29 September 2010

East to West




It’s early September, and I’m in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I’m waiting in the truck lot of a metal fabrication plant, where I’ve just delivered a load of sheet from a factory in Ohio. It’s the end of summer up here. The autumn flowers have been roaring for two weeks now, mostly goldenrod, although a few others hanging on tell me that the autumn honey flow will be a good one in these parts. Goldenrod makes a dark honey that is interesting to me because in the evening when the bees are fanning to evaporate the moisture, the bee yard smells like something died in it. Whatever the bees are busily evaporating out soon leaves, though, and the honey becomes thick, rich, and dark, but no longer smells bad. But that’s part of a different world at the moment.


My QualComm unit beeps at me, my satellite connection to Dawn, my dispatcher, far away.


WANT TO GO TO CA?


SURE, I type back into the little keyboard. ANYTIME


After a bit Dawn sends me the dispatch, and then I’m off, headed east across Wisconsin, first a few hundred miles to pick up my trailer of stainless steel tubing and elbows, and then to turn around to take it west to San Diego. A good trip—2300 miles, and not a lot of extra time wasted at either end. I do the math, and see that the trip is 38 hours, and that I have 39 legal working hours available before delivery. A very, very tight schedule—I’ll have to drive my butt off to keep from going into violation at the end.


I meet another driver at a truck stop in the rain in mid-state, and swap my broken-down curtainside for his empty 102-inch flat. He will haul it south to Chicago for repairs, and I keep on going east to Green Bay. I make the mistake of telling Dawn about a broken airline check valve on my old tractor. I’d planned just to pick up a new one next time I drive by a terminal.


PICK UP A REPLACEMENT AT KAUKAUNA THEN HEAD WEST. ONLY 30 MILES OUT OF ROUTE, she tells me, shooting from the hip.


Bad news. The Kaukauna terminal will actually add 100 miles and three hours to the trip, I calculate. I’ll really have to hustle to get to San Diego legally, now, as my destination is suddenly 100 miles farther off. I swing by the terminal, snatch up the valve from the mechanics, then head south an hour to the shipper.


“We haven’t finished loading your trailer. Would you like to wait in the break room?”


Off the clock, I stand in the entrance foyer and chat with another driver. He has a similar load, but is headed for Northern California. We make small talk, discussing issues of importance to professional drivers—Federal regulations, different routes, customers to avoid. He won’t go to Canada.


“Why not? I’ve never had any trouble.”


He has, apparently. For reasons I can’t figure out, I never have a problem taking a tractor trailer through customs. Other drivers tell me horror stories of being detained for hours, searched, interrogated about their past, where they’ve been and where they’re going. Me, never. Maybe the plain Quaker clothing throws the border guards off-script. All I know is that they’re always polite, always friendly, and always let me through. Even when I do something stupid, like drive the wrong way through the X-ray lane.


Eventually the pipe loaders are done, and I drop my empty, hook to the loaded trailer, get my paper, and pull out on the road. I’m carrying 44 pieces of stainless steel sewage tubing, elbows, and reducers, beautifully welded and precisely cut to blueprint, all destined to fit together like a puzzle at a jobsite half a continent away. It’s a lightweight load. And I still have time for a few hundred miles before I stop for the night somewhere in Iowa. So I sit back, put my foot to the floor, and watch the scenery fly past my window as I head west-southwest. My seat in the tractor cab is comfortable, a good perch from which to inspect the passing world.


It’s late in the year, and the agriculture tells the story. The corn is mostly dry or drying, brown ears on brown stalks, hidden behind the brown leaves. The miles and miles of soybeans are finishing up as well, turning yellow in broad patches among the green as they cycle out their season. As I pass by, I wonder why the beans all change color in huge patches, at different times in the same fields, like the groves of aspen in the Rockies that all turn yellow together at different times in the same woods. Microclimate, I suppose, vagaries in soil composition, fertilizer glitches, or perhaps drainage. Occasional late plantings still have a week or two to go, but for the most part the farming here is settling down to the season of spending money, instead of making it. As a beekeeper in California, September for me was always a busy time of gathering up the beehives and hauling them across the coastal mountains to the wintering grounds along the Pacific Ocean, then hitting them with medication and pouring in the feed, getting them fat and happy for the brief winter. September was the season of spending money there as well, seeing as how honey was mostly a waste product, often not worth the cost of removing it from the hives.


