Field Notes #10

March 15, 2010.  This winter paved the desert over, storm after storm laying down two-to-three feet of whitetop, setting spring back by more than half a month.  Since December 21st, I’ve been out only rarely, the deep snow creating hazards well beyond my abilities to negotiate them.  Who knew that when I moved to southeastern Utah I’d find myself wanting a pair of snowshoes?  Last year I hiked all the way through winter, staying home only when snowfall piled up over eight inches, which it hardly ever did.

I tried going out yesterday.  An overnight cloud cover had insulated the ground against a freeze.  The result: dense but soft snow, still ranging in many  place from 10-20 inches deep, and on bare ground mud so fluid that, holding still, you moved, gliding on a sloppy escalator whichever direction happened to be “down.”  Every step on snow resulted in a 10-20 inch drop straight to the ground, a vertical fall I’ve learned to move with on a limited basis. The body learns from falling, but when it happens every footstep, you expend a great deal of energy moving the least distance forward.  Meanwhile each footfall on mud resulted in movement barely under control in an only slightly less vertical plane.  Downhill in spots I surfed muddy rolls and creases, riding the soles of my shoes like mini-shortboards.

Last night the storm cleared off and a freeze stiffened both snow and earth.  So I head out this morning hoping to find more navigable conditions.  As I approach pavement’s end, I hear geese honking.    The sound of their barks—first here, then there—lead the eye on a merry chase until at last I catch sight them lifting out of background jumble above a cattle pond where they probably spent the night.  I’ve been either hearing or seeing geese every day for two weeks.  Sometimes at night I hear them, invisible in the darkness, their braying cutting across the twinkle of stars.  Such a powerful migratory will, asserted even against our unseasonably thick snowpack and cold spring, affirms for me it’s the light they follow more than changes in temperature.  I love the goose migration—it gives the whole world a sense of movement, but especially the air.

As I pass the south end of a neighbor’s field, I hear a prairie dog’s low chortle.  The region’s last two winters devastated the local prairie dog population.  Of the hundreds that lived around us when we first moved here, only a small enclave survived the late heavy snows of last winter and the long, deep cold that befell us all this season.  I think the interminable snow-cap clamped over their burrows sealed them in beyond their usual emergence from hibernation, which occurs around Valentine’s Day.  Weakened by hunger, I suspect they became vulnerable to illness.  The late spring failed to produce forage in a timely manner.  We saw no pups, then the adults disappeared, too.  Thus in a single year a population of hundreds shrank back to just the southwest corner of the pasture I’m passing now.  Last summer, this holdout branch spread a bit, reclaiming some of the burrows east of their keep in the pasture and old ones across the fence on BLM land.  I wasn’t sure this last little group had made it through, but that chuckling is unmistakable.  I hear the dog, but I can’t see it, far out in the field as it is.

I hear a prairie dog now, but the next month will show.  The winter has been brutal for all the wild folk.  Storms of illness might even now be brewing down in prairie dogs’ burrows.

Plenty of coyote tracks imprint the snow, some flecked with mud, meaning they’re very fresh.  Over the last two months, coyotes have been out all hours of the day working the snowbound land.  While conditions have kept people to their houses, to shoveled-out portions of their yards, and to their roads, the coyotes have had the run of the fields and forests.  Breeding season ended only a few weeks ago; they will begin denning soon.  Pups will be born mid to late April.

A couple-hundred-foot test walk proves that the cold night indeed froze the snow solid.  I walk on its crunchy roof expending a more acceptable amount of effort.  Where bare, red earth has melted through, the ground remains frozen overall.  Mud will not be an issue.  At least, not for another hour.  Despite this awareness, I decide to stay topside of the canyon, knowing both snow and ground will thaw rapidly in the clear day and its rising warmth.  While the snowmelt is on, any hike requiring much uphill or downhill work will run me into trouble.  So I walk toward the piñon-juniper forest, heading for the cliff.  I cross the south-facing slope of a gentle rise that rolls to the canyon’s edge. Here, most of the snow has gone off the earth, though low-growing plants still wear fluffy snow-sweaters.  The trees, too—holding snow.

Then, as I walk into the forest, I find myself immersed in the sights and sounds of falling water—snow melting from juniper and piñon pines’ branches. I look for the ornaments that form in the trees under these circumstances—bright, fat, water drops refracting light, breaking sunshine out into colorful glimmers.  I see some—first red, then brilliant blue, shining at the branches’ tips.  The lovely water-patter falling through the branches onto the ground provokes a surprisingly strong physical response that begins in my midsection.  In a clump of junipers ahead, sunshine blues and purples spark at the branch tips, shimmering as a slight breeze jiggles them.  Something about this phenomenon strikes me deeply, going to my core.  My visible breath rides faint wisps of breeze curling through the trees.

