It’s an uncommon occurrence for the north branch of Rattlesnake Creek to freeze over. Only a narrow pass between vertical banks of earth allows the water of this short auxiliary to join the main artery, and queued-up on the upstream side of the bottleneck there loiters a long, shallow pool of earth-soup 10 feet or so across waiting patiently for gravity to siphon it through the pass and into the larger movement towards the James.
On rare occasions, like during the most recent polar vortex, the restricted dimension of the outflow passage isn’t the only impediment to flow. The water in this pool is just calm enough that when the air temperature remains below 32 degrees for an extended period of time, the normally promiscuous H2O molecules hanging out here begin to confine themselves to specific partners. Forming strong hydrogen bonds with their nearest molecular neighbors, they become locked in the mathematically precise positions of a hexagonal lattice. When a deep and extended cold settles on the Rattlesnake basin behind my house, the upper surface of the north branch waiting pool can no longer join greater movements towards the sea. It has crystallized into ice.
The desire to see the Rattlesnake in this rare, partially immobilized state is a great excuse for a winter walk in the Lowland. My daughter Brooke notices right away that last night’s snowfall was very delicately placed on the earth, and the sub-freezing temperatures have allowed the tiny ice crystals to maintain their individuality even in the two-inch-high ground pileup. She drops to the ground for an intimate look, feel and taste of winter’s white powder. Fourteen-year earth veteran Anna, desiring to display her maturity at times now, momentarily pretends aloofness before relapsing into the more basic, youthful desire. Ultimately she also drops to her knees to grope and taste this crystallized manna from the sky.
Though successfully maintaining aloofness in a standing position nearby, I do become intensely self-aware, or self-conscious. Intensely “self-as-human” –conscious, that is. Of the many gifts bestowed on me by the Richmond outdoors and this small patch of unspoiled nature behind my house. This special form of self-consciousness is the greatest.
I’ll explain. It’s always a fair assumption that we humans are the most fabulous creatures on earth. Our precise technology and our ability to manipulate earth’s bounty to suit our purposes will never cease to leave me in a head-shaking state of astonishment. But when we gather into herds, or societies and cities, our natural and individual brilliance can at times be diminished. One can find himself reduced to a tiny element of a human swarm, pulled and coerced by the colossal socio-economic, cultural and political forces that animate that swarm. One finds himself pulled along either willfully or otherwise, and the lustrous core of the singular human’s free spirit can and must be somewhat subdued, even if only for self-preservation. It’s either fit in or be overrun…and maybe trampled.
Values, codes of conduct, even dreams or aspirations can be externally imposed. We often find ourselves pretending and performing as our free spirits assume their positions in the larger lattice of imposed social structures. And as one tiny, simple building block of a much larger complex, the free human spirit may to some degree loose mobility, or become frozen. When I begin to feel frozen, or begin to doubt the direction and sway of the swarm, I doubt as well that earlier assumption about the grandeur of humanity. In this partially frozen state, I wonder, “Is it privilege or curse to be human?”
The last deep freeze four years ago.
Since my daughters are learning, or at least trying to understand, how they fit in with our swarm, in society they often pretend and constrain themselves like we do. They freeze up a bit. But it’s when they are surrounded by only uncritical trees and rocks, or by free-flowing water, or by the polished opaque dance floor of a frozen creek, or even by the frigid air of a deep winter day of 2014, it’s when surrounded by nature that my young ladies let the other part of their spirit out to play. That free one.
And when the free human spirit emerges in nature, that other world of sky, trees, water and rocks, that world of purely sensual data, biological survival, and cause and effect, all of that world begins to assume a background position. It loses a dimension. The free spirit emerges then like a three-dimensional presence dancing on the two-dimensional surface of everything else there is in nature. Twirling and sliding on creek ice, the free human spirit disturbs the natural monotony, where life is so businesslike, repetitive, competitive, repetitive, competitive. . . All those other life forms and chunks of matter around me at this frozen moment are holding on to their existence by the skin of their chattering teeth, while these free little human spirits lift themselves above earthly nature in carefree play. They become luminous. As much as I love that natural world, when I find it diminished or moved to the background by other presences, those presences must be quite wonderful. They are. We are.
This is the therapy I seek, and why I go outside. Because it is primarily when surrounded by nature or watching my daughters in nature that I am made acutely conscious of how physically and spiritually unique we are in relation to our surroundings. Acutely self-as-unique-human conscious. Outside I become again convinced that we humans have been selected, whether by nature herself or by Super Nature, for a special role on this earth that involves something far more significant than swarming and consuming. It’s just up to us to figure out how to use our gifts.
In nature, separated from the swarm, unfrozen and free-flowing, I believe again in the significance and the wonder of being human.