Archive Page 3

26
Sep
11

sharing a fish

This is the piece i created in a 20 minute writing program in Homer, Alaska, on the subject of “community”. the session was initiated with the prompt about a Upik native who had a fish and his neighbor had none. the project is called “one city, one prompt” and you can check it out at:
http://www.onecityoneprompt.org/2011/09/21/some-kind-of-hallelujah/

“I got a fish.”
“Shit. I didn’t get any.”
“Lets build a fire and cook it.”

They gathered driftwood and built a fire, and when there were coals, he laid the salmon there and covered it with seaweed.

The salmon came every summer. They came to spawn in the rivers and streams. They came to die in the forest. They came to be eaten, and when they were eaten, those who ate, shit, and their shit nourished the land, and the forest grew from that nourishment.

The flesh of salmon came every year, like a wave of nutrients from the sea, penetrating the land by the arteries of fresh water that drained it of snowmelt. Everyone depended on it. It was the way it was. The bears, the eagles, the seals, and the humans all relied on the annual flood of flesh.

And when it came, it was not yours or mine, but for all, a bounty of providence from the sea for all life on the land. And didn’t the snow come from the sea too? The snow that the salmon used to make their way inland?

The seaweed held in the moisture, steaming the fish from above while it roasted from below. They ate, together, and gazed across the bay, watching the tide rip by. The tide that flooded and drained the bay twice a day, taking nutrients from the land to the sea to feed the fish and the crabs and the mussels.

As they ate, it was clear that all is as it should be, that they fit into this dynamic–were a part of this exchange between land and sea.
And the joy they experienced from the taste of the moist fish–a flavor better than any other fish–and from the heat of the fish in their belly after a long day in a penetrating wind, and from the sharing of the bounty–that joy seemed to be part of the dynamic too.
It all seemed to be screaming some kind of Hallelujah, as if this was all one big divine party.
The gravel of the beach was surrounded by spruce reaching for the sky, fed by the shit of bear, fed by the salmon that were fed by the small fish that fed on others that lived off the nutrients of the land that flowed down with the snowmelt that came from the sea. Sitting there with their butts on the gravel, they looked into each others eyes and giggled at the beauty of it all.

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26
Jul
11

radio interview about The Granite Avatars of Patagonia

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/19422823/11_10%20interview.mp3

14
Jun
11

The first few pages of The Other Side

the following is the beginning of THE OTHER SIDE, On the Road in South America, available at http://www.tomreed.com

watch the book’s video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I9eQxrhAJFc

Chapter 1

Fight or Flight

This trail parts chest-high chaparral with dense overhead thickets of a bottlebrush bamboo, heading south, crossing a slope that faces the rising sun, with a big lake below. It’s a still and cloudless summer morning in early January, and the tingle of delight I feel entering the Andes for the first time on foot seems to buoy my full backpack.

The route passes through a burned area. The fire must have been low and hot, killing the trees by burning through the bark at the ground. Most of the trees have little charcoal on them, and the twigs are still on the branches. When the trail hits a valley that heads west, into the mountains, it follows the stream in the bottom and enters an exotic forest. Only one species of tree grows in the valley: the lenga, or southern beech, and they stand about sixty feet tall. The improbably dominant lenga comprises the entire forest in all of these mountain valleys, all the way up to tree line. I’m reminded of the claim that the largest living organism on the planet is an aspen grove in Colorado. I’d be surprised if all of the lenga in each valley of these mountains are not someday found to contain identical DNA, with each valley contains a single tree, sprouting countless times as the roots spread through the soils, from the quaggy bogs in the valley floors up to the desiccated scree slopes tumbling down from the eroding peaks. What is it about them that feels so exotic? The main trunk splits low into several branches which continue up, like an elm, then the leafed branches find a horizontal orientation. The leaves are small, and these horizontal layers of fine dark green leaves give the forest a Japanese feeling. “It’s more Japanese than any of the forests I’ve seen in Japan,” I joke to myself.

Proceeding up-valley, the path comes upon a small shelter made of two log walls enclosing the overhang of a huge boulder. The boulder is granite, the size of a small house. It could have ridden on top of a glacier to get here, or it could have come to rest after a violent drop from a peak above. Either way, it’s been here for a long time. The little refuge, maybe half a century old, is just its current state, like a warbler nest in an ancient tree. Who knows, maybe the aboriginal Tahuelche used the overhang for shelter on occasion, or maybe all of the soot on the boulder is from fires built by hikers in recent years.

As elevation increases, the trees begin to diminish in height, revealing broken granite spires on the ridges above. Soon I’m in a sea of dense, low lenga covering the upper valley like chaparral, with a steep stream roaring in cascades beside me; then the trail makes a final lunge for the pass. Up there I find a large tarn, and where its water spills into the valley is Refugio Frey, a two-storied structure of fine cut-stone blockwork. Beyond the refugio and the tarn sits an amphitheater of several spiky peaks appropriately named “Catedral.” The view is a satisfying reward after the climb. Not having seen any photographs of this area, I had no expectations of what I’d encounter, so I’m pleasantly surprised at the regal nature of the spires. They jut skyward like the “drizzled” points I made topping sand castles on the beach as a kid. The scree slopes around them still bear lots of snow, and this month is the southern equivalent of our July, so the snowfall must be substantial here.

The refugio was built fifty years ago and named for a local mountaineering hero. Its first floor is a rustic dining room with three massive tables and benches made of thick timbers, behind it is an even more rustic kitchen. Above is a bunkroom, able to squeeze forty people side-by-side on two long bunks like shelves, one above the other. Rock climbers are milling about, most of them Argentinean; sometimes other languages, English or Portuguese, float through the air. They tell me that a storm is coming and recommend staying in the shelter. One warns me that the snoring inside is incredible. I had planned to pass this valley today, but three weeks of sitting on buses in Chile took away muscle and stamina without my noticing. Travel is like that, the constantly changing environment and complete lack of routine, the strange food, missed meals, and increased alcohol intake all contribute to a less than optimum situation for monitoring one’s physical condition. I was in shape when I left California, but I’m not now, and I’m tired. The enthusiasm I felt when I first got on the trail has dwindled. The buoy has been cut from my backpack. Sitting on a stone wall, I make a ham and cheese sandwich and consider my options. Do I want to sit in a one-man tent through the storm, or hang out at the shelter with a coterie of climbers? I decide on the tent. It’s too much of a scene here. It’s a one-dimensional atmosphere, like I find at international surf spots, or martial arts summer camps. If you’re not a climber you’re on the outside. It’s one thing to be alone; it’s another to be alone in a crowded room.

It takes a traverse of the entire length of the lake before finding some solitude. A tent city fills the spaces in the lenga scrub along the lake-shore. But at the far end there’s a cozy alcove in the brush big enough to throw up the tent. I stash my pack in it, and take off for a walk. Making my way for the snow-covered headwall of the cirque that holds the lake, the refugio, and the climbers, I notice two huge birds cruising along the north ridge. “Fucking condors!” I blurt out. A wave of excitement rejuvenates me. It’s been a hope that I would see them, but given that the California condor has eluded this birdwatcher for decades, I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high.

Feeling much better without my burden, excited by the terrain, and energized by the sight of the giant birds, I climb the headwall with the zest of a kid. Above the snow slope there is another small cirque with another tarn, this little one still more than three-quarters frozen. The granite turrets above it are pink to rust in color, but also fruity— cantaloupe, mango and persimmon in places. I make my way for the pass to catch a glimpse beyond, and meet a Belgian couple in their sixties as I begin a climb on large talus boulders. They are slowly and carefully making their way from the chair-lift to the refuge. I’m impressed. They tell me that the trail had steep drop-offs and was scary, so now I want to see it, and when I hit the pass I keep hiking north along the ridge, on the west slope of it, below the crest, following red spots painted on the rocks—and it’s nothing but rocks. Large angular boulders lie on an angle that barely allows repose below a craggy ridge. These rocks once stood above those crags, maybe in majestic vertical displays like what remains behind me. Those spires of the cathedral have a castle-like quality, due to the highly fractured rock, which resembles block construction. Abundant fingers of rock, called gendarmes, decorate the towers like the gargoyles of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I wonder where the boulder under foot once stood, in what cathedral, and in what cataclysm it came crashing down.

While traversing a buttress of the peak above, the rocks get as big as cars. I round one and see a guy about thirty feet below me, standing still, wearing a new overstuffed red pack on his back, and a big day-pack slung on his chest. I yell down, “Watch out for falling rocks,” and he turns quickly and bursts into rapid exclamations about the magnificent view in Spanish that sounds like sing-song Italian. He’s totally overwhelmed by the beauty, and he hasn’t even seen the cathedral yet. He asks how far to Frey, and I describe the route.

