By Michael Helsher
I’ve taken walks in the forest for most of my life, but I have never once seen an owl when I’ve heard hooting in the woods. Over the years, I came to think of them as the invisible guardians of nature, wise beyond words, exceptionally good, especially at keeping the vermin population in check.
Once in a while, I’d get spooked by an owl’s hoot echoing through a forest. My senses would go on full alert, absorbing the natural surroundings, until the unnatural sense of myself was gone. Then, if I was lucky enough to hear another hoot, it would make me giggle, just a little, because it reminded me of my favorite line in Walden: “Let them do the idiotic and maniacal hooting for men.”
Ten years ago, I usually carried with me a beat-up copy of Thoreau’s Walden wherever I went. I suppose it was a replacement for the Catholic Youth Bible I once burnt, buried, and planted a seed over up on top of my favorite hill in the forest. Walden was a stand-in for what the Bible might have meant to me back then, that is if there had been someone with the wisdom to cause my young mind to want giggle about some of the wise passages in it.
But the Bible, sadly, was shown to me to be about nothing other than the serious business of instilled existential guilt, coupled with a list of rules I had to follow to avoid having my soul roasted for eternity. In my 20s, 30s, and half of my 40s, I was pissed about that. I railed against the Catholic church and felt myself to be a victim of the poison of religion. I even went so far as to pretend I was an atheist, even though my heart said otherwise.
I’m not sure why my resentment faded, but I know now, down deep—somewhere close to where the invisible hooting owl cuts into my giggle reflex—that “goodness is the only investment that never fails.” I know the spirit of what Thoreau was trying to say with those clunky words.
Goodness isn’t nice, and rarely is it spoken. It’s being spooked by an owl hoot. It’s all the clumsy first times. The last times. The long-gone good times and even some of the bad times. It’s the monster outside my bedroom door when was a kid. It’s the pain I felt when I held my dog while she took her last breath.
"The memory still burns bright in me. It reminds me of a question Thoreau asked himself in his journal. What is religion? he wrote, to which he answered, That which is never spoken."
We were discussing Henry David Thoreau in an Early American Lit. class, when I saw across the room a young lady who was bouncing in her chair, her arm stretched up like she was wanting to touch the ceiling. Two people got picked before her, but she didn’t flinch. She kept bouncing with her hand held high. When she finally got her chance to speak, she grabbed some papers off her desk and began to stutter. “I… I mean. I mean it’s just, it’s like…” She dropped her papers back down on the desk, inhaled deeply, let out a long heavy sigh and said, “I love Thoreau.”
Laugher erupted all around the room.
The memory still burns bright in me. It reminds me of a question Thoreau asked himself in his journal. What is religion? he wrote, to which he answered, That which is never spoken. So with that in mind, the young lady in my early American Literature class had a religious experience, because she couldn’t speak, and made us all laugh, and caused the moment to be branded into the ever-tangled web of experience I call my memory. Save for the three words she uttered in frustration, nothing else about that moment was spoken..
The memory is one of those investments that “never fails.” And the moment was a religious experience for me as well. Religious in the spirit of the Latin word Religio, which Joseph Campbell translated as “to reconnect, linking back.” Linking back, connection, devotion, resonance, these are a few of the many words that can be used to describe the one, the big one, in English. The one that everyone wants. “The word” that links us all the way back to the beginning. Ancient Sanskrit has 96 words for it, none of which I know how to speak.
But truth can be spoken to some degree. And at 56 years old, I’m still learning how to speak it. The best way to learn how to speak the truth, I’ve found, is to stop lying. That was and still is, brutal—because everything I thought I knew about myself turned out to be a lie.
Hearing an owl hoot in the woods is a good sign. One that always makes me giggle. Just a little. They are wise beyond words, exceptionally good, especially at keeping the vermin population in check.
Michael Helsher is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.