As I approached the cliff, I had been hearing ravens fussing at something up-canyon.  Now I hear what.  An eagle keens from the same location, and peeking through the trees I can just see it–a golden eagle, flying below the rimrock, the ravens and their shadows on the canyon wall chasing after it, haranguing.

I slow to better enjoy the light and sound show playing around me, feeling as I do that a thrill bolt up my spine. I know that I could just stand here for an hour watching clear gleams melt out of the ice, burst into color, then fade as the water droplet supporting the spectacle gains enough mass to free it from the mutual frictional hold that tree and water have upon each other.  The droplet falls, the momentum it gains shifting its expression from light to sound as it pops against the ground in concert with others.  But I do want to reach the cliff this morning, see what’s going on at the canyon’s edge.  I turn my mind off to the magnetism this scene brings to bear upon it and walk on.  Yet a bright joy breaks open inside me.  How can I explain what I feel out here?  A sense of wholeness, of being gathered up.  Fullness as senses go out to meet every possible detail they can.  Easy ecstasy, freer than that provoked in the work-a-day environs of love, which is often unnerving.  Yes, nature can unnerve, too, and will.  But not today.  Today I walk into the extravaganza that is this place as far as I can, and enter it as part of it.

Not much is happening yet in the low-growing plant kingdom, the crushing, long-standing, metamorphic ice having inhibited green growth.  As I walk through the forest, I do begin seeing wild echeveria—hen and chicks—their mashed down, green leaf garland growing at the snow’s drawing-back edges.  these plants send up some of the earliest flowers in the spring, but like the prairie dogs, they’ve been buried overlong.

I reach the cliff.  Crossfire Canyon below is mostly snow-free, much clearer than is the mesa I just crossed.  Light reflects off rimrock every which way. Crossfire Creek runs freely along the crease at the canyon bottom, its voice flowing up to the rock where I sit.  Birdsong jangles from the forest lining the canyon’s trough.  Looking north, I notice the junipers down there have gone grey from a dusting of snow. Having only recently emerged from shadow, they lag behind the mesa trees that have been standing exposed to morning light.  The frosted trees have a misty, ancient look to them.

My two-foot-tall piñon pine companion beside whom I often sit when I come here looks rather worse for wear.  The claret cup cacti it shelters are greening up, preparing to form plump buds.  Water and clumps of melting snow plop from the pine’s yellowed needles.  This island of soil where the tree and its cacti pals grow cannot be substantial, the rock all around seeming quite solid, with only a few more pockets holding spare plant life.

Preceded by their noisy calling, two Canadian geese enter the canyon’s airspace from the west—maybe the pair I saw earlier.  As if on a signal or some understanding between them they arc their wings and paraglide below the rimrocks as a pair, yet with a shared single-mindedness that binds them in an intention.  They fall toward the snow-dusted junipers, their barks echoing brilliantly along the canyon walls.  Then they begin to circle, looking for something.  I think maybe they’re selecting a stretch of open creek water to land on–maybe a beaver pond–but one suddenly disappears.  The other circles tightly around a spot up on the talus, honking loudly, its echo so separated from the original call so that it seems another voice.  Then the bird sweeps up to the rim and lands on a cliff across canyon north of my position, far enough away that if I hadn’t seen it land I wouldn’t be able to locate it visually.  I suppose the other had already landed there, since all plaintive cries cease suddenly.

Here on the stone, the sun is deliciously warm.  My right side, exposed to it, draws warmth in, while a cool north breeze—very slight—chills my left side in an ice cream Sundae effect.  I take off my canvas bush hat.  My bared head soaks in sunlight, which I know begins immediately bleaching out my hair.  By spring’s end, the sun will convert my coloring and I’ll go blond again for several months.  In a common winter, even the winter sun shines intensely enough here to keep some color active in my hair.

I have been sitting, writing, for some time.  I stand to stretch my legs and the geese pair on the cliff across canyon raise a ruckus, whether in response to my movements or to something else, I’m not sure.  I’ve already shed my fleece jacket, but the air is warm enough here above the stones’ reflective surfaces that I can shed my sweater layer, too.

Cliffs form one of the most remarkable interface zones, placing you at eye level to many birds’ flights.  Here I can stand on the edge of vital airspace, soon to be filled with darting cliff and violet green swallow flight as well as the slicing speed of white-throated swifts.  Eagles patrol these cliffs winter through spring.  Very soon, turkey vultures will return from whatever underworld they winter over in to a find a winterkill heaven.  When spring is in full swing, insects glimmer in the canyon interstice.  Butterflies tumbling off the mesa vault across the rimrock into air without pausing, following the landform down.  By this time in March, usually I enjoy the companionship of lizards here on the cliff, but hardly anything they consider edible creeps about yet—only a few flies, and no wing shimmer of midges trembles on the air.  I haven’t even seen ants.  So the cupboards remain bare, and the lizards are probably wise to keep to their torpor.

