In early June I helped to lead a women’s retreat at Rolling Ridge. About a week before the retreat, we each received a suggested assignment to reflect on the experience of the past two years, the strange time between the pre-pandemic world we thought we knew and whatever might be ahead. “What have you learned in this interim? what has been revealed? what might you want to remember and carry into whatever is next? what is best left behind?” This was my reflection:
As pandemic descended, I encountered three images that rose out of the state of the world and the planet at that time. The first is of people fighting over thrones in a golden palace, all while the palace is collapsing and falling apart around them. The second is of a tightrope stretched between projected hope (a just solution, an ideology, a party or system, a messiah) and projected hopelessness (nihilism, misanthropy, hedonism). The tightrope must be walked continually, balancing strenuously between false hope and hopelessness, avoiding both, using every muscle of heart and mind to stay upright. The third is of a train heading inexorably toward a cliff. The people in the hopeful cars want a miracle. The people in the hopeless cars want to speed up the train. One must climb on top of the train just to see what is happening, ducking when the tunnels come, looking desperately for a place beyond the mountains where one could jump off, though that means risking all.
In those early months of forced solitude and stillness, I lived within hundreds of acres of mountain forest in a small human community. We human ones devised ways to maintain connection and to gather in the open, to hold simple rituals of support. Meanwhile, the more-than-human ones offered humus-softened paths, rustling leaf music, coral sunsets, whiffs of honeysuckle, flashes of fox tail and azure wing.
The poets and priests sang of a liminal moment, the invitation for a collective re-set, “Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (You could hardly deny it now.) Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. (Surely, that has come clear.)” [Liz Ungar, "Pandemic" ]
As engines shut off and the air cleared, reports came in of people looking up and around in wonder. There were calls to cherish the blue sky, the thriving wildlife, the luminous twilights and sunrises, to return to gratitude and a grounded culture in which pausing and breathing were possible, in which we belonged to the Earth and to one another.
Amid this global threshold moment, it came time for me to move from forest to village. Now when I look out the window over my desk I see cottages clustered in twos and threes with lovingly tended gardens overflowing with all manner of native and medicinal plants, asters, beebalm, yarrow, butterfly weed.
The village is ringed by a narrow band of oaks, firs, and maples. The sky over the cottages and their solar-paneled roofs is wide and wild. The field to the south stretches to the horizon. On the east the community has created a conservation area, preserving a small wood. A trail winds down the shallow valley past silver maple, walnut, box elder, hackberry, paw paw. The path is overflowing with spicebush, the floor covered with peppergrass, fleabane, the occasional mushroom. I’m learning this different wood, this place and its people, this new ground.
Yet even amid this idyll, the information pouring in from the usual relentless sources in a wired town shouts that the gate of which the poets sang early on has clanged shut. There will be no passage to a new Jerusalem for the collective culture, for any and all whom I love, for me. The collapsing palace, the strained tightrope, the doomed train, the murky and precarious future endure.
Into this drops a question posed by storyteller Martin Shaw, “What if we reframed ‘living with uncertainty’ to ‘navigating mystery’?...is our life not a mystery school, a seat of earthy instruction?”
My new home is close to the Potomac River and lately it has been my practice to bike on the old tow path of the C & O Canal. Down by the river, in summer, the trees and shrubs make a deep green cathedral through whose nave I pass. Here are sycamores, tulip poplars, more box elders and maples, and moss. Moss drapes the roots of trees, blankets fallen limbs and broken stumps, edges the stones of the crumbling water gates and locks and magnificently cloaks the towering cliffs rising on the land side of the old canal. Botanist, teacher, writer, and member of the Potawatomi nation, Robin Wall Kimmerer has a lot to say about these ancient moss beings, who were the first plants to cover the Earth. “Mosses, I think, are like time made visible…The mosses remember that this is not the first time the glaciers have melted…”. Kimmerer points out that mosses document a passage of time that is not linear. “…the knowledge we need,” she says, “is already within the circle; we just have to remember to find it again…”
There are beings on this planet older by far than the human imagination. These ones await our apprenticeship, wait for us to turn to them and begin to breathe again. Four hundred fifty million years ago mosses traveled from the primordial waters and began a great experiment in evolution, as Kimmerer writes, “an experiment of which we are all a part, whose ending is unwritten.”
Unwritten, because it is unknown. That’s where the mystery comes in, the acknowledgment that there is more to this world, to this life, than we know. There is knowledge more vast and deep than the torrent of information exploding out of our cell phones; there is a knowing far truer than our overwrought images. It is here all around us, greenly shimmering under the surface of things in this pandemic-ridden threshold, this new ground.