Who I am is not enough. It is necessary to become more.
May 3, 2007
Been out of action nearly a month due to injury from hiking in broken-down boots. Finally bought new boots. Two days ago I made it into the canyon and found it well awakened since my last visit: trees far along in their leaves and birds flying and lizards scuttling as if there’s been no winter hiatus. Also, birds sounded fit to burst with song.
At this moment, cliff swallows whirl above the outcrop where I sit. Their shadows slip among the stones. The fully physical birds tumble and shear through a strong canyon wind. Below me, the trees gasp in it, their recently-erupted leaves, fair and blond, blowing back.
After a full night and part day of steady rain, the desert is full of deep perfumes–sage, pinion pine, juniper, rabbit brush–braided like flowers into the wind’s plaits.
I don’t know what this means, but now that I’m older, spring’s return comes as a wonder, a gift. Something in me has given up expecting it, so it comes nearly as a surprise to my senses and consciousness. Each early spring day seems somehow tenuous, though I know spring is never as pale and green as it appears.
Sandy and clayey soils fluffed and slicked by yeterday’s rains soften footfalls, giving me hope that I won’t have so much pain to pay for this desperate indulgence.
May 8, 2007
Who I am is not enough. It is necessary to become more.
Today I began my hike in some misery because of events surrounding teaching. Walking out to where I am I brooded most of the way upon the fact that I did not have enough wisdom to handle better than I did a situation involving some students. These kids–many of them Native American–are intense, firing off in all directions. To deal with them, I’ve had to open rooms I’ve kept dark and quiet for a decade and a half so that I could concentrate attention on the challenges my disabled daughter’s condition has posed. But stepping into this teaching environment has been like walking into fire. Almost against my will, lights have snapped on in these forgotten rooms in my soul; stiff, cold mental machinery has begun clanking back to life. It’s painful on all fronts; sometimes at night the mental and emotional noise keeps me from sleeping.
As I hiked, I realized a couple things. One, what I wrote at the beginning–Who I am is not enough; I must become something more. Two, as I walked, I wasn’t paying attention to where I was and what I was doing; my head was not in the game. That’s how people get in trouble out here, by not being fully of where they are. I refocused and changed direction.
Presently, I’m sitting on a rock outcrop at the rim of a canyon. I stopped here to eat and rest my injured foot, which has done well, but I’m on painkillers. Resting here has proven fortuitous. A colony of white-throated swifts makes several passes over my head, at times cutting in so close I hear their knife-like wings slit the air’s fabric. These birds are larger than cliff swallows and they fly with less twinkle and more speed and concentration. That is, their flight is no less spectacular, but they take longer drinks of a single direction. I once held one of these striking black and white creatures in my hand, a bird who petitioned me for help, and because of my ignorance of this species, I failed it. As big as they are, white-throated swifts weigh a mere pittance, less than two ounces. Seeing for the first time these birds, one of the fastest flyers in North America, exercise their full powers of flight helps fill in some blanks left from that old experience with this bird species.
As I lean backward to follow the flight of one swift spinning past, my vision snaps on the silhouette of a much larger bird cruising at an altitude just a little higher–a golden eagle. This bird, or another, makes a second pass by me, just slightly below my vantage point and thirty feet out. My eyes take it in. Big, big, impressive bird.
The swifts’ song sounds something like swallows’ song, but I hear other notes as well. Single notes and short strings of them … ahhh! One of them just swept in so close the “whiissh” of its wings startled me and I jumped, nearly tossing my notebook and pen into the air, which would have been unfortunate. They could have fallen over the cliff and then I would have been faced with the problem of retrieving them. I managed to suppress my startle reflex and hang onto notebook and pen, but a fire of wonder lit in my chest, sparks of the swift’s flight striking a kind of emotional steel wool I seem to be always carrying around in my chest.
Whoa, the eagle flew right over me again! About to die from intoxication… (cue John Denver song).
Below me now in the canyon bottom, two ATVers have stopped on the trail. Don’t know if they can spot me up here on the rim. I turned my red pack around so the black side’s facing them and itâ€™s harder to pick out from rock jumble and shadows. I do feel like their presence is something of an intrussion, I was having such a fine time alone with the birds. What principle of the universe is it that dictates ATVers must stop just below the only person sitting on the canyon rim for miles? Time to move on, not just to preserve my solitude but also to avoid witnessing something I don’t want to witness.
I’ve found water! A spring, a seep, a way where water has found momentum and a path. Up here above the source, I can find no obvious way down to it. Perfectly clear, dripping music into a sand-bottomed pool.
Just before I found it, I saw the chartreuse leaves–spring green–of young cottonwoods, their tops rising into view from a sudden opening in the land. They testified of water. This side canyon where they grow is in other ways quite lush, blunt cliff faces with broken noses alongside of which grow rambling primroses, scrub oak, hackberry, claret cup cacti, other plants I can’t identify.
I have found water. Doing so, I’ve satisfied a question I’ve carried around empty for a year: Where is the water in this canyon? I know of one spring along the ATV trail going down into the canyon a mile or so to the north, but I thought there must be more. So I’ve found it, or my way to a place where I can see it, hear it, plan to reach it in the future. Now to go back up slope and investigate a rock overhang where I suspect there might be structural remains of Anasazi dwellings. And also to map this place in my mind so I can return to it from below.
The air is very sweet, fragrant from cliffrose bushes in full bloom as well as junipers and pinion pines, their saps heating in the sun. But I notice something else, a dry, stony sweet-earth odor I associate with archaeological sites. I wander below the rock overhang but find nothing. I was beginning to think I was mistaken, when at the very end of the rock roof, which has been undercut so that there’s a 15 foot deep sheltering shade, I find the remains of a structure, its rock walls constructed of slab-like stones 2-8 inches thick. The walls have fallen outward but portions hold together, bound by mortar that has held up for eight hundred years, give or take a few hundred years. Also, I find juniper sticks and logs (probably roof beams) in the rubble. At the back of one room there’s a small cave running into the soils beneath the rock overhang. I’d have to take my pack off to get back in there. Maybe I’ll bring the kids next time; they can crawl in better than I can. The natural rock forming the back wall of the structure is a chalky gray color streaked with butterscotch.
The people who built this shelter are not related to my students, who are mostly Utes and Navajos. Ancestors of my students did provide the name Anasazi to describe their relationship with them. The word “Anasazi,” which apparently translates into something like “ancient enemies,” is falling into disuse, being considered derogatory by the Modern Puebloans (Pueblo peoples living in Arizona and New Mexico) whose ancestors these stone masons actually were. “Ancestral Puebloans” is the preferred term, though some archaeologists have begun using the Hopi word, “Hisatsinom.” It’s not hard for me to imagine a close relationship between the presence of this structure and the presence of the spring I found several yards below.
Only one more question before heading home: Where does the drainage that ends in the dryfall above the spring originate? I follow the wash and meet an ATV trail, but being in a drainage surrounded by hills I can’t tell for certain which direction it runs. I build a small cairn to mark the wash, breaking a thumbnail. Picking up a small, triangular-shaped piece of red sandstone, I file smooth the nail’s ragged edges. Heh, questions goad and nature provides.