“Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized.”
– Graham Harman
I find the strip of gray newsprint wedged between the stacks of old Trapper Keeper folders and reams of torn-edged notebook pages, all of which had been shoved unceremoniously into several cardboard boxes and hidden away in the closet of my old bedroom when I moved out of my parents’ house after college. Now, as I sort through the abandoned relics of my grade school days, the misplaced bookmark strikes me as strangely familiar. At the top, there is an off-color drawing of a lopsided planet earth. Under it, in thick uneven letters of alternating blue and purple crayon, the short verse:
Laugh and the world laughs with you
Cry and you cry alone
For the sad old earth
Must bury its mirth
And has tears enough of its own
When had I first learned this bit of rhyme? I must have written it from memory — the original poem speaks of borrowing mirth, not burying it — how old was I then? Still young enough to write in crayons. Looking at the wobbly, waxy drawing, I find myself imagining a planet utterly tired of weeping, so exhausted that its woes have become almost laughable. As if Mother Earth has decided she’s had enough of all this sadness and turned her attention instead to some old secret, buried away within her, like a belly laugh that must be kept quiet at a funeral.
Thanks to folks like Armstrong and Aldrin and Sagan, I’ve known since childhood that I live on a planet you can see from the outside. It’s easy to think of the Earth as a precious blue marble suspended alone in empty space. It’s easy to be the awed external observer examining this curious little object, picking it up at arm’s length, turning it this way and that to catch the light.
We struggle to see ourselves as wholly and inextricably immersed in a living and responsive natural world. When we speak of “nature,” it’s almost always as if from the outside. It’s hard to get our heads around the concept of this intermingling unity of being that was once second nature to our ancestors. These days, sometimes the best we can do is a bit of personification: The earth’s rainstorms weep. The afternoon sun breaks into smiles. The wind rolls over in the night and tenderly kisses the still sleeping horizon.
In high school, I decided I would be a hippie.
Maybe not a tree hugger in the literal sense, though there were a few trees I was particularly fond of. An evergreen sprig I’d planted on Earth Day in first grade had grown large and leggy in the years since. Decorative pear trees edged the parking lot of the elementary school down the block, bursting with awful-smelling blossoms in the spring and letting loose a cascade of sunset-colored leaves each autumn that the neighborhood kids collected to trade like valentines. A somewhat droopy dogwood grew next to the corner bus stop near the house of the boy I had a secret crush on. He and I would stand under it on warm afternoons after school, talking about how we wished we were popular — or rather, how he wished he were popular so that girls (other, more popular girls) would like him. I had an amiable relationship with plenty of trees, but it never went as far as hugging.
I decided I wanted to be the weird girl, the counterculture kid with the ironic perspective, the artistic distance. Distance enough that my unrequited crushes wouldn’t sting, at least. I bought a bunch of tie-dye shirts, peasant blouses, a pair of birkenstocks. I wore lots of beads and hemp and a necklace of turquoise that a Native American woman had sold my parents on their honeymoon twenty years earlier. As with any self-conscious transformation, I tried very hard to play the part. I acted the way I thought a hippie would act, trying to be “real” and “natural,” as if what was natural was always strange and mysterious, even to oneself.
My parents bought me an acoustic guitar for my birthday that year. I carried a notebook around with me everywhere, filled with hand-scribbled lyrics and poetry. I wrote about flowers and rivers, though I had only a passing interest in what actual flowers and rivers were like. I sprinkled nature imagery liberally throughout my poems, taking advantage of all the usual metaphors for emotion and desire, the convenient icons of sadness, love, humor, anger. I gazed out the window during geometry class and wrote verses from my favorite rock songs in backwards letters so that you had to read them in a mirror.
We draw a line around what is sacred, to set it apart as special. We imagine the planet as a precious blue marble floating in space, so small and far away we cannot see the delicate contours of our own faces turned upwards towards the night sky, doing the imagining. We worship the lands that give us life, the earth that sustains us with its salty waters and wild winds, its mud and grit. We encircle the world in the darkness of outer space, and it shimmers all the brighter.
But when we’re not paying attention, the lines we draw around the sacred can cut us right through the middle.
It was awkward going home that first summer after my freshman year of college. In the daze of late night study sessions and coin-operated washer-dryers, noisy beer-drenched parties down the hall and dormitory showers that always seemed sticky with other people’s sweat — I’d given up the Hippie persona for the more practical comfort of jeans and sweatshirts. The wide-eyed lyrical daydreamer who’d floated easily through high school only half paying attention had been replaced by a young woman who sucked down endless cans of Dr. Pepper to fuel a brain that was finally finding school to be an intellectual challenge. But the hippie poet girl was still what my friends back home expected me to be. And I expected the same, unchanging things of them, too.
One afternoon that first summer, my old high school friend Dana called me up and asked if I wanted to go driving through the countryside. It was only last year I’d known her as the snarky, pampered youngest daughter of her large Catholic family, engaged to marry her long-term high school boyfriend. Now, she was out of the closet as bisexual; she and her girlfriend were radical feminist Pagans who spent their weeks running half a dozen student clubs and spent their weekends drinking. But she was still the same Dana, her various identities sliding around her like landscapes that shifted as she moved from place to place, off to college and back home again.
