In a voice that laps at memories, water calls. It whispers gently, flowing over bedforms that are the skin of landscapes and longings and the unremembered scenes from paths we descended.
Oceans beckon in special ways. Their speech is rich with possibilities—the unknown wonders of “just beyond the horizon,” monsters, sea peoples and mysteries that cannot be imagined—a watery tongue voicing tales of metaphorical yearnings. Whether sunlit or moonlit, the dance of light on the endlessly reforming border between water and air mesmerizes. The smells of salt and decay, wet wind and sand, affect experience, become notes on place that, in some coming tomorrow, conjure memories and construct futures.
The experience of such settings is the humility of place. Dissolving into the terrain allows self to find space to absorb what is present. Senses become opportunities, thoughts the voice of the nameless. Time disappears into a flowing river of process, lacking significance except for what emerges. And what emerges will not be anticipated—it will be that unexpected insight lurking over the horizon of what you may think you know but never truly understood.
It was eleven o’clock at night on the second day of a contentious three-day meeting. We were a dozen scientists from two national laboratories. More than ten years prior we had been assigned a task never before undertaken by mankind. This task was predicting, with an uncertainty of one part in one hundred thousand, how well an underground repository containing very hot waste from nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons production would keep that deadly contents contained and secure over a very long time. The highly radioactive material would be buried hundreds of feet underground and sealed off so no one could enter, ever. The prediction was to include descriptions of annual changes in the rocks and the miniscule amount of water contained in the pores of the rocks composing the repository, out to one hundred thousand years in the future. The purpose was to assure that the containers holding the waste would be in an environment allowing them to remain intact for at least that period of time.
We had access to the world’s most powerful computers, we were experts in our respective fields, and we cared. But we also knew that the complexity of the problem could not be dealt with using what was available to us—the computers were incapable of handling the complexity of real rocks and real geology; the behavior of minerals, water, and air under such conditions was poorly understood; the mathematics needed to describe such systems was simplistic; and how to verify that the models we might construct would have the accuracy needed—each of these challenges mystified us.
We each brought to the table concepts and approaches that we had struggled to develop over several years. Our commitment was deep, and our effort to objectively provide the best possible approach was sincere. But the ideas we each offered were simplifications and approximations, minimizing or completely eliminating certain elements of the problem that we had judged to be of lesser significance than others. Inevitably, the multiple answers that emerged were incompatible.
We also brought to the table strong personalities and personal investments in complex concepts—no one wanted his or her contribution to be minimized. Arrogance, pride, ego, and turf wars flowed as constructive argument ebbed; humility and graciousness were shoved into a corner. Tempers were frayed, debates had become personal, the intent to find a middle ground seemed nearly out of reach. On this night, as the clock approached eleven, we decided to halt the fighting and try to begin the next day in search of compromise. Lamely shaking hands, wanly smiling, we walked out of the small conference room for the quiet of our respective cabins.
A year earlier, when it became clear that our approaches were beginning to conflict, we had decided that a joint face-to-face meeting would be needed to reach a solution to which we could all commit. We chose Asilomar as the location for the meeting, a quiet conference site on the California coast where we had hoped the beauty of the surroundings would ease the tensions between us. As I began the walk to my cabin, the distant sound of breaking waves caught my ear. I changed plans and headed toward the sea, seeking space to breathe.
I crossed a small parking lot and found a narrow footpath leading to a boardwalk that wound through a field of sand dunes bordering the beach. The very existence of that path of wooden planks was a confession of human carelessness—people trampling through the fragile dunes had nearly destroyed the native plants, leaving behind a few patches of remnant survivors. Now, an effort to protect and restore was underway—a sign saying, “Fragile Area. Stay on Boardwalk” made clear the optimistic intent.
I stepped onto the planks and ambled toward the water, enjoying the cool sea air. The hollow plonk of my footsteps on the boards played out a rhythm that calmed—my shoulders relaxed and my breathing deepened. The silent, ghostly dune forms, barely visible in the moonlight, were resting temporarily, a wrinkled fabric awaiting some future wind that would encourage their migration. For now, they simply noted that Earth breathes.
The sound of surf wafted on the quiet air, the smell of the sea wrestled my thoughts. Without notice, the arguing of the past few days melted out of existence, gently shoved aside by the voiceless presence of place.
The boardwalk ended at Sunset Drive, a coastal road that ran along the edge of bluffs and beaches directly bordering the Pacific Ocean. I quickly crossed the road and scurried down a very short dirt trail. At its end, I took off my shoes and socks and stepped into the loose sand. The fine, cool graininess, sliding between my toes and across my tired feet, seemed to murmur.
