Untitled, Manuel Cancel, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 47.5 inches. Courtesy of James Graham & Sons, New York
Untitled, Manuel Cancel, 2003, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 47.5 inches. Courtesy of James Graham & Sons, New York

PEOPLE OFTEN TALK about being “alone in nature.” I find that odd. On the particular summer’s day I’m thinking about, when I was nine, with nothing to do but lie on my back in a farmer’s field in southern Ontario and gaze up at the blue sky, I was in the company of one yellow-and-black caterpillar; one very busy bee; three black crows perched in a dying elm tree; a battalion of ants; a gopher who thrust a little dirt, but not his head, out of his hole; several angry wasps who made a rushed appearance and then vanished; a throng of birds moving as one; countless creatures I could not see, but sensed; trees, grasses, vines, and all sorts of other plant life; and a brilliant sun that warmed me like an embrace.

This was the place where I was happiest as a child. Only a few minutes from our conflict-ridden family cottage, it seemed many miles away, safe and timeless. When I lay there on the rough ground and stared up at the sky, I could soak in the natural world with the “beginner’s mind” of a child. On those afternoons, I felt myself—in the being-ness of my body—an oasis of stillness surrounded by nature’s busyness. The stillness within me felt deeply related to the repose of the roots of trees, the motionlessness of rocks, and the cyclical stability of the seasons.

Now I am forty-nine. In the years since then, I’ve found other fields to lie in, real and metaphorical.

There was that field in San Bernardino, California. It was the fall of 1982. I was twenty-six, and it was midnight, maybe one a.m. I didn’t have a watch—I’d given it to the red-haired shaman who was overseeing my ceremonial burial, mysteriously, from half a mile away. Here was my purpose in the field that night: to lie in the three-and-a-half-foot grave I’d dug for myself. All night. To think about my own death and listen to the night. Having been away from the farmer’s field of my childhood for many years, I had forgotten what I knew, so I was expecting silence. Instead, those dark hours were as loud as the Santa Monica freeway at rush hour. The trees began creaking and moaning, and finally howling in whirling eddies of wind. As for the other strange noises, well, from that grave I could only conjure explanations. And conjure I did. Unlike the field of my childhood, only some of the busyness was in the environment—the rest was in my head. There in the dark, I was assaulted by words, images, conversations, fears. Rabbitlike, I quivered and shook all night. But in the morning I had the stillness back in me, finally. The field had restored it to me.

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