It’s been a long busy summer, warmer and clearer than usual for the Pacific Northwest, and I’m still technically on my break. But it’s also one of those years when, just as the last day of August clicked over to September, there was a marked change in the atmosphere, almost like the weather knew the calendar, or the calendar had actually been created with the natural world as a reference.
The other night around nine thirty I walked outside to get something out of the car, and the air had a sharpness it didn’t have just a day or so ago.
I stood there, taking it in. A hint of moisture, but no wind, and surprisingly cool for being so calm, which told me this was wasn’t temporary: We’re a week into September and circumstances are just different.
Dark sky, open enough above the trees to see stars. A huge, beautiful waxing moon.
A friend called from Indiana this afternoon, and she said it had been 52 in the morning and 71 by noon, which was a welcome drop from the incredible heat and humidity that’s been going on back there. They’ve been having weeks of swollen, intense storms with rain like they only get in tornado season. But they got the tornadoes, too, so timing didn’t seem to make any difference this year.
The natural world seems to surprise us—repeatedly–especially moments like this. It brings us out of our brain-noise and makes us notice, and it’s really sort of amusing that it does. This isn’t just set decoration. It’s the basic stage, the structural reality that makes any of our own psychological realities possible. We may not think about it at all—or we may get irritated at being made aware of new toxins in the environment, discussions about over-development, the back and forth about climate change. Then I walk outside on a night like this, and immediately it all becomes so very clear and simple.
Because of where I live, just a ways beyond city lights and noise, it’s harder to ignore the sky, the seasons, though I still give it my best—I descend into my brain and my emotions and burrow in. But standing here I am brought back to the basics of circumstance: no planet—no brain. No consciousness or breath.
I went to a middle school recently with three animals from the wildlife shelter, and standing there waiting to start our program I wondered to myself how I could make this real for the students. I remember being 13, 14: so totally caught up in the chemical weather of hormones that I was completely detached, thinking only of the drama between my friends, the storylines going on in the hallways between classes, the small episodes that day in class. Why should these teenaged people care about owls and vultures and opossums—about keeping garbage away from streets so the animals don’t come out and get hit by cars, about not shooting the big birds when they see them out in the country? Why think at all about anything beyond their cul de sac? They don’t notice the irony that the entirely biological reality of puberty detaches them mentally from anything but what is going on in their immediate ‘now’, which they thoroughly believe is generated from cell phones and the right tee shirt and name brand jeans.
So my colleague and I waded in to do our best, and we both know our secret weapons: that the best advocates will be the animals themselves, totally arresting the kids’ attention. It’s up to us to give them the right introductions, but at that point just stand back and wait for the gasp, when we bring our arm out of the crate and the room is face to face with a live, silver, barred owl.
After the program we drove back. To our own dramas, maybe less hormonal and certainly, we believe, more civilized—but we also drop back into the mental current of our own needs and immediate concerns: whether or not to stop and pick up something for dinner, what to get done for work next week, what to get done around my property before the rains set in, whether or not to complicate my personal life. It may seem like a contrasting urban, human perspective but it’s still just shelter, territory, love. And it doesn’t care if I don’t recognize at this moment that these personal obsessions are the same concerns of every other creature living on the planet.
Out here in the Pacific Northwest the sky can have so many variations at the same time: clear enough above to see the scattering of stars, more becoming visible the deeper you look, while at the same time, in the same sky, the moon floats in a gray haze, maybe clouds or some sort of mist from the water. Tonight the nearly full moon is the color of pale cream, emitting a very thin silvery light. It shines through a lunette window above my French doors, and until it rises fully I see it through a fringe of trees—which themselves, right now, are black cutout paper silhouettes, thin, almost seem like the flat stuff of a theater set. Behind them the light, the silver halo of light from the pale cream moon, light graying out into the broader darkness of the open sky.
We get so caught up in ourselves and our lives, and I suppose there’s no real reason not to. Still, it’s really such a simple equation. We are here because the earth is here. Not the other way around.