In a while the chair-lift comes into view. I suppose I passed the scary part without knowing it. I still feel strong, so I leave the route and head for a peak. At over 2,000 meters the air is already getting thin for this body from sea level, and I have to stop a few times to catch my breath, but I make it to the top with no problem. The final sixty feet or so is a near vertical rock climb, up a crack and through a chimney. A spot just below the pinnacle offers shelter from the wind, which howls in off the Pacific, crossing Chile in no time, and biting my right cheek. From my perch I face south, overlooking the spectacular granite amphitheater, and turn my head to reconnoiter tomorrow’s hike in the next valley to the west. Beyond my route, ice-covered Mount Tronador, the “Thunderer,” looms high in the sky, marking the Chilean border, and beyond it are the lower slopes of another volcano that is probably Osorno. Its top is mantled with the weather that’s moving in. To the north and south, snowy peaks and ridges continue to the horizons. The Andes are a long mountain chain—three times the length of the Himalayas. The word “Andes” is thought to have evolved from either of two Indian words: anti, meaning “east,” or anta, meaning “copper.”

After studying tomorrow’s route with binoculars, and assessing the snowy pass to be crossed, my head turns back to the south and my eyes catch the movement of a condor closing in from the left, gliding into the wind at high speed and close range. Immediately I reach for my camera bag, but with my thumb and forefinger on the zipper pull, I stop. There’s no time. If I go for the photo I’ll miss the experience—and probably the photo too. The condor is only a couple hundred feet away. I see the feathers of its downy white-collar shift in the wind when it turns its head ever so slightly to look at me. Its wings span ten feet and are motionless as it cuts into the wind. It passes me at about twenty-five miles-per-hour, flying into a headwind that’s thirty miles-per-hour or more, and is gone in a few seconds, becoming a flattened ‘v’ silhouetted against the stormy sky. Its head, described in my bird book as “bare, wattled and carunculated,” is a blue-grey, telling me it’s of the southern race of the species, and the fin-like crest atop tells me it’s a male. I wonder if this fin helps him soar with such efficiency. As he shrinks to a dot in the western sky I come down from the rush, and hear myself say, “Cool” out loud. A sudden feeling—that I could leave now and be satisfied with the entire trip—passes through me and takes me by surprise. Why do I feel so satisfied, so content? It’s not like I came down here to see condors. I came to scout for a new place to live. Not just a new place to live, a place to thrive.

10
Jun
11

Alaska Journal: the arrival of spring

bradley valley, from my balcony

5/5

I made it to Bowlegs.

All the flights were easy, but I spent from 1:30 am till 8am in the Anchorage airport. The flight to Homer was uneventful, passing through the dense vapors of a low ceiling and not seeing anything, trusting the young pilot (this is a 7 seat plane) who landed us like you would set a baby down on concrete.

My neighbor Mike picked me up at the Homer airport and took me shopping. I filled 2 boxes for $240, and we drove the 16 miles out to our neighborhood in a foggy overcast that allowed no view, dodging a moose at mile 13.

Mike told me that the snowshoe hare population is peaking. A classic example of wildlife population fluctuation cycles is the snowshoe hare and lynx cycles, which, if i remember from college days, is supposed to be a seven year cycle. The snowshoe hare population is supposed to peak every seven years and then the lynx population will peak afterwards because of the abundant food. Then when the hare are all lynx turds, the lynx population declines.

The hare population was high when i arrived here in 1982, but I never saw it rise again until now. and all the lynx that have been seen in this neighborhood were seen in the last 10 years, well after the peak of hares.

There are so many hare that they had to eat spruce saplings to survive the winter, so all the baby trees I’ve planted and/or nurtured in recent years–anything under 18 inches–are bare wood sticks. Taller saplings have been stripped that high. and the hare broke into my chicken-wired birch nursery–more intended to stymie moose, but built with the thought that a hare may want to get in– and ate all the young ones.

All the trees i’ve been planting are to create a visual barrier between me and my crazy new neighbors who have little sense of respect for the very large personal space we used to enjoy in this neighborhood. The good news is that I hear they will spend the summer running some wilderness lodge.

I’m early. Only the last remnants of snowdrifts remain, but the earth is frozen under the surface mud. Things look dreary, an the breeze still has a bite to it. An eagle flew by. Inside my cabin, everything was just as I left in 20 months ago. More sawdust had fallen from between the floor boards above, and a hundred dead flies littered the floor. One of the great mysteries of my Alaska cabins is that flies go to great effort to get in, then hang out on the windows trying to get out. It reminds me of we humans, entering this reality from the dimension we exist in between lives, then putting our efforts into vain attempts to find comfort and peace, and relief from life’s challenges.

 

the new cabin, “Beetlekil”, built in this century. photo 7/09

 

The prehistoric calls of sandhill cranes make me look up and find them in small bands of 4 or 10 as they arrive here from their winter retreats in the central valley of California, or southern Arizona, or maybe Mexico. When they leave here in the fall they do so in huge flocks of hundreds of birds that gather in loud spirals high in the sky before setting out. I imagine that these arriving cranes did so down south, but that the big flocks have fragmented along the way in gusty storms and fog.

The nuthatch tree, the one whose top is in so many of my photos from the balcony of Beetlekil, still stands. I hooked up the waterline from the spring, but a short stretch of that is a few inches underground, so it is still frozen. My new cabin is still without a woodstove, since I am usually not here in weather that demands one, so I slept 11 hours in my sleeping bag. when I got up in the morning and went out to pee, a goshawk zipped through the trees and passed 10 feet in front of me. I surprised it, and it stopped in a tree to turn and study me. Mike says there are a few around (it is a rare bird), and he thinks it’s because of the hare. There’s an ermine in a deck of small logs I’ve been saving for use in construction. I haven’t seen one here since I moved here and one lived in a log pile then.

This morning the sun was out and it warmed the cabin, and allowed a spectacular view of the snow-covered mountains above the bay that was covered by a thick blanket of brilliant white fog. I removed the protective roof from the balcony and sat on it with a pot of tea, and thought about all I have to do.

Now I’m headed in to town to pick up my crate of tools. I’ll stop in at the Fritz Creek general store to send this.

My first week will be spent talking with experienced guys to plan how to jack up my old cabin “Twisted Timbers,”

 

“twisted Timbers” , a timber frame built in 1982

extract the wooden piling, and replace them with concrete. I’ve been invited on ski trip on sunday, boating across the bay and climbing a ridge between 2 glaciers and then telemarking down. The shore-bird festival is this weekend too, so I may go and try to see some unusual birds as they pass on their way to the arctic.

 

5/8

At 8:30AM, I was sipping tea and waiting for bread to toast when I looked across the canyon and noticed movement. Focusing my eyes, it looked like a black bear, so I ran up the stairs and focused the spotting scope. By then the bear was in the alders, but they are still leafless, and I found it–a big brown bear sow with two little dark cubs frolicking around her. She is the same color as the dead grass, but the cloud-filtered sun was rising beyond her, so it made the side facing me shaded and darker–enough to spot her. I suppose I ought to avoid the canyon for a while. Running into a brown bear sow with two little cubs is one of the most dangerous things you can do in the North American wilderness.

 

Violet green swallows pass by on occasion.  I think they are migrating. I think the ones that will nest here on my cabin are still on their way north. The varied thrush and robins are here and beginning to sing. The resident red-breasted nuthatch makes it’s buzzing beeping call. Snipe are flying their mating dance with whooping wings. Occasionally, when all conditions are right, giant mosquitos come to me. Garry says they are from last year–that they spend the winter “under a log, and do what insects do,” which must involve getting frozen solid for seven months. I don’t know. If I had internet here, I’d research it.

5/14

This morning I woke to the sound of a screaming animal. I don’t know what it was, I’ll have to discuss it with my neighbors. It sounded too small for a lynx and too big for a hare, but cats have strange voices, as you know if you’ve read The Granite Avatars of Patagonia. I grabbed a machete and dressed warmly on this blustery day, and hiked down towards the sound, which I thought was on this side of the canyon. Once down there, all was quiet except for the owls. I have been hearing owls all day long lately–right in the middle of a sunny afternoon. There are two of them and they have two different calls, which has had me confused. Neighbor Garry says he saw one and it had no ears, so we’re thinking it must be a great grey owl. To know, I set out for the hoot.  Soon the owl left a tree and flew by–a great grey, which, according to ornithologists, shouldn’t be down here on the coast. Then I heard the other one. I stood silently and gave my best hoot back. The owl came to me out of curiosity, and landed in a tall spruce beside me–a majestic great horned. These two owls of different species have been hanging out together. Are they keeping each other company, or are they squabbling over territory?

Just now a merlin landed on the top of the nuthatch tree and was swarmed with a flock of pine siskins, not pestering him as a jay might do to a hawk, just swarming five feet overhead.

 

We’ve had cold, dry weather. Intense winds have been blowing out of the arctic. The kind of weather that keeps a drop of water below the tip of your nose. A north wind is extremely unusual for this place. I made the mistake of trying to ski brokenknife ridge with a group of locals.  Invitations for a boat ride over to jakalof bay are not frequent, so I accepted, but the wind on the ridge was a sharp 35 knots, and even though it was a cloudless day, the snow couldn’t melt. May skiing is about corn snow, when the sun warms the surface of the snow on sunny days, it freezes at night and forms a hard crust, but another sunny day melts the top inch and gives a liquid surface that is easy to carve telemark turns on, even for me.

