Saturday, October 28, 2006

Fables and the falling sky

An acorn falls. It caroms through the tree, careening off leaves, limbs and twigs, bouncing and jouncing and ricocheting like a pinball boxed back and forth, up and down, hither and yon, and each ping and each pong carries it lower and lower until it boinks free, embraces gravity’s pull, straightens its trajectory, picks up speed and kerplunks atop the feathered crown of one Gallus gallus domesticus, also known as Chicken Little. You know the rest.

Each election year the fable of Chicken Little should be required reading for reasoning voters of all stripes. More than merely a children’s nursery rhyme, it’s a cautionary political tale about the dangers of jumping to conclusions or believing everything one hears, and illustrates the ease at which the populace can be whipped into mass hysteria by judicious use of catchphrases. (“Cut-and-run,” “tax-and-spend” and “flip-flopping Christmas-hating traitorous godless scum-sucking liberal” come immediately to mind.) And it’s been on my mind lately, not so much because of the rancid political affrontery we’re increasingly subjected to but because it seems the sky is actually falling.

It began almost a week ago, when I hustled out the front door to go to work. Overhead was a ceiling of moon-washed clouds rent and torn as if by talons, and through the jagged rendings the glittering lights of unknown stars were set against the midnight velvet of deep space. So deep, and so perfectly void of color, that I stumbled in a sudden baptism of vertigo. Brought short by the frost-rimed fender of the car, I gaped at the spectacle until I felt gravity’s hold lessening. For a moment it felt I might break free and drop into that celestial vacuum, spinning and purling endlessly toward the farthest edge of the galaxy, no more than a terrestrial mote that once was sentient.

When the moment passed I started the car, cranked on the heater and took a hard pull of coffee. The sudden infusion of caffeine and warmth jolted me back to reality. Headlights swept the night away. At the end of the block I stopped, looked both ways and began to go. That’s when the sky fell.

A shimmering net of golden leaves engulfed the car. They skittered down the windshield, danced in the lights and ticked like the toes of mice on the roof of the car. Already dazzled by those depthless tears in the night sky, I was unnerved by their unexpectedness on so calm a morning. Adrenaline pounded through my veins. It was better than the coffee, and I rewarded it with a queasy laugh.

By nightfall clouds eclipsed the sun. A crump of thunder echoed through the darkness. By the time I crawled into bed rain drummed on the roof. It was falling still when I arose the next morning.

Another type of falling, one which would have discomfited Chicken Little had she been out wandering the Kansas prairies. But another type of sky-falling took place last weekend at the county fairgrounds where we were engaged in the first Art in the Barn sale. Had she been there, this falling would have propelled the skittish fowl into veritable paroxysms of panic.

It was on the last day of the two-day sale, getting on toward afternoon when wan shadows filtering through the dense cloudcover stretched long and thin. Taking a break from the crowds, I walked to the truck to retrieve my camera. I almost there when I heard something hard strike the ground with a solid plunk. More followed, and a few plinked off the truck. It was like hail only larger, and as I stooped to identify the culprit several nailed me in the spine. They were small acorns, about the size of my thumbnail, which identified the tree above me as a pin oak. A steady shower of acorns began falling.

Under that assault it’s easy to imagine how a young impressionable pullet would believe the sky falling. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Whole acorns and empty shells laid a fine sediment over the grass. It was then I noticed what Chicken Little had’t—a flock of hungry grackles busy in the canopy.

Much later, after the sale was over and the barn emptied out, I was very tired and wanted to go home, but stronger still was the pull of the area below the fairgrounds, where Juganine Creek disappears into woods so thick no summer can dispel the gloom. All the yammering I’d done with the hundreds of visitors made me crave a moment’s reprieve. I told Lori I’d be home shortly and drove my truck around the outlying buildings to where a broad opening in the woods framed a deeper darkness. Silence was an explosion when I turned off the engine.

