418. Rowing

January 29, 2015

I am a walker and hiker in nature. And also a rower. By necessity, if I want to get to Burying Island in Taunton Bay. The island my extended family used to own in undivided shares. The island I now manage for Burying Island LLC, and for the members who now own shares in that company.

I lived on the island from June 14, 1986, to December 23, 1988, so did a lot of rowing back and forth in all seasons for two-and-a-half years. In this post I will tell of four memorable trips I made in my thirteen-foot fiberglass peapod made by Eric Dow in Brooklin, Maine. It’s called a peapod because, like a canoe, it narrows to a point at both ends. Eric made a mold from one of his hand-built wooden boats, and reluctantly (he’s a wooden-boat man) turns out fiberglass copies.

 

Steve in his peapod.

That’s me in my peapod on an unusually calm Taunton Bay.

On a windless, sunny day in early May, 1987, I rowed ashore for some provisions, and on the trip back saw a jellyfish in the water right next to my boat. A big jellyfish. Half as long as my boat. Like an amethyst city in a bubble, with tendrils dangling into the depths. I’d never seen or imagined such a thing. But there it was. An apparition. A lion’s mane jellyfish brought from the Arctic by the Labrador Current that feeds into the Gulf of Maine and the upper reaches of Frenchman Bay into Taunton Bay.

It was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen, and I didn’t have my camera. I quickly eyed my position relative to ledges and rocks, rowed to the island, ran to my cabin, got my camera, ran back, rowed out to the channel—and couldn’t find it again. The tide was coming in, so I rowed farther into the bay. But it was gone. Lost, except to my memory, which provides a vivid image as I write these words some twenty-seven years later.

That’s what I mean by an engagement, coordinating my senses and muscles so my whole body is focused on the same event that fills my consciousness. Not like crossing the street while talking on a cellphone or looking down at your email on a small screen.

 

View from Burying Island

My peapod on Burying Island with Taunton Bay waiting beyond.

Then there was the still September evening I rowed back to the island with a bright green aurora wafting to the north, arching over Burying Island, and reflecting in the calm bay, making a shimmering green eye with the black island at its center. And luminous phytoplankton in the bay itself, so my oars stirred up glowing ripples on the surface, and pale green drops dripped into the water when I readied for the next stroke.

I’ve seen Taunton Bay under all sorts of conditions, but that was the most stunning row I ever made. The sky was alive, the surface of the water was alive, and the water itself was literally alive with phytoplankton. I took it all in, turning my head to watch where I was heading while continuing to row, my perceptions and motions proving that I, too, had never felt more alive. Once on the island, I stepped off onto the line of wrack at the edge of the tide, and it, too, glowed when I trod on it, leaving a track of luminous footprints from the plankton washed up from the bay.

 

Frozen Taunton Bay.

In February, Taunton Bay is much different than in July and August.

In November, after a particularly delicious Thanksgiving dinner with Bob and Mary McCormick on Butler Point in Franklin, I rowed out into a northeast blizzard, in total darkness at ten o’clock at night, with no stars or shoreline lights to steer by, and navigated by the bite of ice pellets driven by the wind against my right cheek, pulling on my oars with all the strength I took from eating that meal. I sensed where I was going, and got into the rhythm of a galley slave to head a straight course through heavy seas by keeping the sting of hurtling ice fixed on my cheek.

When the wind abruptly died, I knew exactly where I was by the map in my head—in the lee of the cliff on the north end of the island I was aiming for, the rest of my course hugging the windless shore of the island, which I couldn’t see, but could sense as a presence off to port, so I could avoid every rock and jutting point in reaching the gravel beach where I could haul up my boat, and then wend my way through snowy woods to my cabin.

Despite my hosts’ pleas not to row into the storm, my expectancy after rowing through all kinds of weather, steering by hidden signs that I didn’t know I could read—those signs told me I could make it. And by believing I was a match for the risk, I made it safely, where no caring or careful person might think it possible.

We learn about nature by engaging with it up-close and personally under all manner of conditions. If we give our all to it, nature will return its all to us. If we insist on only taking from nature, as we frequently do, we’ll end up with nothing.

 

Deer on an iced Taunton Bay.

Deer have learned to walk single-file at a distance across thin ice.

