On the day of Summer Solstice I flew South to Costa Rica, to see where Summer comes from. I’ve written of the Winter Sister and the Spring Sister. Who is Summer? The abundant sister, the fecund, the mother sister. I wanted to experience virgin rainforest, that hot soup of life’s beginnings, where everything’s still possible. I’m completing a trilogy this year whose central thread—as in all my novels—is a yearning to reconnect our broken world in the face of seemingly irredeemable loss. I wanted to go back to the source, back to that place where once we were monkeys, and see if I could know something. Something about what happened to us, maybe. Or why.
So I flew south, bought some groceries, waded a river, hiked a mountain, and lay down to sleep in an open-air hostel in the jungle, listening to the clacks, moans, and bells of that night chorus, thinking that never before had I heard such innocent enthusiasm for just being alive. It filled every leaf-wrapped nook and wet green pocket from every angle on every level of the hundred-storied, high-rise, loud, messy city of that humanless forest. That life was so pure, I felt blissfully meaningless inside it. In the morning, I tried to walk backwards in time. I followed the roots—blood red roots threading the soil, gigantic roots rising like sharp fins from the sea of the earth, webbed dinosaur feet. I looked out at the flanks of the mountains, saw trees breaking out of them as if for the very first time, tethered at every limb by vines that made them look like teeth trailing strings of saliva from the opening jaws of some beast who yawned its first hunger at the beginning of the world.
It amazed me to think that we ever broke from such a hold. That we ever became separate. That we ever walked away so seemingly free, we never had to look at the ground.
Yet from these massive roots, and despite such furious ropes of vine, these trees grew recklessly, so high beyond my seeing, their very hugeness seemed its own kind of innocence. You couldn’t stop it. You wouldn’t think to.
The Priestess in my trilogy, Priestess of Hummingbirds—she comes out of the jungle. I had never walked alone and deep inside one, before now, yet she must have told me something of it, because I recognized her here. Her always open heart, her noisy passion, her overabundance of life, her ignorance of limits, her luxury, her sensual splendor. Her culture descending from mother by mother, endlessly from the Great Mother, of course—and yet also her people of eternal youth, her lack of elders, for in these mountains, trees ten stories high are only a few years old, and they fall early, die young. Yet the forest itself is old. And I understood why she wanted, with all the desperation of being alive, to return here. Here she had hummingbirds of every style, she had the calls of parrots clattering like any jeering birds and yet at the same time eerie, like sirens, and ringing too, like coins, like so many riches every sunset. She had every shape that a leaf could be, and everything bigger. She had frogs made of glass. There was this butterfly, wild, erratic, hand-sized—when I passed a certain place, it flew up before me, flashing its iridescent blue wings whose color could only be seen when open, and it would startle me every time. That’s how this creature survived. By being so beautiful, so suddenly, it knocked its predators off their feet.
I sat in a waterfall, beneath it and within it, and felt how the stone was caressed, constantly, without break, forever, like a heart always open and endlessly broken. I thought, if you died in the jungle, you would die by drowning. You would die thick, hot, wet, smothered with life—without perspective, without wind. You would die at once of wonder and of fear. Life endlessly fountains up and is endlessly quashed, forming and decaying—and humans do not matter here, and there is a coldness in that, like the sea. I could understand, I thought, the violence in some jungle mythology, that wanton violence of a child’s zest for life, who has not yet been softened by experience. This is the great womb, but it’s a dangerous womb. Everything is fighting so fiercely to live, and yet life is nothing. The jungle would as soon eat you as inspire you. The tree of good and evil is here. Everything is here. The Summer Sister—who is she? I think when she grew up, she became the Sister of Compassion.
Hiking back to the hostel that day from the furthest falls, I took ten steps off the trail. Or maybe it was eleven. I thought I was on it, but then I wasn’t, and I knew because I hit a dead end. Scrambled, fallen trees criss-crossed before me—X after X. You cannot pass, human. You’ve got it wrong. I closed my eyes, scared. I am not the Priestess in my story. I cannot live here. I have “evolved” too many thousands of years away from knowing my place, and I don’t know where I am going, and I have come to a point where I cannot seem to see my future. Our future.
I prayed to the Mother and opened my eyes. The prayer was simple but it got me centered. I thought, I need to backtrack. Somewhere, I have lost my way. I retraced my steps and found where the trail had veered off at a right angle. Something I never would have seen unless I was paying attention. Humans are so young. And the trees are young, and they die young, but the forest is old. And it isn’t only brutality and violence and life competing with life, after all, no—there is another way. I turned up this other path now, glorying in relief. A lizard eyed me, and I stopped to eye him back: Lizard, that ancient dreamer of Stone and Sun, that warrior of stillness. For a moment, everything was consciousness. For a moment only. It passed between me and the lizard—all the jungle, in an instant. When people talk about consciousness, I don’t even know what they mean. But I knew in that moment. It was still impersonal. I still didn’t matter. And yet I was the center of the universe, I was everything, and that felt , too, intensely personal—and warm.
What is it? I whispered. Why are we here? What’s going to become of us? How do we reclaim what we lost? Can we really destroy everything? Is this really happening? And there was just this consciousness, like a heart, pulsing, and knowing me, insisting. Life. Life. Life.
The indomitable beauty. The darkness that is limitless beginning. The first color, the first song. The ten thousand birds. The ten thousand coins of the parrots’ keening, the way they spill out of the sky at dusk, and the grief. And all that giving. And there are so many doves, did I mention? And their calls, too, to break the heart ceaselessly, and with that same innocence that makes the trees gigantic, that makes their roots swim. And there—yet another invention of butterfly. And I’ve walked here three times now, yet am startled again out of my mind, because that blue seems, to my human eyes, impossible.
There is something that does not die. I am sure of it.