At the Heart of Ecstasy by Jamie K. Reaser | An Essay from Courting the Wild
AT THE HEART OF ECSTASY
Jamie K. Reaser
An Excerpt from Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with the Land
Trailside shore of babbling brook.
Sunflecked glade of forested nook.
Young girl searches with innocent eyes,
Singing melody to the tune of Nature’s sighs.
Gaining knowledge, sharing glee,
Earth’s cradled daughter me.
Today a woman walking tall.
Forever a wisp of Nature’s call.
I’ve only had one truly intimate relationship in my life. It was with a brook, and I was seven.
My family had moved from Roanoke, Virginia, to Basking Ridge, New Jersey. My role in the process was that of protestor. I had absolutely no desire to experience the “change that would be good for me” and I wasn’t about to be separated from my best friends—a cadre of golden-eyed toads that lived, by virtue of their own missteps, in the window well beside the front door. I moped and threw exceptional temper tantrums. Finally, with less than an hour to go before Bessie, our large white Buick station wagon, was to head north, my wilted parents put a cardboard box in my hand. I carefully extracted a few toads from the landscaping trap, yanked wads of grass from the lawn and climbed into the backseat with my all-too-compliant younger sisters.
Temperatures are colder in New Jersey than Virginia. That was the first lesson I learned upon arrival at our new home. It was fall, and back in Virginia the toads would have at least another month before they needed to be released from the window well for hibernation. Yet, the temperature that late afternoon in New Jersey was scolding; one way or another I was going to have to learn to let go of my attachment to the toads.
I carried the box to the edge of woods and placed each gorgeous amphibian upon the leafy ground. Worry and guilt intermingled with the grief of goodbye. Would they be able to find a place to hibernate quickly enough? Had my greedy need for their company doomed them? I rubbed my young fingers across their dry, warty backs. To this day, I still wonder about their fate.
The winter months passed without leaving any particular mark on my memory.
Spring returned and so did my health problems. I was a sickly child. By the time the trees were again leafing I was so weak from the latest illness that I could barely stand. A previous infection had caused brain damage and paralyzed my right side. According to the doctors, I would be forever challenged by “neurological impairment” and “poor motor coordination.” Simply put, I was a foggy-minded klutz now frustratingly bound to bed and sofa. In my opinion there could have been little worse than being told to make do indoors with my sisters’ doll house, Barbies, and Shawn Cassidy records.
Finally one summer morning my parents placed me in a lawn chair near the brook that ran behind our house. The chair was itself a site to behold; a light aluminum frame woven with pea soup green and neon orange-and-yellow strappings. My mother had been a home economics major and prided herself on her decorating skills. This chair and its counterparts had no doubt been expertly selected to illustrate the ideal 1970s porch decorum. It was quite uncomfortable.
In front of me a lavish patch of jewelweed stood erect with orange pendulant blooms open for business. Bees snuggled into the flower mouths and wriggled their bodies against the inner walls. When they backed out, they shimmered golden yellow pollen. After a brief hiatus, as if to catch their breath, they were off to the next flower. I was too young to be thinking about sex. But that’s what I was watching: plant sex enabled by pimping bees.
I looked back over my shoulder to observe my parents subduing the weeds that would need at least a couple generations to take over the property. Weapons of domestication were hoisted into the air and then flung with force against thick and creeping greenery. From time to time a lawn mower roared, or a weed eater. It was during events such as this that I learned cuss words. My body can still recall the contrasting sense of serenity in front of me and frenetic chaos behind.
When was the first time you knew that you didn’t fit in? This moment might not have been my first moment, but it was definitely such a moment. My mind pondered the deep upwellings of a frustrated, unhappy child. Wrong family? Wrong body? Wrong place and time? I turned my gaze again to Harrison Brook and the jewelweed at its banks.
He was buzzing inches from my face chattering in a high pitched staccato. His wings beat so fast and close I couldn’t fully see them, and yet his body remained motionless—suspended. Two small black eyes met mine. The sun reflected off his iridescent feathers: head and back green, stomach white, throat crimson. A ruby-throated hummingbird.
