The Practice of Wandering

Mary Oliver wrote:

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.”

This weekend we took our new, little T@B travel trailer out on a test run. Yes, we’ve joined the ranks of the RV folk, in anticipation of some extended vagabond time in the next era of life. It was an impulsive move. It is very cute. It is simple. It is small. We pulled it over to the Madison River with our ancient Honda Odyssey with 365,000 miles on it, camped next to the river, tried out the rig.

On Sunday we slept in, snuggled in the cozy bed. We made coffee and sat under the awning, watching the scud of gray sky, threatening weather. Eventually we had breakfast, and it was nearly noon before we unhitched the car and drove a few miles to Madison Buffalo Jump State Park. It is the time of year when, historians tell us, native peoples gathered in large numbers there to drive bison over the cliffs to their deaths. We walked through the yellowed grasses up a sloping valley, angled uphill toward the bench behind the cliff escarpment. It is a place that fairly hums with history, but now, is quiet and largely unvisited. Rising above the valley, the view spreads, to the line of trees along the Madison River, the cliffs on the opposite side, away into the Tobacco Root Mountains. Over it the gray skies and the hum of history. At the top we noticed another trail down below that looked like it might intersect farther up the bench. We followed the narrow grassy ridge to see. The trails did meet, just below a fence with an unequivocal No Trespassing sign. We turned and strolled back down toward the cliffs, making detours to see where side trails might lead. On the way one of the ancient teepee rings lay before us. We lay down in it, looked at the sky, smelled juniper and sage. The wind stirred.

Along the edge of cliffs trails web here and there. At one point a series of potholes had filled with water from recent rains. Robins were everywhere, and Townsend’s solitaires, juncos. Glistening pools, and birds. Eventually we found a break in the cliffs we could scramble down, and then sidehill gingerly through prickly pear on the steep slope where, presumably, hundreds, probably thousands, of bison had met their demise. Impossible not to entertain images of the carnage, that joyous, macabre harvest: bawling, injured animals, crews of people butchering with stone tools, the smell of blood and hide and smoke and sweat saturating the day.

Late in the afternoon we returned to the trailer. While we ate sandwiches at the picnic table, a gang of warblers thronged the willows nearby. Dozens of yellow-tinged birds, busy with something. Suddenly, they disappeared. Just then, the flair of Cooper’s hawk tilted past our table, banded tail and sharp beak. It landed in the vacated willows, settled itself, as if asserting hierarchy, watchful for an inattentive warbler, or, perhaps, chagrined at missing a chance. We saw it all, sitting with our sandwiches in hand, with the gray sky wreathing above, and the river murmuring past.

Maybe prayer is nothing more than being still and paying some attention.

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