The idea that bliss and transience go together may seem counterintuitive since we humans tend to get attached to things and usually find change challenging. But deep pleasure can come from experiencing impermanence. If you guessed that I’m thinking about the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of spring, you’re right. In spring evanescent clouds mist the trees while flowers grow buds, bloom, and fade in a vivid parade that passes quickly. It’s hard not to want to make these fleeting moments last longer but maybe knowing that every gem-like spring flower is followed by a new one can ease the regret. Maybe fully sensing the beauty of life’s fluctuating rhythms is a better bliss than grasping at frozen bits of time.
Spring arrives in early February here with subtle, barely perceptible whispers. Buds swell, willows sport fuzzy catkins, and a few non-migrant birds sing tentatively. The leaves of certain orchids that won’t bloom for months appear in mossy places at the edge of the woods. This slow, steady unfolding is due to moderate temperatures – most of the time the thermometer doesn’t fall very low or rise very high. Cold Salish Sea waters that flow around our island even out the weather, creating optimal conditions for lush growth. As the days lengthen the greens that pervade our landscape intensify bit by bit, leaf by leaf. February, March, April, May, and June can all make claims on spring in the cool maritime Pacific Northwest.
This spring I was away for two weeks in April, during the height of the time when roadsides display one of my favorite sights: the soft-edged, lime-green haze of budding deciduous trees. Acutely aware of the progression of flora and fauna during springtime, I was afraid I might miss something while I was away. But when I returned it seemed that the world had held its breath – the trees were still bright and fluffy and the wildflower show was just getting started.
With my head still spinning out visions of red rock dreams, I stepped into the moist glow of green fields and forests to search for wildflowers. I was eager to check out all the familiar places that I’d been the month before, where I knew wildflowers should be in bloom. But there was one catch: a Northern elephant seal pup, the first known to be born on the island, needed attention too. As a volunteer “seal sitter” for a network that protects marine mammals on the west coast, I felt an obligation to guard the young elephant seal pup and help educate the public. His mother made the inconvenient choice to give birth at a busy state park (the one that happens to be my favorite) on Jan 31st. She nursed him for 26 days and then swam away, leaving him all alone. It’s normal for this species to nurse for about a month and then leave pups to fend for themselves but most elephant seals are born in colonies where the pups have plenty of company. This guy only had humans!
For two busy weeks, I bounced between volunteering, dips into local parks, physical therapy appointments, yoga classes, and the usual chores everyone needs to tick off their to-do list. As the weather got warmer, the park got busier and the human/wildlife interface became harder to control, as one of the photos in the slideshow makes clear. Finally, it was decided that it would be best for all concerned to move young Emerson the elephant seal to an uninhabited island where he wouldn’t be surrounded by curious people all day long. To keep chaos to a minimum, the public wasn’t notified in advance and even volunteers didn’t get the news until the day after he was relocated. Suddenly I was free of my obligation, which was a bittersweet relief. I’d grown fond of this character with his big, dark eyes, sleepy afternoons, and a predilection for resting under the signs we used to inform the public to stay at least 50 yards away. I was glad Joe and I spent a few hours with him the day before the big move. True to form, that afternoon he rested for hours next to one of the signs, then suddenly (suddenly for an elephant seal looks nothing like suddenly for a chipmunk) decided to mosy down to the water, just to stick his nose in. Swimming is what seals are supposed to do but during his time at the park, Emerson mostly slept.
I learned a lot about Northern elephant seals over the last three months. I also came to see the park and its habitat differently. My sense of this park now encompassed an odd creature needing protection, a never-ending stream of curious humans with their dogs, and an assortment of signs and orange traffic cones that had to be moved every day because you never knew where Emerson would turn up in the morning. My cherished vision of this space as a sanctuary made way for a concept that sometimes seemed more like a zoo than a refuge. I wasn’t always happy about that but I learned a lot. It’s good to know this old brain can still be flexible.
But what about the wildflowers? I’ve been outside making the rounds, peering at the ground. The little gems won’t be here for long and that’s the beauty of it – they keep me fully awake in the present.
Treading along in this dreamlike, illusory realm,
Without looking for the traces I may have left;
A cuckoo’s song beckons me to return home,
Hearing this, I tilt my head to see
Who has told me to turn back;
But do not ask me where I am going,
As I travel in this limitless world,
Where every step I take is my home.
~ Eihei Dogen
from Heine, Steven, translator. Zen Poetry of Dogen. by Eihei Dogen. Tuttle Publishing, 1997.