Transition Zones

Deer at night, Jocelyn Lee
Deer at night, Jocelyn Lee

At 1 a.m., the forest is silent except for a nighthawk calling out to an unknown recipient. I turn on my lamp and listen to my dog’s sleeping breath. A captured bark beetle tries to escape my tent, so I unzip the front mesh. I crawl out with him. There are a few visible stars laced between clouds and the coniferous forest canopy. I crouch down and listen for movement. In the distance, a branch cracks. Even though I am unafraid of the dark, the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck rise. It’s a visceral response for our kind, with such poor night skills and carnivore wisdom.

In the morning, we find mountain lion tracks in fresh mud. The monsoon rains have rolled in across the limestone, across the sandstone escarpment, and through the canyons thick with pine. It is hard to distinguish forest floor from gorge. Alongside these prints are several small hooves, the presence of deer gathered near the mouth of the spring. I listen closely, but it is now morning and I am left with only evidence. The lion is long gone. She won’t stay close to the road, with its morning rush of ATVs and trucks loaded with anxious boys and their guns. The deer girls are scattered across the hills, perhaps missing a fella or fawn. I’ll have to be content with my journal and notes, and imagination.

The following night unfolds in a similar orchestra. The mountains create an illusion of silence, of stilled activity. My city ears haven’t adjusted to their music. I strain to hear the slightest conversation between cicadas – or the complaints of skunks meandering through our make-shift comforts. At 1 a.m., that magic hour, a single coyote opens the night with her bloodied ballad for the crescent moon, for her mates – just one coyote singing solo, waiting for response. I can finally sleep.

The next morning, we find more tracks and, beside the picnic table, a  dead junco – in perfect form, as if it had been gently placed on the ground by some benevolent force – small mercies for tender prey.

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It’s 10 p.m. in Phoenix. The towers lean over the backyard as I wait for my dog to pee. The July storms tease with their dust clouds. I say a silent prayer for the storms to finally move through. Next door, in an empty lot, a group of homeless men light a fire in an abandoned porch. Cops circle. Helicopters take critical cases to the hospital on Thomas. No matter what I do with white noise, drugs, deep sleep, meditation, the noise never ceases. I strain to find the silence between adagios. I wait for the rain to drive back the life; to quell whatever bravado lives beneath the desperate walls and hungry bellies.

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I met a guy who swore he’d seen a wolf in the Prescott National Forest. I knew what he’d likely seen was a large coyote. He showed me a picture of a coyote. Instead of telling him the truth, I just nodded and asked him what he thought of it. Naturally, it changed my life, he said, emphasizing naturally.

Another friend claimed her spirit is that of a fox. She has collage of photos of various foxes above her bed: kit fox, red fox, grey fox, and an odd interloper of an Arctic fox, her cool white fur moving invisible with the Ontario snow.

Above my desk, I, too, have an image of a fox. A desert kit fox I saw while gazing at the spirals and dancing bighorns etched onto rock panels a few thousand years ago. The fox appeared as I was about to embark on a long drive across the Colorado desert of Southern California. It was already 95 degrees at 9 a.m.. The air snapped with its own fury.

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On the Mogollon Rim, the surrounding mountains appear as a tintype, a patina. The view of ridges and monsoon clouds frame everything in a dripping emerald and smoke-grey. I walk with my dog out to the edge and find a burnt tree stump to sit on. The landscape has been singed – recently, perhaps a few years ago. Fire rings polka-dot the grasses. Crushed, faded Bud Light cans form an odd little narrative to the pilgrims who come here to escape the heat, caring little for the place itself, or the thousand year old stone flakes marking other arrivals and departures.

These days my mind is equally singed –  scarred with too many worries about paying bills and finding a home. It makes no sense to consider these things here. Fatalism settles into my bones. Two years of chronic worry about the why of things, but I am no closer to knowing. Two years of death, loss, situations that burned everything down to bare sinew and nerve. Being here, I ask myself if I am willing. Will I set more years to blaze? Years that will be no more meaningful than a bird falling sudden on the soft dirt floor.

Over the side of the escarpment, a crow is being chased by a stormtroupe of swallows. His protests meet the distant thunder.

