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.
your word pictures are wonderful. would it be great to soar like a bird and see the hidden places
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 thereâ€™s been no winter hiatus.
I love the phrasing you use here — the ambiguity of whether the passively voiced phrase pertains to the canyon or to the speaker blends the otherwise separate subject and object into one.
“Who I am is not enough. It is necessary to become more.” I am really good at reading this stuff, But I can’t write it. I don’t even see it when I’m there. I once backpacked a lot, the only thing I knew the name of was ” Mosquito”.
People have no idea of the magic of your pen! I have been in this Hopi/Anasazi area, visiting all the Indian archeology sites. What I found amazing was the ability of these people made whole Cultures out of well….dust.
tj, thanks for reading. I was in a canyon today with my daughter and we experienced lots of bird surprises, including another eagle, being “escorted” by two hawks. The eagle landed on a cliff up near the canyon rim and began to keen. Meanwhile, down in a cottonwood grove I frequently visit, a Swainson’s hawk made a low, warning pass at our heads. Turns out its young was fledging and papa hawk was doing his duty, telling us to leave.
Bird flight really is a wonder. I’ve had a few dreams about flying; those dreams made deep impressions on me. I never paid much attention to birds before, but over the last three or four years they’ve really caught my imagination. For one thing, watching all the different species fly–I never imagined there were so many ways to do that. Fly, I mean. Also, I’m beginning to catch on to birds’ intelligence and above-average communicativeness.
greenfrog, you picked up on something I wasn’t aware was there. It does kinda work that way, doesn’t it, an immersion, a momentary blurring of the edges around the self? Cosmic connection. Do Mormons believe in that? A lot of the talk I see around here seems to suggest Mormons believe in a kind of profound, fallen separation from the rest of nature, insurmountable except through dominance, irreparable except perhaps at some future point, when God makes up the difference.
BTW, got more field notes? I’ve enjoyed what you’ve put up so far and invite more from you and anybody else who might have them to post them in the comments. It isn’t just a matter (at least it isn’t for me) of adoring nature but of opening up narrative pathways. IMO Mormons lag far behind the curve for language involving the rest of the natural world.
Bob, I really appreciate your reading these posts and participating in the comments. “Mosquito” isn’t such a bad place to start. Out hiking today, I said the words “deer fly” several times myself.
#5: PGK,” IMO Mormons lag far behind the curve for language involving the rest of the natural world.” I fully agree with you! With the acception of 1/2 Mormon Wallace Stegner, Mormons don’t seem to have Writer or interest. I will be overly bold and say I have read most of them. Your Writings remind me of ” The Harvest of a Quiet Eye”: ( John Burroughs).
The drive from Denver
Much of the drive was unremarkable. Superhighways through the Rockies are better than superhighways through New Jersey townships because of what you see through the windshield, but on the whole, the two experiences donâ€™t differ much. Once you are through the mountains and past Grand Junction, though, I-70 runs through the first red sandstone bluffs and moves onto the Colorado Plateau, a desert of stone and sand, cross-cut with gulches and drainages. The road rises over a hill and you find yourself looking into the setting sun and seeing twenty miles in every direction. The expanse is occupied only by sand and stone and dirt, rabbit brush, antelope and a few rainless clouds. Twelve hundred square miles of wilderness. The sun lights up the Navajo sandstone cliffs: quartz sand grains, iron-rich hematite stain coloring them orange and red, and calcium carbonate, the leftovers from the bodies and shells of marine animals, cementing the grains together. When I crested that hill for the first time, sitting in the driverâ€™s seat of a Hyundai Excel, a tuna fish can with wheels, at 75 miles per hour, heading for the wilderness, I began to find myself.
With hindsight reflecting on the importance of the days before my first canyon trip, I search in vain for some significance to the steps leading to the journey. Truly, there werenâ€™t any. No signs or omens, no portents, nothing but my Dadâ€™s insistence that the trip (glowingly described as â€œcanoeing slowly down a flat river in the hot desert â€“ with some hikingâ€) was worth the effort. Indulging him, I took his word for it.
