Field Notes #11: Winter Solstice 2010, Part Four

Part One.  Part Two.  Part Three.

As we’d searched for the incised grooves and then the tower, the archaeologist and I traded small details about our families.  He mentioned how, when he takes his kids for hikes, they’re always running up to him and asking, “Is this an artifact, Dad?”  I told him how, when we first moved to the area, my two ambulatory kids would go out exploring and bring home rocks that struck their fancy.  A flashy array of jasper crops up from the ground here along with colorful cherts, etc.—the stones Ancestral Puebloans flint-knapped into arrowheads and other tools.  Lithic flakes—the waste and “misfires” of flint-knapping—abound, as well as partial and whole arrowheads and cores, which are the rounded remains of rocks from which workable pieces have been flaked off—a stone’s unusable “pit.” I had to sort through the adopted rocks for lithic flakes then explain to my kids, “This is an artifact.  Take it back.” Finally, I went out with them and taught them how to recognize possible lithic flakes and related artifacts.  These, I told them, were to be left in situ.

In situ is not necessarily as fixed a location as it sounds.  In situ can be, and often enough is, a changing position.  Artifacts move with the ground, flow downhill in storm run-off, erode out of wash and arroyo banks where they’re carried downstream, etc.  Sites can be dispersed by natural forces.  Still, the place where they’re found—in, on, or in proximity to a site, downhill, downstream, or hanging in mid-air from a root or two—means something.

Also, by way of explaining a little about how important to me Crossfire has become, I told the archaeologist bits about my unlikely household.  Even for me, who’s lived with the circumstances for nearly two decades (including the new layer of complexity introduced by my husband’s stroke last July), the extremities of my home life seem at times so outrageous that I’m not sure why anyone would believe anything I say about my family’s challenges. But the archaeologist seemed to accept that something intense indeed was going on at the home front and didn’t poke at it.  I thought that very decent of him.

We found our way down the bench and embankment to Crossfire Creek, running unusually high this year.  I think that last year’s record snow pack and wet spring must have recharged the area’s water table, because in the six years I’ve lived here, I’ve not witnessed the creek run so high or so far across the seasons.

As the archaeologist worked his way along the bank in search of a crossing, he met obstacles: a boulder, surrounded by an impassable tangle of brush.  Both jutted out over the current.  Grabbing fistfuls of bare branch, he swung himself out onto the edge of the boulder and skittered around it to the bank again.  A nice show of nimbleness.  I doubted I could follow suit.  “That might be a bit much for me,” I said.  He suggested I go back up and around, which I did.  That’s the funny angle to travel in the out-of-doors—sometimes you have to climb up to get down (and vice versa), and sometimes you have to go back to proceed.  I lumbered through light brush and finally reached a clear spot on the bank.  I found a crossing at a mid-stream boulder with a walkable beaver log jammed firmly between it and a cottonwood tree.  The archaeologist sat on the bank a little upstream of where I crossed, knees up, pulling up his white socks, his eyes reading the terrain.  When I caught up to him, he said, cheerfully, “Look, Patricia—the skyrockets are getting ready to bloom.”

Skyrockets?  Getting ready to bloom?  In December?  My mind stumbled trying to make sense of the words.  He could have said, “Look, Patricia—there’s the white rabbit.” The jolt would have been about the same.  First off, there seemed barely a trace of living green anywhere, except for sagebrush.  Second, I didn’t know what skyrockets were, but they sounded flamboyant.  My eye could locate no such plant. And “getting ready to bloom” conjured images of plants laden with buds.  Which brought me back to: Huh?

But so far, he hadn’t steered my perception wrong.  Beyond the dimness of my own not-seeing, I had no reason to distrust his words.  I’d caught up to him there on the bank, but my eyes and mind still struggled to draw up even with his vision.

“Gilia aggregata,” he said.  “That’s its scientific name.”

I recognized the name “gilia” and realized that he must be talking about the plant I know as scarlet gilia.  Scarlet gilia is a tall-stemmed plant common to the area, reaching heights of about two feet and producing from late spring into early autumn sprays of brilliant red flowers.  They’re one of my favorite canyon adornments.  I look forward to seeing them bloom each year.

But where were they?  He didn’t point, simply looked down at the ground where he was sitting.  Dotted all about him was a colony of what seemed to be cold-shocked, ground-hugging mopheads of barely-there greenery ranging about three to five inches across.  Some of their grizzled green leaves looked wilted, struggling. The desert is full of plants that begin in this configuration: rosettes of leaves that seem wholly earth-grasping but that shoot up single stalks producing at their heights clusters of flowers.  I wasn’t aware that scarlet gilia followed that growth pattern—I’d only noticed the plants when they were at their showiest.

“Those things?”

He nodded.  And I realized that when he said, “getting ready to bloom,” he was looking months into the future.  To me, the plants with pinched-looking, griseous leaves appeared to be struggling against the cold.  To him, they showed promising progress.

“With flowers shaped like this?” I asked, forming with my hand into something resembling scarlet gilia’s trumpet-shaped bell.  He nodded again.

(I’ve learned since that scarlet gilia–Ipomopsis aggregata–grows in these cold-resistant rosettes for 2-5 years, some sources say 8 years, before conditions trigger a bolt phase and they run up a stalk; bloom; are pollinated by white-lined spinx moths, broad-tail hummingbirds and rufous hummingbirds; produce seed; and die the year they fruit.)

