A Deeper Dive

Transport me upon the body of a diving duck! The feathered flying one becomes cloaked in mystery as it transforms briefly into a submarine. My mind races when a diving duck goes down. How long can it stay under? How deep? Where will it resurface? What will be found or stirred in its submerged wanderings?

On a breezy October day, it was interesting then to have common cause with an American avocet, as it stalked a scaup at the Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve near Las Vegas. Pale Mojave Desert hills hovered like mirages in the background, putting these precious ponds into environmental context.

The avocet, a leggy wading bird, was, in biological terms, the “attendant” to this particular diving duck. And the scaup the “beater” — stirring up food.

In my observing, the avocet’s behavior even seemed like a kind of haunting. The scaup would dive and the avocet, in its awkward fashion of swimming while somehow managing those dangling legs, would fidget around and then lurch toward where the scaup re-emerged, its upturned tweezers bill trying to snatch some food wrought from the depths.

Other known attendant-beater relationships among waterbirds include egrets attending cormorants, wigeons following swans, and coots haunting various duck species. Count me in as well, eavesdropping on and hoping to glean from the entire affair, attending that which gets stirred around, beaten up, raised into awareness. The avocet obtained a piece from the scaup’s efforts about half the time. Not bad odds for the chance of seeing something from deeper down.

bird-place-time

i.

My mom and I are walking along the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry. It’s Mother’s Day, 2013. During the drive, we had stopped and were able to see some endangered California condors. She took a photo of me standing with my arms outstretched against the sign showing a condor’s actual wingspan, laughing at how small I looked. Enthralled with the river that the ferry once crossed, she’s also just plain happy. A yellow bird in the vegetation makes harsh rasps, followed by gorgeous clear whistles. Like someone playing washboard with a parrot for a band mate, and added to that my mom’s and my voices in conversation. 

ii.

Verde River last month, 1pm and so hot that I’m walking in the river. Lots of bird activity in this thick river forest. A summer tanager male flies in his red glory, perching briefly, then vanishes into the multi-leafed green. I hear the jostling of the flowing water around my shins as I take a few steps. He shows up again on a branch upstream, my direction of travel, a crimson jewel Iost and then refound. Ah, and there, there — the sound, of that wildly oppositional set of rasps and whistles!

iii.

The yellow-breasted chat was teasing me, enticing me to follow and try and see him. I felt so close, the whistle echoing against the wall of cliffs. Thirty seconds later I heard him way up the Santa Clara River. I walked along the trail for a few minutes, getting closer, even closer… It was briefly quiet before I realized he was up beyond the next bend. Worn out, but not disappointed, I turned around and hiked out. This same pattern has repeated across many summer hikes here.They merge into one. 

iv.

Floating through Desolation-Gray canyons on the Green River years ago. My first overnight raft trip, and inexperienced as I was, more than once I stepped out of the boat with the anchor line onto what I thought was a gradual shoreline. But the shore was abrupt, a mini cliff, and I promptly ended up in the river. One of these times later in the trip, I had my binoculars around my neck, and they suffered from being submerged. Happily, up until then I had heard and viewed innumerable chats. Patches of loud yellow in the delicious green foliage  

v. 

On many spring and summer mornings, I wander out at the day’s break to join its life. Roadrunner with tail up then suddenly flipped down, like a switch, and rapid bill snapping; 6:05am flight to Salt Lake; grasshoppers perched on ridges of stucco; dull construction roar from the development to the west; garbage truck back-up beeper.  

In May I began noticing a repeated harsh jeet-jeet-jeet followed by deep clear whistle notes. I racked my brain. It was coming from the small oasis of cottonwoods and seep willows down the hill, fed by the condo complex’s irrigation, swimming pool, and storm runoff. It couldn’t be a chat — no, not in this mistreated place of illegal dumping and ATV use. And yet, behold the sound of yellow in green, my stalking hikes, feet fresh in the cooling river, walking with my mom — who passed away six moths ago — at Lee’s Ferry. 

This bird-place-time is a map of memory throughout the Colorado River Basin, along rivers, streams, and even in my suburban backyard. Like eBird, the real-time citizen science initiative that maps peoples’ bird sightings, I am populating the yellow-breasted chat’s range with points connected through space and time, heightened by the loss and re-finding of my mom.

Eating the Chinle

A wonderful poem by Tom Hennen, titled “Report from the West,” contains the following:

“Answers only dull the senses. Even answers that are right often make what they explain uninteresting. In nature the answers are always changing.”

Is there a connection between seeking answers and seeking control? Quite apropos for me to think about, for to classify, categorize, figure out in a systematic way — in other words, to find answers, is my yang to nature’s yin. 

Near home, I was walking one morning and saw three starlings on barren ground. They were intently picking at the soil. Perhaps they were seeking seeds or insects. Or perhaps they were ingesting pebbles for their gizzards. Regardless of that answer, it made me wonder exactly what geologic formation they were seemingly eating, which is the same formation I sweep from my patio each morning — my local geology. 

I loved learning it is the Chinle Formation, sands and gravels left by large, braided rivers approximately 225 million years ago. A short distance from where I saw the starlings is an outcropping composed of large rock chunks. This is the Shinarump Member of the Chinle — coarser deposits hardened by minerals into a kind of cap rock. Lichens thrive on it. And a younger section of the Chinle, nearer the river, contains blue clay, a layer of striking lavender-gray. 

