Out on the trail I saw a woman on a horse, and beside her a mountainous gray dog, unleashed and loping, his long jowls rising and falling with each stride. The horse’s eyes were on the trail ahead and the dog’s were on the trail beside and the woman’s were on me, to see what I would do at our meeting. I stood aside to give them room and the woman and I said a brief hello and the horse lumbered forward and the dog shook his jowls and passed on with his dog-smile and I turned to watch the three of them go: woman, horse, dog - a kingdom in miniature, and seemingly well content. On this same path earlier in the year I had found a tiny salamander, brown as a leaf above and sunrise orange below. I had knelt down to follow its pilgrimage from the mossy verge to the rock wall, resisting the urge to lift it from the earth and watch its four legs take their individual steps across the air. Within five minutes it had traversed the width of the path and melted once more into the leaf litter. Wendell Berry says “there are no worlds but other worlds: the world of the field mouse, the world of the hawk, the world of the beetle..." and we are "alive in those worlds while living in [our] own.”
I feel this inside, the connections, like a spider’s web, knot upon strand upon strand upon knot, an invisible complexity of being and knowing. I am woman and horse and salamander and dog and we are all and each our own.
As I write, it is Ash Wednesday in the Christian tradition, and when I bow my head tonight to receive the ashes and the mark, I will be acknowledging this: we have each of us come from dust, and we will all of us return to it again, and inbetween we are “worlded in worlds on worlds.” The ashes will only stay on my forehead for an hour, or a night, but their purpose is to burn in me the humility to live my place in this web - sometimes gentle and patient, sometimes powerful and possible. The ashes are there to teach me that I have a place, but it is not singular or stagnant, limited or restricted; it is connected, intricate, dynamic, and communal. It is in this acknowledging, the acceptance that we are under and over, within and without, connected and contained, Berry suggests, that we can live “ungravitied as a bird…pleased, and unafraid.”
The morning I passed the woman on the horse and her dog, I stood and watched them for quite a while. There was something about the communion between the three of them that stuck with me: the easy sway of the horse, the dog’s contentedness, the pleasure of the woman who rode. I snapped a picture, and then I turned back around to head home. It was cold, but the sun was shining, and for a moment, the sun slipped through the trees and lit the old, downed leaves on the path with gold. It was so sudden and so striking that I found myself looking around for someone, anyone to tell. But there was only me and the trees and the path and the sky and somewhere, I am sure, a dirt-brown salamander, to witness it and take it in. So I did, and so we did. Because every slant of sun-gold, every dog-smile, every mark of ash across a forehead in faith, is a strand, a knot, a strengthening of the web that holds us all and makes us whole.
Poem from: *Sabbath Poems - 1995:VI, Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir
(I'll be taking a week for my regular media fast soon. I'll be back around this time next week.)
Peace keep you, friends.