Circling Dragonflies

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Such is life. Detours must be made and straight lines lead nowhere. My friend and I decided we would find a waterfall. That was on the itinerary, but like most itineraries, they are subject to change and the change can be anyone’s guess. Change just is.

This was a planned trip to look for a specific waterfall in Rim country with my friend, T. We were both ready to escape the city and the bullshit of “the human world” and all of its trappings – including our fixation on work and *shoulds*. Off to the hills and mountains, away with the paperwork! I could almost hear myself internally breaking into bloom as we ascended to junipers, then pine, after leaving the paradise of the upland Sonoran ecotone.

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Loaded up with gummy bears and deep thoughts, we grabbed our packs and began walking along a long forest road (up Colcord Mountain, near Payson, AZ). After a few minutes, my friend brought up the strange crackling from above. We were amazed to find many cicadas lined up the arms of pine, oak, and underbrush, shedding their skins, as they were, to emerge and reproduce. Such a cacophony, the armored symphony of these Hemiptera.

There is nothing of absolute silence, even when you think there is. Underground and on land reverberations occur – life moves in the small measurement of time and space. It may be undetected by the human ear, as we are woefully unable to hear the inconspicuous acoustics of all that is.

 

What did we do when we couldn’t find this waterfall? First, we walked, trusting the journey would be what it would be. By staying alert, aware, and receptive, we saw what was glimpse-moments, and appreciated. After all, the subtleties are true gifts and we were grateful for them.

And so we walked again, as two friends who are capable of the spontaneity of not knowing. As two friends who appreciate the peace of silence, as not to disrupt the flow of whatever it is we were doing at the time.

Finally, we wandered to a new build site along the forest road and asked a local. He gave us detailed directions. Locals have a way of being receptive to just “shooting the shit.” It’s nice to have this relaxed way of engaging with strangers. Sometimes small talk can be big talk full of joy, curiosity, and wisdom, if a person allows it. The slow chit-chat of a rural place. I miss that syrup-speed on a hot day, along a random road.

Did we ever find this waterway? No. How can a single green gate be so elusive, especially when everyone else seemed to find it off of the main road. It was laughable. We did three attempts, and decided that this waterfall was not meant to be seen by us, at least not that day. What was awaiting us?

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Haigler Creek is one of my favorite go-to day dreaming, loafing around places. I can spend hours listening to the birds and the creek, and the occasional kid with their fisher dad at one of the bridges upstream. The day was warm enough to walk down the creek and away from other people and cars (although, to our delight, it was pretty low key). We crossed the creek and made our way through dappled cottonwoods, water-worn rocks with their patterned ripples and smooth curves, and canyon walls.

A wonderful species of dragonfly – Antillean Saddlebags, Tramea insularis – danced around us as we waded along the overgrown banks. This fiery-purple species was new to me and had me wondering why the hell I haven’t ever learned more about dragonflies and damselflies and their whimsical ilk. I’m always fascinated by anything winged and ancient looking, and this fantastic species had me tripping and slipping over the rocks to get a closer look, before they zipped away, circling their peers.

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Golden Columbine, Rocky Mountain Iris, Sand Verbena, Lupine, and various daisies and asters lined the water in lush bouquets. Painted Lady and Empress Leilia butterflies delighted in them. The steep banks of red quartzite and limestone offer several steps and ledges to the juniper hills above the canyon, should you decide that wading wasn’t probable.

For me, I love to splash and swim, and meander clumsily in water. The watery world continues to leave me wanting more, to wade into the understory of riparian trees and grasses and find the faeries. Instead, I come back to earth and the human world.

My companion and I spent our last hour sitting on the bank, examining wood and crayfish skeletons, moon-like drops of water on sedge. I thought of Emerson:

“To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same fields, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.”

Never finding the falls was a gift. Being detoured is the delight of the patient and openhearted. There is always something to experience and be delighted by to the trained eye and attuned ear.

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.

 

 

 

Do something… but what?

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Sometimes knowing what to do in the face of so much uncertainty, horror, and doubt leaves us feeling powerless. This is at least true for me. Our “calls to action” take us away from home and the animals and plants that inhibit our surroundings. When joining forces elsewhere isn’t possible, there is a tendency to read about and absorb what is happening “out there” and feel miserable. Maybe we throw a few dollars in aid, but there is this overwhelm that doesn’t leave.

To some extent, we are powerless… as individuals, at home, raging at the computer or television. I’ve started to feel like this way of being is depleting my spirit. I know that I personally will not solve problems by doing personal acts of resistance that are disengaged from others (wild others included) or what we are fighting: systemic and organized violence  (not joe neighbor who supports Trump, or your sister-in-law who still uses styrofoam).

But since I am not a great power, what can I do with the power I do have?
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I am not a marcher or letter writer. I’m more likely to go rehab a wild area where OHVs have done damage. Still, rehabbing that one area doesn’t guarantee it wont be destroyed again next Memorial Day weekend. It doesn’t eliminate the culture that says it’s macho to ride your quad over native plants.

So what do I do? What do you do?

I think that is where individual actions can feel fruitless unless you elevate them into more meaningful actions that can and do bear some results. Of course doing a river clean-up once and walking away from that river won’t have much benefit over time … But what about devoting myself to that river and the life it supports, and sticking with it? Even if it means bearing witness to outcomes that break my heart, or it puts me in situations where greater actions are called for.

To me, that is where these feelings of disconnect and uselessness begin to dissolve.

Back to the river…

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.

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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.