Thursday, September 27, 2007

The utterly magnificent tower at Hitchock Nature Center, Iowa

The tower's shadow far, far below

Following the ridgeline and then some--new friends (L-R) Janice Paseka, Betsy Mulliken, Jerry Mulliken and Don Paseka.

Fog socks in ridge--Jessica Hannan (L) and Lori Parker wait it out.

The crows-nest at Hitchock Nature Center--looking to the southwest as a thunderstorm moves in

Follow the ridgeline down

Ours was a barren knife-edge thrusting above the shortgrass prairie where it washed against the foothills of Denver’s Front Range. The eastern side dropped sharply down a talus slope studded with stunted pines and thickets where towhees wheezed their burry calls, while the opposite side was gentle declination sliding into a narrow valley before rising steadily into the higher foothills. A solitary snowcapped mountain rose in the west above succeeding ranks of hills sandwiched into distortion like the thin bellows of an accordion.

Dakota Ridge was reached by a trail zigzagging up the hill’s face, but the first third of a mile was straight up an old fire road. From there it branched to the right and ascended at a slight cant. Most people went that way. I always pushed to the summit and followed the ridgeline a quarter-mile or so to the bouldery scrape where we made our stand. Besides getting the worst of the elevation gain out of the way, the ridge gave expansive views of land and sky that my eyes ceaselessly roved. Arriving at the top, I’d drop my pack under a juniper and take up a position along the cliff. I’d sweep the southern horizon with my binoculars, gazing with a steadfastness that can only be described as obsessive. We watched for something out of the ordinary, something foreign, something moving. We watched for migrating raptors.

And more than that—the long silent hours, the often grueling conditions, the dominative view and the unflinching scrutiny of all that lay beyond us, created a hyper-reactivity that placed us in two realities, that of the near and the far. While our corporeal bodies inhabited the ridgeline, our thoughts, our consciousness, our spirits, were borne away in unimaginable flights to the farthest reaches of land.

A proper road trip should have only a minimal concept of destination and no time constraints for reaching it. Though in the past I’ve always tended to micromanage our forays with the mistaken idea that any variable is too many, our last excursion was done in a spirit of adventurism that was both refreshingly liberating and absurdly naive. I would call it planned nonplanning but that implies intent rather than a complete breakdown of time management. Time is indeed manageable but only if time is available. Such was not our case. Last Monday we headed out with four days off, two potential destinations in as many states and a map to only one of them. If that’s not a proper road trip, I don’t know what is.

Iowa! It was our first time there and shockingly close to home. As I confided to Lori, this proves my abysmal lack of geographical knowledge of states east of the Missouri River. Or north of Kansas, for that matter. I blame my upbringing in the West, where states are big honking landmasses stretching to eternity. Living in Colorado and New Mexico, I knew where I was in relation to other neighboring states. In Kansas, I know only that it’s four hours to Oklahoma, six to Colorado, nine to New Mexico, and thirty minutes to Nebraska. Missouri is somewhere around two hours away, I suppose. Two and a half. Beyond that, everything’s a guess.

It’s time to dust off my old highway atlas. In retrospect, the Loess Hills of Iowa could not have been more personalized for our interests. Besides being a geological oddity found only along portions of the Missouri River and in northern China, it has the Midwest’s only hawkwatch site, situated on a steep ridge overlooking the checkered fields of the Missouri River Valley. Throw in inexpensive rental cabins, deep deciduous forests, exotic flora, scenic byways and wineries—all within three hours of home—and we felt like we’d stumbled upon Shangri-la.

But most impressive was the observation deck rising 55 feet from the edge of the bluff. It was impossible to not compare it to Dakota Ridge, where I’d spent so many hundreds of hours. The tower not only offered 360 degree views but at its base was a nature center with climate control and flush toilets. We never had it so good.

