How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.
Because you have seen something doesn't mean you can explain it. Differing interpretations will always abound, even when good minds come to bear. The kernel of indisputable information is a dot in space; interpretations grow out of the desire to make this point a line, to give it direction. The directions in which it can be sent, the uses to which it can be put by a culturally, professionally, and geographically diverse society are almost without limit. The possibilities make good scientists chary.
I took several long walks in the Wright and adjacent Taylor Valleys. I did not feel insignificant on these journeys, dwarfed or shrugged off by the land, but superfluous. It is a difficult landscape to enter, and to develop a rapport with. It is not inimical or hostile, but indifferent, utterly remote, even as you stand in it. The light itself is aloof.
The evening before I departed I stood on the rim of a lagoon on Isla Rabida. Flamingos rode on its dark surface like pink swans, apparently asleep. Small, curved feathers, shed from their breasts, drifted away from them over the water on a light breeze. I did not move for an hour. It was a moment of such peace, every troubled thread in a human spirit might have uncoiled and sorted itself into a graceful order. Other flamingos stood in the shallows with diffident elegance in the falling light, not feeding but only staring off toward the ocean. They seemed a kind of animal I had never quite seen before.
Why we should believe in wolf children seems somehow easier to understand than the ways we distinguish between what is human and what is animal behavior. In making such distinctions we run the risk of fooling ourselves completely. We assume that the animal is entirely comprehensible and, as Henry Beston has said, has taken form on a plane beneath the one we occupy. It seems to me that this is a sure way to miss the animal and to see, instead, only another reflection of our own ideas.
Over the years, one comes to measure a place, too, not just for the beauty it may give, the balminess of its breezes, the insouciance and relaxation it encourages, the sublime pleasures it offers, but for what it teaches. The way in which it alters our perception of the human. It is not so much that you want to return to indifferent or difficult places, but that you want to not forget.
An oceanic expanse of pre-dawn gray white below obscures a checkered grid of Saskatchewan, a snow plain nicked by the dark, unruly lines of woody swales. One might imagine that little is to be seen from a plane at night, but above the clouds the Milky Way is a dense, blazing arch. A full moon often lights the planet freshly, and patterns of human culture, artificially lit, are striking in ways not visible in daylight. One evening I saw the distinctive glows of cities around Delhi diffused like spiral galaxies in a continuous deck of stratus clouds far below us. In Algeria and on the Asian steppes, wind-whipped pennants of gas flared. The jungle burned in incandescent spots in Malaysia and Brazil. One clear evening at 20,000 feet over Manhattan, I could see, it seemed, every streetlight halfway to the end of Long Island. A summer lightning bolt unexpectedly revealed thousands of bright dots on the ink-black veld of the northern Transvaal: sheep.
Up there in that room, as I see it, is the reading and the thinking-through, a theory of rivers, of trees moving, of falling light. Here on the river, as I lurch against a freshening of the current, is the practice of rivers. In navigating by the glow of the Milky Way, the practice of light. In steadying with a staff, the practice of wood.
It is, I think, the rarest of leisure, hard work mixed with hard pleasure, to refine one's time of deep thought or light regard into the utterly self-absorbed and equally and abundantly outward-seeking shape of the personal essay -- a story comprised of found fact, of analyzed emotion, of fictive memory.
I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled--Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan--I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns,we might reimagine our lives. It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.