The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


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Refuge

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In the woods of my youth, I would tell my dreams to whomever would hear them, usually the swayback mare or the barn swallows who built their nests high in the corn crib. As a child of the country, the forests were my refuge. In the woods I was someone, the narrator of my own life, the one I meant to have.

On summer days I would spend hours looking for insects, reptiles, and amphibians. I was obsessed with their seeming insignificance or disdain felt by most humans. For me, they became worlds beyond worlds, an unseen realm of dreamers keeping track of the earth’s secrets. They saw things most mammals cannot see. They recorded the events of much more complex creatures with their own simple arithmetic of rhythmic chirps and bellows.

In these times, I seek out this refuge, but where do I find it? Gone is my Indiana home of wildflowers and forests skirting the edges of farms. In a desert city, there are few places to hide from the chaotic world. A friend of mine used to refer to the human world as the “meat world” and nature as the “fur world”. The fur world is much more than that. It is the place of plants and stone and soil. It is the water world, and the decomposed humus that reminds us of our death.

One of my favorite places in the woods was a natural sinkhole. I would sit there among the saplings and undergrowth, imagining it to be a cocoon, a sacred bowl that contained protective powers where I would feel safe, where I would speak to God.

For so long, I have been without refuge. What I found was false sanctuary in a bottle, running, un-remembering. In this limbo, I am learning to return to the lessons of insects. What appears to be insignificant can sometimes save. I cultivate a refuge among ant hills and alleyways where coyotes run.

And in my cityscape, I listen to the wild beneath.

 

 

 

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Lands of Exposure

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Indiana Field, A. Sato

“Therefore, the places in which we have experienced day dreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as day-dreams these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all the time.”
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

When I was a young girl, I used to spend many hours sitting on my grandparents’ porch, gazing at the wide field across the road. The field seemed enormous then – and frighteningly as vast as space itself. I remember a distinct sense of loneliness as I looked across that empty space and watched the sun descend. At the same time, just under the loneliness, a sense of hope, of fullness.

It’s been 6 years since I have been back. The old house is now in the possession of another family. Things, as they do when we age, seem smaller, more contained.

The last time I was there we said goodbye to my grandfather and buried him on the edge of yet another field, familiar as home since the bones of many family members rest there, too.

Before returning to the desert, I sat at the edge of that field, among violets and freshly mowed grass, and breathed in the enormity again, the space that made me feel so small against it.

I was born a child of the woods. Open space, more than the darkness of dense pine stands and overgrown creek beds, seemed to contain the elements of childhood fear: exposure, vulnerability, and enormity. In the woods I was never alone. I was surrounded by brother trees and sister animals – deer, feral dogs, squirrels, cows. In their life was a recognition of my own.

But something happened. I grew to love vastness.

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Creosote Hills, A. Sato

Throughout my adult life, my choices have always led me to the assurance of fields, prairies, deserts – perhaps to finally embrace the price of life, complete vulnerability to it.

As I now gaze across another vast terrain – one of thorn and rock – I still seek that fullness, that hope I felt as a girl on my grandparents’ porch. To meet the emptiness feels like surrendering to something more powerful than my hemmed in perception and fears.

No matter where I am, the edge of a verdant field or beneath a burning sun on blackened rock, there is always space – and in this space, possibilities beyond the imaginings of a girl and the regrets of a woman.

I know what it is I seek there… comfort.


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Canyon Meandering: Pondering the Fool’s Journey

“Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.” Brendan Gill

To be foolish…00-the-fool
we throw our shackles of perceived security off.
We follow the singing of a brook or don masks under oaks in their spring foliage.
We may even chase a butterfly over the precipice.

Life is a grand adventure. Yet many try to shrink it to fit a narrow view.

Holding on, we anchor ourselves to false certainty: the true love, the children, the home, the job, possessions that we pile and monitor with the eye of a dragon.

But the uncertainties, those goblins, have a way of ruining everything.

Stay.
Try again.
Try the same thing again.
This time it will work.

They whisper to us through fear and doubt.

My goblins of uncertainty are habitual responses to loss – or, not letting go of loss. Hanging on by its dead roots, I have stayed near the ground. Not moving, not growing, and certainly not chasing the tempting butterfly that might lead elsewhere.

Where? the goblins demand.
What will it be?

And what if there is pain?

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I awake again to a midnight moon – a fool’s half-moon – in Pivot Rock Canyon.

There is perhaps nothing more apropos of the Fool’s wanton adventure than being outdoors – particularly alone, and definitely in a deep woods (the wilder the better).

To expect the unexpected is an unspoken mantra. Whether sleet, hail, or lightning strike or the myriad animal attacks a wanderer is warned of, the journey must always entail a bit of tangled vine and claw-print.

Traces of a late night visit leave imprints of Ursus americanus in my dreams and in the soft earth near the creek.

Instead of Bear, I am startled awake again by the clumsy arrival of revelers – unprepared families arriving late, to camp at 7000 ft, t-shirt and shorts, no idea where they are.

