Monday, November 9, 2009

Bombay Hook (1): On Snow Geese (and Fear)

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
—Mary Oliver, “The Wild Geese”

A month ago, I dropped in at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Smyrna, Delaware, because I had a hankering to see the snow geese.

Why? I was asking myself this very question as I missed an exit and lost the signs and started over and finally got on the right country roads to the refuge.

Well, I told myself, because snow geese are handsome—white, with wings tipped in black.

Beyond that, they raise their young in the arctic tundra and fly thousands of miles to winter along the East Coast. It’s always amazing to see a bird that has come so far.

Finally, snow geese travel in huge flocks, arriving at refuges at numbers usually said to be in the tens of thousands. (The biggest number I saw for Bombay Hook was 200,000 in one season.)

At Chincoteague NWF, the place that sparked my excitement, I’d trained my binoculars on a large cluster of geese on a pond.

A moment later, the entire flock erupted—thousands and thousands of birds in the air. It was like watching a blizzard flying upward.

When I asked a ranger what might have provoked this thrilling spectacle, she shrugged. Maybe a hawk had flown over, she said. No doubt it happened all the time.

A decade later, I wanted to repeat that experience. I wanted to see it, take pictures of it, and then tell the story of how wonderful it was.

The tale I’m actually recounting, of course, is about how that didn’t happen. As much as I’d rehearsed my descriptions, real life refused to cooperate.

I drove slowly along the loop drive, the car trailing a long plume of dust. I walked a side trail or two.

Eventually I found a pond painted with snow geese, but it wasn’t like Chincoteague—they were quite far away, and there was no flying around to speak of.


On this trip, much of the action involving the snow geese would take place in the car, in my head. I had hours to drive.

It was the end of summer, the end of the bike ride, the end of the holiday weekend. And what was next?

Uncertainty, the Buddhists will tell you, is the basis of most anxiety. It is the starting point for fear.

Back inside my automotive cocoon, I began the work of constructing a narrative of my experience at Bombay Hook.

Yes, the geese were a bust, but there had also been a crab. It had startled me into noticing many small and captivating creatures along the way.

That version of events was sounded good, except for one false note. Were the geese really a bust? No, not entirely. There was a degree of pleasure just in knowing for certain that they had returned.

I’m glad the geese came back.


That sentence brought release. For a second, I felt nothing but contentment.

I confess I felt mystified at the time, since contentment isn’t like me and I didn’t see why a blur of distant geese should in itself be a big deal.

Later, however, I happened upon a quote from the scientist Rachel Carson that seemed to hint at my source of satisfaction.

“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter,” Carson wrote.

Or, as philosopher George Santayana put it in a quote I stumbled upon during a Google search, “Repetition is the only form of permanence that Nature can achieve.”

The geese were back, and all was right with the world.

* * *

I’m glad the geese came back.

The second time I said it, I felt a twinge of fear, which soon surged into a wide-eyed sensation of terror. This time, I knew why. The words went forth as an affirmation, but in their echo I heard nothing but doubt.

They may never come back again.

What is happening to the world? Are all the geese doomed?

I felt the autumnal happiness yielding to winter dread. Nothing would stay the same. Everything would get worse.

I was driving up the Jersey Turnpike, immersed in speed and concrete and taillights. The car was spewing carbon emissions. There was a global tragedy in the making, and here I was making it.

I felt as if I were flipping back and forth on a switch. Position one: everything’s fine. Position two: everything’s dying.

Peace and panic, side by side.

Of course, the peace felt like pure denial. Don’t be silly, I said to myself, you can come back and see the geese next year. Just keep driving faster. When you get home, you can order a burger. Let’s pretend nothing is happening.

Panic didn’t feel so great, either. Sometimes the knot of fear is so palpable and heavy I feel I can barely drag it around. I’m too frightened to move. I get worried I will crash the car.

When I think about it, I’m not convinced that this kind of immobilizing terror is really all about the environment. If we’re inclined to be fearful, we find places to project our fear; these fears are reasonable and unreasonable at the same time.

I’m seized apocalyptic anxieties about snow geese, but functionally I don’t imagine I’m all that different than someone who’s crippled with anxiety about an al-Qaeda attack.

* * *

I got home okay, but my internal skirmish with the geese really got to me. I was tired of being fearful and unhappy and to top it all guilty over expressing so much worry while doing so little. There had to be some kind of new framework that would negate the anxiety.

Speaking of the life cycles of humans and butterflies, Rachel Carson wrote: “It is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to its end.”

It occurred to me that all I needed to do was pull back the lens a little bit, to imagine that mass extinctions are part of some larger natural cycle.

When I investigated the snow geese, I discovered that they are far from endangered—they are in the midst of a population explosion.

They grow fat and happy feeding on winter grain in the United States. Each spring, they return to the Arctic tundra in such large and healthy numbers that they are decimating the fragile ecosystems there.

See? Self-destruction is part of the natural course of events.

No doubt humans are like that, too. We simply can’t help exploiting our niche, the global ecosystem that supports our burgeoning existence, to a point of likely destruction.

It’s just our nature. If we destroy ourselves and every other living thing on Earth, well—life will blunder on at the other planets out there.

When I imagine things this way, I feel clear-eyed, rational, and unafraid. I have a handle on the way things are. I can imagine myself in a room full of other people. They will all be scared, but I will be smug.

Okay, something about this fantasy is faintly suspicious. But do I want to give it up?

* * *

My preoccupation with the questions raised by the snow geese persisted into last weekend, when I went to see Pema Chodron, a 73-year-old Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition, at the Omega Institute.

