From "Ground Notes" by Scott Russell Sanders:
"Once when my father was studying a handful of dirt, I asked him if he had ever been lost. 'No,' he answered, 'but there's been a few times when I didn't know where anything else was.' By that definition, I am lost for days and weeks at a stretch, aware of myself but of little else. The only ground I notice is the grit under my shoes. The world is grey cardboard. I trudge through dullness, as though in a deep trench, wholly absorbed in taking the next step. Chores, chores, chores. Places to go, things to do.
"Then occasionally I wake up from my drowse and for a few minutes every toad becomes a dragon, every lilac is a fiery fountain, and I am walking on pure light.
"These luminous moments are the standards by which I measure my ordinary hours. It may be the oldest human standard, older than the desire for comfort, older than duty. As the maverick monk Thomas Berry put it in his stiff but dignified way: 'Awareness of an all-pervading mysterious energy articulated in the infinite variety of natural phenomena seems to be the primordial experience of human consciousness.' Energy is a word that scientists willingly use, but mystery is not. Let mystery into the discussion, they fear, and pretty soon you'll have astral travel and bloodletting and witch hunts; you'll be reading the future in the bones of birds. You'll lock up Galileo for saying the earth spins around the sun. You'll hoot at Darwin for tracing our descent from the apes.
"Cosmologists have tried every which way they can to avoid having to posit what they call 'initial conditions' -- those conditions that determine the features of our universe. Why, for example, does the electron have that charge? Why does energy convert to matter and matter to energy? Why do fundemental forces interact just so? Why does nature obey these rules, or any rules? Why are the parameters such that life could evolve, and, within life, conciousness? And how does it happen that conciousness has figured out so many of the rules?
"If you admit that you cannot answe those questions and simply appeal to initial conditions in order to explain the founding features of the universe, then you raise the question of how those conditions were set. You bump into the old conundrum: How can there be a design without a designer? You can't do physics on God. So cosmologists have proposed a steady-state universe, an oscillating universe, or a universe with zero net energy sprung from quantum fluctuations, anything to avoid having to concede that reality extends beyond the reach of science.
"With our twin hands, our paired eyes, our sense of split between body and mind, we favor dualism: design and designer, creation and creator, universe and God. But I suspect the doubleness is an illusion. 'How can we know the dancer from the dance?' Yeats asked in his poem "Among School Children." We hear treble and bass because we have two ears; the music itself is whole and undivided. The wind and the leaves shaking on the tree are two things; but the wave and the sea are one. When I sit on the pink granite of the Maine coast, stone and soul rubbed smooth by the strike of water, I see the ocean ripple and surge into whitecaps. Just so, the earth is a wave lifted up from the surf of space, and you and I are waves lifted up from earth.
"According to Hopi myth, long ago, at the beginning of our age, people emerged from a hole in the ground. They looked over the earth and liked what they saw, so they stayed. But at the end of time the people will go back again into the ground. When buried in graves or scattered as ashes, we also return to the ground. The throwing of the first shoveful of dirt on the coffin or the flinging of ash into the wind is a ritual moment when the earth reclaims us. Writing about the ground is in part my attempt to come to terms with death, with my own return to the source. But it is at least as much attempt to come to terms with life, with the issuing-forth.
"This is the light in which I have come to see Thoreau's best known sentence: 'The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world.' Wildness here is usually understood to mean wilderness. But I think it has a larger meaning. I think it refers to the creative energy that continually throws new forms into existence and gives them shape. Thus Wildness is literally the 'preservation of the world,' because without it there would be no world. Gary Snyder may have had some such notion in mind when he insisted in The Practice of the Wild that nature is simply what is, the way of things: 'This, thusness, is the nature of the nature of nature. The wild in the wild.' By keeping in touch with wilderness, we preserve our sanity and world's health.
"Beneath or behind or within everything there is an unfathomable ground -- a suchness, as the Buddhists say -- that one can point to, bow to, contemplate, but cannot grasp. To speak of this ground as a mystery is not to say we know nothing, only that we cannot know everything. The larger the context we envision, the more tentative and partial our knowledge appears, the more humble we are forced to be. Merely think of the earth as a living organism, taking the health of this great body as the gauge of everything we do, and you recognize our ignorance is profound.
"The thawing of the eath brings me a whiff of the world's renewal. The green shoots of crocuses breaking through are the perennial thrusting-forth shapeliness out of the void. Breathing in the breath of soil, I feel the force of Thomas Berry's claim that 'Our deepest convictions arise in this contact of the human soul with some ultimate mystery whence the universe itself is derived.' The smell brings to my lips the words my Mississippi grandfather used to say about anything that delighted him: 'That suits me down to the ground.' "
Words: The passage above is from "Ground Notes," published in Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World by Scott Russell Sanders (Beacon Press, 1993); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: On the hillside behind my studio, in the pause between winter and spring. The photograph of me and Tilly was taken by our friend and village neighbor Jim Fortey, whom we happened to meet during woodland wanderings.