Gilded, her silhouette shimmered amid the silver tumult of a sea collapsing upon itself. Bracing spray chased her up the beach; receding reflections of sky pulled at her feet. Unconstrained; another mammal, this daughter of mine, at play beneath wheeling, crying gulls, gliding pelicans and a falling sun. From my vantage point on the dune, her play with the tide was a heart-squeezing vision of purity, hauling up my own childhood, almost 50 years and a few hundred miles further down this very same coast.
German philosopher and marine biologist Andreas Weber wrote, “Feeling is never invisible; it takes shape and manifests as form everywhere in nature. Nature can, therefore, be viewed as feeling unfurled, a living reality in front of us and amidst us.”
An obvious expression of this for me comes through plants and ecosystems.
When I first traced the contours of my favorite running hill, its south- facing red rock burst with Indian ricegrass and wildflowers. The backside was a quiet fairyland of poa, grama, fescue and needle grasses. Back in the day, sego and sand lilies, paintbrush, wild-phlox and flax marked the seasons amid the miracles of moss, stone and lichen.
Running this past June, in search of green pinyon cones to make sun syrup, I found myself off-trail, my back against an ancient juniper, swiping at tears. Grasses were crunchy, already dormant. Years of undecomposed needles were dry as a fart. Of the hundreds of pines I’d scanned or handled, I found and left only two green cones, both deformed and stunted. Many of the branch tips were shattered, dripping sap, with no tip bud for next year. It scared the hell out of me.
What is it like for our kids, born into a faltering planet?
Taking Juniper to the coast last month, to the redwoods, was a pilgrimage of sorts. I needed her to “know” with her whole body, to feel the abundance and beneficent “will” of life, of our planet. I needed it, too: reassurance. Escaping the one awful place I lived for a few years — Washington, D.C. — I’ve been living at the spiny, brittle edges of aridity for almost 30 years.
After 10 bleak hours across the Great Basin, past the urban density of the Bay Area, we arrived at the edge of our continent in the dark. Surge of sea and surf reverberated in our ears and bodies. Crickets, frogs, katydids cut through the white sound as one voice; music. When we woke in the morning, the dazzle of morning light, fog and rolling ocean exploded our senses: we felt so alive. And so unfurled the next 12 days, attuned to a rich, teeming, seething, crawling, decaying, regenerating reality.
The beaches were spectacularly raw, with a dangerous undertow, rugged sea stacks and foggy cliffs: so much to explore, see, touch and smell. I dissected dead gulls, pulled a seal skull from its purse of desiccated hide. The aroma of briny rot clung to my mouth and nostrils. Juni and I waded in tidal pools and squealed over orange or purple starfish, flung kelp around in alien battles, collected sand dollars and shiny pebbles. We buried our friend’s aging dog in sand to his ears, eyelids and nostrils, struck silly when he blissed out and slept for the whole afternoon. We flew kites, glassed pelicans and raced the waves, seeking a safe surf to swim.
Driving into the redwoods, we gasped at unexpected elk tines glinting as blades of light and shadow above meadow grasses. We frolicked in aqua river holes, leaping from boulders, marveling at the ballsy trout swirling about our ankles. I tracked a Roosevelt cow elk and her calf through beach brush and Sitka spruce. We filmed juvenile bulls trotting at the forest’s edge. We chuckled at a covey of quail, multiple families foraging and surviving together. And we gagged over gargantuan, slimy banana slugs.
Most magical, the redwoods themselves. They’re immensity is ineffable: the largest solitary organisms on Earth. Seeing, smelling, touching, hugging, walking among these primordial giants filled us all with Louie Schwartzberg’s “Oh, my God.”
“The ‘oh,’” he says, “means it caught your attention, it makes you present, it makes you mindful. The ‘my’ means it connects with something deep inside your soul, it creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard. And God, ‘God’ is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we are connected to a universe that celebrates life.”
At one point, Juniper and I lay in fallen, burnished tree roots bigger around than us, 15 or 20 feet up. We held one another, our bodies touching from head to heart, hip and toe. In that moment, in complete union to a life far larger, longer, grander than ours. Yeah… all the feels.