Last summer I camped in New Hampshire's Great North Woods with a friend for a couple of days. We kayaked, hiked, and generally looked for moose. We went very far into boggy inlets in the kayaks, we walked a ways down the Moose Alley Trail in the dark with our headlamps, and we drove up and down "Moose Alley" several times, hoping to have our lives graced with the presence of one of these immense, fearless creatures. From the top of Mt. Magalloway, I visualized the moose in the bog we could see far below. I even brought lucky moose-sighting socks that had a meditating moose and said "NaMOOSEte." Ultimately, even though I have seen up to three moose in one day at these same spots, we did not see one on this trip. If I were basing the success of this adventure on whether or not we had encountered a moose, I would have to conclude that it was a disappointment. In fact, it was a jolting success, making me think of 'looking for moose' as a metaphor that relates to how I experience, categorize, and make meaning of my life.
What did happen during this trip was nothing short of spectacular. From the top of the fire tower on Mt. Magalloway, literally as far as we could see in every direction, we could see nothing but hills, mountains, trees, lakes, bogs, logging roads, and a very few buildings. Far beyond the farthest mountain I could clearly make out, there were faint outlines which could have been more mountains or clouds, or both. Some bees, likely oblivious to the grandeur surrounding them, hovered in front of us as they went against the wind to the hive they must have built in the corner of the tower. How often am I bee-like, working through and around obstacles to do what must be done in my own little sphere of influence, unable to see the big picture, I wondered?
On the first night we went to the dock on the shore of Lake Francis and looked at the stars. We had been able to discern some stars at the campsite, but at the edge of the lake the view was magnificent. We could see the Milky Way clearly stretched across the sky. I looked at specific points of light and wondered how far away the star was, whether or not it had any planets orbiting it and if so, was there any life on any of them? It occurred to me that I have not really seen the stars in a long, long time. I have learned about elementary astrophysics and how the elements that comprise everything on Earth, including us, were forged in distant, ancient stars. I have read the history of science and how people went from seeing their gods in the stars to detecting potential liquid water on a planet orbiting a star light-years away. As I looked up into the reality of the tiny lights in the sky I realized I am one small being, made of star-stuff, and I still have a place in the cosmos. This may seem like an obvious statement, but sometimes I lose perspective. I remembered those stars. I remembered myself.
We went kayaking in lakes and bogs, where we saw an inordinate number of ospreys and loons. Just after having a loon pop up out of the water near us and loudly protest our presence, an osprey flew right over us as it set out to hunt. We watched as it spiraled over the lake and occasionally dove in to catch a fish. It didn't catch any fish while we were there, but it was a privilege to watch it. I've seen loons before, and each time I see them is like magic, but I had never before seen an osprey so close and for so long in the wild. They seemed to be everywhere we went.
If I were one to look for patterns, I would have to see that the joy I felt during so many moments of this trip happened because, besides being in a beautiful place and sharing enjoyable activities with a person whose company I enjoy, I delighted in what was present and not on what was missing. Although I am now thinking of what meaning this trip had for me, in each moment I was doing my best to just experience what was happening. Granted, it is easier to accept what is happening while watching on osprey glide against a background of building storm clouds than it is to be fully present during the more mundane or alarming parts of life, but I have to ask myself upon what is my attention?
Is it on the big picture, and my place in it, or do I only know there are forces preventing me from doing what I have to do? Do I see a dynamic, productive, protected landscape, or do I only see the scars from logging and the encroachment of mankind on the wilderness? Do I become disappointed and focused on the lack of presence of moose, or do I delight in the cries of the loons and the aerobatics of the ospreys? I know life is generally neither black and white nor simple, and sometimes I think too much. How far can I stretch this analogy, I wonder? Sometimes what is present, or not present, in life hurts so much it is all-encompassing. Sometimes I can see my life as a blighted, moose-less landscape, and at other times I see unending possibilities and wonder before me like the Great North Woods and the Milky Way, and everything in between. It's all a matter of perspective.