It was so windy on top that I used my avalanche shovel to dig a grotto into the back of a cornice to find some shelter for lunch.  The ski down was like skiing on a parking lot, but at least it was smooth. In winter, crusty snow can be formed by intense wind and gets sculpted by it, leaving two-to-three inch ridges and flutes to ski on. My first time up on Brokenknife I skied such sastrugi, with soft, low-cut shoes and wooden skis, wearing wool. That memory makes me feel like a relic of the old days.

Back on board the fishing boat we had hamburgers, beers and a hot tub waiting. The barbecue quit working so I had to cook the burgers with the propane weed-burner that was heating the hot tub.

Taru, a Japanese mountain adventurer who has settled in this area, was the first to dive off the boat to cool off in jakalof bay. He was strong enough to climb onto the dock which has a 12×12” curb rail along the edge, making it a tough move. When the three Russian and Chinese grad students who came along for the ride followed Taru into the  bay, the lifeguard in me assisted by yanking each of the naked girls out of the water. Good entertainment for all.

Meanwhile, to the north, climbers on Denali were stuck in the windstorm. Some seriously bad luck for such an unusual wind to hit during a May climb. One of the climbers died from the exposure. I heard the wind chill factor was 35 degrees below zero.

 

I’ve been building pole sheds out of logs and cutting deadfall on the side of the ravine. Hard work. It all caught up to me yesterday and I had to take it easy and rest. First I stapled up all the postcards I’ve received in the past two years, as is my tradition, to cover the outhouse walls. Back when I built the outhouse, in 1982, I knew lots of young travelers who’d send postcards. Now almost all the postcards come from friends who have used the outhouse and want to contribute to the decor. Captain Dan sends them from every trip he takes, occasionally writing nothing more than “Another one for the shitter.”  Lauryn sent cards from the Pyrenes, where she backpacked before joining me in the high sierras last August (If you ever want to contribute to the wallpaper, the address is 34880 Moonrise, Homer, Alaska, 99603). There are many links to the past on the walls. Postcards from all over the world telling of great adventures. The old cards fade. The blue ink is the last to go, and when the card is all white, I take it down and try to read the back, but that ink has usually faded as well. There are always surprises. This year I found one that I had sent to my home-town friend Mike Christopher from England when I was 17! Mike came to visit me in ‘87 and he must have brought the card. The photo is gone, but my writing is legible. We had not yet won the rowing races that I was there for, I just told him about the bomb scare at the airport. It was 1974 and the IRA was in full swing. Another card was from someone who had just been to an isolated section of the Maine coast. Unfortunately, the bottom of the cards collect the water of driving autumn rains (the outhouse has no door because of the fantastic view) and the signature is always the first to go. Sometimes I recognize the handwriting though, and I think this one is from the same Mike because of the way he crosses his T’s. One faded card is from my sister who had been vacationing in Hawaii. Another is from the sister of my closest neighbors who had spent a month here barking logs with a drawknife when they built their cabin in ’83. She wrote her return address at the top. Nothing else survived. Someone sent me a series of postcards from Cairns, Australia. They were folded like an accordion. I had to refold them, bringing fresh images to the surface.

 

After that fun job, I built a ladder out of two 17’ poles with branches for rungs, set in place by mortise and tenon. The ladder will give access to little room on top of my big pole shed, where visitors can stay. Today I have to roof a shed, but the cold wind encouraged me to spend some extra time in the cabin this morning. The thought of wrestling cold corrugated steel roofing in this bitter wind is not appealing.

 

5/15

The roof is finished and the foundation is ready for the next shed–a new woodshed. I threw one together with the treetops that were laying around the land (it had been selectively logged) back in June of ‘82 as a place to keep my tools dry when I built my timberframe cabin. It is actually amazing that it lasted this long. This summer I will need a place to keep things dry. I’ll make it big enough to work in.

It still gets dark, but I rarely see that, as it happens some time in the wee hours of the morning. I haven’t done manual labor in 9 months, so I sleep like a dead man. We are past the half-way point between equinox and solstice, so the the rate of the daily increase in daylight is slowing. We’re down to five minutes a day. The day is 17 hours long, from five-thirty in the morning to ten-thirty at night. Twilight last another couple hours on each end.

Sparrows are singing this morning. Birch and elderberry buds are swelling. Alder buds are just turning green. The first edible shoots are breaking the ground. robins chased a stellers jay from their nesting tree.

a hot sauna warmed me to the bone.

____

 

5/18

Yesterday I was standing by the big upstairs window because the sun broke out for a few minutes and I was absorbing it’s warmth. I was building up gumption to go out and work in the cold wind. I noticed a dark spot in the alders on the edge of the canyon and grabbed the binocular and watched the brown bear for a while as she browsed the upper meadow, not far from here, with her THREE cubs playing all around her. This morning I was doing the same thing. Dark and wet today, but the wind finally died–still I need to build up the gumption to get out and place 4 log purlins on the new woodshed. Standing by the window, a dark spot in the island of alder in the lower meadow caught my eye: a black bear sow with HER three tiny cubs roughhousing with each other and climbing in the alders, exploring this world they have entered.

The swallows are flying here. Are they the ones that will stay?

 

looking east from my balcony

5/19

The coldest day yet. Even the Alaskans don’t want to go outside because of the bitter wind. I was at the big window upstairs performing my daily ritual of gumption-building before heading out to work, laughing to myself that I should see a bear in a meadow, when I saw a dark spot in the alder island of the lower meadow. It was a moose.

The wind has been crazy for over a week, coming from unusual directions. Today from east, whipping up streams of froth on the bay. I dressed well and put a steel roof on the new woodshed and quit early at 5. Then there was the black bear and her cubs in the meadow, below lenticular clouds over the mountains, indicating high turbulence in the atmosphere.

Edible shoots of nettles are nearing harvest height. Fireweed shoots are right behind them. The fiddleheads haven’t broken ground yet.

 

5/20

We had a good temblor at 5am, during a heavy rain.

The hermit thrush sung early this morning. I am very happy to have them back, such a beautiful song they have.

The cold wet wind is relentless. I went to town for supplies.

 

5/21

The fox sparrows are beginning their singing, and the swallows were investigating the birdhouses on my cabin. Stellers jays, gray jays and magpies all have an eye out for robin’s nests. A black bear was on my neighbor’s porch yesterday.

Today was reasonable weather. If I was working, I could get by with a t-shirt on, but just standing around I needed more. The sun warmed the land, wild grasses are already a foot tall in places, my lawn maybe four inches tall. Alder buds are swelling.

The frost has heaved many old roots out of the driveway, so I sharpened a maddox with a grinder, and cleaned them out. Two years ago a big forest fire was started near here in May by a guy sharpening his shovel with a grinder–sparks into dry grass. So I was careful. This is fire season–between snow cover and “green-up.” Soon the mud will be dry–when frost below it melts and allows the water to wick into the earth. Then I will throw wood chips and sawdust on it and begin using it.

I did a bunch of little jobs today–just organizing the place. Small firewood to the sauna, cleaning up after the shed construction. Planning a compost bin and more tree-protecting fences, etc. I was happy–partly because of the weather, but mostly it just feels good to work on my own land, i have loved this place for many years. Love and organization go together, it seems. It has to do with care and it has to do with beauty.

 

A birch tree that I have been protecting with fencing for years has escaped the reach of moose, and is skyward bound. Today’s warmth brought the leaves out of the buds. Neighbor and veteran gardener Roger says that the Alaska rule is to wait till the birch leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear before planting your garden.

 

5/23

I’ve been eating the stinging nettles. When they are 6 to 10 inches tall I pick them and steam them. Last night I sauteed them with garlic and onions and olive oil and ate that with a little pesto on rice. This morning it was a nettles omelette.

A neighbor says that he heard that a trapper has taken 12 lynx form this area. No wonder the hares are so thick. And another rumor is that a man of equal intelligence as the trapper is feeding bears to the west of me, across another branch of the canyon. The word is that 26 bears are making his house a regular stop. The cops say they need evidence before they can do anything.

 

The mountains have been obscured by stormy weather for about ten days, and just appeared. Seeing the throneroom is why I live here. I’ve missed it. And now the peaks are splashed with sunlight working its way through the breaking storm and I can’t take my eyes off the show. After so many dull days I am thrilled to be here.

 

I haven’t seen the moon in 10 days either–totally missed the full moon, and I don’t know if I will see it again for a few months, because it won’t be dark enough.

 

I saw some fiddleheads breaking the ground today.

 

5/27

The swallows have moved in. Bird songs are intensifying. They are most full before dawn, but I am asleep then, at maybe 4 or 4:30. I wake and listen and fall back asleep.

The hermit thrush was silent for a few days, making me wonder if I had mistaken, but they are singing now, in the evening.

Fireweed shoots are now at edible height too, and fiddleheads are right behind them.

I dug a hole yesterday to test the frost level beside the old cabin. The frost begins at 15 inches down, but only goes for 5 more. It should thaw soon. The skirting is removed from the south side of the house, I have 4 house jacks, borrowed from 3 friends, and some other jacks to assist.

All that deadfall clean-up I did exposed 4 little birches that were protected by the phalanx of logs and branches. I couldn’t just leave them there for moose fodder, so I built fences around the 2 healthiest ones, maybe I’ll get to the others, but they have already had their leaders nipped off in the past, and may not grow well.

