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  May/June 1999 Features:
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Sierra Magazine
Earth's Eye

Spring. pond, lake, river— the elemental pleasure of water.

by Edward Hoagland

Water is our birthplace. We need and love it. In a bathtub or by a lake or at the sea, we go to it for rest, refreshment, and solace. "I'm going to the water," people say when August comes and they crave a break. The sea is a democracy, so big it's free of access, often a bus or subway ride away, a meritocracy, sink or swim, and yet a swallower of grief because of its boundless scale-beyond the horizon, the home of icebergs, islands, whales. Tears alone are a mysterious, magisterial solvent that bring a smile, a softening of hard thoughts, lend us a merciful and inexpensive respite, almost like half an hour at the beach. In any landscape, in fact, a pond or creek catches and centers our attention as magnetically as if it were, in Thoreau's phrase, "Earth's eye."

Lying on your back in deep meadow grass facing a bottomless sky is less focusing, but worth a drive of many hours, as weekend traffic will attest. Yet the very dimensions of the sky, which are unfathomable after the early surge of pleasure that they carry, cause many of us to mitigate their power with preoccupations such as golf or sunbathing as soon as we get outdoors. Infinity can be unnerving, whereas the ground against our backs-if we lie gazing up into the starry night or a piebald day-is seething with groping roots and sprouting seeds, and feels like home, as the friendliest dappled clouds can't be. Beyond the prettiest azure blue is black, as nightfall will remind us, and when the day ends, cold is the temperature of black.

A pond, though, is a gentle spot (unless you are Ophelia). Amber or pewter-colored, it's a drinking fountain for scurrying raccoons and mincing deer, a water bugs' and minnows' arena for hunting insect larvae, a holding pen for rain that may coalesce into ocean waves next year. Mine flows into the St. Lawrence River. I live in Vermont and spent a hundred dollars once to bulldoze a tadpole pond next to my little stretch of stream. A silent great blue heron, as tall as a Christmas tree, and a castanet-rattling kingfisher, a faster flier and brighter blue, showed up to forage for amphibians the next year.

Garter snakes also benefited from the occasional meal of a frog, and a red-tailed hawk, cruising by, might grab a snake or frog. More exciting, a bull moose began using it as a hot-weather wallow, soaking for half an hour, mouthing algae, munching sedges, and browsing on the willows that lean from the bank. A beaver cut down some poplar saplings to gnaw and stitch into a dam for creating a proper flow, but the depth remained insufficient to withstand a New England winter, so he retreated downstream to a wetland in my woods.

I bought this land for $85 an acre in 1969, and today a comparable hideaway would probably still cost no more than a good car. We're not talking luxury. As with so much of life, your priorities are what count, and what you wish to protect and pay attention to. I've been a sinner in other ways, but not in this respect.

Remoteness bestows the amenity of uninterrupted sleep. No telephone or electric lines run by, and the hikers and pickups are gone by sunset. When the season of extravagant daylight shortens so I can't simply sleep from dusk to dawn, I light candles or kerosene, but in balmy weather I can nap with equal ease at any hour in the meadow too, or watch the swallows and dragonflies hawk after midges, as the breezes finger me and a yellowthroat hops in the bushes to eat a daddy longlegs.

At dark the bats hawk for bugs instead, or an owl hunts, all wings, slow and mothlike, till it sees a rodent. The trees hang over a swimming hole nearby, with a dovish or a moonlit sky showing beyond the leaves like a kind of vastly enlarged swimming hole, until I feel I was born floating in both the water and the air. It's a hammock all the more beguiling because if you relax too much while swimming and let yourself sink, you might conceivably drown. Similarly, in the meadow, if you laze too late into the fall, woolgathering, snow could fill your mouth.

Nature is not sentimental. The scenery that recruits our spirits in temperate weather may turn unforgiving in the winter. It doesn't care whether we love it and pay the property taxes to save it from development, having walked over it yard by yard in clement conditions. When the birds flee south and other creatures, from bears to beetles, have crawled underground to wait out the cold, we that remain have either got to fish or cut bait: burn some energy in those summer-lazy muscles cutting wood, or take some money out of the bank.

A mountain can be like that all at once. Summer at the bottom, winter at the top; and you climb through all the climates of the year as you scramble up. In the past half century I've climbed Mt. Jefferson in Oregon (a cousin died there in a fall soon afterward) and Mt. Washington in New Hampshire; Mt. Katahdin in Maine and Mt. Etna in Sicily. I've clambered a bit in Wyoming's Wind Rivers and in the Absaroka Range; also in British Columbia and North Yemen; in the Western Ghats in southern India and the Alpes Maritimes in the south of France; and have scrambled modestly in the High Sierra, Alaska's Brooks Range, and on the lower slopes of Mt. Kinyeti in the Imatong Massif in the southern Sudan. Here at home, I climbed all of Vermont's fire-tower mountains, back when Vermont still used towers to locate fires, instead of planes.

