We have come to the end of May, and as is often the case in late spring-early summer, the weather has turned cold. Today, as yesterday, rain-tinged winds gust out of the northeast. I sit chilled in the 9:00am dark of my study dressed in sweatshirt, jeans and heavy socks. Outside my study window, unaffected by the cold, the new season soldiers on. Across northwestern Minnesota, fields turn green with wheat. Soybeans emerge in neat rows ‘though as yet barely visible against the black soil. Red-wing blackbirds guard nests in cattail marshes. Killdeer, feigning broken wings, redirect foot traffic passing too near their clutches. Yesterday I saw a dark-morph northern harrier surveying dinner prospects from its post alongside a willow scrubland. A mallard pair, striking out across the wheat field, hunted insects in the sodden earth. I stopped my bike to take a photograph. The wind buffeted my camera, and my fingers stung with cold, but the mallards, oblivious to either wind or cold, continued their eastward forage. The rain quickened then, and I headed home.
I ventured outside again this evening during a lull in the weather. Fast-moving clouds skidded across the sky, but within the shelter of the north woodlot the air was still. Grasses edging the woods, now a foot tall, were heavy with rain. Deeper in the woodlot, where the overarching canopy blocked the sun’s rays, the grasses thinned, and a tangle of deep woods plants held sway. Here flowering honeysuckles fought with burdock for available sunlight. Secreted from the sun, baneberry and False Solomon’s Seal grew gigantic and lush. I climbed onto a moss-covered trunk and walked its length feeling carefully for weak spots, hoping against a slip and sudden fall. At times like this, when I am alone hiking a trail or traversing a fallen log, I realize that at fifty-six years of age, I am still following the instincts of my childhood for adventure in hidden places.
The archeologist Loren Eiseley wrote in Night Country, “Choices, more choices than we like afterward to believe, are made far backward in the innocence of childhood.” Eiseley was, in fact, telling the story of his preference to explore hidden places — caves, tunnels, crevices, the darker recesses of the swamp – as a life-direction fostered by the constraints and choices of his childhood.
It’s not news that adult decisions are often guided, if not dictated, by forces from childhood – the inference being we are not as in control of our adult decisions as we think. I find this idea comforting, and disquieting, when reviewing actions I’ve taken and mistakes I’ve made over the years – none of which, in the forward march of time, can be taken back; many of which perplex me deeply.
But as much as I am a product of my past, I tell you with utmost certainty, I am not exclusively my past. Each day I wake to new possibilities. Each day I wake to an ever-evolving universe of which I am undeniably a part. Alongside those forces from childhood that influence self-defeating actions are those that inspire a hunger for knowledge and adventure — forces that beg I take a walk into the woods in the early evening or pause to photograph a mallard as the morning rain begins to fall – forces that catch me mid-step as an eastern kingbird stops to celebrate the sun breaking anew through the clouds.
Who are we? Why are we?
Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, “I exist as I am, that is enough.”
“Might I be some other?” I ask myself. But, I know, like the eastern kingbird, I can be none other than who I am.
Eiseley, L. (2016). Night Country. In W. Cronan (ed.), Loren Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos (Vol. 2). (p. 127). New York, NY: Library of America.
Whitman, W. (2007). Leaves of Grass: Original 1855 Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover.