I’ve been looking back through some of my old posts during our time of mutual self-isolation, and I’ve noticed that there’s a theme that has crept into several of them…especially some of my pieces focused on life in the outdoors that were written either as poetry or stylistic prose.
Over and over again I’ve written about either an observation or an experience that points to the unification of things…not just of people and not just of the natural world, but of our collective intersection with time and space.
“A hundred casts become two hundred, and I am now part of the river. I forget where stream and sky end and I begin. I absorb it all, and it envelops me. We move together as one, me and the river and the mountain and the trout. There is nothing else but this moment.”Of Mountain Trout and the Soul of a Man, Sept. 10, 2013
I’ve always been fascinated by the interrelationships of things, ever since I first learned about food chains and life cycles in middle school science.
But what really brought it to clarity for me was an experience I had on a West Virginia trout stream—probably 15 or 20 years ago, now that I think about it—that began to reshape the way I perceived the world and our places in it, and that continues to influence my view on everything from nature and life to whatever it is that we call God or the divine.
Indulge me, if you will, a bit of reminiscing to get to the point…
Spring on the East Fork
It was a beautiful warm spring day on the East Fork of the Greenbrier River…probably late May or early June as I recall. I was fly fishing with my friend Tim Coffman on a familiar stretch of the stream located in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands region, just on the western slope of the Eastern Continental Divide.
Back in those days, when I was fairly early in my career as a fly fisherman, I had become obsessed with identifying what types of insects the trout might be feeding on at any particular time based on season, weather conditions, water temperatures, habitat, substrate…basically the whole range of natural conditions that would influence such things.
It was essentially an exercise in trying to catch fish based on observing what was happening with their natural food supply. In the sport of fly fishing, it’s known as “matching the hatch.”
And so we were turning over rocks in the stream to see what sorts of mayfly or caddisfly pupae we might find, looking in streamside cobwebs to see what types of bugs the local spiders were capturing, and occasionally snagging a flying insect out of the air to identify what size and color our imitations should be to improve our chances.
On this particular day, we’d had a fair amount of success through the morning by fishing with subsurface nymph patterns, which mimic the early life stages of aquatic bugs that dwell underwater before emerging into flying insects.
As the day wore on and the water temperature rose, we noticed more and more mayflies floating on the stream’s surface, fluttering their wings dry so they could fly into the riverside trees to mate and continue their life cycles.
Predictably, we began to see trout rising to feed on these surface-riding bugs, poking their snouts up through the meniscus to grab their prey as it drifted downstream. That was our indication to switch to what we call dry flies…artificial lures tied from bird feathers, animal fur, or synthetic materials to imitate natural insects that float on top of the water.
[Just as a side note, catching trout on dry flies is just about as much fun as you can have as a fly fisher. There is something exhilarating about watching the fish come up out of the water to take your offering. It’s hard to explain, but it’s sort of the ultimate form of the sport.]
Anyway, after catching and releasing several trout over the course of a couple hours, we finally stopped for a quick streamside lunch break…probably some kind of cold cut sandwiches and granola bars, which was our standard fare.
And while my memories of everything up to this point in the story are more general than specific, what happened next is etched in my mind like it happened yesterday.
Observing the intention
I was sitting on a log right along the bank, having just finished my lunch and packing my trash of zip-loc sandwich bags and granola bar wrappers away in my vest. Tim had already waded in upstream of me to start fishing again, and soon was out of sight around a bend in the river.
But I decided to just sit for a minute and take things in. “Breathing the forest,” as I’ve come to call it.
So I sat still for awhile and looked out over the stream, watching hundreds of mayflies emerging from the water’s surface and taking wing for the next part of their life’s journey.
One of them landed on my hand, either mistaking me for a tree or (more likely) resting for a moment before moving on to its destination.
I remember thinking back to when I first started fly fishing and how I realized that I had to break my domesticated instinct of automatically swatting flying insects away from my face or flicking them off my skin and instead learning to pay attention to them so as to identify potential fishing strategies.
I slowly lifted my hand to observe it the way a fisherman does to determine its species…first noting its size, shape, and color, then its wing configuration and number of tails (in those days I was pretty good at basic entomology—a skill which has long since lapsed—but I do remember that some species have two tails and some have three).
But as that mayfly sat on the back of my hand, allowing me to look at it closely, I started to see through something beyond my fly fisher’s eyes. I began to notice the beautiful symmetry of the pattern of the tiny veins in its wings, the segmentation of its body, the subtle variation in color between its belly and its back.
And as I continued to observe more and more detail about that tiny mayfly, I was struck by this realization that all of this amazing intricacy and beauty was created. That there was intention behind every single feature, that there was purpose for everything about it to the most minute degree.
And in that same moment, I became aware that this tiny, intricate, intentional creation on the back of my hand had been replicated thousands of times over in the swarm of mayflies hovering over the East Fork of the Greenbrier that afternoon.
And that that blueprint had been replicated millions and billions of times in every species of every mayfly that had ever existed.
And then I realized that whatever or whoever had created that mayfly on my hand and every other mayfly that had ever been or would be, had also created everything that surrounded me in that forest, and everything beyond that.
When time stands still
It was one of those instances when time almost seemed to stand still. I had become so deeply drawn into a moment of intense observation and deep focus on what was before me that all the world seemed to be on pause.
It was a moment of epiphany. A mystical experience of almost absolute clarity.
And the only way I can describe it is that in that magical instant when I was able, for just a moment, to perceive the unity of everything, I experienced a deep and abiding love for it all.
And I sat on that riverbank and wept at how beautiful it was.
It was the first time I remember having that sense of how connected we are not just to each other, and not just to the world around us, but to everything that’s ever been and ever will be.
On my best days during this time of pandemic, I can experience at least a small taste of that sense of deep, abiding love again.
When I consider all the people who are at the very least stretching their comfort zones to remain socially distant for the sake of the common good, when I think of the healthcare workers and grocery store employees and restaurant owners and all the other people who are making selfless sacrifices and sometimes even putting themselves at risk for the well-being of others, I see this beautiful sense of unity and intention that binds us all together.
A few months ago, I was reading something by Richard Rohr that sparked the idea that all of God’s self is fully contained in every thing that exists.
Again, it’s a trippy thought. But if God’s essence is love, that means that love is the essential building block of everything that is…from mayflies to moonbeams.
That’s one of those deep, existential kinds of thoughts that you can get lost in for a long time.
Rohr calls our realization of this idea unitive consciousness.
And while it connects all of the material world at any particular moment in time, my experience with the mayfly showed me that it also connects all things across the parameters of time and space.
I think that’s what Jesus meant when he talked about eternal life.
If God, whoever or whatever God is, exists beyond the limitations of time and space, and if all of God exists fully in every thing God has created, then every thing in creation must be eternal.
And, ultimately, it must be one.
It’s a thought that 20th Century American writer Norman Maclean captured so marvelously in A River Runs Through It:
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.”Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, 1976
If we come out of this pandemic with nothing else, I hope that we can collectively re-connect with some sense of unitive consciousness and with a renewed appreciation for the common good.
I hope we can put aside our American hyper-individuality and create paths of existing together in this world in ways that are both new and ancient.
I hope that even in the midst of suffering we can experience something deep and beautiful that reminds us all that we exist within an intention bigger than the accumulation of wealth or power or control or comfort.
I hope we can love each other and value each other more than we ever have before.
I hope we can experience eternal life…on earth as it is in heaven.