by Zinta Aistars
Snow swirls from the skies and the temperature drops to some chill single digit, but I am eager to be outside in it. I bundle up, two layers of most everything, and twirl a woolen scarf around my neck in circles upon circles, push my woolen-socked feet into boots, pull on knit mittens, and out I go to catch snowflakes.
Back in suburbia, I might be inclined to stay inside, warm and coddled, but here, in open country in middle Michigan, I crave the outdoors. I crave a little something of the wild. At the opening edge of my third week here, I have seen herds of deer most every day, as many as 22 at a time, as few as one, white tail flicking as she pushed her nose into snow for a bite of something that remembers summer.
The deer are silent this morning, and gone. As I trek back into the snowy fields behind the barn, out toward the wooded tree line, I see only their delicate prints in the snow. But I feel them. I sense them near, perhaps even watching me.
What is this craving we humans have for the wild? For the elements in their most basic form—earth, air, water, fire? In my days and nights here in this country house, I have connected with all of these, and each time I do, I sense something in my very core realigning and falling into place. Suddenly, I will sense a deep calm. All is right again, with me and with the world. Harmony.
I have been reading a book called Island Farm while living here, by Arthur Versluis, a neighbor, in fact. He keeps striking chords with me and with this country experience—and with this craving for the wild, too. Versluis has found the exact words to describe our connection to the wild when we encounter deer:
“Here on the farm you’ll see them sometimes at dusk or at dawn, silent, poised, round tan bodies on delicate legs, heads turned toward you, brown eyes gazing. They are like spirits floating over sharp hooves, ghostlike in the morning mist or twilight. If you freeze, they might turn, walk on their way, but more often they’ll bolt, and like gazelles, bound among the trees and disappear from view. One might pause, though, and look back at you, just to see what you’re doing, and perhaps your eyes will meet, in that moment some mysterious communication taking place. That’s the point at which worlds join, natural and human, over the tall brown grass ..."
Versluis goes on to say:
“Machinery and convenience are too often mistaken for civilization nowadays, but in fact civilization can be measured only by whether we live in harmony with nature, with one another, and with the divine.”
Nailed it, I think, tapping my finger on the page. The reason why so many of us are in discord with ourselves and others, with our world, and why we seem to be in constant struggle against a creeping unhappiness, is this disconnect. We live in deep isolation—from each other, from our communities, from the natural world around us. Our eyes meet with the eyes of a wild one, and for an instant in time, we feel the connection we have been missing all along. An electric current of momentary harmony with the natural world that birthed us and cradles us still, whether we realize it or not.
It jibes with the Woodswoman series I recently read, the four-book memoir by Anne LaBastille, who lived in a cabin in the wilderness for her entire adulthood. She would sometimes take on teaching jobs at colleges and universities to teach about nature writing and ecology. When a college administrator pulled her aside to warn her of the dangers of taking her students on a camping trip for one night, she sensed a fear of nature among those who live apart from it. Whereas these same students routinely wander city streets, it was a walk in the woods the college administrator feared most when considering their safety. She was expected to teach nature writing while keeping students away from nature.
When did we become so afraid of a walk in the woods? In essence, isn’t this really a fear of the wild in ourselves?
I tromp through the snow, and immediately I feel that surge of joy come up in me. What is it that causes this joy? It is the joy of a reunion with a part of our own selves that has been, nearly, lost to us. It is the cold, fresh air on my face, bringing a flush of health to my cheeks. It is the resonance of my step against the earth. My blood beats with the pulse of the earth beneath and around me. I stand in the middle of the snowy field, surrounded by woods, and open my arms to the sky spilling white like a cool blessing upon me.
All morning, I walk. Through the field, along the edge of it, and I step into the woods, following the delicate tracks of the invisible deer. I come across a great old tree, a time-worn giant, and feel reverence. I press a mittened hand against its thick trunk, but that won’t do. I take my mitten off and touch that ropey bark, those thick grooves and its rough exterior, worn by many, many years of sun, rain, snow, wind. The tree has been here much longer than I, and I can only hope that it will be here long after I am gone.
I open my eyes to the beauty of winter—the bare limbs of trees, dried grasses, a denuded world that hides nothing. This is what we build upon. Here is our own white-washed skeleton. Beneath the snow, the earth rests and contemplates her rebirth, yet months away. She is storing up her energies.
I feel my own energy surging. There is much I wish to do yet on this weekend—read, paint, write. But this is what I had to do first, and what I will need again, whenever my spirit tires. Here is my source. And yes, it is wild. Beyond that edge of the field, deeper into the wood, and beyond, and beyond still, the wild that holds within it life as well as death. This chill, too, after all, could kill, and we must respect it, understand its rules and align our own. Therein is the harmony of our contentment. Not when we tame the natural world, but when we connect to the wild within it, and sense our own, the core of creativity, the voice that howls at the moon, the passion that sustains us and keeps us from drowning in mediocrity.
We, too, are wild, or once were. When we remember this, when we touch that bounding pulse, we believe again.