Field Notes #1

Remember the silence around Pueblo Alto in Chaco, so heavy you felt blanketed by its snows, and the desert landscape spread out below, unmoving for miles? That was silence. Not even a breeze singing on the stones.

June 8, 2006
Hiked in the rain this morning. My boots got so mud-caked my footsteps fell almost silently. Odor of rain-pressed sage. I drew it down into my lungs, it weighed in them, it coursed through my chest in a rush, flushing like a deep emotion. The rain soaked me. It’s been a long time since I walked in the rain and got a good soaking.

I crossed paths several times with a colony of cliff swallows. They skimmed low above the brush, maybe because the rain had pushed insects down near the ground. They flew over, around, and parallel to me. They let me in among them and I was able to get the best look at them I’ve had yet. Up to now, I’ve only seen them at a distance.

I miss being among the barn swallows that nested under concrete bridges in Payson, so having the cliff swallows as occasional company felt satisflying. I mean satisfying—funny slip of the pen, there! Cliff swallows are more striking than I realized, especially when their feathers are wet. They are as confident as barn swallows, flying in very close. But they aren’t as acrobatic, they’re more conservative in flight–still twinkling, as birders call it, but making no special embellishments as do barn swallows—a wisdom in this desert environment. We do have a few barn swallows around, which only adds to the swallow-flight pleasure factor for me. They don’t come down as far as my house often, but I’m always happy to see them.

Last night I walked with Mark out to the edge of the desert. The nighthawks (much more swift-like than hawk-like) were active. Every once in a while we’d hear in the darkness overhead the “Whroosh!” of wings as male nighthawks displayed to females—a noise that prompted Australians to nickname the birds “boomers.” When Mark heard it, he asked, “What was that noise?” “A nighthawk,” I said. “Their bodies make that noise?” “The air rushing past their wings as they dive,” I said.

When I arrived home from the hike today, I found the hummingbirds hanging around the feeders and perched on the clothesline that runs around our back porch. I thought they were sheltering from the rain but wondered at last if they had nectar. I found the cups empty and went in to make more. As soon as I appeared on the porch, nectar in hand, two birds flew down to me. They drank from the cups as I filled them. Hummingbirds bring our entire household joy. Yesterday, when the storm front rode through on winds gunning it to seventy miles an hour—peeling shingles off our roof and blowing debris through our yard—the hummingbirds still found energy to joust with one another over the feeders, even though the wind folded their little bodies nearly in half as they flew around the cups. When they perched on the feeders and dipped into the nectar, the wind bent their tails over their backs.

With their brilliantly colored throat patches, hummingbirds put me more in mind of lizards than any other bird.

July 26, 2006
(Dedicated to the predominantly male-controlled bloggernacle.)
This evening, I am sitting out on the back porch watching lightning storms to the south and to the east, some sixty miles and more away. The cell to the east rumbles and flashes like a great engine. One huge thunderhead, its bright crown thrust into the remainder of the day, its bottom black with night, steams across distant plateaus in Colorado. Scorpio hangs off the thunderhead’s broad right shoulder. Lightning illuminates the whole engine then trims one edge in thin silver scalloping as the rest of the storm goes momentarily dark.

Off in Arizona, another storm fires bolts as orange as pumpkins. Shreds of rain trail below, threaded with crooked veins of fire. Heaven is lit up from within.

The Arizona storm drifts west, lightning intensifying—it looks like firecrackers going off under a hat, only silently, as this storm is too far off for me to hear it thunder.

Meanwhile, the Milky Way swells out from deepening dark and runs south into the lightning chambers. Hard to tell where storm clouds end and star clouds begin.

A hard-edged bolt fires against the gray velvet of cloudburst, followed by multiple bolts crooked as rivers running through open plains of sky.

This is what the Navajos call male rain.

13 comments for “Field Notes #1

  1. P.G., I’ve been reading the reports of Byron Cummings 1907 expedition, and the far more recent explorations of David Roberts in In Search of the Old Ones. Their writings made me see the landscape and feel the heat; your writing here put the missing life into the mental picture I had formed of that corner of the West. Don’t know what else to say, except, WOW, can you write!!