I swear he pierced my heart.
Every aspect of my being gushed open. And either the entire landscape swelled into me or I expanded to encompass it. I’m really not sure what went in which direction. That bird, the flowers, the bees, the water, the water striders, the pollywogs, the minnows, the mayfly larvae and crayfish, the sandy shore up the other bank and forest and its hidden life beyond were, for an instant, formless. One energy throbbed, quickening in my heart—babumbabum babumbabum—in unison with the heart of Earth.
I could see, hear, and feel with a sensitivity that seemed to ravish my body. Everything of color was vibrant. What lacked color had depth. The brook sounds collected into an orchestra with deep water, surface water, cascading water, and fish-jumping-out-and-back-into-water instruments.The sun pursed its dry lips against my skin. In later years, I would learn the word ecstasy and define it by that moment.
The hummingbird moved on and with time, so did my illness. For the next five years I grew up in and alongside that brook. My feet learned to navigate algaed stones. My toes played games in oozing mud. I held soft, bulbous-bodied bullfrog tadpoles in the cup of my hands, and watched suckers swim in and out of the holes they made at the base of the clay banks. I caught water snakes and got bitten, frequently. Once I saw a pair of wood turtles mating under water. I sang songs to everything.
I busted leg-hold traps set for raccoons or muskrats. I refused to tell the neighborhood bullies where Tom, the large snapping turtle, hid or the whereabouts of the bronzecolored bullfrog that screamed like a child when taken in hand. Anyone who showed up with a fishing pole would get directed away from the one pool where rainbow trout still churned.
Eventually my sisters and I were packed up into another Buick station wagon, a blue one named Moby Dick, and driven away from Harrison Brook. It is unlikely that I cried that day, but would have had it been permitted.
Over the years, I learned more biology than I experienced. And I made sure that others knew the facts. By the time I was mid-way through college I had become a tall, skinny environmental activist-force to be reckoned with. It didn’t matter whether it was the rainforests in trouble or the ozone layer or some animal getting stitched into a coat, I cared and I was damn well going to make sure people changed their ways. People were a problem. They were a threat to all that I loved.
In the summer of 1989 my environmental leadership activities had positioned me atop a horizontal timber three stories above the ground. People, too many of them in my opinion, were shouting from behind, below, and in front.
“Keep going!” “Don’t look down!” “Take the next step!”
I had climbed and scaled the ropes without hesitation. But now, mid-beam, I found myself inexplicitly frozen. Paralyzed. A male broad-tailed hummingbird whizzed up to my face, fluttered, chittered, looked me in the eye, and sped onward.
I broke into sobs.
I had forgotten.
That night I sat beside a campfire and a mountain stream encircled by my Outward Bound instructor and other Leadership America participants. With tears rolling down my face I told them about the ruby-throated hummingbird, Harrison Brook, and the intimate moments of my childhood. I told them what I had forgotten: When the heart is fully open, distinctions melt away. There is no us. No them. How could I have invited a deep connection with the natural world and yet excluded the human animal? Nature had never isolated me.
Under shooting stars and the spread wings of a great grey owl, to the sound of trout jumping for white moths above dark waters, I made a vow. I let go of the anti-human perspective of environmental conservation and claimed a new vision, one that sees “conservation” as an art and science of motivating and empowering people into a deep and enduring relationship with Nature. I vowed to invite people into my heart in the way I would invite a nestling song bird or a golden-eyed toad. I vowed to heal my own relationship with my own species, as well as foster Homo sapiens’ re-connection with the land—the true and only root of our humanity. That night, people became a part of the landscape for me.
My life now is not so much different than that of a pimping bee. I move from person to person spreading tiny grains of consciousness in the hope of fertilizing what will gradually emerge, grow, blossom, and unfold into a beautiful relationship among humans and all other beings. This is no mere act of intercourse. It is my intent to make love. The kind of ecstatic love that pierces the human heart.