Often it’s something subtle, a glow of light through leaves, a deeper shade, a resonance of bark, and the sense of something much greater and older imbues consciousness. And someone appears. Maybe a banana slug. A surprising creature moving ever so slowly, gliding in slow motion over the moss on a dead tree trunk in moist ferny forest. There are species that when they appear seem like a spirit of the forest. I should rephrase that, this humble creature surely is a spirit of the forest. Scientifically it is Ariolimax, an air breathing gastropod mollusk that lives in the moist cool redwood zone of coastal northern California and in the wet coastal forests all the way up to southeast Alaska (with a few limited relict populations further south and to the east in the Sierra Nevada). But through the lens of the animist it is something more, my experience of it is more than rationalist knowledge can contain. I’m not putting down that kind of knowledge (I find people always jump to such conclusions when any limitations to our dominant mode of rationality are stated) as it obviously informs my understanding of this creature that is the mascot of the University of California at Santa Cruz.
But there is something improbable about the banana slugs and their appearances; at least for me. I feel a kind of surprise; I who usually find garden slugs disgusting, yet these primal creatures of the forest elicit something like what the Japanese call yugen, reflecting something deep and hinting of unnoticed things. The Japanese poet Kamo no Chōmei (13th century) offers the following as a characterization of yūgen: “It is like an autumn evening under a colorless expanse of silent sky. Somehow, as if for some reason that we should be able to recall, tears well uncontrollably.” Or Nancy Hume writing in Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader writes, “When looking at autumn mountains through mist, the view may be indistinct yet have great depth. Although few autumn leaves may be visible through the mist, the view is alluring. The limitless vista created in imagination far surpasses anything one can see more clearly” (Hume, 253–54). The Beat poet Hettie Jones (and first wife of Amiri Baraka) had a literary magazine in the ‘50s called Yugen, with the emphasize on surprise, paradox, like the classic yugen image of a tree growing out of rock, the unexpected, the richness of emotional perception, awe.
I would say chains of relationships, of time, of the exceptions, braidings and weavings of life are evoked. The ecologist Aldo Leopold, who was an advisor on conservation to the United Nations and died in 1948 in a grass fire, used the term noumenon, an imponderable essence of material things. He writes of how in the north woods autumn landscape consists of “the land, plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre. Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead. An enormous amount of some kind of motive power has been lost (A Sand County Almanac, 137). He goes on to mention various birds who are the noumenon of different landscapes like the Thick-billed Parrot of the Sierra Madre. I’d say the Stellar’s jay is one in the redwood forest, but so is the banana slug, that humble invertebrate, flashing yellow in the dim woods, gliding slowly, but determinedly down through the ages.