Those of you I email with are familiar with my long and always growing stack of signatures at the bottom of my outgoing mails. Last week, I lucked into an opportunity to spend some time on Cumberland Island, a barrier island off the coast of south Georgia. It is a fairly wild place, though inhabited by some private property owners, an inn and a national park, along with hosting a wilderness area which happens to include an estate with more than a hundred rooms (if I recall clearly, more than 300, according to the ranger). I was camping on the south end of the island, though, away from many of the private properties.
It was to be a solo journey and some deep solitude time, in the midst of whatever winter weather would come. I packed as much as I thought I needed, then unpacked until it was manageable - minus a tarp and some clothes. Just the basics was quite a lot. I had to borrow some camping gear from friends, as I pretty much have a tent and bag and that's it. Having arrived in time for breakfast at the Cedar Oak before boarding the ferry at St. Mary's, I made it smoothly onto the ferry and then the island. There was heavy rain during the ferry ride, in which I scrambled to the bow on deck to put a bag over as much of my stuff as I could get in there. The rain had at least mostly subsided by the time we were disembarked.
"Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate."
— Carl Gustav Jung
My campsite was pretty wonderful, if wet, and right up next to the dune on the ocean side of the island. Giant live oaks reached up and across the site - #13 - the most popular, apparently. The first night was rainy and cold, and much of my stuff got wet, so the next morning, I considered the ferry and either going home or down to FL to see family, since they were so close.
Isn't there always a struggle like this when we go out past the edge of things? The formless urge to flee something that we know, just beneath our conscious awareness, holds promise. The discomfort that tests our resolve, when we don't even know what we've signed up for. I had nothing but good feelings and a feeling of rightness about taking this short trip. It materialized out of nowhere, the morning after I had had a strong urge to wander and keep on going as I was driving home from work. Then it had all gone pretty smoothly. Yet here I was, considering that maybe it wasn't to be so - that I could go home or to see family or... But none of those other options held any energy for me. I didn't really want to go home, even if it was dry and I could warm up the house. I didn't really want to go to Florida and see family at this time when I was off on a solitary exploration.
"Myth is the social dream and dream is the individual myth. By following your dreams you can discover the realm dynamics of your life course, your life intention, and your life impulse." -- Joseph Campbell
I decided to stay at least until late afternoon - there was a 4:45 ferry. If the weather were dreadful, I could decide then. For now I would explore just a bit and then regroup. And so I headed north, up the Parallel trail (so named because it sort of parallels the north-south road on the island) to scout the area. Not far up the trail, though, I decided I might as well wander up to a place called Stafford, that was to be a little more than 3 miles away. I didn't have food or water with me because I had only left for a short meander, but I figured I'd be back by lunch anyway.
The live oaks were gloriously beautiful, branching out in all directions and reaching to the sky in unison. Somewhere along the trail a couple miles in, I was admiring a great, ancient tree, and when I looked back to the path ahead and caught sight of a small coyote, swiftly stepping off the trail. He looked to be on a mission. Not long after that, I must have startled some big deer, as there was very loud snorting and blowing on the other side of the palmettos to my left. I paused to see what it was, but did not get a visual. Closer to 3 miles on up the trail, I took a break to sit on a log and rest my legs. After a time, several vultures flew overhead quietly - probably 8 or 10 of them. They were big and gracefully drifting. Then there appeared a bigger and more beautiful bird - old and raggedy but regal - a large hawk, I guessed, or a sea eagle of some kind - light colored, mottled and rough. As she flew over, I heard a whistle call from somewhere behind me - maybe her youngster calling.
“Observe the wonders as they occur around you. Don't claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.” -- Jalal ad-Din Rumi
Then it was time to continue north - surely only another mile to Stafford - I had passed a sign that said 1.1 mile to Stafford awhile back - seemed like much more than a mile back. After continuing yet another long stretch, through piney woods (where the smell of tobacco smoke lingered in the air, although there was no one in the area), I was back under some great oaks again, and getting pretty tired out. I was beginning to think Stafford must have been off one of these other roads I had crossed (which now I learn was true). It was time to turn back south.
