The ferry cruised steadily on its usual course among the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound. We’d left the port of Anacortes earlier that morning, fog hanging heavy over the forested shoulders of multiple islets. As we came into sight of the ferry terminal at the little town of Orcas, on Orcas Island, the sun had begun to burn off the fog. To the west, as we passed by Shaw Island, the snow caps of the Olympic Range backdropped the rich blue water of the sound, and I knew I had to get a picture of the panorama.
I grabbed my camera and ran out from the heated protection of the passenger cabin. A sharp wind whipped across the deck but a perfect photographer’s scene spread out before me. I spun my baseball cap around catcher’s style, rammed the view finder to my eye socket, and began snapping shots before the thickly wooded shoulder of Crane Island would obstruct my view. As the shore of Crane nearly took over the frame, I took one last shot. I felt a gentle lurch beneath my feet as the ferry slowed for docking and I joined my wife on the gangway to descend to the car level.
We’d already established breakfast as our first order of business but at that early hour, the only restaurant in town hadn’t opened yet. So, we followed a line of cars north, emerging from a virtual tunnel of thick conifers into a swale between rich green fields filled with wild flowers. After about a 15 minute drive, we arrived in the town of Eastsound. It lies at the northern end of a fjord called East Sound and nearly splits the island so it has the shape of a horse collar. There, we found a restaurant and sat down to enjoy pastries and coffee. That’s when I started looking at the pictures I’d taken just before we docked.
As often happens when I shoot landscapes, the photographs simply couldn’t convey the sense of majesty one gets from standing in the middle of the actual reality. I quickly thumbed through the images – until something caught my eye from the last shot – the one taken almost as an afterthought as Crane Island swept into view. There were two black dots in the top of a pine tree that were much too large to be pine cones. Besides, they had white tips. I magnified the image, and there in the top of that tree sat two bald eagles. I sat back in my chair, and laughed. Vicki wanted to know what it was, and I showed her. We both just laughed in amazement.
In a real sense, that typifies much of my life. I’ll get wound up with the big picture and often miss the beautiful details right under my nose. In this particular case, I was grateful for the the camera I possess for allowing me to magnify the shot. Then, later that morning, as we finished our climb to the top of Constitution Mountain, the highest point on Orcas Island, again I was snapping shots of the panorama. From that point, you can see south toward Mt. Rainier, standing alone and prominent like the Lonely Mountain from Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” To the north you can see Vancouver, and to the west Victoria, and Vancouver Island, Canada. The waters of the Puget Sound, slotted and dotted with green mounds of islands, glittered in the sun beneath a blue sky studded with clouds. Then Vicki cried out, “Look!” And there, circling in a thermal coming right at us, another bald eagle – and I was grateful for the telephoto lens I happened to be using, and to Vicki for noticing things up close while I obsessed on things afar. Eagles abound around the Puget, but I’ll always insist that the eagles we saw on that summit had followed us from that tree on Crane Island. Same two eagles, I’m sure of it.
The next day, We hiked the Tiger Mountain Trail. It’s in the Tiger Mountain State Forest not far from Mt. Rainier, Washington. We hiked among huge stands of alder, Douglas fir, redwood, and madroños. Ferns grew chest high and boles reached 80-100 feet above our heads. Vicki actually wept at the beauty, exulted in each flower, snail, and variety of fern she saw. Yes, you read right – she saw snails on the trail. Again, I was gazing at the canopy over our heads, surveying the green air underneath it, letting my eyes sail off through the distances revealed on the long slope across which the trail cut. I would never have seen the snails. Vicki noticed. She moved a little slower and deigned to look down at the little things at our feet. She saw the snails on the sides of rotting logs, in the mulch beneath the nascent ferns, and in the moss on a boulder or two. And, she saw the biggest slug either of us had ever seen. I would’ve missed it. She pointed it out. I would’ve stepped on it. She knelt beside it and said, “Get a picture!” And she placed her thumb beside it so we’d get a sense of scale.
All throughout our trip, I’d needed help to notice the little things around me. Once it was technology. The rest of the time, it was Vicki. In all cases, when I stopped and noticed, I got increased resolution to the place around me. The texture of the present became more rich. I lost myself in the moment, and when I lost myself in the moment, I knew some real happiness.
That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t made a blog entry since March 26. I’ve spent a good deal of time “bending down,” so to speak, pausing on this “trail” I’m walking to notice the texture of what’s around me. In my work and in my personal life, I’ve been finding a new texture and a new continuity. Since my last blog entry, my radiation treatments have ended with an excellent prognosis, and I’ve gotten married, which is why I was in Washington state, with Vicki, my wife. We were on our honeymoon.
Gazing off into the haze at the distant mountain ranges has always been one of my life-long faults – along with a serious case of trail-haste. Since moving to Birmingham, though, I’ve had to learn how to deal with loneliness in a healthy manner, which means that I’ve had to learn how to build community, and do that intentionally. I’ve been challenged to deal with prostate cancer, which, despite the fact that it’s really the common cold of cancers, has required me to endure the various elements of a treatment process that can get tedious. And, I’ve met and fallen in love with a woman and begun a new marriage. All of those experiences have called me to quit gazing off into the haze of a distant future and dwell deeply in the present moment.
There’s abundance in the moment. There’s exotic beauty in the backyard. There’s joy in the embrace of conversation with friends. There’s a symphony in my wife’s whispers.
There really is nothing more beautiful than truly connecting with the small things of daily living. I’m glad I’ve been led – and at times, forced – to slow down, to focus in, and settle on. Because that’s when I’ve discovered the eagles on Orcas and the slugs on the Tiger.