Forest creatures

I was sitting on the edge of a high plateau in Wales, looking out over wide spaces to the sea. It was October, and a stiff breeze blew down the slope. A single little trailer sold hot tea and biscuits. The tea tasted sweet and strong; the biscuits made being outside in this new landscape a picnic. My friend and I sat in silence and looked as far off as we could see.

Something caught my attention, and I turned my head slightly. There was one of the wild goats that forage on the steppes of Wales. Others grazed farther off. I looked back to the distant vista. Again something caught my attention. But this time when I turned my head, the goat was three steps (goat steps) closer. I was beginning to get the picture. Back to the horizon and the distant sea. When I turned a third time, the goat was quite close. I could see the yellow eyes with their rectangular pupils, set in a shaggy face. A light dawned — that goat knew about biscuits.

Since that windy day in Wales, I’ve come to recognize lots of wild things — some human, some not — whom I call “forest creatures.” They’re wild. Shy. And they come toward you only when you’re not looking.

Forest creatures just don’t do “in your face.” They’re indirect. Subtle. Probably a little unsure. So when they come forward, it’s because they really want to. You have something they’d like to have; they’d like you to share it with them. But first they stand back to assess whether you’re safe. And then, just in case they’ve misjudged the situation, they move when you’re not looking. Finally, they stand really close and still — and wait to see whether you’ll share your biscuit with them.

Life in our culture teaches us to be out there. Call most folks at their workplace and their voice-mail messages will knock you back with joy and enthusiasm that you’ve called, and utter despair that they’ve missed you. We’re coached to sound energetic even when we’re not there.

Our so-called First World culture rewards a shining extroversion that remembers everybody’s name and compiles dozens and dozens of business cards, with the attendant e-mail addresses. Being out there and “in the face of the world” are commonly considered keys to success. And indeed, a lot does get done this way. Dust is stirred up, and things are moved and shaken. Great good is effected for a hurt and hungry world. Most of us are just such shining extroverts by temperament: out there, moving mountains, making things happen.

But not all. Not all, at all.

Some of us are forest creatures, gently trying to find out who’s a friend — and who has a biscuit. And if the friend part proves true, is there a willingness to share the biscuit?

Do you remember when we were encouraged to be “a kinder, gentler nation”? Just because this hasn’t worked out (and just because the speaker was a twister of words) doesn’t negate the hope implicit in a slightly more reticent approach to any number of things. Like life at home. Like life among nations. Like life in the workplace. Like life among creation’s family (which includes all of us).

We have a lot to learn from forest creatures. They can teach us to slow down (after all, building trust takes time). To grow and to blossom.

Forest creatures can teach us patience. It takes a long time to move forward, then wait; move forward, then wait.

They can teach us that relationship is more about process, the dance of drawing closer, than about direct deployment of our personal or national arsenals.

Forest creatures can also make us smile, because there is delight in being gently courted until, suddenly, there they are — up close and gifting us with presence (and a quizzical reminder about that biscuit).

Emotionally, somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of us are forest creatures. And we all have our ways of checking out safety, friendship, level of integrity, levels of hope. In the end, it comes down to differences in style. And both approaches are needed if we are to stir up and soothe this sorry world. So maybe what we really need is a little more mutual respect for both the “out there” and the “one step at a time” contingents.

It’s years and years since I sat on that bluff in Wales. But I can still see those golden eyes of a wild thing seeking food. I can feel that approaching presence, which neither threatened nor intimidated — merely inquired. It was pure gift.

Without looking at the goat, I broke off a piece of biscuit. I stretched my arm as far away as I could from the goat and laid the biscuit on a nearby rock. The goat waited. I waited. For quite a while. Then the goat apparently decided that the biscuit was far enough away from me to be safe and that it was indeed for eating. The goat stepped across that rough meadow and nibbled the treat. Detente. Satisfaction. A contract happily concluded.

[Jane M. Curran is a chaplain with CarePartners Mountain Area Hospice in Asheville.]

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