Yesterday was the first day of summer. It was overcast and warm, with no wind. I heard that a moose calf has been seen. The cows should be giving birth this week, but I haven’t seen one here on my land in 2 weeks.

The driveway is dry and I can drive in. Soon I will go get a few truckloads of 4×6 cribbing from my friend steve who has a saw mill that he’s run since I moved here. The cribbing will support he cabin after it’s jacked up and the piling are removed….i hope.

 

the throneroom, from my balcony

____

 

5/29

We now have 18 hours of sunlight (5 to 11) and it will grow for 3 more weeks.

Even though I hate to see all the changes and population growth here, I am constantly amazed at how wild it still is. A family of grey jays with 3 dark one-year-olds are feeding off my compost pile, which is really a bird feeder now. In the sauna, Garry told me about a moose that had died about half way between his house and Mike’s, about 3 or 4 hundred feet away. His dogs kept going into the alders there, so he followed them to find the carcass, which was buried by a bear! Between the bruin and all the other predators and scavengers and insects and bacteria, he said there was nothing but bones and hair after 4 weeks. That wouldn’t happen in most residential areas, but we do border on state park and we are surrounded by wilderness. The wildness is the cause of my constant struggle to improve the land here. Of course, it is my concept of “improve,” and it is one that the wildlife do not agree with–that includes much of the vegetation. The grass grows fiercely this time of year. It has just turned on and will grow relentlessly for the next two months, invading any uncolonized area–areas I try to keep clear like flower gardens and a border around the cabins to lower the fire danger.

While waiting for the ground to thaw, I’ve been preparing everything for the big project. I had a perimeter of football-size boulders around the old cabin so grass wouldn’t be in touch with the wood. Those boulders were hardly visible, buried in grass. You know all the stories (from past years) of me trying to protect trees from moose. I finally figured out the fencing design that confounds the moose, and then the snowshoe hare infestation brought the little munchers in under those fences. I am still amazed that they ate the young spruces! That was survival mode for them.

I am sad for the loss of some cottonwoods that I was nurturing. The hares got them too, Of course the biggest saplings were killed, but two little ones survived and will be re-fenced. No rush, as the hares have an abundance of green food now.

I just read that an early ’90’s study revealed that most humans prefer landscape art that has sign of human improvement.

My desire for this place is to have the triple beauty that I saw in 1981 when I first visited. It was August and I hiked down through Yule Kilcher’s ranch. Yule was a Swiss who came here in the 40’s to create a homestead. But the 80’s, after 40 years of hard work, he had a paradise. Rolling pastures sat one above the other on the slope towards the bluffs over the bay. Each pasture was walled by thick, tall spruce forest. An occasional birch was left in a pasture. Horses ran free before the view of the bay and the mountains and glaciers beyond. Fireweed was 7 feet tall and in full bloom. The combination of the salt water–full of fish, birds, and marine mammals–with the high crystaline peaks and ice-filled valleys was a spectacular view, but it was framed but Yule’s ranch. The pastoral setting surrounded by the glorious Alaska wilderness was overwhelmingly beautiful, and I decided then that I would live here. And over the years I have carved a spot out of the wilderness, built 3 buildings by myself, but I haven’t been around enough to beat back the wilderness. It all began when the spruce bark beetle killed the forest twenty years ago. I loved the forest. Since then I’ve been nurturing young trees–spruce, birch and cottonwood. Several of the deciduous saplings have been munched, but I now have a twenty foot cottonwood, and a fourteen and an eighteen-foot birch.  I never tried too hard to protect the currants and roses, and they have gotten pruned heavily in recent years too.

The young spruce were doing fine until now. The hares must have been starving to eat them. If I was here full-time I could stay ahead of it, but Nature takes advantage of my absence. Nature does not care about a pastoral feeling.

The study I referred to also determined that humans have  apreference for landscapes that include a tree with low branches–one that is easily climbable–which could explain my perenial attempts to protect the birch from the moose.

 

We have moved into summer. The wind has relented. It’s still cool, but it feels and smells like summer, and I see the mountains often these days. Last night while taking a photo from the balcony, an eagle landed in the big beetle-killed tree to the north, maybe 70 feet away. There are more rumors of moose calves, and fresh moose tracks in my driveway, but I haven’t seen them. They visit while I sleep. When the bay is calm and glassy in the morning I see rafts of sea ducks working the mudflats and the abundant wakes of seals and otters. The birches appear more leafed than bare now. Alder are slow to leaf. But now that it is warming I see a difference at night when I look out the window. It is greener than it was in the morning.

 

I picked 5 gallons of stinging nettle and steamed it and froze it for Italian dinners with pesto, sausage and wine. The small plants under six inches don’t sting, but I grab them up to ten inches, so the back of my hand gets stung. Yule Kilcher used to walk through the nettles naked once a year because he said it prevented arthritis, so I don’t mind getting my hands stung. Down in the ravine, the nettle grows side by side with the water hemlock, famous for it’s poison, but they are impossible to confuse.

 

fresh fiddleheads (ferns) and nettles

5/30

A glorious morning. I couldn’t resist sitting on the balcony with tea. I’ve been avoiding it so the swallows would feel safe enough to nest just around the corner of the cabin. While sitting there the female came and landed beside me–two feet away. I don’t know why I love these birds so much. When I said hello, i scared it away. When the male landed about seven feet away and was checking me out, I remained silent. I was thinking, “don’t worry, I will protect you.” –more of my concept of improving this place. I have five swallow houses all around this place, but they only ever use the same one. I have to assume the birds in it are of a lineage that continue to return to that house from wherever they go far to the south. If that is true, then maybe they recognize me. Who knows, maybe they are greeting me. Happy to be back. The presence of the swallows improves this place. A pair of hermit thrushes hopped by, leap-frogging through the stubble grabbing various bugs. I rarely see them in pairs. They always are alone and hidden, and they never sing their sweet notes while visible. The song just radiates from the trees. The song improve this place. I mean, without the swallows and hermit thrushes this place wouldn’t be the same. That’s why my neighbor Jerry shoots the jays and magpies when they try to rob nests of eggs–his idea of order. And Garry puts up boards to hide the robins nests, who tend not to be so clever in choosing a location. His idea of order.

But we can’t forget that in creating our order we are depriving a jay of a meal, and the moose of winter fodder.

Two robins were mating in an alder. Are they going to have a second clutch? When I peed int the dead grass I woke a moth and a nuthatch chased it. Nuthatches love moths, but they rarely can catch them in the air. They find them while the moths sleep. The nuthatch returned to me and landed right beside my stream of urine and studied it closely.

The biophany is in full swing with this first of the REAL summer days– a naked tea on the balcony day. White and golden-crowned sparrows, fox sparrows, robins, varied thrushes, nuthatches all in symphony. The hermit thrush will be silent until evening, and the vireo flew into my window and died. The ruby crowned kinglet has not showed up yet, the juncos are silent. Siskins just chat while flying in bands between feeding. I saw one alone on a treetop tis morning–rare. The swallows chat as they jet around over this meadow ridge. Gray jays whistle like a human, Steller jays seem to be scolding everyone. The magpie’s call is a combination of the the previous two jays. The owls are still hooting and hunting hare. Raven pass by and make any of a wide variety of vocalizations. They no doubt have a language.

 

6/4

It has cooled again, and I need the ground to thaw to get started on the big project. The frost is still at 15 inches deep, and I wear a hat and gloves while working.

Days continue to grow. Now the hermit thrushes fill the 3 AM twilight with their sweet fluty notes, and the robins join in a little later.  By dawn, some time before 5, the biophany is at a mild roar. Now I have salads of fireweed sprouts and dandelion leaves.

 

6/5

Still cool.

I finally saw a moose calf, but it wasn’t in my yard. I went clamming with Mike at the head of the bay. We trudged out on the mudflats there. The mud is glacial silt and is almost clay. It’s greasy and sticky at the same time. You have to be careful not to walk right out of your rubber boots because of the suction. On the way home I saw a cow and week-old calf in the burned area.

I’m thinking the cows may be avoiding my place this year because my neighbors have gotten noisier since I was here 2 years ago. There are dogs on either side of me that will bark at a moose, as well as my renter’s dog right here. Maybe the moose pass through while I sleep.

The buds on the tips of the spruce have opened and the new growth is just beginning. I’ll be picking the tips from the trees below the cabin–the ones I don’t want to grow too much because they’d bock my view. Spruce tips make a nice tea. The first lupine is blooming, and it’s all the way up at the mailbox instead of at a lower elevation. A wild geranium bud is opening near the outhouse. I’ve been hearing a ruby-crowned kinglet.

 

————

 

south side of the cabin jacked up and cribbed.

CONSTRUCTION

I made this a separate section, thinking that many of you don’t want to read about my projects. You can leave this now if thats the case.