I was a birder first and a hawkwatcher second, and if I now identify myself as the former it’s only for convenience. Not all birders are hawkwatchers and not all hawkwatchers are birders. Most birders actively seek out birds, while hawkwatchers stand for hours, days, weeks, months on barren outposts, freezing, shivering, roasting, burning, windblown, sunburned, bug-bit, beset with boredom, eye strain and sudden bouts of pulse-pounding excitement, just to watch a bird fly by.

Not land, mind you. Fly by. Here one minute, gone the next. Adios.

At Hitchcock Nature Center I was suddenly back in an element I had almost forgotten. It was a homecoming of sorts, and as we began climbing Lori said “Don’t wait for me” and I was off, dashing up those stairs, all 64 of them, until I gained the crows-nest. The view was breathtaking. To the south the narrow band of hills rolled like a dragon’s spine toward Council Bluffs, and to the west the Great Plains unfolded into infinity. Small farms and terraced fields reached eastward to an indistinct horizon. But it was to the north I looked. Without conscious thought I lifted my glasses and scanned the sky in a wide arc.

Rain moved in that evening. The following day was stormy but sun broke out in the afternoon. We again climbed the tower and met Jerry Toll, leader of the site, who asked if we would remain as long as the storm would allow and take atmospheric measurements and log sightings. For two hours we watched before thunderstorms sent us packing. A cold front had arrived, but the next day promised northern breezes and a break in the weather.

There was no dawn, only a slight paling. Heavy fog blanketed the hills. Water dripped from the railing and beaded on the big 20X nautical binoculars mounted on a stand as we joined Jessica Hannan at her post. Coffee and small talk faded into the mist. Several hours later a breeze whispered through the trees and the fog began to lift. Patches of weak sunlight spotlighted fields golden with dryland corn and the soundless glide of vehicles on I-29. Through the binos I followed the ridgeline down to a hawk winging toward us. In an instant it all flooded back. The distance wasn’t that great, but it was farther than any road could ever take me.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

World in motion

The osprey flashed over the building’s overhang and dipped below the tops of the nearest trees as if the road were the dark sluggish waters of a tannic creek and the white lines the silvery backs of fleeing trout. My eyes tracked the hawk as it canted wildly to avoid a house and slowly gained altitude against a rising south wind. Roiling clouds provided a contested backdrop so that it remained visible, a steadily shrinking dot, until that vast emptiness swallowed it entire. I returned to myself standing in front of the shop, key half in the lock, my thoughts clouded and dark.

Autumn migration is more about leaving than arriving, containing an equal measure of sorrow and exhilaration. It’s a time of great changes on the land, summer’s heat giving way to crisp mornings, the first yellowed leaves spiraling down to carpet the roads. Goldenrod and sunflowers blaze like miniature starbursts in the ditches and on the fringes of woods. Breezes shift to the north, redolent of transformation, subtly scented but unmistakably boreal, in contrast to late summer’s mugginess wafting up from the Gulf, some of it pushed far inland by hurricanes. In Orion’s wake Sirius beacons in the predawn darkness. And one by one the birds depart and the skies become empty.

The sense of loss I feel each autumn is mollified somewhat by the thrill of witnessing the great migrations of birds and other forms of life, notably the monarch butterfly and green darner dragonfly. It doesn’t end there, of course, for all around us migrations are taking place, some in elevation only, such as grouse and ptarmigan in the high country, and some from outdoors to indoors. This latter is an unfortunate seasonal occurrence most visible in the sudden surge of rodent population within our walls, followed by a flurry of trap-setting and sharp glances from my wife, who acts like it’s my fault this is happening.

Women do not like mice. Wives, especially, do not like mice because it means the husband is not doing his job of keeping them out. I was recently surprised to learn that female rabbits do not like mice, either. We were sitting in the back room, Sheba and I, when a mouse zipped past us and slithered beneath the computer desk. She sat up, ears cocked forward, and then her head swiveled and she gave me a withering brown-eyed look that let me know she did not approve of sharing quarters.