Driving there the first time, I wonder what drew me to this land and particular crest of a rise just short of the state line. The evening sun stands an hour above the western horizon that, from this spot, is the top of a mesa 15 miles off. The sun is blocked by a broken mass of thunderheads. The rays break through in scattered shafts like glory through the dusty gloom of stained glass in ancient cathedrals. But here there are no foot-worn grooves in limestone floors or darkened patches on the backs of pews from long-measured years of human oil and sweat. Instead, this land is marked by antelope trails and sage grouse dust beds and arroyos and earth-tone erosion and raptors. On the south stands a rise of stepped cliffs of Navajo sandstone, dusty orange in a shaft of cathedral sunlight, each terrace topped by green-black growth of firs.
Cosmic connection. Do Mormons believe in that? A lot of the talk I see around here seems to suggest Mormons believe in a kind of profound, fallen separation from the rest of nature, insurmountable except through dominance, irreparable except perhaps at some future point, when God makes up the difference.
Some Mormons do. I share your sense that much of our discourse seems to be enveloped in the illusion of separation. When I made the connection of the bats eating the mosquitos who’d just eaten me, when I’d just drunk deeply from a spring seep in the canyon, refilling my bloodstream with spring water, I had a pretty strong sense of the interpenetration and interdependence of life. I’ve not lost that sense since then.
I’m not sure it’s a very Mormon sense, though with scriptural verses that talk of souls of trees and of a Mother Earth, I’m not entirely sure why not.
#7&8: Come on Greenfrog, your now just trying to make me look bad. When I took Bonehead Writing, my teacher, after reading me a month, toss a copy of Studs Terkel at me, said “You better learn this guy’s style, it ‘s the only thing going to get you through college”. I love your prose too, but save come space for us C+ Students!
#9 See what I mean..That’s ‘some’ space
greenfrog, can’t tell you how good it is to meet with your fair language in this way. My first trip to the desert spun my life off into an unimagined direction, changing who I was. After spending two nights in a canyon, sleeping that thin, delicious sleep in the open air, walking in sunlight stronger and more infectious than any I’d seen, I stood in an alcove thinking, “I’ve been wrong. I’ve been wrong about everything.”
Bob #9: Your Studs Terkel story is an interesting field note. And there’s plenty of space.
Here are old field notes where I “try out” night migration during a trip to a canyon near the San Rafael Swell. I’d recently read about how light pollution affects birds who travel hundreds or thousands of mile in the darkness as they wing between wintering and breeding grounds.
August 27, 2004
I’m too tired to concentrate, yet even as sleep-deprived as I am I can see it: how open and plain this land lies under the nearly full moon. Now that I’m sensitive to the possibility, I feel my soul taking notes, positioning moon-slick slickrock in memory, establishing paths. Fifty miles away I see the LaSals, dark and corrugated against the shimmering night sky. And I think, Yes, they’re a signpost. Meanwhile the moon sails in the east–moon, mountains, cool slickrock all around, and through it all established paths that must be recognized and chosen. The mind meets familiar images in the darkness and says, “Yes–that way. That is the way. Let’s go, all of us together because that is the right way.” Humans call it triangulation and now use instruments as prosthetic aids in basic acts of orientation. How did we lose it–the ability to know our way, to find our paths overland, ticking off miles through changes in Earth’s skin and heaven’s lights? Have we lost it? Is the skill still there only channeled into other tasks?
#12: I love this stuff! I think it is just forgotten skills: Mormons use to point the tongue of the head wagon at the North Star, for direction in the morning Polynesians could tell by how the water hit the side of the boat, the currents Or that thunderheads formed only over land. The Spanish dropped Mustard seeds to mark their return trail. (still a lot here in CA) Me?…I used a Topo Map and Altimeter, I reset it at lakes, the Topo gave the lake’s exact altitude!
One of the miracles I love about deserts at night is how even starlight is enough to illuminate paths and trails. Sometimes flashlights prevent me from seeing more than they illuminate.
