Poet of Whidbey

The rhythm of voice, the rhyme of movement, the rhapsody of touch.  Perhaps it was the tallness, the vastness, the breadth of experience I could never match that drove me to explore. Or was it the conversational dance I had never before noticed?

Monday I met a new friend; completely unexpected as it was. A typical “first meeting,” you know the sort; “What should I say? What shall I hold back? How much trust should I expect?”  Looking back, it was a desire for quiet, for someone to listen to my soul that drew me.  And, if I am honest, there was a need for me to listen to my soul.  Perhaps I was looking for a space where my ear could be tuned and voice expressed into a generous and generative place.

Across stone and moss, over plank and ridge, I stepped onto the trailhead. A spongy path cushioned my sandal covered feet; the damp moss caressed my toes, a pine twig lodged itself into a strap, poking, prodding me along.  Firs as high as I had ever seen, reaching to the sky, swaying to a rhythm I could not hear, the aroma of cedar carried on each rain drop as they dampened my head. Anticipation drew me onward, curiosity invited me to pause, and pause again.  The beauty of my new friend was breathtaking, not only for her physical beauty, also for the strength of deep character that moved and intrigued me, urging me forward.

A mound of slate gray stones glistening from the morning dew met me at the threshold; sculpting tools for the nearby labyrinth.  As I entered into this new space, the rain gently landed on my head, pressing me under a mantle of tall firs.  Rain drops dangled from the lichen, settled on moss, holding their glimmering jeweled shape.  The canopy enveloped me into the patter of drops on branches and the gradual loosening of my shoulders. Moving left and right and left again; an invitation onward to a destination unknown.

Soon there was a choice: continue straight in a gentle slope downward, or take a right and head upward.  I remembered the words of Thomas the caretaker, when in order to help us find our way of out of the ever twisting paths of The Chinook Land had said, “If you come to a fork in the road, in order to get back to the main area, always take the path that leads down.”  I took the path that went up. There are many good reasons to take that downward path, but on this day I was exploring, so the up path was my choice.  As it turned out, it was a dead end, but oh, what a magnificent dead end.  Usually accompanied with an idea of “oh well, nothing here to see,” this dead end did not disappoint. Instead, it was beyond my expectation.  My new friend had led me to a small clearing, which was on the edge of a softened bluff.  As I looked down to the base, the firs rose up, grew past me, and continued up into the heavens.

Then the silence spoke. I could hear my own breathing, punctuated by the beat of my heart. And silence. Gordon Hempton’s words in his book, “One Square Inch of Silence,” came to mind. “Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything . . . It is the presence of time, undisturbed. It can be felt within the chest. Silence nurtures our nature, our human nature, and lets us know who we are…To experience the soul-swelling wonder of silence, you must hear it.”  I offered my tithe of silence and awe in return; the only way I knew to express my gratitude. I wonder if she knew she was poet… 

Tuesday – Day 2  At the end of my first day’s hike, I had come to the conclusion I was not finished exploring this new relationship. What if I walked, the same trail every day during my time at Whidbey? What changes would I see? Deciding this might be an interesting experiment, the next morning I started out at the trailhead again. Same pile of rocks, same peaceful labyrinth, same sign prophetically pointing me in the right direction.  However on this day the difference was not in the trail; the difference was in me. I had been up late talking to a family member concerned about the election: about how I had voted, wanting to make sure I knew how wrong I had been. The entire election process had brought with it a low level depression, and the weeks since, well, things had not lightened up. So on that day it was sadness that accompanied my time with my friend.

