Yesterday I ran a very fulfilling field trip to Salt Point State Park. I had never run this trip before, although I had been there numerous times before. I was filled with anxiety: a big component of the trip was tide pool marine biology, and I ain't no marine biologist. I was worried that people would get lost on the long road to Salt Point, or that no one would show up. I was worried that I was misreading the tide charts and that the water would be too high to see anything interesting.
All of these fears turned out to be unjustified. As Mark Twain said, "I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."
And it was very good for my head to have a few hours away from my troubles here. I actually forgot, for perhaps six or seven continuous hours, that because of my career troubles this might in fact be the very last field trip I ever lead. I hope, I dearly hope, this isn't the case, but if this was to be my last trip, then I'm glad that it went off with such a good sendoff.
In some ways, returning to Salt Pont completes a cycle for me which began so many years ago. Perhaps my earliest clear memory, when I was 5 or 6, was camping with my family at Salt Point. My memory is this: looking down from the campground into the canopy of trees and ferns and seeing a bear standing among the plants. I alerted my parents, who assured me that it was only a tree.
I was so insistent about what I saw, however, that I cajoled them into walking with me down the hill to where I had seen the bear. I saw the old tree stump they were referring to, but no bear. We hiked back up the hill to our campsight. Then I looked down again and saw the bear.
I found it hard to believe that my eyes were playing tricks on me. Yet the core of science is seeing the world despite our preconceptions and agenda; to see things as they actually are is more difficult than the non-scientist might imagine. I could go down and touch this tree stump, examine the minutae of its bark in as much detail as I pleased, but when I went back up the hill it would still look to me like a bear standing on its hindlegs. I learned something about the need for proper perspective that day.
For years I didn't know where this had happened. We camped at so many places when I was a child that my parents didn't recall this incident. Indeed, so malleable is a child's memory that I wasn't even quite sure it had even happened. I have many false memories, lying somewhere between a dream or a wish and the ooze of the juvenile brain.
When I was in junior high school my classmates took a weekend trip to Salt Point. Chance would have it that we camped in the same spot. And as I sat alone from my peers (as was my habit) meditating in the stillness of the woods, my eyes abruptly came upon the very same tree/bear that had intrigued me so many years before. The vision and recollection hit me like a lightningbolt.
It was a moment of enlightenment. Not, of course, full enlightenment but perhaps a tiny, baby step in that direction. I found it interesting to learn later of the long history of sylvian associations with enlightenment (Osiris trapped in a tree-coffin, Jesus and his tree-cross of olive, Buddha and the Bo Tree, Tolkein and his forest-consciousness).
Even as I write this, the fog shrowding my path is lifting. My mind is shifting through the morass of my thoughts, trying to tell me something. These examples come from Joseph Campbell. I recall his injunction that all people must first learn what is their passion, and then passionately pursue it, though it might well cost them everything. To do less is to sell one's soul at a discount rate.
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