A small, rocky headland to my right defined the northern limit of a beach that extended to the south out of sight, a pale ribbon fading into night. The water’s edge lay fifty yards away, across a wide sandy bench that sat above the high tide line. Small waves broke out on a sand bar another fifty yards offshore.
I shuffled toward the edge quietly, a wake of ridged sand marking my passage.
Out on the bay the small waves crested and fell, their whitewater foam tumbling toward shore, spending what little energy each had in a hissing, brief kiss on the saturated sands.
Low on the horizon was a crescent moon, its pale yellow light dappling the sea with brief, glittering flashes directly in front of me. The swells on the skin of water rhythmically amplified and muted the slight moon’s brilliance, patterning the heaving surface in a calligraphy only the sky could read. Small, low clouds scudded by, briefly concealing the moon in a hide-and-seek game they had played since the Earth was born.
I reached the water just as a wave washed up the shore and receded. I stopped at its furthest rise and gazed down at the sand. Small pebbles littered the beach, shadowed punctuation points in the sentence that was written there. The final, feeble wash of each spent wave flowed around them, leaving foaming arcs on the sand that slowly vanished as each miniscule bubble in the froth ruptured, releasing a small, held breath.
As each wave washed up and back, I unconsciously anticipated its reach, sensing the magnitude of its intent to wet my feet, and stepped back as needed to avoid the water. The consequence was a string of footprints that became organic puddles, their rounded, lobate edges quickly dissolving in the sea as water washed by, erasing the only evidence of my passing existence there. For long minutes I simply stood, transfixed by the elegant simplicity of sounds, light, and smell at the cool, sensuous boundary between ocean and not ocean.
After some time, I turned to gaze down the shore. To my left a large shadow resolved out of the darkness. I realized I had sensed its presence earlier, but it had not registered in my mind until that moment. Startled, I froze and took a hard second look, not believing what seemed to be there. It was a deer standing at the water’s edge less than twenty feet away. As I had been, she was gazing at the moon.
The deer’s coat barely glistened in the light. She stood absolutely still, her ears cocked toward the glowing, yellow crescent on the horizon. Small advances from the spent waves lapped gently at her hooves, disturbing her not at all, their fleeting momentum reflected back to the sea in the smallest of ripples, an unsensed signal to the open ocean that here stood deer. Together, we honored moonlight.
Astonished and thrilled, I intently looked at her face and saw the reflection of the glowing crescent glistening in her eye. Slowly, I turned back to the sea and marveled, terrified to move, not wanting to startle such a graceful creature in what seemed to be a state of rapture.
The dancing flickers of yellow sparkling on the water were nearly hypnotic in their rhythm and beauty, the faint gray glow emanating off the clouds a painted, dynamic contrast of ethereal fluid forms. For a few more moments I watched, reveling in the sweet tang of the salty air, then carefully turned back toward my animal companion. She had not moved, despite the fact I was clearly in her field of vision. Reflexively, I almost said, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
For perhaps ten more minutes I stood there, frozen in that wondrous world, then quietly, slowly, backed away. At the edge of the beach I turned. The dark deer form remained at the edge of the water, ears cocked, watching. Quietly, I stepped up on the trail and walked back.
Although it is pure speculation, every part of that experience—the frozen gaze, the cocked ears, the obliviousness to water rushing up the shore, the steadfast focus on the sights and sounds in the moment—quietly spoke of deep immersion in place, of curiosity and wonder, an aura indistinguishable from awe. Whether the animal had walked up beside me and watched, unafraid and uncaring about my presence, or I had unknowingly walked into her world, I do not know. All that is clear is that my existence did not matter to her experience of life at that moment.
Of course, such an assertion regarding what she felt will affront many. Those committed to believing that human beings are far removed from animal impulses and instinctual responses will object. Our social structures, our creativity and economies, many argue, prove our elevated stature in the world, defining an immense gulf between us and the other living things with whom we share this planet.
That moment with the deer, along with other experiences in places where wild animals can be found, have led me to believe that such views reflect a profound ignorance that feeds an inflated and unjustified sense of who we are. We exist in near complete isolation from Nature—we live not knowing what the lives of other beings naturally are. We do not swim or speak with whales or dolphins, we do not walk through tundra with barren ground caribou, we do not fly with migrating falcons from the tropics to the Arctic, we do not stand on beaches at night with deer, we do not forage for seeds with ants. We know almost nothing of the lives and experiences of wild animals, so we manufacture, through an inadequate and impoverished imagination, what it is we believe they must experience, always assuring ourselves we are more intelligent about the experience of place than they are, and always claiming such feelings as wonder and awe for ourselves.
