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Sometimes just a few words can transport us. A friend had emailed me the first line of a 17th century poem by Henry Vaughan, and I found myself reading it over and over: I saw Eternity the other night. I kept the words close by, like coins sewn into the cuffs of my trousers. There was something luminous and of great value in the line, a mysterious depth that was difficult to articulate. It was like a lost dream remembered only by its mood. I suspected this had to do with the curious conjunction of ‘Eternity’ with the rather commonplace ‘the other night’ – radical in its ordinariness, as if the poet had said, “I saw Edwin the other night,” or “I saw a boat the other day.” Didn’t a vision of such significance, of eternity itself, demand a more grandiose delivery? Clearly Henry Vaughan didn’t think so.
A few days later Julia and I went looking for orchids. The lake basin where we live in Greece is divided geologically in two. On one side, where our village nestles in the crook of an alpine valley, the land is underpinned by dark, brooding granite. The other side, however, is composed of limestone, and fits easily with the country of myth – simmering, dry slopes awash with butterflies; bundles of wild thyme crushed underfoot; junipers twined like coiled lovers, rooted there for centuries. It’s a place of lucid, Mediterranean light.
The parched, stony earth of the gods is home to a wild profusion of flowers. They strike out in spring for the bright, Homeric light; a brief twirl in the splendour of the sun. Bee orchids hovered beneath trees while electric blue anchusa lit up the glades. We steered through a dream of coloured blooms: love-in-a-mist, wild geranium, forget-me-not.
A half-day later and the heat had drained us; we were tired and hungry, slipping on sand and loose stones. We had reached the ordinary lull of any walk and started back, doggedly combing the last slopes for overlooked flowers. When a nightjar rose from the earth we were only a step shy from standing on it. It lifted itself on wings the colour of old leaves, hovered at knee-height for a breathless second, and then arrowed off.
The nightjar spends its camouflaged days on a branch or the ground, waiting patiently for the gathering dark when it begins hawking nocturnal insects. The bird we had startled from sleep settled on a low, leafless branch a few metres from us, blending into the wood until it was nearly invisible. It folded its scythed wings back in, which left only its dark eyes to distinguish it. Then it closed them slowly, as though having seen enough of the day, and sealed them against the light.
We left the nightjar to its dreaming and stumbled down the slope, ecstatic in the moment that had just passed – a rare glimpse, gifted to us in the midst of the everyday. The wide dirt road we came out on was hard-panned by the heat. Moving across its bare, blasted surface was a caterpillar of one of the bagworm moths. What is remarkable about these caterpillars is how they carry their homes along with them. Each tiny creature spins a silken tube around itself which it layers with fragments of debris. This one was a piece of mobile forest floor, built from bits of bark and twigs and leaves that far outsized the insect itself. The caterpillar inched across the grainy surface by extending a small length of its body, and then dragging the woodland sleeve behind it in the heat. Again and again it crept forward, towing its marvelous home on miniscule legs.
I lowered myself to its height, entranced by an inconceivable life. The day suddenly stilled while I watched, held in place by the mesmeric sunlight: orchids in purple splashes across the pale slopes; the insistent insect drone; the scent of ancient junipers unfolding on the air. In that simple moment, Henry Vaughan’s opening line became clear. Eternity can be anytime, any day or night, seen in the closing of a nightjar’s eyes. While something as small as a bagworm’s home can house the infinite.
– first published in Wild Apples: A Journal of Nature, Art and Inquiry Fall/Winter 2011