My mother died in the summer of 2000. This is an essay that I wrote back then.
When my mother died, I was in the middle of nowhere.
Quite literally. I was camping on a small island in a large lake, far from civilization. It was almost a week before the rangers found us, and by that time all the arrangements had been made, all the duties taken care of, and my mother had been cremated. There had been no service, because she hadn’t cared for one.
I marked her passing in my own way. I lit a candle in a small candlelantern one cool evening, drank a toast to my mother, and left it burning when I went to bed. In the morning when I got up it was still going, though it didn’t last much longer. But it cast a very bright light on the walls of the tent for an entire night, gleaming like a star through the netting.
To the best of my knowledge, my mother never camped, and certainly if she did it was never in anything but a civilized campground. But I go to the wilderness often, because it is the only place that I can truly stop. The city overwhelms my senses, challenging my state of grace; the hum and roar and ticking, the constant motion, the barrage of smells, the people. Always the people. The city demands attention. I shut it out, and in so doing I shut down a good deal of myself.
In the wilderness, though, I listen. I sit and watch and wait. The wilderness can be very insistant, depending on where you are; a waterfall is a tumultous assault of sight and sound. But it demands nothing. It simply is, and I can watch or not watch, listen or not listen. It is my choice. And because it is my choice, I do not need to protect myself from it.
It’s hard to lose the city when we go into the wilderness; we carry it with us like a cloak, like a disease. It takes time to stop moving to rhythms that have nothing to do with the place you are. It takes time to stop trying to make the place you are fit those rhythms. But it can be done.
A few years ago I went canoeing with friends on a remote far northern lake. The southern end of it contains an archipelago of islands. Our circuit through them brought us to one particular horseshoe-shaped island on both the first and last nights of our trip. The far arm of the horseshoe had plenty of bear sign and we heard something large moving through the bush when we paddled near that shore. But we saw only birdlife. The camp itself was home to a grouse and her chicks; that first evening I followed them for a bit, determined to get pictures, but she led the young ones into thickets and hid herself in dense branches, and nothing came of it.
Flocks of loons ambled by several times while we were on the lake. Loons are known for their howling, gurgling laugh, but in closer quarters they communicate with each other by a sort of soft “houk”. I discovered that if you “houk” back at them, they become very interested, and when I called to them they would swim surprisingly closely to us.
I read somewhere, long ago, that the way to get close to an animal is to think and behave as that animal does. It made sense to me, and so from time to time I try it out. It works surprisingly often. You do have to be prepared, of course, to look like a fool.
It worked with the loons, simply by copying their call. I had not tried it with the grouse, because I hadn’t thought of it. The city had still been too close, I was trying to stalk them, and they reacted as they would to any predator.
But when we returned to the island, the grouse and her chicks were still there, and I still wanted a picture. And by then the wilderness had changed me as it always does. So I watched her, and studied her movements, and thought about what she was doing, and how she did it, and what was important to her. A grouse is not a very smart bird. Their concerns are small. She kept an eye on her chicks, circling through the underbrush, pecking here and there for food.
I tried to think and act like a grouse. I walked in aimless circles, picking with my hand at things on the ground, in bushes. She watched a bit suspiciously, but this time she didn’t leave. I ambled and wandered and ended up about ten feet from where she sat under a spruce. I sat down then, and took a few pictures. And then I just stretched out my legs in front of me, watched her and thought about grouseness. She didn’t seem upset by my presence. She clucked occasionally; occasionally there were peepings elsewhere.
And then her head came up alertly, and I realized that the peepings elsewhere were getting awfully close. I slowly and very cautiously looked around–and there was a chick, hopping and rushing and gradually making its way closer and closer to me. The hen made mildly alarmed noises, and the chick squatted under a bush. I tried not to blink too often.
And then the chick made a beeline over to my knee, ran along the side of my leg, and crouched down in the shelter of my boot, peeping. The hen looked at it, clucked, and relaxed. I blinked.
I didn’t try to take a picture. Even if I’d been able to properly see the chick tucked under my boot, I wouldn’t have taken a picture. To use a camera would have made me something other than I was at that moment.
I wasn’t a grouse. Both the birds and I knew that. But it was a precarious, precious moment, where I was no longer a danger. I was no longer the Other. I had paid attention to the birds, listened to them instead of myself, and they had allowed me to be something else.
Someone is likely to point out that grouse are exceptionally stupid birds, and I suppose it’s true. They will say that it is very unlikely that such a thing could happen with other birds or animals, and they are probably right. Yet I read recently an account by Loren Eisley of a similar encounter with a fox pup, and I wonder if it is not so much that we are dangerous and alien to them as that we don’t listen to them. That we don’t allow ourselves to be something other than that which our “normal,” insular lives demand.
What has all this to do with my mother’s death? Everything, and nothing.
In our day to day lives we all shut down, for many reasons, for good reasons. But in doing so we stop listening to the world around us, and that includes the people we love. We remove ourselves from our place in the world; we are in the middle of nowhere. But our grace is that for most of us, there are still connections. Despite ourselves, we speak, and listen.
Now that my mother is gone, I’m realizing with sorrow how little I heard.
And with joy, how much.