Nature Essays


Awakening Wonder

by Andrea Freeman

“All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.”
~ Chinese proverb

What must it feel like to sip on fresh, sweet nectar and have it trickle down one’s throat, while enveloped by the seductive fragrance and soft satin rim of a petal goblet?
So I wondered, today, as I watched an Anna’s Hummingbird feeding on the blooms of an Abudelon bush growing in my garden. Suspended like miniature red and golden Chinese lanterns festively strung for a celebration, the bush’s blooms invited its long-billed, thin-tongued visitor to come and partake of its libations. With his gorget glittering and wings whirring at phenomenal speeds (the average being 50 times per second), the tiny bird hovered in place, and toasted life at each flower he visited.

‘Never Have An Ordinary Day’ is a memo I have posted on the wall above my desk. Below this is a photo of the Grand Canyon, taken from one of the many beaches milled by the mighty Colorado River flowing at its base. The roots of the ancient mountain range, that now rest at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, formed about 1.7 billion years ago. Geologists estimate that this range once stood as high as the Rocky Mountains do today. The mountains eroded away over eons of time, and sediments were
deposited over them by advancing and retreating seas. The beach in my picture is strewn with an assemblage of tumbled rocks, each one a bard whispering the story of change that lies behind its guise of permanence.

Zooming-in still further into the impermanence of things, the apparent solidity of matter, itself, is a virtual illusion. Mainly comprised of empty space, atomic and subatomic particles whir around each other’s spacious worlds, even faster than the beat of a hummingbird’s wings. The hummer’s wings beat so fast that they become a blur and seem to disappear. Quarks and bozons and leptons and neutrinos move so fast that they blur and make things seem solid.

One day, while contemplating the bigness of it all, I became curious as to how many atoms of carbon compose a standard period made by a pencil at the end of a sentence. The answer to my query was kindly provided courtesy of Van Peña in the Chemistry Department at Sonoma State University. Assume the period is a round circle 1/2 mm wide. Assume its thickness is 100th of a mm thick. There would be 6.02 x 1023 atoms in just this pencil period alone. It makes my mind reel — period.

The universe, itself, issued forth out of seeming nothingness, trumpeted into being by the boisterous imperative of the Big Bang. Donning the skin of space/time, it ballooned out in all directions, this expansion still continuing today. Every part, in the infinitude of parts that make up the universe, functions as a center from which this expansion is occurring. As if to illustrate this principle, hummingbirds flap their wings horizontally in the shape of a figure 8.

On our small blue planet, lying in one of the outer arms of an otherwise typical spiral galaxy — one of many billions scattered across the universe, life chanced to evolve, against insuperable odds. It has taken over 3 billion years to progress from our humble origins as simple one-celled organisms to the multifarious array of diverse life-forms that earth supports today. All are interrelated, all are interconnected. All are utterly amazing!

When I delve into the life history of any one of the denizens of field, forest, air, desert, ocean, marsh, pond or stream — from algae, fungi, and invertebrates to any of the leafed, needled, flowered, furred, feathered or scaled creatures of the wild, I am filled with incredulity and awe at who they are and how their strands are woven into the web of life.

“We are rag dolls made out of many ages and skins,” wrote anthropologist Loren Eiseley, “changelings who have slept in wood nests or hissed in the uncouth guise of waddling amphibians. We have played such roles for infinitely longer ages than we have been human. We are process, not reality, for reality is an illusion of the daylight — the light of our particular day. ”

What an extraordinary situation we, as humans, find ourselves in today on this spinning orb! For some inexplicable reason we have managed to become the dominant lifeform, at present; albeit bacteria are really the ones who merit top-billing. As our progenitors, it was they who were here at the beginning of life’s unfoldment, they who made it possible for the eventual air-breathers to be able to utilize oxygen, and it is they who have successfully remained on stage throughout, persisting up to the present as the most numerous lifeform here. An average teaspoonful of soil, for example, contains around ten thousand different genetic types of bacteria. If you extracted all the bacteria from two acres of farmland, their total weight would be greater than that of one hundred sheep. Nonetheless, it is we humans who hold the power to most suddenly and most profoundly effect and alter life and life’s ecosystems on the planet, for better or worse, depending on the choices we make.

Indeed, we have accomplished some notable achievements during our stay here, our ability to engage in abstract thought and conscious reflection being among the most significant. Our ability to count bacteria and atoms, being another. But we have made some truly counterproductive decisions as well, particularly in regards to safeguarding the environment on which we all depend. Global warming, deforestation, desertification, acid rain, toxic waste-buildup, species extinctions, overpopulation, urban sprawl, wetland removal, poisoned streams, contaminated aquifers, pesticide residue in soil and water, increase of cancer, armament escalation and warfare mentality. These are problems of great consequence that we have engendered, and only we can remedy them. And remedy them we must, if we are to survive as a species and prevent countless other species from perishing as we fall. Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian ethologist quipped wisely, “I believe I’ve found the missing link between animal and civilized man. It is us.”

The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by thinking along the same lines that created it in the first place, Einstein perceptively observed. A paradigm shift is necessary in the way we think and in the way we conduct ourselves here. It is true that urgent environmental measures must be adopted to facilitate cleanup of the polluted water, air and land, and ecologically sound policies implemented to prevent further degradation from occurring. In conjunction with this, I propose inspired awe as a method of recovery.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”, said French author Marcel Proust. The same applies to effecting a solution to our current crisis. By shifting our attention to the amazing wonders present in every moment of everyday reality and keeping them in the forefront of our consciousness, we will come that much closer to reorienting ourselves to living on this planet with renewed joy, respect and reverence for life. And, in so doing, may we follow the example of the hummingbird, in toasting life at every flower we meet along the path.