Night was descending, and a cold mist that bled away the colors. Sidestepping silvered puddles, I stepped under the canopy and made my way to a sharp bend in the creek. When my path was blocked by a tangled mass of vegetation I hesitated, and closed my eyes and listened.

At first I heard nothing, and then sounds slowly filtered through the roar in my head; a trickle of water, the whisper of light rain high in the trees, a trill of a cricket or a tree frog. Slight, subtle, delicate, the tones fell like the descending notes of a canyon wren, and becalmed me.

The harsh caw of a crow injected itself. Looking up, I saw a river of blackbirds flowing down from the north. A yellowed leaf drifted down to join others at my feet, and then others, until the ascendant shadows were flecked with their shapes wordlessly, soundlessly dropping.

Don’t look up. Autumn is here. The sky is falling.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

An alignment of stone and shadow

The wall bisecting Pueblo Bonito is aligned with true north. Each day at noon its shadow disappears.

I read this and look out my window on woods veiled with mist. Colors leached out, the mulberry leaves shriveled and darkened from first frost, those of locusts gone already, prairie grasses on the low hills burnished into the last rich shades of autumn. Soon to be no more. The image of a long stone wall stretching toward low bluffs superimposes itself. For a moment I am in two places.

I am going on a journey. I say, wordlessly, soundlessly: I am going on a journey. I am going with two friends. I am going alone. I am going on a long journey. I will be in two places.

Shadows creep toward the wall and disappear. High noon. Behind the wall the ancient ruin once reached five stories and housed almost seven hundred rooms. The eastern half of the southern wall of Pueblo Bonito is aligned on an east-west axis. During the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun rises and sets in perfect alignment. Cities as observatories. Cities laid out along cardinal directions. For what? Cities settled for hundreds of years and then abandoned. In this prairie landscape it is hard to imagine that such a thing could be.

I was there before, many years ago, when our boys were little. The place was dusty, it was hot, our trip had been difficult, we were tired. The archaeoastronomical significance meant little, and we escaped just as a storm was moving in. The twenty miles separating Chaco Canyon from the nearest paved road were, and remain, washboard, sandy, impassable when wet. Wet it was becoming, and we had little desire to stay. It was another fifty miles to the nearest town. Chaco is as remote as they come.

Now I think of that shadow creeping toward the stone wall. I think of Chetro Ketl, whose back wall is aligned within one degree of the lunar minor standstill. One degree. Ditto for Pueblo Pintado. This by stone-age people.

I am not as observant as I sometimes think I am. It was while we lived in Broomfield that I first noticed the sun’s horizontal trajectory. As the seasons changed it wandered from north to south and back again, setting sometimes behind Mount Evans in the south and sometimes behind the Never Summer Mountains in the north. I thought of marking a notch in my back fence for the location of each sunrise. After one year I would have a visible map of the astronomical calendar, and I could tell at a glance when the days and nights were the same length, and when the sun slowed in its wandering and seemed to hesitate and stop as it reached the end of its journey. Solstice. But I never did.

Nor have I done so here in Kansas. At times I’m taken by surprise at the hard slant of shadows as the wintering sun is embraced by the trees along the road, or when in summer it slides behind the hackberry and welters in a crimson haze, and I wonder why I notice it more when the sun is at its extremes. These are things modern people have forgotten. Our days and nights are arranged to the absolute of a clock. But a clock in itself cannot inform us of the time. Seven o’clock is either morning or night, but a notch on the back fence indicates when autumn has arrived, or when the nights will begin to get shorter. They would tell me when to plant and when to harvest. They would tell me when the birds come, and when they go.

Sixteen days before the winter solstice, the sun rises along the northern edge of a notch in a butte to the southeast of Wijiji. Sixteen days later it rises along the southern edge. I wonder how long it took for the ancients to find that location, and once found, why they built a city there. Of the significance of living in a place so intricately and reverentially aligned to the sun, the moon, and the cardinal directions. Was there power of some sort, religious, mystical, actual? Was it part of being centered, an alignment of place and people?