Through the years I have found not everyone has the ability to hold sad feelings of another. We are uncomfortable with them, so we often try to “fix the problem” or make it go away.  We say, “get over it” and hope they will, so that they, along with us, feel better. So, I was hesitant to admit what was rumbling around me, bringing more weight to my shoulders. I walked passed the dead tree laden with moss, ducked under the low cedar branches and as the path leaned from left, to right to left, my shoulders began to feel relief.  I breathed, deeply and often and felt release in the middle of the silent firs. The weight of sadness was lifting; it was being held with deep care, honored and because of this, the pain seemed to soak into the mighty tree branches, replacing it with a healing sap to my soul. As I padded along the twigs, trunks and turns, a calm peace came over me and carried me on through the day. I wonder if she knew she was healer…

Wednesday – Day 3 If dampness had a color, I think it would be gray.  My camera wrapped in a clear plastic bag from under the kitchen sink in the Farmhouse, I planned to use my zoom to see what sort of images would appear through this different lens. The rain clouds hovered overhead, and on the ground a flash of orange burst by my toe, and a splash of burgundy appeared inches off the foot path.  White, gold, bright orange, yellow, deep burnt orange, maroon, and black mushrooms: on trees alive or dead, in piles of sticks, alone or in communities, the forest was full of unexpected fungi, an artist palette. Up until this time, the only source of color I noted were the earthy infusions of green, hues of brown, tones of blue, with one exception. On the path was on spot of bright orange.  It had caught my eye on the first day, and each day it remained I was amazed. It was a goldfish.  A brilliant orange goldfish cracker, the only sign of humans I saw in the forest all week.  Sure enough, as I took the bend and began my climb slowly back up the hill, there it was willing me forward and waiting to become lunch for a squirrel, or to be carried off by a line of ants.

Making a point to swap my lens changed what I saw.  This simple action invited me to see what I had not yet noticed; from the tiny to the tall, the small offerings of color popped against the monochromatic background. A banana slug under a pile of sticks, a squirrel guarding the forest, a tiny finch flitting from fern to fern all became visible as I stopped, listened into the silence and watched. The forest, the trail and everything connected to it was becoming my friend. I had not intended it to happen, didn’t know it could. I could tell the story, but the experience itself was mine to own. I wonder if she knew she was artist…

Thursday – Day 4 Becoming attuned to silence means becoming more alert to sound.  It was on this day the old question – if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it make a sound? – came to my mind, as if sound and silence are somehow in opposition to one another. There is something very therapeutic about both silence and sound.  The rhythmic dance of the tree tops moving to private music, not heard by my ears, yet each leaf, branch and piece of bark gently rocked back and forth in time.  There had been a squirrel apparently appointed as a look out, who had sassed his warning to the forest incessantly each time I had entered the trail.  On this morning he was quiet.  Perhaps I caught him napping, or he was becoming as familiar with my presence, as I was with his.  The energy of both movement and stillness was palpable. The effects of movement are visible; stillness energy, when coupled with that of silence, becomes an unstoppable force. The motionless power held me in place, not wanting to move, not even able. It is in this place of silence, of stillness that I experienced something deep in me stir, images and ideas. Something connected; it was at this moment, sitting on a log off the softened bluff that my ears turned from my soul to hers. It was as if the energy of stillness and silence arose from the ground as strengthening nourishment, up through my boots, into my legs, flowing into my bloodstream and becoming a part of my own process. I wonder if she knew she was midwife…

Friday Day 5 I heard the song to which the firs danced. The canvas of underbrush moved in a flowing harmony.  A pileated woodpecker tapped the baritone riff, the occasional gust through the downed trees of the lower valley punctuated the bass notes. Walking with her this morning the landscape had moved from a warm conversation, to a cold dampness of the wetlands. Nearing a bend in the path where, for the last 4 days had rested the goldfish cracker; where, it had become a ritual to watch for it: today, it was gone.  Not even a crumb had remained as it had been carried off to make a tasty meal for a local.

I turned downhill to follow the winding path to the creek bed, deer tracks briefly accompanied me. Earlier in the week I had wondered how often this human-made path was used by forest residents, I guessed this was my answer.  Because the path down to the wetlands traversed a rather steep hill, care had been given in its formation and numerous turns had been established in the trail in order to make it safer for those hiking.  Coming to a sharp curve where I needed to turn to the left, deer tracks continued straight into the forest, evidence in the moist dirt, up and over logs, the tracks continued. During good weather, tracks are often nearly invisible, however when snow or rain comes those ancient pathways that have been traversed longer than we can imagine are magically revealed  I wondered what ancient pathways are revealed in me as the weather in my life becomes less predictable?  Are there places I feel I can go off trail? Or must I always play safe and stay on the path set out before me? The smell of the moss, the green covering the trees, each it’s own mini-ecosystem.  I wondered, how the ecosystem of my life plays out in the larger ecosystem of my culture.

