Saturday Morning

A cluster of seals rises behind the skiff when I idle away from Peril Island. I feel as if they’re ushering me off, and as if the other animals are watching with relief while I depart: the seals stretched out on warm rocks; the blinking oystercatchers; the fretting gulls and shorebirds; the eagle who flew when I arrived; the peregrine, perched in some distant tree or soaring invisibly against the sun’s corona. I can almost sense the whole place breathing out as its tranquility returns. My deepest impression is that Peril Island and its animals belong to one another, and that there is no rightful place among them for humans.

Richard NelsonThe Island Within

 


Notes: Photo Credit: conservationaction.com.  Related Posts: “Richard Nelson”, The Island Within

Sunday Morning

I remember the Koyukon people’s keen awareness of changes in the terrain around them, based on what they had seen during their lifetimes and what the old-timers had seen before them. In the village of Huslia, people could remember when their cabins stood where the middle of the Koyukuk River runs today. All along its course, they had seen the river bite into its banks, cut through meander loops, build islands and move them gradually downstream, make new channels and abandon old ones. They had watched lakes become ponds, ponds become bogs, bogs become forests. The land came alive through their gift of memory and their long experience with this one part of the earth. Koyukon elders expressed this sense of change in the metaphor of a riddle:

Wait, I see something: The river is tearing away things around me.

Answer: An island, becoming smaller and smaller until it is gone.

I wish someday I might know a place as they do, might have their same visceral understanding that the land I move on is also moving. That nothing, not even this pyramid of mountain, is the same today as it was yesterday. That nothing, not even this island, exists for a moment without change.The great storm rages at this brittle edge, tore earth and rock from the shore, and washed them away beneath the surf. But what it took from the island above the sea, it laid down on the island’s underwater slopes. Recognizing this, it’s hard to say that anything was lost, or that the island was made less rich, less complete, less beautiful. An island grows old so gracefully.

Sometime in the distant future, the last remnant of Kluksa Mountain might stand amid the swells, a black spine of rock where cormorants roost and gulls rest in the wind. And after another millennium of storms, every trace of the island might disappear beneath the sea. Even the smallest grain of sand under my feet will likely be here when I’ve made my last track. A rock in the soil above this beach will probably outlast me a thousand times over. A nameless knoll above Peregrine Point may stand long after humanity has vanished from the earth. The thought makes me feel insignificant, ephemeral, and frail. But the island and I face the same inevitability of change, death, and transformation, and in this sense we belong to the same larger, less bounded world that encompasses us. We share a common life. We are a place and a person; but each of us is a process, a moment, and a passing through.

~ Richard Nelson, The Island Within (Vintage Books, April 1991)


Notes:

Miracle? All of it. 

birds-sun-light

Whirring notes of a varied thrush soak in through the walls of sleep.  Gradually ascending toward consciousness, I struggle to remember where we are, then realize what shore these songs ring out across. As the sky pales toward sunrise, I awaken to a world of dreams.

More varied thrushes join the first, until the woods and thickets chime like a chorus of bells. Other birds blend into the medley: fox sparrow, robin, hermit thrush, winter wren, ruby-crowned kinglet, Townsend’s warbler. Their sounds are trapped and magnified in the forest, made rich and deep in the saturated air – ribbons and lacework of song, shadows and flickers of song, splinters and shards of song, and the whispered secrets of unfamiliar song.

The cove fills up with bird voices, until even the noise of surf fades to irrelevance. And what of the songs beyond this patch of shore? If we hiked down the beach or back through the woods, we would hear the same chorus, repeated endlessly, permeating the air with sweet, mingled phrases. I wonder how many thousands of birds are singing at this moment on the island alone? How many millions along the north Pacific shore? And how many billions in the curved shadow of dawn that lies along the continent’s western flank? Throughout this vast expanse the land breathes with song and pours an anthem of morning into the sky. In the flow of a summer sunrise, the living continent sings.

