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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
There are many distractions. Everything wants us, from the screens to the friends we have yet to call back, to the traffic honking, to the lists of endless things we have to do. This life can overwhelm us in every single instant.
Then, there is stillness. If we allow it to be.
Each morning I ask if I want the quiet. It is really my choice. If I allow the stillness, what will it ask from me?
A story is told as much by silence as by speech.
— Susan Griffin
Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors. Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.
— Edwin Way Teale
I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.
— Henry David Thoreau
What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation.
When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.
― John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
At a certain point, you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence. Nature does utter a peep – just this one. The birds and insects, the meadows and swamps and rivers and stones and mountains and clouds: they all do it; they all don’t do it. There is a vibrancy to the silence, a suppression, as if someone were gagging the world. But you wait, you give your life’s length to listening, and nothing happens. The ice rolls up, the ice rolls back, and still that single note obtains. The tension, or lack of it, is intolerable. The silence is not actually suppression: instead, it is all there is.
― Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters
Observing sacred mind in nature’s creativity can help us to reconnect to our own sacred mind as well. It releases a deep knowing that we inhabit a world rich with meaning—an ebbing and flowing ocean of intentionality that creates complex relationships between beautiful forms.
― Julie J. Morley, Future Sacred: The Connected Creativity of Nature
Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant? …We are all shape-shifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.
― Diane Ackerman
Why are we such tortured human beings, with tears in our eyes and false laughter on our lips? If you could walk alone among those hills or in the woods or along the long, white, bleached sands, in that solitude you would know what meditation is. The ecstasy of solitude comes when you are not frightened to be alone no longer belonging to the world or attached to anything. Then, like that dawn that came up this morning, it comes silently, and makes a golden path in the very stillness, which was at the beginning, which is now, and which will be always there.
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.
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.
Photo credit: T. Clark
Photo credit: T. Clark
Photo credit: T. Clark
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?
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.
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.
Photo credit: T. Clark
Photo credit: T. Clark
Photo credit: T. Clark
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Without family, the only thing I can hold to on Christmas is the fact that there’s nothing to hold on to. Christmas is like the idea of finding our family waiting on the banister, caked with fresh snowflakes, declaring a love for all mankind while being embraced in kisses. It’s fantasy; the wonderful life.
My thoughts return to Christmas past, where I would spend time with my grandparents. One of the best possibilities of those trips was when I could sleep under the tree at night. Looking up through those faux branches into the sparkling glow made me feel at home, precisely because it mimicked the woods and the stars.
This Christmas, I had that opportunity, except here in my beloved home, the Sonoran Desert.
After doing some merrymaking over breakfast with friends, my friend Ellen and I packed off to the North Maricopa Mountains for some desert camping. We rambled through a short, sandy trail to Margie’s Cove, a primitive campground on BLM land, adjacent to protected wilderness and the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
This was an area severely grazed over the past few hundred years, but has been slowly returning to its former ecological glory through the efforts of closure and tightened recreational restrictions. The Monument itself contains the Maricopa Mountain ranges (north and south of the I-8), Table Top Mountains, Booth and White Hills, and the Sand Tanks.
Rife with historical and prehistoric trails and archaeological sites, there’s reason that these places, while quiet, contain thousands of years of stories. You can feel the words under the basalt and strewn across desert pavement, so much so that they sing to life any who care to listen.
Owls lift off from a place
I cannot see. Their long silence
is riddled with the same silence.
In the desert, listening is critical. The slightest wind contains more insight than your GPS. The faint trail of a forgotten sidewinder has more to show you than your cell.
As we set up camp, the clouds formed across the neighboring ridges, looking ominous. It is winter, after all, so we were prepared for both some rain and chilly nights, and the occasional snow (like we saw in 2015). When everything was secured, I set off cross country to look for bones. Like anything, looking intently for what you want results in no luck.
Giant chunks of quartz riddled the desert pavement, looking quite out of the ordinary against the patination. Wilderness boundary signs have been glazed over after a few Sonoran summers – its words barely visible. The quality of quiet shifts from a treacherous gasp of unrelentingly survival to a creosote cold, with humidity setting off any scent.
Later that evening, the campfire was welcome as we quickly ate dinner. Winter nights in the desert make me want to hibernate and wake to the stillness of the stars from under the confines of my sleeping bag and wool blankets.
Next morning, I set out on the trail with the moon to guide me. The air on my face was freezing to the touch, and my nose, permanently frosty. I had hoped to see an owl or maybe a grumpy coyote, or the mountain lion who comes down from his rocks to sip water at the wildlife cache. No sound. No movement. Just my walking motion and my short exhalations.
Walking is reverie, and I, a somnambulist walking in the desert, under moonlight, in winter.
Late morning, we set out on the sandy back roads looking for historic trails. The north country on the boundary of the Monument has rebounded and was especially lush. Sonoran Desert at its finest, said my friend, and she was right. Every few feet, we stopped to gaze at the beauty and the sun creeping over the horizon.
Another friend says, “Sit still and look. This is everything you need right here.” I believe him.
Water has quenched the desert, and everything seemed alive and happy to be so.
Impressions of place: potsherds, one busted, displaced river cobble, many hawks, rusted out windmill, Sheep Mountain (how I longed to see the bighorns), boulder climbing, desert pavement napping, scurries of owls, coyote misfits, deep wash after wash, bajada poetry, walking for miles.
If I could only stay another few nights here…But each night could easily blend into another. The desert is without time, and my time is unfortunate. I am the longing sleeper who must pack up and be fit for the other world I inhabit.
I chase it at night when others slumber.
That which saves dwells where death inhabits.
In the moments of childhood, I would stare out through the faux Christmas tree and wonder where I will end up, what life will become. I have the same childhood curiosity, and no more information as to what comes next as I did then. Here is now. Timeless.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
So long, Goldfield range! I will be back in February for the wildflowers, and maybe an overnight somewhere down the canyons.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.
– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
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
– Stanely A. Cain
A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving,
living part of the very earth itself.
– Laura Gilpin
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.