Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Menhirs and megaliths

The window

Stonehenge of the plains--Monument Rocks as seen from afar

A surprise--desert plume blooming in front of Monument Rocks

Homecomings of another sort

And now before me is another sort of homecoming. From behind a hotel in southern Colorado a narrow path weaves through tangled thickets before disappearing into a dense cattail marsh, swallowed by a growing darkness as night erases definition and contrast. From my jacket I remove a headlamp and slip it over my head. I do not turn it on. This is about disappearing. It’s about leaving and returning. When darkness is almost complete I step from pavement onto wet sand the color of moonbeams and follow it down into another world.


How many different types of homecomings are there? Too many to count, but only if we grant ourselves an unfettered freedom of language. The desert plume near Monument Rocks in western Kansas took me back decades to a vertical drop outside Grand Junction where golden teardrops spilled down a redrock wall like liquid notes from a canyon wren. The featureless, windswept waters of Nee Noshe and Nee Gronda took me back even further.

Home is a place, a physical construct of walls, windows and the indelible imprint of memory. For me, it’s a house on a quiet street with blue mountains on the horizon, pine trees in front, a small garden plot in back, gravel instead of grass, desert tortoises instead of cats, cicadas in the trees, hummers at the flowers, parents at the window. It’s also a house in a green prairie valley with hackberries and hedgeapples, skunks and voles, foxes and woodchucks, swifts in the chimney, wasps in the shed and cracks in the foundations.

Home has an address, a mailbox, a postal designation, a paved street, a gravel lane, a narrow track worn smooth by the sharp hooves of deer, the padded footfalls of coyotes and bobcats, the intricate tracings of remembrance. Home is a place, but mostly it’s a concept.

We’re forced by the limitations of words to conceptualize home. Though I abide by the structures of language and grammar as if an adherent of holy writ, when it comes to home I mangle the term, I wrestle with its deeper meaning, stretch it like fresh taffy, pulling this corner or tugging that edge until it becomes something larger, something greater, something more substantive than a principle abode or residence, as our dictionaries would have us believe. Home is the sum of our experiences. Home is the deepest core of our being. Complicating the matter, our hearts are wild, untamed, unprincipled, unfathomable. We’re so intemperate that it’s a wonder we’re able to recognize home at all. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes I haven’t. This time I do.

I am going to Albuquerque. I am going home.


First stop is Gove, Kansas (pop. 99), a well-stocked knitting store, their only gas station a single unattended pump standing alone in a field. Monument Rocks lies a dozen miles away, a hard jounce down rutted dirt roads that plume the air behind us like signal fires set to warn of an encroaching army. They appear suddenly, a dip of land, a gentle slope falling away to the green ribbon of the Smoky Hill River, and spread before you are towering chalk deposits bunched together in a sea of wildflowers. A forgotten Stonehenge, pale menhirs and megaliths of the shortgrass prairie.

This was not a homecoming. First times are adventures, epotitions as Winnie the Pooh would say. Second times are imbued with recognition, perhaps even love. Additional times install these places safely within the chambers of the heart and constitute homecomings of another sort.

We dropped into southern Colorado, speared through a narrow causeway between four lakes where long ago a mentor taught me shorebird identification, and pulled into a hotel in Las Animas, halfway to our primary homecoming.

Supper consisted of green chile burgers, part of a vow I’d made to include chiles in every meal this trip, including breakfasts. With the sun slanting ever lower in the west, we toured several historical sites along the Arkansas River and wandered down a birding trail behind the hotel. When dusk was complete we were back in our room. Lori settled back with a magazine. I doused myself with insect repellant, added a Gore-Tex jacket for insurance, and slipped away.


The trail ends at a floating platform jutting into a small backwater of the Arkansas River. Blackbirds call a few times before quieting. The hum of insects grows into a low-level din, a white noise of life. As night deepens the water silvers until it glows like a pool of mercury. Cattails are dark silhouettes. Birds rustle in the reeds; a frog croaks once and grows still. When a big splash explodes at my feet I lurch in surprise. The platform yaws and rocks. I warn myself not to do that again.

