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Natural Awakenings Fairfield & Southern Litchfield Counties

Replenishing Tides

May 31, 2022 03:00PM ● By William Bless
Much has been written and spoken about teacher burn-out over the past few years. As a high school and community college English teacher, I have certainly been impacted by the pandemic—in ways obvious and not so obvious.

What is burn-out? Going through the motions, but not actually inhabiting one’s body might be a workable definition. In this condition, life assumes a dull veneer, like a flat screen TV. It can affect the daily alchemy between student and teacher, the possibilities of fresh knowledge that arise in both, on the best of days. In a state of burn-out, the fickle flame of enthusiasm and understanding becomes an imperceptible smolder.

An unsurprising remedy for this is getting outdoors into nature. When it feels like I’m looking at my students through aquarium glass, and I feel an ebbing of interest in my vocation, I know I need to remove myself, if only for a day, and return to an elemental place. Insofar as I can do this, the country of ancestral familiars is able to reach some salvageable portion of my self, saving “some part,” as Frost wrote in his laconic poem Dust of Snow, “of a day I had rued.” 

I look for a crow—Frost’s avian messenger—to shake down snow dust to startle me awake.
Literature as well (secular or sacred), a return to the books that sustain me, is a second means of rejuvenation. Considering the words and sentences of writers and poets helps as a way to deepen my relationship and perception of life when an internal Gobi Desert threatens to overwhelm with sand storms. No doubt the reader has their own inspiration lists that they turn to in periods of personal or professional depletion.

An April morning at Barn Island. The early vernal landscape and salt marshes, though still bare and brown, were alive again with warm sunshine, which shimmered on the chill blue waters of Little Narragansett Bay. Two snowy egrets moved in a little channel, one large, mature, its head tucked down in its arctic white plumage, elongating the wet quilled tuft of feathers at the back of its head; its rapier beak probed the shallows, ready to lance salt water minnows. The other, foraging nearby, was a juvenile, wading mawkishly in the cordgrass. The mother kept a steady eye on it. These two were the vanguard it seems, from southern coastal regions. The sight of egrets is always arresting, as if the foam of a Carolina or Florida surf had magically shape-shifted into this bony, wading bird. A few moments later, two osprey hovered over the tree canopies in air scented with fresh brine and sap, shellfish and distant forsythia and magnolia, sailing back and forth over the ebbtide mudflats and silty channels.

Despite the lure of our cell phones, the primordial earth is a living oracle testing our willingness to surrender. It seems to me that this is what I seek when I’m out in a wild place—satcitananda in Sanskrit—Being, Consciousness, Joy. An experience that requires no words, that transcends the need for words and the compulsion to find fixity in things and in nature.

In his 1841 essay “The Over-Soul”, Emerson speaks of “the wise silence”. Maybe it was this type of silence I was looking for when I went to Napatree Point on a windy grey day, a sandy 1.5-mile barrier spit, tapering toward Fishers Island. Comprised of longshore drift and glacial till like so many other barrier islands on the Atlantic coast, Napatree is in a geologic process of movement from wave and wind, season and tide. The day was cold, and a grey surf pummeled dark boulders and the remnants of a jetty, while a buoy clanged out its forlorn mariner’s ballad. The beach on the inland bay side was calmer. Small blue mussels filled the wrack-line, gritty clumps of pebble and byssus threads. Herring gulls were feasting on them, as was a bird I had never seen in the wild before: the oystercatcher. In total, 17 oystercatchers came into view, pecking at the wrack, their deep orange beaks, black hoods and wintry bellies giving them a distinctly northern, almost polar appearance.

To watch anything long enough is to come across astonishing complexity and great simplicity, whether a river current, waves, a migratory bird, an insect or the play of light on water. We are always on the cusp of a natural spontaneity that resists easy categorization and labels. The fluidity of life exists within us too, if we could only get out of our own way.

Loren Eiseley, in his book The Firmament of Time, states, “I had touched the lives of creatures other than myself . . . I had struggled, I am now convinced, for a greater, more comprehensive version of myself.” This, undoubtedly, is what I seek when surrendering enough to be replenished by the tides—a redefinition, a sense that I am deeply affiliated with the lunar cycles and with the earth, in a way that I could not possibly have conceived before, and in the process, am enriched in ways I cannot fully comprehend.

Nature’s language is always inscrutable, a living orthography, an invitation of sorts to join in its rhythm and movements, its variety and evanescence, its abiding silence. I wondered at the lives of brant, egret, oystercatcher and osprey, imagination again part of the perpetual life, the fierce burning light in the oystercatcher’s eye, primal as a sunrise.

In bearing transient witness to the stillness and motion in nature, I am made more fit to speak with teenagers about what I know—and sometimes, more aptly, what I don’t know. I can again learn how to connect, competing with the distractions of technology. I could also say a thing or two about that rarest of perishable qualities—curiosity—and how to keep it alive in the immense present.

William Bless is a writer, musician and educator who lives in Litchfield County. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous national and regional journals, and his music has been played on NPR stations. Connect at 203-560-2923 or [email protected].
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