Another note from the same trip:
As is almost inevitable when exploring the Green River, to explore, we hike up the side canyon at __________. The dry, cracked-mud wash is still damp darkened in places. In the desert, nearly every season is the dry season, but in this area, summer rains can turn these channels into inconsistent streams. The bottom dries out as we walk up canyon. The streambed cuts into sand banks and mud flats, twists and turns around cottonwoods, stands of rushes, and rabbit brush. Upstream, it leads us to the northeast wall of the canyon, where the streambed promptly veers back across the 50 feet of canyon bottom to the southwest wall. At the bend, though, the streambed deepens a bit into what is now no more than a puddle. The water in it is as brown as the dust surrounding it. But even at a distance, I can see that something is afoot. The water moves. I trot over for a look. As I near, the poolâ€™s dimensions become clearer. Itâ€™s only three or four feet wide, five or six long, in the half-moon shape of a river bend. I note that itâ€™s shallow, because I can see dozens and dozens of jet black bodies, two inches long, twisting and writhing over each other in the half-inch of water, the sun burning skins designed for cool water, a Bible-Belt image of amphibian and piscine hell.
The tormented souls are catfish fry and nearly metamorphosed tadpoles. I canâ€™t bring myself to pick up a few for a closer look, since I’d have to return them to their brimstone. Obviously, at some point in the not-too-distant past, this was a flowing stream, and these infants took shelter in the tributary to escape the predation and relative cold of the Green River. Water is seldom reliable in the desert, and these juveniles find themselves bearing testimony to their errant judgment. As the stream flow subsided, they were confronted with the choice of swimming through shallow stretches to get back to the Green or hiding in the depths of the bend pool. If they intended to survive, they made the wrong choice. Theyâ€™ll pay for it. I make an uneducated guess that they have maybe three more days until all of the water in this little pool evaporates. Of course, there are no guarantees that theyâ€™d have made it through the shallows without being picked off by the Great Blue Herons or the ibis that we startled upriver, or that they’d have made it through without scraping off so much of their protective slime coatings that theyâ€™d have died of disease. But the catfish fry, at least, are surely dead. Though they still writhe and wiggle, reflexively looking for deeper water and safety, genetically their actions are irrelevant. Their environment simply changed too rapidly for them to survive. They wonâ€™t make it. I suppose that some of the half-baked tadpoles might, if the weather turns cloudy and they can finish their metamorphosis. But it doesnâ€™t look good.
I’ve seen that very set of circumstances many times, as a child in VA and as an adult hiking the canyons. It provokes feelings I have no names for. Your sentence, “I canâ€™t bring myself to pick up a few for a closer look, since Iâ€™d have to return them to their brimstone,” strikes a chord.
A couple weeks back I walked with my kids along a section of a creek that had gone dry. Beavers had dammed that section of the stream and two weeks back it was filled with water. A series of four dams had created pools that enticed ducks and fish, but with the arrival of a long hot spell the last dam had gone dry. Hundreds of minnows and pumpkinseeds lay dead in the deepest hole in the streambed, drying in the sun, mouths agape. The pool behind the dam had attracted them there, but when the water began to dry up, the dam just above had barred retreat. I thought, “Got to teach my kids to avoid this problem.”
This one’s a little different, but since it happened on one of my walks I still count it as field notes.
September 30, 2004
On my a.m. stroll, as I walked up Main Street in Payson, just as I began my approach to Constitution Park, I heard a noise behind me I took for teenage boys whooping it up. Summer break had ended recently and children walked in the same direction I did, making their way toward the first bell. So I didn’t think much of the noise until I realized it wasn’t the whooping of teenage boys but the wailing of a young womam. Someone was crying. I stopped and looked, finally picking a lone figure out of the broken strings of children walking along. She treaded up the hill, arms locked over her chest, weeping loudly without regard for other children walking the same way staring at her and whispering. I thought, “Wow! This is way over the top. Either she’s looking for attention or something is horribly wrong.” I watched her for a while, then thought, “She can’t keep that up much longer. She’ll stop.” I resumed my walk, but her wailing continued. Before I had made it half a block, I decided. Have to do something.
