Stars appear in the Montreat pond as the sun hits each puncture of its surface by a twig, the tooth of a scissored leaf, each small rise creating a tiny point of light. Constellations form and change as I tilt my head to gather it all in. A single leaf floats among the frozen debris hanging tomblike at the bottom, its round shadow moving along the dappled matting. The shadow’s edge forms a gleaming lens of sunlight, a submerged sliver moon. Around me, the hollow percussive drilling of a woodpecker reverberates in a dead tree nearby, its tone and volume falling as each measure fades out.
Craving music, I once sneaked into the little chapel up the road from this pond and slid onto the piano bench below a mural of the returning prodigal son. I pondered the looseness of my own coming and going to belief and the structures of spirituality, yet the image struck me, maybe from sentimental, childhood, Presbyterian associations, maybe invoking some primal archetype of returning to open arms. A sorrowful bloom rose through my throat. From the piano, my tear-drenched notes, both exulted and out of tune, rose into the gathering rafters. A lineage in my blood carries the music of churches, its somber holiness, its orderliness and assurance.
Before I found solace in quiet outdoor places, I found it in empty churches. Some, like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City where the air is a haze of incense and dust, seem the human replicas of primeval forests. Endless pillars reaching ethereal heights call to mind the redwood groves of the west. In both I am lost, absorbed into something ancient that possesses intelligence and embraced beyond human scope. There, in a softening of bone and boundary, each cell of me is called back, somehow returning to the place of beginning and the innocence of the small. I didn’t often kneel, but I can understand the impulse. Under giant redwoods, my legs grow faint beneath me, as though my spine and all other structures of upholding suddenly gave way and I was no longer a tensed and separate object but a minuscule plasmic organism inside one vastly more stable, wise, and complex.
When I need to disappear and crawl humbly back to the place that carries it all, I go to the woods. These days I go to Montreat and walk around the pond. The sunlight follows me, reassuring and steady. There, the thing that pushes me towards more, the thing born of loneliness, seems to slither down the passageways of my nervous system and trickle away behind me. The days away from the woods seem jagged, harried, full of mental movies that run fast and leave me shaking. At the pond there is one continuous thread of life moving fluidly, and I tumble back into it like a small furry animal who miraculously makes it across the busy road and into the dark safety of the thicket. Crouching by the muddy bank, I’m ashamed, apologetic for my double life: the one of taking and wasting and the one of crawling back, beaten down, hungry, needing to be held by something holy. The pond just blinks its starry eye and listens.
Still, I am part. On the pond there is a constant conversation among the wind and the water and the floating leaves. The insects answer, then the amphibians below in a gusty ripple, the pinprick of a landing, then a quick gulp and diving burp. All that arises cascades from something else. Nothing singular happens here. Even my apparently unfitting presence causes a filling of space, a shadow, a threat, a curiosity and an attending consciousness that is felt in diminishing rings of influence echoing out from my place on the bank. Dirt and insects are displaced, creatures hide, the ground cools behind me where my shadow interrupts the stream of sunlight. The scent of my shampoo disrupts the subtle detection of the passage of a snail and the hunting of a hawk. Perhaps the tree near me imperceptibly contracts, then leans back in as it feels me watching, sensing it plainly without violence.
A bullfrog tadpole, hilariously round like a little grayish ball with a tail, suddenly appears in the spot where I pour my attention out over the glittering water. I would never have noticed her if she hadn’t swum up, because once she stops she is nearly invisible. I remember seeing bullfrogs each summer for the past few years as I walked along the soft pine-needle-padded trail that follows the edge of the pond. I heard the call and response of their low chanting, glimpsed their shiny heavy bodies through the shadow-casting rhododendron branches that hover above the water. If I got too close, they would slip silently into the depths, disappearing from me entirely.
They must begin as the purely liquid-dwelling creature I now watch floating in scattered leaves and crisscrossed pine needles. I look away to write in my notebook, but when my gaze returns, she is gone, absorbed into the mysterious underworld of the pond. I wonder, in the unknowable land of her consciousness, if she can fathom the transformation she will undergo, if she will be surprised at the strange impulse inside her to raise her head above the water and place each new timid foot onto the black mud and rise, curious and giddy, into the air-breathing world. I wonder if she will later remember the time when she couldn’t imagine that possibility. Will it be, for her, the liberating triumph that brings a sense of awe, the woozy exultation when the once-accepted confines of life suddenly change?
At night in the summer you can sit on the bench in the gazebo by the pond. If, by the glow of the parking lot security light, you slowly walk between the lines of the ancient labyrinth design painted on the wood floor, you can follow its deceptive winding course that somehow always goes to the same place: in and in and in. You continue, not knowing if you are farther from or closer to the ultimate point of center, but still you are drawn more deeply into the world of your own awareness. If you walk along the path that follows the edge of the pond, it’s the same. Walk slowly, meditatively. Listen closely because the voices will draw closer if you’re quiet: the stretch-and-pop baritone of the bullfrogs in succession, the murmuring of the emptying creeks, the questioning drone of crickets. Your feet will be accepted by the soft ground, even more in bare feet. Soon you don’t feel your own skin, but only the pine needle carpet.
Your mind submerges into the world of the pond, its rhythmic dance with the wind, straight pines in attendance around you. The muddy smell of river, the supple ground, the warm air, the creature songs, you go more deeply, more deeply. And into the mole tunnels you go and into the high altitudes of the turkey vulture gliding, and into the deep conversing pathways of mountain laurel and birch, down into the molecules of old granite, feldspar and glittering mica, into the smooth oak roots and the tiny, threaded, mycelial mushroom networks, and out into the dark, shadowy, dance floors of fireflies strobing green and close, out into the waves of crushed and washed-out and wind-buffed peaks rolling back down, back down. The Appalachians in their time beyond our knowing still moan and settle, still reach toward the ever-pulling center of it all.
We too, prodigal, will be returning.