Patience and Silence in the Kofa Mountains

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As with any expedition, I had plans. I had expectations to see the bighorn sheep that inhabit the rugged, austere Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. There is something about expectations that lead us to …elsewhere. I wanted to see them. Having spent days wandering the Basin & Range areas of the Southwest over the past 11 years, I never spotted them.

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It’s good to have goals. That is what compels me to spend nights in the desert freezing my ass off and days, getting burnt by the sun. Still, being fixated on an outcome lends itself to inevitable disappointment.

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What I did experience was something else. The difficulty of traversing the range made me realize the limits of my body and the courage of my resolve. I climbed up into those volcanic crags hoping for something that never arrived. The answer might be patience. My pain and frustration was a demonstration in surrender.

To paraphrase Annie Dillard, any good hike will do. The more arduous the terrain, the more determined I was to continue on. It wasn’t a smart decision. I could have lost my footing. There are endless possibilities. What I did find is the stark answer that I am not any more entitled to what I want than the next animal.

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On the rocks, I watched clouds and the agave and brittlebush that shift in the wind. Spectacular sights are random. They are miracles in their accidental nature. A woman who spends 24 hours alone in the wilderness is not deserving of miracles. Things appear with time, patience, and silence. Gifts arrive when the receiver is most open to them.

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Devoted to Place

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Verde River, A. Sato

Do you know what it means to love a place as family? To feel its presence course through your veins? This living land whose life depends on remaining natural…can you be devoted to its care? To know it intimately, like the lines on your hand or your grandmother’s quilt?

As a longtime roamer, I have struggled with settling into a home base. It is much to my chagrin that I have been in Phoenix for over 11 years now. I never thought I would stay past the first turbulent year. Yet, I remain.

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Vulture – A. Sato

But being rooted to a place has its demands. When I walk along the Verde River and see trash or the spur trails of ATV destruction, my heart aches. What is it about our kind that relishes violence? Trashing nature is an act of violence and greed thrives on this. Still, what can I do to help ease this ache?

Devotion to Place

To be devoted to place means laying my head down at night knowing that there is a place to pray for. It means gathering my tools and taking action. The call of the land is something I hear when I feel defeated by this culture. It calls me to awaken to my true spirit and rise up with the energy and passion to fight for the Wild’s survival.

Devoting oneself to a place isn’t hard. It is simply starting a journey of understanding, of forming a relationship, as you would any relationship. I have found my devotion grow stronger when I …

  • Learn about the local flora and fauna, including identifying native vs. invasive plants, tracks and scats, and local wildlife species
  • Start a nature journal where I write about, sketch, and paint the landscape
  • Use maps and GPS to learn the local mountain ranges and topography
  • Bring several trash bags to pick up garbage any time I am on a walkabout
  • Spend at least a few nights each month camping, listening to the sounds of the night and watching the stars glimmer above
  • Practice Leave No Trace principles when hiking and camping
  • Organize a habitat restoration with the Forest Service, nonprofit, or other agency
  • Gather like-minded friends to meet together in allegiance to the land, discussing ways to better protect it
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Tonto National Forest – Multiple trails

There are many ways to go deeper into the practice of devotion to the land. Like any holy undertaking, it requires practice, commitment, and openness to the process. Working with nature is a spiritual act, one of which I cannot live without. My hope is to return this love through the practical art of devotion.

 

One Night in a Cave

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Goldfield Mountains, A. Sato

This was the first time I had backpacked in years, and I could feel it. These muscles haven’t been in use in some time and, while I consider myself to be a decent hiker with good stamina, one mile with 30 pounds strapped to my back felt like ten. It didn’t help much since I had been impatient and packed quickly, and, of course, hauled in the water I would need for the night. I felt terribly inept, but stubborn enough to press on.

The cave wasn’t too far from the truck, maybe a mile or so. Besides, I had included my day pack for canyon exploration and would have time to trek around the side washes and rock outcrops I have come to know. The Goldfields are surprisingly isolated for being so close to the city and adjacent to the popular western Superstitions.

