfold. Today it is warm but not hot, with
a gentle breeze blowing. Birds are flitting about with nervous
intensity, gathering nest-building materials or searching for food to
feed the year's first hatchlings; the bushes and trees are vibrantly
green with new leaves; violets and dandelions, daffodils and tulips,
add bright dashes of color to gardens and lawns. Anyone who possibly
can be is out-of-doors. Everywhere there is shouting and laughter,
bustle and music, excitement and expectation. I can't resist it
either: my apartment feels stuffy and drab. I need, I must,
get outside into the spring air.
I decide to take a walk to the cemetery.
I am drawn to the cemetery not by any morbid love for the dead, but
simply because it's the only public land around here that's within
walking distance: everything else is privately owned.
There is a park in town, with benches and a fountain at the center
of it, but on a day like this I know it will be overrun with people.
And I am one of those who prefer to be alone.
It's late afternoon by the time I set out. The kids are already
home from school, and I see them everywhere: in the yards outside
their houses, throwing balls about; huddled together in the street,
planning out some game; running up and down sidewalks, shrieking with
high-pitched laughter. In front
of one of the houses I pass I spot a teenaged girl dressed in shorts
and a halter top; she's stretched out on a blanket to catch what's
left of the sun. As I pass by she lifts her head to gaze at me
gazing at her. I can't see her eyes – they're hidden behind
a pair of large, round sunglasses – but she graces me with a
Mona Lisa smile. Farther along I see a chubby, grey-haired man
dressed in a T-shirt and jeans; he's getting into a pickup truck.
"Beautiful day, isn't it?" he says, giving me a grin that
stretches from ear to ear. "Just beautiful – really
beautiful!" Then he clambers into his truck and fires it up,
and even the roar of its engine sounds like spring.
The cemetery is calmer, stiller. In the distance I see two men, the
groundskeepers, on their riding lawn mowers, and the occasional car
passes slowly by on one of the winding roads; otherwise I'm alone.
I feel the moss and grass springy under my feet, and notice that flowers
have started blooming on some of the graves. As I make my way over
to the wooded ravine on the cemetery's far side,
I glance down at the occasional headstone, noting here the extreme
shortness of one life, here the extreme length of another.
Two stones in particular catch my eye. Placed close together side
by side, they are small and narrow, blackened with
age, and rounded on top where embossed letters of printing are.
There are no dates of birth and death, no ornamental carvings, no
epitaphs. "MOTHER," says the first stone simply, in
bold capital letters. "RALPH," says the stone beside
it. I cannot help but wonder at this. And then I cannot
help but laugh.
When I reach the edge of the ravine I stop for a few minutes to catch
my breath and quiet my mind. Everywhere I look the world seems
vividly alive. From the shadows of the ravine small insects fly
out, wavering through the sunlit air. A chipmunk climbs the
trunk of a nearby tree and races out to the far end of a
branch, scolding noisily all the while. Looking up through
the treetops, I notice how the intersecting branches make a puzzle of
the sky. The ground beneath my feet, with its various grasses
and weeds, its curls of ivies and furry tendrils of mosses, reveals a dozen different shades of
green. Underneath that, the earth shows a reddish patch here, a
brownish or black patch there. There are twigs and dried
leaves, tiny pebbles, bits of old bark and dead seeds . . .
Then suddenly it's the gravestones I'm noticing most. Everywhere
before me they stand, dozens and dozens of them, all shapes and
sizes. Some are low and squat, some jut high up into the
air. Once they were boulders perhaps, part of a rock
quarry, buried underground; now they are carved into shapes square or
oblong, flat or curved, short and stumpy or tall and thin; and they
have taken on an almost human quality to me. They rear up stiffly,
backs rigidly straight; they confront me severely, with a silence that
seems to buffet my ears. It's as they're giving me a reprimand;
it's as if I had, by allowing myself to become distracted from their
somber message of death, given them affront.
I walk along the edge of the ravine awhile; then, coming upon the
opening of a path that leads into the woods, plunge down it. I
find that a tree has fallen across the path since I've last been here,
and someone has used a chainsaw to cut a great hunk out of the middle
of it so that people can pass unhindered. This strikes me as
ironic, this hacking away at nature so that people can better enjoy nature.
Farther along I notice soda cans and cigarette butts and beer bottles
scattered about, also plastic wreathes and pots galore. It's
been quite awhile now since I picked up any trash from these woods;
apparently it doesn't take long for it to start collecting again. I
think back to my former self, visualizing the young man with the plastic
bag in his hand, picking up garbage. For a moment that man
lives again, walking the path just ahead of me. He stops –
bends over to pick something up and drop it in his bag – then
stands upright again . . . I walk right through him. It
feels as if I've just walked through a ghost.