Here in Iowa, the bees will be mostly done as well. As I stop along the road to check my straps, the grasshoppers rattle through the Bird’s-Foot Trefoil at my feet, the last of the summer flowers, little yellow blossoms carpeting the ground under the bunched and brown seed heads of the Queen Ann’s Lace, which itself has finished up a week earlier. As I climb back into the truck, a flock of red-winged blackbirds wings overhead, also bunched, and gathering for their flight south. Nature here is winding the clock, in preparation for dormancy. I pull into a small Iowa town for the night, find a dirt lot over by the propane distributor, and park in the back. I don’t have any fuel credits for any company nearby, so I can’t trade them in for a shower. I go immediately to sleep instead.


The next day I cross into Nebraska at sunrise. I begin to climb, slowly but noticeably. The boundary between the low plains and the high plains is delineated by rainfall, and although no rain is in sight among the two-toned gray stratus clouds, the change in moisture is betrayed by the vegetation that depends on it. The lush herbaceous ground flora and hardwoods that characterize the eastern woodlands and the river bottoms of the low prairies gradually give way to dried bunch grasses and scattered cottonwoods, with occasional pines and junipers. Sunflowers appear, first a few, and then an exploding miniature forest that turns in unison to gaze into the rising sun at my back as I power up the east-facing incline, mile after mile. Another key to the rainfall is the change in agriculture. The corn remains, still late in the season, but the bean fields become rarer and rarer, and are replaced by sorghum and beef ranches. Dry-land farms give way to irrigation, the giant center-pivot rain machines slowly crawling in circles around and around the fields, a gentle spray of water dropping over the crop every thirty feet or so, delivering the moisture that doesn’t fall from the sky. Along the roadside, the last of the goldenrod flickers and goes out, as the sunflowers come into their own.


A pair of great blue herons slowly rise from a slough off to the north and head into my path. They spot me at the last moment and veer up and away, as I pass beneath them. In the mirror I watch them settle back down into the sunflowers, silhouetted against the sun.


I’m still short on hours, and I stop only when I have to for the Federally-mandated load checks every 150 miles. As I pull into Ogallala at the end of the day, I have 10 minutes left on my legal 11 hours, and 643 miles on the clock. I’m exhausted, but I have only 10 hours off-duty before I start again, so I heat up a can of beans for dinner. No credits for a shower here either, as it’s a chain that I rarely fuel at. I scrub off with a handful of baby-wipes and crawl into the bunk behind the seat.


The next days follow the same pattern, hour after hour, mile after mile. From Nebraska, I climb the plains that front the Continental Divide, the stony spine that separates the Pacific drainage from the Gulf of Mexico. The Rockies will be the major climb on this trip. As I enter Denver, a sign reminds me: SEPT THRU MAY-TRUCKS MUST CARRY SNOW CHAINS.


Oops. Everybody forgot this, including me. I acknowledge that I’m a criminal, and peer up at the sky. No sign of snow, and I’ll be through the tunnel and over the top before lunch. I make a mental note not to come back this way without the legal equipment, and grind up to the 11,000 foot pass and to the tunnel, then descend from the top of the Rockies into the long narrow canyon that spins me through the descending mountains like a leaf in a rain gutter. I pass through narrow gorge after narrow gorge, the rocky walls of sands and volcanics giving me a view of a new cross-section of the mountain’s roots at every turn of the road. Finally the highway spits me out into the badlands, and the canyons disappear behind me like slamming a screen door. I enter the Great Basin.


The Great Basin is high elevation desert—hot and dry in the summer, cold and dry in the winter. It yields no water to the oceans—a closed system, all rivers and streams that enter eventually evaporate into the sky. Playas and sands, brush, cattle, and hardrock mines. The Great Basin is a far different place from the Wisconsin dairy land that began this trip. I stop and pull into dirt lot at a truck stop, 551 miles on the clock for the day.


“You going to spend the night here?” the driver I met back in Green Bay asks. “There’s a better place down the road a mile.”


With identical loads, identical trucks, and identical regulations, likely as not we’ll meet again at dusk in another state or two. But I have no reason to look for a better place to sleep. Everything I need is already in the truck. I’m a vegetarian and bring all my food with me, so I don’t look for restaurants, and all I need is an occasional shower. But somebody stole my fuel cards the week before, so I’m starting from scratch accumulating points again with my new ones. Until I get a few hundred more gallons through the 450-HP Mercedes Benz that powers my home, I’ll be a little grimy. More baby wipes, and it’s time for bed.


