Your earth: fire and water – an elemental column



It came packaged and delivered, as is often the case these days. But the recent visit from our friends came back with it, bringing to mind the simple pleasure of talking in the night. Many of us have missed such evenings during isolated COVID times.

“Fearlessly embrace the burning world,” I read on the book jacket. The photo showed an obliquely lit massive pine forest; even at first glance, I could see that the light was wrong: it was leaking from below. Its source was – as the title suggests – the conflagration.

Yet the author, Barry Lopez, who taught me all my life to see and be outside, wrote his essays and stories with a care and a voice that seemed the opposite of the destructive crackle of the fire ; his work gave you access to worlds you could have walked through and yet missed if you had been distracted. And, we all recognize it, we are chronically distracted.

A few pages later, I reached a spare essay titled “The Invitation.”

“Why not put this piece at the beginning?” I was wondering. It invites the reader to learn how to better reach a place, to get to know it and to make themselves known through it.

But “The Invitation” is not a simple summons; it may be lighthearted, but it comes from the heart of Lopez and, if accepted, could be life changing. It can even lead to embracing the burning world, with or without fear. The essay stems from Lopez’s lifelong travels with people from various regions. Early in his life, Lopez discerned that his fellow natives often noticed much more on their travels than he did. Slowly he discovered the roots of these deeper perceptions and a habit that had kept him from doing the same.

Lopez, as writers and many of us will, sought to put her experiences into immediate words, taking an abbreviated phrase—say, meet the bear—and seeking to tell her story, to contain it. His fellow natives resisted putting words to what they perceived; they continued to perceive, and as they did, they understood more. “For me, wrote Lopez, the bear was a noun, the subject of a sentence; for them it was a verb, the gerund “bearing”.

Within this distinction is the gift of repeatedly traveling and working on the same stretch of land, sometimes with other natives, sometimes alone. During these times, the earth can shift from being the subject of our walk (or writing) to a companion to our emotional core. We then go from the status of a single person to that of being accompanied when we walk. We come to take care of the earth and, yes, it comes to take care of us. It is a very different way of walking, of being, from the usual visit to a place.

Here is an example of what such a place could be.


Nearly five years ago, I signed up for a committee convened to plan the rescue of the Mare Brook watershed, which had acquired the official, sordid descriptor of “urban impaired.” In eight previous columns, I have chronicled walking and learning about this watershed, and recently joined other citizens in accepting the invitation to be part of the Mare Brook Steering Committee, which will begin to implement the redemptive watershed management plan. I look forward to this work.

But what I enjoy even more is trying to relate to these lands in the watershed. Almost every day, I walk there, and wherever I am, I join one tracery to another. This pooled rainwater, for example, will flow down this slope, which tends to a small stream that carries water during wet seasons. It becomes in a tiny delta, exiting a tapering finger into Mere Brook. So many hands of earth and water.

Here, from some earlier writing on watersheds, there is a symbol of how I hope to be aligned:

October in the Mare Brook Gully: it’s 50 degrees, the wind is blowing from the north, bringing with it a needled drizzle. Few others are on the move. It’s a perfect afternoon to descend along the ravine.

A hundred yards ahead of me, I spot the surprise – there’s a figure, hood up, in a red parka; he looks at the stream, motionless. As I approach, I see what he is looking at: a young black Labrador is leaning on the bottom of the stream, attentive, it seems, to its current. His ears are erect, his tail wags regularly, he watches; the lab is connected to something. I stop to look too. A minute passes. ” What is he looking for ? I ask. “Fish,” said his companion in the red jacket. “I haven’t caught one yet, but it’s not for lack of trying.”

The lab is ignoring us. I notice his rope leash is casually coiled on a tree by the creek. Now he repositions himself, turns upstream, frowns, restarts his tail, stares, his concentration unbroken. The transparent water glides over its sands; a few yellowing ferns shine in the gray light. I watch for another minute in silence. The dog never wavers. “That’s it,” his stance says. This; There is nothing else.

All this takes place while, as Barry Lopez writes, I wait, attend, receive.

Sandy Stott is a Brunswick resident, Chair of the Town’s Conservation Commission and a member of the Brunswick Topsham Land Trust Board of Directors. He writes for various publications. It can be attached to [email protected]


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