Several months ago, I went on my standard walk around the neighborhood. My husband and I live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in an area that was mostly wild land when we moved here ten years ago but has since become covered with new houses. Between the developments, though, there are still strips of wild land, rock and sage and grasses whose names I don't know. After our rare rains, the air smells of sagebrush.
Depending on the time of year when I'm walking here, I may see rabbits, lizards or snakes. I once saw a rattlesnake not fifty feet from the nearest house, basking on the paved walkway. There are always quail; in the spring and summer, the parents parade with their tiny chicks. In the snow, I've seen what might have been coyote tracks, although I've never seen a coyote here. (I did see a large one next to our local supermarket during wildfire season; it must have been driven into town by flames and lack of food.) I often encounter people walking dogs, and I pat and coo at the dogs if they're friendly.
This is familiar territory for me, and it usually feels very safe. But on this particular day, I set out later than usual. As I turned around to come back home, dusk began falling. The dark settled in more quickly than I expected. The familiar shapes of fences and rocks along the path became transformed by shadow into objects I'd never seen before. Not too far away, a little higher in the hills than where I was walking, coyotes began yipping and the neighborhood dogs answered with long, eerie howls. My response was completely a matter of mammalian biology: as trite as it sounds, the hair rose on the back of my neck and I felt a sliding sensation down my spine. I hurried home much more quickly than usual.
That walk made me remember how wild the world we live in really is and how quickly we can find ourselves in strange, often frightening territory, even though we seem to be in places we've visited many times before. Dusk can fall on our lives in any number of ways: when we or someone we love has been diagnosed with a serious illness, after a death, in the aftermath of natural disaster. We're in the same geographical place we've always been, but everything’s different. We no longer recognize everyday landmarks and we're newly aware of lurking dangers. There are predators howling in the darkness.
They've always been there, but we've never had to think about them before.
My walk also reminded me, though, that I'm part of this same natural world, and that my body knows how to respond to it, even though I usually live in the comfort of electric lights and indoor plumbing. My mammalian response was a reliable guide: my instincts knew what my body needed to do — get indoors — even if everything around me seemed newly unfamiliar.
The walk was a spiritual experience. It shook me out of my complacency and once more showed me the grandeur and mystery of God’s creation, which includes my own frail flesh. I won't soon forget the haunting call-and-response of the coyotes and their domesticated cousins. Sometimes at dusk now, as NPR broadcasts and cats crying for dinner fill the house, I remind myself that the canine chorus is happening out there in the dark, and that I could hear it if I were brave enough to venture outside.
So far, I've stayed indoors. This is, I know, a luxury I will not always have. I will surely face many dusks in my life: the decline and death of those I love, my own aging, losses I cannot yet foresee. I hope I can remember that whatever wildernesses I will travel, they are God’s good creation, and that there is beauty in the darkness, as well as fear.
And I hope I can maintain my trust in the certainty of warm, lighted houses along the way. When I cannot navigate the paths myself, I must believe that there will be others to help me, as I have tried to help patients at the hospital whom illness has plunged into alien terrain. I must believe that wherever I go, there will be someone who knows this ground, who can guide me over rough patches and steady me when I stumble, until we reach shelter and lamplight and the comfort of the evening meal.
Walking quickly home that darkening evening, I found new meaning in the parable of the lost sheep. I have pledged my faith to the one who promises safety to every member of the flock. To follow him truly, I must also brave darkness and seek out those crying in strange canyons. And when I am most lost, when my own body at last has failed me and no human hand can offer further aid, I must trust that the shepherd will find me, and take me home.