Then the archaeologist directed my eye across the creek and upslope of our position.  A hundred feet or so above us was a patch of ground that had sloughed from the bench we’d just descended.  The patch looked to have melted off the hillside and refrozen into a small terrace maybe 30 feet below its original position.

“That’s called a rotational slump,” he said.  Four or five junipers remained attached to the falling ground, having surfed the wave to new locations on the terrace.  They stood perfectly upright and looked unscathed. “Those trees survived the ride,” he said.

Suddenly, I understood better why so many of a juniper tree’s roots run horizontal to the soil surface, sometimes just below it.  As I’d walked over such roots stretched across trails, arroyos, or other exposures, I’d wondered why, in a place that offered rain and then quickly snatched it back through evaporation, junipers spread their roots so shallowly.  Maybe, I thought, to take better advantage of a widely wetted ground surface after rainstorms.  Or maybe that morphology was necessary to maintain best anchorage on the ever-crumbling desert surface stratum beneath which often lie mantles of sandstone.  It never occurred to me that those widely spread roots could act as surfboards, floating trees down safely when the soil suddenly dropped out from under them.  I thought this adaptation strategy darned smart. Inspiring, even.  I’d have to consider how I could adapt it to my own circumstances.

We left the creek’s bank, then, heading for that Pueblo II-Pueblo III site high up on the eastern bench.  By this time, I was overdue at home by nearly an hour.  As I climbed, I guessed that my daughter would almost certainly be awake and expecting food.  My family would be wondering where I was.  I never eat breakfast before I walk Crossfire—a practice I’ve adopted for many reasons.  It works fine for the usual one-and-a-half to two-hour rambles along my established route.  But now I’d gone way off course, time-wise and space-wise, and I’d overspent my apportioned energy in extra walking and climbing.  So I was beginning to feel rather hungry myself.  But I wasn’t done. Yes–I was hungry and getting tired, but my mind was hungrier, still wanting.  I couldn’t resist pushing a little further to see what was around the next bend.

To be continued …

6 thoughts on “Field Notes #11: Winter Solstice 2010, Part Four”

  1. I love this.

    Reading it, I have two thoughts: 1) how nature is about more than what grows and reproduces, untouched by humans. The arrowheads, the stone pits; humans are actually a PART of nature. This is something that I think a lot of nature writers overlook. My favorite nature writer, David Quammen, uses nature as a platform to discuss human behavior and humans as animals. I love his writing, and I love this piece for that reason.

    2) I wish I knew so many scientific facts about the area in which I live. I’d love to know which moths pollinate which flowers, what the life-cycle of a lot of the plants I admire may be. Here in Provo, I have been so busy and full of living the day-to-day tasks of raising a family that I have not felt able to take time to smell, or identify, or study, the flowers. My family is moving to North -East Idaho in a few days, and I plan on doing much better there. I think that, taking the time to examine things like this, helps to calm and ground me. Reading this gave me a bit of calm and grounding in an otherwise extremely stressful and agitated week!

  2. The arrowheads, the stone pits; humans are actually a PART of nature.

    I tell this story to play with this idea, on the Ancestral Puebloan level and also on the level of how my encounter with a complete (human) stranger in “nature,” with all its qualities of interaction, was part of the canyon’s environment, was dependent on the canyon’s environment, and so on. I felt no separation from the canyon because of the human encounter; if anything, my sense of “belonging with” the canyon increased after this tutelary adventure. And not just because I learned more about the canyon. The comfortable, expressive, temporary companionship was absolutely as formative as any (other) aspect of nature.

    I wish I knew so many scientific facts about the area in which I live. I’d love to know which moths pollinate which flowers, what the life-cycle of a lot of the plants I admire may be. Here in Provo, I have been so busy and full of living the day-to-day tasks of raising a family that I have not felt able to take time to smell, or identify, or study, the flowers. My family is moving to North -East Idaho in a few days, and I plan on doing much better there.

    I couldn’t get to the desert when I lived in Utah Valley. My home circumstances prevented it. That’s the main reason I moved to where I now live–so that I could have this access whenever opportunity arose. Absolutely necessary to what creative impulses I have.

    Reading this gave me a bit of calm and grounding in an otherwise extremely stressful and agitated week!

    Wonderful response. Thanks so much for taking the time to read, Sarah.

  3. Patricia, I’m glad your Field Notes didn’t end in four parts. I enjoy reading them. Your descriptions and thoughts ring true to me.

  4. Thanks, Bill. Glad to see you reappear on the site.

    I hope these posts demonstrate obviously enough that this series is about my perceptions–of the canyon, my family, the archaeologist, the exchange between us, and so on–and how that perception changes. I know that there is so much more for my eyes to open to, so much more going on than I can gather up in my thinking. But happily, I feel some important changes took place in me that day and since, as I’ve been writing about the adventure and continuing to think it through.

    I wish to try to avoid doing what I call “storying” people, or asserting in my writing that my take on what another person did and what it means is the “truth” of who they are, what happened, and why. I haven’t that depth of access to the “truth.” But I can try to approach as closely as possible what I did and why. I can try to talk about that in language that others can make something of for themselves.

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