Saturday, June 15, 2013

Summer Mornings

There is nothing like a summer morning. Dragonflies hover motionless in the sunlight along the wide dirt path that separates vineyard from orchard, their transparent wings gleaming golden as they throw back the sun’s heat and cool their own small shadows. Songbirds dot the high tension wires, while a pair of mourning doves race over rows of planted vines. 

Mornings like these call me away from my desk. Seeds swelling and unfurling, pods sprouting, hot winds beckoning. Small things gather into larger things, which gather into larger things, which merge into one big thing. Wisdom accumulated over millions of years. A prickly grass seed stuck to my sock becomes a poem.

Barn Swallow Close-up, taken by Michael Smith
The even, steady tempo of a cricket’s chirp emerges from a tangle of roadside brush. When I reach the entrance to the paved West County bike trail and walking path, torpedo-shaped barn swallows greet me with their narrow curved wings and short forked tails. Sapphire blue with a frosting of peach across the cheeks and white along the belly, these birds have taken advantage of the high wall of an abandoned firehouse on which to build their cup-shaped mud nests just beneath the slanting roofline. There they will remain undisturbed, that is, unless the citizens of Graton vote to tear the building down.

Walking in the dappled shade of the trail, well attended by tall tree growth on either side, I stop to marvel at the trumpet shaped flowers of a blooming Catalpa tree. 

Although the distinctive heart-shaped leaves and dangling beans are noticeable from hundreds of yards away, today it is the sweet fragrance emanating from a showy crown of white flowers that captures my attention. 

“The moments when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live,” writes the British naturalist Richard Jeffries.

 What if he is right? 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Web of Life

Journal notes written last year at this time while chaperoning a 5th grade field trip to the WOLF (Web of Life Field) school at Camp Cazadero, Cazadero, CA. 

This afternoon we take a blindfold hike to the purple meadow. First the boys guide the girls, then they switch. Nobody complains about the steepness of the trail.

It is terribly sneezy in the upper meadow. Dry grass laced with California poppies. We sit with our sketchbooks and draw the contours of a rock cliff with a face like a dog. There is nothing like a mountaintop meadow with a view. Purple flower clusters on tall stems. Twitter of songbirds. Bright orange monkeyflower.

This morning I sat and sipped hot tea on the cabin steps in the warmth of the sun; so quiet I could hear the whooshing wing beats of a solitary crow flying overhead. Woodpecker taps. Call of a quail. Some kind of human activity from the dining hall.

Nighttime astronomy, we are being devoured by mosquitoes while listening to the naturalist tell a story about how the night sky was formed, and that hummingbirds are responsible for the stars. I take a look through the viewfinder of the telescope and catch a glimpse of the pocked and pebbled moon. Then Saturn, complete with rings – so tiny it resembles a bright sticker I could place in my journal.

Shooting star – a brief meeting between two like-minded people who won't ever meet again in the physical world. 

The rabbit in the moon.

After our moon-shadow walk down to the waterfall, the girls run barefoot out of the cabin across the field to see the silver fox recently spotted running under picnic tables. The waterfall made me feel like I was in another country, so lush and green with a small pool at the bottom. EcuadorPeru?

At lights-out, the naturalist named Raccoon stops by the cabin to serenade the girls, who have caught a second wind after seeing the silver fox. They crown the tiny bathroom with murmurs and giggles while applying face cream and brushing out hair. At her prompting they head for their bunks. Lights out, in bed, we are covered with a blackness not usually seen back home where a constant glow of light emanates from our small town homes. Here it is too dark to even see my hand. Raccoon sings a lullaby, Lean on Me and at the conclusion of the third verse the cabin is silent, and remains so even after she and her flashlight slip out the back door and into the evening air, leaving us to our further savor the silence and invite the overnight fog.