It has been a long month of talking to guys about how to do this, borrowing jacks and cribbing material, renting a little front end loader on tracks to excavate, getting a mental picture of my plan, which keeps changing, and buying materials. Meanwhile you read about me building a couple sheds, logging the deadfall on the ravine slope, and building fences to protect the birch. It has often been frustrating, with cold weather not allowing the ground to thaw, and making the excavation a mess that I had to abandon before I got stuck, and a series of setbacks–repairs needed on my truck and chainsaw ( my friend bruce would write the story of the cascade of problems well), but today I finally got the south side jacked up a couple inches and then cribbed. I worked from noon to eight thirty and was very happy that things went well. The hydraulic jack is an amazing tool. I have 5 of them here, from 12 to 20 tons, and 3 screw jacks that sit on top of 4 inch pipe and screw up with a 4 foot steel bar providing the leverage. In the beginning the jack drives the platform below into the earth, then the cabin slowly begins to rise, often bringing the piling up with it.

The log piling have been in the earth for 29 years and are beginning to rot. Once I get them extracted I will cut them to see exactly how bad the rot was.

Tomorrow I’ll go to town to get a truckload of aggregate to make concrete, and borrow a neighbor’s chain hoist. I plan on using my 20’ tripod and chain hoist to extract the old piling. It will be interesting.

Some of you have expressed an interest in visiting. The old cabin is vacant and you can stay there, but I will be working with my shovel, long hours most days. Each of 15 piling has to be pulled and then a 2 ft diameter hole, 50 inches deep, dug by hand, then I shovel aggregate, sand and cement into the mixer, and pour the new piling, then back-fill with the shovel. I have been blessed with a pranic balance pendant that keeps my back feeling young and strong. I am so impressed with it that I am now selling them. I get out of bed every morning with no stiffness. Amazing. Worth $200 to feel that good every morning for the next 25 years (estimated life of the pendant).

the cabin in september, before the deck was built

end of the season:
10/15
Williwaws blew out of the mountains with intense gusts, stripping the alders of their leaves and knocking down the grasses, littering the lawn with golden birch leaves. I arrived in early May, before “green-up”, when the landscape was dreary, and now it has returned to that state. It has been an intense summer of growth and then fading, with plant energy returning to the Earth. And it has been an intense summer for me as well; five months of relentless hard work. My body is thin and sinewy and my hands are calloused, enlarged, and spotted with scabs. My beard is long and bushy and my timberframe has been revived and renewed. It sits on a new and permanent foundation of 17 concrete piling. I think it has evolved from a cabin to a small house, with more space, and a water system. There is a nice feeling of achievement to be had from completing such a project.

My new renters, Josh the hard-working fisherman and his fiancé Gloria have moved in to take care of things through the cold and dark season. They’re excited to call this place home. I am grateful to have them. We have plans for a greenhouse, pond, and expanded garden. Josh will plant the fenceposts next week, before the ground freezes

Relieving a full bladder from the balcony at five-thirty in the morning, the aurora was blazing. What glory.
A porcupine considered making it’s winter den under the sauna.
A black bear cub, somehow separated from mom, wandered through here in bad shape. I went up to it and spoke to it, but it didn’t respond–as if I wasn’t there. The poor animal is destined to feed the predators. Nothin’ I could do about that.

We had four days of clear weather during the full moon. You may know that the road I live below is called “Moonrise Street.” The reason is because of the spectacular sight of the moon rising from the glaciated mountains.

26
Aug
10

a walk in the high sierra

vale la pena

We were feeling as much pain as elation by the end of the second day in the mountains. Three nights at 10, 400 feet had us fairly well acclimated to the thin air before we set out, but the first two ten mile days, crossing passes of 12,300 and 11,000 feet with full packs had taken a toll on our bodies because of gear problems. My old hiking boots were falling apart.  The right boot’s sole was about 65% separated, but that wasn’t yet a problem.  A small hole had worn in the cloth lining of the boot and the torn edge of fabric had rolled up and began rubbing my heel.  The new high-tech blister cover that Lauryn gave me turned out to be a contribution rather than a remedy to the problem, and in a gorgeous camp at the west edge of a big marsh, with Mount Whitney standing in the northeast and the waxing moon rising from the crest of a ridge to the southeast, my heel was a disaster of raw, oozing flesh.

My new lightweight backpack, which I bought at impulse while shopping for other gear, turned out, despite its excellent design, to be like a crown of thorns. The advanced design with a hard plastic internal frame is molded with a curve to fit a man’s lumbar. My mistake in making the purchase was in forgetting that I don’t have a lumbar curve. My back is straight. This was the first test of the backpack, and after two days, dark maroon bruises lay on my iliac crest below two oozing sores where all the weight of the pack had been riding against my bony lower back, even though I taped my fleece hat onto my skin to provide a cushion on the second day.

Lauryn’s boots were giving her problems—a blistered heel and a black toenail—due to swelling of her feet at high elevation.

But Lauryn had, a bit more than a month ago, come to a spiritual awakening via intense email correspondence with me, so while we both suffered pain, we had no mental suffering about the pain, or about our situation—deep in the high mountains, and unable to walk in our boots, unable to carry my pack. We were literally in heaven.  The two day’s trek was mostly through woods when we weren’t gasping for oxygen while climbing steep, barren rock passes, and now we had arrived at a Shangri La, the marsh and it’s trouty stream offering a pastoral feeling of green grass and high tides below the granite peaks and swollen moon.

One result of awakening from the dream of self is that the world can be seen without the filter of self. On this remote trail, we had shed any mental busyness that we had due to the logistical preparations, and we have been witnesses to the divine reality of Nature. It was a pleasure to be among the ancient pines with a partner who saw them as they are—members of a truly enchanted forest, thrilling and filling us with appreciation of their wonderful curves, crooks, gnarls, spirals, and the overall sculptural beauty of each of these beings who have stood here for many centuries.

ancient pine

While that camp offered a feeling of wellbeing, we did need another dose of aspirin to ease the spike-in-the-back-of-the-head effect of exertion at high elevation.

The next morning my first steps from the tent caused my heel wound to crack and drip blood.  During my walk back from the large dead tree that I found to hang our food safely away from clever bears, I came up with a plan: to wear our camp shoes—heelless Crocs—to hike a half mile to a trail junction where we could leave some food and gear in a bear-proof steel box, then continue with a light load another three miles up the valley to the lakes I had been attracted to, from above, last year while climbing Mount Whitney.  My idea to use my sleeping pad as a full-length cushion between my back and my pack was a good one, and I carried the pack with tolerable pain.  Hiking in Crocs turned out to be much easier than I expected, and that evening we were entertained and enraptured by the light and shadows racing across the high amphitheater of granite below low fast-moving clouds. This so excited us that we continued on past our camp for another couple hours, exploring the higher reaches of the valley. By dusk we were cooking on the tundra, nestled into a niche in the lee of a rock outcrop, and after dinner we reclined in the heather, sharing a little airline bottle of Jim Beam, a piece of chocolate, and a good cigar while we watched the full moon crest the rim of this giant cirque and fly up behind the fleet of clouds, coming and going with elegant displays of illumination of the vapors.

the play of cloud shadows on granite

The plan for the next morning was to drop to our cache and put on our boots and continue on the trail with our full packs, but this turned out to be impossible, due to the pain of taking a single step in the boots. So we tried carrying a full pack wearing Crocs, and we were okay. It was a long three-and-a-half mile walk around the western flank of Mount Young, through another 11,000 foot pass, before we began to get through-the-trees glimpses of the spectacular high country we were headed for, filling us with enthusiasm, which we needed to push on.  After dropping to cross a river, we climbed up to traverse the barren Bighorn Plateau, where vistas of the entire region continued uninterrupted for 320 degrees. All the glory of the High Sierra was there, stark naked, and severely beautiful.

We dropped into the next river valley and continued upstream ‘til we left tree-line, and found stepping stones across the water to camp in a grassy area that delighted our bare feet. Our tent seemed to be at the center of a vast basin, which reminded me of Alaska—wide open, tundra, rock, and mountains in all directions. When the sun dropped below the ridge to the west, the temperature dove steeply, and we went from bathing in the river, naked, to bundling up and drawing the sleeping bag tightly to our chins in the course of an hour. All night the moon flooded the basin while water in our bottles solidified in surface shards.

The route we had planned required us to cross Forester Pass, the highest on the Pacific Crest Trail, at 13,200 feet, and one that intimidated us both. In the morning we set off for that pass, and every step from the tent site was up. The final climb of the trail was a beautiful work of trail construction with rock cribbing supporting the path along sheer granite walls.  For the first time in my life I felt good and free of any sickness at 13,000 feet and I was buoyant in the pass, absorbing the unending views on both sides.

Continuing down, past snowfields and decaying cornices, along a ridge with ridiculous views of the valley it penetrated, we were  “mountain drunk” as they called John Muir—laughing at our inability to contain the overwhelming storm of beauty. Soon we dropped to a gorgeous turquoise tarn flooding a talus basin, and I suspected the sun-baked rock could warm the little pond even though it was freshly melted snow, and it did—enough for a dive into the irresistible pool. While drying I allowed myself to be mesmerized by the yellow refracted light tickling the bottom after passing through the surface ripples.

Onward, down valley, we entered one of Edgar Payne’s great works, in oil and pallet knife, of the high Sierras. I actually felt like I was walking through a painting. The environment was to his liking—a prominent granite peak standing over a glaciated valley full of ponds and small fir trees, all in that late afternoon light with deep blue-grey shadows.