My recorder questions the night. I first play the call of a black rail, a secretive bird of the marshes, but when there was no response I shift to that of a sora, another rail species. A stocky bird breaks cover near my feet and darts away, and another wings past my head, more felt than seen. Sounding in the distance is a faint whinny, taken up by several more, until a rising tremolo of soras sweeps over me. I play the recording again and more voices join in. I’m a conductor orchestrating wild birds in a nocturnal hallelujah chorus. The moment is transcendent. At my back cars hurl past, travelers prepare for bed or watch late movies in the hotel, and here, a mere hundred yards away, is a midnight world few could imagine.

One by one the voices fade away. I turn, snap on the headlamp and navigate over the rocking gangplank. My way is bathed in a surreal blue lambency. The world of men seems a fabrication. The real world is behind me.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Panorama of the Big Blue with Blue Rapids in the background (click to enlarge)

The history of water

The storms are passed but mud remains. The history of water is written in the rills, gullies and creeks, and, of course, on the broad flat fields bordering the rivers. The water falls, the water rises, the water recedes. What’s left is erosion, muck and debris. And stories. There are always stories.


What remained of the road was a thin narrow peninsula piercing a shallow lake where green shoots of corn once danced above neatly furrowed rows. It narrowed and constricted as if pressed in on its sides by the weight of water, until at last it was barely wider than the truck. I slowed to a stop where a carpet of waterlogged bark, sticks, and black clumps of moldy leaves delineated the high water mark. Beyond for a hundred feet stretched a thick grayish morass bisecting the road. The shortcut to the highway was gone.

The silence was almost preternatural. In the distance traffic flowed over the bridge but left no echo in its wake. To the west the grain elevator jutted above the horizon like some whitewashed cenotaph, a monument to a town once at the mercy of these cyclical floods and now huddled safe behind a tall levee. These lower fields, though, were naked to the river’s moods, and as waves lapped against the road’s shoulder a few swallows arced past, their reedy calls tenuous and brittle, while on the dark mudflats nondescript sandpipers darted about like windup toys, occasionally calling to one another in their pure flutelike voices. Steve and I stared at each other and grinned like crazy fools. The river was still rising.

I was raised to believe that through the medium of water our sins were washed away. Our baptisms were full-body dunkings, the pastor cupping one hand behind the neck and the other half-covering the face, two fingers pinching the nostrils, a gentle nod to warn of what was coming, followed by a smoothly choreographed backards bow, submersion, and reemergence into a holy new world. It was meant to reflect the death, burial and resurrection of the Messiah, but in my case the pastor added a superfluous step between the burial and the resurrection so that I feared I would skip the last, and best, part.

(When I again approached the baptismal font several years later I selfishly reflected less on the Messiah’s travails than my own approaching ordeal. It may have been my imagination—fervent indeed, which could explain my suspicion that a second salvation would scour whatever sins the first missed—but it seemed the pastor had a look in his eye that bespoke of an extra helping of burial this time around.)

People were already comparing this inundation with the flood of ’93, the most recent in a long litany of baptisms dished out by an unrepentant Mother Nature. Other dates are invariably intoned, depending upon the age of the storyteller: 1974, the year of the hail, 1953, the flood that overnight filled the gaping maw of Tuttle Creek Dam, sometime in the 1930s, and on and on; these are their dates, their memories, not mine. My past is linked to a dry desert place where water, rare and precious, came in spring monsoons that ravaged the arroyos snaking through town, and now and then carried off a car or two, much to our delight. 1993 was an anomaly, an aberration, a hundred-year-flood with a half-life. And now this rising monster on the outskirts of town, people parked along roadways, shorebirds where no shore should exist.


