One of the most transcendent moments of my life happened on the Marin headlands, within view of the glittering city of San Francisco and the elegant curve of the Golden Gate bridge. It was March 9, 2014, and the wildflower season had started. I had been hiking and photographing them for three hours, working my way uphill, out of sight of the ocean. I’d come through a variety of landscapes: the mostly dry meadows at the beginning of the hike, full of California poppies, cut through by a stream that gave willows a foothold. Then the rocky ups and downs of the even drier hills, their gravelly trails edged with pockets of shooting stars and milk maids. As I got closer to the juncture with the coastal trail, chaparral gradually took over, filling the air with the pungent smell of sagebrush.
By the time I got to the top of the headland, tired, ready to head downhill and find my car, it was dusk. The Pacific, living up to its name, lay serene and luminous ahead of me. In memory, the city isn’t there. It was all silver light, on the rolling hills behind me, the pale gray twilit leaves, the stone escarpment in front of me, on the sea, in the air. The warm spice of the feathery sage filled me, contrasting with the cool light.
As I began to move again, I was suddenly overcome with the wildness of the place, and my place in it. Completely aware of this living, breathing convergence of life — the soft wind off the shimmering ocean, the ancient rocks, the growing dark, the scent from the ghostly plants, the woman walking. I was both dissolved into it and moving, whole, embodied, through it, a wild creature myself. I felt a great, exultant love for every pulsing molecule around me, and equally for the feeling of being in it, part of it, the part that could move through itself, through the lingering heat and the cooling breeze. That could feel the silver light work its way through my cells.
I would love to live in that state of open-souled awe every moment of my life. All sorts of things — grocery store lines, traffic, dentist appointments, the grief at a loved one’s illness — work against such a possibility. I am often, in the poet Wordsworth’s words, surprised by joy; but after opening his poem with that line, the rest speaks only of loss. Transcendence routinely rises, and is swept away by the mundane. The memories — I still remember another night of silvery, windy light under a full moon when I was 18 — can stay a long time. And there are many small, seemingly inconsequential moments of joy — a sleepy child’s arms around your neck, sunlight filling a winter room, the sudden call of cicadas, telling you midsummer has arrived. But feeling completely dissolved into the natural world I love so much is rare, and I have been hugging that moment since.
Though perfectly happy to feel transcendence without figuring out why we have this wonderful ability, as a lover of all things DNA I am intrigued by philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey’s theory that awe has been chosen by evolution to more firmly attach us to life on this earth. The more delight we take in living, the more we will strive to survive and reproduce. He feels that our pleasure in being alive and connected to the beauty and enchantment around us is the basis for an innate spirituality, something we knew long before we created religions to explain it.
I’m a little resistant to reducing awe to the biological imperative to reproduce, though I love the idea that evolution would choose something so entrancing to ground us to our planet. I prefer the thought — echoing cultural ecologist Thomas Berry, Buddhist Alan Watts, cosmologist Carl Sagan — that consciousness is the result of the long, slow evolution of the universe’s ability to contemplate itself, to turn eyes on its wildflowers and silver seas, ears to its birdsong and rushing water, skin to the feel of stone, of bark.
But even this lovely thought doesn’t quite reflect what I felt that evening on the Marin headlands. I didn’t feel that I was the universe reflecting on itself, I felt like I was the universe. And not merely one infinitesimal expression of it. And not — though I love this fact — that I and the radiant molecules around me were all made of the same elements, descended from the same stars. I felt, briefly and gloriously, that there was no distinction between me and the vast, wild, perilous, gorgeous cosmos.
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