The Prodigal Naturalist, Part Three: Deeper Still

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By Jack Phillips

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essays, First Series: Circles, 1841

I love wooded ravines but love them a little less on humid summer days when mosquitoes also love them. My prairie friends complain of sylvan claustrophobia, but I take comfort in leafy embrace. I was raised where the tallgrass prairies and woodlands of the east thin into shortgrass prairies and oak savanna holdouts to the west. For me the woods have meant shade and water and amphibians who, like me, live in the Plains but dream in deep time and forested reverie. The vocation of the mosquito swarm is to perturb me into wakefulness or profanity at least. But I want to go deeper still to find the circle within the circle, the place were light makes a threshold of darkness, the place were new realities open as the earth narrows, the place where “the tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning...” as Emerson found.*

In the prairie, the woods-loving naturalist is drawn to rifts and ravines. The folds and wrinkles on the skin of the earth concentrate water and collect humus and thus create secret worlds and refugia. Dawn comes late and darkness early. The midday sun is broken and scattered as it drips and bounces off planes of green. Earth is strange under sideways light; the green kingdom above is tumbled and stacked as in falls in and climbs back out. Here dawn rises at noon and new realities open, and open again. And here, adventures reward curiosity underfoot instead of abroad and our feet serve us as wings. In ravines, rifts, valleys, hollows, gulches, coulees, and gorges distance is measured vertically and space is measured inward.

In younger wandering days my familiar walks followed the Wadi Arabah, the rift valley that drains the mountains of western Syria into the Gulf of Aqabah. To say it is deep is an understatement because it descends to the lowest land elevation on earth—to a point called the “Dead Sea” by those who were expecting something else. Arabah evokes emptiness and desolation in Arabic, but ecological irony finds some of the most verdant landscapes in the Hula nature reserve in the north and the Ein Gedi reserve in the south. The abrupt transition between parched and lush is measured merely in meters. Here is the last redoubt of leopards, gazelle, ibex, and the odd mongoose, the home of hornbills and bee-eaters and pied kingfishers, really big vipers, kaleidoscopes of scorpions, poinsettia trees and evergreen oaks, reed swamps, and the only place I’ve seen the beautiful snowy-white Egyptian vulture outside of Egypt. The rich biodiversity of the Levant seems to gather and puddle in that green crease, creating contradictions that rival the political ambiguities of the region. We puzzled over military warnings in Hebrew and Arabic as well as range maps in our bird guides.

But the naturalist following Emerson and his disciple Thoreau discovers that exotic wandering is not a prerequisite for a pilgrimage and that the ecological holy land is wild nature, what is left of it, where we live. One is easily beguiled by enchanted mountains and valleys in far off lands, but highest and lowest points on earth are the hills and ravines of home. The most important destination is the land to which we belong. For the prodigal naturalist, our muddy sauntering is a journey that takes us around Emerson’s circle, deeper and deeper still. The secret depths of nature’s vivacious prodigality surprises the local pilgrim.

A ravine is a place of transformation; we cross a threshold between ecosystems by virtue of descent. In my familiar Loess Hills of Iowa, this means leaving a broad landscape of tallgrass flowers, forbs, and sedges for a narrow pocket of eastern deciduous forest. Here bluestem yields to redbud, sunflower to basswood, ironweed to ironwood, prickly pear to prickly ash, puccoon to wahoo, ground cherry to gooseberry. Sunlight goes from plenteous to precious. Birdsong persists in Emerson’s midday dawn when the ridges grow quiet. And mosquitoes, driven deep for buggy logic, remind us that this world trades first light for twilight as it nimbly plays the sun.

The prodigal naturalist is similarly transformed by entering this thin and anomalous wood. “At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish.” One is surprised not by the exotic, or the rare, but by the small and the common, like the adventures of youthful days. “These enchantments are medicinal, they sober and heal us. These are the plain pleasures, kindly and native to us.”

I love to walk prairies and savannas with my friends, but when we descend into the tempered light of a verdant ravine, we draw ever nearer to plain pleasures. We huddle and kneel to study a toad pipe or peeper or lichen through a lens. We crane and twist after flitting shapes in canopies above. We close our eyes to feel chalky-smooth bark of bitternut or to listen to the rattle of bladdernut. We taste sweet june-berries, tart gooseberries, and the numbing fruit of the toothache tree. We apprentice ourselves to wild circles drawn around us, as Emerson said we would.

*Essays, Second Series: Nature, 1844

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