In a large duffel I stuff a tent, rainfly, fiberglass poles, candle lantern, inflatable mattress, folding shovel, stakes. A tote holds notebooks, pens, batteries, flashlights, a camera, binoculars, battery charger. A pistol. A book of poems. My friend Scott Edwards, who hiked from Wisconsin to the Grand Canyon with only the clothes on his back and a camera, advises me to keep it simple. Too much preparation ruins the adventure, he says. He’s right. He’s wrong. I add winter clothing and a Gore-Tex shell.

I am going on a journey. I say. I am leaving behind the two things I most desire to take. I am going with two friends. I will in two places. I will be lonely. The sun creeps toward the stone wall at Pueblo Bonito. I think of standing there in that center place and watching the shadow compress. I want to be there when it disappears.

Time changes all things. The man who left Chaco Canyon at the forefront of a storm is not the same as he is now. The time of children has flown. My hair has silvered. I feel more deeply. My emotions are more raw. In a world spinning into chaos, I look for connections. At Kin Kletso, at Hungo Pavi, at Una Vida, there are connections galore, some known, some never to be known. Of the fourteen major buildings within the canyon, five are oriented to the solar cycle, seven to the lunar cycle. In the fortress of Fajada Butte, the sun dagger waits for the solstice.

Something waits for me at Chetro Ketl. I am going on a journey. At Pueblo Bonito, a shadow grows thin. I am going with two friends. I am going

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Probable Phidippus apacheanus, the Apache jumping spider

In the boneyard of beetles

Reading too much Walt Whitman can lead to a preponderance of exclamation marks, a feeling of hopeless bewilderment and an overblown sense of self. As the latter comes hard for me and the former is a no-no for modern English usage—and the middle describes my normal state of being—I’m left dizzied, wearied, frazzled, flummoxed, perplexed and astounded at the poet’s reach. It’s taken me a dozen tries and more to wade through his magnum opus, Song of Myself, and now that I have I’m not sure how much of it was absorbed, how much lost, and how much skimmed by a mind grown glazed with incomprehension. Nowhere in it did I see a mention of spiders.

It’s probably not for lack of trying. Within those stanzas can be found oxen, elk, moose, tortoises, horses, chickadees, turkeys, wood ducks, prairie dogs, soldiers, farmers, hunters, pilots, deacons, carpenters, contraltos and escaped slaves. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” he begins, and his song encompasses the entire universe and the commonality of man. One sentence in particular resonated in ways I could never have imagined, though certainly old Whitman would have clapped his hands in joy had he known of it.

Last Thursday I went to work as usual. I admit that I wasn’t singing of myself, or even to myself, though if a Bruce Springsteen song had come on the radio I might have followed along. At 3:30 a.m. it’s hard to feel anything but exhausted. The descendant moon was ringed with clouds that intensified her cold luminance, and the trees along the river gone pale in their autumn dress reflected it palely still.

At the office I shook out rugs and vacuumed, using the detachable hose to suck up the desiccated carcasses of beetles, millipedes and crickets. Every October it’s the same, an endless cavalcade of insects crawling into the building in search of warmth and finding instead only starvation or a giant’s lethal tread. The vacuum works best as the legs of the insects tend to stick to the twined fibers of the dust mop, making them harder to shake loose. As Murphy’s Law dictates, the bodies also tend to drop from the mop after the floor has been swept clean, but only when you don’t notice. I find them there on a return pass and have to sweep again, instigating disgruntled epithets more than celebratory yodeling.

The basement is different. Lacking carpet, there’s little reason to drag the heavy vacuum down the stairs, so the broom must suffice. After placing chairs on the folding tables, I swept everything into an untidy pile. Then I switched to a hand broom and dust pan. Besides the usual grit and dirt there were beetles of various species, some dead, some half-dead and others very much alive, millipedes dead or rolled into armored balls, and something small that waved its front legs as if in total indignation.

