I spent the week in a borrowed cabin on the western slope of Chuckanut Mountain. From the narrow deck I watched the sky change. I watched the water, and the boats, the islands slipping in and out of clouds. I watched a dozen kinds of birds and one busy chipmunk. When the night wind blew hard I opened the door and listened to the trees moving. When it rained, I ran up into Larabee’s tangle of trails and listened to the rain against leaves, breathing in the wet duff smell of the forest. Warm evenings I scrambled down to swim in the cold, green ocean.
Every morning I rode reluctantly north to Bellingham, and every evening, riding south through downtown and Fairhaven and onto Chuckanut Drive, I was relieved again to leave behind the concrete and cars and right angles of the city.
One morning, in the soft light just before sunrise, I stopped to watch a barred owl on the power line above the road. She watched me back, her deep set eyes shadowed. Cars blew by too fast, ruffling my feathers if not the owl’s. I felt an annoyed pity for the drivers, to be so seduced by convenience that they traded living inside world for passing through it, insulated by metal and speed.
I was drunk on clouds and trees, on the sound of rain and on orange-pink sunsets over the Olympics. I could stay here, I thought, packing my panniers for another ride north. I could stay here, just for a day or two, just for a few weeks, just for forever. A line of poetry caught my mind and held fast. “A little way away from everywhere,” I said silently to myself riding the Interurban, running past Fragrance Lake, sunning on the warm Chuckanut sandstone after a swim. “A little way away from everywhere,” I thought, drinking weak coffee and looking out over the gray blue islands as the sky lightened. Eventually, I looked the words up. Even in the woods I had a cell phone. It was a line from Mary Oliver’s “A Dream of Trees,” a poem warning against retreat from the hard and sorrowful human world. Had my subconscious purposefully pulled a piece of this poem up out of thousands of lines, the hundreds of poems I’ve read and forgotten? Or was it coincidence that on my little blue screen Mary Oliver echoed my own longing: “I would have time, I thought, and time to spare, / With only streams and birds for company, / To build of my life a few wild stanzas.”
But, of course, she goes on, “And then it came to me, that so was death, / A little way away from everywhere.” Ah, I thought, reading the poem through once, and again. Ah, well. The words felt true. I copied them out in my notebook and then sat, thinking about the peace of wild places, about what makes a good and meaningful life, about living fully inside the world. Reluctantly, I let go my soft, romantic daydream of a hermitage in the hills. There would be no hiding away in the forest from the hard-edges and injustices of the city. I would not stay forever here among the trees, but I would return.
“as the times implore our true involvement, / The blades of every crisis point the way. / I would it were not so, but so it is. / Who ever made music of a mild day?”
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