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Kelly Madigan Erlandson

Inventing Religion

          Recently I proclaimed in a public space that lying on the ground is part of my religion, and though said flippantly it was true. My explanation for it always seems frail or half-cocked. Or rather I fear it does, and that my theory will reveal my fundamental lack of knowledge about the physical characteristics of the world—geology, magnetic fields, how energy behaves. But I’ve come to care less and less about what is revealed about me. So here it is.
          Certain things need certain other things in order to stay well, or at least in order to function at peak performance. Turtles, for instance, need a certain amount of time spent basking in the sun. It dries their shells, and prevents algae from growing on them. They have to dry out completely to achieve the weed-free state, so they lumber up onto a branch protruding from the water, or onto shore, and let the light do its work on them even though it makes them nervous. Out of the water they are much more accessible to predators, so what they need seems dangerous.
          IPods and Blackberries and countless other devices can sync with a larger computer, a desktop version, for instance. When docked or plugged in, they get their battery recharged, and also can exchange important information—updates, if you will—with the more powerful parent machine. They are made to do this. So I began to wonder about human bodies. Where is our “docking station?” We are biological beings—mammals, animals—growing up out of the complicated hierarchy of the earth’s food chain, uniquely adapted to her atmosphere. On a cellular level, we must be somehow attuned to or even dependent upon the energy and information available from contact with our planet. We are made that way.
          However, modern life inhibits many of us from receiving that contact. We move about in vehicles raised up off the ground, with rubber tires rolling over asphalt barrier strips. We walk on concrete sidewalks, shop in windowless malls, and even have most of our babies several stories high, in hospitals. I myself spend my work day indoors, walk to lunch on sidewalks, walk to the parking lot without ever getting off the pavement, and drive my car to my own driveway, where I walk on the sidewalk up to my front door and sleep on the second story. It is possible for me to go days without my foot ever leaving a manufactured surface. In the winter, it might be weeks.
          When I get out of the city and into remote areas, I always get profoundly sleepy. I usually wander off from the campsite, throw an old quilt on the ground and take a nap. It is akin to being drugged, and I suspect it is a primal self-preservation feature, like thirst, that ensures my body gets what it needs to survive. Other times I drag loved ones outside with me to lie on the ground and look at stars, or to put chairs in the river and let the current wash over us. Before she moved away, my walking partner and I stopped often in the woods to make snow angels, and after making our wings we’d lie still in the cradle of the angel shapes, just letting the energy from the ground interact with the energy of our bodies. It felt necessary.
          I don’t understand it. But I know that being still outdoors is some kind of biological sacrament, and that the more of my body that is in direct contact with the ground, the holier the moment becomes. Lying on the ground trumps standing, for instance. When I still myself outdoors, voice included, I am reminded of the part of Catholic Mass when a bell rings to indicate we are now moving into the most sacred portion of the Mass. Or maybe it is like chemotherapy, a quiet but powerful medicine righting what is unwell. My cells and my spirit need the energy and information given to them from the most elemental components of the earth’s surface—waters, grasses, natural light, mud.
          Yesterday my nephew walked with me on our land in Monona County. I was grateful for his company, like I usually am, because without him I doubt I would have braved the 13 degree temperature, and I certainly would have turned back sooner. Over the terrace behind the house he found a patch of ice with no snow cover—maybe thirty feet across—and practiced his slides. I walked across it gingerly, feeling old, intrigued by the smooth and clear surface but worried about falling. We then walked south toward the ridge, and talked about spotting Sasquatch, an ongoing conversation that neither of us can exhaust. Craig humored me when I told him I had to lie down on the ground for a minute, and entertained himself running up and down a nearby slope until I got back up.
          My nephew never gets cold. He was gloveless, and when I expressed concern he insisted his hands have some sort of strange property that allows him to plunge them into snow banks with no complaint. He demonstrated by placing them palms down on a patch of snow and holding them there. When he finally raised them up the clear outlines of each finger were visible in the snow. Agreeing this was a strange quality, I told him I finally found the sought-after Sasquatch, and pointed at him with my gloved hand.

