"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

19 May 2016


Homer, Saguenay River, Lower Rapids, 1897


By accident my heart lifted with a rush.
Gone for weeks, finally home on a darkish day
of blustery wind, napped, waking in a few minutes
and the sun had come clean and crept around the house,
this light from one of trillions of stars
falling through the window skeined
by the willow’s greenish bright yellow leaves
so that my half-asleep head opened wide
for the first time in many months, a cold sunstroke,
so yellow-gold, so gold-yellow, yellow-gold,
this eye beyond age bathed in yellow light.

Seventy days on the river with a confusion between
river turbulence and human tribulation. We are here
to be curious not consoled. The gift of the gods
is consciousness not my forlorn bleating prayers
for equilibrium, the self dog-paddling in circles
on its own alga-lidded pond. Emily Walter wrote:
“We are given rivers so we know our hearts
can break, but still keep us breathing.”

When you run through the woods blindfolded
you’re liable to collide with trees, I thought
one hot afternoon on the river. You can’t drown yourself
if you swim well. We saw some plovers
and then a few yellow legs with their peculiar cries,
and I remembered a very cold, windy September day
with Matthiessen and Danny when the birds lifted
me far out of myself. It was so cold and blustery the avian
world descended into the river valley and while fishing
we saw a golden eagle, two immature and two adult
bald eagles, two prairie falcons, two peregrines, Cooper’s
hawks, two Swainson’s, a sharp-shinned,
a rough-legged, a harrier, five turkey vultures,
three ospreys, and also saw buffleheads, widgeon,
teal, mallards, morning doves, kingfishers,
ring-billed gulls, killdeer, spotted plovers,
sandpipers and sandhill cranes.
They also saw us. If a peregrine sees fifty times better
than we, what do we look like to them?

Nearing seventy there is a tinge of the usually
unseen miraculous when you wake up alive
from a night’s sleep or a nap. We always rise in the terrifying
posture of the living. Some days the river is incomprehensible.
No, not the posture, but that a terrifying beauty
is born within us. I think of the 20-acre thicket
my mother planted after the deaths 40 years ago,
the thicket now nearly impenetrable as its own beauty.
Across the small pond the green heron looked at me quizzically—
who is this? I said I wasn’t sure at that moment
wondering if the green heron could be Mother.

Now back in the Absarokas I’m awake
to these diffuse corridors of light. The grizzlies
have buried themselves below that light cast down
across the mountain meadow, following a canyon
to the valley floor where the rattlesnakes will also sleep
until mid-April. Meanwhile we’ll travel toward the border
with the birds. The moon is swollen tonight
and the mountain this summer I saw bathed
in a thunderstorm now bathes itself in a mist of snow.

Rushing, turbulent water and light, convinced by animals
and rivers that nature only leads us to herself,
so openly female through the window of my single eye.
For half a year my alphabet blinded me to beauty,
forgetting my nature which came from the boy lost
comfortably in the woods, how and why he suspected home,
this overmade world where old paths are submerged
in metal and cement.

This morning in the first clear sunlight making its way
over the mountains, the earth covered with crunchy frost,
I walked the dogs past Weber’s sheep pasture
where a ram was covering a ewe who continued eating,
a wise and experienced woman. I headed due west
up the slope toward Antelope Butte in the delicious
cold still air, turning at the irrigation ditch hearing
the staccato howl of sandhill cranes behind me,
a couple of hundred rising a mile away from Cargill’s
alfalfa, floating up into the white mist rising
from the frost, and moving north in what I judge
is the wrong direction for this weather. Birds make mistakes,
so many dying against windows and phone wires.
I continued west toward the snake den to try to catch
the spirit of the place when it’s asleep, the sheer otherness
of hundreds of rattlesnakes sleeping in a big ball
deep in the rocky earth beneath my feet. The dogs,
having been snake trained, are frightened of this place.
So am I. So much protective malevolence. I fled.
Back home in the studio, a man-made wonder. We planted
a chokecherry tree near the window and now through cream-
colored blinds the precise silhouette of the bare branches,
gently but firmly lifting my head, a Chinese screen
that no one made which I accept from the nature of light.