Setting the dust pan down, I knelt and put on my glasses. What before had been a thrashing object now became a fuzzy-legged jumping spider about the size of my thumbnail. It withdrew into a posture that was both defensive and offensive, staring me down with its huge eyes. All four of them.

I’m used to finding spiders at work, though jumpers are uncommon. The usual assortment of recluses, crab and wolf spiders inevitably lead me to a moral conundrum. Do I destroy them or let them live? This is never easily decided. Some mornings I feel benevolent and others less so, but one rule I always adhere to is that wolf spiders are to be unharmed. Not due to any particular love for the species, but because of their fearsome size.

Seeing them could lead one to believe that all spiders are colorless and drab. Here was an anomaly. The jumper was brick red across its back, the color dulled from the white gypsum powder it had been swept up in, with colorful banded legs, the front two being longer, more powerful, and held wide in an I-can-take-you-with-three-legs-tied-behind-my-back stance that soon changed to a timid tapping or feeling as it explored its new confines. Being pressed for time, I flicked the spider from the pan and emptied the contents in the trash.

When I turned back the jumper was facing me. Again I went to my knees and studied it. Once it determined I was harmless—or scared of it—it moved off, probing the ground with its two front legs. It reminded me of a blind man using a cane, and for a moment I wondered if the dust had blinded it. But there was nothing in its composure that would suggest anything other than a supreme confidence and curiosity. “I exist as I am, that is enough,” it seemed to impart. Whitman’s words. It tap-tapped its way along the wall, pausing occasionally to inspect something invisible to me, and continued slowly on as if possessing an infinitude of time. Which I did not. When I returned later the spider was gone.

I had hoped the jumper would turn out to be Phidippus whitmani, Whitman’s jumping spider, but the scant information I could locate suggested a cousin, Phidippus apacheanus, the Apache jumper. Both are similarly colorful but the field marks pointed to the latter. Whitman’s jumper would have been more appropriate.

Though spiders play no part in Song of Myself, Whitman did pen a poem about them. In A Noiseless Patient Spider, the author begins by watching a spider descend a thin filament and concludes with a comparison to his own thoughts, “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing…till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.” When I read it I couldn’t help but laugh. And for a moment, silently, reverentially, I celebrated Phidippus, I sang it, and its song was my song in that way Whitman describes as “Every atom that belongs to me belongs as well to you.”

O my soul, that was certainly worth getting out of bed for.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The courage of small things

In the beginning was darkness. And more than darkness: a void of luminance so profound as to be matched only by that infinite moment before light burst into being and stars were hurled spinning into space.

I was there, whether floating or standing, corporeal or apparition, I could not say. Only that after a long time a sense of dread fell upon me. Slowly, as if mere imagination, a thin shaft of light appeared. It came from nowhere, serving only to accentuate the darkness, but as my eyes adjusted the dim outline of an endless hallway came into focus. The light bent at an angle indicating an open doorway. Something hard and round and metallic lifted at a slight angle into the light and disappeared back into darkness. And again, and again, with an almost metronomic rhythm. I recognized it as the pitted barrel of a Winchester Model 97 shotgun, the bluing worn off, a bayonet adapter hooking backward like a question mark.

Did I hold the shotgun, or another? Was I, or the person, in wait? There was only darkness, the sliver of light, and foreboding. And that limitless hallway that had no beginning or end.

I told myself it was only a dream, and when in following nights I found myself there again, trying to get beyond the doorway, something blocked my way.

I took this dream on the road, and in a southern city I found that hallway, or one remarkably like it, and the dread nearly paralyzed me. Were it not for a special slice of pie and a single migrant sailing the skies homeward, my journey might have ended there.

Fortunately, it did not.