          Down at the pond’s edge we investigated the concrete spillway, another inexhaustible interest we share, where a waterfall of ice had formed and still more water was pouring itself over the lip to fall away to the lower pond. I scanned the frozen valley, and explained that the amount of water we saw moving here told us the output of the underground springs that feed the pond, since no water was draining into the pond from the fields at these temperatures. It was enough to fill a gallon bucket in seconds. He climbed over the railing and out onto the ice, walking partway out to see the holes drilled by an ice fisherman a few days earlier, now frozen solid again.
          Later I stood on the dam while he climbed the barbed wire fence and went down to the small, lower pond to get a better look at the tracks across it—bobcat or coyote—and break open some thin ice there by repeatedly pounding it with a log. He spent time down there last summer, and has given me reports about the bass and turtle population below. On the way back to the house, I pointed out scraps of rabbit fur and we wondered if it was taken by a hawk or a coyote. I told him you can often find the rabbit’s tail among the debris, because predators don’t eat it, and we looked but didn’t find it.
          That night, a pot of brown rice on the stove filled the house with scent, and the vaporizer that had been running all day misted the inside of the windows. My nephew had gone home over the hill with his dad. In the dark, I pictured the water still pouring itself up out of the seam of the valley, tumbling over the spillway, minute after minute after minute.
         This morning the temperature was one degree, well below my cut-off for hiking. But the air was still, and the sun was out, and the new snow that had fallen overnight was shining. It drugged me with beauty, and in my impaired state I pulled on several layers of clothes and ventured out. I stood still in the snow-hush, interrupted only by the intermittent tinkling sound of birds, and then I headed northwest on the road, walking in one of the tracks left from a passing truck, snow crunching and creaking under my boots. On the way back toward the house, I left the road to walk up past the barn where the sun was warming the eastern face of the hill. I felt called to lie down, though it was cold. It was, after all, what I had just declared as my religion.
          I found a place in the sun in the alfalfa field where the snow was marked with the tracks of the two-toed deer, and stretched out on my back. Immediately I felt the medicine of connection, a homecoming between my physical body and the hillside. Without my movements, the valley was quiet again. In this position, with the sky a wide screen above me, I noticed my set of floaters, the harmless web of images made from shadows cast on my retina. I settled in, feeling my body relax against the snow, and wondered how long I could remain still in the cold.
          For Christmas, I gave my nephew a manual and DVD about Bigfoot, which included recordings of what their vocalizations supposedly sound like, a haunting cry echoing through the woods. He joked with me that a section of fallen soil on the far side of my pond was Sasquatch’s Cave. Even the true believers haven’t spotted him in this part of the country, though, so we have to admit that any dens in these hills are badger or coyote, most likely, and we’ve seen evidence of both.
          Lying in extreme cold gets your attention. There is a crisp and bright urgency about it, a sense of being fully present, much like my first spill in my kayak, in late fall on the Cedar River. I came up on a partially submerged log, and when I saw it I made a beginner’s mistake, leaning away from the danger, which is what many of us do instinctively. I would have fared better leaning in toward it. Before I knew it, water was spilling into the open cockpit and the kayak rolled over, and I fell out. I knew enough to grab my paddle and my kayak, but it was now heavy with water, and I was standing waist deep in 55 degree river water, disoriented. In moments, my friend came around the bend in his own kayak and helped me get to shore and dump the water from my boat. Soon I had dry clothes on and would’ve been ready to get back on the river except my heart was pounding so hard. Here’s what I know about standing in the cold river: you don’t have to question whether you are alive. Every cell is wide awake, cataloging the experience.
          So it is in the snow. With the air one degree above zero, I began to recall what I knew about hypothermia, about the false sense of safety people get as they freeze, and just then I heard barking off to my right. Our closest neighbor lives half a mile away or more, and the only dogs I’ve ever seen in this valley came and left with our visitors. I know people drop unwanted dogs in the country, but I had yet to see one. I thought it might be a coyote, but I had only heard them at night. Could it be a fox? How close was it? I was afraid any movement would scare it off, so I continued to stare at the sky while the barks shifted to high-pitched howls. Definitely coyote.
          I know that even when coyotes sound close, they might be miles away. I listened as this one barked and yipped and howled, and I waited for others to join in, but they didn’t. Slowly I rolled to my side and lifted my head to look over in the coyote’s direction. At the top of the ridge, pacing back and forth along the spine of the hill, I saw his silhouette. Over and over he turned, his call out in all directions, barking and howling, sometimes clear and sometimes wavering. He paused in his singing to pace and drop his nose to the ground, then turned and raised his head again to renew the song. The sounds he made rolled heavily through the valley, sheer and robust, signaling to everything with ears: Here I am, here I am, here I am.
          Ten minutes passed and the cold had made its way through every layer I was wearing. I couldn’t bear to get up while he was singing, knowing he’d stop when he saw me, but I had to at least shift position. I sat up, and he kept barking. If anyone was answering him, I couldn’t hear it. So I did. Mimicking him, I sent three short barks up the hill and he turned in my direction, replying. I barked again, and again he barked. In the bright snow on a Sunday morning, he and I added hymns to my invented religion.
          I had to go inside. It was time to pack, lock up and head back to the city. Before I got in the truck, I stood and stared at the ridge top, now bare, and listened again for the coyote but he had gone silent. All the way home the coyote medicine built up in my blood, and the holy text associated with my religion began to form itself. Here is what has been revealed so far. Cold is vital. The consecrated ground is off the sidewalk. A boy who lives over the hill is our guide. Those who seek might go to the alfalfa field in winter or to the bend in the river in the fall. When something cries out in the wilderness, answer it. Leave your hand prints in the snow. Much of what we need seems dangerous, and when approaching danger, lean toward it, not away. The holy ghost is feral, and all the angels are snow angels.