It’s 30 degrees here. Spring comes late to the Mogollon Rim.

The smoke from their fire and the shouts between camps sites keep me awake, wishing it had been Bear instead of Bipeds.

Most early spring nights as these, the woods are empty of other people.
Time to laugh it off, despite my annoyance. Time to wander away from the road. Next time, I will pack in to where no others like to go.

At least, no human others.

Between the cracks of ember and beer cans, I remember the mating call of a mountain lion that echoed down from aptly named Wild Cat Spring, just below a still bustling highway at dusk.

WildCat_trail2 (1 of 1)But now it is only the campfire that hisses.

Be prepared for anything, the Fool laughs. Rather, be unprepared. Be surprised.

The Fool is also the joker who reminds us that anything can happen. The joker’s wild! Remain accustomed to glorious catastrophe. Follow the stars, unshaken by the precipice below our feet.

***

The thing is, the view from home is fixed, the known road is comforting.

But the elsewhere. Elsewhere is a game of chance, and with any game there is a loser – a jester sitting in a pig sty, hat askew, wondering how the hell he got there.

Nonetheless, he dusts himself off and back to the journey he goes.

To the wanderer, home can be hell, and nothing more painful than stasis.

Out there are stories.
Stories that make the storms circle and the birds squawk.

Stories for nights in canyons without sleep.

It is time to pick up the bindle and head off for the tantalizing depths of another adventure.


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What Claims are Made – Observations in the Pinaleño Mountains

IMG_1410An excerpt

Up ahead is a small path that winds through a secret canyon. There I see the morning open up to sky. A cliff drops to the world below, some 2,000 feet to the belly of Sulfur Springs Valley. Plunging mercilessly, the creek follows stone, pulled by the heavy hand of the mountain’s descent. Water has cut through this lonely gorge for centuries, but my eyes are new here.

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Many times in wild places I find myself staring at books to locate the botanical name of an unknown plant or identify a set of tracks, but on this morning I put the books away and set out for wonder. Wonder is of course the root of knowledge, but how often do we pause at wonder alone? Do we move so quickly from a state of awe to information that we miss something, a primal yearning and appreciation for that, which, unspoken by man, undocumented by the hand of scientist or layperson, slips our grasp of respect?

Wonder… is it missing?Pinaleno Pine

Wading through waist-high sorrels and ferns, I crept deeper into the places where morning had not reached its hand. I imagined fairies dipping down to drink from a curled leaf. It seems possible here, where the verdant life of the forest has not yet been dimmed. And why not think of fairies?

The dripdripdrip of new rain on cold stone created a soundscape and I was mesmerized again by the passive yet strong pull of forces moving us, the trees, the water, the stones to the last leap of sky.

The Pinaleño Mountains, the Grahams, Mount Graham, or Dzil Nchaa Si An (Big Seated Mountain, Western Apache), is a remote “Sky Island” in Southeastern Arizona, offering more than 7,000 feet of vertical relief – a true wonder among Sonoran/Chihuahuan desert low lands. This range has many names, many claims, even in modernity. Pinaleño, meaning many deer, seems an appropriate name – the area is rich with mule deer and white-tailed deer, suitably designed for the steep ridges and cliffs, angles no biped can maneuver with such grace.

This September, however, no deer were to be found in the obvious landscape of sight. The once lively meadows of fawns, does, and the occasional aloof buck were even bereft of the usual scat pellets I might expect on such an inviting landscape of open parks with brooks lapping against the wild blue bells and yarrow. The Pinaleños are a dreamy place, to be sure, a place where all are drawn by watersong and starry views.

***

As the silence was broken by an ATV, I realized why the deer were in hiding. A bow hunter and his monster of mud and plastic came through the forest. He stopped long enough to shout a question at me, lamenting that he hadn’t seen a single deer all morning, as his ATV engine pierced the air and echoed down through the gorges. Deer are wiser than we credit them. Their behaviors often change with the seasons, with our malevolence, with the pressing weight of sound and intent.

The Pinaleño Mountains have had their share of embittered discussions. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the Vatican – among other astronomers and financial backers – decided to help fund the University of Arizona/Mount Graham International Observatory.   Mount Graham, with its low humidity and light pollution, was deemed ideal for such an observatory, and the efforts to build were pushed ferociously into motion.

Bluebell KnollAmong these peaks, in the conifer and spruce-fir forests, the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel resides – a species only found on this range and surely impacted by the controversial observatory and the continued mixed use and management practices of a federal forest.

Opposition to developing an observatory should have held some weight since the Pinaleños were, in fact, nominated by the United States Forest Service for designation as a Traditional Cultural Property and considered sacred to many, especially to the Western Apache tribes. As the battle raged, involving the leaders of most of the Indian Nations in the United States and Europe, indigenous rights groups, environmentalists, biologists, and anthropologists, the mountain’s chief harbinger of impact, the Mount Graham red squirrel became the fight’s pinnacle mascot.