~ Richard Nelson,  The Island Within


Inspired by Albert Einstein’s quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”


Notes:

Miracle. All of it.

fog-vancouver-island

If there is one god who shaped this ribbon of coast and mountains, who created and nurtures the community of living things that covers it, this god is Rain. About 215 days each year have measurable rain or snow. Yearly precipitation on the island totals nearly a hundred increase – eight feet – and perhaps half again that much on the high slopes. A single inch of rain disbursed over a square mile equals 17.4 million gallons of water. This means about 1.7 billion gallons falls each year on every square mile of the island. The upthrown land is wrapped almost constantly in clouds, and the stead wash of rain has shaped it with veins of coalescing water. Thousands of streams and rivers shed their burden into the Pacific, where it convenes as a mass of freshened current that flows along this entire coast. The rich forest exists here at the behest of rain, as do the muskegs and estuary meadows, and the whole array of rain-loving animals, from timber and slugs and click beetles to bears and bald eagles. I crawl outside the tent to feel the storm once more and take in this moment of its life. Standing in near-absolute darkness, I breathe the wind and try to perceive the power of the moment, to let the storm blow away these snares of thought and leave me the purer freedom of my senses. The storm has given me this day, this island born of rain.

~ Richard Nelson, The Island Within


Notes:

  • Photo: Adele Oliver (Vancouver Island) via Elinka
  • Related Richard Nelson Posts on Live & Learn: Richard Nelson
  • Inspired by Albert Einstein’s quote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
  • Related Live & Live Posts: Miracle. All of it.

Feel the breath of its song

fox-sparrow-bird

A clear, sharp, whistled voice peals up from the salmonberries. I follow it back along a narrow trail and find its maker: a fox sparrow twenty feet up in an elderberry tree. Wholly engaged in its performance, the bird takes no notice as I ease in below. It looks very plain – reddish-brown on the back, speckled on the breast and sides. Perhaps most of its evolutionary energy went into perfecting this ambrosial song. Every note is like a beam of brilliant light, woven into a complex, shimmering web. And with each sound, a tiny plume of steam puffs from the sparrow’s opened beak, rings and wreathes and curls outward, and dissolves into the crystal morning air. I can almost feel the breath of its song against the bare flesh of my face and fingers. Rich phrases pour down, and the leafless thicket trembles with its own living voice.

~ Richard Nelson, The Island Within


Notes:

Reading the newspaper? Yes? Think about it.

coffee-paper-newspaper

A large stump raised six feet above ground on buttressed roots offers a good lookout. The man who felled this tree cut two deep notches in its base, which I use to clamber on top. It’s about five feet in diameter and nearly flat, except for a straight ridge across the center where the cutter left hinge wood to direct the tree’s fall.  The surface is soggy and checked, but still ridged with the concentric growth rings. On hands and knees, nose almost touching the wood, using my knife blade as a poster, I start to count.  In a short while, I know the tree died in its four hundred and twenty-third year. […]

Now I gaze into a valley miles deep, laid bare to its high slopes, with only patches of living timber left between the clearcut swaths.  Where I stand now, a great tree once grew. The circle that mark the centuries of its life surround me, and I dream back through them. It’s difficult to imagine the beginnings – perhaps a seed that fell from a flurry of crossbills like those I saw a while ago.  More difficult still is the incomprehensible distance of time this tree crossed, as it grew from a limber switch on the forest floor to a tree perhaps 150 feet tall and weighing dozens of tons. Another way to measure the scope of its life is in terms of storms. Each years scores of them swept down this valley – thousands of boiling gales and blizzards in the tree’s lifetime – and it withstood them all.

The man who walked up beside it some twenty years ago would have seemed no more significant than a puff of air on a summer afternoon.

Perhaps thin shafts of light shone onto the forest floor that day, and danced on the velvet moss. I wonder what that man might have thought, as he looked into the tree’s heights and prepared to bring it down. Perhaps he thought only about the job at hand, or his aching back, or how long it was until lunch. I would like to believe he gave some consideration to the tree itself, to its death and his responsibilities toward it, as he pulled the cord that set his chainsaw blaring. […]

The clearcut valley rumbled like an industrial city through a full decade of summers, as the island’s living flesh was stripped away. Tugs pulled great rafts of logs from Deadfall Bay, through tide-slick channels toward the mill, where they were ground into pulp and slurried aboard ships bound for Japan. Within a few months, the tree that took four centuries to grow was transformed into newspapers, read by commuters on afternoon trains, and then tossed away.

