“I felt a warm energy: eyes on my back, focused like lasers.”
By Beebe Bahrami
I was in Asturias, Spain, an arrowhead-shaped green land defined by the toothy gray Cantabrian Mountains to the south and the liquid blue Atlantic to the north. I had come in hopes of inhabiting more intimately this land of wild ocean and rugged mountains, where humans have herded, foraged, farmed, and fished on a small sustainable scale for millennia. On prior visits I had discovered myriad footpaths that snaked along the north Atlantic coastline, knitting together forests and fishing villages across a verdant plateau edged with steep gray cliffs that dropped to the water below. All I wanted to do was walk them, learn about life from locals, and get lost in wild, deep nature.
In the fishing town of Luarca I settled into a harborside inn run by a retired fisherman who quickly became my spiritual guide to Asturias without ever stepping away from the bar counter of his cafe. As soon as I arrived, he made me a strong coffee and told me about the fishermen I could see working in the harbor. Most rose and went to sea at three in the morning, he said. Some would return the same afternoon and others not for many days. A shrine devoted to Mary stood on the harbor’s outer ridge, gazing out to sea to protect the seabound while also looking after their loved ones remaining on land.
When the retired seaman learned of my intent, he told me to look for the footpaths between the better worn paths—the ones that were nearly invisible, faint pencil lines that traced passages through forest, farm, and field.
“Locals use them all the time,” he said, “even when they cut across a neighbor’s field. Just wave as you pass.”
I set off early the next morning, after fishing crews had taken half the boats in the harbor out to sea. I followed a steep trail up and over the rocky bowl protecting Luarca’s harbor and went west—ocean to my right and mountains to my left—along a patchwork plateau that alternated between oak and chestnut forests and small secret meadows overtaken by wildflowers. My goal was the neighboring fishing village of Puerto de Vega, about a three-hour walk away.
Deeper in, I could smell the ocean but could no longer see or hear it. The mountains remained constant giant companions. I paused and focused my vision. Like that state of mind that shifts when you go mushroom hunting or berry picking, invisible local paths began to appear that led me like a gentle companion through forest and field, each new vista opening previously hidden passages marked by the soft tilt of grass, the bobble of a wildflower over a parting, a dragonfly using the opening for passage. My mind and body aligned and sharpened into total presence, forgetting past and future, aches and regrets. I had a hawk for company, landing and flying to the next treetop as I walked below. Numerous tiny forest inhabitants shuttled or flitted across and along with me. I encountered no people and heard no cars.
An hour after leaving Luarca, I cleared the woods and followed a thin path onto the wider dirt road that slipped through the hamlet of San Martín. I approached the small cluster of homes. No people were about but three village dogs lay out front, fast asleep, their ribcages rising and falling in slow, deep, syncopated motion.
I moved past the houses, the dogs, the small village church, the cows grazing in the pasture, and then stopped to locate the next faint path. I heard and felt everything: the soft wind rustling the chestnut leaves, the vibration of a bee in a stand of flowers, the cows chewing grass, the heavy breathing of the dogs.
Then it all stopped, as if everything suddenly held its breath, and I felt a warm energy: eyes on my back, focused like lasers. I turned slowly and froze. Twenty meters away stood a wolf. He too was stock still. Our eyes met, and whether it was advisable or not, I couldn’t unlock mine and look away. I felt agitation, his and mine. But I felt something else—hesitancy, a mutual not knowing what to do. We had each surprised the other. I had probably spoiled his plan to slip unseen by people and sleeping dogs toward the ocean to scavenge for fish at low tide.
And that’s when it happened. As I stood there—staring, frozen, fully present—the barriers of space and time dissolved and I felt myself woven into an outrageous interconnectedness. I felt the invisible weave that wove us all together. I was one thread and the wolf another, and all of us, all life, were threads, too, all caught in the same warp and woof, magnificent invisible footpaths everywhere threading everything into an interconnected whole.
The dogs woke. Perhaps it was the stillness or perhaps the scent. I felt a sudden jerk in my solar plexus at their erupting barks. In that same moment, the wolf was gone. I looked south in time to see a gray form fleeing to the mountains. But the thread didn’t snap, it elongated, elastic. Part of me flew south, too.
In recent decades, wildlife biologists have developed a better understanding about interactions between wolves and humans. Where there is conflict, it is typically humans who have created the circumstances for it. We are the ones who have cut access to their natural corridors of movement through their native territories. We have deforested and overdeveloped their traditional hunting grounds, restricting their access to wild prey, thereby encouraging these opportunistic hunters to take down a sick or weak sheep—a hard thing for a hungry animal to pass up. And it is we who gave rise to the wild feral dogs who now account for more livestock attacks than wolves, as Spanish researchers have documented.
But in Asturias there seemed to be a different pattern at work. Humans weave themselves mindfully into the land, plying an almost invisible web of footpaths that offer passage without blockage, to us and to all inhabitants—just wave as you pass. Instead of tearing the fabric, people join the weave.
I continued west. The barking diminished. I was glad the dogs were tied. A shade of sadness followed me, but a deeper enchantment pulsed in my bones. I stopped often and glanced toward the mountains, still feeling watched, still feeling the thread. It grew long and thin but remained supple and strong.
I arrived in Puerto de Vega and took the local narrow-gauge rail back to Luarca by nightfall. When I walked into the old seaman’s bar, he was holding court over cold beers with a customer. He looked at my face, pulled me a draft, and set it on the counter. “Tell us,” he said.
“I met a wolf,” I said, and told them more, the magic of the meeting written all across my face.
“Every day has its dangers, and every day has its gifts,” he said after listening carefully, “and often, they are from the same thing.” These hit me as perfect operating instructions for how to live a fully woven life from someone who had.
Beebe Bahrami Gr’95 is the author of The Way of the Wild Goose—Three Pilgrimages Following Geese, Stars, and Hunches on the Camino de Santiago (Monkfish Book Publishing).