Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, August 24, 2002, © 2004
"I have learned to look on Nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth, but
hearing oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity."
-- William Wordsworth
Remember the first moment when an eagle planed across your field of vision? Or when a big buck stepped out of the shadows into the fading light? Or maybe it was a whale breaching in the Gulf of Maine with the sun highlighting the rivers running down its sides? These are the events we call "encounters with nature.''
There are other such moments just as moving but very, very different. On one Santa Ana morning my wife Sharron and I were birding the trail to Willow Lake under drooping Spanish Moss and sun-scattering Hackberry and Cedar Elm. Great Kiskadees and Plain Chachalacas were racketing a counterpoint in their usual way. It's an easy trail where we volunteer for monthly bird walks. Like most Rio Grande Valley hotspots, anything is possible for birders.
We barely heard the approaching footsteps. Turning, we saw him - an elderly man walking only a bit unsteadily. As he neared, bright butterflies flicked away from him, the malachite-winged and the zebra-striped. It was not his presence that was so unusual; all ages visit the refuge to view the subtropical life: jays clothed in lemon, lime and blue; orioles brushed with flame; rosetted wild cats; and coral blooms lit with hummingbirds' emerald fire.
The thing that made us look was what he carried in his hand...we were used to seeing lens-heavy cameras and binoculars slung about necks or scopes and tripods riding shoulders. Instead, it was a framed portrait of a young woman, done in the older style. He did not clasp it to his chest as others might but held it slightly before him like an offering.
Since a friendly greeting such as "What have you seen?" is customary on the trail, it seemed appropriate to say the least we could. "Hello." There was no response, and he seemed to look beyond us into another time - but with clear eyes and no surface sadness, or any other emotion for that matter. There was only a quietness, even a serenity.
Who was she, sharing this place? A wife, mother, sister, daughter? Had they strolled here together long ago? Was it a regular visit or a one-time vacation outing? What memory was he holding?
There was birdsong, watersound, treesound and the warm air. As we watched him circle back from the water's edge, a quiet flock of large white birds drifted onto Willow Lake.
We stayed there for only a moment. Together. There were other wonders to see.
The mind holds its great reservoir, and much, much later, memories come unbidden to the surface. We recalled what occurred on that trail... finally. It had been a rare and moving experience. There are many ways to think about its meaning... we do know that Wordsworth was right.
And that there are different ways of sharing. It was an encounter in Nature.