I’m rapidly familiarizing myself (again) with the low growl Lori utters whenever she spots a mouse scampering down the hallway or darting along the kitchen counter. The sound is closely followed by malicious looks directed toward my person and triggers an irresistible urge to check the traps I’ve already set. Like zombies or vampires, that look can only be assuaged by warm corpses.

Recently I read an article by Edward Hoagland where he described the interplay of life inside his house, with wasps in the rafters, mice nibbling his books, a line of ants marching in formation, skunks under the porch. It seemed quaint and homely, a rustic home in the Vermont woods (or maybe it was Maine—somewhere back East, which is my description for everything beyond the Mississippi)—sharing quarters with our fellow creatures as if a house could, and should, welcome them all. But I wondered then, as I do now, if he was married or single. I wondered if he was familiar with the look of opprobrium that says do something about it.

I’m happy to report that there are three fewer mice to carry on this morning. Two were killed yesterday and another last night, so perhaps the body count makes up for my egregious failing to do something about the huge wolf spider that scared Lori witless. It welcomed her home as she entered the house but her yelp signaled her displeasure at both it and me. When I rushed to her aid it was insinuated that our future matrimonial bliss teetered upon the immediate removal of the arachnid. It was a magnificent specimen, one I was loath to tackle, and so I helped her with her bags and served her a cup of fresh-brewed coffee. When I looked a few minutes later the spider was gone.

Gone but not forgotten. I go through this every year so it should be old hat by now. I root around for traps, check our supply of glue boards, and set them out in likely waystations. I dispose of bodies. I tell her that cats are out of the question. I try to find entry points but with a limestone foundation the house is as air-tight as a block of Swiss cheese. If we knew everything that lived inside these walls it would curdle our blood.

Two days ago the sighting of a broad-winged hawk simmered my autumnal stew of melancholy and elation. It hunted above the ridgeline south of our house as if searching for thermals, little more than a freckle against a distant bank of clouds. I shucked my binoculars from the case and studied it, thinking it at first a Swainson’s hawk, but the wings weren’t narrow enough. When it finally banked I could see the diagnostic white-on-black banded tail. Failing to locate a thermal, it sailed away accompanied by three vultures.

I longed to join them in freeflight over the Flint Hills and on past the curve of the horizon to lands I will never know. Having once tasted flight and now relegated to the earth, I feel like Icarus grounded, disconsolate, incapable of doing more than stare in awe at the unfettered sky, yearning for what can never be and yet consolate in my own feeble way for having been part of something much larger than myself, even if only as a bystander, even if only from outside to within. The skies clear. Mice and spiders invade. Autumn is here, and all the world is in motion.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Hole in the sky

When is rotation actual rotation and not something superficially akin to it? That’s a question I can find no end to. At the time I did nothing more than dumbly stare out the dining room window and comment to Lori on the odd behavior of the rain. That was my first mistake. The second followed very shortly after, when an explosion shattered the view and the rabbit bolted from her cage in terror.

Of all the things that happened afterward, it was that failure to recognize the severity of the situation and act upon it that sticks with me most. That sticks in my craw. From my earliest days I was taught through example that a man’s place was to protect his family. When murderers escaped from the Santa Fe Penitentiary and fled into the Pecos Mountains where we were camping, my father, and all the other male campers, carried pistols openly. When a mysterious and unseen mammal threatened us in the selfsame mountains my father commanded his sons to form a circle around our mother while he investigated armed only with a wooden cudgel. Men were the protectors. Men were the first line of defense. And knowing this meant that men must remain ever cognizant of all external threats and to act without hesitation. Our gender dictated constant vigilance and preparation.

And me, I stood there like a fool while the driving rain tracked in a wide southerly arc from the south-southwest to the east and back again, as if the house had slipped its moors and spun on a storm-wracked sea. The harbinger of what was coming, and me rooted to the spot like a stalk of asparagus, unable to do more than mutter some inane remark about never having seen rain act that way before.

