Best I Can Remember

I believe it was the summer of 1970, best I can remember. My forced marriage (even without children involved) was already revealing the frays and broken threads of a seam soon to give way. The summer before, John and I had spent a month in the Canadian wilderness that unfortunately didn’t sate my thirst for the elemental, but rather awakened a throb in me that addict-like, I longed to fix. When I couldn’t rouse a similar interest in my then-husband, and when my plans to head to the mountains had him claim the VW van was his, I gathered our new little stray Cocker Spaniel, named Urchin, filled my 35 pound pack with 45 pounds of supplies and a tent, and had a friend drop me off on the side of Highway 16.

Twin Rainbows above Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park

From there, Urchin and I hitchhiked to Jasper National Park. It took three rides to get us to the flat plain that marks the valley that originally permitted passage through the Rockies and on into British Columbia. I was not yet under the shadow of the mother rock, Mt. Edith Cavell or alongside the icy, crystal-clear waters of the source stage of the Athabasca River, but even then my breath came in gasps and tears ran down my cheeks. For in that moment, I had met the mountains and that was as close to meeting God as I had yet experienced.

All of this came back to me this morning when I began to thumb through The Outermost House, by Henry Beston. Like Rachel Carson, Beston was neither a trained scientist nor an expert field-naturalist. The infamous journalist, Robert Fitch, Beston’s friend and author of this book’s introduction, summed Beston up nicely: “He preferred poetic impressions to scientific accuracy.” And I think it would be safe to say that the writers who have most attracted me in my life have been those, who through their brush with the elemental, deemed themselves naturalist writers. They were the ones who alone could give a home to the poet and scientist that lives within me. “Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science,” is the way Beston put it, and that for me is a fundamental truth.

As Urchin and I strolled along that two-lane highway, best I can remember, my mouth hung open unceremoniously. I recalled thinking, this can’t be real. This is too pristine, too unimaginably breathtaking, and as I sit here now in a noisy little section of a big city with yapping dogs and screaming children, I marvel again at how the elemental, whether held in memory or in actuality, can hold us above the mundane, the chaotic, the doubtful. Like the tides pulling on our internal seas as if we were also the ocean, the untamable wildness of mountains will not let us forget that we too are freedom’s wild-child.

Beston’s observations and then his ability to record them in unforgettable prose is what awaits us in The Outermost House. It also awaits us outside our doors as well, but look at us in our temperature controlled buildings, our walled-in daycares, our houses with their closed and shuttered windows. We now have generations of children who wouldn’t even know how to play with the whimsy of nature, who don’t know the secret pleasure of a woodland wicki-up where they can stay hidden to spy on the world.

Nor have they had the freedom to wade in shallow brooks, float leaf-boats in the riffle, or see what lives on the underside of rocks. Nature is our rudder, the order that reminds us we too live in natural rhythms; we too are included in this universe; we too are each a neuron of a mighty mind that endlessly creates. We are not us and them, and all the terrible pains that notion permits.

Where else can we find a manual, a model, so powerful that it can cause us to remember, best we can, what we really are. As Beston concludes human life is itself a ritual:

The ancient values of dignity, beauty and poetry which sustain it are of Nature’s inspiration; they are born of the mystery and beauty of the world.

Urchin and I rode home two weeks later with a man from Wales who sang Celtic folk songs and operatic arias to the dog who sat on the engine cover that protruded between the two front seats. Our jolly driver wove back and forth across his lane in rhythm with his melodies, pushing back into his seat and lifting his head as he’d hit the crescendos of the music and the love he felt for it. The songs, the man, the music reminded me what a marvelous offering human beings bring to the mystery that abounds, every time we get close enough to remember, best we can, where we fit in this vast scheme of life, and why.

Christina Carson is author of Dying to Know.

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