Entries in awe (4)



photo credit: Tom Talbott, Jr.

April 22: We are camped at a primitive campground north of Redmond, in the volcanic high desert of eastern Oregon. Surrounded by sagebrush and juniper-covered hills, we look out on fields in the valleys below us greened by irrigation from the Deschutes River and its tributaries. It is sunny today, weather that is not uncommon for a place that gets 12 inches of rain a year, though the liquid calls of the meadowlarks from the tops of the junipers all around us flow like streams over the dry landscape.

Yesterday, Tom and I went for a long hike over the hills between us and the dramatic rock formations of Smith Rock. The pleasures of a landscape like this are often small, but somehow all the more deeply rewarding. We meet some black cows with bright-eyed calves. We find three tiny, tender-green ferns tucked between two rocks where a little patch of damp earth reveals a seep from the basalt above. We watch an orange-carapaced scarab beetle with white fur on its body clamber through some dead stems. We pass a great horned owl guarding a nest of sticks on a cliff face, two white, fuzzy chicks tucked below her. As the day warms, butterflies flutter in bright circles through the air—orange tips, whites, the vivid painted ladies.

Midday we arrive on a ridge above the spectacular formations of Smith Rock—the remnant of much more ancient volcanic activity than what we see all around us. As we pause to drink in the line of snow-capped Cascade volcanoes on the horizon, we notice a red-tailed hawk diving at a group of ravens below us. The red-tail folds its wide wings into impossibly daring stoops on the raven clan, then emerges into the sky with red feathers flared out in the sun. Its dives don’t faze the ravens, who still squawk noisily in the trees below us, and the hawk eventually gives up on chasing them from this part of its mountain and circles off over the valley.

The ravens stay, soaring higher now, and we notice two of them flying in unison. They loop up and over the ridge, then down into the valley, then back up high again in the blue sky, then dive and shoot past us unexpectedly from behind with a sudden tearing roar of wings through air. All the while, they are locked in a tandem formation: as one bird they rise, fall, turn, dive, often just a wings-breadth apart.

As I follow them with my binoculars, I can see that one bird—the larger of the two—is pursuing the other. It flies powerfully, and closes the gap between them easily, but whenever it does, the leading bird makes some slight adjustment. It slides sideways, or changes directions slightly, or stalls and pulls upwards a bit allowing the following bird to shoot past it—some small evasive maneuver to create a little gap between the two that the pursuing bird soon closes again.

This keeps going, on and on—pursue, feint, fall away, pursue again. I am mesmerized by their flight, in a kind of trance. But just when it seems as though they can keep doing this all afternoon, the bird in front rises high above the ridge, then…turns upside down and tackles the following bird with its feet! Now both birds are locked facing each other, grappling and tugging, their sudden lack of forward momentum setting them spinning in tight circles, falling fast out of the sky straight down toward the rocks below, spinning wildly in a dizzying, tumbling, impossible whirl of shimmering black; wings outstretched, feet locked tight, falling fast toward the ground…and just as they are about to enter the canyon below, seem set on crash-landing together, they pull apart, taking air again under their own wings.

I am breathless with the unexpected intensity of this fall after the long mesmerizing loops of their unison flight. Seen up close through my binoculars I feel as if I too were locked in that helpless tumble out of the sky. What was this? Play? Fighting? Mating? It all happened so fast, I am not sure. I think about looking it up online to see what answers I might find from other people's observations, but by the time I get back to camp I realize I don’t want to.

For me, this wasn't about understanding—this was a time to just experience. For those few moments I was not observing or studying; I was a witness, and even a kind of participant. I could feel the reality of this other world—could feel the hearts beating in those shiny, black-feathered bodies; could feel the power in those wings; could feel the actuality of other minds, minds that are simultaneously so different and so similar to my own.

So while I love knowledge, I also recognize that I often use it to order the world around me and keep it at a little distance. Today I got a glimpse beyond that ordering and outside myself. Today I will accept these real lives for what they are: themselves.

photo credit: Tom Talbott, Jr.


Day 229: Mountain time

Imagine this.

You start by driving away from the city, into the desert. A few flat, hot hours go by. You are surrounded mostly by cactus. The only signs of water are the dry washes carved into the ground by summer storms.

Eventually, you begin to gain elevation. Cactus dwindle, replaced by grasses. There is less bare ground between plants. As you continue to climb, you begin to see more trees—short, twisted oaks and junipers that are still more shrubs than trees. Farther up, these get taller, now providing a little filtered shade. Yuuca’s outnumber the cactus. There is dry bunchgrass everywhere.

When you run out of road, you park the car and start walking. The steep trail ascends rapidly up the side of a vast, craggy mountain. You begin to see views of the valley and the city you started from in the distance. The oaks are taller, especially in the ravines, but there is still no visible water. Here there are manzanitas and little forest flowers—heuchera in the shade and paintbrush where it is sunnier. The trail is steep and dusty. The sun feels like a hot bulb suspended directly overhead. Every scrap of shade from the scattered trees on the ridges is a relief.

