Saturday, December 4, 2010

Fear and Survival

Fear and Time:
On A Friday night, I made it to through slush and a dimming light, to the Kootenay Lake ferry. It was late -- dark and snowing hard. I knew I would have a precarious fifty kilometre drive home. As I rode the ferry, I was reminded about something my sister had said on her last visit, how, every time she rode the ferry, she though about the terrfiying depths of black freezing water beneath her. My sister is the most fearless, intrepid, and amazing woman I know. She trains horses. She rides across country jumping over fences, up and down steep banks and in and out of water. She can walk up to the toughest and scariest horse in the world and make it behave. I was surprised to hear her say this but I understood. Kootenay Lake is big and deep; it has a reputation for eating boats of all sizes. I looked at the black snowy mountains and thought about the creatures there, and the combination of fear, adrenaline, and alertness that kept them alive. I thought about how all of us, human and non-human, ride an edge of awareness and fear, especially in the winter.
I had been teaching all day, my eyes were tired and sore, and I had already been held up on the highway because of an accident. As I drove off the ferry and up the steep hill, I realized he road was even worse than I thought it would be. Because of the thick blowing snow, I couldn’t actually see the highway. Instead, all I could was watch the dim fuzzy line of snowbank beside the right hand of the car. As long as I could see that snowbank, I could assume there was a road. I should have been terrified but as I set off up the hill and into the blackness, I felt an odd sort of exhilaration set in. Perhaps, I thought, it was a small particle of what adventure junkies and risk takers feel.
I had a long drive with a lot of time to think. I wondered if this combination of awareness, exhilaration and hyperalertness is what some people experience in battle. I thought, again, about the mountains above me and the many many inhabitants of those mountains; I wondered about their lives, their careful alertness, their constant awareness of risk, and survival. Did they feel like this all the time or was mine just a human moment?
I have always known that will and determination play a big part in survival. I have always known, since I was a small child, playing by myself in the mountains, riding crazy wild horses, climbing cliffs, that, in risky situations, I could make decisions to survive. I kept this awareness as an adult, I remember once, coming home from a long hike and having to traverse a section of steep hill in the dark. The darkness had come more swiftly than I was prepared for and I couldn’t see where I was going. I decided, very calmly and carefully, that I would feel every step, check every hold, that I would not slip and fall there in the dark and that I would make it home safely. And so I did.
I decided something similar on the way home in the snow. I knew the road. I would drive slowly. I would be alert and cautious and take no chances. It was almost exhilarating. I caught myself driving too fast as I got closer to home and had to make myself slow down. And I made it, came in the warm house, made myself tea, took a while to calm down and get to sleep.
Now, in the mornings, often at first light, the pair of coyotes that live next door are out hunting mice in the tall grass in the field below my house. The black flocks of coots huddle on the lake as the eagles hunt them. Winter, for some creatures, is a time of rest and recuperation, and for others, a time when the odds of surviving are sharpened. Every morning, I silently say hello and send respect to these coyotes, savvy, alert, and secure in their coyote world.
At night, I draw the drapes against the dark, the snow, and the cold. I go to bed under a huddle of quilts. I send my thoughts out to the coyotes in their den, the ravens in their tall trees, the eagles, the coots on the black water, the queen wasps sleeping in the cracks of the logs of my house, the frogs buried in mud, the sleeping bears, all of us, surviving, alert, aware, on edge, but not fearful. This isn’t fear but its opposite, this is calm, alert awareness. The world is not a fearful place but neither is it an easy place. Joy and tragedy, exhilaration and terror, we all ride them, together, on a thin and icy edge.

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