Rude Awakening

by Robin van Tine

[presented at the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, Second Biennial Conference, Missoula, Montana, University of Montana, July 17-19, 1997]

I awoke slowly, as if from a trance, and angrily wondered what or who was disturbing my splendidly isolated sleep with such a brilliant and reckless light. All around me the tall hemlocks cast vivid shadows on each other and on the needle-strewn floor of the magical grove into which I had dragged my sleeping bag to be out under the stars. I had wanted no tent walls to separate me from the rest of the universe. Beside me, the wild mountain river roared on its tumultuous journey away from its source and towards the ocean far away, as if it were fleeing some invisible pursuer -- or was it rushing in anticipation towards reunion with its long sought lover? Perhaps both. Occasional tubular sounding percussions interrupted the stream’s drone as hemispherical cascades of water forced trapped pockets of air into its complaining torrent.

I wriggled upright in my mummy bag, with hood still in place against the damp, cold spring night, and peered upward through the tops of the hemlocks and beyond the intervening miles of oaks, hickories and beeches into the curious bright beam of light which seemed to emanate from the rim of the ridge far above the valley. This brilliant, disturbing light must have a large and powerful source to appear so wide at its origin and to illuminate my campsite so well. I could clearly see my tent a hundred yards away through the forest mist and the spray from the river. I attempted to focus my slowly awakening faculties on the illuminance. I tuned my hearing for mechanical sounds -- one of the things that I’d been attempting to escape on this, my first solo, overnight, backpacking trip into the Shenandoah wilderness, called "Bright-Eyed Daughter of the Stars" by the native peoples long ago. Like the wild mountain stream, I too was both fleeing one thing and pursuing another: I was temporarily escaping the city and civilization and rushing towards reunion with nature.

The origin of the bright, awakening beam must be a four-wheel drive vehicle lumbering up old Brown’s Gap Fire Road halfway to the ridge, miles away, I thought. Or, could it be from the Loft Mountain Campground some ten miles away and half a mile up the mountainside? Were there some park rangers in the mountains searching for lost hikers and using an extremely powerful lantern? No! None of these explanations could be true, the mysterious light beam was too large and steady. I puzzled over the brightness for an interminable period.

Suddenly, I felt quite foolish. I realized that I had been awakened by unfettered moonlight! The brilliant full moon was rising over the ridge rim and mountain peaks and shining into the river valley in high contrast to the pitch black wilderness sky -- with no dilution from artificial lights. Unaccustomed as I was to the natural night sky, undimmed by civilization’s glare, I had presumed technology responsible for my rude awakening. How far removed I had become from the natural world. How could I have become so estranged from nature that I didn’t recognize that beautiful silvery orb that helps define Earth’s uniqueness? How could I have not been instantaneously and viscerally awed by that at which mankind has marveled for millennia? How ignorant I, a modern, highly educated man, a scientist -- a "civilized" man -- had become of the most commonplace and beautiful of natural phenomena. How was this possible?

I pondered the meaning of this rude awakening. I was bewildered and confused by its implications. It was as if I had just come out of an hypnotic trance. I contemplated the significance of my foolish misperception that the brilliant awakening illumination had been mechanical and artificial. Could I have let myself become mesmerized by the thin patina of civilization into disconnecting from the "flesh of the world"1? Who was the powerful wizard that had so entranced me with this superficial illusion of separation from nature? Had I become a mere accessory part of the lifeless mechanical devices of my world? What other estranged perceptions were a part of my being? I wondered.

As my misty thoughts cleared, it dawned on me that I was, perhaps, just now truly awakening from a dream that I had dreamt for most of my adult life. Could I have been reawakened by the power of the moon into the real, sinuous, sensual world of natural delights that I instinctively knew as an infant and young boy? Was I just now coming back to my senses -- having been freed by the magic of moonlight from the hypnotic trance induced by my education and enculturation? How devastatingly sad to think that I and my children and my children’s children might be robbed of our natural ancestral heritage: that deep, awesome connecting mystery of dreaming into the wonder of the night sky. [But,] was I now permanently released from the sorcery of civilization? Or, would I allow the powerful forces of the modern world to once again blind me to the true enchantments of the natural world? I promised myself that I would remember to awake again each time that I saw the moon and so would not be lulled back into my previous deep, unnatural sleep.

As I sat next to the wild mountain stream, peering up in wonder at the diaphanous full moon through the forest mists, I was filled with gratitude that I had been drawn to this magical grove to be illuminated by the wisdom of the moonlight. What a gift I had received from the universe: an enlightening instant of fragile clarity within the enshrouding mists of misperception. I thanked the moon for the brilliant rude awakening.


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