This feast of variety is part of a writer's life, the coin of the realm you inhabit if you sacrifice the security Americans used to think they'd have if they weren't freelance in their working lives. In reality, everybody winds up being freelance, but mountains telescope the experience. During a weekend you climb from flowery summer glades to the tundra above tree line, slipping on patches of ice, trudging through snowdrifts; the rain turns to sleet.

The view is rarefied until a bellying, bruise-colored sky turns formidably unpretty. Like climbing combers in a strong surf, there's no indemnity if you come to grief. You labor upward not for money but for joy, or to have been somewhere, closer to the mysteries, during your life. Finding a hidden alpine col, a bowl of fragile grassy beauty, you aren't just gleeful; you are linked differently.

Leaving aside specific dangers like riptides, vertigo, or terrific cold, I've found I am comfortable on mountainsides or in seawater or in caves or wilderness swatches. In other words, I am fearful of danger but not of nature. I don't harbor notions of any special dispensation, only that I too am part of it.

I fought forest fires in the Laguna Mountains of Southern California when I was 20 and discovered that moderate hardship energized yet tempered me, as it does many people, just like the natural sorties for which one puts on hiking shoes and ventures where barefoot peoples used to go. In central Africa I've walked a little with tribesmen like the Acholi and the Didinga, who still are comfortable when naked, and have seen that the gap between us seems not of temperament or intuitions, but only acculturation.

Just as habitat is the central factor in deciding whether birds and animals can survive, what we are able to do in the woods will be determined by land regulation and taxing policy and public purchases. Maine's private timberlands have remained unpopulated because of Americans' lavish need for toilet paper-as Vermont's trees, too, make paper, cotton-mill bobbins, cedar fencing, and yellow-birch or maple dowels that become furniture legs.

Any day, I watch truckloads of pulpwood go by. And in the California Sierra above Lake Tahoe and on the pristine sea island of Ossabaw, off Savannah, Georgia, I've devoted lovely, utterly timeless hours to exploring refuges that seem quite empty of people but are actually allotted in careful fashion by state or federal agencies for intensive recreational use. The animals hide while the sun is up and feed when it's down. This is the way it will have to work. Levels of life on the same acreage. Or else it won't work at all.

I can be as jubilant indoors, listening to Schubert or Scott Joplin, as when sauntering underneath a mackerel sky on a day striped yellow, red, and green. Indeed, the density of sensations in which we live is such that one can do both-enjoy a virtuoso pianist through a headset outside. We live two lives or more in one nowadays, with our scads of travel, absurd excesses of unread informational material, the barrage of Internet and TV screens, wallpaper music, the serializing of polygamy, and the elongation of youth blurring old age. A sort of mental gridlock sometimes blocks out the amber pond, the mackerel sky, the seething leaves in a fresh breeze up in a canopy of trees, and the Walkman's lavish outpouring of genius, too. Even when we just go for a walk, the data jam.

Verisimilitude, on computer screens or in pictorial simulation, is carrying us we don't entirely know where. I need my months each year without electricity or telephone, living by the sun and looking down the hill a hundred times a day at the little pond. The toads sing passionately when breeding, observing a hiatus only at midmorning when the moose descends from the woods for his therapeutic wallow, or when a heron sails in for a meal.

I see these things so clearly I think our ears have possibly changed more than our eyes under the impact of civilization-both the level of noise and subtleties of sound are so different from hunter-gatherer whisperings. I'm a worrier, if not a Luddite. The gluttonies that are devouring nature are remorseless, and the imbalances within the human family give me vertigo. The lovely old idea that human life is sacred, each soul immortal, is in the throes of a grand mal seizure; overpopulation is doing it in. I didn't believe that anyway, but did adhere to the transcendental idea that heaven is right here on Earth, if we perceive and insist on it. And this faith is also becoming harder to sustain.

"Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness," as A. N. Whitehead said. ("Thus religion is solitariness; and if you are never solitary, you are never religious," he added.) I fall back on elemental pleasure like my love of ponds, or how my first sight of any river invariably leaves me grinning. And the sheen of rainwater on a bare, black field in March.

The thump of surf, combed in the wind and foaming, glistening, yet humping up again like a dinosaur. But fish don't touch me as much as animals, perhaps because they never leave the water. Frogs do; and I seem to like frog songs even more than bird songs, maybe because they're almost two-legged like us but can't fly either and were the first vertebrate singers. But I especially respond to them because they live a good deal more than we do in the water.

Frogs are disappearing worldwide in a drastic fashion, perhaps because of ultraviolet rays, pesticides, or acid rain; and I may finally cease to believe that heaven is on Earth, if they do. Water without dolphins, frogs, pelicans, cormorants will not mean much to me. But in the meantime I like to search out springs in the high woods where brooks begin-a shallow sink in the ground, perpetually filling. If you carefully lift away the bottom covering of waterlogged leaves, you'll see the penny-size or pencil-point sources of groundwater welling up, where it all originates-the brook, the pond, the stream, the lake, the river, and the ocean, till rain brings it back again.


Edward Hoagland, author of 16 books, has written essays for National Geographic, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. "Earth's Eye" appears in his collection, Tigers & Ice, published by The Lyons Press this spring.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact sierra.magazine@sierraclub.org for more information.


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