The drumbeat started in late July, when the first buckeye leaves browned and dropped: Time is short.
Whole weeks through the summer seemed to stretch in ways that defied introspection and self-pity. But shortening days and the changing landscape inspired panic. I began to feel it physically — this passing season is finite. We are finite.
By September, I could lie in bed in the morning and hear my fate coming for me. The pulse in my skull sounded like doors slamming shut in a long hallway, getting closer.
I read somewhere that the span of a life is like a ball thrown up into the air. When the ball reaches the top of its arc and stops rising, the pause is almost imperceptible. And then all of the sudden you’re accelerating toward the ground. I’m 37 years old, and feel like these days are slipping through my fingers.
“Time in nature is cyclical or cumulative; human time is linear,” writes David Suzuki in The Sacred Balance. “Without [spirituality] we are truly doomed, drowned in time and change, forced to watch the gap between now and the end as it inexorably shrinks. Friends, family, all the joys and beauties of life are threatened by time and death.”
Self-awareness is a curse that humanity has kept at bay through spiritual experience.
If I understand Suzuki correctly, now would be a good time to get right with God. But for me, religion is nowhere to turn. It hasn’t worked since I was a kid.
So I opted to lie down on the dirt. I decided to sink into the leaves and mold, and lie there quietly and try to understand something of the universe.
I wanted to listen to what nature had to say, to try to find some patience and meaning.
My days are filled with spastic noise, the addictive dopamine of meaningless social media interactions, constant unfulfilling notices of my continued existence.
I needed to try to strip that away, if even just for an hour at a time, to try to find out what I actually thought about anything. I came to the woods to think, to let the spirit enter or not. To be open and let it wash over me.
So for the span of a few weeks in August and September, I rolled in the dirt with a notebook and this is what happened.
Jaite, Late August
The Buckeye Trail rambled through the bottom of the Cuyahoga River Valley, crossing a meadow. Canada Goldenrod leapt in the dewy morning sun, wet leaves licking my knees– big flowering heads of Solidago canadensis bumping against my legs.
I came to a tiny creek called Granny’s Run, a trickle flowing from the west into the Cuyahoga River. Whitetail deer had bedded down near the creek, flattening the tall grass near a clump of young beech trees.
There are fish! Tiny minnows in a creek as deep as the first knuckle of my index finger. This rill was their world, connected to the deer and the Cuyahoga and the maple trees behind my house. Improbable, darting wild fish!
The meadow rang out with the whir of tree crickets, katydids, coneheads. Each male singing insect called out into the world, hoping some female would like the sound of his voice and make a connection. There was a shrill urgency, even desperation. Can anyone hear me?
This approximated how I spent my twenties, yelling random noises out into the ringing world.
I stepped across the creek, and into the dark nearby woods and felt a stabbing in my chest when I saw the deflated mayapples on the forest floor. The brown and withered beach umbrellas hung limp and bent.
Wasn’t it just June?
Sugar maple leaves fell out of the canopy, dropped prematurely, crisped and browned with much green still on them. The past two months had been hot and dry, following the wettest June on record. I looked up and see two maple leaves falling at a time, scorched by heat and wind, a lack of rain.
I settled down into the forest floor and watched a slug probing the leaf litter, extending its eye stalks, elongating its body into the open air, shrinking back from stimuli. It seemed to float over the landscape, its entire body undulating in way that felt too complex for a near brainless animal. How could a slug control these parts independently? How does something with a bundle of sensory nerves for a brain have any sort of will at all?
When I look at the animal world, I wonder at the concept of conscious thought. What goes on in the minds of animate non-human life? This slug makes decisions every microsecond, to extend its stalks, to eat or not eat.
Moss and fungi crept over a rotted log. Every treefall crawled with dank flora, knotted interwoven lives.
I had sat still long enough to fool a fox, which bounded away in the dappled understory when I stood up.
From the fungus to the fox – there was a nonlinear web of connection tying each of us together, despite our living in the illusion of singular existence and agency.
We are not apart. We will not die alone.
Yellow Springs, Early September
About two hours southwest of Cleveland, in a part of the state I’d never visited, I found myself standing in the bottom of the Clifton Gorge, somewhat lost.
The Little Miami River is an Ohio River tributary, and the first designated Wild and Scenic River in Ohio.