Monday, February 18, 2013

President’s Day at the Coast

On this holiday weekend the winter beach is crowded with people and their amusements: dogs, kites, picnic lunches and sand castles; boats, blankets, cameras, binoculars and phones. Ocean waves thick in the mist rise up and thunder towards shore. Behind me shadows of seagulls float across the steep, rocky cliffs - appearing and then disappearing again - silently, spaciously, always on the move, staggered like sudden gleams of light emerging from the sun’s meeting with the fog-laced background of the ocean’s outer calm.

I begin my walk. How easily my bare feet advance along the seam of hard-packed wet sand trimming the water’s edge. Strangers smile at me for no reason; then walk past and leave me alone again. Swept clean of practical duties, I plan to spend the long morning soaking in nature’s warm, inviting disorder. Footfall after footfall I compress the glittering silt of quartz and feldspar which the waves draw back and return again –  each stroke erasing the shallow print of my body’s brief encounter with this broad, flat stretch of shore.

In the midst of multiple distractions, the ocean’s mesmerizing rhythm of sound fills me with balance and leads me to my center. How to remain here? There is no easy answer. Perhaps walking itself is a first step. Walking toward simplicity. Toward grace. Toward the cold, wet spiral of a small white shell.

 In the distance terraced cliffs of the headland break the bulk of the waves before they can reach this sheltered strip of beach. Deep green and orange plant growth weaves from root to tip along round boulders of grey stone.  While wave action fights to erode the coast and push the shore inland, the land resists the ocean's attack with the strength of its rock. Marine sediment mantles the terraces, much as my mind – at once clean and bare as whitened driftwood; empty as a shell, becomes so easily filled with life’s colluvium – pencils, pads and other particulars of the practical that accumulate in stubborn hollows, bound by the techno-urgency of the modern world.

The sugar-like sand of the upper beach hosts a tangle of wash-ups: crisp, stranded seaweeds encircled by a chorus of sand fleas; leathery, ribbon-like heaps of giant kelp; black-stained shells of the razor clam. The sand, usually too hot to walk upon in the summer season, is invitingly warm. Soft, loose, it slips beneath my feet and, as ever, pleasant sensations award all abandoned efforts. Halting in mid-expedition, I dig in my toes and lavish lazy waves of pleasure upon this torso of light I call my body, this polished pedestal composed of the elements, this confusion of salt – this sum of splendors that never slows or withholds; rather releases a lovely shimmer of everything it shows – this center of my self.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Inside, Outside

Early morning frost tints the ground white. The orchard is still, waiting for the frozen fog to lift. I open the heavy crossed arms of the cast-iron woodstove, let down the door and peer inside. Piles of cold ash – thin, grey weightless remnants of last night’s blaze, are of too little substance to be gathered up –  flakes that dissolve into a fine grey mist at the slightest touch, unlike the hard, brown dirt clods shaken loose from the deep treads of my boots that I sweep daily into neat little piles.

Outside, the dead leaves keep coming. There is no stopping them from falling on the lawn. Our home, which butts up against a yard of large diesel trucks, used to be a dairy farm – front yard the pasture for grazing and the red barn where the cows got milked. Now the barn is home to our landlord’s odd collection of vintage cars and rusty junk. Yet a pair of barn owls finds the abandoned barn to their liking, and raises a family or two every summer, filling the night air with the vibrant hissing of their young.

Inside the neglected barn dusty cobwebs cover the ceilings and walls. Outside, vertical siding planks are faded and worn with spots of gray wood showing through. The planks pull apart from one another readily, leaving black gaps in between like old teeth rotting and getting ready to fall out. Adorned with rusty corrugated roofing sheets of cold rolled steel panels about to peel off, the roof clatters to the big-band sound of windy afternoons.

Outside, long, snaky tendrils of thorny blackberry swaddle the cabs of a dozen big-rig trucks now abandoned in the yard. Rain-soaked turkeys slink past brown tangles of vine in the sleeping vineyard. A lone frog croaks to the strengthening wind just outside my window. Hard packed dirt of the lane softens to mud and tire tracks melt to puddles. Yesterday’s yardwork comes undone as wet piles of dead brown leaves rearrange themselves across the lawn.