Now I could see she was a teenager, Hispanic, walking head down, arms forming a shield over her chest. As she drew even with where I stood watching I crossed the street to meet her. She stopped wailing as she approached me. “Are you all right?” I asked. No answer. “Do you need help?” “I’m just going up to school,” she said, walking past without looking at me. “I’m walking past there,” I said. “Would you mind if I walked with you?” No answer, she just kept walking. I hurried to follow. “Is it okay?” I asked again. “Fine with me,” she said.
So I drew up even and walked with her. I felt she was safer this way, not so vulnerable to more trouble looking for a victim. I told her my name, not expecting an answer, and we walked in silence the remaining three blocks to school. I walked her right up to the door, then said, “I walk by here every other day. If there’s something you think I can do for you, let me know.” She turned and entered the school and I went on my way.
!5:OK..I’ll try: It was Wed. morning, I am at my desk, fellow worker think I am working on files. But it is a Topo Map of the Kern Trench. 26 miles of pine needle trail, covered with a tree canape, running alone the Kern River. 400ft evaluation gain, at 6,000 feet. But what about the weather? I note a Ranger Station on the Map. I call the AT&T operator, she gives me the number. I dial, it rings: ” J……C…., scare the H….out me” says the Ranger. This phone has not rang in 40 years!
Bob, that’s the spirit! A phone that hadn’t rung in 40 years; that qualifies as a wonder of nature. Had the ranger been there all on his lonesome that whole time?
I’m curious. Are you a mountain rambler or is your interest in topo maps and elevations related to work?
That sounds like something out of The Martian Chronicles.
R S M, the telephone thing gave me Twilight Zone flashbacks, but Bradbury fits.
#17: PGK: Topo Maps were to keep me from getting lost. I tried the John Muir Trial once, 3,000 feet down then 4,000 feet up in a day, no thanks + headaches. I
grew up in the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. We all read Nature stuff, like young girls now read Harry Potter.
In an earlier post, I told you of a “problem’ keeping Church History in control in doing my Family History. While I know Greenfrog and you are believers, I find it nice that each of you have keep God out of your Nature writings…. just you and Nature. Did I say that OK? Nothing but praise wished!
Sat. Nite: Heavy rain, reach the Ranger Station, locked! sign on door, “Gone for 3 days,back Monday.” Old Army bed with 2 inch mattress on covered porch. Spent dry night. Sun. 5AM, started 23 miles walk out, but no rain.
“Sat. Nite: Heavy rain, reach the Ranger Station, locked! sign on door, ‘Gone for 3 days,back Monday.’ Old Army bed with 2 inch mattress on covered porch. Spent dry night. Sun. 5AM, started 23 miles walk out, but no rain.”
Wonder if the ranger returned and asked, “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?”
“While I know Greenfrog and you are believers, I find it nice that each of you have keep God out of your Nature writingsâ€¦. just you and Nature. Did I say that OK?”
I think you said it okay. Can’t speak for greenfrog, but my belief suffuses my writing, just at such a high frequency some ears might not be able to detect it. Hehheh.
I think the common Mormon tongue as spoken in church and around the blogs contains vocabulary and rhetoric undeciferable to people who are not Mormon. Also, sometimes it’s deliberately exclusionary. Many people who are not Mormons will not be able to make much of Mormon rhetoric or will feel shut out by it. But most Mormons can understand language used in the so-called “outside” culture at large, can go to “nonMormon” movies and still feel a part of the audience, can listen to “nonMormon” music and still get excited about it, etc. So I choose to “go wide” so to speak, to use language anybody might approach should they feel so inclined.
June 26, 2006
Rained today, big fat drops out of wild but intermittent storm cells. The roof rattled, went silent, then roared. Winds rushed down upon and around the house, blowing all our resin furniture to one end of the back porch. I went out on the front porch to see the rain. A great cloud loomed out of the west, blackening the view that way and looming toward us, but the sun stood above and slightly to the east, making the air around the house brilliant. Raindrops fell through the sunlight and sparked against the dark cloud background, each drop lit like a gemstone rolling along a swatch of black velvet. Meanwhile, the air held the odor of moistened and stirred dust, an earthy bouquet with notes in it slightly reminiscent of the coffee aisle at a grocery store.
