The delusion of self-sufficiency came to an end in my mid-twenties, as I sat in an armchair in Yorkshire, sipping a late-night whiskey with my mother.
I remember it as a particularly haunting moment. I mean, mothers are not something to which a young man gives much thought in his work life, especially if his work takes him out into the world in a venturesome way, and I had been venturing with a full, young, and masculine vengeance: rock climbing, ice climbing, sailing, traveling, and working on a shoestring budget through all the byways of the world. I had come through any number of near scrapes, had been attacked, shot at, or set on by dogs in all the best places and had always emerged breathless, a little battered, but triumphant.
In the midst of all my good luck, and seemingly far from my mother, a near drowning in the Galápagos Islands shook me to the core but in some ways also confirmed my idea of personal invulnerability. I had emerged with another tale to mark my divinely ordained, youthful presence in the world.
The backdrop to the story was dramatic: an amphitheater of rock and sea on a wild, lonely, wave-drenched hunk of rock on the southern edge of the Galápagos named Hood Island. Imagine an enormous lava cliff with the ocean rolling huge breakers against its base. Imagine small, black dragonlike lizards known as marine iguanas riding those waves, and when the waves recede, see them clinging in an impossible way to the rock face. Imagine the air filled with the cries of seabirds and sea lions, and imagine you hear, every so often, a huge roaring sound from below the cliff, where the waves tear up through a deep crack in the living rock.
It was in this place, far from my mother in her armchair, that I came to lead Matt Downing, a fellow naturalist guide, into a near-death experience. Matt and I were on top of the cliff staring at the vast sway of sea that stretches southward for several thousand miles to the Antarctic ice shelf.
At one point beneath that cliff lay a large platform of lava rock. A ramp in the cliff led down onto the platform and to the source of the roaring sound. A huge, curving crack snaked in from the edge of the cliff for 20 feet; beneath this, the full fury of the ocean would concentrate before spraying up through the opening to a height of about 30 or 40 feet above the platform. The whole effect was like witnessing Yellowstone's famous geyser, Old Faithful. As a guide, I would stand near the edge of the crack and take a salt-water shower under the falling plume while the group clicked merrily away, capturing the moment for their slide shows. I had done this for months, and I was sure it had helped increase the generosity of the group when, at journey's end, they held a collection for the guide's deserving tip.
In this spirit, I persuaded Matt to join me at the edge of the blowhole. He was a little hesitant but soon joined in the exhilaration of being showered by tons of water falling on us from a great height. I remember seeing the photographs many weeks later, taken by our watching group one moment before disaster struck. There we are, having all the fun in the world. But beneath us, off camera, the water suddenly disappeared. We waited for it to surge back again. It did not. Something was wrong. I looked down to the sea below. The ocean was curling into the most frightful, pent-up tsunami. I grabbed Matt's arm and shouted, "God Almighty!" We barely had time to turn away when the mighty surge barreling back up the crack was overtaken by the huge wave rolling over the top of the cliff. I remember trying to keep my feet in front of me because there was a 12-foot rock step in the platform, against which we were being flung. I didn't want to hit it headfirst. My arm had been loosed from Matt's, and he disappeared into the surging nothingness. I hit the lava wall feet first, and then I was dragged back by the force of the ebbing water over the platform to the edge of the cliff. The next image offered to the eyes of our group was me gripping the edge of the blowhole, my feet hanging into its mouth. Beyond me, Matt hung off the edge of the cliff, his feet swinging wildly for purchase. The next wave hit us like a hammer blow. This time there was no keeping my feet in any direction. I was somersaulted toward the step, over and over. The second wave was so huge that it took me right over the top of the lava step. I surged forward, banging against the rocks, until I reached the awestruck group and was left at their feet, lacerated and shocked.
I remember looking up into the horrified faces and thinking in an abstract way that this performance should merit a very large tip. The thought crumpled immediately in the shock and realization of my banged-up state. I was also desperate for the sight of Matt. There he lay, about 30 feet away, blood running down his back and arms. Matt was evacuated to the boat, deliriously asking if anyone got the number of the truck that hit him, while I recovered lying flat out on the beach, amazed that I wasn't dead.