After over an hour of climbing you are high on the mountain. The valley below spreads away into distant haze. There are real trees here—mostly pines. The trail levels off close to the rocky ramparts of the mountain peak. You traverse a ridge then drop down into a fold in the mountainside.

As you enter the bottom of the ravine the world changes completely. For the first time in all these hot miles, a little stream gurgles up out of the ground. The air is quiet and cool. Long-needled pines and a Douglas fir tower an impossible height above you. Huge, white-trunked sycamores glow in the lighted shadows. Light-green ferns grow thick on the duffy ground. Moss covers the rocks. Even a little purple violet blooms in the stream. Sunlight slips through the leaves in sparkling patches on the water.

But most magical of all, the air above the stream is alive with wings. Hundreds of butterfly-like moths are rising up from the short stretch of flowing water in a loose flittering cloud of color and light. Each moth’s hind-wings are shiny metallic blue, their thick bodies are a soft powder-blue, and their round heads glow vivid red. At rest, with their orange-veined wings folded over their backs, they blend into the needles, but they are not often at rest, but are in constant twinkling, sparkling flight.

As I watch this swirl of colored wings, I feel like there should be music. The creek purls and trickles and crescents down over the wet rocks. The sun shines silently. I ask humble forgiveness for all the times I scoffed at fantasy movies in which the forest air was filled with fluttering, gossamer drifting stuff, as being “unreal.” This, too, feels unreal, but it is right here, moths rising and falling, tumbling and circling, landing on mud, opening and closing their wings, taking to the air again. This is also reality: as real as the long, hot walk to get here; as real as the fast, hot city in the distance.

And like most of reality it is fleeting. By the time we leave the stream late that afternoon, many of the moths have either dispersed or are stuck and drowning in deeper pools, littering the shore of the creek. Over the next weeks we see them many times in ones and twos, but never again in such numbers, even back at the same spring.

From what I can tell, these are Veined Ctenucha or Ctenucha venosa, a moth of the southwest that is active by day and whose larva feed on grasses. Why was there such a swarm of them? There must be some good reason—there always is—but I don’t know what it was. All I know is that it was memorable, as was all of Mt. Wrightson, its richness rising island-like out of the sea of desert.

One thing this trip is about, is time; and having time allows a different perspective. With this kind of time, watching a flight of moths might be the most important thing I do all day. And with time I tend toward a certain kind of watching—not observing so much for the sake of knowledge or understanding, but simply for the delight of it. The kind of watching that is a kind of homage or a prayer to what is, in all its magnificent detailed variety.


We spent a week and a half at Madera Canyon on Mt. Wrightson in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, walking and working and writing and being amazed at the incredible variety of plants, birds, lizards, and insects who make their home on this “sky island.”


Day 81-91: Why Black Rock, Utah is NOT a National Park…

...and Zion is.

Ok, that is a cheap shot at Black Rock. After all, we didn't even get out of the car, and many things in this world are not all that interesting from a moving vehicle. But we were going south in a hurry to get out of the path of the first serious winter storm that was scheduled to hit Utah the next day (November 26.) The snow in Brigham City on November 17th that barely covered the grass blades and was gone by noon was just foreshadowing. This was the real thing. So we drove from Provo to Cedar City in one day, a long trip for us, then on to Zion the next. 

Oh. My. God.

I almost don't want to post pictures of Zion, because there is no way they can capture it. The scenery is spectacular, for sure. But it is so much more than just a pretty place. It is a place that inspires, challenges, and asks for deep reflection.

I think Zion affected me so strongly because I was unprepared. I knew it had something to do with rocks, but that was about it. I was not expecting such magnificence, and for the first few days, I swung between being breathless with wonder and flat-out depressed.

I think this intensity is something that comes with sacred spaces. When I say sacred, I don’t mean that God is more present here than in other places, as it seems to me that whatever we mean when we say God, is, by definition, everywhere. However, there are places where we become more aware of spirit and of our connection to the bigger picture. And this makes us ask questions. The big questions. Like what are we doing with our lives? And what do we spend our precious energy thinking about? And what is in our minds and our hearts? And who are we anyway?

Zion is someplace like that, and I think what its sheer canyons did for me was intensify what was already present inside me. My spirit, yes. My sense of awe and wonder, yes. But also all the sludge that I carry around, too—resentments, worries, fears. Heartaches and disappointments. All kinds of old news. I think this is partly where my depression came from. Zion helped me to see what was in my mind. All of it. And perhaps it helped me let go just a little.

