Flower Rosary (Thailand)

Photo by Doug Bruns

Returning to Camp

Doug Bruns

Returning to camp this evening I startled an owl. That is, I think it was an owl. My observations of birds in flight, particularly birds that hunt, is nothing I am too confident about. I’ve been a birder for many years but a lame one, I confess. Every season I have to learn them all over, again and again. Montaigne advised, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read.” I’m that way with birds. Identify a lot of birds, but then forget them. I think it was an owl because of its silence. A red-tail or sharp-shinned hawk will usually leave a sonic trace, the rustling of flight feathers, or even a subtle, if you’re close and paying attention, gasp upon lift-off. But this bird was silence in motion like an owl, as if I’d hit the mute button. Observation, just one sense among five, is not good odds but we do the best we can with what we draw upon at any given moment. That seems at the core of the human condition, the very essence of getting by. I’ve been getting by, just, all my life so you can trust me on this.

I took my evening loop down to the lake, following the trail through the spruce and being mindful of the rocks. My ankles are the worse for wear, the left one limping along with two less ligaments than specification and the right one, once broken, never the same. So it was that in the stillness and the careful footing I noticed the movement and glancing up saw the bird escape our approach. I looked around, wondering where it had perched, somewhere low, as his departure was at eye level. Perhaps it was the trail post or maybe even the ground. Perhaps I had interrupted dinner, that the bird was in the process of tearing flesh off a chipmunk, of which we have an abundance, or perhaps a shrew. But there was no evidence of violence. Also, if it was an owl, it would be unlikely to be having dinner at that hour. Owls are the South Americans of avian dining, not pulling up to the table until long after sunset. As Hegel said, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk.” I can’t speak to the Minerva part—or Athena either, for that matter—but dusk was falling certainly. 

The Lake

Photo by Doug Bruns

A Trail in the Woods

Photo by Doug Bruns

I think one of the interesting things about birds of prey, these air-born raptors, is that we don’t see their kill typically, only their grace, their apparent nobility, and the confidence of solitude. If there is a lesson in nature for me, it is to be more like the raptor, rarely displaying the violence by which I exist, posturing in its stead something gentler, an unthreatening ease, perhaps. Violence is inherent to existence, though some go to extreme measures to amend this. According to Jainism, for example, the protection of life, also known as abhayadānam, is the supreme gentle charity that a person can attempt. On traveling in Southeast Asia, I once observed three Jain monks gently whisking the sidewalk free of critters before taking a step, this while wearing a nose and mouth covering so as to not inadvertently inhale an insect. That is an extreme measure and I have nothing but respect for them and their effort. But for the majority of us violence cannot be escaped. A drive around the beltway will slaughter untold little fliers. Even at our dinner table, especially at our dinner table, violence is in evidence, though usually presented with a garnish. The best we can do is accept this harsh fact and be forthright in doing so. Birds of prey, to their benefit, appear to not overthink existence. This is perhaps another attribute I would like to better embody.

I crossed the road to camp and peered into the woods. The bird appeared to have taken another perch in the dense copse across the road, as best I could tell given its flight pattern. But the dusking light and the thick woods prohibited further investigation. And just as well. Mystery should be encouraged when we encounter it, mystery being a thing we have for generations attempted, to largely effective result, in dampening, if not extinguishing. Our ancestors, painting on the cave wall, dusting a hand against the clay, were largely given to mystery. Odysseus would never have made it back to Penelope without the mysterious benefits of Homer’s gods. Mystery was for our ancestors a fact and function of existence, and no small part of me longs for more primordial dark mystery in life. It suggests something necessary in understanding myself, perhaps even my species. Of course, I cannot identify that certain something, being as it is, the very heart of mystery itself. Regardless, I invite it, though it rarely accepts my invitation without condition. It’s like a skittish animal afraid to show itself.

