The following is an excerpt from The Ashokan Way: Landscape's Path into Consciousness by Gail Straub, which is being published this month by Homebound Publications. Reprinted with permission.
Behold another splendid day as the mural of spring spreads out right before my eyes. The multiple subtle shades of green are dizzying, climbing their way up the mountains like a multicolored staircase as they replace the mauve of red buds. At the junctures where the red bleeds into the green, the ridges appear indigo, sharply defined lines suggesting deep crevices. All week I have been green drunk, intoxicated by the sensual colors and birdsong bursting from the trees. The rare dogwood appears as delicate white lace woven into the vast emerald forest. It's been a long time since we have had such a string of stunning days, like heaven come down to earth. This makes me ponder how I can conduct my life as if heaven were indeed here on earth.
Oh, how the personality of these mountains changes in the spring! In the winter, the Catskills appear distant and detached, bedecked in their formal white attire. But now they appear closer and more intimate. Exuberant in gowns of chartreuse silk and yellow brocade, these peaks appear ready to go dancing right across the cornflower blue sky. The mountains and I, we are both green drunk! I see that it's not just the mountains whose personality changes with the seasons. I, too, undergo a shift when spring arrives. Leaving behind my quieter, more internally focused rhythms until next winter, I become more extroverted. The Woodstock astronomer and author Bob Berman writes about how the sky, too, undergoes a radical personality transformation in the month of May.
"The brilliant but heavy-handed winter constellations now plummet into the west, consumed by the crepuscular fires of dusk. The giant planet Jupiter is sinking lower each evening. With the sunsets getting later, and the stars marching eternally into the west, it was forever destined that the two opposing armies—twilight and winter stars—would meet headlong each spring."
While the night skies are in their darkest dormancy in the spring, the earth is bursting with vitality and color. This cosmic juxtaposition strikes me as the perfect unification of opposites. Perhaps it is this planetary changing of the guard that leaves me feeling like heaven is now on the ground where I walk.
Another of this season's iconic symbols announces itself as I come upon a family of geese with four tiny goslings tucked around their mama's ample sides. Fluffy balls of mustard-and-mocha-colored feathers, the babies are sunning themselves on this fine day. As I pass by, the papa goose hisses loudly and protectively. On my return, the little family is just entering the water, and as I watch, the goslings' impossibly tiny webbed feet begin to kick as they glide into the reservoir. The water is calm today and I am relieved for these creatures small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. The mother and father float languidly, but keep an eye on their offspring.
Earlier this week, though, I watched as another family of geese entered these waters on a day so rough that the turbulent waves tossed the babies mercilessly. Mesmerized, I stood by helplessly as the family with five little ones left behind a gosling when he couldn't keep up. The tiny ball of fluff struggled mightily, heaved up and down by the powerful current. All I could do was shout at the geese, imploring them to wait. But drown the gosling did, and I was left to ponder.
When the composed rhythm of the natural world calms and steadies me, it's a balm to my soul. But nature's dispassionate stance can be utterly terrifying. I will never forget my walks along the Ashokan Way after Hurricane Irene devastated the Hudson Valley in August of 2011. I found myself dazed by the sheer scale of the storm's massive path of destruction. Thousands of toppled trees lay in these woods like dead soldiers on a battlefield, their giant roots reaching up to heaven in a last desperate gesture. With wide swathes of felled trees cut into the forest, my familiar skyline vanished and a strange, wounded one took its place. The sky itself, in the immediate aftermath of the storm, was an eerie tarnished-pewter color; the air smelled burnt. For months following the hurricane the reservoir remained the color of dried blood, with immense carcasses of wood—trunks and massive limbs—floating on the surface. Out on the mudflats, flocks of displaced birds landed like refugees from a war zone.
For days washouts created rushing rivers along our roads and power lines lay downed at every turn, leaving thousands without power for long periods of time; our generator ran for twelve days. At the height of the flooding our neighbors were forced to abandon their car and walk home in knee-deep water, while other friends living directly on the Rondout creek evacuated their home carrying their most precious belongings, fearing they would never return. Hurricane Irene rendered everything—earth, sky, water, forests, creatures, and humans—helpless. This force of nature paraded her celebrated indifference.
Yes, nature can cure, and it can also be brutally destructive. As a master teacher of paradox, the earth is clearly trying to show me that I cannot have one without the other. These mountains are both distant and intimate; the sky is bright in the dark of winter and somber in the light of spring; the reservoir is calm and comforting as well as rough and unforgiving; the geese are both protective of and merciless to their offspring; this valley's storms can bring replenishing rains and terrifying devastation; and all year the seasons are dying and then being reborn.
And I, too, am compassionate and cruel, nurturing and destructive, warm and cold, light and dark. I, too, am dying and being reborn throughout my seasons. At every turn since my youth in the Brandywine River Valley, the natural world has been patiently teaching me about the reconciliation of opposites, but I think it is only now, after a lifetime of paying close attention to the landscape, that I am finally beginning to grasp the lesson it has been offering me. I am finally able to understand that only by living between the opposites that naturally exist in the world, by respecting and learning equally from both sides, will I be able to find a state of true equanimity. It is when I neither cling to the part of the opposite I desire nor push away the part I fear that I conduct my life as if heaven were right here on earth.