~ Richard Nelson, The Island Within


Notes:

I feel like a minuscule upstart in their presence.

yellow-cedar-tree

Studies of coastal forests like this one reveal that exposure to wind is what most determines the age of trees. Whereas spruce trees in vulnerable stands live an average of two hundred years, those in sheltered, fertile areas like the Deer Meadow valley can live eight or nine hundred years. Yellow cedars, which are better able to resist wind, commonly survive for a thousand years. […]

Only a few raindrops and oversized snowflakes sift through the crown of trees as a squall passes over.  I’m grateful for the shelter, and I sense a deeper kind of comfort here.  These are living things I move among, immeasurably older and larger and more deeply affixed to their place on earth than I am, and imbued with vast experience of a kind entirely beyond my comprehension. I feel like a minuscule upstart in their presence, a supplicant awaiting the quiet counsel of venerable trees.

~ Richard Nelson, The Island Within


Notes:

  • Photograph of 800 year Yellow Cedar Tree in Cypress Provincial Park in British Columbia: Mick
  • Related Posts on Live & Learn: Richard Nelson

There’s the eagle’s world, and there is mine. Let’s Fly.

eagle-close-up-eyes-beak

As I watch the eagle rise above the bay, I let myself drift out beyond an edge, as though I were moving across the edge of sleep…I am filled with the same disdainful surge that releases him from his perch, feel the strain of air trapped in the hollows of his wings…The eagle sweeps away in great, lazy arcs, drifts against the corniced peaks, and soars up toward the smooth layer of cloud…At three thousand feet, the feathered sails flex and shake against a torrent of wind…I can feel the lash of gusts as the eagle planes above the mountain, gaze through his eyes at the fissured, snow-laden peak, and share the craving that draws him more deeply into the island’s loneliness…I have flown, however artificially, and have looked down over the island and the strait. But I can never know what the eagle sees with those blazing eyes, what are the shapes of mountains and shores amid the maze of detail that leaps into his brain.

There is the eagle’s world, and there is mine, sealed beyond reach within our selves. But despite these insuperable differences, we are also one, caught in the same fixed gaze that contains us. We see the earth differently, but we see the same earth. We breathe the same air and feel the same wind, drink the same water and eat the same meat. We share common membership in the same community and are subject to the same absolutes. In this sense, the way we receive what surrounds us is irrelevant: I have the eagle’s eyes and the eagle has mine.

~ Richard Nelson, The Island Within

Notes:

Every stub. Every whisker. Every mole. Every freckle. Every eyelash.

bald eagle

The bird cranes his head down to watch me, so the plumage on his neck fluffs out. HIs head is narrow, pinched, tightly feathered; his eyes are silver-gold, astringent, and stare forward along the curved scythe of his beak. Burned into each eye is a constricted black pupil, like the tightly strung arrow of a crossbow aimed straight toward me. What does the eagle see when he looks at me, this bird who can spot a herring’s flash in the water a quarter-mile away? I suppose every stub of whisker on my face, every mole and freckle, every eyelash, the pink flesh on my eyelid, the red network of vessels on the white of my eye, the radiating colors of my iris, his own reflection on my pupil, or beneath this reflection, his inverted image on my retina. I see only the eagle’s eye, but wonder if he sees down inside mine. Or inside me perhaps.

~ Richard Nelson, The Island Within

Photograph: Fairy-Wren

What I feel is scarcely a twitch

photography

I try to imagine the entire force of this storm flinging itself onto a thousand miles of Pacific coast, the multitude of gusts rolling over the land during every second of its passage, the combined power and noise and energy felt only by the continent itself. Listening to a single gust billow through the timber, I realize that what I feel is scarcely a twitch in the larger scale of things, like the swirl from one stroke of a bird’s wing.

~ Richard Nelson, The Island Within


Image: Endlesspetrichor

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