21 June, Summer Solstice
Another morning, another cobalt blue bottle filled with Prince William Sound water for Lauren, this one from newly dubbed “Black-Tail Stream.” In the photo below, perhaps you can see the footprints of the deer beside the bottle.
We woke to sun through the boat’s skylight. After yesterday, we needed to stretch our legs, so kayaked to a black sand beach on Hinchinbrook Island. The top of the beach was criss-crossed with fresh deer tracks, and in the soft, dry sand just below the highest tide line of drift logs, we saw our first brown bear prints, a sow and cub who’d passed through some days before. Hello, Hanuman, I called as we walked toward a stream outflow at the beach’s eastern end. I’m not sure if any brown bears heard me, but I know that a pair of Sitka black-tailed deer ambling down to the stream for a drink didn’t. I was walking on the lower beach, near the water, and Craig was walking up higher, on the berm. I saw them first, on the other side of the stream from us, and called out to Craig, pointing, motioning to stop. The deer didn’t see or hear us at first, lowered their heads down to sip from the stream.
I took one step forward. Held still. Took another. The deer looked up and around, and I could see the instant the nearest one became aware of me. Not of me, but of something irregular in her line of sight. She froze. Then the second deer looked up. Now both stood stock-still, one with ears up and alert, head high, the other in an awkward semi-crouch. Both Craig and I froze too. I tried a step. They didn’t move. So I tried another. I could tell when Craig took a step, because they turned their heads in his direction, but didn’t move their bodies. I took several more slow steps.
Then, to my bafflement, the closer deer stepped toward me. I stepped toward her. Hands in my pockets, I kept above my hips still. Now I could see her eyes, the whiskers around her moist, black nose, the soft insides of her ears, the way those ears twitched. Craig stopped walking and just watched. Being one to say hi out loud to birds, animals, sometimes even trees, today, no sound came out of my mouth. My mouth smiled. She dipped her head, sniffed. I dipped my head, sniffed. I took a few more steps. Now only the stream ran between us. Her companion stood further up the beach, relaxed enough to nuzzle an itch on her shoulder. I took one step down the stream embankment. She threw her head up, turned side ways, stepped a few hard paces on the gravel. I stopped, looked back at Craig. He stood still, just watching. I crouched down. Stood up again. She walked toward me. Stopped. Dipped her head, sniffed, trying to catch my scent. I knew the wind was blowing from the west, carrying my scent toward her. Perhaps she was simply trying to identify that scent. Perhaps she’d never encountered a human being before. I dipped my head, sniffed, hoping I could smell her wild musk.
Thoughts, yes, there were thoughts, winging through my head, quick, swooping, like swallows. She thinks she recognizes me. Yes, we know one another, from that distant time, when humans and animals spoke the same language. Our eyes meet across that wide water, that distance of time. This is healing. This is grace. No, they weren’t thoughts, exactly, there weren’t words in my head, not those words. Just wings beating. I’ve only now put those words to them. She called me forward. I called her forward, to cross that divide. Her companion, nervous now, marched a few steps down the beach. She followed him. I thought they were leaving, so I stepped down to the stream edge, to collect water for Lauren. The stream was down a small embankment, gravel on my side, mud on hers. Kneeling by the water, I could see just her head peering over the top of the berm still looking at me. My change of position piqued her interest again, and she walked forward. I stood. Her companion, who’d had enough of this strange dance, march-stepped toward the tall grass. I stepped into the water. I sniffed, dipped my head in her direction. She turned sideways, “stotted” a few steps, jumping up and hitting the gravel sharply with all four hooves at once. Pounce, pounce, pounce. As though firmly placing herself back on the island, back across the divide. A little tantrum of I belong here. On this side. You over there. I climbed onto the mud bank on the other side of the creek, their side, but by then, the deer had disappeared into the rye grass.
Craig walked up behind me. Said he’d never seen such tame deer. Still absorbing the encounter, we walked further up the stream, and I resumed my chant: Hello, Hanuman. The stream wound between six-foot tall banks topped with grass, ferns, meadows and forest. No sign of bears. Sunlit. A stream twining its way from somewhere deep in the island, emptying into Port Etches. Hesitant to penetrate any further into Hanuman’s turf, we hiked back to the beach, then took off our shoes and socks and jackets and did ten sun salutations in the black sand. Thank you, Hanuman, brown bear, for everything you’ve done for me, for letting us walk on your island, I prayed in my head. Thank you deer, for crossing that divide for just one moment. On the other end of the beach, another stream, shallower and narrower, flowed out onto the gravel. The water ran over a luxuriant bed of variegated algae, bright green, lemony yellow, tan, brown, cream, all streaming in the current like a cloak sewn from feathers of an exotic forest bird. We stood mesmerized by it, yellow warbler and hermit thrush songs as soundtrack. Only the water and a bit of breeze moved. Everything held still inside us and around us, even time.
23 June: Bear and Barnacle Prayer
Already two days past the summer solstice. We lose an increment of light too small to notice each night. This morning, I woke to a thick downy bed of cloud pulled over this part of the Sound, low enough to cover the tops of the islands. Those peaks, I imagine, high above us, gleamed in harsh sunlight, the world below the cloudbank muffled, muted, calm.
Beside my computer, I’ve placed the giant barnacle shell I found on the beach the other night. When I place it on my palm, the shell nearly covers it, conceals all the lines: head line, heart line, life line. In my palm, in my eye, in my mind when I regard it, the barnacle shell takes up all the space, displaces thoughts of future. Obliterates the past. It’s my morning mantra. I’m a poor meditator when it comes to sitting on a cushion in our loft at home. But out here, with my eyes open, crawling around the woods, watching water sluice back and forth between two starfish-covered rocks covered at low tide, I’m a champion. I can fix my awareness on a bird song or a deer and lose my mind.
