It was drizzling this morning when I left. The sky was all misted over, with just enough blue bleeding through to give the low grey clouds a violet pallor. The light shower fell with a windward slant that slicked my just shaved head and nurtured in me a pleasant melancholy, as my hooded sweatshirt turned spongy and dark on the way to my morning hike.
I live across the street from the Santiago Oaks Regional Park, which is just shy of 1,800 acres, and has enough backcountry trails that you could, theoretically, walk all the way into Riverside county and disappear into that expanding desert that is the world to come. I never hike more than four or five miles into the park, but on occasion, I fantasize about what ghost towns and graveyards lie along those old unmapped ways. Maybe if I walked long enough, I think, I’d come to a forgotten mining shaft, with a long decomposed miner clutching some nugget of fool’s gold that finally proves Don Quixote was the first modern prophet.
In the winter, Santiago Creek, normally just a trickling tributary of the Santa Ana river, grows deep and wide, and reminds you of what nature looks like without a plan. It’s not much in the annals of rivers, but even so, it’s impassable without significant risk to limb–if not life–and although it leaves my morning hikes frustratingly short, it’s a welcome embarrassment of the will, which is always too keen to ignore its limitations.
I’ve seen several coyotes on my morning hikes. Often they’re alone, but sometimes they loaf for food and play in pairs, like their distant bipedal chordate cousins, who also like to roam in pairs. I’ve crossed paths with a couple of unfamiliar snakes, that didn’t rattle or hiss, so no story there. All manner of beetles and bugs pester the trail, and enough birds that I wonder if I might someday run across Jonathan Franzen tracking down the last Downy Woodpecker. So far no Franzen, but there’re lots of woodpeckers. I’d name them if I could, but I’ve never been much of an ornithologist. On two separate occasions I’ve come upon hinds. For a moment they appear as pewter casts of real deer, stick pinned into the slowly turning earth, but before I’m close enough to threaten, they skite into the chaparrals and the oaks, darting for all hell towards whatever haven they have left.
This morning, however, the river was low, the trails were empty, and the weather was ideal for contemplating shortcomings and passing storms. I would imagine, all things being equal, I’m a tough person to be friends with. My ego is, for lack of a more politic term, super-sized. My ambitions are Icarian, and I count as brothers and sisters writers I blush to mention. Like most artists and poets and novelists, I’m as sensitive to fluctuations in ambient temperature as a vial of mercury, but unlike many, I learned to subdue that sensitivity with doses of violence. The first time I knocked someone unconscious–okay, nearly unconscious–I felt intimately the profound subordination of emotion to physical will. Anyone ever detained by the police, beaten up, or arrested has felt the flip side, and if you know only this side of the world, it cripples you. For men, playing a sport helps–a lot. Ritualized violence is indispensable for dealing with our brutish natures. I can’t speak for women. I won’t presume to say what helps you bear the world’s cruelty; perhaps it’s the same. I don’t know.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been beaten up. I’ve lost fights. But I’ve also won them. I’ve been in a New Orleans’ crowd at Mardi Gras, and grabbed a two-hundred pound man by the throat, pinned him against the wall, and watched his face swell and burn as I convinced him that any further antagonism would be a mistake. I’ve been willing to hurt someone–badly. I am not ashamed of these episodes. Bodies collide. Blood escapes from its channels and paints the earth. It’s violence that freezes the deer, and snipes a photograph, and telescopes a star from the sky. Science is predatory. So is poetry. So is religion. Stake your claim. Establish an alliance. Guard your territory. Build an altar, and name your sacrifices. I’m okay with this. I accept and even love the animal in my chest that thrills at the domination of other animals.
Having beaten other animals, though, I understand the dangers of hubris, and the necessity of restraint. Power subordinates power–nothing else does. That’s why the snake eats its own tail. This, in toto, is the necessity of religion. Without God, gods or buddhas, there is just man, and man is no master. A clever servant to be sure, but too frail for kingship. We have outgrown the God of Abraham, and Siva and Sakti too; even the Buddha seems too timid for the age fusion bombs and genetic engineers. Still, we cannot do without some god somewhere.
What does the god of quarks look like? The god of neutron decay? The god of conscious fusion? I don’t know, but I’ll keep looking, because no matter how large my ego, I know that I can’t trust myself entirely. I once shouted spontaneously with something that could only be described as joy when I threw someone to the ground hard enough to crack his rib. I, quite justly, fear my own titillation. We must believe in a unity beyond ourselves, or the whole vacuum becomes a nihilistic orgy of narcissistic opportunism.
We need shelter, limitations, divine covenants, not because it protects us from the storm–anyone living in Mississippi or Louisiana or Japan can tell you there’s no help for that–but because it describes us. Castles and borders help us find one another: that’s why God divided the firmament from the earth, not for hierarchy, but for health.
In the mornings, when it rains, in the bower of trees I can hear it. Alone on the field, exposed, I am only an animal, but under Your roof I am Adam, Gautama, Einstein, Crick, Goethe, Mohammed Ali, Dillard, Grothendieck, a link in the Great Chain, a vagabond and a saint.
I will look for you in the chapel, if you run from me in the sun.