I went to a land-grant university, a rural school that students at the rival institution dismissed as a cow college, though I was a junior before I ever saw a single cow there. For someone who had spent her childhood almost entirely outdoors, my college life was curiously manic. Every day I followed the same brick path from crowded dorm to crowded class to crowded office to crowded cafeteria, and then back to the dorm again. A gentler terrain of fields and ponds and piney woods existed less than a mile from the liberal-arts high rise, but I had no time for idle exploring, for poking about in the miniature universe where forestry and agriculture students learned their trade.
One afternoon late in the fall of my junior year, I broke. I had stopped at the cafeteria to grab a sandwich before the dinner crowd hit, hoping for a few minutes of quiet in which to read my literature assignment, the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, before my evening shift at the dorm desk. But even with few students present, there was nothing resembling quiet in that cavernous room. The loudspeaker blasted John Cougar’s little ditty about Jack and Diane, and I pressed my fingers into my ears and hunched low over my book. The sound of my own urgent blood thumping through my veins quarreled with the magnificent sprung rhythm of the poem as thoroughly as Jack and Diane did, and I finally snapped the book closed. My heart was still pounding as I stepped into the dorm lobby, ditched my pack, and started walking. I was headed out.
It was a delight to be moving, to feel my body expanding into the larger gestures of outdoors. What a relief to feel my walk lengthen into a stride and my lungs taking in air by the gulp. I kept walking—past the football stadium, past the sorority dorms—until I came to the red-dirt lanes of the ag program’s experimental fields. Brinded cows turned their unsurprised faces toward me in pastures dotted with hay bales that looked like giant spools of golden thread. The empty bluebird boxes nailed to every fourth fence post were shining in the slanted light. A red-tailed hawk—the only kind I could name—glided past, calling its hoarse, raspy song into the gleaming sky.
I caught my breath and walked on, with a rising sense that glory was all around me. Only at twilight can an ordinary mortal walk in light and dark at once—feet plodding through night, eyes turned up toward bright day. It is a glimpse into eternity, that bewildering notion of endless time, of light and dark existing simultaneously.
By the time the fields gave way to the experimental forest, the wind had picked up, and dogwood leaves were lifting and falling in the falling light. There are few sights lovelier than leaves being carried on wind, but I had missed them in the quad. And the swifts wheeling in the sky as evening came on—they were just as clear to anyone standing on the sidewalk outside Haley Center, though I had missed them, too. But there, in that thoroughly managed little forest, I finally heard the sound of trees giving themselves over to night. Long after I turned in my paper on Hopkins, long after I was gone myself, I knew, this goldengrove unleaving would be releasing its bounty to the wind.