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Still Life, A. Sato

I am a wilderness snob, preferring wilderness to actually be wilderness. The western Supes feel much like the National Park atrocity of eager hikers waiting to break in their REI accoutrements and the endless number of Subarus and souped up jeeps in the parking lots. In a way, I kind of prefer the miners and ranchers. It’s sad to know that wilderness areas must be regulated now. Great efforts to keep their wilderness criteria intact is all but lacking. I have a feeling we’ll see ticket purchases and cotton candy at the gates soon.

Enough of my curmudgeon speculations…I am here and the sun is a strange orb of orange behind a microwavey cloud. This light makes it feel hotter than the 82 degrees, but I press on down the wash, careful to not tumble over with this damned pack. Lizards dart across hilltops and rest their one-two, one-two positions on hot rocks. A single red-tailed hawk floats overhead and behind Blue Ridge. A lone ATV sits parked in the wash. This, unlike the Superstition Wilderness, is strictly public land and there are numerous old jeep trails and abandoned mines all around. I’ve found that the OHV riders tend to stick to the popular roads and ignore much of the rest of the range.

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Mesquites, A. Sato

The Goldfields span from Usery Pass to the west to the Apache Trail to the east, north to Canyon Lake and south to the city of Apache Junction. To traverse the Goldfields, it’s approximately 14 miles in distance, east to west, which you can hike in a full day if you’re motivated to do so. I prefer to take my time here.

Winds and rain have swept out great crevices in the rhyolite and conglomerate along the canyon walls. The walls also contain polished chalcedony that shines in the right light, making an ordinary sandy wash quite lovely. Once into the canyon, the only noise you can hear is the jets going over. It is quiet in terms of man-made noise, but the ever-present songbirds and occasional raptor give way to another music.

Here, I am most content. The mindless chatter of my own thoughts dissipates and I settle in to noticing everything around me: small traces of a snake’s journey, the patterns of a thistle plant in full bloom, the intricacy of ironwood roots. I could get lost in reverie here, but know that this is not my place. It has its own hardships.

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Home for the Night

The desire to live outdoors is often fairytale. Realistically, after a few nights sleeping on rock, I am all too happy to return to my cozy bed. The voyeur in me is short-lived and the romance of the simple, off grid life is too often laced in self-deception. We are animals used to dependency, and rightly so. We need each other and the help that a community provides against our ego bravado that says otherwise. We die on our own. Sometimes horrible deaths. And being simple isn’t going to change the course of this civilization’s rush to destruction. It’s illusory, at best.

I lean down to inspect a piece of rusted pipe from former gold mining efforts. They must have pumped water down the wash for their operations. I suppose you could learn more about the short boom here at that little tourist town, Goldfields, along the Apache Trail. You know I won’t go.

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The sun is starting to set so I make my way back to the cave. It’s not really a cave, in all respects, but an overhang with a considerable amount of room in its three distinct caverns. I choose the one that is most exposed because it is dry and because I can actually see the floor. Of course, I will be sleeping amid mouse turds and guano, but it appears dry and I have my ground cloth. I chose the lightest pad and can feel the stone beneath me as I crouch down to make my dinner. The evening wind picks up and I feel chilled and grab my flannel. Heating up my soup, I hear the low murmur of an owl and see antelope squirrels emerge and run alongside the cliffs above me. They use the small holes in the rock as refuge during the day and are now out comically inching along the vertical steppes. I wish I was so agile and swift.

I had  plans to write tonight, but pick up a well worn copy of Plants of the Sonoran Desert field guide instead. I settle in as the wind picks up and moves around the contours of the cave. The thermals bring warmth from the sun-touched stones below. Could I live here? It seems like a viable option. I have little money and no plans, which is a combination that can lead to great adventure, or a deeper level of despair.

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I once gambled my life on bottles of whiskey and beer. A life that seemed well spent at the time, but now that I have emerged from that…I am chagrined to accept that I like a hot shower and a nice bed.

The night is a calm force. The bats resonate as they come into the cave and back out, devouring mosquitoes. I hear the soft hoof-steps of deer.