Of course, we are different in many ways that deserve respect, perhaps the most important being our use of words and logic to construct and express our sense of existence. In that we are unique. The use of language provides existential magic, allowing us to share with others what can inspire and uplift, taking us to states of awareness and sensitivity we cannot find alone. But our words also separate us from what is real, forming a filter through which the world is experienced. Nouns and verbs, adjectives and pronouns, are summaries and definitions intended to share a general impression of a place or thing, precision requiring layer upon layer of modifiers and qualifications. In the end, no matter how hard we try to overcome it, we exist with a stratigraphy of shared prejudices that words solidify.
What the deer lived was not that. Words did not separate it from place. I know, from what science has been able to quantify of deer existence, that what she saw was not what I saw, her eyes emphasizing parts of the spectrum of light different from those I know and likely expanding beyond that. What she heard was a thousand times more amplified than what I could sense. She smelled with a sensitivity I will never have a chance to experience. But beyond what she sensed, how is place felt in the absence of words? What did she live, in those shared moments? Did she feel something akin to the joy I knew as I gazed at beauty I would never again see? Was there in her a feeling that approached infinite calm, a peace that assuaged any fear? Is that why I was not perceived as a threat? Or was she so focused on the enraptured moment in which she existed that she did not even recognize my presence?
If I could share her mind, would I recognize the feelings she was living—would I sense awe, wonder, serenity, beauty? Was the seed of transcendence present in her mind? Could it be that this animal lived something we human animals struggle to achieve—a quiet, wordless consciousness, unified with the experience of place and moment, a dharmic wholeness we cannot ever truly know?
Sharing with the deer the wet sand and glittering sea was a chance to appreciate, in ways I never before could, a fragmented unity of longings. In our own ways, we both were drawn by a murmuring sea to live a silence rich with mysteries neither grasped. And yet, what she knew of that small domain exceeded by orders of magnitude what I would ever know. She walked that world with an intimacy only a wild animal can live. In those shared moments I was little more than a breeze across her brow.
The natural world, in all of its organic and inorganic wealth, is a holy place. There reside the secret truths of how wondering minds emerged from seawater and dissolved stone. Through the tumble of cosmic dice, each being briefly flowers in evolution’s flow through time, an expression of coincident contingencies and exuberant experiments. Immersed in our individual realms of air and sea, mud and woods, we sense and explore, moving in the thinnest of slices of the Universe, little more than a raindrop falling in an ocean. To the extent we are capable, we share what we experience with those of our kind, growing the collective intelligence that feeds the Universe’s hunger to know itself; in the rarest of moments, that sharing happens in the moonlight, between minds of different mysteries.
Walking back toward the glow from the windows of the cabins, a finger of light vaguely lit two planks of the boardwalk in front of me. The grain of the wood, shadowed in exaggerated relief, stood out like an engraved thought. I noticed it briefly, then suddenly realized the pattern mimicked what my colleagues and I struggled to understand but could not. The real world is a river of processes elaborately interwoven in textures that mutually support endless change—pour water on one of those boards, and the liquid would immediately flow into diverse, spreading rivulets, each satisfying the dictates of gravity and the wooden constraints it would encounter while still maintaining connection with the reality that is the plank.
I realized then how naïve we scientists had been. We had spent our days arguing with certainty about things that were antagonistic to certainty—each school of thought and argument was a separate finger of water in the multitude of possible rivulets, each being a path among the many that made a future we could never know and that lacked any semblance of a single realization. There existed no exclusively right answer, simply a collection of maybes, each worthy of pursuit.
The next day we did what we could to reach a consensus, packed our bags, and left. But I could not leave without seeing in the light of day where the deer had stood.
The boardwalk wandered through a different world than it had the night before. The once ghostly dunes now stood in elegant boldness, pockets of recovering flora thriving in the warm-beige hollows. A wooden fence encircled the protected area, displaying small signs describing the effort to return the landscape to its native state, and who sponsored it. Outside the fence, introduced and alien plant life had insinuated itself into that world, engulfing much of the available surface, standing as an expression of sensibilities that were dissatisfied with the sparseness of the wild beauty Nature had cultivated without human intervention. The fence was frail and listing, a border between worlds of vastly different intentions.
At the beach edge shoes came off, but the dry warmth of the sand in the early afternoon sun lacked the gritty edge it had the night before. As I shuffled out to the waters edge, no hint remained of the silent meeting that played out hours earlier between predator and prey. Children ran in the shallows, splashing and laughing. Kites flew over the waves, dogs chased sticks. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The silent dunes, now so emphatically visible in the warm sunlight, seemed invincible.
Despite the exuberant noise of joyful people, the silent stance of the moonlit deer framed unanswerable questions in my mind. That encounter was an irrefutable assurance that the world is richer in its complex web of living and non-living things than we will ever understand. And yet, I doubt there was anything in that deer’s non-verbal mind that wondered why I was there—she simply accepted that she had found something she had no idea she was seeking. As did I.