Millions of drops, each pregnant with light. Never seen rain this way. In the past, I’ve thought it a collective whose individual pieces are indistinguishable. Impossible and a waste of time to think of rain as an event with billions of parts. But I saw that today, rain as an event composed of billions of streaking, transitory, silvery components. I’m not the same.
But I saw that today, rain as an event composed of billions of streaking, transitory, silvery components. Iâ€™m not the same.
This reminds me of Mary Oliver.
While I know Greenfrog and you are believers, I find it nice that each of you have keep God out of your Nature writingsâ€¦. just you and Nature. Did I say that OK? Nothing but praise wished!
PGK remarked earlier on this thread that after two nights in the canyons, she stood in an alcove thinking, â€œIâ€™ve been wrong. Iâ€™ve been wrong about everything.â€ That’s the way I felt, too, and among the “everything” I’d been wrong about, I included my ideas about God. So my field notes are an exercise in paying close attention — much closer than I used to — to what actually is exactly in front of me.
There’s so much to see and understand.
#21: “my belief suffuses my writing”. Thank you for that. My son is Director of Creative Writing at a local college, I’ll use that line in our next debate! I don’t think it is just Mormon-speak, John Muir put God in a great deal of his writing. Since we are still friends, do you ever put: “Nature Red of tooth and claw..”, in your writing? Or do you stay with it’s beauty?
#22: You hit it for me! To see the toad as only God’s work, takes too much from the toad. (You missed the toad). And takes from God… his work. When a mother let’s you hold her newborn, and you look “to what actually is exactly in front of me.”, you don’t have to say to the mother, “You did a good job”, she knows you feelings, and see did.
#24: That’s ‘that she did’. It’s also too sweet. What I mean to say is I hate it when the Football Guy says: “I’d like to thank God for my TD..”., when I just saw in front of me, two great blocks by his team mates.
“I donâ€™t think it is just Mormon-speak, John Muir put God in a great deal of his writing.”
You’re right, it’s not just Mormon speak.
“[The Grand Canyon] seems a gigantic statement for even nature to make, all in one mighty stone word, apprehended all at once like a burst of light, celestial color its natural vesture, coming in glory to mind and heart as to a home prepared for it from the very beginning. Wildness so godful, cosmic, primeval, bestows a new sense of earth’s beauty and size. Not even from high mountains does the world seem to wide, so like a star in glory of light on its way through the heavens.”
“Every feature glowed with intention, reflecting the plans of God.”
“The very thought of this Alaskan garden is a joyful exhilaration. Though the storm-beaten ground it is growing on is nearly half a mile high, the glacier centuries ago flowed over it as a river flows over a boulder; but out of all the cold darkness and glacial crushing and grinding comes this warm, abounding beauty and life to teach us that what we in our faithless ignorance and fear call destruction is creation finer and finer.”
All by John Muir
What an eye, with language to match. Of course, the eye and language are bound together by a kind of perspicacious nerve. Mormons can read such language and appreciate it, but few do. I have no special authority to call for Mormon nature writers, but we need them. We have the belief to rise to the efficacy in Muir’s voice; where are our voices?
I can’t tell if anyone other than greenfrog, Bob and I are loitering around this thread, but if there’s anybody out there with a longing to write what they see and feel about their experience with nature, here’s my advice:
1. My no. #1 top advice in all circumstances: Write in such a way as to make it possible for others to care about what you care about. If you hate rats or snakes you can still write nature literature, just don’t write about those things. If you hate people, don’t write nature literature at all.
2. Take those science classes. Take them in high school, take them in college. Don’t worry about evolution: Think of it as eternal progression without the same sense of direction.
3. With your science classes informing your behavior, and perhaps the quidance of a mentor, get out there. See what there is to see. Record behavior with a fresh eye. Being human is cool, but where being a human among other species is concerned, don’t think you’re all that. Humans have a long and fretful tradition of being wrong about other species. Be real.
4. Don’t be afraid to love deeply. Forget objectivity; objectivity is a pre-rational and pre-literate principle. Write with passion (see #5).