And we continued to descend a full three thousand feet from the pass through the forested glacial valley, until we entered an avalanche zone.  It took a while for me to see it, but suddenly I saw the cause of this clearing.  Not too long ago, an unstable deep layer of snow let go of the wall of the cirque standing high to the west, and roared out of that bowl and down the slick granite slope into the floor of this valley, and the wall of snow charged up this side of the river.  This is why the next hundred yards of trail is through what looks like blow-down timber, with all the trunks snapped at snow-depth – about 6 feet. And I would have thought it was blow-down if the trees had been laid up or down valley, but the cross-valley orientation made me look up and see the steep wall of the cirque.

the falls beside our tent

This clearing allowed us to have another camp with overwhelming views in all directions: the high peaks we had left to the south, the cirque to the west, and below it a waterfall,  in the northwest we looked down the valley into Kings Canyon National Park, the Kearsarge Pinnacles stood immediately to the northwest, and they took on the evening rays of sun like a coat of copper paint. Even though this was our lowest camp, it was cold, and we were in bed before eight.

The morning was our coldest.  I finally broke down and put gloves on. But after an hour on the trail we were back in shorts, approaching the low spot of the entire trip, where we dipped below 10,000 feet in the valley floor before climbing the wall of this ‘U’-shaped valley to travel up another valley towards our exit—Kearsarge Pass—at 11,800 feet. We laughed at the relentless beauty, which continued to dazzle us all the way up the route, spotted with lakes and ponds among forests at the bases of granite peaks.

All this travel, forty miles of which was done wearing Crocs and, for me, with a pack slowly removing the flesh covering my hipbones, had been wearing us down, but our spirits soared. Eventually the limits of the body were catching up with us, and the pass challenged Lauryn, even though we were now used to such elevation. So it was without remorse that, upon descending to Lauryn’s car waiting for us at Onion Valley, we happily rolled down into the valley towards a shower and a steak dinner with a fine zinfandel.

While descending from a Patagonian peak that I climbed very early one morning, an Argentinean was on his way up, and asked, “Vale la pena?” “Is it worth the trouble?” while gasping for air. I have to admit that if I had known the degree to which I would suffer on this trip, I may not have gone, but in hindsight I’m elated that I went—that I crossed such magnificent country and introduced my friend to the High Sierra in a memorable way.

As I sit here in Lone Pine with calendula salve under bandages, and ice on my foot that worked too hard to carry the load forty miles in Crocs, I revel in the memories of the experience and am anxious to get out there again—out into the cathedral that brought us face to face with the divine, and led us to realize that face to face, we are looking at the divine in each other, for nothing else exists but that.

What are superficial wounds and strained muscles compared to the experience of the sublime realms of this planet? These experiences seem to be what I am here for—to have them and share them through word and photograph.

05
Jul
10

natural beauty

bend of the kanab

in the early morning i hiked up a side canyon from the grand canyon of the colorado river.  i passed under an overhang where kanab creek cut into the canyon wall, and stopped to turn around and be stunned, “aesthetically arrested,” by the beauty of the reflection of the canyon wall in the pool below.

the following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book titled The Other Side. i’m posting it now because my canyon river trips this spring had me thinking of all this over and over, as is evident from the abstract photos i came home with (see the bottom of “the west” page at my website, tomreed.com)

First thing in the morning I’m on a bus to Puerto Natales, Chile, the gateway to Torres del Paine.  The granite in that park is said to be as spectacular as the granite I just left, so I thought I’d catch a glimpse while I’m in the neighborhood.  But even though I’m in the neighborhood—it’s not far as the crow, or condor flies—I have to take a few long bus rides to get there.  I’m hoping for some good photos, but maybe I’ll get rained on, like several travelers have described as their experience of Torres del Paine.  On the bus I take that refuge, that rest that comes when it’s impossible to do anything.  I look out the window and let my mind wander.  Crossing the pampas in the early morning, when the sun greets grasses and brush that have been rained on all night, the subtle colors seem richer than usual; buff, forest green, sage, maroon and grey.  Dark blue clouds break off the storm continuing over the Andes and pass overhead, but this landscape is illuminated from the east.  The rising sun sometimes strikes directly, sometimes illuminates this land by lighting entire clouds that have drifted downwind from the mountain storm and softened, no longer fighting the sun, but yielding to its power, and accepting the light, and passing it on to the grasses, gently.

All of creation is beautiful, this I know.

Right away I realize I’m making a dualistic judgement between this and that; beauty and ugliness. I therefore have to ask, ultimately, is there such a thing as beauty, or is it a construct of the human mind? And if there is beauty, independent of the human mind, is there also ugliness? My guess is that there is no such thing, ultimately, but that it is a fundamental aspect of the human experience to enjoy beauty, that is, feel a deep appreciation for creation. And maybe a fundamental aspect of our task as spiritual beings in a physical world is to accept the ugly without repulsion, without reacting, just as the Buddha taught as the way to deal with affliction. Then, I want to know if beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder, or is there some law of nature that creates a hierarchy of aesthetics? My own appreciation has deepened in the years that I have inquired what makes things beautiful. Has that deepening been entirely personal or have I progressed upon an established path? Am I stuck in some state of semi-halucination initiated by the big peaks that has me still mountain-drunk? Why is the grassland out the window so radiantly beautiful?

Is all of creation beautiful? Isn’t there ugliness in nature?  I don’t see it in natural landscapes, but I certainly see a progression from ordinary to magnificent. And when I think about it, all of the least beautiful landscapes I can remember were altered by man, recovering from devastation at the hands of humans. What old-growth forest is not on the magnificent end of the scale of beauty?  What clear cut is not on the opposite end?

Even hurricanes and forest fires are beautiful.  Maybe our perception of ugliness is a result of a psychological reaction to perceived suffering or the potential for it.  The hurricane is beautiful if witnessed from a safe observation point on land, but will the sailor see beauty as his boat’s rigging screams and the hull succumbs to the fury of the wind-whipped sea?  How does the wildfire appear to a man trapped by it before it consumes him?  Is the beauty of running game lost when it is taken down by a predator and torn apart as it must be for the predator to survive? Surely there is beauty in that beast’s blood to a starving man.  Suffering is part of life, contrary to the fantasies of many who wish otherwise.  The Buddha made this his first noble truth.  And so there can be beauty in it, if we choose to see it—if we choose to detach from a constructed meaning to it all, and a constructed “I” that is the experiencer.

But we need meaning to organize our life around.  Maybe our idea of beauty has to do with organization.  Certainly life itself is partially defined by organization, hence the name, “organism.”  Organization provides comfort.  Maybe this comfort is what a human naturally finds beautiful.

Our aesthetics could be influenced by our desire to live.  We find a living tree to be more beautiful than a fallen one, rotting and surrounded by broken branches—one losing organization, void of vitality

It’s easy for us to see beauty in organization and geometric regularity.  The spiral of the hurricane, when viewed from space, is beautiful, but down inside of it the chaos is more difficult to appreciate.

The fact is that all of Nature is organized.  It’s just that we usually can’t see it.  Most of it appears as random and accidental.  I realized this years ago during a meditation retreat in the desert.  After five days of meditation it became apparent that it’s human nature to become absorbed into the reality of our own mental ordering.  In the next five days I experienced the world with new eyes.  Perhaps not so much “new” as our original way of seeing the world, but when we learn to see again it is as if we are in an altered state–that state of an apparent increase in three-dimensionality.

The Chinese concepts of “Wu” (logical, linear order) and “Li” (organic, free-flowing order) had been subjects of my own contemplations before the retreat, so as my eyes began to open again, and as the order of all things began to become evident, I framed the experience with regard to wu and li.

Early in the retreat I was stunned by the beauty of three young junipers growing from behind a low stone wall.  The finishing touch that made the scene such a work of art was the way one stone slanted in a different direction than the others.  I saw mostly li—the trees and stones—but there was wu in the line of the planting, and in the plane of the wall.  As I passed another wall I began to understand the harmony of wu and li.  The stones are li, irregular in size, shape and color.  But they are set so that their flat sides form a vertical plane—wu.  A harmony of wu and li was created by the artist, the stonemason who chose each stone and decided how to arrange them.  Another mason would have made a different wall with the same stones.

Of course, humans are not the only artists on Earth.  Beaver lodges, bird nests and beehives come to mind right away.  We see this art, this creation of some wu from li, this harmonizing.  We recognize the order of the circular lodge and nest, the hexagon of the hive.  The order that eludes us is that of li.  At the li end of the wu-li spectrum is what we see as disorder.  The artists in this genre go mostly unrecognized by us.  The more a composition approaches the wu, the easier it is for us to appreciate it—for us to find comfort in the organization.  The ripples in beach sand and the rows of sand dunes are easier to appreciate than the irregular surface of sand, or sand itself.

It may be that the ordering work of an active agent (the wind in the example of the sand) is easier for us to see than that of a more passive scene.  One day late in the retreat I was walking very slowly, maybe one step every thirty seconds or so, trying to keep my attention on every subtlety of the process.  As I rounded the corner at the back of the meditation hall I came upon a pile of dry twigs that the wind had created as it swirled where the walls met at right angles.   The perfect beauty of it paralyzed me as if I had rounded a corner at the Louvre and encountered a stunning work of a famous master.  The wind, the artist, had created a slight spiral to the arrangement of the twigs, hardly noticeable, maybe invisible to my normal eye, but striking in the present state of mind.  When I noticed a curl of some hemp-like fiber woven into the work at the top-center and dancing in the wind, I thought, “How bold of the artist.”

