Blue skies this morning after last night’s wind and rain, and I sit in the sun at our campsite facing Great Salt Lake. It is nearly perfectly quiet here. If I hold my breath I can hear the faintest echo of a car on a distant road. A slight murmer of voices rises occasionally from another camp where three women are packing a tent into a car. Now and then a magpie chatters or there is a tiny tseep from a sparrow or the small flock of campground starlings passes through. But for long stretches of time there is no sound. If the salt flats and the wide stretches of rock and grass had a voice, this would be it—silence.
This silence is a palpable presence. Once I notice it, it becomes the steady backdrop to everything else. Every sound I hear falls into it like a light rain landing on the ocean.
A magpie makes a more determined squawk and draws my eye to what he is scolding—a single red-tan coyote moving in the red-tan field past my campsite as though the grass itself had grown legs and was trotting toward the water. In the distance, on the tawny hillside is a single bison, grazing. I have been told that “bison” is the correct word for this animal whereas “buffalo” is better used for Asian water buffaloes and such, but I still prefer the name “buffalo.” I think of Janet Frame’s novel Daughter Buffalo and how different Turnlung’s long demented poetic ramblings about death would be if she had called it Daughter Bison. Sometimes the right word is the wrong one.
I draw my attention out of my thoughts and back to the landscape. Everywhere is space and more space. The brown grass fields sloping down to the flat plane of light-blue water which stretches away and away to the thinnest serrated edge of mountains. Overhead the blue sky reaches across the whole world, as if mirroring the lake below. Even the towering flank of the Wasach Mountains, with their long line of 11,000-foot peaks covered in fresh snow, seems insubstantial next to the land and sky opening out all around.
The space around me also opens up space on the inside. The constant activity of my mind—my fears and hopes and plans—dissolves into this great stretch of sky and lake and land. It is this spaciousness that has been tugging at me since the beginning of this trip, that has been half-hidden behind all the busy days. It is what I have been trying to capture in the hundreds of photographs I have been taking with my cell phone of the horizon line, wide bodies of water, and the sky at sunrise and sunset.
As I continue to sit, the space begins to fill again with daily life. The sun rises, warming the air and the back of my fleece jacket. With the warmth, the birds grow more active. Meadowlarks send their cascade of liquid notes back and forth from the tops of the sagebrush. The starlings have convened a heated committee meeting. Behind me a flock of chukars makes an escalating burbling like a pan of water slowly coming to a simmer. Two magpies pick charred remnants of food off the campfire grill, their bills clicking on the iron bars.
I am reminded of the stereopticon in my grandmother’s cupboard when I was a kid—a frame that held a piece of paper with two nearly identical photos at just the right distance from your eyes so that when you looked through it the two photos merged into one 3-D image. I used to be fascinated with how you could shift your focus back and forth to see either the two ordinary images or just the one image with its magical experience of depth. As I sit here I can feel that same shift happening inside me: how I can see in one moment my ordinary experience of life—planning and worrying and making sandwiches and folding the trailer and watching the birds—and then shift to this other experience of the silence and spaciousness that surrounds us all.
Like stereopticans, places like Antelope Island (or meditation retreats or temples) make it easier for us to make this switch. Hopefully, with enough time spent in places like this, I can also hear that silence and feel that spaciousness wherever I am and whatever I am doing—can see that there is no difference between the two pictures and the single image other than my point of focus.
We stayed at Antelope Island on the east side of Great Salt Lake, Utah on Nov 20 – 22 and got to hang out with pronghorn antelope, bison, coyotes, mule deer, and a porcupine. There isn’t a large variety of birds here in this season, but tens of thousands of Northern Shovelers winter on the lake near the island and spend their days puttering back and forth in great rafts with their big bills in the water, filter feeding on the lake’s brine shrimp. A large flock will often take off all at once to move to another feeding area, and the sound of thousands of wings resounding like a jet engine or a distant landslide is always a thrill! We are spending Thanksgiving in Provo, Utah. Happy Thanksgiving to all our friends and family!