Oak-corns and Apple-thorns

October, 2011

Hoot Owls and Coyote Howls

My son and I are sitting in front of a small fire listening to the hoot owls.  We are deep in the dark woods north of Standardsville, Virginia.  This is not a state park, it is a Wildlife Management Area open for camping.  Our truck is an hour’s hike away.  There are no restrooms, no cell service, no water spigots, and the nearest people are on farmland several miles on the other side of the Rapidan River’s cold and deep ravine.   I look over at him, all grown up now with kids of his own, and the shadow he casts is that of an eight-year-old not a twenty-eight-year-old.  I blink that vision away.  He is no child, not anymore.

We take these trips to connect, to slow down, to turn off the phones and the cameras, and to make contact with our visceral selves.  My son is not a witch, but he understands on a primal level that from time to time a person should stop and look into the eyes of his or her fetch; that spirit self, which we send forth in dreams, visions, and workings, must be rejoined and connected to the body for a person to be whole.

Here, far away from the distractions of industrialization, a person is completely in the moment.  Every drop of water and every bite of food is delicious, every breath invigorates.  The fog is more mysterious, the sunrise more miraculous, and every moonrise is a revelation.  All trails lead to amazing discoveries.  Two days spent here are like two weeks in the city.

Sitting cross-legged with our faces bent toward the fire, we are carving spoons and burning out the hollows.  A gibbous moon has risen whiter than ice.  Coyote howls echo through the trees.  We are tired, having spent the day hiking, gathering wild edibles and creek water for boiling, and practicing our primitive traps and snares.  But now we are energized.  We look left and right and back again.  They cry for a long time, their calls eerie and beautiful.

We settle back to our crafts.  A short time later the footfalls of unknown creatures pop and crunch outside our fire’s small circle of light.  At times like these it is unimportant to know that there has never been a fatal bear or coyote attack in the recorded history of our state.  Our spirit selves are rooted in our frail bodies, compelled by two million years of conditioning to be aware and alert, to wonder what is lurking in the darkness.

At length our crafts are done and, despite the sounds of the forest, we cannot keep sleep at bay.  But the fire must be maintained or we’ll freeze.  My son wants the first watch.  I lie down on my side and look up at his profile in the firelight, see his breath in the cold air.  For the next few hours my life is in his hands, father and child’s roles reversed.  His powerful hand pulls the blanket over my feet.  In this moment I am whole, one, and complete.  I shut my eyes and a tear of joy escapes before I drift away.