Whenever I am be-ing outdoors, awe and gratitude often strike me to the core, like a ray of sun suddenly slicing through the dense canopy and illuminating the forest floor in a shocking glow.
I realized a couple of weeks ago that on many of my recent outings, I had been much more focused on getting somewhere or on the physical activity of hiking, my body wanting to move while it could and my mind wanting a distraction from itself. I hadn’t been sinking into the still receptiveness of winter.
Well, cue a flare-up of body pain and an injury. Unable to exert myself I was forced to slow down, to be still and pay closer attention, to notice what was going on in my body and in the world around me. To be present with the pain* and my reaction to it, to notice where grief was rising, bubbles from the cracks at the bottom of an emotional sea.
It was then that the light of awe and gratitude that had recently been only like the first light of sunrise, rose high. The cracks broke open and a great flood washed over me.
Driving south along 101, the Washington coast rising and falling in great curves that seemed to match the sound of the waves breaking upon her shore, I made a sudden left turn onto a dirt road with a sign that read “Big Cedar.” I had driven past this sign near Kalaloch many times on my way to other places, promising myself I would make a more leisurely trip and stop at this and all of the other heritage trees.
Just a few steps from the rough parking area ,this giant tree looms colossal. It is said the tree is over 1000 years old; part of it has fallen and there is only one living branch, and it is breathtaking. Standing in the presence of this ancient being I felt time spin and grow very still, each breath seeming to be an eternity. I found myself circumambulating this kin’s** great trunk like a temple. Stooping beneath a huge root that was well over human height and must have grown out of a great nurse log, I felt like I was entering the most sacred of places. Walking around the tree, seeing where new life was growing from the decay, I acutely felt the cycle of life and death and the gifts that the forest holds. Tears wet my cheeks at I slowly stepped forward to touch the exposed roots and the soft, decaying bark. I spoke a prayer of gratitude, and a promise to work to protect the tree’s kin so that they too would have the chance to live full lives of grace.
Following several days of winter rain (finally), the weather cleared and the steely dome of the sky lifted into a high blue cathedral ceiling. Still feeling sore, I decided pain be damned and went to Rialto Beach, on Quileute tribal land, now the Olympic National Park.
It was impossibly beautiful. The horizon was completely clear so I watched the bright orb of the sun as the horizon rotated away, dipping the sun into the ocean to turn the water into surreal shades of orange and red and pink and purple.
Then just after sunset, as I’m watching the colors shift in the fading light, overcome by the beauty, an eagle flies by. And then another. And then a raven circles me. And then another raven. And then an eagle circles me. And then two more eagles fly by and land in the tree above me. One after another after another in wave after wave of awe, me turning in circles with my face lifted skyward: bird, pink sky, sunset, purple ocean, bird. Feeling the incredible throng of life.
Before I knew it I was sobbing. Like tears pouring down my face grateful the ocean covered the sound and all the people had already moved on sobbing. I stood there and just wept for a while, the waves of awe and gratitude crashing against waves of pain and grief in a beautiful spray of tears.
Yes, I was sobbing for my own pain and loss, which we all have. But I was also crying in gratitude, crying for the sheer impossibility that I, or any of us, could be here to witness such beauty, and how fleeting it is. Crying for the loss that the earth has experienced, me listening to her cries, even as she hears mine. I felt awe at the continued celebration of the cycle of life and death, against all odds. And I felt a fierce protectiveness for what, who, I love.
I went home as the gloaming deepened. Later that night I went out to walk my dog, and was surprised to see to see something I had not seen here yet: the sky was perfectly clear, the moon was old, and the stars were flickering brightly.
I live close enough to town that there is enough light pollution to obscure the full majesty of the starry sky. So, I hopped back in the car and drove to Rialto again. As I drove one, two shooting stars crossed my sight, seeming to call me forward. I stopped where the Quillayute river pours into the sea, the electric lights blocked by mountains, and again turned my face skyward.
Its a good thing I was leaning against the car.
Above me stretched a tapestry of light against the darkness and the Milky Way in near-full glory, the river mirroring the flowing. Another shooting star with a tail that trailed across half my field of vision flashed brightly; I felt as if I could reach out and grab the star like a firefly in a jar.
And there I was, one being held by the cosmos, the earth supporting my feet, the stars as gateways to the unknowable. Time again began to spiral, the flickering stars seemed to giggle and sing as the river hummed softly and the waves added their crescendos. What greater miracle than this?
Nature can break us open in the most beautiful of ways, reminding us of our own wildness, of the connection we have with the world and with other beings. This connection remains whether we acknowledge it or not, and demands our attention and reciprocation.
*Pain and disability sucks, make no mistake about that. But for me, I have to see it as a gateway. Not to make the pain go away, but to understand myself as a person with pain and how fleeting life is, and to empathize with the pain of the world.
**I strive to remove inappropriate pronouns from my vocabulary, and to always address a being with the pronoun they use, human or non-human. I do not feel comfortable referring to the earth and the many beings that exist here as “it”. Kin is one alternative that I use, as it is non-appropriative, gender neutral, and reflects the relationship we have with other beings. Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks more about this, and has inspired me to continue to reflect on language.