Driving through the country was a kind of tradition, an inside joke between the two of us. Living in the suburbs of Lancaster, we could get to “The Countryside” in about five minutes. We used to go driving on the back roads, pretending we were out-of-town tourists gawking at the picturesque covered bridges. We’d roll the windows all the way down and let the rich country air come blustering in to tangle our hair, as we listened to Nine Inch Nails or Ani DiFranco or Eve 6, talking or laughing or singing at the top of our lungs. Just trying to escape the dullness of suburbia — our own private version of On The Road.
After a year at college on the outskirts of Philadelphia, nostalgia for the countryside was starting to overwhelm me. When I tried to imagine what the rolling hills and farmlands really looked like, all I found myself picturing was something like an Andrew Wyeth painting. So Dana and I drove out into the familiar scenery, neither of us quite who we had been the last time we were there, both of us settling back into the uneven gaps between shifting identities where friendship still held us together like crumbling mortar.
The sun was high and interrupted by the casual billows of cotton-white cloud. On either side of the one-lane gravel road, fields stretched away, fenced in haphazardly and dotted with cows and occasional copses of trees. Dana gave up looking for songs on the radio — she’d reprogrammed all the buttons for her local college stations. We drove in silence, the car dipping out from under us as we rounded the crests of each low hill. I watched the trail of dust disappearing behind us in the rearview mirror.
“Ah, Goddess! It’s beautiful out today!” she said. I nodded. The breeze whipping in through the window was warm and smelled like a typical summer afternoon in Lancaster — that is, like manure and sweet corn. I’d started studying Paganism at college, too, and I was playing with seeing the old landscapes of home through the eyes of someone whose idea of the Old Craft was shaped by pastoral scenes of wicker fertility idols and sacred harvests. I’d mentioned this new interest once to Dana, but her cold response had suggested she didn’t think much of people who plagiarized other people’s newly minted self-identities.
“You still write poetry, right?” she asked me.
“Yeah.” I said.
“That’s why I like coming out here with you — it’s like that movie, Contact: ‘They should’ve sent a poet.’ The one about the astronaut, and she gets transported billions of lightyears or something, and she can’t find the words to describe how beautiful it is.” Dana had wanted to be an astronaut when she was little, but she’d grown up too short and her eyes were bad. “Sometimes, everything is just — I don’t know. Too beautiful, too perfect… That’s why I like having you along. To be the poet.” I nodded again. I didn’t say anything.
Four white birds took sudden flight from among a patch of tall grass. They were not like discarded paper napkins caught up from the sidewalk in the minuette waltz of a city breeze. Rounded valleys of freshly-tilled earth stretched out below us. They were not the body of a sleeping goddess drowsing lazily in the sun. Nor did they have the dark, wet scent of catharsis, of overcoming hardship, of human struggle that gives way to new joy.
Nothing but four white birds gliding off over round valleys. I did not want them to be anything else. When I looked out the car window, I felt the exact opposite of a poet.
I sent up a half-formed prayer to God (or the Goddess, or Whoever Was Listening). More than anything, I wanted words — some phrase or fragment that could capture the afternoon without reducing it to something trite and cliché. Something inspiring and meaningful and true. More than anything, I wanted to be able to write about the countryside on a summer afternoon without having to mediate it through metaphor. For once what I wanted to translate into words was not the exotic or the strange, but the feeling of home that was unrolling all around me. Give me something, anything, I asked, that will break down this aesthetic distance without breaking the whole world.
The car dipped slightly out from under us as we dropped over the top of the next hill. And there by the edge of the road just a few yards away, framed by the cozy hum of the bucolic summer scene — a horse squatted, peeing into the dust.
Dana slammed the brakes, and my head bumped the dash as I bent double with laughter.
I will never write a poem about a real horse.
Some philosophers say this is because there is an aspect of the horse that withdraws from our knowing it; withdrawn from all things, even its own self, there is a secret essence of the horse that can never be exhausted.
Still other philosophers say that, from this secret place in the heart of all things, objects and beings put themselves forward, constantly pushing their way into our awareness uninvited, unexpected, so that the world is always unfolding around us, thick with wakefulness and surprise.
I sit looking at the strange little planet and its strange little poem smudged in familiar crayon handwriting on the old gray bookmark. The child who made it is not exactly me anymore; even the high school hippie poet girl I can remember being was only just beginning to become the person I think of as myself.
Memory changes things.
I remember the horse squatting next to the road on that summer day. But it has lost the immediacy that propelled me, laughing, into the dashboard as the seat belt cut tight across my belly. When I remember it now, I see the golden stream of urine sparkling in the sunlight, the graceful muscles of the horse’s legs tensed and twitching under its skin, and it all seems like a classical Greek statue that you might put in a plaza somewhere, an equestrian Manneken Pis. Time draws a line around memory, sets it aside as special, and transforms it into art.
And the line cuts through the middle of us, our feet dusty with the dirt of the sacred land. The strange becomes familiar, the familiar suddenly turns over into strangeness again, so that we are always walking through layers of otherness and intimacy. We are a part of nature, and then we are apart from it, gazing at the precious blue marble planet of our mind’s eye.
We know ourselves, and then we do not know.
And then a horse pisses in the dust and a snippet of an old song comes through on the radio static, and we are home again.
This piece originally appeared in SageWoman Magazine, Issue 87. (March 2015)
• “Globe,” by oh_debby (CC) [source]
• “Globe,” by Teresa Alexander-Arab (CC) [source]
• “The Lost Traveler,” by Martina (CC) [source]
• “Mother & Son,” by b k (CC) [source]
• Horse tattoo, by Denis Ciumbargi (CC) [source]