Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.
~ Mary Oliver ~
One of the greatest blessings of being immersed in the green world is that surprises await you everywhere. The song of a bird you’ve never heard before. A flower you’ve never seen before. The varying arrays of glinting sunlight picking out new vistas for you. An enormous, gorgeous, alarming snake lazily stretched across the path. A coyote silently crossing the trail ahead of you, disappearing tail last into the twilit underbrush.
Even things you know well still surprise you with delight. Mosses, lichens, and tiny ferns unfurling from their summer crouch, bouncing to life the moment rain falls after long months of dryness. The return of late autumnal hooting of soon-to-be nesting great owls. Beloved flowers blooming in new spots. Gold etching the bark of familiar trees in the slanting light before sunset.
The poet Mary Oliver, our high priestess of surprise, said that her life’s work was “mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.” I haven’t been standing still during this glorious wildflower season. Instead, I’ve been moving through astonishment. The wildly abundant winter rains gifted us with an avalanche of flowers.
For the first time in several years, I took a road trip this June. Stopping to explore as I drove up the Oregon coast to my son’s wedding. After that blessed event, I headed inland to the Klamath River. My engineer grandfather helped to build two dams in northern California that I am delighted to see coming down. The deconstruction crews were completely uninterested in my wish to get close to and photograph their work. But the compensation for that was an endless array of wildflowers blooming along the forest roads as I drove — or, more accurately, stopped repeatedly along the way — to my next destination.
Not every surprise is happy, of course. That snake I mentioned? I almost stepped on it. My pounding heart didn’t stop me from admiring its beautiful, flowing body as it slithered downhill over dry leaves. But I’d be happy to avoid such surprises. In Oregon, I came upon a man prostrate on a trail. But that alarm was quickly allayed by the lucky surprise of finding two kayakers nearby who gladly helped to get the man on his feet and to his car.
Mostly, I was astonished by beauty. By flowers, by insects, by a grassland preserve carpeted with silvery sage. Along the wild and rugged Oregon coast. Under towering trees and a still-snow-covered Mount Shasta. This post’s flowers are a celebration of such surprises. All but two are either brand new to me or a new species of a familiar genus. I found each of them on the roadside as I stopped along the way.
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it,” Mary Oliver told us. This is our redemption. There are, she points out, “plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be.” There is also love, courage, and immense beauty. These remind us, prepare us, and strengthen us to see the good in the world and to work toward the changes we need.
In the Diné language, there is a word — hózhó — that is both a way of living and a state of being. It includes, in its layered meanings of balance and harmony, the joy of being a part of the beauty of all creation. Despite centuries of devastation, the Diné follow The Beauty Way, their traditional prayer.
In beauty I walk
With beauty before me I walk
With beauty behind me I walk
With beauty above me I walk
With beauty around me I walk
It has become beauty again. (Hózhó náhásdlíí)
The ability to center ourselves among the beauties of this challenging, whirling world is one of the greatest gifts of Earth. This is not superficial beauty, as pleasant as that is, especially for flowers. This is the beauty lying deep in the heart of creation. Beauty as energy, generativity, as the endless cycle of life, death, rebirth. Beauty as the slow evolutionary dance of function and form. As healing, exaltation, and inspiration.
On those remote roadsides, in a riot of blossoming, I was among timeless beings. Born, as I am, from the fiery beginnings of our planet, from the chill, remote plasma formed at the birth of the cosmos. That we have made this boundless journey, that we have come to this flowering place under a summer sun, that we embody our separate, crucial beauties — it’s all astonishing beyond measure.
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Beauty is an aspect of the universal power that cosmologist Brian Swimme calls allurement. The great attracting force of our cosmos, it takes us deep below the beauty we see and treasure. It connects us to the powerful forces that brought us here. And can lead us into the world we yearn for.
My youngest nephew is standing at the gates of adulthood appalled by what he finds beyond them. Our young are wondering if there will be a future for them. After a recent visit, one question stayed with me: where do I find comfort and inspiration? This is my answer.
Thomas Berry invited us to “go to the earth … and ask for its guidance.” To look deeply into Earth’s endless miracles, taking “full measure of its entrancing qualities.” Exactly what I love to do. This time an acorn leads the way.