Oh, and crickets.

What do I know of sleeping in caves? It’s an easy venture when you know a truck awaits. I can dream of danger. Danger like a whisper, a concept I am not afraid of. In a few hours, after restless sleep, I will boil my coffee and head out. A night of quiet solitude, I can say, is as soothing as the touch of a lover, and just as fleeting.

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The author’s feet

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Ghosts in the Camera and Lion Caves

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I wanted to show you photos and videos of today’s exploratory journey into the Goldfield Mountains – and specifically to Sunrise Arch. Alas, I came home and attempted to transfer my images off of the photo card to have something curious occur. They were wiped. Nada.

After having a small cry fit, I will tell you about my amazing morning in the rough-riding reaches of miner’s country.
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I got to the Bulldog Canyon OHV Trailhead about 7am, and meandered down the forest road, past RVers enjoying their primitive sites and fresh cups of coffee (or, in some cases, beer).

It was a brisk 52 degrees but sunny, and the flowers started to pop every which way, bejeweling the hills with the brightest golds and amethysts. It was quiet, without any ATVs along the way. I knew they’d be coming later that morning, but it was still too early for all of that nonsense. Gambel’s quails darted to and from palo verdes and five hungry coyotes were out on the prowl, looking for the cottontails who were also out in droves.

Spring in the desert is a good time for all. The cactus wrens warbled their songs and the distinct metallic chirps of thrashers resounded. Can there possibly be anything more welcoming than birdsong?

I was on my way to Dome Mountain, which appears in the distance from every direction. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, since I didn’t have a topo or my phone, and was relying heavily on memory of the maps I perused before leaving. One thing about the Goldfield Range is that it is hospitable for anyone who has the basics of navigating by compass and landmarks.

Overall, my recollection was pretty good, so I didn’t bother much with old mining roads or the few trails. Instead, I decided to wing-it. I had been walking for a few miles when I noticed some cairns off to a wash and along the side of a hill. To my surprise, it led to Sunrise Arch. A window to the world, or rather Saguaro Lake and the distant Mazatzals.

There were so many wildflowers…lupine, scorpionweed, blue dicks, poppies, woollystar, clover, salvia, various asters, and AYDLFs (another yellow daisy-like flower). I scrambled up to the peak above the arch and pirouetted around the 360 degree view of the Goldfields. I think I sang some Eagles while I was up there, and probably offended the local rodents. Why is it I get Eagles songs stuck in my head while hiking? I need a new soundtrack.

From there, I dropped down from the Arch and through a wash with deep pools of water from recent rains. Loads of flies, honeybees, dragonflies, and butterflies of all varieties floated alongside me as I hiked into a deeper cavern of polished rhyolite. That’s when I spied a possible cave in an adjoining canyon, hidden behind the ghost of a former stately saguaro.

Oooo, a cave. Should I explore? Of course!

The blasted out tuff formed an overhang, which was larger than I thought. Bat guano and owl pellets lined the floor and to the side, a bigger, deeper cave with a bed of dirt and debris that was obviously well used… Yes, home to a mountain lion (or two), its entrance covered in lion scat, some old and others disconcertingly recent. From another ledge under the cave, I sat and had my lunch and pondered lions, who also must look across the valley below the Orohai.

I thought to myself, “I am so lucky to have found this place, to be alive, eating peanut butter sandwiches while looking at mountain lion scat!” Really, this is my heaven.

The way back to the car was long and rocky. I found Deer Creek Tank, the result of efforts to encourage desert bighorn to stick around. No sightings of these much adored creatures, but I always look for them when I gaze up at the ridges and spires. I suspect they ventured into the Superstitions, displeased with all of the OHV use that cuts through this range. I would love for the Forest Service to shut down the off-roading access and leave it to hikers and horses. It’s such a special place, full of history, prehistoric and historic, and offers an array of geologic features and desert flora. ❤

On the way back, a kindly old man on an ATV made sure this Little Missy knew where I was and had enough water. He was a chagrined that I had been off trail and had a good knowledge of the layout after looking long and hard at topographic maps each night. Still, kindness goes a long way, and I was happy to chat with him about our mutual adventures.

