If only such knowledge could remove the deep sensation of abandonment, the fear that one’s reflection would reach out from the mirror, the fear that the drone of a Tibetan chant might cause the whole of Worcester, Massachusetts, to dissolve, that even the most massive factories would float like leaves into the wind. My own body had already started to fade out. I was not quite in it. I was never sure to what extent it could be trusted. To avoid annihilation, I turned for guidance to my literary models. Fresh air would make me strong, as it did Kafka. Knut Hamsun was another success story. Upon learning that he had tuberculosis, he crossed the US on the roof of a freight train, gulping mouthfuls of cleansing wind.
Was I infected by the trendier aspects of this back to the land project?. I did have political goals in 1970 – none too achievable ones, as I would learn – but my relationship to the forest was in no way theoretical. I had just come out of two years of Cub Scouts and five years of Boy Scouts, and I was far more at home outdoors than in a classroom. My friends and I would often disappear for a week into the woods, each of us taking only a knife, a piece of flint, some twine, and several other easy-to-carry items. Plants were everywhere, waiting to be eaten. A rabbit would insert its neck into a noose. Pine boughs could be used to make a more or less comfortable mattress. Our goal was to be so attuned to and knowledgeable about the environment that all necessities could be discovered as we went.
To me, a forest was a cathedral. Animals were the saints, quite suspiciously free of sin, however violent their liturgical behaviour. The scent of pine was the frankincense. In their Dorian, Phrygian, and Mixolydian modes, ranks of birds chirped in their choir lofts. The chanting of the grasshoppers rose and fell in waves. Spiders were the magicians, the last survivors of a prehistoric cult, who had come disguised as priests. Snakes were the delinquents in the back rows of the annex. Fungi tended to the heaps of pagan relics in the crypt. If I stared into the sky, I could just make out the other-than-physical species on the windows. Snails were the guardians of the Pi ratios of the vault.
If green was my favourite colour, it was also much more than that. It was, as I would later come to understand, a presence into which I was meant to disappear. It was wisdom made visible, the projection of an esoteric force. In green, nature and supernature found a field on which to play. Green did indeed reorganise the soul. As 12th century Sufi mystic Sohravardi claimed in his Recital of the Exile, green was the colour that outlasted all the others. Green was the retrospective colour of the well as one looked back at the end of a mystical ascent. Green was the light of Mount Qaf, of the threshold of the Pleuroma, of the glow that pulsed from the boundary between the eighth sphere and the ninth. Green was nature’s tribute to the Tablets of Hermes Trismegistus. Primordial letters were inscribed upon the green. They were waiting to be assembled by some future version of the self. At the boundary between worlds, green split apart the atoms of the body, thus opening the heart.
At the boundary between worlds, green split apart the atoms of the body, thus opening the heart.
If I understood green as an abstract force, as a call that I must answer, and if I saw it as the clothing behind which was a guide, I was not at all sure this guide would act on my behalf, that he was concerned with who I was or what I wanted. Hide and seek seemed to be the agenda of the day. Madness rustled in the branches. The fall of pinecones made me jump. If I disturbed the nap of a snake, I would distantly take note of the rattling at my feet. I would watch as my arms and legs just barely seemed to move. Apparently I lived, but only because a hand would yank me out of danger. Let’s say a warm breeze blew from the south, I would shiver for no reason. Let’s say I could not find a toehold on a cliff, I would suddenly feel at peace. Stimulus and response were quite often disconnected. Some part of what I was could not be found in an atlas. It did not fit inside my head. I would watch instead of acting. I then would watch myself watching myself watch.
In retrospect, I can see that the guide’s instructions were relentless. This does not mean that I could have been other than a student from South Worcester, a writer just learning to write, a painter just learning to paint. I could not have grown up in any other neighbourhood or known all that much more than I did. I listened as intently as I could. I crossed out my biography. I filled myself up with space. I demanded to know why such a large percentage of mixed messages had been sent. Years went by. The inescapable conclusion: my guide should have spoken less nonsensically. He should have spoken to the ears I had, not to those I would put on.
I still adhere to the Boy Scout motto, ‘Always be prepared’, as I did, to the best of my ability, back then, when I saw these forays into nature as attempts to heal the rifts within my mind. I was not where I was. I was of the Earth, yes, but this was not my point of origin. Granted, I had never left, but this Earth was not the Earth that I remembered. To head towards home was to become more fully aware of my displacement. The forest’s green was only a surrogate for the green that I desired. It whet my appetite. It did not satisfy my longing.
In Hebrew, curiously, the word Olam means both ‘world’ and ‘concealed.’ If the space of Ayin – in Kabbalistic cosmology the divine nonexistence that gives birth to existence – is unbounded, the space of Olam is concave, as described by Plato. The various worlds are like slides or photographic negatives through which the light arising out of ‘Ayin Soph’ is projected. Olam can also mean ‘aeon’, a concave space conceived as a cycle of time, or ‘beyond the horizon’, as in the distant past or future. The waves of a black ocean called. There was an ocean that stretched from our pup tents on Mount Tom to some space that opened at the edge of the horizon, from what I knew to worlds beyond my power to conceive. Stripping my life to the bare essentials seemed a good way to prepare for the trials of the crossing, for the almost certain violence of the sea.
Sadly, however, in spite of how absurdly serious I was, I was never able to disentangle my intuitions from my fears, nor was I able to transplant my rustic resourcefulness back to high school. Like a technocrat returning from a five-day New Age workshop, I would quickly forget what had just seemed overwhelmingly apparent. ‘Was it only a few days ago,’ I thought, ‘when I told myself that we humans could once more learn the Language of the Birds?’ I was joyous or depressed, sane or crazy, in my body or outside of it. I had not yet found a way to be all of these things at once. I could not find a way through or beyond my contradictions. I was not able to treat them with a pinch of salt.
If you are ill and out of balance, as I was then, perhaps the goal is not to immediately become healthy; it is rather, at that one disjunctive moment, to be fully what one is, to discover the arc of the story in which you play a part, however different that part is from what you would prefer. To long for the first Earth – the Golden Age of the Ancient Greeks, the First World of the Hopi, the Vedic Satya Yuga – does not mean that our feet should not be planted on the fifth, nor should we love the first Earth less. Our longing will serve to deepen the expression of our longing. Our guide: an intimate stranger. Our home: a series of catastrophic die-offs, an emptiness in which is stored the seeds of a lost language. We do not put on bodies to just quickly take them off; for such would be an insult to the Fates, who miss nothing, and do not forgive. Life is not a problem to be solved, except by death. And even this solution is not quite what it seems.