Declarations of Independence
Nature and custom mark our place in time
by Elizabeth Ayres
So I walk the shore, picking up fragments of my scattered self a feather, a shell, a knobbly piece of driftwood. Earth, sea, sky. The tri-weave basket that holds us all. Three strands braided to bind us. A trinity indwelling anyone dwelling here.
At least, I think this explains it. Why I snatch at each object as if it were some crucial clue in a mystery I must solve. A wave-scrubbed shell; a cast-off feather; a useless chard of wood; a solitary, beach-combing woman nothings in a vast universe, all, and yet each flames forth with a singular and urgent beauty.
At least, I think this explains it. Why it pleases me to see my own sandy footprints mixed in with the tattered hieroglyphs of bird tracks. Why I cried yesterday over the turtle that had wandered into my minuscule backyard: There, he’d be safe, but have no ready access to food and water, so I let him go in the thin strip of woods behind my house. There, he’d be free to seek what he needs to live, but his life would be in constant peril from the steady stream of cars into a nearby parking lot. There were no good choices left for that turtle.
At least, I think this explains it. Why it bothered me so much when the flags and bunting for the Fourth of July went up in Wal-Mart right after Memorial Day, and as soon as the Independence Day weekend passes, back-to-school items will appear along with clearance sales and fall clothes. Summer, it seems, is one month long now. We’re more firmly tethered to marketing cycles than to Nature’s cycle of seasons.
At least, I think this explains it. Why I’ve been keeping such a vigilant watch on those blackberry bushes. The shy green blush. The profligate cascades of flowers. The brown tatters of petals clinging to a tight green knob. Then a rust-colored blush, a pristine virgin red, a ripe black purpled with juice and promise. I’ll stay sentinel throughout the coming months. Wal-Mart will be decorated for Christmas when emerald leaves turn topaz and birds finish off those berries. Just as the naked stems settle into their snow-blanketed beds, Wal-Mart will be urging us to buy next spring’s fashions.
And that explains it. Why most of us teeter through life unbalanced, on edge, anxious, like overworked donkeys chasing carrots on sticks. Forget the tri-weave basket of earth, sea and sky that contains us in a slow, unfolding now. Packaging, marketing and sales, that’s the braid that binds us fast to an uneasy if-then-when.
On July 4, 1776, the 13 colonies declared their independence from an oppressive regime that impinged on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That was freedom’s first flowering, like the cascades of springtime blossoms on blackberry bushes. Our understanding of freedom has ripened over the years: Slavery is wrong, stealing land from indigenous people is wrong. One day we’ll be able to pluck freedom’s sweet, sustaining fruit: war itself is wrong. Meanwhile, we need to declare our independence from an oppressive regime of commercialization that has us wandering around like that turtle I found yesterday. To provide for ourselves by destroying our connection to the natural world is no good choice at all.
So here, take my osprey feather. Its shaft is called a rachis. Fused to that are branches called barbs, but you don’t need to know that to call my feather beautiful, its graceful arc all mottled brown and white.
Take my oyster shell. It could be washed up from Miocene era sediment, some 20 million years old. You’ll love its gleaming patina: cameo pink, dove gray, lucent copper. And the way it curves so perfectly into the palm of your hand, you’ll enjoy that, as well.
Take my long, thin, crooked stick of driftwood, sanded smooth as silk by the Bay. Salt and time have stained its grain into ink-dark, wave-like whorls. It would be easy to fall into those eddying depths, don’t you think?
As we walk time’s wave-lapped shore, picking up remnants of our scattered Self, take all my little trinkets. You’ll need them.
Poet and writing teacher Elizabeth Ayres (CreativeWritingCenter.com) is the author of Writing the Wave and Know the Way. She last reflected for Bay Weekly in On Memorial Day: Remember the Future [Vol. 16; No. 21: May 22, 2008]. Listen for her radio program, Soundings, Saturday evenings from 6-6:30pm. Tune into WRYR 97.5 FM or catch it on the web at www.wryr.org.