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. 

Pandemic Time

In talking to different people about how they are doing these days, interesting conversations unfold — much more substantial than the typical “How are you?” “Fine, thanks.” One common theme relates to our views of time. How it has morphed from something well-developed and organized pre-coronavirus, like an active office building, to a crumbling facade behind which resides a lot of white space. “Pandemic Time” perhaps could be a new term. For me, a dominant feature is actually a non-feature: no planning. At first, this was novel, like the novel virus itself, then after a few weeks it made me feel agitated, until a suspended calmness came along, without the stresses of an already-busy-pre-lived future. It hadn’t occurred to me how peaceful this state can be until, hearing “things are re-opening” over and over in the news, my planning habit resurfaced and my chest got all tight.

It is bird-nesting season, and one observable slice of time has been the development of young feathered ones. In a red-tailed hawk nest I’ve been checking on, the chicks started out as awkward grayish blobs with little pin feathers and bits of down sticking out at all angles from their heads.

Early in the lives of baby hawks, the beak and mouth grow like crazy, then energetic focus shifts into development of the talons. Weight gain becomes central several weeks into the adventure, followed by feather growth and learning to self-feed, and finally, flight feathers become the priority.  Nature’s ingenuity is in full view, as the nestlings first develop structure and weight, and only after that comes the focus on flight.

A definition of time:

hatching   eating    moving   growing    becoming independent    flapping

wing-hopping     flying into the

 

white space

 

All simply a continuing present tense.

Please feel free to share your experiences with time over these last few months.

old friend moon

It struck me, as I walked to my car one night not long ago and glanced up at the night sky, how comforting it is to see the moon. Even though I haven’t had a sustained relationship with the moon throughout my life, and sometimes feel disconnected thanks to indoor living, it’s like an old friend.

The intention was born to deepen the friendship and closely attend the moon through a full cycle. The huge challenge in this endeavor has been to reconfigure my sense of centeredness and space. While I might at times strongly think that things revolve around me, including the pesky concerns of daily life, there is a very different situation going on here.

In watching the moon shift in its nightly location and grow from waxing crescent to gibbous to full, I started to feel how it related to the sun and especially to my terra firma, the Earth. As stationary as our world seems to be, I now have a  reorientation in my body’s balance to the Earth turning into the sun at “sunrise,” and of the moon’s continuous movement, too. One spinning ball rotating around another while both revolve around a third. Perhaps my favorite perspective-flipping exercise has been to put myself on the moon, gazing back to this earthly spot, right here. Wow — check online for some spectacular images.

Yesterday was the new moon, and also the anniversary of the death of my dad. A night eight years ago, and I remember it, the moon — I gazed upward and outward into the big mystery, the waxing crescent hanging crisply in the western sky in a triangle with Venus and Jupiter. Fascinating how different the lunar phase is eight years later, and yet how connected the moon always is to our precious, beautiful blue dot.