What a day! What a life. There is nothing better than a spring day in the desert, complete with scat, tracks, and a whole lot of flowers. Too bad about the lost images, but at least I have all of the memories, and it just gives me more reason to go back and explore!

Happy tails and trails.

xo
Aleah

 

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Familiar Landscapes

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“We are a landscape of all we have seen.”
– Isamu Noguchi

There are particular landscapes that stand out in the recesses of memory. Driving down the I17 for the first time and seeing the Sonoran desert come into view…the saguaros, the palo verdes, and brittlebush, and realizing I would live there some day. The wide fields and hollows of soybeans, horses, and oaks are the places of my youth. The steep granite cliffs lining river gorges and pine bring to mind my days in the north woods. And now, I walk among volcanic rock, crumbling welded tuff and ash, a blaze of sunlight lining the cliffs at first light.

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Place is the indicator of safety, and that familiarity of place soothes the fearful animal.

I’ve always felt the flora and geology to be family, places I could gather and listen to ancient stories about how to live in a manner this culture contradicts. To this day, I take my knowledge from the elder trees and the mentor species. There is never a moment I feel isolated from being a part of, because I am so intricately a part of them.

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Friends, too, share this passion for landscape. Their backyards consist not just of green grass to mow or a small garden plot to tend but the unruly weeds and beetles. Many have the privilege of living in a wilder terrain where they can hike at will and never see the same path. Fellow explorers spend their time wandering the Southwest, uncovering their unknown history, writing up bones of forgotten days.

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When I walk a new landscape, I prefer to walk it alone. Like meeting a new friend, I must respect this space and listen intently. The phainopepla reminds me to honor the new day. A quick “qui-qui” shout from a familiar friend, the thrasher, tells me to watch my footing. It’s nearing spring, and after heavy rains the wildflowers abound – the most obvious call to renew, readjust, and most importantly, stop being so serious.

The most meaningful lesson is that the earth is not here to provide lessons, or to owe me a thing. It is not an object of worship, a peak to “bag”, my mother, or my playground.

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While I may glean from place deep lessons and gifts, it is my duty to know my place as an animal among animals, and to live life as not to disrupt this reality. I am called to be a fierce daughter of one loyalty. It is to the saguaro I bow, the lion, the rock, the soil. I am called to be a protector of place, when called, but not the instigator of outcome.

To know one’s place in the most meaningful sense is to be humble. My nameless journey, I am here to serve.

 

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White Canyon Wilderness Wander

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Canyon Mouth, A. Sato

I spent a lazy Sunday wandering through White Canyon Wilderness, a hidden heaven not too far from Phoenix. No goal. No fitness hike. Just a lot of puffy clouds, silence, and the chance to soak in another beautiful view.

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White Cliffs, A. Sato

The best part of slowing down is taking the time to notice what you don’t when you are keeping pace on a long hike.

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A. Sato

Small flowers, delicate blades of native grass, unusual markings etched among rock, moss, and lichen, a hidden petroglyph…these are the findings that can only emerge into vision in idleness.

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I am taking the time to find God in small things. Her beauty is in the intricacies and eloquence of the understated and unnoticed.

 

 

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Solitude in the Goldfields

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Exploring new terrain is always exciting, but sometimes you only have a few hours to kill. The Superstitions seemed like a good bet, but I still shy away from the crowds and on Veterans Day, there was sure to be a crowd.

The Goldfield range, near Usery Pass and Saguaro Lake, is something I have always wanted to explore. Not as glamorous as the Supes, the Goldfields offer many of the same wonders of the volcanic complex to its east, but with less of an allure. It’s unusual for people to know the range, unless they’re outdoor enthusiasts from Apache Junction, or those who prefer solitude, even in the city.

Since the terrain is easy to explore with a topo, I decided to jump out around Willow Springs Wash and cross country my way southwest to the middle of the range, just north of Dome Mountain.