The last row across the bay I will mention took place in mid-March when I left a board meeting of Frenchman Bay Conservancy about ten at night and headed for my island home. March is a month of transitions when the ice goes out of the bay and deer can no longer stroll single-file back and forth between island and mainland.

I’d equipped my boat with a flashlight lashed to the bow so I could see ice floes as I approached them. On this trip, halfway across I came to a barrier of ice running with an outgoing tide. I had no idea how large a chunk of Egypt Bay ice was going out, but I certainly wasn’t going to pass in front of it, so turned northwest along the barrier to get behind it. Finding no break in the ice, I rowed. And I rowed. And I rowed. The entire bay seemed to be emptying in that one chunk of ice. Way off course, I steered around the back end of the outgoing ice, and headed toward the unseen island beyond it, almost crashing into Burying Island Ledge before I saw it ahead, so rowed around it, too, and knew right where the island lay not far ahead in the dark water.

What got me about that sheet of ice was how silent it was. No creaking, groaning, splashing to announce its presence. It was just there, blocking my route where, in my recent experience, no ice had been lately. Of course the entire bay had been frozen-over all winter, but Taunton River had been carefully reaching into the bay day-by-day, and for over a week my passage had been ice free. But this particular crossing coincided with the half-hour when the bulk of the upper bay cut loose and happened to lie between me in my boat and the island I was headed for. Learning from experience, I was prepared for just that possibility, so had put fresh batteries in my flashlight, and snugged its lashing to the boat.

Caring and careful engagement opens the way to learning through experience. Which is how people are meant to pull themselves ahead by their own bootstraps. By turning their worries and mistakes to good use. Which we are fully equipped to do, even in wholly unfamiliar situations.

That potential for self-teaching is the heritage that evolution has equipped us with. If we know what’s good for us, we trust that heritage every chance we get. Which is how I rowed myself safely across the bay under trying conditions, and had time to enjoy whatever scenes I met along my route.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

The center of the spectacle is straight overhead. Looking up, I see streamers shimmering from around the horizon toward that focus where, wavering, flowing, they whirl together in a pulsing gyre of living forms that spreads and contracts and shifts its shape as I watch. Glowing spiders turn into snakes into eyes into butterflies. The air is clear, sky dark, each star a vivid needle of light. Beneath the stars, the cartwheel aurora rings its changes without repetition as if two eyes aren’t enough to take it in and I need ears as well. I am having a whole-body experience. Candle flames turn into running wolves into great whales into chickens, rays shooting above the trees all the while, feeding the gyre, spinning it round and round and into itself. Roses turn to sparklers turn to ants turn to dinosaurs. The spectacle goes on for hours, each second requiring my whole attention. What if I blinked and missed something? But eventually, cold, stiff, tired, I not only blink but go to bed, my head swimming with the best display of northern lights I’ve ever seen—and as it turns out, ever will see in my life.

I wrote it all down next morning, as much as I could remember, making lists of images in sequence as one led to another. But I lost the list, so rely on fading memory in writing this post, trying to get the feel at least in place of exact details. I didn’t know I was having a spiritual experience at the time, but looking back, that’s what I’d say it was now. Wholly engaged and alive, I met the cosmos half-way as it revealed itself to me as if I was part of the lightshow itself. As if I belonged there so I could participate on my own scale of wonder as the sky showed what it could do in spreading its mystery and glory before me. The cosmos was shining down, and I rose to the occasion by paying it the attention—the homage—it deserved.

Speaking of homage, the English words homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all descend from the same root in an ancient language spoken near the northern end of (what we now call) the Caspian Sea seven thousand years ago.  Languages in Europe and Asia based on such roots include (among many others) Persian, Hindi, Kurdish, Greek, Latin, Russian, French, German, and English. Homage, humble, humus, human, and Earthling all have meanings relating to Earth because that’s what their common ancient root dhghem- meant in the Proto-Indo-European language long ago.

Like reverence and veneration, homage is a show of honor and respect to another to whom it is due. In my scale of values, paying close attention to something is a way of devoting my consciousness to it as a sign of its importance in my little world. It is one way to give of myself in return for what consciousness gives to me. That is exactly how I felt watching the shape-shifting aurora overhead. I wasn’t passively observing it; I was interacting with it on a mutual basis, serving it by giving it prominence in my mind. I call the giving of personal homage in that way a spiritual act.

