Saturday, October 13, 2012

Immersion: Wendell Berry and Loren Eiseley

"I have been walking in the woods, and have lain down on the ground to rest.  It is the middle of October, and around me, all through the woods, the leaves are quietly sifting down.  The newly fallen leaves make a dry, comfortable bed, and I lie easy, coming to rest within myself as I seem to do nowadays only when I am in the woods. 

And now a leaf, spiraling down in wild flight, lands on my shirt at about the third button below the collar.  At first I am bemused and mystified by the coincidence--that the leaf should have been so hung, weighted and shaped, so ready to fall, so nudged loose and slanted by the breeze, as to fall where I, by the same delicacy of circumstance, happened to be lying.  The event, among all its ramifying causes and considerations, and finally its mysteries, begins to take on the magnitude of history.  Portent begins to dwell in it.

And suddenly I apprehend in it the dark proposal of the ground.  Under the fallen leaf my breastbone burns with imminent decay.  Other leaves fall.  My body begins its long shudder into humus.  I feel my subtstance escape me, carried into the mold  by beetles and worms.  Days, winds, seasons pass over me as I sink under the leaves.  For a time only sight is left me, a passive awareness of the sky overhead, birds crossing, the mazed interreaching of the treetops, the leaves falling--and then that , too, sinks away.  It is acceptable to me, and I am at peace.

When I move to go, it is as though I rise up out of the world." 

--  Wendell Berry --
from Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season
edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch
Skylight Paths Publishing

Loren Eiseley has been walking for many hours and has come to the Platte River in Nebraska, which stretches from the Rockies to the Missouri and then to the Gulf of Mexico. He is hot and dry and dusty. The River is cold yet inviting and only a few inches deep in most places, but still there are dangerous holes and quicksands. He is alone and he can't swim and he is afraid of water as the result of a childhood incident. Yet, the sight of the River stirs him "with a new idea. I was going to float."

"I thought of all this, standing quietly in the water, feeling the sand shifting away under my toes. Then I lay back in the floating position that left my face to the sky, and shoved off. The sky wheeled over me. For an instant, as I bobbed into the main channel, I had the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent. It was then that I felt the cold needles of the alpine springs at my fingertips, and the warmth of the Gulf pulling me southward. Moving with me, leaving its taste upon my mouth and spouting under me in dancing springs of sand, was the immense body of the continent itself, flowing like the river was flowing, grain by grain, mountain by mountain, down to the sea. I was streaming over ancient sea beds thrust aloft where giant reptiles had once sported; I was wearing down the face of time and trundling cloud-wreathed ranges into oblivion. I touched my margins with the delicacy of a crayfish's antennae, and felt great fishes glide about their work.

I drifted by stranded timber cut by beaver in mountain fastnesses; I slid over shallows that had buried the broken axles of prairie schooners and the mired bones of mammoth. I was streaming alive through the hot and working ferment of the sun, or oozing secretively through shady thickets. I was water and the unspeakable alchemies that gestate and take shape in water, the slimy jellies that under the enormous magnification of the sun writhe and whip upward as great barbeled fish mouths, or sink indistinctly back into the murk out of which they arose. Turtle and fish and the pinpoint chirpings of individual frogs are all watery projections, concentrations--as man himself is a concentration--of that indescribable and liquid brew which is compounded in varying proportions of salt and sun and time. It has appearances, but at its heart lies water, and as I was finally edged gently against a sand bar and dropped like any log, I tottered as I arose. I knew once more the body's revolt against emergence into the harsh and unsupporting air, its reluctance to break contact with that mother element which still, at this late point in time, shelters and brings into being nine tenths of everything alive."

-- Loren Eiseley --
from The Immense Journey

While the circumstances are different, and the ideas and the tones are different, the experiences, I think, are the same--the loss of self into the world about.  Berry's is about the ultimate end of all of us--death--and he concludes that "It is acceptable to me, and I am at peace."  Eiseley's theme is about the unity of all--water, life, the continent.  He recapitulates in a way the emergence of life out of non-life.  

I've had only three experiences that could be considered somewhat similar, although the overall tone was one of an overwhelming sense of peace and unity.  The first time was while I was driving along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  I had been there for several hours and had made several stops at various viewpoints along the road.  I had a tape in the player and it was playing one of Beethoven's symphonies when I was filled with a sense of peace and belonging?  The feeling is indescribable.  The second occurred years later, when I was returning from another trip to the Grand Canyon and I was driving south from Prescott, Arizona when it happened again, and this time I was listening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.  There seems to be a pattern here:  the Grand Canyon, driving, and Beethoven.

The third and last time was, again, years later when I was driving through the upper part of Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  The road wound among the peaks with a deep valley to one side and around each corner was another spectacular vista.  This time I was playing a tape of Beethoven's 6th Symphony.  


I'm hoping for a fourth, but .  .  .  

And you?


  1. It's funny you mention patterns when you have these experiences. For me, it happened twice with snow, below zero cold temperatures, and extremes in time of day (early morning/middle of the night). Both happened when I lived in Iowa. One involved seeing two deer as I was driving home from work in the middle of the night. The other involved seeing my first and only "sun dogs" effect on a bright, very early winter morning while walking my dog.

    Peace, unity, feeling one with nature - yes, that's how I'd describe it. And even something more - something timeless and primal. Very hard to put into words.

  2. Cheryl,

    Interesting. I wonder if any others who have had similar experiences find a pattern in theirs.

    Are you especially fond of winter weather? I enjoy driving, and my favorite composer is Beethoven. The Grand Canyon is a magical place for me. Oh yes, and solitude--I forgot to mention I was alone all three times.

  3. I'm not a big winter enthusiast, specifically. Those incidents happened when the below- freezing month of January was a newer phenomenon to me. ( I was not raised in Iowa.) I think it was like seeing - and appreciating - real winter weather for the first time. Previously, I had just seen winter as somrthing to "get through". But in these incidents I opened my eyes to the wonder and beauty that can be found in that season, almost amazed that it had benn there all along.

  4. Cheryl,

    I wonder if it has something to do with focus. You were concentrating on winter to the exclusion of everything else.

    Most systems of meditation have one focus on something and exclude all other sensations.