Not long before I had heard the weather radio squawking about a particularly nasty storm moving directly toward Blue Rapids from Clay Center. It was coming fast and would cover the forty or so miles rapidly. When I fired up Doppler radar on the Internet to get a better view, I saw a red slash like an arrow expanding from Concordia in the west to the lower border of Marshall County. Late season storms usually amount to little more than flash and bang but something about this one made me uneasy.

I stared out the window at skies shading to black with a slight greenish tinge like an old bruise. Lori announced she was going to a meeting down the street, a statement I found utterly out of sync with the dire events forming just beyond the ridge. There ensued a brief discussion over the merits of attendance versus security. Slightly disgruntled, she put her purse down just as the rain intensified on a rising gale and began its spin across the lower cardinal points.

I said something. The directional shift was mesmerizing, so bizarre that it slipped past my reasoning leaving only a blank slate and a single extended how? that hung unanswered in my mind while the rain reversed course and tracked back to its original source.

With a deafening roar the view detonated in a white wall that rocked the house. Sheba flew from her cage and crouched wild-eyed as if uncertain where to run. Rain poured through the window air conditioner and sprayed across the room. I grabbed a handful of dish towels and clapped them to the window but it was like holding back a flood. Lori took Sheba as the power went out and the battery backup started beeping. So many noises vied for attention that it was impossible to decipher their origin—creaks, pops, groans, rattles, all nearly drowned out by splintering thunder, hammering rain and the banshee scream of the wind.

And then it relented, a matter of a minute or so, and we could see trees thrashing violently as if being electrocuted. Leaves filled the air like some form of green birds, and still the rain lashed the house in sheets, though it was lessening even as the thunder moved off to the east. We took stock of the house looking for drips or broken windows but found nothing out of the ordinary. I peeked out the front door and saw tree limbs sprawled across the yard, some as tall as small trees. But it was when I looked out the back window that I saw the reason for our power outage.

The magnificent hackberry that shaded the back corner of the yard was now flat on the ground, parts of it draped across the shed, the fence flattened. The shredded power line snaked across the sodden ground. My stomach lurched at the sight. This has been our constant dread, for the tree had been hollowing out for years and would have to be taken down soon. Now it was a moot point.

I called Westar and relayed the news, and as dusk fell we lit candles and gathered headlamps and flashlights. To the west a new wave of storms was brewing. Not knowing when the power might be restored, I went to work for two hours so I wouldn’t worry about waking too late. And when I got home I saw a light shining in the window, and deep ruts carved through the wet grass where Westar had driven.

It wasn’t until dawn the next day that we were able to assess the damage. Trees were shattered and the ruts would take years to repair, but the house was sound. Sounder than my heart, for in the following days my mind returns to that shapeshifting rain, a half-rotation at minimum, something so far out of the norm that I should have seen the danger in it and yelled for Lori to take cover. That I didn’t is like where the tree once stood, a hole in the sky that might never be filled.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Confluences of rivers and lives

Lately I’ve had a feeling of walking around with the wind knocked out of me. Maybe it’s the proximity to my birthday and the usual self-absorption when all my faults and failings gang up to beat the hell of me, but I like to think it’s something else, something new, and not the same old tired routine. A collapsed lung would certainly account for it but the financial burden of repairing it would be prohibitive as I’m one of the nearly 47 million Americans without health insurance. I could drag myself off to die in a thicket like some wounded beast but for now I see no other option than to carry on. I’ve inhabited this 54-year-old carcass long enough to know that my problem isn’t physical but mental, which is a polite way of referring to an unsound heart without explicitly saying so.

It’s always tough when you realize life isn’t what you thought it would be, or should be, for that matter. The hard thing to swallow is the knowledge that few people living in America have a right to feel this way when conditions in Darfur, Ethiopia, Iraq, and the slums of Nigeria or Rio de Janeiro, where landfills constitute the primary residence for thousands of unfortunate families, are so savagely unimaginable. Knowing this and still trying to wallow in self-pity is silly indeed because guilt robs whatever dubious pleasure one can summon forth.

