I grew up on the edge of a small town in southwest Missouri, in the middle of a hardwood forest of oaks, blackjack, sumac, hawthorn, pawpaw. In the summer, the trees in my neighborhood were thickly leaved and a-shiver with the business of jays and blackbirds, songbirds of all kinds, and gray squirrels, a bevy of flitterings and voices above. Moving through that world as a child, I never thought to distinquish among the various calls of the birds and the various shapes of the leaves, between the scent of honeysuckle or the chitterings of the squirrels or the lay of tangled shadows on the ground, my own shadow among them, wind through branches, the iron-rich red rocks of the land, the red clay of our road. All of these details composed simply one entity not separate from myself, as I myself was this place, the world.
There were spaces in this world I knew especially well, an elm tree I climbed often, sitting high in a conjunction of branches I called the Queen’s chair, a hedge of spirea bushes where I spread blankets for my dolls, laying them down to sleep in the shadows of those tiny white flowers. In the back of our house stood a short rock wall atop of which was an old wire fence, faltering and barely visible as it supported a sprawling hillock of trumpet vine in the summer. The blossoms throughout the vine were large and open, a vibrant, sweet orange, a deep, vulnerable, inner red. I and my friends could crawl along the wall and into the midst of this vine and claim another space. If we sat hunched and very still inside this hovel, we believed we became invisible, our bodies covered with the ragged shapes of overlapping vine shadows and pieces of sunlight penetrating the mass of leaves and blossoms. Huddled there we became the buzz and sizzle, the fragrance and vibrance of summer. We were transported, transformed, and renamed within that space.
Often now, when walking through a wooded area or an expansive field or beside a stream or up a slope beyond the treeline, a part of my mind is always watching for a perfect place to stop and hunker down, to disappear, to sleep. It could be a grouping of lichen-covered boulders forming a protected niche or a nurse log lying among mosses and ferns or a shallow gulley filled with fallen oak leaves or a tall stand of dry grasses forming a covering beneath the sky in the dense bluestem and wheatgrass. Even while talking to someone or noting other details of the land and season around me or contemplating future events or past, I imagine myself settling into such places. This searching proceeds, seemingly on its own, without intention on my part, without language, without forethought.
I wonder why it happens…this searching, almost unconsciously, for a place where a certain sort of sleep might be possible? And what exactly is this sleep? And what instigates the searching? Is it an attempt to recapture that state of childhood, a merging and connectivity I felt then without being aware of it? Or is it caused by some ancestral gene roused and operating again in the present? an undercurrent of ancient memory set in motion by elements of old familiar fragrances, maybe the same angle of sun and clouds over the open land as in a past existence? Or is it a nomadic faith in the earth still lingering in a deep synaptic pattern, some crude neural survival skill lodged in the brain stem and stimulated to function?
And I say “sleep” because it’s the only word I have for the state I imagine to be possible in these places. But what I envision is not the sleep I’m accustomed to experiencing. It is not a closing of the senses, not a blotting out of time, not a loss of consciousness, but a total attentiveness, the unrestrained embrace of a surrounding realm, a merging, an expansion of the definition of self . I mention a desire for such a state in “Fellfield,” a poem about a treeless hillside scattered with large rocks and boulders I once walked along in Rocky Mountain National Park.
I can say little outright of rocks—limestone,
sandstone, granite, mica. Yet here they make a place
I find so familiar I want to surrender
to the nostalgia, to settle next to them
out of the wild and sleep,
as if they were old grandfathers,
my own culture, as if their configuration
were a lullaby anyone could rely on.
The sleep I envision is solitary. It is not the sleep of weariness or the sleep of the numb and the lost. Yet it is a sleep that requires a surrender akin to the surrender to normal sleep. It seems it comes most easily next to earth, body to earth, as we are creatures of the earth, the feel of the earth beneath the body, of the body.
I wonder sometimes if others ever feel drawn to seek a place of this sort for this kind of sleep. “In the Peace of Wild Things,” Wendell Berry speaks with specificity of entering this state. Although I’m ambivalent and uncertain about the sources and motivations of the experience myself, the speaker in this poem knows what he seeks and why he seeks it and where it is to be found—body to earth.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The rest, the sleep that the speaker of the poem finds, is a state of freedom.
In his poem “Journey to the Interior,” Theodore Roethke also suggests a salvation possible during a sleeping state inside the natural world.
…when I breathe with the birds,
The spirit of wrath becomes the spirit of blessing,
And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep.
The power of this sleeping state is in full effect only when we come to possess in the body where and how we are alive, of and within all elements of the universe.
Roethke uses the word “sleep,” as well, in his villanelle “The Waking.”
I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
This sleep is an awakening to a freedom from fear, as Wendell Berry also expresses it. It is an awakening more alert than rising in the morning sun, a state more attentive than the consciousness of the step beyond the door. This is not the sleep of slumber, not torpor or trance, not death, not a sleeping dream. It is a sleep that is itself an awakening.
The haikus of many Chinese poets are attentive to such awakenings, becoming so attuned to the world that barriers and distinctions disappear and the definition of the self is boundless. Awareness is heightened and rapport with the universe sharpened.
The following are examples by the 18th century poet, Onitsura:
Obedience is here;
even the silent flowers
speak to the inmost ear.
How cool the breeze
the sky is filled with voices—
pine and cedar trees.
To get to know plum blossoms
both one’s own heart
and one’s own nose.
All of the human senses and the surrendered heart must concur.
Our literature contains many accounts of messengers and visions experienced during a conscious sleeping. Most often these experiences occur in the wilderness, within the life of the earth. Perhaps those shepherds quiet beneath the stars on that midnight hillside, bodies against the earth, resting in the grace of the world, heard in their inmost ear, in their own hearts, the spirit of blessing, the sky filled with voices bringing good news of a coming release from fear.
Maybe my memories of these poems and tales and my own experiences close to the earth lead me to watch for places that seem perfect for such messages, for such freedom, for such waking sleep. Among the sun-flurry of autumn aspens or on a lay of needle aggregations beneath aged pines, surrounded by the frozen weeds of winter or the forth and fury of April, within the silent work of a white moth or the race of a river swallow coursing downstream—the space for this sleep and its sustaining dream exists. Maybe I believe this, and that is why I listen, I watch.
Photo By: sean dreilinger