There are many times when li perfection, though standing boldly before us, is invisible to our eye because we see it as a destruction of the wu that we had created.  Various patterns of erosion, decay and oxidation, a decline of organization to our habituated eye, when seen with original eyes, are obviously beautiful.  But rarely can we transcend the sense of loss of order.

An amusing example of this occurred at the same retreat.  I was walking again, and passed an old light-blue Ford station wagon.  This was the kind that had panels of vinyl on the sides that were printed with a wood grain to make it look like an old woody—an obvious imitation of li.  But the desert sun had dried and cracked the vinyl so that it contracted, revealing the light-blue below in a gorgeous crackle pattern contrasting with the dark brown and black of the vinyl.  The wood print was an attempt to bring li beauty to the car, but it was a mass-produced imitation.  Now the car was decorated with an original li design, the work of ol’ Sol himself.  I smiled and wondered if the owner appreciated it.

For some, beauty may be connected to hospitality.  To them, a beautiful place is a place you’d like to live. They’d think these pampas are a desolate wasteland.  This morning’s light is incidental.  I’m reminded of the joke locals make on the few gorgeous summer days in Alaska, “It’s a good day to sell real estate.” We are attracted to a place when the weather is good—when it’s hospitable.  Many a newcomer to the forty-ninth state, come November, puts palm to brow with the question, “What was I thinking?”

But those mountains behind me are inhospitable.  They are equally beautiful when I am uncomfortable. They are works of erosion—a decline of order, and to enter them is to invite suffering.  Maybe the inhospitable mountains and the threatening storm or wildfire are of a type of beauty referred to as the “sublime.”

It is such a strange word, I didn’t understand it for years. The word “sublimation” can be the psychological directing of instinctual desire into a socially acceptable form, it can also be the transition from solid to gaseous form, as water did when I dried my clothes outside in subfreezing Alaska winters. So, “what does it have to do with beauty?” I wondered. It turns out that while the ice in my clothes sublimed, I’d turned my head away from the clothesline to see the sublime; the view of the impassable glaciers flowing down between jagged peaks too steep and loose to climb and bathed in a haze of man-killing weather.

In his book “Mountains of the Mind,” Robert Macfarlane discusses the sublime—that is, the awe-inspiring, the imposing beauty of high mountains. He suggests that our current perception of such beauty has evolved since a few hundred years ago when the perception of the inhospitable high country was more one of terror and dread. Maybe the even use of the word “sublime” has evolved away from the fearful towards the beautiful.  Maybe it’s all part of a spiritual evolution.

What do I mean when I say, “creation?”  Doesn’t that imply that there is a creator?  We’ll never know if there is one.  I use the word because we really don’t have one for “everything.” “Nature” is commonly interpreted to mean things in the natural environment of Earth. I capitalize it to indicate that it is more. “Universe” is taken to mean the stuff in outer space. Neither of these words are commonly taken to include the book in your hands, or for that matter, your hands.

The question for me is whether the beauty of Nature is an accident or a coincidence, or is it by design or expression.  Does Nature evolve towards beauty, or do we evolve to perceive it as such, or do both happen in concert?  In his book, Quantum Evolution, Johnjoe McFadden says that quanta make decisions, and in so doing are guiding evolution as they instigate genetic mutation.  It’s all the product of quantum expression, ourselves included, that is proceeding towards a goal.  If so, what is the goal?  Is beauty part of the plan?  Thinking of my recent realization that all of Nature is divine, now I understand that the common element throughout all of Nature is the quanta that it is made of. Could it be that it is the quanta that are intelligent–not individually, but as fragments of an intelligence that is omnipresent? …fragments that are really waves until observed, then materialize … The netzutzot, scattered sparks of divine light, of the Hebrew, and the Aum, sound, of the Hindu, the Shabd, or divine light and sound of The Source, for the Sikh. Speech is organized waves of sound, and in the New Testament John wrote, “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Heraclitus used the greek Logos, “saying,” as both the source as well as the fundamental order of the universe. Everything, all matter, might be an articulation by The Source.

I find myself in a divine wonderland, and my only challenge is to merge with it.

03
May
10

the owyhee

widowmaker

widowmaker

A passenger seated by a starboard window on a cross-country flight from Portland to some southern city looks down on the expanse of beige basin-and-range area that he is now over. He notices a deep gorge carved in the rolling desert below, and is excited to see an abundance of dark spires on the canyon walls, watching over a thin ribbon of water flowing in the bottom. He is a geologist, and is familiar with the history of the area.

Beginning about seventeen million years ago, huge amounts of basaltic magma flowed from fissures in the Earth’s crust, inundating much of the Pacific Northwest beneath several lava flows, some hundreds of feet deep. This is the rock that lies below the high desert landscape that the plane is flying over. Water has carved several long canyons through the beds, and the geologist is wondering which of them he is looking at. Studying details of the chasm, he looks right at the river where we are and doesn’t see us because we are tiny specks –three men in inflatable kayaks lightly packed with our minimal gear.

We are floating the middle section of the Owyhee River in Malheur (French for “Unfortunate”) County at the southeast corner of Oregon. This county is almost 10,000 square miles, slightly larger than Vermont, with a population density of 3 people per square mile.

When I left from San Francisco, anyone I told that I was going to Oregon via Reno and then Winnemucca Nevada would cock thier head and question me. But Oregon borders Idaho on the east, and that border is north of central Nevada. From Winnemucca I turned left and headed north across a hundred miles of high desert –a sea of sage with a green/blue/grey color appropriate for the Japanese tea ceremony; tasteful and subdued. The tranquility that the color brings is balanced by the view of inhospitable mountain islands in the distance of all directions. They are burdened by wet spring snow and a dark, heavy, bitter mist.

Once again, I was headed for a river trip in weather that makes me wonder what I’m doing. Cold weather and water don’t go together well in my book, but some rivers are only runnable during spring runoff, and I face this slight sense of dread often, especially when I do trips with my friend Kirk.

This trip is to celebrate Kirk’s fiftieth birthday. He and I met thirty years ago when we worked together as whitewater guides, and have remained like brothers over the years. He’d invited Silas, ex-wilderness guide and expert kayaker, as our third partner. An expert outdoorsman, kirk has had a fascination with the upper reaches of this canyon for a few years and wanted a good adventure to mark his semi-centennial. But unpredictable weather makes unpredictable water flows and unpredictable dirt road access to some of the most remote river miles in the lower forty-eight, and since he has a desk job, managing the risk for a wilderness therapy company, he needed to schedule the trip, so he opted for this middle stretch.  Even so, he had a couple of back-up plans for other rivers should the water level come up too high from intense rain or intense heat melting mountain snow.

I deferred to his judgement, only expressing my desire to finally see more of the Owyhee Canyon, which has been on my mind since he and I backpacked in a couple of it’s forks several years ago. When he settled on this thirty eight mile run, I searched the internet for information. One website described this trip as, “A spectacular journey on a river rafted by only a handful of boaters each year. Why? Because it’s as difficult to get to as it is to run. Slicing through the steepest volcanic rock canyon in the country, the Middle Owyhee’s whitewater is surprisingly rough. On this four-day trip, not everyone gets through Halfmile Rapid unscathed, so the group decides to make a grueling portage past Widowmaker, one of the most dangerous rapids in Oregon.” It sounded like a good adventure.

We met at an isolated roadhouse where a ribbon of blacktop crosses the river, and loaded our gear into the back of a cowboy’s pickup. Clint makes a few extra bucks in the spring by shuttling river boaters. He drove us fifty-two miles, up a dirt road through the sage, past occasional  clans of cattle, under the watch of pronghorn antelope on distant hills, to a wide section of the canyon where its two main forks converge,allowing the road to drop down switchbacks to the river. Clint knows the country like most people know their living room, but he’s never floated the river. He has a desire to, though, and studied the process of our preparation; inflating the kayaks, enclosing ourselves in long underwear and drysuits, and lashing down gear in dry bags, all with the humorous banter of my two quick-witted partners. Much of that banter was at my expense, since I have never been in an inflatable kayak. I abandoned kayaking over thirty years ago when I had the sudden realization, while seated in an inverted kayak bobbing down a rapid, facing downstream, that hitting a rock with my face was probable. I decided to remain an oarsman, and have been rafting ever since. Clint was dumfounded that I am about to run this river, but I was confident that I will survive, though I may not do so by kayaking skill.

We would descend thirty-eight miles to our parked vehicles, passing through a canyon that only allows escape in a few locations, where, by severe effort we could make the canyon rim, but still, we’d be out in the middle of nowhere. Basically there is one way out: downstream. When we shoved off, we committed to running the thirty-eight miles of river.

The first big rapid was only a couple miles downriver, a class-four plus, and I flipped, learning what kind of wave will flip me, and gaining confidence in the borrowed drysuit I’m wearing. I was able to right my boat and get back in it while still in the rapid.