  2. For PGK, from my notes on a canoe trip down the Green River through Labyrinth Canyon:

    Female Rain on River

    When my wife and I put onto the river, clouds overcast the sky. We started in sweatshirts and shorts. At an impossible-to-define point the mist from the clouds becomes the softest rain. We pull out ponchos and keep paddling. The tiny raindrops begin to fall steadily. Each makes a perfect ring of circles in the river’s surface, the first ring moving out is the tallest, the inner rings fading smaller. Countless circles appear, expand, and disappear on the glass smooth water. My wife listens in the silence and tells me that the rain on the river sounds like distant crickets. I pause from paddling, but can hear nothing. A few minutes later, a vee of geese hundreds of feet above the growing canyon walls stroke their way upriver, north despite the coming autumn. Even at this distance, the rushing of wind over wings Dopplerizes, downshifting as they pass. For the inhabitant of a world where there is never real silence – always someone talking, traffic passing, ventilation systems, whatever – it is unnerving to hear so much against a backdrop of complete silence, like seeing a drop of black paint appear and then disappear on a white canvas.

  3. I have no notes from the river, but I’m happy to read yours. This post reminded me of Terry Tempest Williams’ book, Refuge.

    Thanks for the reminder, Patricia. There truly is beauty all around.

  4. I’m leaving in the morning for what I hope will be 2 weeks outside in the Northern Rockies, on the west slope in Idaho. It’s nice to have a post that gets me back in that frame of mind, where I think I glimpse the stunning way things really are in moments such as you describe:

    . . .the Milky Way swells out from deepening dark and runs south into the lightning chambers. Hard to tell where storm clouds end and star clouds begin.


  5. Ardis, I’m happy to hear I filled in a few things. Of course, so much more was going on in that sky that night than I can tell. I haven’t got the words.

    greenfrog: How totally cool, especially that last line: “…it is unnerving to hear so much against a backdrop of complete silence, like seeing a drop of black paint appear and then disappear on a white canvas.” Reading that line is as stimulating as smelling rain-pressed sage. Thanks for contributing some of your own field notes. Got any more?

    Anybody else out there have field notes to add? A field note jam here on T&S would be really fun.

    mlu, you might be gone by the time this comment goes up, but happy trails. And … got field notes?

  6. P.G.,

    Although I lack your ability, I nonetheless appreciate it. Just last night, I was re-reading A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s autobiographical novella. This paragraph made an inpression:

    “On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us.”

  7. Mark IV, thanks for that passage, and since you’ve brought in a published writer, I’ll add a few licks from a writer I like, Craig Childs, who I know works from field notes. I know this because at a writer’s workshop I attended he set a stack of them in the center of the room and let us each take one and read it.

    From the Craig’s essay, “Passages,” in Soul of Nowhere.

    “Finding a new route was also a major feat of relationship with the land.”

    “These routes are my lines of connection with the place beyond my body, the surrounding universe; they are necessary anchor points without which I would recoil into a shell, exiled, the world around me utterly inaccessibly.”

    (Speaking of trying to find hand- and footholds on a cliff face): “Somewhere in this race of cliffs is the perfect solution, the land coming down to a single line as artful and precise as a bird’s feather.”

    “I want to see how far this earth will take me.”

  8. A few field notes from a recent journey:

    Like my daughter, the gouda trumpets its five years. It is the flavor and color of honey. It flakes like obsidian on the plate, and melts like chocolate on the tongue.

    Ahead lie journeys with my companions through pecorino toscano and valdeon. The Lighthouse blue has already disappeared, lost down strange pathways, and the Shropshire looks soon to follow.

    For the moment, though, I’ll just sit and enjoy this gouda . . .

    Okay, moment’s done. On to the toscano. Who took those crackers?

  9. Hm, Kaimi. Martin Buber says that man’s desire for cosmic connection is nature’s “best flower.” I guess this qualifies …

    But IMO, as encounters with the divine go, this one’s limburger, best when served with “plenty of cold beer.”

    Such rapture will forever be beyond my reach.

    If I told you you needed to get out more, you’d say …?

  10. Thanks for contributing some of your own field notes. Got any more?

    Yes, volumes from a bunch of trips down the flat water sections of the Green (about that last 100 miles above the confluence with the Colorado). I’ll try to exercise some restraint in selecting passages and occasions to share.

  11. Nighthawks are actually in the goatsucker family, which is in a different order than the swift family.

    Sorry, I’m a taxonomist; I can’t help myself.

  12. Thanks, Left Field. Looking at my Sibley’s, I see that I made a mistake when I looked nighthawks up. They were grouped together on the same page, but they are not overlapping species. Swifts, I see, are more closely related to hummingbirds.

  13. I’ve edited this post to correct the error Left Field caught.

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