5. Take responsibility for yourself; learn the reasoning skills that will help you make something out of what you see and what you feel.
“Since we are still friends, do you ever put: ‘Nature Red of tooth and claw..’, in your writing? Or do you stay with itâ€™s beauty?”
A reasonable and interesting question.
Other than witnessing snakes eat toads, kestrels snag sparrows, praying mantises devour grasshoppers like cobs of corn, turtles eat tadpoles, my cat bring home rabbits, gophers, chipmunks, wood rats to feed her kittens, I’ve had very little experience with this aspect of nature. I try to go out into nature informed and take every precaution, staying within my range of acceptable risk, even then knowing that something really outrageous could happen. I’ve encountered a couple dozen rattlesnakes in my wanderings with only one posing an actual threat, but it didn’t act irrationally and made no special effort to bite. It just let me–actually us, as it was a group of archaeologists and myself hiking after dark–know that it would bite if any of us pressed the issue. I’e handled dozens, maybe even more than a hundred nonvenemous snakes and only been bitten twice. I’ve been out alone after dark and felt that old, old voice warn me against bending over to tie a loose shoelace, and I obeyed it. When I’m out around dusk or later with kids in tow, I set my 17-yr.-old and his excellent eyes at the front of the line, my 10-yr.-old in the middle, and I bring up the rear. I’ve developed a hiking style where I stop frequently and look around, taking stock of my surroundings. It’s one way to let the local wildlife know I’m not totally insensible to what’s going on.
If I’m ever attacked by a rogue cougar and live to tell about it, I might have something worth saying about that side of nature. Or if I meet a cougar and am not attacked, I might. Or if a kill a dog with my bare hands because it attacked one of my children.
#26: Patricia, I know this Blog will soon end, such is the Nature of Blogging. I just want to thank you and Greenfrog, for your insights. As I have said, I have read deeply into Nature, but still feel hollow. I look into my dog’s eyes, know how close I am, but also that I will never get there. I think Muir got there. If you ever get a change to see the one-man-play of Muir in Yosemite, do so! It’s been on going for 20yr., All the words are Muir’s. It’s Great.
I don’t know why Nature is missing in Mormonism. But it is. My only hope is in my Grandchildren, as we work in the garden, and I give my sermons on Nature, I see closeness there.
“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw”? I was in the Marines, and that is as close to Natural violence as I want to get. Stay with the Beauty. (“Beauty is the hope of future happiness”).
Thank you, Bob, for reading and participating. For contributing your field notes. For your thoughtful tone. Maybe we’ll catch up with ya in another thread.
You, too, greenfrog. It’s been above average real.
Maybe one last bit:
Dad and I hiked up _____ canyon, looking for Fremont Indian ruins. Guidebooks report that the northernmost Anasazi ruins begin 25 miles farther downriver at ___ Canyon. But the book does report a Fremont Indian campsite high up the canyon slope, where the talus meets the Kayenta formation cliffs. Since it is the only set of ruins the guidebook mentions that weâ€™ll run across on our trip, I want to find them. But I discover that guidebooks and maps can be only dim echoes of place. We can’t find the ruins, but (to my mind) something better: fossilized log sections, 28â€ in diameter. The pattern of the wood, bark, stripes, rings, gouges, everything preserved as it must have fallen into airless water where it could not rot, then surrounded by sands and mud rich in, of course, silica, and apparent from the blue-green colors shooting through the log, copper, maybe also manganese, from the black. Natureâ€™s casting of sculpture. The log/rock/sculpture protrudes from the slope of the canyon at the level of the streambed. If I’ve identified the matrix where it lies correctly (Entrada? Kayenta?), it’s been lying in its sand-and-mud matrix for a couple of hundred million years. The past few rainy cycles have excavated it out, eroded softer stone and soil around it. Exposed it. Lying this close to the streambed, by next year, flashfloods will have chewed it into gravel and sand, lining and scouring the riverbed, maybe embedding a cottonwood that doesn’t survive the next flood in a new matrix of old silicates.