I could see this the day we hiked Angel’s Landing (which after I saw the scramble we had to do at the end, I could only think of as “Angel’s Leap.”) This “hike” ends in a crawl up razor-edged ridges on slippery sandstone hung out over a few thousand feet of sheer-nothing drop off, with some occasional chains for assistance. Did I mention that I don’t like heights? Or that my overactive imagination can’t stop reminding me of what it would be like to fall? This next picture is the view down from the highest point I got to that day. These sheer cliffs were a good place to leave behind the extra baggage of any old, worn-out thoughts, so I could pay attention to my feet.

Zion also helped me drop further into poetry again. At Zion, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I went to the library and wrote. I sat outside and wrote. Even on hikes, I wrote, capturing lines of poetry that rose up as I walked. None of it seemed adequate to what I was seeing, but it didn’t really matter. It was just good to be immersed in language, to remember how important that is to me.

And there were surprises. One day after trying and trying without any success to describe the magnificence of the immense scenery, this poem came to me in a rush, almost complete. Like some gentle voice had said to me, in order to see the magnificence around you, you first have to see the magnificence in yourself.


Take root in the man of your life,
but grow your own branches—wistful as cedar,
fragrant as sage, joyous as penstemon
with its delighted rockets of sunshine.
Do not be dour. There is no time
for it, no matter the circumference
of the situation or the annihilation
of morning. You, girl, are enough
and more than enough, with your dual
lungs and your long eyes and the angle
of your reflection. Stand up straight.
We are waiting. Take
your whole heart and fling it upwards,
toward the dizzying cliffs, trusting its return,
faithful as an echo, fierce as an eagle
trained for the fist. Do not put yourself
away in your pocket when he walks by,
but wave ever more broadly in his passing,
like teasel, or fescue, or wheat—
filled up with sunlight, abundant with life.


Day 17: Feeding frenzy (Who says these posts need to be in order?)

At the Cape Disappointment State Park, we did not have any cell coverage at our campsite, so in order for Tom to work he had to drive to find service. On this day I stayed at the trailer while he drove a couple miles to the jetty—a long stretch of rocks extending into the ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River—and parked at a turnoff alongside the road. From there he could hear the ocean and see some weedy sand dunes and the back-side of the jetty. He worked for a couple hours before he realized that he was hearing a LOT of sea bird chatter, as well as an intermittent "whooshing" sound that he didn't recognize. Deciding to investigate, he walked over and climbed up on the jetty only to see a mob of sea birds and amongst them, whales!—at least five humpbacks circling about in the protected water just offshore, following some unfortunate school of fish. 

After taking some photos, Tom drove back to the campsite to get me and together we headed back to the jetty, parked, and ran to the top of the rocks. Just then—with splendid story-telling timing—a whale breached directly in front of us, so close we could practically step off the jetty onto its back—that is if we hadn't been paralyzed with awe.  

And what a transformation in the bay! What had been a relatively calm scene just the day before had turned into a storm of birds. Hundreds of pelicans were crash-diving into the water, each followed by a train of indelicately squawking Heermann's Gulls all converging on the pelican's pouch as it surfaced, hoping for spilled fish. Other gulls of all shapes and sizes flapped and soared about squabbling for scraps. Cormorants dove and surfaced smoothly; grebes and ducks bobbed here and there; terns shrieked overhead. Flocks of migrating Surf Scoters shot through the throngs like handfuls of fat black darts. But most impressive was a tremendous (and I don't use that word lightly) swirl of Sooty Sheerwaters out in the open water near the end of the jetty, a dark cyclone spinning over the ocean, being fed by birds streaming down the coastline. Here, right in front of us, was a river of birds, a riot of birds from all directions, all being swept into this rapidly wheeling funnel-cloud before being spun out to land in swathes of diving, snatching, squawking, flapping rafts feeding on the fish below. How many were there? It felt like millions. It had to be in the tens of thousands. There were too many to count, too many to even think about birds as individuals, only as this giant force of nature descending on this speck of ocean. And amid the frenzy, the dark bulk of the heavy whales rising unexpectedly for a glistening moment before descending again into darkness.

All evening, as the sun set over the ocean, we watched and listened to the spectacle. The light dimmed, the school of fish shifted here and there. We stayed until it was too dark for pictures, and still birds continued to collect from all directions, drawn by the shrieks and calls of the flock. The whales made a couple passes along the jetty, then moved off into more open water. The sun disappeared behind a cloud bank. The air cooled. We walked back to the truck in the failing light, full of wonder. We had a long evening ahead of us of packing everything up in prepartion to move camp tomorrow in the predicted rain, but tonight we were happy, exhilerated just to have been here. This evening all of our hard work of the past year was worth it. To be outside, close to life—our own and that of so many other creatures—was exactly where we wanted to be.


(This happened on September 22, but I have not had a chance to sit and reflect much since we have been on the road, and there are some experiences that I don't want to miss noting, so I will have some retrospective posts. The picture is one Tom took of the whale surfacing near the jetty. This is the underside of the head with some barnacles stuck to it.)