The setting: Okefenokee Swamp, January, 1994. The occasion: Mid-term trip with the head of the biology department (Dr. McGinty), an English professor (Dr. Anderson), and an assemblage of hard-core biology students who tolerated my misfit presence among them. The protags: Alligators, pitcher plants, and the blessed heater in the bathroom, where I dragged my bedding one night because somehow my parents thought an egg crate cushion would be enough to keep the mid-winter chill from creeping out of the earth and into my sleeping bag with me.
Chickadees and raccoons put in an appearance that week too. But that day it was just me and the tree.
We had canoed here to Billy’s Island. Deeper in, there are burial mounds even older than the 600-year-old tree under which I sat, cozied up between two giant roots, my back against the trunk, gazing into the ponderous branches above, completely unconscious of the cramps that had been my excuse for stopping here. The others had hiked in toward the burial grounds. Dead people held no glamour for me that day. I wanted to talk to the live oak.
It told me things, too, things that ultimately earned me an “A” grade for the class even though I was late that first morning by almost an hour. Everyone had been gathered in the just-before-dawn gloom, hugging pillows in the glow of the streetlamp, when I arrived, groggy and unbrushed. Once we were rolling down the road at last, a girl leaned over to me in the van and said, “I’m glad I’m not you. Dr. McGinty hates when people are late.”
Maybe that’s why he was fine with leaving me there under that tree alone. I don’t think so, though. I think he understood what I’m just beginning to understand myself. It’s the trance, you see.
Fast forward 19 years. I’m walking the dog down by the brown lake. There’s a light drizzle and you can hear the raindrops plinking on the surface of the water. See them, too, a thousand tiny pinpricks rippling outward. I stop and look, remembering as I usually do now, how much I love the rain. And then there it is: My mind turns. I wonder what it would be like to be under the surface of the water, looking up.
I imagine skimming just under the surface, my face turned up, effortlessly floating, watching the pricks of rain hit the upper limit of my world. The water is dark and the bottom of the lake is mud. There are large things in there. Giant snapping turtles as big around as a kid’s wading pool, grass carp so massive and scaly they look like prehistoric reptiles when they half-beach themselves down by the dam. I imagine skimming through that murky underworld, that dangerous muddy place, and it’s not a fairy tale. It’s a horror story, in fact, but it feels good. Really good.
Back at the house, I rush past Carey to my computer, and I write this in a feverish flurry:
The Summer I Met Mercy
Nobody knew where she came from. I didn’t know where she came from. She was just there one day, down by the community lake, picking at the mud between her toes. Why she would do that when she was covered in mud from head to foot is anybody’s guess, and I didn’t ask. Just stood there gawking at her. Her hair was so caked it looked like it was made of mud, just long gobby strands of filth tangled with pond algae, and her arms were too long, her fingers too long, but the most notable thing about her was that she was naked.
She looked up at me and smiled, an ordinary, girl-next-door smile, and she was quite pretty, for a stringy 14-year-old, even if her teeth were rather large and white and pointy. Even if she was quite, quite naked. Not that I could see anything, not with her bent over her legs like that.
We became good friends, Mercy and I, that summer that my parents were separating, that my world was crumbling.
More than friends, actually. She was the first girl I ever kissed. She was clean the day I kissed her, and clothed. I never did see her naked again, in fact, not that day and not any day after. But I did kiss her. My first kiss.
It wasn’t quite what I expected. Weirder. Much weirder. She drew the tip of my tongue into her mouth with a sucking sensation, and then bit it, sucking continuously, her teeth scraping along every inch as my tongue went deeper. It hurt but not enough to make me want to stop. Not even as much as the throbbing in my groin hurt at that moment, and I didn’t want that to stop either.
I decide it’s the start of my next novel, maybe, when this one is done. The main character ends up under the water, skimming along like I imagined myself doing, looking up at the rain falling onto the surface above. But I had to figure out how to get the character there, and this is the start of that.
Or maybe the scene will join the moldering ranks of opening-paragraphs-for-books-I’ll-never-finish in a folder in Dropbox.
It doesn’t matter really. It does but it doesn’t. Because I realized for the first time today that it’s really about the trance. It’s this thing that happens, this altered state of consciousness that I always, as far back as I can remember, slip into so easily I never realized that it was special. I seek it, hungrily. It feels good. It’s why I crave un-interrupted swaths of alone time, because I cannot sink into a deep trance when besieged by the emotions of others.
I told Carey about this, and he said he thinks everyone craves a trance-like state. Which makes sense. It’s why we do drugs, isn’t it? Meditation, running, extreme experiences, and sex are all pathways to the sublime as well. Maybe some people get there easier one way or another–maybe that’s why some people run the AC 100 and some people write novels.
Maybe it’s why some people sink into addiction and never come back. Maybe it’s why some people come back scrabbling, hanging onto art, spewing out songs or poems or paintings as if their life depends upon it which, in fact, it does.
Books are my drug of choice. Neatly packaged, easy-to-swallow nuggets of pure meditative trance. But they’re not the only way I get there.
The tree and I spoke for hours. I felt the peat-filtered moisture coursing up through its roots, a constant, never-ending flow like the pulse of blood through my veins but steadier. The sunlight on leaves, warm energy generated in those green powerhouses spreading through an endless network of vessels, fueling root growth and slow slow slow branching.
The tree was breathing, respirating carbon dioxide and returning it as oxygen, when the Timucua Indians sought refuge here in 1750. Already hundreds of years old, it watched impassively as the Timucua were followed by Spanish missionaries in fretful urgency to bring Truth to the wild. The tree watched for a hundred years as slaves and Seminoles and refugees of all descriptions passed into the swampy refuge from the violence unfolding outside its borders.
The tree was there when giant dredging machines began building a canal to drain the swamp and divest it of its lumber, and there when the canal project succumbed to the wild. There when Charles Hebard laid a railroad track 35 miles directly to the island, and built a church, a movie theater, and a school for the children of the workers who were stripping the swamp. And there when the village faded into a ghost town.
I didn’t know all of that then, and the tree didn’t tell me in so many words. But I felt it, felt the history, the ancient knowingness of that old being. The trunk felt warm against my back, though the air was chill. I never knew before that day that trees generate heat. Most people will tell you that they don’t, in fact. Heck, maybe even the scientists who study trees will tell you that they don’t. Maybe they don’t. But that tree did, that day.
When the humans returned, flushed with triumph–they had stumbled upon a cemetery and the ghost of an old town–I returned also, reluctantly, from my trance. We paddled back to camp, I rowing in front, Dr. Anderson steering in rear, the others paddling their own vessels in pairs. It was the boys’s turn to cook that night, so I pulled out my journal and wrote about my tree, and I’m pretty sure that’s why I earned an A, and why Dr. McGinty started smiling at me, even though I had been late.
Maybe. Doesn’t matter. Regardless, that trance, or rather my ability to sink into it so easily, is why I’m a writer. And that matters.
How do you reach sublimity? Does it make you who you are?