I believe that imagination is the principle fabric binding our selves together. Some call it faith and others karma but it’s the same thing, a belief that our lives have meaning and purpose, that miracles or acts of serendipity occur with stunning regularity, that the best is yet to come. Just a week before I had driven down remote dirt roads in Washington County in search of a vermilion flycatcher, a rare southwestern bird that had shown up several days earlier. It wasn’t the first I’d seen—that honor went to a male found at Chatfield Reservoir near Denver, when on a stormy afternoon with the skies above the foothills forked with lightning we located the bird hemmed in by a feverish mob of birders like half-crazed paparazzi. The Washington bird failed to show but in its stead was a low-flying B-17 Flying Fortress, its turrets bristling with machine guns. Hearing my shout, my friend asked what it was. “A ghost!” I crowed.

I was in my element there, with only dirt roads to wend and new country all around, and the potential for miracles as thick as pollen. Even then the thought of driving to Wichita for the first Kansas Book Festival, where I was scheduled to autograph my book, was troubling. Not for nothing did we move to a tiny rural town, for my tolerance for traffic and people had grown tenuous over decades of living in Denver. To willingly go into the maw of a big city seemed a betrayal.

Normally we drive the backroads but this time we wanted speed and distance. We left the northern Flint Hills on the interstate, joining hundreds of other sojourners, all bent on reaching their destinations in the shortest time possible. Hours later it was a relief to escape the rush and stairstep down rural roads to the tiny Amish town of Yoder, where I’d promised a friend to visit the hardware store. It was everything he’d said—a throwback to another era, with possibly the largest selection of kerosene lamps and supplies in the state—but around the corner was something even better: the Carriage Crossing Restaurant.

I’d heard rumors that their pie was to die for, especially the lemon meringue. After a perfect meal of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, and of course a hefty slice of pie, I knew that if death were a requisite for the pleasure, I’d willingly lay my bones beneath the grass of Yoder cemetery.

Through Haven and Mount Hope, past blocky Mennonite churches and woods tinted with the first autumn hues, we made our way toward Wichita. The chosen route postponed the inevitable but eventually traffic engulfed us and the city’s gravitational pull sucked us in. We found the hotel, checked in and unloaded our luggage. I was already frazzled. The place was a dump, the room too small, but it was nothing compared to the hallway.

I found it when walking to the front desk. A short jaunt, a left turn and it stretched away, innumerable doors segmented into groups of eight, four on each side, narrowing exponentially in perspective. In my mind’s eye I saw the shotgun slide into the light, and a sense of vertigo hit me. Lori, unaware of the dream, never noticed my flinch. Though my stride barely wavered, I felt like running back to the room and barricading the door.

This, then, was the city, a vortex of traffic and noise and menace, the culmination of nightmares. I felt lost, and knew suddenly the book festival would be a failure. It was a mistake to come. We should have turned back at Yoder.

The next morning we drove to the stadium. A monarch butterfly flew by in a lazy spiral as we entered, its brilliant color contrasting sharply with the dull concrete walls. So incongruous was it that I stopped to watch as it made its way southward on its long migration. It had so far to go, and was so fragile, but it did not falter.

The simplest things can imbue inspiration and courage. In a southern city, under a clear hot sky, I made my way toward the row of tents where people were waiting who knew me and called me friend.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Gravity-induced customs and the long flight of birds

For much of my life I held a sort of half-baked belief that America was different from the other nations of our planet, not merely in its governmental structure, laws, religious beliefs or purple mountain majesties but in semi-mythical qualities bordering on divine providence. Not unlike that of a majority of Americans, and most Midwesterners, if you believe the polls. In part this was simple homespun xenophobia, a haughtiness based more on unenlightenment than knowledge or experience. When one knows nothing else, superiority is relative. The British once felt the same about Rule Britannia, exemplified notably by a chauvinistic attitude toward the “mud” races of the world, garnished with overtones of the absolute transcendency of the white man. Back then, of course, the sun never set on Great Britain, and now that it does so on a daily basis attitudes have been forcibly subjected to revision.

Looking back in my diaries I find an entry in 1976 where I questioned how I had become such a “flag-waving redneck.” Strangely, there was no explanation for what triggered the comment. When several months later a bill came from the IRS for $400, a princely sum we could scarcely afford, my hoo-rah status of the U.S. came to a crashing halt.