Here is what I experienced…

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I arrived just as the sun was starting to crest over the ridge, and – of course – it was insanely cold. I’ve never felt so cold in my life as I have in the desert in the fall and winter months. There is a quality to the cold unlike any of the humid places I’ve been during the winter. It’s like touching frozen metal.

Thankfully, I was quick to warm up by hiking up a steep ridge to gaze into the eye of the sun. Its warmth was immediate.

I looked around at the awaiting cacti, jojoba, and creosote. Everyone seemed to be waiting for this precise moment of sunlight splendor.

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It was a windy day and it seemed to drown out the few ATVs I could hear, probably over in the Bulldog Canyon OHV area. There are many jeep roads that transect much of the range. Relics of old mining roads, mines, pits, and former camps and equipment are what you can expect here. The sort of place you’d see burros and a rusted out Model T. I sadly saw neither.

As a matter of fact, I wondered why I hadn’t seen a soul, even a coyote, in over 3-4 miles. All I had for company was the wind.

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And more wind… and the eerie sense of knowing there were plenty of critters all around, but I couldn’t see them. I was able to spot a Cooper’s Hawk flying high above the tuff pinnacles. Seeing him added to the absolute hush of the morning. Even my footsteps were silent.

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Nearing the end of the jeep road, I decided to scramble down a side canyon. I had to bushwhack a bit to get down into the wash where former rains pooled in the deep sand and the grasses gave the path a rare delicacy that no desert ever really offers.

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Farther into the canyon, the walls began to narrow. I came across some old wildlife caches that have long since dried up. Moisture from the shade and rains produced unknown ferns, mosses, and lichens along the ground and canyon walls. Bobcat, coyote, and javelina tracks were visible, as well as skunk.

Dropping onto the canyon floor and over a large pool of murky water, I realized I probably wouldn’t be going any farther without technical gear to assist. The vertical drops were more than I could manage and more water to deal with. A good problem.

I already had a long trek of boulder hopping and butt sliding, so I was ready to climb back up to the ridge. (It’s interesting, if you are a rock nerd, to note that the canyon walls were smooth with chalcedony. Very pretty in the morning light.)

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Before making my way back to the car, I had a chance to take it all in. From Gonzales Needle to Golden Dome to Razorback Ridge. What a view. What beauty.

And NO PEOPLE.

My kind of hiking.

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So long, Goldfield range! I will be back in February for the wildflowers, and maybe an overnight somewhere down the canyons.

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Shooting Stars in the Sierra Ancha

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I recently returned from an overnight trip to the Sierra Ancha. This is a range that is close to my heart, because it was one I visited briefly during my first trip to Arizona after being gone for nearly 15 years.

As my friend Ellen likes to say, this place is special, sacred. You can feel it when you are here. Something of the ethereal is close to the skin. No wonder there are many sightings of monsters and ghosts, of messages on the wind and in strange dreams beneath glowing stars.

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We arrived in late morning, so I decided to hike down Rose Creek. Little did I expect, I encountered a small female bear. I was as stunned as she was. I have a certain level of fear about bears; they seem so unpredictable. Their demeanor can quickly change from aloof to threatening, and within seconds.

The bear looked at me, then Lily, my 13 pound dog. I realized that the only way out was to back up since we were surrounded by thick, thorny berry bushes. Lifting Lily high, we eased away, watching the coal black eyes look back at us. Thankfully, we escaped safely through the berry corridor.

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Roaming the back roads is always a part of any adventure that I consider an adventure, and Ellen and I set off for Buzzard Roost Canyon the next day. Rocking through the boulders and slopes, and down, down, down into the mouth of the canyon, we went far away from any human activity. Spotting perfect primitive camp sites and canyon songbirds lifting off of the schist and gneiss, what else is there but this?

 

Lying awake at midnight in my tent, listening to the soft steps of skunks along the creek, I am here. The immensity of the night sky overwhelms me. I wish for one star to fall. Minutes later, the blaze and the descent.