Ironically, some of these Mount Graham red squirrels are now being housed at the Phoenix Zoo, kept in a controlled climate exhibit designed to mimic their former Montane forest home. The imperiled squirrels are apparently a part of a conservation program, where, if successful, they will be released “… back into the wild…”

A wild of our imagination, I fear.

Treasure Park MeadowAnd, how can the red squirrel ever win? How can the fight for Dzil Nchaa Si An and other sacred mountains ever be recognized? Among cell towers, telescopes, developed campgrounds along the Swift Trail, the ongoing efforts of wildfire and wildlife “management”, and the continued paving of roadways leading to Mount Graham’s recreational offerings… it’s all too clear.

Whatever Spirit of Wildness kept safe the dense population of black bears, the important prehistoric shrines and stories of ancestors, and the troops of that elusive red squirrel may not be powerful enough to hold back the inevitable future, a future that seems to have forgotten its equally sacrosanct call to wonder, to the sacred, to what is most precious on earth.


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Red Fire Days: Autumn in Pivot Rock Canyon

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As an October baby, I have always loved autumn.  Growing up in Southern Indiana, with its poplar, redbud, walnut, and dogwood tree-covered hills, I naturally seek out places in Arizona similarly rich with plant diversity, and especially this time of year.

For those of us living in the desert, it’s necessary to adjust the senses for less garish autumnal finery. Those gilded colors I came to expect in October are hidden in washes and dry creek beds… with the remnant deaths of monsoon wildflowers, strewn against sand and cobble. The drift of fallen sunflowers and wine-hued amaranth fills the roadside ditches. And, the unexpected glance out toward the Estrella Mountains, where the wide Gila flood plains curve under the trunks of gold-trimmed Cottonwoods, conjures up nostalgia.

But, yesterday I needed the symbolic autumn of my youth, the overt heralding of change. Yesterday, I needed canyons.

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So, a friend and I set out to explore one of myriad canyons of the Mogollon Rim, a massive escarpment of limestone and sandstone that defines the southernmost edge of the Colorado Plateau. This is an area rife with deep canyons that spider out and create enormous gorges. The views are so easily lost to bewilderment. With its maze of ponderosa pine and rock, the imagination ponders how easy it would be to descend into one of those unnamed canyons and never be found again.

Our hike, however, led us to one canyon in particular… small in scope and challenge, Pivot Rock Canyon was the perfect choice.

Not really in the mood for thrills and chills, I sought a hike that would allow time for contemplating, tree-gazing, adorning the hair in yellowing oak and scarlet wild geranium leaves and burnt orange fern tendrils. The pace of this hike: easy-going… I’d find its description online, “…good for kids and dogs.” It is a daydreamer’s place, a small, wet capillary in the pulse of an otherwise dry pine body.

Starting out on an old jeep trail, we meandered through a natural park… there, some of the oaks and walnuts had begun to change their hues and a few hallowed aspens danced in pale yellow. The ground was wet from the evening’s rainstorm… the air smelled of fungi, decaying leaves, pine resin… and it was HEAVENLY.

Wildcat Spring

With my eyes fixed on the canopy above, I could have remained – lost for hours, just lying on a blanket spread on the musty, rich earth, breathing in the leaf-rot as if it could be the finest, most sensory-stimulating perfume.

Felled trees arched trunks and broken branches, downward… everything moved in the direction of slope and cliff, boulder and ridge. I, too, felt as though I had succumbed to the fall. A fall.

It is true. I had taken a rather hard fall recently, one that shook the roots and left me feeling like the only direction would be down with the drift, the torrent of summer storms, bashed and bruised – as any living thing – an instrument of greater change.

In autumn, the earth wears its mask of jewels. The harvest is a time of celebration, but only because we know what is around the forest bend – the dark nights that are closed to growth, the severe “Do not disturb,” the fin of the final reel. It doesn’t matter what yesterday’s intention was. It matters not what was felt. Now is the time we near ourselves to the ticking of choice. Accept or not. That is the inevitability of ends.

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Looking out across a meadow park, my friend and I come upon a stand of massive oaks and the last of the season’s mullein. The quickening wind moves between thoughts and occasional words. It’s important to hike with those whose need for silence matches your own.

At the end of the canyon, the remnants of an old concrete cistern attest to a once active spring. Above us, the faint hum of motorists along Highway 87 snake their way between destinations. This was not to be a long journey. The canyon, though tangled and wild, ends abruptly after a few miles, joining up with its sister canyons along the splintered map of the plateau’s vast rise.

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Canyons have a way of leading us along one adventure, only to dash our hopes with a sudden wall of tumbled rocks, then forcing us along on a different course. The dictates of its severe angles, weather patterns, movement of water…  There is a beginning and end. There are lost trails, twisted ankles, water too deep to avoid.

But, this journey was forgiving and I made peace with the hopeful wishes of being human, of falling against those hard edges and angles I was not prepared to meet. I breathed it all in. I took a last look at the shivering leaves, still beautiful beneath the afternoon sun.