Visiting the high country

Going-to-the Sun: a visit to the high country is sometimes a visit to the past and sometimes a glimpse of eternity.

Going-to-the Sun: a visit to the high country is sometimes a visit to the past and sometimes a glimpse of eternity.

I grew up in a place where one could walk three miles east and leave the world we have built and re-enter the world that has always been. I still live there. Since history is directional and our minds are steeped in history, moving into undeveloped nature is like moving into the past, into the world as it used to be. A little bit of the world I usually inhabit is developed, somewhat. Town consists of small collection of buildings and fewer than a thousand people. There’s probably a three-story building somewhere in town, but at the moment I can’t think of one. Walk a mile in any direction and you will have left the town behind.

Probably more people live in the country now than in town proper. So the countryside outside town has lots of houses—on most roads you can rarely travel more than a quarter mile without passing one. There are more newer houses, mostly fancier than those in town, than older ones. Everyone wants to live in the country, at their own Walden Pond, though with satellite connections to the Internet and television—to those media dense with signs that refer to themselves, where meaning and value have been lost.

The fact that in less than hour’s walk I can leave all that re-establishes its somewhat ephemeral quality. Very quickly, I can be in a place that seems untouched by history, though in many places stumps and old skid trails are subtle traces of logging. Visiting the high country is a form of time travel. The walk often leads through dense cedar groves along the creek, where at ground level all is in deep shade and nothing grows, up through opens stands of Ponderosa Pine and a thick understory, home to nuthatches and catbirds and waxwings. The mountains is forested in a rich mosaic of conifers, including varieties of pine, fir, larch and spruce. At higher elevations, the vegetation thins.

Awakening at a lake above tree line in the crisp thin air (treeline varies depending on exposure to wind or sun, but in Montana it tends to be around 9,000 feet), you are in a climate that moves from winter through a brief spring then back into winter. At the end of July small streams from melting glaciers water the spring wildflowers and grass. The alpine world is very young, with plants struggling to establish and maintain themselves.

In such moments, one sees again the first day of Creation.

Reality hides itself

Female Black-headed Grosbeak was staying deep in the foliage of a maple tree, watching but calling no attention to herself.

This female Black-headed Grosbeak was staying deep in the foliage of a maple tree, watching but calling no attention to herself.

I was paying attention to the discreet birds today, the ones that you have to sit still and watch closely to see: the nuthatches, pine siskins, warblers, catbirds.

The raptors at the top of the food chain, Red-tailed Hawks or Bald Eagles, like to perch high and visible so they can see the terrain around them. But many birds understand that though they may be predators they are also prey. Today, their caution and discretion seems admirable.

We live in an expressive society, based more on therapeutic myths than any established wisdom from philosophy or religion, full of people driven by the strange hope that baring their souls to strangers will lead to connection and healing that they sense they need. It can be costly, needing to be noticed and admired, wanting the be the prettiest bird on the highest branch whose song is heard everywhere.

Other birds at any particular moment are more intent on seeing than on being seen. It takes patience and effort to see them at all. Catching a glimpse of a Marsh Wren or a Yellow Warbler always reminds me of how much of reality we normally don’t see. The Divine characteristically hides itself, and some revelation is available only to those whose desire leads them to effort and endurance. The highest knowledge, Socrates suggested, is always a gift from the divine, a tanager that appears suddenly on a blue spruce bough after hours of looking. It should not be profaned by disclosure to the unworthy. Besides, they can’t receive it. It is foolishness to them. It’s not really a secret. It’s sacred.

End Times: peace and strife

Ninepipe at sunset (looking north)

Ninepipe at sunset (looking north)

Toward sunset I put aside whatever daily tasks remain and go out to see what I can see in a wilder place. Several refuges or wilderness areas are nearby. The wetland is nearest, and because it is open country it’s a good place to see birds and other wildlife. It’s a good place to stand  as present as possible to a day coming to an end.

The wetland is part of a bird refuge, quite wild in a way, though we live in days when all such places have become gardens, shaped by human activities and human intentions. Several agencies—federal, state and tribal—collaborate along with private landowners to agree on how the gardening should proceed. A map of land ownership shows a strongly checkerboarded view, though when one is in the middle of it, the abstractions are less compelling than what lives and moves there, such as the Trumpeter Swans, reintroduced a few years ago. The power lines that traverse the refuge have spinning reflective cards on them, to reduce the mortality of swans and other birds that have no nearly invisible cables running through the skies of their evolutionary history.