© 2002 Andrea Freeman
(Photo credit: Joe Schneid)


Kit Fox Messenger – A True Story

by Andrea Freeman

Crossing the Mojave desert in the middle of the night, travel weary, needing to sleep, I turned off the highway onto a rural dirt road that led away from the wiles of man.

Cresting a sand embankment, I followed an old tire track path deeper into the desert, weaving between desert shrubs to avoid harming them until no artificial lights could be seen and I knew I’d be able to rest undisturbed.

Braving the chill of the brisk night wind, by the bright lantern light of the moon, I unfurled my ground cloth which whipped about like a flag and billowed like a kite before finally settling on the sand. I was making haste to get out my sleeping bag and blanket to keep the ground cloth from flying off and placed a rock upon it to weight it down until I could when, all of a sudden, a Kit Fox appeared across the path. An astonishing visitor to see!

Surprising me even further, instead of running off and hiding, he crossed the path in a few quick steps and trotted over to where I stood.

Tall ears perked, fur shining, he circled me once in one direction and then in the other, and meeting with his approval, he sat down a discrete distance in front of me, looking me in the eye with the genuine warmth of a friend. He seemed to be smiling.

I stood before him, amazed at such an honor. So at one with the desert was he that the cold wind didn’t seem to touch him.

“Hello beautiful fox.” I said aloud. “I’m very glad to see you. Thank you for coming by.” He listened and remained seated, penetrating my heart with his wild beauty and vital presence. I basked in the current of love that flowed between us.We recognized each other as kin.

I’d been soul-searching in recent days, asking my higher-self what I could do that would be of the most benefit to the world while I’m still here. Preserving wilderness habitat for the denizens of the wild, all our relations in the plant and animal kindom, that they’ll be able to flourish unharmed was one of the foremost answers that came to me. Following the passion of poetry that keeps the soul fed and seeds the sublime was the other.

Now, the San Joaquin Kit Fox was standing before me to bring the message home. His very being was an infusion of light for me, a living poem. There are 7 billion people on the planet; only 7,000 Kit Fox remain. Habitat loss, hunting and poisoning have driven them to the brink, the demons of development devouring their future by bespoiling the present; a plight faced by so many species here and far away. Sacred land and lives in peril, desecrated by human sprawl and shortsightedness.

An hour earlier, I’d followed a rocky dirt road up a steep hill into what was designated as a recreational area, hoping to find a tranquil place to sleep. Spent rifle cartridges littered the ground everywhere, like broken bones. It looked like a war zone; the energy of the place felt torn and ragged and bloodied. A makeshift cross of two sticks tied together with gauze sat atop a pile of rocks. A dog caught by a stray bullet. A casualty of violence wrought by those who kill for sport. Souls gone far astray. Re-creation? Of needless suffering, only. My heart felt heavy with sorrow being there and the sound of trucks lumbering down the highway below shot through me like gunfire. I offered a prayer of peace for those who had been killed there and hastened away.

Now, I stood in the hallowed openess of the unbroken desert where an ally was offering me kinship and sanctuary. Cold though the night was, I knew I’d be safe here. I was grateful to have found refuge and the welcome of a friend. I was tired and needed to rest.

Trusting the kit fox to understand, I knelt back down over my tarp and unrolled my sleeping bag and blanket. The kit fox scampered off on his sandshoe feet while I prepared my bed, but once I was lying down, he came over to me again as if to check up on me.

“I won’t forget.” I promised him. I’ll look out for you as your spirit does for me.” The wind was flowing icy cold into my flannel bag, like a deep ocean current. I tucked my head deeper within to keep out the chill, curled up against the cold, and drifted off to sleep.

In the morning, there was no trace of the fox. His tracks had been swept away by the strong night wind, but the way his friendly spirit and radiant presence had touched me were imprinted upon my heart. I knew he’d be asleep in his burrow now. As the sun continued to rise, I walked around greeting the plants nearby where I’d slept – the creosote, buckwheat and blackbush – admiring their clever adaptations for survival. Scattered here and there, in the distance, I saw that plastic bags had become pinned against some of the shrubs, blown in from afar by the traveling wind.
I disentangled all I saw, carrying them away with me, until the desert looked pristine again.

Returning home a few days later, it was a friend’s birthday. I have a sizeable collection of cards amassed from various sources that I keep in a cloth bag. There are a multitude of different style cards inside. Some are hand-made, some are art prints, some are nature cards. I emptied the bag onto my bed to find a card to give to my friend. The cards spilled out, at random.

My heart skipped a beat when landing on top of the pile, face up, was a photo of a Kit Fox, a card I didn’t even recall putting into the bag. Reaching across time and space, his spirit had found me again, as he had that night, to let me know he was still with me. Feeling his presence, I smiled. I placed the card above my desk to see as a daily reminder.

I will honor my promise. I’ll redouble my efforts to ensure that his beautiful, black-tipped tail descendents as well as the other endangered species around the world – dwellers on land or in water, in jungle or savannah, mountain or plain – have unfettered space to roam free and thrive.

The earth is wild at heart. She won’t abide with being encroached upon or mistreated, polluted, partitioned or parceled for sale much longer. Like a wild stallion she’ll break free and buck us off her back. How much better to treat her gently, with respect and love from our own indigenous wild heart. By doing so, the earth will respond in kind and the future will be restored. Perhaps, then one day, our great-great-great grandchildren will also have the joy of meeting a kit fox in the open desert, or a river dolphin in the Amazon, or a sea turtle in a coral reef, or an orangutan in a rainforest, who greets them smiling saying, “I’ve been waiting for you. Good to see you. Glad we’re still here.” And have their lives transformed forever.

© 2011 Andrea Freeman
(Photo credit unknown)

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