This is not to say I’m unpatriotic, though such opprobrium has certainly been directed at those of the liberal bent. It’s worth noting that those bandying such ill-conceived malapropisms often stray perilously close to becoming mere caricatures rather than rational human beings. Let us all, red and blue, right and left, strive for moderation, temperance and sobriety.

While I’m still trying out my newfangled approaches to the modern world and attempting to adopt a more cosmopolitan orientation—difficult at best with the ascendancy of militant Islam and the either-or negativity of today’s politics—I was caught embarrassingly flat-footed last week when one of Lori’s cousins from Australia brought over his fiancée. Through various conversational threads I discovered that such heavenly staples as Cool Whip and pumpkin pie never grace the shelves of the Down Under markets. At first shocked, then aghast, I asked how they could possibly find culinary bliss, and then, in a mindless lapse harking back to my earlier mindset, I sputtered that it was “un-American.” To which they replied: Indeed.

Oops. This launched an intensive comparison about our two nations, not the least of which involved the various foodstuffs that define our cultures. Having recently visited her first Wal-Mart Superstore (or is a Mega-Brobdingnagian-Store?), Karen, Laurence’s fiancée, was agoggle over the vast quantities of items lining the aisles. “There’s nothing like that at home,” she said. Of particular interest were the innumerable choices for the same product. Implicit in her statement was a veiled question about how Americans are able to choose with so many similar items vying for their attention. Had we carried this thread to its conclusion—which we did not—my answer would have been easy: brand name tastes good, generic like sawdust.

It was the topic of dessert that most horrified me. Besides not having Cool Whip or pumpkin pie—nor Thanksgiving for that matter, and don’t get me started on green chiles—an Australian birthday favorite is angel food cake with peanut butter topping. I was silently gagging when Karen mentioned another popular food, one so ingrained in every Aussie that it has become iconic: Vegemite. It’s a dark brown spread derived from yeast extract, and for this trip she’d brought enough to last the trip. In squeeze tubes. When she said this we were halfway to Frankfort to eat at Grandpa Red’s, one of the finest eateries in Marshall County. The idea made my stomach flop.

“That’s the problem of living on the bottom of the world,” I said. “All the blood drains to your head and you can’t think clearly. That’s why you have Vegemite and we have Cool Whip.”

As if funny brown substances squeezing from a tube like rancid Cheez-Whiz isn’t bad enough, Australia also favors roundabouts. Roundabouts, for those rural denizens unfamiliar to the latest trend in traffic control to hit these shores—surely an oxymoron in this instance—are diabolic replacements for four-way stops at intersections. When Laurence mentioned the number of these he passes on the way to work, I blanched.

“I hope whoever invented those dies and goes to the lowest bowels of Hell,” I grimaced.

“That was my grandfather,” Karen said.

For a few moments there was utter silence in the car. I choked out, “Did he like hot weather?”

Lori was looking at me as if I had morphed into some strange insect. I mentally vowed to keep my Big Fat Mouth shut more often. After a while, Karen admitted that she made that up.

“You’re going to have your hands full with that girl,” I told Laurence.

Supper was, as always, delightful, an American repast devoid of brown goo. By the time we left the restaurant the sun had disappeared behind a cloud bank. Light was fading. The streets of Frankfort were deserted.

Lori commented on the architecture, and as we stared up at the tall limestone buildings studded with black metal stars a flock of chimney swifts wove through the air, chittering and calling in their thin reedy voices.

I explained how they were named for their favorite roost, and how most of our swifts had departed for South America three weeks earlier than usual. These had probably come down from the north.

The four of us stood there in the middle of an empty street, our eyes lifted to the skies. Dark clouds shot with streaming veins of silver formed a backdrop for the birds as they dipped and swirled and rose into the beckoning night. For us, gravity-bound, residents like the swifts of both hemispheres, the unfettered birds on their long migration seemed the most amazing thing of all.