"The more I work, the more I see things differently, that is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful. The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is."
A ways back down the trail, I was beckoned by some magical light, where a great old live oak reached down almost to the ground and a golden light encircled her. There was a glow just beyond her boughs. So I walked over to her and took some photos from under the canopy, then walked out into the light to see from across the threshold. O'Donohue was right, the beauty always exists at the threshold. No wonder I have always loved the edges of things and places and people. From the other side, the scene did not express the same beauty. As I turned back toward the trail and fumbled forward, I was startled by something too round and smooth, just in front of my feet. It was like when you see a snake in the woods - your body responds before your mind does, in a visceral way. You know it's not just ground before you. This was no snake, though. It was smooth and greenish white and knobby and rich in texture at its base. it was a beautifully patinated three point stag horn. It was as if I'd been magically rewarded for letting the beauty at the threshold of light call me away from the trail. It was literally just before my feet when I saw it.
During the time I was in the woods, tunes entered my mind - not familiar tunes, but just tunes that fell into me - and I hummed or whistled them, to honor them and give them life. Most were simple. One seemed to be a spiritual, as I imagine slaves might have sung. I do not remember them, nor do I feel I should. They seemed to exist in the places/times, and maybe they exist only in and for those places/times - as part of the place. In retrospect, it seems most times I carried these songs, they led me to things - the beauty at the thresholds, special trees - most notably the deer antlers and magical light. I guess if I think about it, I have always been most comfortable following game trails - probably mostly deer trails
Continuing down the trail a ways, I was for the second time inspired and engaged by the soft light green moss sponges covering the ground in this one particular area. I hadn't photographed them on the first pass because I couldn't see a good way to frame them, but this time they wouldn't take no for an answer and called me further into the woods, away from the trail. So I walked deeper into the woods where the light called me. No sooner had I made some photographs then my gaze fell on another stag horn - this one a two point (was this last year's from the same stag?). I realized then I had thought to myself maybe I would find another, but I surely didn't expect to. Finding the first one was a moment of magic, pure and true. The patina, the light, the in-my-path-ness, the weight and texture - such a deep, rich gift. Now there were two.
Back on the trail again, this time I go off trail to pay homage to some special oaks. One has a low limb, just above the ground, reaching out 30-40 feet from the main trunk, and is gracious enough to allow me a rest on it. There was a hook in the limb such that there was a dip where my butt could go and legs and back would rise. I sat a spell and rested peacefully, just above the ground. When I looked up and into the distance, I saw another one. Another stag's horn, maybe 60 feet away from where I rested on this gracious oak. I asked myself if I should take yet another one - was I being greedy? I decided that since I had not been looking for any of these, I was meant to find them and taking them was ok. A third one. Wow. This one had only one point. Maybe his first one - maybe the same deer. Wow.
"I am at home in all that is. I am home to all that is."
Back on the trail yet again, feeling tired and knowing there is still much trail to cover, I continue south. After a while, I see another patch of mosses that ask to be noticed, and I walk over to see if I can frame it nicely. I walk around to the other side of the shrub next to it to shoot through, but don't see a shot. So I turn to go on through the woods and explore a bit more before returning to the trail. I glance into the woods and see a small circular area that is sandy, surrounded by a ring of young pine trees, saplings, and light is falling on this circle of sand, illuminating the four point horn of the stag. As if put there for some sacred ceremony, this stag horn is resting just next to the center of this circular sand stage, surrounded by a ring of pine saplings in the midst of a forest of ancient live oaks.
I spent some time in the circle and looked at the growing collection of antlers. One, two, three, four points. Having set out not looking for anything at all, I was getting richer and richer and was beginning to wonder what this journey was really about. What is the stag telling me? The first one was a response to my stopping to photograph the beauty at the threshold. Actually they all appeared where I was called by beauty. Called in the same way I am always called in the woods. "Listen to the call," they told me. "You are near the path of the others, but not on it" they pointed out. The backcountry campers were passing on the trail nearby, as I sat in the circle with the antlers.
