On a perfect summer day in July I climbed on the Millbrook crag, at the southern end of the Shawangunk Ridge. Sometimes called “The White Cliff,” Millbrook shines bright white in the sun and is the tallest cliff in the chain. Few climbers undertake the 90-minute hike to its top, thus preserving some of its natural wildness. I’ve come upon hissing vultures in a nest, lots of loose rock, and abundant lichen and bushes growing on its faces.
On a route called Time Eraser I made my way up a technical face to a precarious stance and placed some protection, small chunks of brass connected to wire loops, and clipped them into the rope. I made my way up another 15 feet to a better position, and more reliable prophylaxis against hitting the ground if I fell.
While the first part of the route tested mental fortitude, the middle was a trial of strength and technique, climbing a thin crack and using small edges along its course, leading to a roof and more face moves above. A final roof with a powerful pull over the lip to a hold covered with lichen and silt left me gasping for air and feeling at once triumphant, frazzled, and profoundly present.
As I caught my breath, I noticed a blueberry bush growing out of a crack in the rock. The berries were near to bursting with ripeness. I was able to reach my head in their direction and pluck several berries from the bush with my lips. They were the most delicious blueberries I have ever tasted.
The complex taste of the berries in my raw and present state opened up an awareness of the larger natural landscape. I turned and looked behind me at the top of the lush canopy of trees hundreds of feet below, stretching miles to the horizon. I felt the creative force of life flowing through the forest, saw the trees stretching with every branch and stem toward the sun.
Standing on a micro-edge on this unaccustomed vertical medium I understood that the inexorable force of life flowing through nature is infinitely resilient and adaptable. Alone on the side of the cliff I laughed out loud at my concern over climate change and fears that human activity will destroy or overwhelm nature. I realized that, though we make it small with data and computer models, the power that comes through nature is unimaginably vast, little affected in the long span of her life by toxins, genetic modification, and a few more parts per million of carbon dioxide. I grokked the reality that the human species is part of the body of the biosphere, used and regulated by the whole organism like any other organ.
And then my perception opened a little further and I beheld the disk of the sun radiating above, giving a force of life to sustain the Earth. Unbidden, the image of a painting I saw in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence flashed in full detail before my mind’s eye. The painting is called The Annunciation and was made by Leonardo Da Vinci. He captures the quality of active receptivity as beatific Mary gives her assent to serve as the mother of god. I stood before this painting for an hour at the Uffizi seeing more and more in it, absorbing its geometric perfection, humbled to feel that the object itself had more presence and being than I did standing before it.
Taking in the view of the verdant valley stretching to the Hudson Highlands and beyond I saw that Earth and her biosphere continuously embody that active receptivity to the Sun. Like the archangel Gabriel in the painting, the Sun is announcing to the fertile Earth that she will be fruitful, and she is. The sense of reciprocity between these cosmic, no-doubt conscious beings, the beauty of the interplay of active and receptive forces, was so overwhelming I briefly swooned and had to regain my balance standing on the side of the cliff.
Biochemist and author Rupert Sheldrake points out that the Anglo-Saxon word “longing” has its root in the event of sexual arousal, a penis growing longer drawn by a vagina exerting equal force of receptivity. In this way, the Earth and Sun together share a sense of longing for one another and at the same time, a fulfillment of the longing.
There is a love affair between the Earth and the Sun, a perpetual sexual encounter, a making love and conceiving, gestating and giving birth, maturing and dying all at once, all the time. All manner of life, including the human species, is the fruit of this fecundity, and it is a macrocosm of cosmic transmutation we may each actualize in ourselves.