I begin to notice that the woods are full of another kind of debris
too. Everywhere I look there are fallen trees, some still showing
white where the trunk has twisted and broken away, others moss covered
and rotting. Some have been caught in the midst of falling and
now lean, half-uprooted but still alive, against their neighbors.
Dead branches litter the ground, and there are dead leaves everywhere
underfoot. Yet everywhere too there are signs of new life:
the myrtle growing on the sloping side of the ravine is dotted with
starry, purple blooms; the saplings have sent out long, fresh shoots;
and down by the creek where the ground is still wet, the skunk cabbages
are unfurling their huge green leaves. Every gradation in the
cycle of life – birth, death, decay, and rebirth – is
present here somewhere. And every stage of the cycle is equally
important, because every stage is equally necessary. They all
work together to create an interlocking whole. Where else, I
think, need a person look to experience the "transcendent"
wonder of the oneness of all things, except to nature?
When I emerge from the woods some time later, coming up the path back
into the cemetery again, the sun is a bright orange ball hanging just
above the horizon. The temperature's beginning to drop a bit now;
soon it will be dark. I decide it's time to make my way back
home. Winding round the gravestones, the trees and the many
rhododendron bushes, I head back towards the road that will lead me
into town. But I must be following a slightly different route
from any I've ever taken before, because I suddenly come upon
something I've never before noticed. It's nothing special,
really; it's only that, having gone round a few large bushes, I find
on the other side of them the stump of what must have once been
a giant of a tree. The stump itself is a good five feet
across at least. The tree had apparently been cut down some years
ago – the round, smooth surface of the stump has blackened,
and there's moss growing on it; but the wood hasn't yet begun to
rot. I stand up on the stump and stretch out my arms, still
wondering at its breadth, trying to imagine how high the tree's branches
must have once reached. Experimentally I close my eyes and try
to make myself go still inside. I want to see if I can somehow
"feel" the presence of the tree that had once been there.
But I cannot. I open my eyes again, looking about me to see if my
awareness of the tree's absence has made any difference to the
appearance of the world I see. But no – it has not.
Yet I do feel something . . . What is it? I shut
my eyes again and concentrate, reaching down inside myself to
discover what the feeling is. I have a sense of hollowness
inside me, a feeling of . . . is it regret? No, not that,
not quite. It's more like a sense of sadness, of sorrow –
and yet still there is that feeling of hollowness too. And
then I have it. What I'm experiencing is a sense of loss
– that hollowed out sense of loss we all experience whenever
something or someone important to us has disappeared, left us, died.
I open my eyes. As I do so a breeze starts up, rustling
the trees about me. What I hear next is a sort of clicking
sound, as if the branches and twigs of the trees are being knocked
together by a sudden gust of wind. It's like the sound of a
light rapping, a tapping, of wooden knuckles on a wooden door.
And then I hear the whispering of the trees . . .
I remember an out-of-body experience I had once. As it began I
found myself first floating in the darkness somewhere above the area
of my bed, cognizant of having become a disembodied presence that
was fully separate from yet still conscious of the body that was
lying on the bed below, lungs filling and emptying themselves of air,
heart beating away. I could see nothing but blackness all around
me, yet I sensed, floating nearby, several other disembodied presences.
These presences seemed to be leading me through the darkness until I
became aware, after a time, of a great number of presences gathered
somewhere in space far down below. They were calling to me.
I couldn't quite make out what they were saying, but I sensed that
they were sending me a greeting: they were telling me hello.
A little while later, I felt myself moving away from them, and sensed
that they were calling to me once again. This time they were bidding
me farewell. And then, all at once, in less than a second, I "woke up."
It's just the same now with the whispering of the trees. I have
no doubt about it: the trees are literally speaking to me.
It's just as it was when the voices called to me out of the darkness:
I hear no words, but I'm as certain of what's happening now as I was
then. I'm being sent a greeting. The greeting is sent in
a language not my own, yet I understand it; I know: the trees
are telling me hello!
Then the wind calms, and I see a car making its way up along the
narrow, winding road. I jump down off the tree trunk and continue
to make my way towards home.
The sun has by now dipped below the horizon. The streets
and yards, so busy a little while ago, are nearly empty; everybody's
gone indoors to eat their dinners and watch TV. A dim, grey
light is falling, but it casts no pall over the town. For this
one moment, for this brief space of time, that grey light shows
me a world not gone drab and cold, but one in which everything I see
– the street, the parked cars and trucks, the houses and yards,
the little flower gardens, the bushes and trees – have all become
equal. Each object holds a place of equal importance to all the
others. They are all of a piece – and thus, for this one
moment at least, are made whole.
Lawn ornament: Forget-me-nots planted round a big rock
Purple wounds at dusk: A stunted lilac tree tries to blossom
Alone: Following this empty street that leads me home