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I’m enjoying on retreat in California right now, which will explain what provoked this piece.
When you walk in the hills in southern California, through stands of pine and tall grass, up shaly mountains where the sides fall away steeply and the rock splinters rather than crumbles, you can hear the sound of the wind in the treetops, making them sway, making them creak. Stand still and you will hear the little noises, the sound of a deer’s delicate steps, far away a Stellar’s jay scolding some interloper, the click and tap of falling rocks.
There are ghosts out there in the hills, walking the ridges, slipping among the trees, but they are mostly animal ghosts, the memories of deer and mountain lions, a flicker of rattlesnake among the grass stalks, an eagle’s shadow floating over the earth.
If you find a human ghost alone out there while walking, approach it with caution. Groups of ghosts are left behind by villages and tribes, and many of them died peacefully, among those they loved. Solo ghosts are usually ghosts who came to a violent end, blade or bullet or even bared teeth, and they do not want to be disturbed.
If such a ghost blocks your path, stand still enough to hear the protests of the pines, the slide of dust downhill. Do not look them in the eye, but at a point past their shoulder. At first they will know this for a ruse, but give it time and they will falter. Finally they will turn away and vanish, because you can never see the back of a ghost, and you will be free to move further.
There are other dangers in the hills, but you know if you keep walking towards the sunset, eventually you will find the ocean – perhaps cliffs dropping down, perhaps sand and rock sloping. There are more ghosts in the ocean than anywhere else, but that is because it is so very large, and most of them are fish and gulls, whose ghosts pay no attention to humans. Sit on the shore and listen again. You’ll hear it say, Why go on walking? and Who knows why the wind blows?
And when you realize that the only sounds you cannot hear are your breath, your heart, your body, you will know you are a ghost yourself, ready to go down to the sea, and swim there in the water, in the waves alive with noise.