It’s nearing sunset as I walk along the bluff trail toward the eagle-nest tree. As I round the last curve, I’m not surprised to see the small group of eagle-watchers who in recent weeks have been gathering at this spot late in the afternoon, when the golden light lends a richness of color on the fir needles and gives a special glow to the eagles’ feathers. We hang out along the fence, chatting about eagles, hawks, hummingbirds, hikes, occasionally raising binoculars and cameras to get a closer look at one of the parent eagles on top of their favorite perch on a nearby bare-topped fir, or at their huge fledgling, perched on a thick limb below his nest.
The scene has been reminding me of something I haven’t quite been able to pin down until a few days ago, when I finally remembered one of my favorite childhood books.
For those of you “of a certain age,” do you remember back in grade school when a few times a year, you could order books from Scholastic Book Services? Everyone’s orders would come in boxes and the teacher would parcel out the stacks of thin paperbound books to us lucky kids whose parents had let us order them. What a wonderful feeling, running your hands over the smooth covers, finding out which books you had ordered so long ago! What a juicy sense of anticipation—all those stories to plunge into!
Once I had remembered that special book, long packed away in some box in my parents’ basement, perhaps still there or perhaps lost in the small flood along with many precious old photos, of course I had to order a copy. Not the later reprinted edition, but the very version I had owned so long ago, with the cover I remembered.
The Forgotten Door (published in 1965 by Alexander Key, heh) arrived a few days ago. I took two delicious days to read it through.
The story involves Jon, a boy who has fallen through a long-disused door from another planet: Earth-like, but where people are so empathic that they easily reach out to understand others’ thoughts and feelings, and are in communion with animals. Having lost his memory, Jon first makes contact and travels with a doe and her fawn and is surprised when he perceives their fear as they near a particular valley; what could such creatures possibly have to be afraid of? Jon senses, astounded, the angry presence of a human with a weapon in time to warn the doe, who escapes with just a slight gunshot wound.
Jon’s time on Earth with a special family grows perilous as his abilities threaten the ways of their—our—culture, which responds with increasing violence. The scene that emerges for him as his memory finally returns is of his village’s daily gathering with the animals at sunset, to watch together from a ledge above the valley as the stars emerge in the darkening sky.
I was probably ten years old when I read this story (whose ending I won’t reveal here; read the book!), but the image of people peacefully gathering with the animals at sunset apparently nestled into my subconscious and set up lifetime housekeeping. I’m guessing that the book’s version of Paradise has stuck with me as well, helped form this yearning for human-nature harmony that drives my mornings in the forest and my afternoons writing in my study.
How can we hold onto these hopes, remember these founding images, in the face of such widespread contemporary human disregard for nature, of intentional cruelty that shatters your heart, of the extinction of experience (as Robert Pyle puts it)?
An important key to the forgotten door, I think, lies in recognizing pieces of Paradise when we encounter them; to stay awake and aware of a world with awe and beauty and love as well as awfulness. My evening eagle-watchers remind me of the way the world should be—and, miraculously, sometimes is.