Rapids are often separated by long stretches of flat water, in what is commonly called a “pool and drop” arrangement, and when we entered that situation, we found several pairs of Canada Geese raising young goslings in the pools. These are wilderness geese, not accustomed to humans, not trusting any large animal, and they protected their young by scooting downriver, honking and trying to lure us to them.  When we came along-side the tiny, peeping goslings, colored like not-quite-ripe bananas, they’d dive and remain under for a half-minute; an effective strategy to avoid death by raptors.

This seems to be prime country for Peregrine Falcons; the tall cliffs for nesting, and the abundance of waterfowl in the river. But all I see are Marsh Hawks (now known as the Northern Harrier), and lots of them, in pairs too. While the waterfowl is abundant, it is not diverse. Ninety percent of the ducks are mallards, in pairs, I’ve only occasionally seen a pair of mergansers or teal.

Nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is famous for being one of the best birding locations in North America, noted for it’s diversity. For this reason I am doubly impressed by the narrow range of species diversity in this slot in the earth.  As it appears, in the spring, Canada Geese and Mallards raise their young in the grass-edged pools, marsh hawks may hunt those young as well as the rodents in the grassy slopes. Vultures clean up. Violet-Green Swallows eat the airborne insects, Dippers eat the aquatic insects. The Red-winged Blackbirds eats insects off the grasses as well and the small seeds and fruits they can find. There’s not much else wildlife to see.  We are here before the snakes come out.  This river is famous for it’s rattlesnakes. It has the highest density of rattlers in Oregon. There is a good side to the otherwise miserable weather we have been paddling in.

On that first day we had tailwinds–extremely rare on whitewater rivers–that pushed us downstream effortlessly. But still, it was wind, and at a constant twenty-five knots with gusts up to sixty, it cooled us. We passed a hot spring, but couldn’t bring ourselves to emerge from our dry suits. It wasn’t the emergence that concerned us, it was the drying off and re-dressing in the wind after the soak that we thought would leave us colder than we were now. So we soaked our feet for a few minutes, and warmed them through the rubber and wool.

We found a pleasant camp of flat sand surrounded by junipers that gave it some protection. After camp was made, we set off on a hike up alluvial slopes to a perfectly rectangular cave in the cliff side above. It looked more like the entrance to a highway tunnel than a cave, so we had to inspect it, joking about it being the entrance to a subterranean UFO base. Moving through the sage, we jumped pair after pair of Chukar.

The cave was shallow, but offered a good, well-framed view of the river downstream, and housed a beautiful collection of verdant moss and pumpkin-colored lichen art on its walls. On our descent a squall came upon us and hit us first with Graupel, then cold rain, and this has been the condition ever since; passing squalls dropping various forms of precipitation.

Back in camp the wind had tossed our boats around the beach, but they and the gear were tied and nothing was lost. Kirk and Silas went into action, rigging a large kitchen tarp in no time, tying knots with fingers aching in the near-freezing rain, while I changed to dry clothes and rain gear. These guys are experienced in foul weather because they used to guide troubled youth and therapists year-round on three-week-long wilderness treks intended to be demanding and uncomfortable.

Guys like myself pick our weather for a week-long trip, and only venture out in the best seasons. By the time I got to the tarp they were building a fire with the abundant sage, and I proceeded to cook a chili and rice dinner after a nip of whiskey to chase the shivers.

The next day the wind eased a bit, but was still strong. Worse was that it had switched to blowing upstream, so progress downriver was difficult and cold. At times we pried ourselves into driving snow, eyes squinting, using the eyelashes to catch the flakes and protect the eyes, cheeks numb, fingers stinging. When we ran the long, class-four, “Halfmile” rapid, an eddy spun me around, causing me to lose precious time as I ferried across the river to avoid big rocks, and I hit a wave sideways and flipped.  This time I got separated from my boat and Silas paddled me to shore while Kirk pushed my boat into a calm eddy. So when we came to another class-four that was an easy run, but had severe consequences for a mistake, I opted to walk it and have Silas paddle my boat through. In this remote situation, prudence is wise.

After a long day on the river, floating below thousand-foot tall, dark, charcoal-brown walls splashed with neon lime lichen, we advanced ten miles and camped below towering basalt pinnacles in a roomy, sand-bottomed cave warmed by another sagebrush fire.

By the time we got in our sleeping bags the stars were out, and today we had morning sun for the first hour on the river, then the wind and clouds came again.  The clear night allowed the temperature to drop, and it’s been a cold day on the river punctuated by calisthenics on the beach to pump blood into our extremities when we stop to scout big rapids.

We’ve seen few planes overhead, so I noticed the plane that just passed by.

We are now at the half-way point of the trip where an other-worldly collection of tall dark spires juts from the canyon walls over a class-five-plus rapid named “Widowmaker” which has a tricky class-three-plus leading into it, and another class-three flowing out of it. I opted to walk the entire section. But in order to save a hundred yards of carrying boats over the talus on the bank, Kirk and Silas decided to run the top rapid, then portage around Widowmaker, and get back in the boats to run the bottom. An upset in the easier water above could have dire consequences if one failed to get oneself and one’s boat to shore before the big spill, so I am standing on a big rock in the water a hundred feet above Widowmaker with a throw line ready in my hands. They enter the rapid, Silas first.  He makes the first drop and eddies out to wait for kirk, who picks another route and perches on a rock above the drop. He has to lean to get off the rock and when the current catches the boat he flips instantly. It’s not good, but not threatening, as there is a small pool below, and Silas paddles to the rescue, pushing the inverted boat into dead water in a cove, kirk hanging on. Soon Kirk’s back in his boat. He’s a good kayaker, so he must be wondering what he did, and thinking that he can’t let that happen again. Psychologists say that the subconscious mind does not recognize a negative.  That is, if we think, “I can’t flip again,” the subconscious hears, “I can flip again.” And so Kirk does, to my amazement, about a hundred and eighty feet above Widowmaker. Good thing he asked me to “bag”–to stand here for safety with the throw-bag, and when he’s in range I underhand the bag past him and it pays out a rescue line for him to grab, but Silas can’t get to kirk’s boat in time, and it runs through the heavy water. Kirk swings in to shore in an arc that leaves him just thirty feet above the falls, and while I’m pulling kirk through wading pools, Silas scales rocks to see Kirk’s boat drifting far downstream, so he yells for us to de-rig his boat and portage it ASAP, so he can paddle downriver to secure the phantom boat. We act, and Silas is off. Kirk and I begin shuttling my gear. The long portage is the best way to warm up.

By the time all the gear is at the bottom of the whitewater, Silas is back. He left Kirk’s boat on a beach not far downstream with a big rock in it so the wind wouldn’t take it. We’re all warm now, but hungry, so we find a depression in the talus where the wind is less aggressive, and begin a lunch with Kirk’s thermos of miso soup, heavily garnished with ginger and garlic.  This has been our life-saver every day, when we stop for food and feel that warm soup glowing in our bellies.

Once we’re back on the river our hands get cold in only fifteen minutes. Neoprene gloves only seem to isolate the fingers so they can’t warm each other. When we resign ourselves to the fact that the wind refuses to relent, we surrender to a rough camp after only three more miles. A nip of whiskey takes the edge off the day while Kirk cooks on a sage fire roaring with horizontal flames on this exposed beach. I retire early to relieve the fatigue of bracing against the wind all day, and to quiet the roar in my ears. Sprays of rain sounding like radio static blast the tent fly as I drift off.

In the morning, I’m not so enthusiastic when we get on the river again, and without mental preparation, I flip in the class-three rapid right below camp. If it weren’t for the drysuit, I’d be in for a miserable day.  As it is, I just got a good wake-up call. Finally, I spot a falcon up at the canyon rim. Though the wind has lessened overnight, it’s still in our face, but snow flurries are fewer and we reach the terminus of the canyon easily, and make camp for the last time. Silas sees a reservoir on the map so we hike to it and find ruins of an old homestead–subterranean block walls made of diatomite, a soft rock composed of the exoskeletons of plankton which lived in ancient, vast lakes of interglacial periods. Cottonwoods circle the little pond, meadowlarks sing, and a muskrat swims along the shore. This river got it’s name, legend has it, when three Hawaiians came here to trap, and never returned. The local Indians had a unique pronunciation of “Hawaii.” This muskrat is a descendant of the survivors of the trapping craze.

In camp, while the sky clears, allowing the last rays of sun to light canyon walls, we feast on a gumbo modified by any extra food that could be used. Stars shine brilliantly before we retire, and the clear sky brings a frost.

In the morning it’s overcast again. We have a chilly, but uneventful paddle past rolling hills of sage to the bridge where our vehicles are waiting.

Despite the anticipated relief from the battle with the elements, there is an hint of sadness at the end of this river trip just as there is with all of them. They always seem to end too soon, even when the weather has been challenging. And there is something about deep canyons that instills a sense of place–of limited location, that I miss when I leave.

This canyon is majestic.  In one sense, just a big ditch, but in another sense it provides access to an inner world where rare desert water has sculpted earth’s solid skin; a process requiring such vast epochs of time that the contemplation of it helps me view my life in a truer perspective.

I’ve already forgotten the cold.




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