Before nature one must be silent and stare.

Late in the afternoon I often go out walking with my dog in the hills around my home. Such excursions have the character of escape. I climb over a sagging barbed-wire fence and am free. This twisted metal thread, gradually being engulfed by wild currant bushes that birds planted while swinging on the wire, separates one reality from another. Both my dog and I sense this.

We follow the natural divisions of the land as we walk—a rock fault, the crest of a hill, a dry creek bed. It takes only a few minutes for the authority of this other reality to make itself felt. In this sphere one must be silent and stare. There are no interposing “media.” There is no “sharing.”

I stare at a white-skinned, black-scarred aspen tree whose leaves have turned a rosy gold with the trapped anthocyanin left by the receding sap. The tree and I do not communicate. Yet as I rub my hand across its tough skin and scabs and feel my own sap, full of sugars and enzymes, circulating through the branches of my body, I once again sustain the momentary illusion that, given such a setting of steady, silent intent, of beauty, I would find it easy and natural to be forever good and virtuous. Here every organism goes about its business with unwearying devotion. Sap rising and falling. Leaves drifting and decaying. Birds eating and excreting. Seeds dying and sprouting. Surely I could slip into a niche somewhere in this open-air monastery.

I sit down under the tree and call my dog to me. He is a comical sight, sniffing his way over the hill in systematic criss-crosses of ecstasy, belonging yet not belonging to this separate reality. Watching him, I realize that his devotion to his destiny is greater than mine. With a few ...

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