On Senses: A Nature Essay by Janie Elizabeth Miller

Brian_Weiss_2013_JanieMiller_2Since this is a nature essay, I should explain that while my body is located in an experimental forest, it is so far from its senses that all I smell is the sour pungency of a warm beer and the pitiful pool of wax at the bottom of a controlled flame near the air vent of my computer. Since I am here, and outside is there, I strain my ears to hear early dusk sweeping the landscape of its dust, settling early layers of dew on each sword of the sword fern which will sink imperceptibly lower to the ground as it gathers the burden of night, or the yellow grosbeak who fed well this day and spreads its shallow fibers in a low thicket while the beetles continue their work of gnawing tunnels and laying eggs for tomorrow’s pileated woodpecker shrieking the forest awake. But that is outside.

Here, Johannes Sebastian Bach makes shape with sound, isolates me and somehow reminds me of we; that we die alone: Et un Spiritum; the bass vocalist speaks and plans, the music is the organized shape of linear progress. Then quandary, the unison of spiraling shapes, the de-centered self in communion with the divine. Finally solace and acceptance, the triumphant trumpet when we’ve let go of our need to know.

The shape is a billow of smoke, a plume that mushrooms then releases. You see him there, his conductor’s baton whipping shapes in the air, the organic construction of imagination, the very essence of what it means to be.

This is representation summoning imagination, or is it? What can be said of the state of my being as the phonograph spins the record’s lines toward completion, grooves of the nature of spirit until the needle’s arm lifts and the silence of our endings shifts in a minute’s static where my spirit writhes in my body, stepping out like a cloud just above the mountain ridge, or like a pocket of humid air in a sunlit meadow. Where am I to turn here, my spirit dancing above a rendered body laying down language like song?

I see metaphor here; that carved well of longing—we see our reflections, but can never touch its depths; and here on this page—the page that receives these letters; the one you translate now—the one that leaves me only the porous grief of disconnection where our spirits fall flat in our literal system of language—here we are left with metaphor for the longing of shared experience, the communal sounds of our imaginations that tell us we are not alone, yet these messages are the great heaving of emotion through tunnels of the unknown.

Here is an exercise in loneliness:

Exercise 1: Imagine your mind in the shape of this sentence.

Exercise 2: Now, this: the hostility of our moon tonight holds the night sky

hostage, a vestibule of confessions here on the ground below, a vestibule of stars in my

heart—I await the darker hour of our being.

But wait, this is a nature essay, right? The world out there. I should tell you about the hummingbird outside my window. The sides of its neck in a crimson stole, cedar green body coating its heartbeat which seems the center point of gravity for its upright, astute posture. I should have described the wings’ sound for you, tricking you into making shapes with your mind by appealing to your senses. Daring you to consider what it means to be by placing you under its wing.

To try, this essay’s shape a near-blind hummingbird zipping from leaf to leaf in search of a bloom’s sugar, that first sip when the sun shifts from shadow to light and the fuchsia glows, a trumpet of survival. Go there, too, inside the trumpet where the sugar is a translucent bead, a pearl for another, a life.

If it pleases, imaginatively cut and paste the hummingbird section just before the Bach section. Trust in the shape of nature’s image, then follow the thread to Bach. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure in the imagination of your mind and body. This essay is for you, and I trust your translation implicitly.

Or try this: the essay is warm and I hike the steep, narrow path toward its southern ridge. The forest is called experimental because it has been restored, and I hear the shape of my own being in there.

To restore is to return to a natural state, or to return to innocence. It’s a way of saying, you were perfect the first time, let’s get back to that—it is un-creating through creation; it is healing.

This essay is Pacific Northwest mud. You know this mud, you’ve sunk there and wanted to stay, but pulled your foot from the earth instead. Near the essay’s summit a sudden vibration recalled the flap of hummingbird wings, cold and small, then the sound grew warmer, took on the hot breath of a mammal—a purr, a growl—a very large cat. I can’t explain the sound, the essay fails here. You know: the growl of a large cat. But no, you can’t hear that. The cool vibration in its throat was a pair of fast wings. We are getting there: come with me—the growl was warm fur in the sun, a watery purr with teeth, the sound of wild grinding its teeth against the edge of a species that rendered time into an unforgiving clock of loss.

And there it is. Loss. It was a cougar.

We dedicate our lives to letters, but realize their failure in a time of historic extinction. I am inside but my words are outside. You are inside, too, and I put you outside by challenging your senses. That cougar was one of the last of its kind, there is no mate in the wild that we have left for her, no magical den constructed of language for her to hide under. In nature’s wild you seek what you need, but in our constructed wild you avoid what you hope not to find. In this room I seek wildness through a glass window that opens by a crank; the air is cold but I breathe it in, past my lungs to where my gut clenches my will and cleaves me to a body that I barely know is mine. In my wild, I run from the cougar, its breath hot on my back.


*Janie Miller is a poet & essayist who lives on a 10-acre organic farm on Vashon Island. But don’t confuse her with the farmers, who work ten times harder than she does. Janie teaches poetry & environmental writing at the University of Washington Tacoma, and has a chapbook of poems forthcoming from Alice Blue Books. For more information please visit: janieelizabethmiller.com