Yaks in Nepal

Photo by Doug Bruns

There have been but a handful of situations in my life where mystery presented itself in full form and without hesitation. For instance, trekking in Nepal, after a particularly strenuous climb and catching my breath, I realized that my surroundings had taken on a vivid and three-dimensional quality. It was mystifying in its presentation, like being in that much-pursued state of flow one hears about. This has happened on a few occasions, usually during exertion, and I acknowledge that it might be nothing more than hormones and adrenalin. But maybe not. It doesn’t matter really, as I can be pragmatic. I’ve also experienced mystery of this nature while in meditation, typically during a retreat involving hours of sitting on the cushion. In a more down-to-earth experience, I unexpectedly began to weep upon turning the hallway corner of the Accademia Gallery in Florence and seeing the David for the first time. Indeed, sometimes when the edges of human nature seem too brutish and rough, I think of the David, or Beethoven’s Ninth, or something equally beautiful and am awestruck at how we petty humans can also create the profound and, well, the mysterious-ly divine. That enduring art is a fashion of mystery articulated is all I need to know. I am not embarrassed that this attitude might appear naive to some. 

As I stated, mystery, like myth, has been largely demolished and removed from intellectual culture, or if it remains, it is simply another peak to summit, putting to rest the unknown, labeling and mapping it. That’s settled, a dusting off of the hands. Perhaps that is why mystery is so tentative in revealing itself, as if in fear of being extinguished. So it is that if I can summon mystery I do. I give myself to it, to myth and wonder, to silent ecstasy, imagining, as David Foster Wallace put it, “the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” Upon doing this, however, I find another part of my being arise, an opposing faction that equally longs for attention. This is the urge toward the settled, the explained, and the resolved. This opposing faction rises, gathering strength, until eventually, like a tsunami, washes over mystery to bury it in its embrace and carry it away. Nietzsche recognized this dichotomy of the human condition and urged us to engage deeply with these opposing forces, which he called the chaotic Dionysian, and the rational orderly Apollonian. A proper balance gives way to a higher life, he said, and most importantly, provides the structure necessary for art and creativity. My being, however, reflective of society in general, has evolved to lean heavily toward the Apollonian. Camille Pagila put a fine biological point on it when she wrote, “The quarrel between Apollo and Dionysus is the quarrel between the higher cortex and the older limbic and reptilian brains”. I don’t find it at all odd that I long for a deeper relationship with my reptilian brain.

So, there are two parts to me, among many—“I contain multitudes,” said Whitman—the ancient part of mystery and myth, and the modern part of skepticism and assurance. With no help from psychoanalysis I walk with these two beings within, and when in the woods startling an animal with whom I share this existence I call up and engage the mystery and do everything I can to nurture the sensation, observe and learn from it, because I know that coming soon onto the scene is the other me who will desire to name and explain and jot down in a journal of taxonomy what has been observed and resolved and most critically, identified. 

Indeed, over the years, recognizing this inner conflict, I have tried to settle the issue, this innate tension, to draw out one or the other of these conflicting forces. Give me the rational, pragmatic side; or give me the mystic, the sage emanating aura. But when I attempt this, the one suppressed after a while starts itching for attention and soon the battle is lost and the other side starts to advance. Mystery gives way to the rational, usually, but occasionally it is the other way around. Regardless, it is too often a lopsided balancing of the scales, up and down, without ceasing. Nietzsche would support this effort, I think, embracing it in all its complexity and ineffableness. And that, ultimately, is my preferred approach, despite my frequent attempt to shore up one position or the other. It requires an effort towards unrestricted openness, a releasing of want toward one way or another. By nature, I like things settled and sorted out, consequently this stance is not without its challenges. I do not think I am alone in feeling this way.

What a bundle of contradictions I am! In the writer’s soul “all contrarieties are found” to return to Montaigne. It is no surprise then, if but one sample of the species is representative of the many, that we find ourselves making such a mess of things, from the minutia of individual existence to altering the very balance of nature itself—as if by misstep we have triggered some sort of cosmic imbalance. I am a mess maker with the best of them and loath hypocrisy, so I spend a lot of time covering my tracks. And this too seems a mystery, the desire to put the mess to rest and make it all good, while carrying on insouciantly.

All of this is forgotten with the flight of the silent bird. Like a Zen koan, it is both a mystery and not a mystery, revealed and simultaneously shrouded. No theorizing required, only a degree towards openness. 

That night I was woken by the call of the barred owl, who, who, who cooks for you? And off in the woods, so far off such that I would not have heard it but for the closer call, a return in the forest blackness, who, who, who cooks for you? I turned in bed, comforted by the enduring mystery of things.

Doug Bruns is a writer, thinker, traveler, dog-walker, dish-washer, father and friend.

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