Why is it that sleeping on the hard-packed sandy ground of the campsite, a waxing crescent moon glimmering through the thin canvas of the tiny old tent half the night, leaves me so limber and light and full of buzzing energy? It must be three or four days since I’ve had a full night’s sleep — still, here we are, lying awake beside each other in the dark a half-hour before the alarm is set to go off, lying so very awake and listening to the first few birds of the morning. I think you smile at me in the darkness, and for a long while we just hold hands. When the alarm finally rings it seems quiet compared to the birds, and we slip from our sleeping bags, rustling and feeling our way as best we can towards our shoes and the zipper of the tent flap — in another minute, the tent is empty and deflated on the ground, and you stuff the last collapsed tent pole into its bag as I load up the car and then busy my hands dragging a brush through my sleep-tangled hair before twining it back into a loose braid again. Everything is darkness and night still. Neither of us can remember what time the sun is supposed to rise, but even the blue shadows of the dawn twilight have barely begun to lengthen and ripen, so I guess we still have time.
For the past few days, we’d been dreaming about the ocean. Our first morning, I walked down to the beach and sat for an hour watching the dark clouds, heavy with unspent thunder and rain, wash out to sea and the thin horizon. Sun spilled through here and there, shivering in bright rippling pools on the surface of the rough, green water. Waves overturned unbroken seashells at my feet. Seabirds wheeled and cackled, and I had no words appropriate for prayer, no songs that came to mind but the sappy love themes of old movies — which I sang beneath my breath, sighing only a little when stars may collide slipped into the breeze as a pelican threw itself into the breaking waves with a splash and all of it seemed to me, for a moment, to be celestial and stardust, Spirit pouring Spirit into Spirit, and surfacing from Spirit with Spirit in its beak. I think I will never get used to the way birds fling themselves into everything — wind and water and song and light — as if they cannot die.
Later I walked for hours the long, flat paths that spanned the salt marshes, startling tiny crabs that hid between the planks of the footbridges, and paused to watch the warbler perched on the highest branches of a twisted live oak drenched with the wild, dangling grays of spanish moss. Singing to his beloved, or to the sky, or to the spanish moss and the tiny crabs and the clusters of oysters exposed shimmering opalescent-black on muddy banks, or singing simply to himself, the same few notes pumping from his tiny chest, over and over, first from this branch, then from another. What difference there could have been for him, or what he was singing… Along the path were sometimes scattered the last red blossoms from a tree just past flowering, trumpet-like, already wilting a little and covered with sand and grit kicked up by hikers or stirred by last night’s rain. Sunlight filtered through the palmettos’ sharp leaves and everywhere, everything smelled of salt and muck and wet bark and stillness.
What is my prayer? Sometimes the world is so very small and full and silent, impressing itself wordlessly into my mind. Like the tips of your fingers pressing against my palm and your dark, shy smile in the mornings. How could I ever say this?
Late afternoon, and we were resting together beneath the great ancient Angel Oak tree, oblivious to the tourists snapping photographs of each other next to the massive trunk. Its limbs arched and curled, dipping under the earth and emerging again in serpentine undulations — older than the memory of our culture, older than the ruined foundations of the old plantation mansions, older even than some religion, as all gods are. We reclined in dappled gold and green, my hand resting on yours, your hand resting on the low, wide branch so that our fingers, entwined, brushed gently against the bark. There had been, when we’d first approached, the sensation of pressure and power permeating the sheltered air, so that my hands trembled with a palpable warmth as I’d reached out to touch the giant for the first time, balking, hardly believing. If I had asked permission, it was silent and instinctual, a kind of groveling in awe — and then the sensation had passed, the threshold crossed, and I had slipped inside, the world small and full of quietness again in its enfolding presence.
This is poetry, though, and poetry is inadequate because it is not ordinary, not familiar enough or simple enough. The old tree bent low and propped itself up against the ground, as it has for more than a thousand years, and people wandered into its shadows for a while, took a few pictures, and wandered out again. Listening to their murmuring negotiations with cameras and poses, they sounded to me like serious children arranging their loves like soft-faced dolls, carefully, delicately, around the feet of the world. And though prayer, again, was liquid and impossible, running away from me, I closed my eyes and pressed both hands against the trunk, and tried for something like Great One, Old One… before, swimming up through my palms came a new sensation, of space and light and a lattice-work of curving, crystalline bone suspended almost as weightless as air in all directions, above and below, root and limb engaged effortlessly with earth and water and wind and sun, and this ancient accidental Angel laughed an emptiness that would be young and new when all of us had long since grown heavy and sagging with the heap of years. And you said to me, “Trees are made of air,” and I said, “And of sugar.” And then it was time to leave.
