Dancing with a Camera in the Presence of Light — Part 2: A Mystical Experience in the High Sierras
I felt re-baptized in the river that runs through everything
I began working to see the world not as things but as processes, each interconnected to all the others, and all of them constantly changing.
I looked for signs of change in everything. If something looked permanent, I sought out the hidden maintenance — the repair, paint, and replacement on a building, for instance — that gave it the illusion of being unchanging.
I learned to think of trees not as things, but as the presently visible manifestation of an ongoing activity: treeing. The treeing may at this moment be in spring budding, or in autumnal gold, or in a winter bareness — but it was all treeing: a tree moving through seasons the way waves move through water: seed, sprout, shoot, then decades of cycling through the process of treeing. And then: releasing all its elements back to the earth, for other processes to recycle into their waves of activity.
While I was working on this way of seeing, I took a six-day solitary hike in Yosemite, to Matterhorn Canyon in the high Sierras, where, for days, I looked at the mountains as slow waves of stone, rising from the surface of the earth like waves on the ocean. Everything showed signs of dynamic activity: sheets of rock worn by sliding water, steep cracks of split stone, mosses wearing into the boulders, pockets scooped out by waterfalls, smooth pebbles on their slow way to becoming grains of sand. And behind them all, I could imagine the sound of new mountains rising, like a bass note too deep to hear, but present beneath everything.
At night, stars shone through their cycles of billions of years, condensing from cosmic dust, singing in their great furnaces of light for eons, then fading away. Or, for the larger ones, collapsing into the hotter fusion of huge but dying stars that implode into novas and supernovas, spraying into space all the elements, seeding the universe with the constituents of everything we know, the building blocks of stone, tree, water, air, speckled trout, and mountain marmots.
These elements we use, for our while. Then, eventually, the cycle of the earth will complete, and it will pass its elements back perhaps into the expanding sun, billions of years from now. And the process will go on, with new combinations, new rhythms, new music played from instruments that create themselves and change as they play.
As I lay on the mountainside, I seemed to enclose the universe inside me. Stars seemed to shine from the outmost layers of my skin. The whole of creation breathed.
Space became enormous, vastly larger than anything I had ever imagined. And the same space that extended so far outward also opened up inside. Objects gained an extraordinary sense of internal spaciousness. When I looked at things, and later at people, they had vast interiors. I could feel a space inside them as large as any space outside, a rich, dynamic space of vital processes. Every person, every tree and stone, every grain of river sand, held the same infinity of space and vitality and loveliness and creation and destruction and life and death. The whole of the universe lived inside the tiniest thing.
I felt toward people an extraordinary tenderness. I could hardly believe how complex we all were, how changeable, how dependent on so many thousands of circumstances, so precariously nourished by accidents of geological history, local ecology, a narrow range of temperature, a particular blend of air, the constant flow of food in and waste out, and an incessant rebuilding and repair that worked constantly to maintain the illusion of continuity. How wonderful to be among them — as one.
Everywhere, form was changing, constantly changing. I worked to see that a woman of 20 had been an infant, a child, a gangly girl, and she would grow and change into the older woman with the same name, and gray into age and death. And everything she was now would give back every one of its constituent parts to other players in this game of earth and sun.
Instead of feeling caught in meaningless cycles of matter endlessly churning through mechanistic forms, I felt illuminated, I felt gloriously alive, happy. I swam through rivers of change. Moments flowed. Because everything was being born and dying all the time, things scintillated. It was as if objects and I shared a secret. I knew, and the chair knew, that we were not things at all, but a kind of music the world sings.
Near the end of my six-day solitary hike in the Sierras, I awoke one morning to something I cannot begin to describe: I saw the light inside the stone, and heard the water speak. For an eternal half hour, I quietly sat with the rocks, with the whispering stream, while the stones revealed themselves. Everything had light inside it, the secret inner life of matter.
Everything was alive. Vibrant. Changing. Everything was also dying — but only because it was alive. And that dying led to more vibrant change, more forms, more of the music of existence.
This, then, seemed to me to be life — this cosmic dance of activity. Huge beyond imagining, yet as close as the eye that sees it. This magic, this wonder, this dying, this becoming, this radiant orchestration of gnats and galaxies is inside the hand that reaches toward it, it speaks through the tongue that repudiates it, it is the knife that cuts itself without bleeding, without ever ceasing to bleed. It is the death that does not die and the life that is born with its end inside it.
I felt enormously grateful to look into its face, to stand behind its waterfall, to hold its stone in the palm of my hand, to make love to it in a woman’s form, and, later, amid the cycles of children, pets, houses, jobs, dying parents, beloved cities and cherished woods, to grow old the way the sparkleberry sprouts new leaves in the place its ancestors first put root.
I felt re-baptized in the river that runs through everything.
These insights came around 1974, in an era of psychoactive drugs, but I did not take drugs. The membrane that separated me from the world was already thin, and opened me to the world, and I did not want to give up my self before I had a self to give.
I have faith that the light inside the stone shines always, even when I do not see it. The space between stars, I believe, will always continue to open in some remote galaxy of the human heart.
As I write this, it is my birthday in the year 2000.
It is dawn, and the Carolina wrens have been calling since first light.
Gerald Grow is a retired journalism professor. More at longleaf.net. The ebook, Dancing with a Camera in the Presence of Light, is $2.99 on Apple Books and Kindle. Watch for additional excerpts on Medium.