Blue clay is hardened volcanic ash from the volcanic activity along the western edge of the continent (pre-California and Nevada) as it broke away from Pangea. The ash then blew inland, landing in parts of Utah and Arizona. It expands when it gets wet, creating challenges for the building of structures. Houses are often built upon piers in order to accommodate the shifting foundation. 

It’s a tricky balance, all this — retaining spontaneous wonder while pursuing detached answers. As my senses and imagination forage on the Chinle, I feel the richer for it: the rocks and soils formed nearly a quarter billion years ago intermingle with European starlings, ancient West-coast volcanoes, electric orange and green lichen, bird digestion, and steadying piers into the earth.

Out and Back

Out

An ant caught my attention on a recent morning walk. It was carrying a fluffy white object, about half its body’s size. I followed it with my eyes and soon saw other ants carrying the same fluffy white stuff, all heading toward the dirt area with an entry/exit hole signaling their nest. Taking a wider view, I could see the ants were coming from a nearby creosote, carrying the seeds of the white balls, like miniature lanterns, that develop from the creosote’s yellow flowers. At one point, my ant’s seed got caught on a grouping of other seeds. It pushed and twisted, kept pushing, like a linebacker going against blocking pads, determined to free itself and its load. Finally it did — I was glad. 

Now amid the turmoil of moving legs, bodies, and antennae, I tracked my ant until it made it to the nest hole, dropping into the dark. I wished I could still follow it, within this otherly world; eventually, I felt sure, it would re-emerge on another foraging round. Meanwhile, I stepped my way back to the trail and down into a small canyon. I spotted some petroglyphs midway up the cliff. One stood out — a humanoid figure with an appendage coming out of one side of its head like flames; what a perfect image. It was 9am, 85 degrees, and sunny except for the shaded cliff with the person on fire. 

For awhile I followed a sneaky yellow-breasted chat, making its exotic piercing whistles and jee-jee-jee-jee calls. Just as I would get close enough for a possible view, the winged one would go silent, its sounds resurfacing 20 yards down the trail. After being tantalized in this way several times, I turned around. 

and 

A favorite type of hike is the loop, spanning greater variation in scenery for the hiker, and holding the mystery of how it all will tie back together — a natural, unfolding plot. But there is something to be said for the “out and back,” a more intimate opportunity to experience a specific place.  

Back

The return walk was into the sun — I lost the self-awareness of my moving shadow, and the natural history of my senses was completely re-arranged by the heat and light. My mind became busier, thinking about the to-do aspect of the remainder of the day. Funny how this change occurred right after I turned around, like a horse getting a whiff of the barn.

In our daily lives, we usually feel pressured to move ahead. We have to hurry. We seldom ask ourselves where it is that we must hurry to. 

— Thich Nhat Hanh

I looked for the ant nest, this time on the left instead of right. At first I couldn’t locate it, given the reverse perspective. I passed by, then turned around, trying to replicate my approach during the “out” part of the hike. Finally I found it — but everything was different. No movement, not an ant to be seen. Only a collection of creosote seed fluff and the hole to the nest appearing closed off. My ant was somewhere in there, the colony shuttered from the heat and light. It was two hours after my first visit, and 95 degrees. 

This was two hikes in one. 

creek wandering

The restless energy to wander rose around noon, with a plan made and departure by two. First a stop at the postal hut not big enough for the title “office,” to mail a postcard to myself. I feel at ease with my reclusiveness in this place that received and sent its mail by mule until 1940. 

I end up at a bright green strip of trees extending between pale sandstone hills and massive mesas. Some layers are imbued with orange-pink. Sun reflects from sand, my feet pushing into the softness. Spring runoff rustles nearby. The body seeks to orient itself in this sudden new sensory scape that greets me after the eight-mile drive. There are many greens, although the big view is majority stone. Fresh green of the tree corridor, sagebrush blue-grey green, deep juniper, and lighter, shiny alder. The juniper berries are like droplets of sage. 

Gnarled hard cow pies sit next to rounded porous rocks. A trail intersection stops me briefly — mind and legs take me away from the stream up a mellow rise where the view is long and wide. More sand. And a breeze out of the west. I labor onward but then feel the wanting, a key potential disturbance of mind to investigate in my Buddhist meditation practice. Wanting to return to the young green and promise of water. After a stretch, the trail branches again, and I take the shallow descent streamward. 

Gnats and mosquitos find my ears, neck, forearms, and I am joined by the birds who eat them: warblers, flycatchers, vireos. In this stream zone, the trees stand steady, while water riffles show the downward tilt, heading the same way I am. This is called Deer Creek. It could also be named for cow, rock, sand, gnat, bird, or another single-syllable but complex presence: mounds. I’m amid hundreds of them, sometimes all blended together as an earthen patch. Serious subterranean excavation. Like deeply held beliefs being stirred around and exposed to the air. I wonder how one measures one’s life. Gopher? 

I leave the creek again, choosing breeze, sand, and the shade of an expansive juniper. Under this tightly knitted umbrella of branches and cypress-style leaves, my senses settle down, able to focus on one object — juniper berries. So many on the tree, and then I relax my neck, seeing piles of them on the ground. One comes into my hand, rolling across my palm. I prick its skin with my fingernail. However I may try to describe it in words, the feel, vision, and smell are true. 

The self to receive the postcard will not be the same who sent it.