Yesterday’s post was about death, and how it surrounds us, while being invisible. Today’s is about how life surrounds us too, all the while visible, and yet, somehow, for all that, all too easily ignored.
Once, on a hike in the Indian Garhwal with my brother, I headed back downhill to our camp after bad weather cut our onward progress short. My brother, moving along at his usual steady, mile-eating pace, brought up the rear, while I moved on, eager to dump my backpack and brew up a cup of hot, sweet tea. The day had worn on, and as I descended into the valley that was my destination, the sun started to dip low, its rays lighting up the pine forests my trail wound through.
As I walked on, quickening my pace as I sensed rest and relief after a long day’s hiking, I became less aware of my body: I barely felt the blisters on my feet, the sweat collecting under my sweatshirt and jacket, the soreness in my shoulders and neck muscles. I became progressively more oblivious too, to my environs. I was walking on a narrow path bedecked with pine needles and cones, cut up by icy streams that came rolling down the hillsides around me, and marked every so often by the signature footprints of the forests’ four-footed residents. But I paid little heed.
And then, finally, thirst and weariness catching up with me, I stopped to take a swig of water from my trusted canteen. As I gulped down the cooling liquid, I became aware of where I was: surrounded by hundreds of pine trees, their branches and dark green canopies gently swayed by a breeze that seemed to be making its way up the slopes from the valley below.
At that moment, I realized too, I was standing amidst hundreds of living things, each individually dwarfing me, each having stood witness, on that wild slope, to thousands of gorgeous evenings like this one. They stood there, breathing in the same air I was, their ‘bodies” engaged in the homeostatic processes similar to mine, maintaining their structural and functional integrity, their delicately poised and balanced relationships with their immediate environment.
I was in the middle of a crowd. A reticent and partially silent one if you discounted the murmurings and rustlings emanating from the tree-tops as the evening breeze moved through them, but no less impressive for that. Suddenly, I felt self-conscious, almost shy, as if I had become aware of a hundred eyes trained on me, curious and questioning. I almost felt the need to be circumspect, to not disturb the gentle calm that pervaded this sylvan setting, this inhabited space that belonged to its long-term residents.
I had let myself forget life came in many forms, shapes and sizes; as I stood among those trees I was reminded how narrow that vision was.
I moved on eventually, but for the rest of my walk back down to camp I didn’t feel alone any more.