Typically, people think of spirituality as implying a relation with capital-g God, but that’s not how I mean it. God comes with too much baggage and too many special needs in being the so-called creator, supreme ruler and judge of the universe, party to a covenant favoring one group of people above all others, yet another male in superhero guise, and advocate for subjecting the natural world to human domination. It is exactly that sort of program carried out by the faithful that has led to Earth’s desecration. So many people in America claiming to believe in such a figure leaves no doubt in my mind why this nation is in the sorry state it is today. The God story doesn’t even make a good read as a myth because the main character is so arrogant, demanding, excitable, and intolerant—so patriarchal. As a concept in the human mind, God is a regrettable habit it is time we outgrew—or impeached. No, for me spirituality has nothing to do with God or any religion centered on God.

If not God or religion, what then is the basis of spirituality? Not scripture, surely. More, some form of nonverbal engagement with someone or something deserving the highest level of attention and respect. Such as the display of northern lights I brought up at the start of this post. Like the exquisite lion’s mane jellyfish three-and-a-half feet across I met while rowing, the most beautiful creature I have ever seen—better than a unicorn (had I encountered one). It wafted to Taunton Bay via the Labrador Current; it might well have splashed down from outer space—off Baffin Island, say—and drifted the rest of the way. Amethyst, shaped and billowing like a submersible parachute, fully transparent, it swam just under the surface three inches below me: I could see every detail, including the barbed tendrils it used to snare its prey. I’d seen countless smaller lion’s manes washed up on shore, looking like day-old helpings of raspberry Jell-O. Usually in winter. But this was a bright spring day. I rowed off to get my camera, and of course the jellyfish was gone when I got back. I followed the current but never saw it again. Like the cartwheel aurora, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But that one encounter was what it took to forge a memory I will take to the crematorium.

To me, spirituality is a felt connection with all that is, including (to shorten a long list) northern lights; amethyst jellyfish; Earth, our habitat in space; common and remarkable Earthlings of every sort; wetlands; lichens; old-growth forests; the Milky Way; and the universe as revealed by the Hubble Space Telescope. What I get for exercising my spiritual consciousness is a sense of belonging to something larger than myself, of having a place in the All. Not only a place but having a sense of participating—as myself—wherever I am. I am not obliged to worship anything, beg forgiveness, tithe, genuflect, or confess my sins. Free to be myself, I find my own way in a universe I happen to find very stimulating and often attractive. I am deeply appreciative, but get far more back from the All than the attentions I give. I don’t ask for beauty, it simply appears, particularly when I do not expect it.

Wholly engaged in such a way, I am moved to be alive in that place at that time. We come together, cosmos and I. The word I use for that wordless state is spirituality.

Spirituality, then, is the sense of affirmation that comes back to me when I care for the world that consciousness reveals to my awareness. Care is the essential factor, the feeling not just of being there, but of putting myself out to care for and about where I am. As an Earthling in good standing, I willingly oblige myself to care for my home planet and to respect its inhabitants, both human and otherwise. Spirituality is a looping engagement with my Earthly surroundings such that my awareness is enriched by paying attention to events which return the investment many times over.

I am on top of Cadillac Mountain at dawn as two artists in residence—two dancers—give their final performance. The stage consists of two granite slabs close together. Lighting is provided by the rising sun shining on the barefoot dancers from behind—revealing them as silhouettes. One is seated facing the sun, the other standing with raised arms poised in welcome. The sun moves; the seated figure rises on one knee; the other beckons with stretched arm to the side. As the dance progresses, it is clear the movements are for the benefit of the sun, not the audience. We are merely a backdrop. Suddenly I realize I am made of granite, a kind of menhir, placed among other standing monuments to mark the commencement of a new day. We’ve been here since the Laurentian Ice Sheet retreated 12 thousand years ago. The dancers move about gracefully on their respective slabs, then after a while come to a halt. The menhirs around me clap, bringing me to my senses, so I clap as well. Appreciations are murmured, then dancers and audience drift off. The slabs remain, showing no trace of the performance. It was dark when I arrived at the summit; now the sun is well on its way to a summit of its own.

