When I walk, I always pay special attention to the offshoots. The cliffs and curlicues. The thickets and brambles. The damp outcroppings. Sudden open meadows in the middle of the forest, spotted with boulders, where I imagine a witch unpacking pyrotechnics from a donkey and arranging them in symmetry with a constellation. I love the puddles and the skies that move within them; the dead and fungi-filled trunks, circled by fellow trees who nurse them into the ground over the course of decades; the nooks with sumptuous blankets of moss; and even burnt agricultural fields in dry summer—the exterior deadness has its own inner character, its visiting burnt grass bugs, and burnt grass birds, that openness in which the wind performs its contours.
I wander spaciously, and encounter those places where existence occurs by pure metaphor and glance, where insects seem to appear as if imagined by air.
On an early spring day, I encounter an auxiliary trail in the canyon. It snakes invisibly through the brush and opens up to a sunlit slope where blue damselflies skim the air, where I can hear the nourishing and ghostly flow of the creek below.
At the bottom of the slope, the trail winds around a crowd of live oaks then fans out into a muddy beach that spills into the stream. I notice the open root systems, tangled and Medusa-like, hairs dried in the open air after a winter of gorging on the stream’s heightened flow. I observe the movements of the water, the way it stands completely still in some areas, while in others it cycles around rocks, moving across or against itself before funneling calmly down.
Water striders sit in the minor currents of the steadier pools. They look like points on a living map. Every few seconds one will jump onto or just over another, like siblings annoying each other out of boredom. Their jumps cause ripples that intersect with one another, and as I turn from the creek to look around at the neighboring live oaks, I see that these ripples reflect, like spectral and improvisational runes, onto the tree trunks.
Harmoniconcentric is a word that comes to mind.
It’s as if water has learned how to move from action to performance. A music that has found a way to engender itself across a void to create a hallucinatory temple of silent chimes.
The edges of my body loosen, as if in chemical exchange.
For a while, I look back and forth from the water striders to the trunks. The primary difference: In the water, the ripples have a center, a source. When the water striders jump, they each are suns in their own little transient solar systems that radiate and dissipate around them. The reflections on the trees, lacking a duplicate water strider, sprout from a hole, a zero. And this seems to give them an additional quality—I cannot call them a reflection; this is rather like light using the pigments of one element to create something entirely different.
As I continue to stare at these inventions of light, it begins to feel like it’s raining inside of my eyes.
This is the iris widening against the shapeliness of matter, the roundness of the eye meeting the roundness of the world.
In this context, the eye reacclimates itself to the discourse of the forest’s interwoven ellipses, no longer transfixed by the bodiless excesses of capital, whose every vector and structure are misshaped against the human form.
And after the moment of expansion, the subsequent contraction: I come back into myself, and that sensation of extending beyond the borders of self becomes an inflection point rather than a revelation.
Then, I begin to feel the inner dissonances buttress up against the harmony. I look for sitting places among the rocks and can’t quite seem to find one that is comfortable.
Instead, I stand awkwardly in the water, and I begin to feel an absence. It is powerful enough that it might as well be interchangeable with an imaginary presence. Traces, scent marks, holograms.
This type of place—a sort of open enclosure—is where a varnished, classical solitude does not suffice. I used to ascribe to a kind of monkish stoicism, in which the past is not allowed to intrude upon the present. In which I could sculpt myself into a landscape or some set piece of scenery. Here, instead, neuronal floods are unleashed through my system. And with these floods come the missing people, those who are lost to me but still exist within me, and with them the discontentedness, the loneliness. They are a multiplicity that becomes wrapped into a composite being, whom I then walk with in my imagination.
In Underland, Robert Macfarlane speaks of what geologists call trace fossils: “the sign left in the rock record by the impress of life rather than life itself… a bracing of space by a vanished body, in which absence serves as sign.” He then relates this to our human experience:
“We all carry trace fossils within us—the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind… Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace—and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.”
These lost, imaginary beings I walk with—they feel so full, so real, that I’m beginning to believe it is I who am the trace fossil, the absence, the vanished body.
I look again at the ripples, and again at their visual echoes. I rest between the presence and the absence, unable to web this place and its associations into a sensical dialectic. Instead, I begin to hum. Long hums that start and end with a full breath. The voice becomes something like a ritual, not a repetition of the same, but a pattern that contains within it a particle that can mutate the pattern, like a mandala with a single grain of sand that has the ability to change the colors of every other grain of sand without needing to deconstruct and rebuild.
A totality absorbs, but an absence interlocks. A link: the arm of an ellipse passing through the absence at the center of another.
In humming, I feel the emptiness of my mouth and throat in full. The woods do not hear me. The lost are not summoned. Still, against all reason, I continue to construct this tenuous bridge of sound.