So what’s left to do? Down a high blood pressure pill and count the things that make this life bearable. Hit the road and try to outdistance yourself, or barring that find some moving water and ponder it long enough to become absorbed in its ebb and flow. If I lived closer to the ocean I’d collapse on the beach and let the sun, sand and pulsing waves take me away, but since this is Kansas the best I can do is rivers or lakes, and lakes have never done much for me. They’re just big puddles, static and lifeless other than at dawn and dusk when reflectivity and shadows transform them into a palette of color. But moving water fires my imagination.

Drainages are the roots of oceans, delving their fibrous tentacles to the highest reaches of land and linking us metaphorically if not physically to the tides. The sum of their numbers equals the Pacific, the Atlantic, the turquoise Caribbean, the landless Southern Sea. I’ve never been good at math but this is math I understand. All the little things adding up to something bigger, the process called confluence.

With a very rare day off from work and a map I did the arithmetic: Corndodger Creek, DeShazer, Clear and Cedar creeks, the Johnson Fork, Robidoux Creek—itself comprised of Snipe, Skeeter and Dog Walk creeks—the Little Timber, Irish and Weyer Creeks, flowing together in two major forks that converge near the small town of Vliets to become the Black Vermillion River, and the combined amalgamation of waterways rolling into the larger Blue Earth River a mile south of the Black Vermillion Marsh. It was as good a destination as any and far better than rotting away inside four walls where a computer terminal perpetually radiated an indictive form of arithmancy.

I was in for a surprise when Jim Mayhew, my shamanistic codgernaut partner, showed up as I was leaving. The last time we’d met he was shaved, groomed and dressed in a dark suit, the model of propriety so proper I almost didn’t recognize him. Now he was dressed for the outdoors, his craggy face grizzled with a thatch of graying whiskers, his pale eyes almost hidden beneath the bill of a baseball cap. His smile infectious, as always.

He didn’t need to be asked twice. We piled our things into the truck and headed east and then south, descending through narrow drainages into the broad valley of the Black Vermillion, where the sky opened up into a clear blue vault and the rounded green hills withdrew as if shrinking away. Crossing the bridge we saw the river for the first time, a sluggish brown current disappearing around a willow-lined bend studded with the imploring arms of dead cottonwoods. Nebraska rains had filled the banks, with flecks of foam indicating water levels were still rising.

A narrow road splintered off toward the convergence through fields of soybeans and locusts but I didn’t trust it, having seen this selfsame area inundated under floodwaters not long ago. And anyway walking seemed a better method of losing myself into the intricacies of nature, the hue of sky, a curling tendril of vine ending in a lone white blossom nodding in the breeze, a mockingbird’s indecipherable ramble, the mad scramble of toads fleeing a shallow rut. Jim and I hopscotched one another as we stopped to photograph minutiae that caught our attention, or paced in tandem where muddy pools allowed, and never did we glimpse the river until we broke from a shallow fringe of woods into a treeless scrape where the remains of past parties huddled around a broken fire ring. Just beyond a strip of weeds the river rolled past, viscous, more earth than water, a perfect storm of silt bearing down on the embankment to the south.

To our right the waters of the Black Vermillion converged with the Blue Earth River. The demarcation of their currents was visible in a paler chocolate hue that hugged the bank and eddied and swirled around unseen obstacles. It was uncannily quiet, with neither birdsong nor drone of crickets, our voices muted as if we stood in some holy place. Upstream a johnboat with two fishermen drifted until it, too, passed our location and was lost around a bend.

I want to lie and say I wished the river would bear me away, or baptize me into a new existence, one more successful and courageous, less tainted with moodiness and indecision, but I realize it could never have been otherwise. The rivers wed into a larger whole, eternally mated on their way to the sea, and I stepped back alone into a life I no longer understand.