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Water in the desert is precious, and to find a flowing creek in the Sonoran is a magical thing. After miles of climbing and bumping down forest roads, we were delighted to find Spring Creek by way of Jerky Butte.

Even a shallow swimming hole can relieve a tired, hot traveler. I am a longtime traveler.

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Waking up at sunrise, I hiked along a new road that leads to a development that’s in an in-holding of the national forest. The illuminated cliffs of the Sierra Ancha Mountains caught first light. Being in deep canyons feels like I am returning to the quiet, still place where my true self emerges. The light shines on these places, but it occurs one hour at a time.

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If you pay close attention on any walk, you will notice things. Small things that can make you wonder why you ever thought you were alone.

 


Fall is my favorite season, which feels like a mere two weeks in AZ. I do love the winter months here, but sometimes I miss those real two-three months of serious autumn that I experienced in Indiana. The kind that reminds me of the fall foliage of my birthplace, the sound of the wood stove’s cracks-and-pops, feeling chilly enough to put on an extra big flannel shirt when the sun sets, and that deep, pungent odor of decay.

I savor it when I am in the mountains.

 

As with any range, a person can spend an entire lifetime exploring and never fully get a complete picture of all of its secrets. And, isn’t that the point, really, to know that a place is composed of so much enchantment it is impossible to contain?

When the disciples asked Jesus when the new world will come, he replied, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.” There is no outside heaven or planetary escape of tech fantasy. This is it. This is the kingdom.

I hope to continue to recognize it for years to come.

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Meditations on Water

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The trees reflected in the river – they are unconscious
of a spiritual world so near to them. So are we.

– Nathaniel Hawthorne

I seek out herons each morning, particularly the small green heron that graced the park over the summer. A neighbor saw a male arrive a few weeks ago and witnessed the most beautiful dance between the two herons, a mating ritual. Since then, we have not seen them.

As I sit beside the water’s edge, I imagine those two lovers busily building a nest on the Salt River, a river that used to run wild.

While I was looking closely for birds, I noticed the surface of the water and all of the life embodied in it, from the algae to the variety of insects that skipped over its surface. An iridescent dragonfly rested briefly on drift wood. A snapping turtle poked his head through the clear surface, creating small circles on the once still water – element meeting element.

The solitude of ponds, the ferocity of desert rivers in a monsoon, the arroyo holding deep pools of forgotten rain. These are the sacred moments, the natural movement of water. Water is not simply among us, it is us.

Except, we don’t see it that way. We turn to witness the degradation of dams and artificial pools meant to control, tame, and harness. How have we become so lost that we deny this essential God? Thinking we rule over it because we have the periodic table, we have its power.

We believe that we lord over all things, but the day will come when the tides change, as certain and abrupt as water.

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Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.

– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

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Estuaries are a happy land, rich in the continent itself, stirred by the forces of nature like the soup of a French chef; the home of myriad forms of life from bacteria and protozoans to grasses and mammals; the nursery, resting place, and refuge of
countless things.

– Stanely A. Cain

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A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving,
living part of the very earth itself.

– Laura Gilpin

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To trace the history of a river, or a raindrop, as John Muir would have done, is also
to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body.

In both we constantly seek and stumble on divinity, which, like the cornice feeding
the lake and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself
over and over again.

– Gretel Ehrlich, Sisters of the Earth

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Our bodies are molded rivers.

– Novalis

Hello, It’s Morning

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The morning was punctuated by the sudden call of a Curved-billed Thrasher. Thrashers are aptly named, and precede all other desert birdsongs with their single, piercing cry that jolts the weary out of slumber. It was this single cry that broke the spell of my twilight meditation.

Like the thrasher, there is nothing quite like a sudden illness to dolt us into awareness. This has been true for me. While I am relatively OK now, there is a constant hum – a background noise – that is ever-present. Something that whispers to me that I am so fragile, that I am just another animal.

Worry is a habit that requires cultivation, and I have been heavily cultivating it in my habits. But these mornings of autumn chill and the late arrival of daybreak, I am prone to forget my troubles.

What calls to you upon waking?