I face into the sun, toying with the idea of lying down on the rock and basking, but a nagging thought about the rapidly destabilizing snow that I’ll have to cross if I dally crosses my mind.  Well … maybe just for a few minutes.

I sneeze.  The geese up-canyon take instantly to noisy flight.  I turn to watch them drop down into the canyon and flap in my direction, about a hundred feet below me, the sun fluttering on their wings as they arrow south.  But shortly after passing my position on the cliff they double back, flying past me again.  Having a look at me?  I wonder over how they maintain a consistent distance between them that seems precisely calculated.  Clearly, they are together and conscious of each other’s wings.  They head north a little way then south again, back toward me, this time rising over the canyon’s rim  slightly above eye level.  At this point, they fly in spectacularly close.  Yes, I think they are having a look at me.  After this, they fly north then arc west, heading out of the canyon along the same path by which they entered.  Hm, sorry for the disconcerting sneeze.

I lay down on the stone cold, thinking of my spine stretched tight against the rock.  A chill seeps into it as an energy exchange takes place between the rock and my warm-blooded body.  Behind me, I hear the crackle of snow collapsing to water, and droplets pattering against the ground.  I cover my face with my hat, breathing into the dim space inside it.  I realize that I’m smiling.  Should I pillow my head with my jacket?  No, I like the feel of rock pressing into the back of my skull.  The cliff beneath me continues to pull heat out of my back while the sunlight seems to thicken along the length of my upturned chest, belly, and legs, warmth drenching my jeans and brown, long-sleeved shirt.  What’s happening in the body space between these two regions?  On the ice cream Sundae model, between hot fudge and the more solidly frozen confection, melting would be happening.  Oh, this feels gloriously good.

I lie still awhile, giving myself over to the play of energy and shifting light.  But not long—can’t linger.  Reluctantly, I break the bond between my body and the cliff holding it, getting to my feet.  I pick up my sweater and find it warm to the touch, as if I’d dropped it near a heater.  My jacket, too.  Putting on these brings into relief cold, emptied spots in my back.

Crossing the forest, I stop again to watch snow melt in a large juniper whose internal shade is extensive enough that it has preserved snow a little longer than trees standing around it.  Those still drip but at a slower rate than when I first passed through.  In this bigger tree’s interior falls a steady rain. At its branch tips, pendant drops flash red, blue.  The out-of-step frequency of the falling drops seems to create within the tree a local, compressed music.  Drops streak through sunlight penetrating the branches, flashing silver as they cross shafts of sunshine, then wink out as they pass through shadow.  Colors hanging in the juniper’s blue-green foliage spark, flash, then shift to sheer clarity.  The whole tree is a-flutter with colors and light as the tree-bloomed snowdrops shudder under their own weight and gravity’s draw.  I see the tree directing water to its roots in what appears to be a flare of genius.

Yeah, man, I made it to another spring.  This is what being human feels like in unbounded moments—a season and  space that opens apart from the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual landscape the person traverses during more intently focused expeditions.  I feel the prickle of dark, icy impatience dissolve into softer stuff.  By the time I reach home, the thaw has spread to other snowbound parts.

5 thoughts on “Field Notes #10”

  1. Addendum. Yesterday, no ants. Today temperatures climbed into the low 60s and the bug bloom began. Seeing winged termite queens tumbling through the air, I sent my daughter out to find their sipapu–their place of emergence. She reported high drama in the yard: subterranean termite reproductive queens were erupting from the ground not far from the back porch and red ants had launched a raid on them, catching them on the ground before they launched as well as dragging them out of the entrance to their chambers. Also, the ants were emerging with worker termites clamped in their mandibles.

    My daughter discovered another emergence site closer to the porch. The ants found this one in short order, too, and I made it down in time to watch them dragging off a few late comers to the surface. The ants don’t like the termites’ wings and pull them off before dragging the insects to their own caverns.

    Savage stuff, even if it is only bugs.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. You make very good use of imagery, and I can definitely relate since I LOVE the outdoors as well. Thanks!

  3. Your spring seems like Earth passing through water from earth toward air.

    I once watched for an hour the shadows of two ravens playing on a rust-shaded cliff face, as they flew and climbed and fell and chased and fled in the sunlight before the cliff.

    The dance of shadow over the uneven surface of the cliff moved faster than the birds, themselves.

  4. Now that you mention it, the shadows do appear to move faster than the birds. I recall watching a procession of turkey vultures fly overhead in a narrow side canyon. In the air, their movements were sedate–I don’t remember a single wing beat among the mob of them–but the shadows crisscrossing and running over rocks and the rise opposite where I stood seemed much more intense and energetic.

    I’ve said this before: I believe turkey vultures put their shadows to use, deliberately striking still creatures on the ground to see if they move. Many times, especially out on this particular cliff when I’m lying down basking, a turkey vulture shadow has crossed my body. It happens so often it feels deliberate.

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