What is left in my memory is the sheer quivering power of the ocean. I had heard about waves out of nowhere, turning boats over, but I had never witnessed them firsthand. I lay on the beach with a deep pain running through my stomach—as if someone had reached inside me and in no uncertain terms informed me that I was like everything else in the world: I had no immunity.
Next: His mother's uncanny dream
The blessing came in an unconscious physical respect for the sea that began to inform everything I did around the boats, from the merest tying of a knot to the safety of every individual and group in my care.
The blessing was also in sheer survival. A few feet here, a few feet there, and I would have been over that cliff, from whence there was no return. A boat could not have even approached to pick up my body. I had been given the sight of my own end and had returned to carry the revelation into the rest of my existence. I was not a discrete sports star in the firmament of my own adulation. I belonged to a very powerful world, and everything had its own life equal to my own. Still, in an ironic way, I felt sure that I had come to all this myself, under my own luck and power.
As the waves recede in my memory, I come, three years later, to the armchair in Yorkshire and my mother sipping whiskey. I was home for only a short stay, and we were talking about my travels and the amount of time I spent away from her. In inimitable Irish fashion, my mother was telling me how much she missed me and how she said a prayer for my safety every night. I nodded in good sonlike fashion but was ready to move on to other more adult things, appropriate to a grown man talking to his mother. But before I could encourage the conversation onto other ground, she began to tell me about a vivid dream that had woken her up during my time in the Galápagos.
Apparently, in the dream I had been standing on a black cliff with one other person, next to a fountain of water. A huge, frightening wave bore down on us in the dream. The blowhole on Hood Island. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as she spoke, describing in clear detail from her dream the exact circumstance of my near drowning. I had never so much as breathed a word of the incident, knowing how much she worried about me, nor had I told my father or either of my sisters. "You were standing on the cliff edge next to the strange fountain when a big wave came over the top and swept you away. You came floating back in all the turmoil but then another, bigger wave came and you were being taken out to sea. I felt the blackness of the water waiting for you. In the dream, I leaned down from above and took hold of you by the back of the neck. I lifted you out and put you safely back on the cliff. When I woke, I felt so happy that I had been able to save you."
I looked at my mother with absolute amazement. I was shocked into silence to hear such a precise description of something so private to me, a clear description of the frightening trauma I had been trying, I realized, to forget. The sound of the waves seemed to surround me as she spoke, the sea spray thundering amidst the bird cries. I looked at her as if I had seen a ghost, which I had. It was my self-image vanishing. I told my mother the other side of the story. We stared into our glasses; we looked at each other.
Then I found myself amidst other waves, waves of laughter at the absurdity of it all. They began to ripple to the surface, and my mother began to laugh, too. "Bloody marvelous, isn't it?" I said. "Here I am adventuring around the world like some invulnerable version of Indiana Jones, lord of all I survey, and all the time it is my mother coming in like the cavalry at the end and saving me from the jaws of destruction." We raised the glasses together, hooting at the image. But as the laughter subsided, I told myself in no uncertain terms, David, whatever it is you think you are, give it up. There are powers at play in the world about which you know very little. Like, for instance, this little woman sitting in front of you who sponsored your exclusive membership in this hard-to-obtain world and for all you know still pays a hefty part of your annual dues.
There was a feeling in the room of time stopping dead still. I'm not interested in the psychic glamour of it all, nor the intuitive reach of my mother, which I had experienced many times before. Yes, I was perfectly prepared to believe that the intercession was real. That without her watchful, loving presence I would have been swept away. But irrespective of the far-fetched psychic reality of it all, something else had happened inside me. I stopped trying to do it all myself. I was like everything else in this life. I didn't need to have absolute total control over my destiny. I couldn't have it anyway.
I was given a sense of the intimate way everything is a brother and sister to everything else. Everything we see as private is somehow already out in the world. The singularity of existence is only half the story; all our singularities are in the conscious and unconscious conversation with everything else. The fierce ecologies of belonging I had witnessed in the Galápagos extended like a long wave form passing right through my life. Sitting in front of the fire of a damp Yorkshire evening, I felt as if these waves of revelation and belonging had at last come to claim me, like the Pacific breakers had once tried.
Whatever powers we have in the world, in our work, in our leadership, in our imaginations, they are in the gift of a much larger world than one we have made for ourselves. We are dependent in all our lives on a deeper, wider creation which we must join, a creation waiting to transform us in that joining by the merest touch.