The wood, looking for all the world like an off-color version of Douglas fir, testifies of the climate changes occurring on the spot where we stood. The Green River wilderness generally shows a geology of desert. The huge Cedar Mesa, White Rim, Wingate, Navajo, and Entrada sandstone formations evidence vast sand-shifting deserts that lasted for nearly 100 million years, from 250 million years ago to 150 million. Those epochs were interleaved by the periods leaving behind the Organ Rock Shale, Moenkopi, Chinle and Kayenta formations when the desert sands dropped beneath streams, tidal flats, and shallow oceans. Those relatively brief interludes were, nonetheless, long enough to allow huge trees to sprout, root, grow to towering heights, form forests and their ecosystems, fall and become fossils that I find. But other than those millenia-brief interruptions, this land has been desert. Sometimes near the oceans, sometimes farther from them. Sometimes more like the Sahara, sometimes more like the Colorado Plateau, but desert nonetheless.
Nature is profligate in its uses of terrain. This place has shifted from sand-duned deserts, to ocean-front properties to coniferous forests to coral reefs. Like an urban remodel job gone bad. Like the ruins of a european castle, built again and again. Like finding Incan temple ruins beneath the sewers of Mexico City. Conservationists try to preserve snapshots of the world, for their eternal beauty. I prefer to save its ability to change, to show us something new, to provide space to think, and breathe, and die. The Nature Conservancy is engaged in preserving the â€œLast, Great Places.â€ A great and good effort, but not one that will avoid perpetual change â€“ an economy, a linking of biologies and chemistries, and physics.
Looking past this chunk of fossilized tree trunk, I can see the confines of the wide-bottomed canyon we are in. The entire vista ranges from the canyon rim of Wingate formation sandstone across from us to the canyon rim of the same formation just behind us. I can see the layering of strata beneath it, leading to the formation at the streambed where we stand. No obvious animal life to speak of, except my father next to me. A sprinkling of desert plant life â€“ tufts of dry grasses, desert-hard brushes, a cactus hiding from the force of the flashflood in the downstream shelter of a large rock. An unfocused stretch of blue sky between the rims. A place where Yertle the Turtle could conclude heâ€™s king of all he sees, as there is no one to contest the claim. My perspective is no larger than this little room where I sit, bound by rock and sky.
My discovery of canyons is a confusing, conflicting mixture of eagles and vultures on the one hand, ants and mice on the other. The eagle and vulture see the water channels, the amazing desolation, and, here and there, resources, food, shelter. The mouse, hiding in the saltbush, munching on the crumbs stuck to a Power Bar wrapper, distinguishes between the grey rounded leaves of the buffalo berry and the holly-shaped leaves of the barberry bushes, knows that while each has a glaucous color, only the barberry has sharp enough spines to shelter from a hunting coyote. The ants knows that the north side of _____ Canyon is better terrain for nests, as the sun warms the stone, even in the winters, the stone more weathered, the sand deeper. .
But even at the level of the mice and ants, perspective, usually the domain of the eagle, the vulture, creeps in if you take the time to allow it. If we sit by this stone log for a few more hours, the sun will set, the sky will darken, and, one and two, and suddenly vast clouds of stars will appear. Stars at a distance of billions of years, billions of billions of miles away. Perspective indeed.
“I prefer to save its ability to change, to show us something new, to provide space to think, and breathe, and die. The Nature Conservancy is engaged in preserving the ‘Last, Great Places.’ A great and good effort, but not one that will avoid perpetual change â€“ an economy, a linking of biologies and chemistries, and physics.”
Wonderful! I, too, have thought this strange urge pedestrian ecologists have to “preserve a place the way it is” rather funny. Place is just like the rest of us, singly and as a group–changing, shifting, moving toward … something. If we people can see our way to enabling the agency of creation rather than “dominating” and constricting it, we’d really start to find out something.
I might be able to put up one more set of field notes in a few days. If I manage, once again, everyone having field notes is invited to post some. Maybe people contemplating keeping field notes can go out and collect some observations.
#30: Great writing! I laugh at those who worry we will “Take out the plant”. It may “take us out” (and it can do a few days if it wants), but we are nothing to it, when we talk about it’s millions or billions of years. One change: it’s Aztecs, not Inca under Mexico City.
