By Sam Larson
I walk out; I see something, some event that would otherwise have been utterly missed and lost; or something sees me, some enormous power brushes me with its clean wing, and I resound like a beaten bell.
- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim on Tinker Creek
I am not a religious man. I’ve tried. The closed in stuffiness of churches, the smell of institutional cleaning products, and the chummy, hail-fellow-well-met experience of joining a community of believers does not work for me. I recoil, viscerally in some cases, from a well-meaning smile and a word of welcome. I recognize that this is not a great starting point to meet others but these are the cards I’ve been dealt.
I spend my time outside instead of in houses of worship, centering myself in the larger world. Out there, in the world, it's easy to agree with Annie Dillard’s observation that the universe quite simply abounds with extravagances, religious inclinations or not. There are vast forces at work in the world at large and to spend any time outside is to immerse yourself in them. The silent sweep of planets across billions of years and the nightly parade of stars, each a far distant sun bathing alien planets with their warmth, should be enough to put anyone back on their heels. Even keeping things close to your own backdoor yields everyday extravagances that, familiarity notwithstanding, we should be much more impressed by than we are. The ordered prairie dog communities that fill the borders and margins in Colorado, and the silent hawks and coyotes that pace their outskirts. The sunsets and sunrises, purple, orange, and black, that would happen daily whether or not we were here to notice them. The ceaseless tide of the seasons, with green buds and rushing life in the spring mellowing into sere auburn and crackling heat in the fall that gives way to wind and rattling stands of parchment-dry grass that will, yet again, be reborn in spring.
Nothing is new here except us. The mountains that I walk across weren't just here before me, or the city of Denver, or before the United States, they were here before people lived on this continent. In fact, they existed before people lived on any continent and looked roughly the same as they does now. Perhaps slightly craggier, slightly more rugged, with the raw, sharp lines of newly risen peaks that have yet to lose their crisp edges to the wind and rain. That’s the kind of extravagance that resounds within the world. The imminently knowable sense that, despite everything, we are a blip of static in a long-running show that would just as happily run without us.
There’s an absurdity to the whole experience if you pursue it far enough, the absurdity of something truly, truly grand and unknowable that is reduced to the level of the every day or the mundane. Somewhere deep within the all-embracing arms of a spiral galaxy is a small yellow sun, and drifting around that sun in the gentle, inescapable touch of gravity is our planet. And down there, on the side of a mountain that formed millions of years past, in a channel cut through the stone by a river that was secure in its bed before our ancestors toyed with fire, stand you and I. Awkward and unlikely homonid descendents, the result of our ancestor’s improbable descent from the trees and subsequent march towards civilization, we are dressed in rubber pants trying to fool fish with bits of yarn and wire. The fish themselves descend from an ur-fish born in an inland sea somewhere in the contemporary Pacific Northwest during the Miocene era, almost thirteen million years ago, far earlier than our earliest ancestors could be said to have existed. Thirteen million years and millions of generations of birth, struggle, and death have led to these fish, here, in this pool, hiding imperfectly behind these rocks where we can see them through our polarized sunglasses. In the midst of all of this I foul my backcast in an errant breeze and curse softly, reeling in my line while I try to pick the knot from my line without spooking the pod of trout that I’ve been casting to for the last several minutes.
When I finally catch a fish, using survival techniques and highly refined equipment perfected over millennia, I will let it go. Softly, gently, I tug the barbless hook from the trout’s jaw and cradle the fish in my hand until it recovers enough to swim away. Somewhere in the past an ancestor of mine, having been granted a peek into the modern era, would shake his head at the hard work I put in to catching a fish only to let it go. There is a dilettantism to what we do. To the fish it is all the same. The tactics they use to hide and escape from us are the same they would use to escape an osprey or other predator. We are simply the predators that release the trout back into the water.
The trout hides behind the same rock where I saw it when I stepped up to the side of this pool. That’s one of the signal tragedies within the natural world. Despite our tendency to anthropomorphize the things we find outside of ourselves, those same things are all far too slow to recognize us for the destroyers and killers that we can so easily become. We rocketed to the top of the food chain, gaining insight into the natural world and powers of destruction that far outpaced everything else. For animals that track lineage through millennia our rapid climb hasn't given them the time to adapt. By the time other creatures of the world have learned to fear us it is, in many cases, far too late.
Above me, in stair-stepping pools of tea-colored water the river continues climbing towards the Continental Divide, a minor riverine extravagance below the greater extravagances of the mountains that chivvy and shove the shoreline back and forth between their feet. There is motion here, upwards thrusting from beds of stone towards the sky and downwards flowing from clouds and snowpack through riverbeds into far-distant ocean depths. I am somewhere in between, of neither water nor stone, clambering over the casually jumbled remnants of geologic time, looking for trout, tripping over rocks in my sunglasses and rubber pants.