I had just taken a huge, panicked shit in the woods like a hobo or a bear with the gnats sucking the moisture from my eyeballs. This was not how I’d pictured my meditative writing session, but it did ground me in my body, in place.
I had jumped off the trail to find an out of the way location. I’d dove into a hobbit tunnel down toward the sound of water. To my dismay, I found another, lower trail and dozens of other hobbit tunnels. Getting down here was easy, finding the car may not be.
I felt anxious at the thought of being lost. When did this start? What do I fear? Bodily harm? My wife’s wrath? When had I become so tentative?
I could have been nerve-wracked by distance from my home. I seem to get that uneasy now whenever I feel separated from my kids.
I identify as a northerner, and have always considered waterflow to be the delineation between north and south. Does water flow toward Lake Erie and out to the Strait of St. Lawrence or South to the Mississippi Delta? This was a southern stream.
As I sat on the stream bank, I watched a flock of various passerines descend on the gorge — a mixed group of waxwings, warblers, nuthatches, and chickadees had lighted in the trees all around me, likely migrants moving south.
These birds tie the entire western hemisphere together, species moving through every ecosystem from boreal forest to tropical landscapes hardly imagined.
The phenomenon is called mixed species foraging — where the group benefits from increased predator vigilance and each species focuses on insect prey in its own specific niche.
Some birds turned over the undersides of the leaves to get at the caterpillars underneath, some smaller birds flitting to the tips of branches, others picked bark along the trunks.
I vowed never again to wander into the woods without my binoculars, but knew I wouldn’t keep that promise. I just don’t have the discipline to carry them around. Small and yellowish warblers flitted just far enough away to avoid identification. The birds flipped the leaves of the sycamore trees too quickly — they were visible in glimpses.
It felt like a metaphor or parable, watching the birds dancing just out of my reach of vision, to not be able to identify them. It felt like the search for life’s meaning, to be able to observe that there’s a meaningful pattern, but not to have any way to access it, to have the meaning flitting just out of my grasp.
On the perimeter trail of the Cleveland Lakefront Nature preserve, Monarch Butterflies flocked to the meadows along the break wall. The site is just east of downtown, an oasis for wildlife crossing Lake Erie.
The butterflies crawled all over white flowers along the trail, flexed their Orange and black and white wings in the sun.
The antennae and wings made up a huge portion of the overall mass of the insect – they seemed to stagger awkwardly as they negotiated the flowers on-foot. What are they getting out of these little dusty white flowers? I wondered. There didn’t seem to be much nourishment there, which they likely needed.
The earth still reflected the summer’s heat, but already was turning toward the cycle of cold, darkness. Soon these insects the weight of a paper clip would fly to Mexico.
For most of the year, adult monarchs live for about two to five weeks. In late summer, a special monarch generation is hatched that will live up to nine months, flying 20 to 30 miles per day.
There was a sense of joy in watching the monarchs, living snatches of bright color and motion, bustling against the wind, still flying.
How do these animals negotiate the lake? How can something so fragile go so far?
The lake is a separation, a border, an expanse uncrossable without great effort and sacrifice.
People seem to sense the lake as a dominant feature of the landscape. You can feel it — intuitively know where you are in relation to the lake.
I grew up on a swampy patch of land where the Cuyahoga River bends north toward Erie. The lake itself was dozens of miles away and we never visited. It felt like some distant unknowable father.
The lake’s character imprinted all aspects of Northern Ohio’s culture. Our voices reflect off of the lake, our city is built on its water and weather. Its boundary marks the place where we turn back or dive in.
I didn’t know the lake, so now I try to make up for lost time, spending idle hours on its shore, casting in. Walking alongside of it, the water is mute and opaque, like many father figures.
We listen to the wind, to what it doesn’t say, how it bounces and erodes the world. We look to it for meaning, and find none.
My own father is not estranged by any stretch, but circumspect, unknowable. I watch him often and wonder what he thinks. It’s likely embarrassing.
I find myself having less and less to say, where I was once constantly talking. The things I say and do ring stupid in my own ears. Seem imprudent.
I imagine my own father’s weariness, growing tired of hearing himself lapping against the stony shore.
Eroding time. Grinding senselessly away. You grow weary of your own voice.
I wonder how I will maintain connection to who I think I am. I write it down.