I took the photograph because I was moved by the peacefulness and harmony of the scene at last light. To the left, the western sky was a more dramatic interplay of vivid sunset colors. To the right, the jagged majesty of the Mission Mountains, purple sedimentary mudstone with white glaciers and pink clouds, was more of a spectacle. But the view to the north had a quietness that I found attractive.

Not that I’m naïve about the details hidden by the scale at which I focus on that panoramic view. The biology of earth is premised on death. Plants may eat the air (especially carbon dioxide), but most eating involves the death of something else. Among we creatures, we are always potential food for another member of the community.

collageBloody in tooth and claw: Osprey with fish, Kingbird with insect, Red-tailed Hawk with baby skunk.

And yet, that’s never all we are. We recognize and respond to the beauty and the sense of calm which persists around and through the brief flurries of struggle. In shifting our focus from the struggle to the calm, we change the pulse and tempo of experience, as we do when we shift our focus back to this particular hawk tearing at the flesh of this particular skunk. Both are present to us only so far as we are present to them. This is the stuff we are made of.

True religion, I think, deals mainly with immanence. Spirit animates us, and we see that whatever we are we are distributed through a world in which objects and settings circulate through each other. I have a plug-in in my bag—Sibley’s field guide—which allows me to upload centuries of accumulated gleanings into the thoughts and desires already circulating amid the pink of the northern sky and the crisp slice of an osprey veering through the space just above me, the dead fish neatly aligned aerodynamically in his left claw. The breeze lifts my hair and brings me the spicy fragrance of hundreds of Russian Olives, blooming yellow. Making a photograph is one way to pray, to turn attention to the circulation of this world through me.

Autumn and change

I planted a stand of Gaillardia this year at the front of a large bed of oriental poppies. They began blooming as the poppies died in early summer, and continued blossoming until hard frosts. Lewis and Clark collected a species of gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata) in Montana in 1806.

One could argue against autumn, trying to get imaginary opponents to see that the world was once warmer, the sun brighter, and the whole garden fragrant with lilacs then peonies then lilies. There’s pleasure in judging–in seeing that some present circumstance does not meet some standard we have learned. In the decay and dreary rain of November, the remembered delights of easy summer nights entice us to name the doom that descends as nightfall on the many-pleasured peace just past.

To be sane, we also know the delights of getting things ready. My pump is stored, tools gathered, the massive leaf fall of cottonwood and willow raked and moved to mulch the most tender roses and smother the weeds in borders and beds. Apple branches broken by the bears that come each year when the fruit is ripe have been sawed and piled in the meadow, where a New Year’s Eve bonfire may bring the pleasure in being toasty and warm outside on a cold winter night.

As temperatures cooled and the sun dropped in the southern sky, trees moved nitrogen, magnesium and phosphates from leaves to the bark. Then the hormones auxin followed by ethylene triggered the leaves, stripped of nutrients and no longer photosynthesizing, to drop.  The tree monitors the cold, tracking interactions between proteins until time and cold have lasted long enough and new buds begin to form new leaves.

Late autumn is the best time for making some major changes in the garden. Besides planting hundreds of new bulbs–this year mainly deer-resistant daffodils, white and fragrant–one November chore was moving tree peonies that have never bloomed, most likely because they don’t get enough sunshine. Tree peonies don’t like to be moved. They develop, slowly, extensive root systems, and to preserve as much of that as possible, it’s best to wait till the plants are dormant and  then to begin digging at some distance from the main stems, to expose and loosen as much of the root as possible.

Making dramatic changes when things are flourishing and bursting with life may not work. But autumn is a time to see and act on possibilities.

MORE PHOTOS

Escaping the mundane

Hudson Smith receiving a pass at Polson High School.

Sports offer moments of transcendent action and beauty to people otherwise deadened to all the glimpses of eternity which flood through the matter of everyday life.

There, above the mundane world, he’s transfigured in a moment of pure longing and effort, suffused with the beauty of athletic strength and agility. Sports may be the closest some moderns come to the transcendent—to the realm of metaphor where we glimpse spiritual realities through the facts of the material world.

The receiver rises above the horizon, the earthly world of gravity and shadow, into a magically-hued sky, reaching out in the throes of intense effort and intense longing for what might descend from above. It’s not just a football, but also a signifier of glory and meaning.

The story also includes a defender, momentarily hapless, and a referee, judging events by the low standard of rules, which in only necessary, making the game possible. The game itself—that partakes of a different realm. Both the defender and the ref become irrelevant to the hero at that brief moment of success, all power and grace.