Spirituality is transformative. It spurs exploration of other dimensions of consciousness, providing novel perspectives on everyday life. I don’t need drugs to achieve such a state, or endless chanting, or stressful postures. All I need is to give myself wholly to experiencing the moment wherever I am. In that sense, spirituality is a celebratory attitude toward consciousness itself.

The word spirituality refers to the state of being spiritual, which means having the nature of spirit, which derives from Latin spiritus meaning breath, breathing, air, life, soul, and other good things. The concept of spirit is based on breathing seen as the essential medium of life. When the baby cries at birth, she takes her first breath; when the codger issues his last gasp, he dies. Life is the interval between first and last breaths. So very early on, breath was interpreted as the vital, animating principle bringing inert matter to life. At a particular time and place, the name for that principle was spiritus, and that name has stuck to our day.

In the meantime, our understanding of life has advanced so we know oxygen in the air is essential to life, but it is not the whole story. We also know food providing calories to burn in the presence of oxygen is essential to life, as many chemical nutrients are essential. And a genome of some sort is necessary to provide bodily architecture enabling the many processes of life. The so-called life principle turns out to be far more complex than the ancients could grasp. Breath and breathing come nowhere near accounting for life. And nominating God as the agent bestowing life by breathing in a baby’s mouth and withdrawing it from the old codger, in light of what we know today, appears not only old-fashioned but simply wrong.

So we are left with the word spirituality in our vocabulary that cannot possibly mean what it once did. Understanding has moved on, leaving it an orphan, a word without meaning. Yet, too, a word toward which we have an attitude of respect because it was so useful in explaining the mystery of life. What do we do with it? We have a choice: stick to old ways, or graft new understanding onto old roots. Keep the term but give it a new meaning—exactly what I am up to in this post. That way, we acknowledge our nature as creatures of habit, but give ourselves a push forward in updating the conventional wisdom of our day. (The term God, too, needs updating because its former meaning as spiritual ruler of the universe is now so eroded as to be full of holes, leaving many of us trying to catch rain in a sieve. But that’s another post for another day.)

Take One: I am in a parking lot, beneath a poplar just leafing out. Carole and I are ignoring the cars, looking up at a yellow-and-black bird singing on a branch of the tree like the muezzin in his minaret. We have cause to listen: that male goldfinch is announcing himself to (the female portion of) his world, “I will support you with my vigor and the territory I am claiming even now; won’t you join me?” Truth and beauty from the beak of a bird. Take Two: We are entering Acadia from Route 3 by a path leading across the top of a beaver dam. The air is filled with music. Carole points across the pond to a red dot high in a dead tree. That dot is the source of the melody we hear—a male scarlet tanager singing his heart out—commanding us and every other eared being within range to listen with awe to that one voice of all voices in the universe. Take Three: I am alone on an island in April, walking from the stone cabin my father built in 1940-41 to the shingled cabin I built in 1976. It rained in the night; everything is damp and dripping, including me as I brush spruce boughs aside. Even so, I am having the time of my life listening to a male robin I cannot see in the tree overhead, caroling what I take to be the finest song ever sung. I didn’t know robins had it in them. But they are thrushes after all, related to hermit and wood thrushes, so I stand still for twenty minutes and give myself to wet woods that can produce such a sound.

Spiritual takes, all three. Transporting, transformative, never to be forgotten. When the universe calls, I stop to listen. Spirituality is that simple. Finally, another encounter with northern lights that rocked me not back on my heels but in my boat.

The night is clear and still. I am rowing to the island after a meeting that ran late. I keep looking over my shoulder to see the pale green aurora arching over the island, and its reflection under the island in the still bay filled with stars. The total effect is of a green eye with a black pupil: the island and its reflection being inside the shimmering green lozenge of the aurora and its reflection. Of all creatures on Earth, I am the only one to witness the apparition of this celestial eye looking back at me. In a sense, an illusion, but all awareness is illusion. I give up trying to row and turn my boat around so I, at my rowing station, can face north. What can I say? This is a time for looking, not speaking. For savoring, not acting. Everything comes together in this moment, island, aurora, universe, and me.

Sunrise-72