"There are unknown forces in nature; when we give ourselves wholly to her, without reserve, she lends them to us; she shows us these forms, which our watching eyes do not see, which our intelligence does not understand or suspect." -- Auguste Rodin
Once up, I was called deeper into the woods by a couple of ancient, regal live oaks - partners in the forest. As I approached them, my eyes fell upon one last horn, smaller than the rest, and the only one that had been chewed on a bit. FIVE antlers now. FIVE. I set them all down to go visit the trees. Near each tree was a small white conch shell, and so on each tree I placed one of the matching shells, in view of each other, like wedding bands - or a mirror. I wondered what just these two shells were doing there, deep in the woods. Perfect, unbroken, matching conch shells, clean and white. One for each tree. Perhaps someone before me had decorated the trees with them and they'd fallen. I thought to myself on the way back down the trail, "what will someone think when they see me with all these antlers?" And wondered what I would say. Maybe I'd say, "I can be stubborn" or "sometimes I need to be hit over the head to get a message" or "sometimes I miss the point and need reassurance." Having had these thoughts, I realized how they all related back to the deer and the antlers. Hmmmm.... What else do these stags tell me?
"The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting."
- Annie Dillard
When I got back to Sea Camp, I ran into a lady from the large group who had come over on the ferry with me. Many people in that group looked very familiar to me, in a way I have come to understand as a future familiarity - meaning people I will know in the future from when I first see them and recognize this. I mentioned finding some antlers on my hike. After a while, I was in my tent, writing some of this in order to capture it while it was fresh in my mind, and I heard some women out walking past my site. One said, "oh, there are the antlers - she told me about finding them. I want to go look at them." Another lady responded, "you can't just go into her campsite and look at her stuff" to which I said from in the tent, "It's alright, I don't mind" and we all laughed. One of these ladies had been out on the dunes and seen a stag, and snapped a photo of him. Wonderful. These folks invited me to dinner the next two nights, and I much enjoyed sitting around a great big campfire with twenty something lovely, lively, interesting individuals, ranging in age from less than a year to sixty something - some of them engineers, a judge, a contractor - many of them had camped near here at Black Rock Mountain. They camp together every year on Cumberland and I guess other places, too. I was inspired by their camaraderie, deep friendship, family bonds and traditions. They have been doing this for a long time.
I went out on a solo journey to the wilderness, fully expecting a deep and maybe mysterious time alone, and because I was not longing for the company of others, I was embraced by family.
My last day on the island, I sat back in the great live oak tree that serves as the gateway to the beach. The boardwalk to the beach is actually built right over one of his branches. And he looks much like an upside down octopus, only with more than eight limbs. As I reclined on one of these, I extended a warm embrace to this tree with all my soul. As I felt myself giving embrace to the tree, I then felt the embrace of the ALL, embracing ourself - one and all. As I embrace the tree, it is I and all embracing the tree and so I see that I am embracing the all I have enlisted in embracing the tree. Whether we feel it or think it, we are always all connected in this great web of life. Like trees in a forest, that seem distinct, we are connected by spirit and energy - just as the trees are connected by soil and spirit and energy.
"We have no idea how far the ripples will travel when we throw goodness into the waters..."
On this island, I felt connected to the family of man, the family of trees, the family of deer, the family of armadillos, turkeys, horses, hawks, vultures, coyotes and all the other creatures I didn't encounter this time.
We are all related.
"The present moment is significant not as the bridge between past and future, but by reason of its contents, contents which can fill our emptiness and become ours, if we are capable of receiving them." - Dag Hammarskjold, in Markings
This is Barbara's photo of the stag on the dune. (thanks Barbara!)
The quotes throughout this post are most of the signatures I have on the end of my outgoing emails. Some I have carried with me for years, some I have found recently, and some are my own. Somehow, when I went to make this post, they wanted to join in, and it feels good and right that they have.