I think of Mother’s thicket as her bird garden.
How obsessed she was with these creatures. When I told
her a schizophrenic in Kentucky wrote, “Birds are holes
in heaven through which a man must pass,” her eyes teared.
She lost husband and daughter to the violence of the road
and I see their spirits in the bird garden. On our last night
a few years ago she asked me, “Are we the same species as God?”
At eighty-five she was angry that the New Testament wasn’t fair
to women and then she said, “During the Great Depression
we had plenty to eat,” meaning at the farmhouse,
barn and chicken coop a hundred yards to the north
that are no longer there, disappeared with the inhabitants.
The child is also the mother of the man.

In the U.P. in the vast place southeast of the river
I found my way home by following the path
where my shadow was the tallest
which led to the trail which led
to another trail which led to the road home
to the cabin where I wrote to her:
“Found two dead redtail hawks, missing
their breasts, doubtless a goshawk took them
as one nests just north of here a half mile
in a tall hemlock on the bend of the river.”

With only one eye I’ve learned
to celebrate vision, the eye a painter,
the eye a monstrous fleshy camera
which can’t stop itself in the dark
where it sees its private imagination.
The tiny eye that sees the cosmos overhead.

Last winter I lost heart between each of seven cities.
Planes never land with the same people who boarded.

Walking Mary and Zilpha every morning I wonder
how many dogs are bound by regret
because they are captured by our imaginations
and affixed there by our need to have them do
as we wish when their hearts are quite otherwise.

I hope to define my life, whatever is left,
by migrations, south and north with the birds
and far from the metallic fever of clocks,
the self staring at the clock saying, “I must do this.”
I can’t tell the time on the tongue of the river
in the cool morning air, the smell of the ferment
of greenery, the dust off the canyon’s rock walls,
the swallows swooping above the scent of raw water.

Maybe we’re not meant to wake up completely.
I’m trying to think of what I can’t remember.
Last week in France I read that the Ainu in Japan
receive messages from the gods through willow trees
so I’m not the only one. I looked down into the garden
of Matignon and wondered at the car trip the week before
where at twilight in Narbonne 27,000 blackbirds swirled
and that night from the window
it was eerie with a slip of the waning moon
off the right shoulder of the Romanesque cathedral
with Venus sparkling shamelessly above the moon,
Venus over whom the church never had any power.
Who sees? Whose eye is this? A day later in Collioure
from the Hermitage among vineyards in the mountains
I could look down steep canyons still slightly green
from the oaks in November to the startling blue of the Mediterranean,
storm-wracked from the mistral’s seventy knot winds,
huge lumpy whitecaps, their crests looking toward Africa.

I always feared losing my remaining eye,
my singular window to the world. When closed it sees
the thousands of conscious photos I’ve taken with it,
impressionist rather than crystalline, from a lion’s mouth
in the Serengeti in 1972 to a whale’s eye in the Humboldt current,
the mountain sun gorged with the color of forest
fires followed by a moon orange as a simple orange,
a thousand girls and women I’ve seen but never met,
the countless birds I adopted since losing the eye in 1945
including an albino grouse creamy as that goshawk’s breast
that came within feet of Mother in our back pasture,
the female trogon that appeared when Dalva
decided to die, and the thousands of books out of whose print
vision is created in the mind’s eye, as real as any garden at dawn.

No rhapsodies today. Home from France
and the cold wind and a foot of snow have destroyed
my golden window, but then the memory
has always been more vivid than the life. The memory
is the not-quite-living museum of our lives.
Sometimes its doors are insufferably wide open
with black stars in a grey sky, and horses
clattering in and out, our dead animals resting here
and there but often willing to come to life again
to greet us, parents and brothers and sisters sit
at the August table laughing while they eat twelve
fresh vegetables from the garden. Rivers, creeks, lakes
over which birds funnel like massive schools of minnows.
In memory the clocks have drowned themselves, leaving
time to the life spans of trees. The world of our lives
comes unbidden as night.

Jim Harrison

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