And now we sit on the small white towel together in the chilly dark, in front of the turning sea. Between us, half-buried in the sand, is a white candle flickering and a few sticks of incense spinning smoke into the thrumming noise of wind and waves.
I can’t remember whose idea this was, to go camping on the coast of South Carolina and visit the oldest oak tree, or to come here to watch the sun rise over the edge of the world to shed the first rays of light on the fortieth Earth Day. It began as an idle, comforting dream during a frustrating day at work in the middle of winter, when everything seemed cold and difficult and a long way from green. It was funny, and forgotten, and it stayed beautiful in the back of our minds until only a few days ago you said you could map the drive and we could make it and we could ask Raymond to watch the cat while we were gone.
The drive down took us past billboards for Jesus and gun stores and “carbon-neutral” coal, and I found myself tensed against the culture of the conservative south, angry at the way it seemed to be monstrously creeping outward in every direction, a national myth of victimhood and pride and overly-sweet everything and self-deprecation with the hard edge of defense. The tech industry and the venture capitalists live down here in the sparkling metal cities now, where access to money and computers lets them spend comfortably among the poor who still live in trailer parks. The interstates are cluttered with SUVs and fastfood restaurants and only a few spots here and there where they tried to sow some wildflowers along the exhausted, barren shoulders. And, too, there is a uselessness to Earth Day, after forty years, it’s all old-hat — and still the second graders at my old elementary school plant their tiny saplings with tiny, earnest hands and their parents “accidentally” mow over the weak little things in a week or two because they’ll grow up too close to the house and scrape against the siding. But I am not that good with long drives, I fall asleep and wake up cranky, and you kept driving and thinking quietly to yourself and feeling the air grow warmer as we got closer and closer to where the land dipped under into the ocean.
And it is the ocean that always saves me, and the threshold places, and the liminal moments of twilight and quiet. I worship gods of earth, sea and sky, though I do not always know their names, I sing to them silently with the movement of my being, with the vibrating, thrilling anchor of my being here, pulled taut with longing. We sit together for an hour, maybe longer, as the sky over the waters lightens and grows brighter, shades of rose, fuschia and lavender echoing and growling low in a mirror of wet, shifting sands that is so familiar, so subtle, and as old as light, as young as the deep. The rocks of the jetty creep into daylight beside us, transforming from dark, humped, hard-edged masses silhouetted against the light gray water into the soft shapes of wet stone draped with thick green algae and dusted with tumbling foam. And the horizon is close with the wheeling, angular forms of gulls against a flat, multi-colored sunrise drifting above a blue-dim mist that seems to hang forever no matter how bright the sky above becomes.
It has been a long time now, it seems to me, and the incense has burned to ash in the wet sand beside the candle. I hold a small green bag of old crushed herbs mixed with chips of moonstone and aquamarine, wound with blue ribbon now undone and trailing from my fingers. I stand up and walk to the water’s edge, still at a loss for prayer, and so I chant to myself a few reverberating awens.
It occurs to me that I have never seen the sunrise over the ocean before, and I’m not sure what it’s supposed to look like. The scenery around us seems bright now, its colors shuffling into place, and the shore that was flat and monochrome an hour earlier is now speckled with the whites and browns and blacks of shells and seaweed embedded in the sands. Perhaps this is the sunrise, this is what I should expect, and the sun is resting behind that dark mist that still clings to the horizon between sky and sea. I am anxious to be going home. A wave trips and falls over itself up the cool sand, almost licking my toes, and I cast a handful of the herbal offering into the waves, whispering gratitude as the ocean draws it back to itself again. I stand a moment longer, my body giving itself over to a sinking, deepening sensation of weight and vastness and in another moment I know a trance brought on by the drumming rhythm of wavelets will wash over me — but another spray of water catches me under the soles of my feet, shivering me awake, and I step away, turning to walk back up the beach to where you still sit waiting.
You ask if it’s time to go, and if the sun has risen yet, and I shrug because I don’t know either, bending down to blow out the half-brunt-up candle — when you say — not a cry or a gasp, but simply the word — “Look.” And there, where we have been watching for so long, the thin burning line of the sun pierces the hanging mist, bulges, arches and grows into a circle as tiny and as huge as the moon, only that I cannot look at it for long before it starts to hurt and I have to look away. In only a minute or two it has become too bright, and its light is like fire and blood in a long path out across the water.
And this is what it’s always like with you, it seems — that just when I have finished with the patient solitude of waiting, just when I am on the edge of the world, having given everything else that I have, just when I have accepted This That Is as beautiful enough — something else breaks in, something new breaks open, and the world is wide and rolling and cascading into daylight, awash with power and surprise. And this new day is Earth Day, and so I guess we still have time.