Following Deer

“to the seeds,
to the beginnings; to one clear word for which
there is no disguise and no alternative.”
~Brackenbury

I have grown accustomed to mourning and rejoicing in tandem. It seems throughout my life some of the most profoundly joyful moments, good news, and inconspicuous but thrilling arrivals have found their way to me in the footsteps of sadness, change, and difficult times. If there is a lesson in this trend, I am still learning, growing with every new turn and opportunity to respond and adapt.

Just as I was accepting a job offer and entirely new course in life – including a major residential move – a friend lapsed into serious condition, then left this old, dusty world just a day beyond my acceptance of this new path. I was watching deer move delicately across a green meadow, the new morning sweet and endless, as my friend struggled for breath and held the hands of friends and family too numerous to name. Just as I stumbled up a mountain path, where a small doe stood sniffing the air, my family – back in Indiana – dealt with struggles of their own, how to honor an aging loved one’s wishes while serious health issues pressed against good conscience. And all the while my own conflicts provided sullen backdrops against the abundant beauty around me.

 Is it right to be happy when others are not?

How do we fully live while grieving for those who are dying or have gone on?

I grapple with my need to move quickly in the midst of so much emotion. By nature, I am a mover. To remain still, coming from my history and character, welcomes potential peril. I move on, even when my heart is broken and everyone around me lingers, catatonic in hurt. I move with the clouds. I say goodbye as the wind pushes memory and time over ridges, against the horizon. I carry stories. I speak them, and speak through them. I move, too, in the gray space, as everyone naturally moves away from our grasp. Friends, lovers and family circle the wheel, just as I. 

There’s ache in my heart for the many losses faced over the years, for the pains and sicknesses that have plagued those I love, and for the reality that, yes, our limited, linear life becomes ever more apparent as loved ones fly off into hereafter. Childhood, for those fortunate enough to be awarded this innocent time, is short. For many, childhood is merely a time to fight for survival. Fair or unfair, the wheel turns. We mourn. We move on.

As I reflect upon my time in Colorado and the deer that greeted me on my morning walks, I am reminded of a moment of holiness and complexity in my twenties. Holy is a word I choose intentionally. I was facing a devastating loss, dealing with the inevitable end to an ugly situation. I was very alone – not in the physical sense – but the dejected sense of being alone, when surrounded by people who could not or would not understand or acknowledge who I am or the obvious circumstances around us. I was about to walk into a hotel, when I saw a couple of young does rush across the busy county road. The first made it in a daring leap between automobiles. The second was not so lucky. Just as she made it into the first lane, a truck hit her hind legs… and without the slightest pause, continued to drive away. The doe stumbled twice but managed to cross into the National Forest land just beyond.

Without thinking, I left my stunned companion and darted across the road and scrambled under the barbed wire fence. Looking back, my companion simply walked into the hotel and closed the door – a final impasse. I keenly remember an urge to find the doe. I knew she must be in bad shape, if even alive, and I couldn’t stop my legs from moving into the thick green tangle of late summer foliage. I must have walked for an hour before reluctantly turning around to head back. That’s when I saw her. She was on her side, just beyond a thick stand of trees, lying on ferns. I neared and met her eyes. I could tell she was dying. I leaned down and placed a hand on her side as she took her last few breaths.

There was something in the acknowledgment of that final moment of life that was comforting. Sad, yes, but… the truth of being fully there, present and with this transition, soothed my mind. And, something tells me my being there soothed her also.

It is what it is…

Deer vision is unlike our own. They see in the context of movement. What doesn’t move isn’t there or isn’t framed in their visual landscape. Every movement is new. Every motion is a beginning. There’s no need to worry about things that are not felt and perceived. Life and death happen at the most basic visceral level of movement in moment.

From the accounts of my friend’s last moments on earth, he was surrounded by dozens of friends and family. My own family struggles with tough decisions, but they are together – witnessing, acknowledging each other’s feelings. Grief and sadness stand near our moments of happiness – inches away, at times. But these are all feelings that come and go, enter and leave. What remains are those moments of simply seeing each other – real in the music of being real – moving delicately off into fields, through the landscapes of dying and being born. We comfort and celebrate by being witness to the movement of each other – and again, by moving into those new spring meadows.