The day following the deluge that generated the flood a friend from Manhattan dropped by on his way to Alcove Spring. Thunder rumbled in a west gone black. Rain was imminent. I grabbed a jacket, camera and binoculars and joined him.

We descended into the valley on the canyon road. Seldom used, it’s a narrow, winding lane with steep hills rising on each side. Fallen trees and brush were piled high where the road crossed the creek, brought down by a force of water almost unimaginable. In places deep ruts braided the road, and in others banded deposits of gravel writhed across like pale snakes. We maneuvered around these obstacles until the road spilled onto the valley floor. The river was hidden behind a wall of trees just leafing out.

A shallow pool marked the parking lot. We sloshed through it and up onto the trail and dropped down into a quiet grassy clearing. Under the oaks, cottonwoods and sycamores the air was infused with green luminescence, a dripping, virid substance as elemental as fire or water. Seehan Creek was full, rolling between banks littered with blackened duff and lattices of entwined sticks and branches. Tiny rivulets splashed down each hillside, delicate piano notes accompanying the sonorant cello of the creek. Our footfalls made no sound.

The waterfall could be heard long before it came into sight. Water rushed over its rocky lip and spattered on the rocks below with a sound of hands clapping. As a drizzle began falling, softly pattering through the trees, we set up our cameras and went to work. A few quick shots, one long time exposure to smooth the flow into a seamless drapery, and retreat to the protection of the cedars. Conversation was muted under the euphonic discourse of the waters. Nothing needed to be said. Here was water writing its history, grooving stone, erasing hillsides, deepening the channel, rushing over and under and through us in a form of baptism that left me no doubt of its efficacy.


One day later I’m scoping birds on the now dead-end road. A local farmer drives up and walks over.

“That’s my corn there,” he says.

“Ahhh,” a disgusted sound, shaking his head. Then a laugh. “Oh, well.”

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Under the shadow of the potential

I awoke with a start. The air conditioner beat a steady drone but something accompanied it, almost an echo, higher in pitch, unwavering. Other than a faint greenish glow emitting from the clock radio the room was dark. Light blossomed in the windows, a white glare burning a negative image of the slatted blinds into my retinas. It soundlessly pulsed and flickered, a dot and dash of some secret explosive code. I rolled over to check the time: 4:05. By then the town of Greensburg was gone, and flames engulfed a small white house a quarter mile away.

“What is it?” Lori asked.

“I don’t know.”

She sat up. The air conditioner almost drowned out the sound.

“It’s the siren,” she said.

Of course. Once recognized we could trace its modulation, one long clamant note bleeding away to a short pause and rising again to a scream. Its lack of undulation identified it as the fire whistle.

Light slashed the windows in a rhythmic throb. Across the room the weather radio was silent. I had checked it before going to bed so I knew it was working, but the siren and the lightning together confused me. All evening I’d watched thunderstorms erupt into scarlet crescents advancing across the two counties to the west, a godlike view furnished by Doppler radar and broadband Internet, and the certainty of their arrival, coupled with the uncertainty of their impact, had insinuated within me a jittery, restive presence like a second soul. My dreams had been haunted. I slipped from bed and peered through the blinds.

Lightning ghosted the night into bone-white silhouettes and stark shadows—a ragged line of trees, a grassy field, the wet gravel road leading toward town. As the siren wound to silence I returned to bed, but when I closed my eyes I found myself staring into the west, where beyond the midnight black of night something lurked. A sense of dread fell over me. Lightning played along the edge of a huge wall cloud, and in that glimmering was something larger than I could imagine, a massive blocky form of pure malevolence, faintly seen but mostly felt, utterly alien to the twin funnels that pursue me in tornado dreams. A sonorous rumbling issued from the cloud, followed by an emergent shape. I covered my eyes and fell to my knees.


