There are two common ways of being in the world. You can aggressively pursue things, stay in motion, always moving forward, or you can stay put and let the world come to you. When I studied marine biology, there were frequent field trips into the marine environment of beaches and tidal areas.
I have no idea why this happened, but early on, I developed a practice of walking backward through the intertidal worlds. Walking backward slowed me down and curtailed my blinding eagerness. Moving slowly over ground shifted my perspective from any constant inclination to look ahead; it opened up the vastness of all that remains behind. You never lose sight of what you are passing through when you walk this way.
While I enjoyed exploring the world, I have never enjoyed being in a group. I often surprise friends when I declare, “I am not a herd animal.” For some, social distancing is a challenge, but for me, it is a comfort; I prefer handshakes to insincere hugs, and sometimes a wave is good enough, maybe even a head nod, the way “cool” dudes acknowledged each other when I grew up.
The first few months of the Coronavirus world have been a profound and unexpected field trip into an unfamiliar environment. Even as the course of the virus unfolds before our eyes, a large group aggressively rushes to the front eager to see what is next, a larger group hangs in the middle waiting for direction, while taking up the rear content to take in the new environment with no urgency or expectation is a far smaller group, moving forward by looking backward.
Two times in my life, by walking backward, I’ve encountered one of the more rarely seen animals on the planet. This inch-long, anemone-like creature lives exclusively on blades of eelgrass with the regal name, Haliclystus auricula. When you walk through eelgrass, the motion disturbs the water. By trailing behind and allowing the turbulence to settle, your eyes penetrate deeper; you see more, and your experience is free from the collective chatter of a large group.
Such has been the past two months, as we have hunkered, slowed, stopped, and taken time to “walk backward.” Surely, other people and places have good reasons to want to move ahead, but we have seen fir trees cast out their dusty clouds of pollen, cottonwoods release their aromatic propolis nectar, and watched bees take to the unfolding bloom of big leaf maple, apple, cherry, pear, peach and quince trees.
As the flowers departed, we watched the leaves emerge. The bird feeders and ponds are full of Nuthatches, Juncos, Robins, Mourning Doves, Quail, Stellar Jay, Varied Thrush, Sapsuckers, Band Tailed Pigeons, Great Blue Herons, Raptors, Wood ducks, Mallards, Turkey Vultures, Snow Geese, Cowbirds, a Red-Winged Blackbird who has befriended our donkey, Flora and the annual arrival of the Tyrannosaurus of the bird world, Wild Turkey.
Of course, it is tempting to look ahead. On the days when we enter the world of news, where urgency, fear, and promise are like a counterfeit carrot at the end of a stick, there is a sense of anticipation and a return to “normal” as if normal was some blissful state to which we can return.
Then, I think of the myth of Sisyphus, and imagine him laboring to push a massive rock to the top of the hill. Poor unsuspecting Sisyphus is looking ahead, thinking, “If only I can get the rock to the top, my life will “return to normal.” Poor Sisyphus, condemned for eternity to repeatedly roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down once he gets it to the top.
We all want an end to the hardship and suffering wrought by the virus. But, if we remain patient and let the water settle, we will see deeper into the world. If we reflect on all that is available to us in this rare and precious time, we can avoid being like Sisyphus, who will never escape the fool’s gold of a return to normal in his (our) persistent struggle against the essential absurdity of life.
Band Tailed Pigeons