Pema was conducting a weekend-long explication of her late mentor Chogyam Trungpa’s instructions on fearlessness, which have recently been culled into a new book, edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian, called Smile at Fear.

(Some of Pema’s teachings took place on Halloween, and she took to the stage in a witches’ hat. “Find the ugliest thing you can—and wear it,” she laughed.)

As far as I can tell, the Tibetan Buddhists always begin with the individual. Whether you’re talking about a spat with a friend or the death of a child or an environmental holocaust, the answer is always the same: start with yourself. (This refusal to adjust the tenor of the teachings to the scale of the problem can be annoying to some people.)

If you want to understand what’s going on, you’ve got to examine your own responses. That’s the route to confronting the situation. It’s looking as carefully as possible at the specifics of your experience, no matter how embarrassing they may be. It’s about accepting everything that arises.

We can always strive to be more curious than afraid, Pema likes to say.

It’s one thing to sit calmly with my history book and read about with plague, and another to sit next to a person who’s pale and sweating in a doctor’s office.

If I subdue my fear by thinking about the logic of pandemics, I’m likely to miss my fierce desire to avoid catching her disease—and my bond with everyone else who feels the same vulnerability. If I exit the scene, I may also miss out on my empathy for the sick woman and her worried family. Either way, I may have denied some part of my own convoluted humanity.

Last weekend, I listened to a climate scientist softly weeping as he talked about impending ecological devastation and the probable fate of his children. It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this at Omega, and both times it was shattering. I have rarely wanted to leave a room so badly in my life.

They’re asking: how do we talk to our kids?

Contemplating this, I remembered that I’d grown up with a father who was an early prophet of energy shortages and routinely declared that soon we’d all be groveling for roots in Central Park.

(There can’t possibly be enough roots for all of us in Central Park. Will we still take the subway?)

As a child, I felt vaguely puzzled by the obligation to go to school and to college when the world was going to end and I probably wasn’t going to grow up.

Nevertheless, here I was at 50, still alive. In my youth I’d interpreted my father as angry but indifferent, and now I could imagine that he was frantic with worry. But where he was fretting about the atomic bomb or the end of oil, I was petrified by half-formed visions of ecological devastation.

And how did I cope? By coming up with doomsday scenarios that gave me some sense of having mastered the horrible situation—just like my father.

All of my inherited fancy thinking was just a clever mental trick—one more version of denial. Talk about perpetuating natural cycles! So what if we all die? True or not, it was somehow missing the point. If I had a child, I might make that child shrink from life. I would make that child cry.

The question is: How do we talk to ourselves?

* * *

By leaning into fear, I think Pema means that you have to feel it—all the sorrow, all the pain. Peace and panic don’t stand apart; they go hand in hand.

“Shambhala is a philosophy of the rainbow,” she said, or words to that effect. “A rainbow is sunshine and tears mixed together.”

My inner cynic cannot believe I am quoting that line.

Nevertheless: the idea seems to be that if you really look at loss, you will realize how much you fear it, and how completely inescapable it is. As that notion sinks in, you may spend less of your life resisting the inevitable.

At the same time, you may increasingly experience each moment of existence as precious. Rather than closing your heart, you will open it to everything and everyone. You’ve got to be brave to be sad, and brave to be happy, too.

You will pay genuine attention to the world—selfless attention, not the type that is secretly geared toward gleaning what you’ll need to get what you want. Doing this, or so I’ve been told, is what it really means to live with love.

If your heart is engaged in this stainless fashion, you will always move toward compassionate action. In every moment of existence, there is always something to do. (It says so on my yoga teacher’s T-shirt, but I’ve come to suspect this is true.)

Some people seem to know all of this intuitively. Rachel Carson, for example. She fought her own cancer at the same time she was writing Silent Spring, the book that did so much to alleviate the harm of DDT.

Carson seemed able to absorb the truth of change and death, whether personal or ecological, in ways that allowed her to blossom every day of her life. It’s people who can do this, ironically, who really change the world.

There are many others, like me, who don’t get this at all. Thousands or even millions of us are wandering the globe, seeking the healers and therapists and spiritual teachers we hope will lead us to actually appreciate our lives.

I sometimes fantasize that one day my fears will buckle into a million pieces and I will emerge as a shaft of light.

Of course, I don’t really want to be a shaft of light—I want to be a person. And anyway, I don’t think it’s like that: it’s a matter of slowly chipping away. Get scared, flee, notice that, turn back toward the fear. Do it again.

When I think of the large and migrating cloud of anxiety that arose from the mere fact of disappointing encounter with a bunch of snow geese, it doesn’t seem possible that any of my efforts will ever be enough.

But perhaps that’s not for me to worry about.

There will always be more to learn. In that sense, no matter what happens, every moment will be just like this one. As Pema said last weekend, “It’s drop by drop in the bucket of life.”

3 comments:

Linda said...

Nice to be able to see your process, my friend. Thanks for the snow geese--and yep, the fear.

Kelly said...

lovely, "peace and panic, side by side" and I laughed, I'll tell you when later

Joan said...

I have been a fearful person all my life, really -- of death, of argument, of going unheard, all of which are related, of course. It does seem like it's only been lately, as I settle into midlife, that it's easier to embrace those fears than try to use every blunt instrument in sight to tamp them down. Did you see that New Yorker article about changing your nightmares? I'm not a positive-thinking proponent but that's not their angle either -- it's all about letting yourself go there and then shaping the fear with some agency, as you describe here.