The questions seemed many, the answers few and no sense of urgency to have them answered.  There was no time on the trail, no rush to leave her presence, and no agenda urging us forward. Instead it was the up and down of the path like a Sunday mass, kneeling, standing, silence, yet no spoken word is used to offer the Eucharist.  Rather it is a drop from the cup of grace flavored with cedar that is poured out from soaring branches in the heavens. The bread of life is spoken in silent questions of the soul that would offer nourishment for life. I wonder if she knew she was priest…

Saturday Day 6 – Rain splattered my hair into damp flatness, except for the locks whose curliness is more pronounced in the humidity. This morning, it did not matter.  I could sit on a log, with wet, funky hair, jeans smelling like moss, eye liner that continually escaped from the corner of my eye, a camera protectively hidden under a jacket protruding as if I was concealing a cat, and none of it matter. I wondered how would it be to live my life where the outside of me didn’t really matter?  Unless I become a hermit, which was an inviting consideration after this week of silence, I knew that this was not likely. This isn’t something I regularly contemplate, however re-entry to “regular society” was on my mind on this day.  It would be returning to a sense of normalcy that gave me comfort, it was also going back to the elements of life that create tension in my trapezoids, and lumps in my throat. What to wear, and the state of my hair are not things I contemplate in my daily life, but wanting to be a good presence for those in my family, with whom I work, and minister to, is.  And I realize this brings additional stress of wanting to meet the expectations of the world.  If this election cycle has taught me anything, it is that I can’t please everyone, and my week on the land has reminded me of this.

This is what my hiking partner, my friend the trail taught me.  I sat on a downed log, a gift from the universe to rest both my body and soul.  I wait, watched and listened while my friend fell asleep.  I have never done so with so much intention.  Dim to dark, trees swaying back and forth in a gentle cadence, back and forth, moving as a mother rocks her child, coos from the owls, the last shuffles as inhabitants settle in their warm homes.  I sat as she fell asleep, sword ferns nodding off in the evening mist.  The importance of getting off the trail before night compelled me toward the downward path. While my eyes adjusted to the dark, all trails began to look the same.  I was glad I knew the terrain. There was a gift of acceptance that night, despite my damp and dingy self, my soul was deeply cared for as the outlines of the tall firs became more visible in the starlight. The bark stripped maduro revealed a smooth, deeply auburned wood, boldly shining as one of the last visible mark of the night. I wonder if she knew she was sacred…

Sunday Day 7 Earlier in the morning, I realized there had been limited sounds of birds or animals all week long.  Was it the weather? The super moon?  The evening hoots from neighboring owls, or the distant call of the coyotes were available most nights as we fell asleep.  However during the day it had felt unusually quiet.  Before I left for the ferry, I wanted to greet my friend a final time. I climbed through the trees, passed the labyrinth and the trail sign with a direction arrow I no longer needed.  Time was tight, so I walked with purpose beneath the cedars, left, right, left and turned up the path to the softened bluff where I too had softened over the week.  Reflecting on my time in the trees I remembered how on the first day I had decided to walk this trail daily to see how it changed.  There had been changes.  Mushrooms were eaten, the goldfish cracker disappeared, the banana slug had moved on. However, the biggest change was not something visible. I had learned to sit with the life of trees, to breath in their sacred presence.  There had been the healing of my body, the calming of spirit, the birthing of new ideas, the ear attuned to the soul of another, and the acceptance of self. In the silence, a call of the eagles sounded, piercing through my thoughts as in affirmation of this new threshold, a re-entry into daily life with a deeper engagement of my own self, and to those around me.  I had expected to make friends this week, however had not expected my friend to be the trail. I wonder if she knew she is friend…

      Poet, healer, artist, midwife, priest, sacred, friend.