Normally rising much later in the day, I had missed the magic of dawn nearly all of my life. And it was not a thing to be missed: the silent loveliness took my breath away as fully as my panic had the night before. But this breathlessness was not born of fear. Instead, it had been birthed in beauty - beauty in its most tender color, exquisite stillness, and uninhibited expression. Morning birds began singing up the sun all around me. Fish rose, sending out concentric ripples on the water as gangly-legged water bugs skated near the river's edge.
Beauty, like the sense of belonging and the majesty of transcendent moments, is a part of the trinity of universal experience that transforms lives. On the river I understood with my body that beauty is far more than pleasant aesthetic and that wild landscape is more than a "Kodak moment." Wildland, merely the look of it, is a vital component of Earth's natural medicine to us. Beauty has the power to heal. Perhaps much of the healing that animals had brought to my life came from the simple beauty of their form and color and how delicately, surely, and gracefully they moved in the world. I thought of the ancient tradition of the Japanese tea ceremony, in which every movement is executed with longstudied grace and precision, and in the morning unraveling before me, I witnessed that same measure of beauty and gracefulness. Mesmerized, I sat still and watched the morning unfold. Unfold. When had I ever let anything in my life just unfold in its natural order, without cranking the direction, the timing, and the pace?
As the creatures and the elements of the day danced together-the sunlight, the soft breath of morning breeze, the moose and birds and deer-I noticed, too, how slowly the world moved outside of my human domain. The moose trio meandered through the willows in slow motion on ash-colored legs. Eagles made lazy, unhurried circles in the sky. Ripples drifted out from the rising fish in sleepy, widening rings. Only the singing birds sounded busy or hurried. Clouds floated slowly, slowly above me. Is this the rhythm of the Earth? Is this the pace we were meant to keep? Is this why I feel so crazy in my life at home, running all the time, keeping pace with cars and clocks and computers? Am I meant to live on moose time? On cloud time?
A young beaver swam around the bend in the river and headed straight toward my side of the bank. I could see his broad, webbed feet paddling in slow strokes, his fat tail floating out behind him like a raft. Reaching the bank, he stretched his paws up onto shore and ambled up onto the gravel bar not five feet from me. I could have reached out and touched his dripping fur, his stone-gray tail. His eyes were small and round, set wide apart on a face I can only describe as innocent, harmless. I knew he could not miss seeing me. I sat like a huge, breathing boulder right beside him.
As he slowly settled himself into a sitting posture, he gazed into my face, head weaving from side to side. For a long time, he squatted like an old Buddha figure, back humped, head forward, hands clasped thoughtfully in front of his chest. Then he pulled his eyes from mine and began grooming himself. With paws the color of coffee, he wiped the water away from his face. He scratched his wide back, his legs, his neck, and his tiny ears with slow deliberation and licked the water drops off his tail. With an audible sigh,the stretched out on the bank, rolled in the sand, and stared at the water. His whole demeanor was nothing like what I had imagined of a beaver. Aren't you supposed to be busy? I asked him silently. Aren't beavers always busy? Isn't there a dam somewhere that needs your attention?
His actions answered me: There is "busy," and there is "crazy." Sister, you work like crazy. There is no point in it. Sit, watch, rest. The work will all get done in good time. The beaver brought to my mind the famous last words of the great avatar Meher Baba: "Don?t worry, be happy." Surely, if the beaver could speak, those would be his words as well. We sat silently together for several more minutes, and then my friend launched himself back into the river, smacking his tail on the surface before diving and vanishing into the morning.
I returned reluctantly to my hidden glen of bones. Even though it had seemed welcoming the previous morning, it suddenly felt foreboding. The tall, tight circle of trees that had seemed so sheltering to me now felt suffocating. Whether it was because I had contaminated the place with my fear or because I was not welcomed there, I did not know. By leaving the glen with my pipe that morning, I had already broken the rules David set for me, which were to stay in one place and sit. After hours of deliberation, fear had the final word, driving me out of the glen with my belongings. Wandering a scant twenty yards north to where I could see water, I set up another hidden camp and settled down for the evening. I did not return to the glen of bones for the rest of my vision quest.
That night passed more easily. The sight of water shining like a nickel in the starlight brought me comfort. I was still deeply afraid, but not shiveringly so. Still, I counted the minutes until daybreak, once again returning to the riverbank to smoke my pipe and pray. Again the pelican came swooshing in on cloudlike wings to break the silent surface of the river. Again, the moose, eagles, deer, and beaver visited. And again, they all moved so slowly, so beautifully, a ballet choreographed by a transcendent master.
Excerpted from Heart In the Wild by Susan Chernak McElroy.
Copyright 2002 by Susan Chernak McElroy
Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.