Vagneur: How we spend our minutes
“Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond
— From the “Ninth Elegy,” by Rainer Maria Rilke
So many ways to read this. You could look it up, see what the intellectual interpreters of poetry might have to say, but why spoil it for yourself? It does seem to give credence to that old saw, “Take advantage of it while you can.” Without context, does it imply that we can do what we want on this earthly realm without consequence for the detritus we might leave behind?
Without accoutrement, without aid, but to be one with the earth. Just. No mechanical aid, no spinning, no noisy motor pulling or pushing; silent conversation with a partner, no hurry, no timer. Looking a coyote in the eyes or lying in newly-fallen autumn leaves, smelling the musk of the seasons. Traveling only with what Mother Nature affords. Or?
What do we miss in our travels? We brag about being “outdoor” creatures. Columnists brag about doing two or more outdoor activities in the same day. Hiked to Snowmass Lake and back in a few hours? Did the Ute Trail in record time? Rode my dirt bike here or there? Toklat and Maroon Bells in the same day on my road bike. Did a million vertical feet on Aspen Mountain last winter.
What was it Louis L’Amour who said: “Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen.” That seems to be us on too many occasions. We rip through our day, through nature, climbing, hiking, biking, flying, skiing, riding, almost everything a competition, being “in” nature without being one with her, without being in a synergistic flow with the earth.
Several years ago, I heard the telltale yipping and yammering of coyotes in a depression off the main trail. Usually, this means a group of coyotes are excited over something too far gone to escape.
As we had no cattle in the area, I was even more curious to see what may have been the main attraction. Inching closer, almost to where there might have been a view of the action, a group of dirt bikers, whom I’d heard coming from a mile or more away, stopped to see what I was up to.
Upon my explanation, with a somewhat terse comment that the noise of the bikes had scared the coyotes away and totally disrupted the natural order just over the rise, I was informed that the dirt bikes couldn’t have scared the coyotes, it must have been me. They roared off, down a trail closed to motorized vehicles while I awaited the return of the wild dogs.
Sit sometime outside your tent miles from civilization, back against a sturdy fir, watching the stars overheard, marveling at the occasional one that falls streaking across the dark sky, and patiently wait for the first breaking of dawn, then the first arrival of pink-tinged light on the hovering peaks and mountain tops. It’s all there — just for you. There is nothing you have to do but witness it. And feel it inside your being.
Memories of being high in the mountains as a young boy, riding with a hired hand down dusty, red dirt trails while looking for cattle that might have strayed and peering into a drainage with several decrepit cabins resting there. The hand says, “Get a good look ‘cause we ain’t coming back this way.” That basic wisdom has caused me to appreciate scenic views more than I otherwise might.
Or my great-aunt, Julia Stapleton, who moved to Alaska for a year to teach Tlingit children mostly out of a curiosity of how they lived and what their world was like. She also aligned herself with an outfitter in Wyoming, being a horsewoman, just to see what that area was about.
“We laid ropes around the tents at night to keep the snakes out,” she once said. Before it was popular, she boarded ocean-going ships, early cruises, for the experience.
Also, on more than one occasion when I’d complain about some imagined (or real) wrong or problem, as young children sometimes do, she’d say, “Buck up, we only go through this world once.”
Rilke, not unlike some ’60s and ’70s ski bums in Aspen, spent a good portion of his life ingratiating himself to others for residence in guest quarters, space on the couch, bumming meals from those better heeled, and always waiting, waiting for that great epiphany that would hurl his artistic genius to the forefront. Kind of like waiting for a free ski pass.
As writer Annie Dillard said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.