They call it a sanctuary, which means a holy place, a place of asylum and refuge. It is Sunday morning. I have driven past churches -- Congregational, Catholic, Episcopal, Evangelical -- on my way to the holy place. The beautiful buildings are surrounded by cars which gleam and bake in the morning sunlight. The church doors are closed tight. Inside, in the sanctuary, there is worship. Prayer. Voices joined in praise and supplication. There is faith. There is belief. There is scripture. I can inflect all these words badly or well. It dizzies me.
It is to a wildlife sanctuary, though, that I have come. I am, I think, wildlife; more and more outside the civitas, the communitas. Outside the flock, the grex. What is holy here ? Dawn, the high sun at noon, the long shadows of evening, the black night. The clouds and shade. The rain and snow. The seasons following one another over and over. The hours of the day. The seasons of the year. They don't need scripture to sanctify them. They are their own scripture. Their own horarium. They follow their own rule.
It is lauds, morning; it is summer falling into fall. Although it is still warm, the the wind in the trees sounds like winter. Today's lesson is, as usual, death. I was here last, I think, in spring; lilies of the valley, that most virginal flower, were in bloom. Skunk cabbage was pushing up out of the mud. Leaves were light green, sticky, new. Today the swamp beyond the boardwalk is chock full. The water wears a thick green coat. A pair of turtles swims just below the green caul, in and out of the thick weeds. Will they sleep side by side deep in the mud all winter ? I have a good, companionable marriage. I, too, sleep soundly. Companionably. I am coming to understand the final sleep. It, too, is companionable. The most companionable sleep imaginable.
The business of summer is nearly finished. The flaunting, the coupling, the gestation. The photosynthesis. Fruit and seed is everywhere. Fruit and seed and the beginning of rot. I watch a fuzzy bee spinning among the yellow stamens of an open water lily, rolling through the long tongues of pollen. Work continues until the last possible minute. Bee, pollen, retina, thought, word.
Next year has been neatly bundled up; the sedges bear densely packed helices of seed; in each seed the tight coils of DNA -- the scripture, the tradition -- await their turn in next spring's lectionary. You know the passages: rebirth. Alleluia.
And we'll lay in seeds and fruits and pods and roots against the long winter: oatmeal, bread, potatoes, corn, squash. We will eat embodied air and sun; we will embody them in turn. Deep in our basements, furnaces will release deeply embodied sunlight from fuel. We'll bring blankets out of closets to keep in body heat.
Red, orange, white, blue, green. Colors that catch the eye.
Colors that advertise sweetness, succulence, that attract the hungry beak. I think of seeds winding through dark, airborne gullets, falling to ground far afield. How evangelical !
Maybe someday I'll find place in the other kind of sanctuary. Could it be too late ? I hang black, thick, opaque, and overladened here, a hermit berry. St. Benedict, that wise rule maker, noted that anchorites have spent much time in the monastery. They have ripened there, companioned by other monks. Quite necessary, apparantly, before going out freelance. One ripens in congregation, to mix metaphors, flocked together for warmth. Religion is more than ontology. In the story, in the scripture, God grafted himself to a man who was in turn grafted to a tree, a miraculous fruit, full of endlessly replenishing seed. The earth brings forth its progeny, a mother nurtures and protects her cubs. Our cells brim with care. What taps it, organizes it, spreads it through the broken, desperate world ? I would like to think that those other Sunday morning sanctuaries are conduits for that care.
But meanwhile, here, in the morning woods, in the aging year, something catches my eye. The path is shady; intermittant shafts of light penetrate the canopy to illuminate twig and ground. Something white erupts from the dead leaf and pine needle carpet of the forest floor. It glows with its own ghostly light: indian pipes, saprophytes, feeders-on-rot, the ultimate infant, the ultimate My son, my executioner --
pushing out of the earth as if out of a birth canal.
And then, caught by sparse green pine fingers, hovering midair, a single leaf --
its tip swallowed by light, its stem plumb to the pull of the earth.
A fragile equilibrium. Doomed or blessed ?