It was just outside Houston in1996 when I first saw what would forever define my image of life along coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic seaboard. As we headed toward Galveston in search of a kelp gull that had been reported the day before, I noticed specially marked signs falling away in the rear view mirror. “Evacuation Route,” they read. When I asked someone what they would be evacuating from, his reply was curt and judgmental, as if speaking to a moron: hurricane.

For them, hurricanes were not an if but a when. Sometimes once a year, sometimes more, they are a fact of life. While I found the coast sublimely beautiful, I knew I could never live there. Living under an imminent threat seemed the utmost folly.

And now, of course, I find myself in tornado alley, surely a delectable twist of fate. The parallels, however, are few. Hurricanes are assured, but tornadoes are capricious and relatively rare. The chance of being pulverized by a tornado is far less than being struck by lightning. But when the sky turns bruised and sirens rip apart the night, our primal terror of the unknown shreds reason to confetti, and we become no better than our Paleolithic ancestors gaping into a darkness punctuated by the screams of demons.


After Greensburg’s annihilation from something few people had ever heard of before May 5th—a “wedge” tornado, so named for its extreme power, height and shape—residents here were on edge. The skies roiled with cloud masses streaming from the southwest, heavy, ponderous shapes hinting of a menace coming behind.

The air was humid, supersaturated with moisture, the wind gusting through trees like a freight train, stripping young leaves and old branches. But the most worrisome thing was the sense that something was about to happen, an ominous foreboding, made more tangible by the destruction of Greensburg. It was all people talked about, and as they did their eyes clouded over even as they involuntarily lifted to the tumultuous clouded skies.

At times the sky almost cleared, the clouds whitening into luminous patterns melting into the pallid blue so that all color and texture grew indistinct and gauzy. At those times the heat spiked and conversation shifted to violent images of thunderstorms erupting into life. “It’s going to be a long night,” people said.

The nightmare had spawned a deep-seated fear in me, so to burn off the edginess I hauled out the lawnmower and fired it to life. First our yard, then across the street, and finally at the store, I worked until sweat soaked my shirt and I could barely move. Perhaps extreme weariness would be my refuge. All the while the clouds rolled and solidified and darkened. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

Complacency comes easily in tornado season, but one major disaster rocks us back on our heels. That it was another town and not ours leads us to a thankfulness tinged with guilt, and the realization that all that separated us from them was a mere shift in winds. At any time we could be next. It’s the potential we live under.

Though I wanted nothing more than to go home and hide, I told Lori we were going to the Cinco de Mayo festival at the Catholic Church. She was surprised and said so. My excuse was that it would be the first time I was served alcohol in church. Actually I was thinking of Greensburg, of the stark photographs on the news. How it was a community no more.

The threat was there to see, on the horizon, in my dreams. Tonight we would be among friends, while we are still a community, while there is still time, in case the if becomes the now.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Listening for a misnamed dirt bird

A few minutes ago I stepped outside to listen for a familiar bird song I thought I’d heard yesterday. Trying to hear anything above the incessant piping of Harris’s sparrows was difficult indeed for one with so impaired of hearing, and after straining for a while I finally gave up and withdrew into the half-warmth of the house. It’s so cold outside I’m surprised that birds are singing their lusty songs, but maybe somewhere in those unknowable lyrics lies a dirge or lament. One never knows.

I say it’s cold but the temperature is hovering slightly north of 50 degrees, which doesn’t sound too bad until one realizes it’s almost May. Each evening when I crawl into bed I’m thankful we haven’t jumped the gun and replaced the exquisite flannel sheets with the thin cotton ones we use in summer. I’m not complaining, mind you, because moderate temperatures keep energy usage low, which means more money available for important items like software and books.
Earlier, I thought I’d heard a faint burry stanza under the din raised by the meadowlarks, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, finches, bluebirds, robins, starlings, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, killdeer, mourning doves, collared doves, chipping and Harris’s sparrows, plus the insane drumming of a large woodpecker on a hollow tree. My first impression was of clay-colored sparrow, and the more I ponder it the more I think I’m right.