Like a tree, the barnacle shell has grown by adding layers upon layers of calcification. It’s pocked with worm holes. A tiny down feather from my vest pocket is stuck the rim. Inside, remnants of other shells have collected, like bones in a midden. The barnacle shell is as big as a bear’s vertebra.
Bear, barnacle, feather, bone. All are linked in my memory to finding the shell, to the place where it lay, to that particular meditation session on Montague Island. Craig climbed a rocky promontory to scan for whales, and I ducked under the alder branches to see how high I could climb up into the forest. Hello, Hanuman, I called, as always. Bent over, that’s how I saw the shell. I pocketed it. Bending down under branches, that’s how I saw the wings. The feathers. The bones. The dry white smears of bird scat everywhere. From the alder branches, a posse of crows scolded me. They shuffled along branches, looking down, first one black beady eye, then the other, fixed on me, the invader. Complaining like supermarket tellers when you come in at two minutes to closing.
Those coarse voices. They were the first thing to make me a little uneasy. Their voices, unlike the songbirds we've been hearing, conveyed a different kind of intentionality. They scolded. Deeper in the island, we heard what sounded like a hundred crows. What were they scolding?
Everywhere, you hear bird song this time of year, song sparrow, yellow warbler, fox sparrow, golden-crowned warbler, hermit thrush, varied thrush, robin, all announcing their territories, calling their mates. And the closer I listen, the more exquisite each bird’s song is, crystalline as the sound of a stream I heard once in the dead of winter. It was 50 below zero, and the sound stopped me dead in my ski tracks. I closed my eyes in the forest: burbling water, magical in that cold.
Those crow voices had no such melody. Leaves rustled as they hopped from limb to limb. I looked down at the mossy ground, which was littered with dead things: skull of a small predator, maybe a weasel. Skull of a larger predator, maybe a river otter. The scattered bones of birds. A pair of seabird wings draped over a root. Crow feathers splayed out like a hastily laid down and abandoned hand of cards. I was standing under a killing tree. But whose? Peregrine falcon? Owl? Raven? Crow?
"Craig, when you’re done, come into the forest here and see this," I said. "All these bones." Craig collects animal skulls and bones. But mainly I wanted a reason to raise my voice. Then I started to climb toward a large hemlock, along a rock face, up into the forest. I didn’t get two steps before I saw the brown bear scat. Dark ropes composed of brown grass. A lean diet for a brown bear.
" Craig," I yelled. "Guess what I found? Hanuman scat."
"How fresh?" he yelled back from his perch on the beach.
I poked it with my finger. "Not warm. But not dried out." I looked up into the forest. Hello, bear. Did I hear a rustling? Or was it just the crows, who followed me, branch to branch, still kvetching. Are they warning me of something? I wondered. I’ll just go to that hemlock, no further, I thought. I leaned into the deeply trodden trail leading straight up the slope, using my hands to help me climb. My face inches from a devil’s club stalk, a dead one, without leaves, I saw, caught on its thorns, tufts of wooly brown hair, extremely fine, each hair kinked as if singed. I gathered up that brown bear wool and tucked it into the barnacle shell, and I climbed back down.
"Don’t you want to hike back through the forest?" Craig asked.
"No way," I said. Some places, if you pay attention, just say, “No.” Permission is not granted here. The crows cawed and cawed, following us as we walked down the beach back toward the kayaks. I kept looking over my shoulder. “Goodbye, Hanuman,” I yelled.
Was it okay to take that fur? I’m looking at it right now. Stuck to that little snarl, a few fragments of sphagnum. I lift it to my nose, but I can’t smell bear. I want to believe he’s my protector, the way I imagined during chemo. What would it be like to simply walk through a door of faith like that? To believe myself safe on Montague Island? To believe the bears recognize me, somehow know that we are bonded? True belief would mean crossing that divide between us, learning the common language. But still I fear them. Craig kept the weasel skull, and it sits here too, beside the barnacle shell, tinged green with time, tiny, but with a formidable set of teeth. Sits by an eagle feather I found last night on a rock painted impossible shades of orange and yellow with lichen. Sits by a round of granite whorled like a planet. Beside two bottles of Prince William Sound water for Lauren. And a prayer card of St. Francis. All the talismans I collect to keep me safe, to keep my loved ones safe.
The barnacle holds the meditation now, of a death-filled place. The feather holds the memory of a safe place: in late evening sun, a sea otter asleep in a cove no bigger than a wading pool. A sea otter who awoke when we clambered up onto the rock above it, considered us for a moment, then clasped his paws under his chin and dozed off again. Two lunky humans a few feet away. He slept with the sounds of other lives drifting by his ears: two sea lions chuffing and throwing fish around. Gulls screeching, diving for stray bits of fish. Our voices. Predators all. And he felt safe.
There’s a Buddhist prayer: May all beings be safe. Can it be that in any moment of pure attention, or prayer, in the space of a breath, or the amount of time it takes a yellow warbler or fox sparrow to complete its song, I’m completely safe? Lauren’s safe? Bennett’s safe? All my loved ones are safe? That’s a doorway of faith I believe I can walk through. May I be present to bird song, to water, to small bones scattered around my feet. To the hair of a brown bear caught on a devil’s club branch, to crow caws, reminding me to stay awake. To listen within and without.
May all beings be present to what’s given: water, cloud, rain, sunlight, leaf, feather, bone, rock. Now and at the hour of death, amen.