I like to remember the feeling, settling in my cells, of the magic of earth, its water, its carbon, its boiling middle contained for a time under a thick crust, and then exploding, heat, liquid rock, cooling and solidifying like a sigh. The feeling of being in the middle of a sandwich, created from atoms of nothing I recognize. The sky, its shifting layers of atmosphere like blankets cradling us, the lives on earth, bacteria, virus, ant and aardvark, human. I sat in a chair watching the wide sky, its dance of clouds, gathering, swirling, thick, wispy, like polka dots, like a vision rendered from Georgia O’Keefe’s eyes onto the vast canvas of blue that shifts its shades, shaped by light, by electricity, particle by particle, over a meadow where people laid claim to the bluebirds nesting. I especially claimed ownership of the spirit of the bluebird, a wish for happiness to fly up my nose with every breath. In this landscape, I left the meadow tall, refused to mow, refused to join the others wishing the natural world away.
“I don’t venture out to where the deer live, so they shouldn’t come into my yard,” one woman said at a neighborhood gathering after her return from a trip to Universal Studios. Universal Studios. The small rooms in all our minds where we make up our stories, punctuate our narratives with moving pictures that shift across frames filled with light, artificial. This same woman understood that her husband stayed behind a closed door, hunting in the jungle of Internet porn at the birth of the World Wide Web. I preferred the snake that crawled into the basement seeking cool shelter to the closeted heat in the hearts in the houses that surrounded me.
There was a pond in the midst of the meadow that bordered the development. An old snapping turtle lived in it. In its season, the turtle deposited eggs along the edge of another neighbor’s yard. She asked, “Is there a turtle relocation program down at the Audubon reserve?”
Foolishly I inquired. “Are you afraid that raccoons and foxes will eat the eggs?”
“Oh, no, not at all. Snapping turtles are dangerous. I mean what if a five-year-old was down at the pond and the turtle went after it?” she said.
“Well,” I replied, “I can’t imagine a five-year-old unsupervised at the edge of the pond or not able to outrun a turtle.”
With that, we parted company, each to our own bit of turf. I left the milkweed to bloom for the monarch butterfly, picked up praying mantises on the small lawn and put them into the tall grass, a way station of safety when I mowed the small area around the house. One morning, I heard the screeching of robins and crows, saw the crossing shadows diving and soaring; the flutter of wings, like a herd rushing across the desert, blurred together, giving mass to air. In the center of the commotion, a hawk spread its wings and puffed its feathers like a blowfish on land, another bird caught in its claws. The infantry retreated and the hawk exhaled, deflating into a small bird, hardly larger than its prey. Clear-eyed and competent, it carried its dinner away, a few feathers left behind. I felt like I had witnessed something holy.
Another woman who let songbirds she purchased at a pet store reproduce and fly around a room in her house asked me why I hadn’t tried to stop the hawk. Well, for one thing, it was too late. And for another, I did not question the purity of the moment, the truth of the thing. “Does anyone slap your hand as you grab a package of chicken at the grocery store?” I asked. I do not know if I could kill an animal with my hands and eat it. I try to remember that when I eat flesh.
I caught my first fish after being mesmerized by a rainbow trout’s undulating search for food around a small point of rocks. My prize was a small sunfish. I ran up the bank to show my parents and asked my father to take it off the hook so I could put it back into the water. I was afraid of hurting the fish. My brothers laughed as they slapped their catch against the surface of the water, sink or swim.
Then what? The moment of recognition, a mystery with no solution, an ordinary bit of the real. A ball called Earth—soil, water, atmosphere, and roiling middle—covered in experiments in living. This sheltering sky. This moment of atoms passing, shape shifting in eternity, the praying and the prey.
Cassandra Goldwater is a writer and photographer composing and composting in Lexington, Massachusetts, with her husband, one son, two dogs and one cat. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Lesley University where she currently teaches writing, literature, and composition.