According to my field notes they should be here now. In fact, they’ve probably been here a week if not more, an observation that leaves me disgusted at myself for being so unobservant. In years past I appointed myself a one-man welcoming committee in order to compile meticulous reports of the birdlife in and around our two-acre plot on the edge of town. Crucial to this enterprise was recording first-of-season birds. (And last-of-season birds, too, though somehow they don’t have the cachet of the springtimers—greetings being more trenchant than farewells, and more pleasant, too.) And here it was a week past the usual arrival date and I’d not heard a single one. Or listened, for that matter.

Perhaps that’s an unfair statement. It’s hard to listen to what’s happening outdoors when outdoors is cold, wet and altogether miserable. The weather this year has been weird to say the least, and this unseasonable cool spell isn’t helping matters. Some of our residents more prone to moodiness are beginning to question if spring will ever arrive, or if it’ll skip us entirely and drop us straight into summer’s furnace. It’s not a pleasant idea other than the idea of warmth at last. I’m ready for a change.

Of the thirty-three species of sparrows in the United States, the clay-colored has always been one of my favorites. This is due not to any lavish coloration or behavior but simply because it was one of the first sparrow species I was able to identify with any precision. On the eastern plains of Colorado, a few short miles from the Kansas line, I was introduced to the species by a friend of mine, Duane Nelson. Thanks in large part to their sheer numbers and the fact that they were singing their fool heads off—and that Duane was a patient instructor—the lesson took root somewhere deep within my gray matter.

A clay-colored sparrow is not clay colored, I should note. (And what is the color of clay, anyway? Have our ornithological ancestors bequeathed a nonsensical moniker on this most lovely of bird species? From experience I know that clay in western Oklahoma is brick red, a rich terracotta from La Bajada Hill in New Mexico, an earthy brown from around the Big Blue River, and from along the Gulf Coast a pallid gray of part sand, part oyster shells. Maybe it’s the last they were thinking of.) No, the bird in spring sports a dark chestnut-streaked back and wings, gray nape, broad white supercilium and malar and unmarked gray underparts. In winter it’s buffy overall, though the nape is still gray.

Now, the clay-colored robin’s name makes sense if one gravitates toward dinghy olive-brown as the proper hue of clay. (I know, we’re talking about yet another shade, but I’m not responsible for their names!) Drab as mud, the robin can be found at times in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but its normal range lies south of the border. Our first was seen along a vendor-lined road leading from Chichen Itza’s temples to the sheer-sided cenotes where victims were tossed to their watery deaths. They were common in San Jose, the capitol of Costa Rica, where, improbably, it’s the national bird. And this in a country known for the resplendent quetzal! What were they thinking?

The thought of Costa Rica brings a bit of sunshine to this clay-colored day. (Coastal clay, if it matters, deepening gradually to a darker shade like that on a pygmy nuthatch.) Every birder should be allowed once in life to visit a place where each bird species is a lifer. Unfortunately, travel is expensive and sometimes scary—and getting scarier, what with the world descending into chaos—so for now I’m stuck with our two-acre plot on the edge of a small Kansas town.

There are worse places to be. Petulant at the refusal of spring to spring, I crack the window behind my desk to better hear what’s going on in the real world. Fortunately it faces my good ear so the sounds come in loud and mostly clear. Above the earnest songs of the usual suspects is another, a series of raspy buzzes of unwavering pitch.

Retrieving my binoculars, I step into a cold gray light. A clay-colored sparrow sings gustily from atop the redbud, much to the vexation of a house wren who’s claimed the tree for himself. The wren scolds, fans his tail and threatens but clearly it’s an empty gesture. I’m impressed as I always am, and more impressed with the sparrow. It’s a lovely bird, surely too colorful to be named for something as unappealing as dirt, but the bird doesn’t care and, for today, neither do I.