Thanks for the correction. I always get those mixed up. (Clearly, I need to take a trip to Mexico City and to Peru so I have first hand experience getting those details right!)
#32: That’s OK..I mix up the Osprey with KFC!
Well, this is a little different than the beautiful field notes I have been reading here, but I thought I might share a way where some observations made in my little town in Hawaii have helped expand my sense of love, community, and joy. I wrote this just after we returned home from two wonderful family reunions.
We are home again. It is that interesting word, “again.” Because, in fact, I just came from being home again. How can two agains co-exist when they speak of such different places.
Our little family plovers. Like the golden plovers that migrate between Hawaii and Alaska, we migrate between two homes. Like the plover, we birth our children in one place but raise them in two.
Some people come here to stay because they don’t want to be by their families. They often love their families but find living close too painful. One of my dearest friends here has little desire to live close to her controlling mother or sharp-tongued sister. She has recreated family here–a nicer family than she was born into.
We, too, have created family here, but it is because we live here not because we wish to escape family ties and interaction.
And this is where the complexity of plovering comes in. It can be emotionally draining to be committed to different places. To feel a keen desire to be with families that you love but not get to live by.
Because I love gardening I used to think of metaphors that would help me navigate this emotional complexity. But feeling uprooted was the only metaphor that seemed to work. It may be that metaphor surfaced over and over again when we first came here because it revealed exactly how I felt–uprooted and exposed.
It really wasn’t until I settled into this house and watched the plover that continued to come back to the yard next door each spring that I began to see a new metaphor that more fully expressed my situation. The plover had homes, not a home, but a plurality of places and peoples that spoke of settling and of loving. In my uprooted metaphor, the gardener in me missed the settling in and nurturing for an extended time. But this new metaphor appealed to my desire to nest and still give me a way to move and live with liminality.
And so, I was home and I am home. It requires emotional complexity for a person like me who has traditionally put in deep roots to learn to enjoy plovering. But that complexity speaks of richness as well as depth. I embrace it. It means that for most of my life there is a place in my heart that is homesick for the home I am not in. But it also speaks of love that crosses oceans and time. I am for that. I plover.
“The plover had homes, not a home, but a plurality of places and peoples that spoke of settling and of loving. In my uprooted metaphor, the gardener in me missed the settling in and nurturing for an extended time. But this new metaphor appealed to my desire to nest and still give me a way to move and live with liminality.”
I appreciated the chance to read this! It’s comforting somehow to read the field notes of other Mormons, I come across nature talk so infrequently.
As a side note, recently, I began paying attention to migration, trying to touch some grain of insight. Up in Utah Valley, different kinds of crowding pushed patterns of migration out of easy sight, except for the barn swallows that I discovered a mile or so from my house; some very deep feelings became bound up with their departures and returns.
This thread might be cooling off, but plover’s piece reminds me of a short riff on migration that’s in my field notes. I wrote it the first spring we spent in San Juan County, UT after moving there.
June 22, 2006
As I went out to do chores this morning–inspecting and hoeing in the garden, feeding and watering pets, cleaning out the hummingbird feeders and refilling them–I felt a deep satisfaction, the first in years. The best way to put it: I felt as if I’ve come home. After all these years, I’ve made it home.
This sensation of coming home put me in mind of migratory species and the urge they feel when changes in the sun’s angle or the slant in other lights sparks the urge to return. What must it be like to be denied that ability, the power to answer the call to go home?
I think I know something of what it’s like–the illness, the frustration, the madness of the problem. I see more clearly now the necessity of having a sense of place, especially in one’s language. Coming here, where I feel so satisfied, I understand better my own instinct to return with my family, and especially to return with my children, born in another place, to a landscape that has had great meaning in my life.
I think of my friend, W. H., whom I haven’t seen in years, but I understand he still migrates between Alaska and Guatemala. He loses less time in routine transit than I have lost in all these years of trying to get home.
I love this: The plover had homes, not a home, but a plurality of places and peoples that spoke of settling and of loving.