I spend the next morningpassing through the uplands above the Mojave Desert. I’ve spent a lot of time in various deserts, and they always seem so much more alive to me than woodlands and farmland. People from wet places tend to think of a desert as a dead thing, but they don’t see them as they really are. What looks like a desolate wasteland changes when the stars come out, and a bustling community appears, where the rodents dig themselves out of their burrows and scatter across the stones, the predators patrol their territory, and the reptiles and arthropods all begin their own busy nighttime activities. I’ve set transects of live traps through the woods and meadows of the central plains, and ten catches out of one hundred traps is considered pretty good. In the desert, 100 catches out of 100 traps is routine before midnight, and you can empty the traps and catch another 100 before sunrise. Kangaroo rats, pocket mice, wood rats, white-footed mice, coyotes, kit foxes, gray foxes, porcupines, not to mention bat species by the dozen, all people the desert at night, as do the reptiles, birds, and invertebrates. A wonderful place, but this trip is all business, with no time for time exploring for tracks and skeletons in the scrub at my inspection stops.


Las Vegas is an amazement to me. I haven’t seen it in years, and no longer recognize it. The Vegas that I knew was a small town in the shadows of the alluvial fans, clear desert air and dry scrubland. The city itself was tiny, with a little brightly-lit strip of astonishment in the middle where all the casinos were built. You entered on the two-lane, bought breakfast at a casino, and were out of town in a mile or so. Today, Las Vegas is a metropolis, with a skyline, busy freeways, housing developments, a strange and bloated caricature of its former self. The old one has passed on, taking its own stage sets and actors off into retirement. Vegas is a new act today, and will be remembered equally clearly, but very differently by the people that pass by in another generation or two.


I realize that I have made a mistake when I discover that today is Labor Day, and thousands of drivers will be heading south on my road, back to los Angeles and San Diego, ready to go back to work Tuesday morning, fresh from a weekend of Vegas debauchery. Ahead of me the line of traffic slows to a stop, bumper to bumper, closed up and crawling for as far ahead as I can see, miles after mile, up and over the next pass. As a Quaker, I don’t pay much attention to holidays, and sometimes get caught as a result. Today is one such day.


The CB crackles. “Hey, northbound. How much more of this is there?” Another driver trapped like me, one of hundreds in this mess.


“What you see is what you get, all the way back to Barstow, and then some.”


Barstow was to be my stop for the night, where I could finally trade my fuel credits for a shower. But I have two legal hours to make the fifty miles, and at ten miles an hour I know I won’t make it. At the last moment I slip off into a small town for the night and find an empty lot off to the side of a restaurant. I carefully pull the rig into line with the afternoon sun so that the cab is shaded and the 107-degree heat won’t bake me into a tortilla. As I fill out my log for the day, the endless stream of traffic passes me by on the highway, car after car after car, eventually sparkling into a line o fheadlights and tailights in the dusk, reaching up into the mountains for twenty miles each way, far into the night.


At sunrise the next morning I reach my destination—a construction site on the Mexican border, so close to Tijuana that I can watch the traffic. As the day clears, the foreman guides me into position under the tower crane he will use to lift the tubing off my truck. I hurry to unstrap the load and stow the equipment. Out of the 39 hours to work I had when I started, I have only one left, and I still have to find a place to park the truck after I’m done. I’ve been burning my driving hours 10 to 11 per day since I started, and I won’t have any more legal hours to drive after I shut down for another 34 hours.


With the equipment stowed, I’m off the clock, and can relax for a while. As the workers carefully sling the heavy tubing from the trailer, I look over the border into Tijuana. It’s a busy morning over there, rush hour in the metropolis, the Mexican sister city to San Diego. Between me and the Avenida Internacionale, there is a chain-link fence, a concrete wall, and then another fence of steel mesh. Between the two fences is the dirt road patrolled by La Migra, the American Border Patrol that keeps the Mexicans out of the U.S., or at least tries to. Above the busy Avenida is a steep hill covered in a patchwork of stuccoed villas and small storefronts, power lines, and fan palms. As I stand watching, shots are fired in one of the city streets, two sharp cracks from a handgun, then silence. The traffic continues unmoved, but after a few minutes two patrol cars arrive at the hill top, blue lights cycling, and work their way down into the neighborhood and out of sight.


I turn to one of the workers standing next to me, watching as the tower crane operator high above us carefully swings the tubing off the truck and into the dust alongside the construction, guided by a man holding a rope attached to one end.


“You guys hear a lot of gunfire here?” I ask.


“All the time,” he says, not turning from the pipe slowly passing us by overhead. “It’s a different world over there.”


I turn back to Tijuana, and the traffic continues to rumble on, just another busy day on the frontier with El Norte.


Eventually the truck is empty, the papers signed, and I’m released.


“We’ll help you back out,” the foreman offers.


“Nah, that’s okay,” I reply, looking in the mirror. “If you’ll let me roll into that dirt straight back there, I can just kiss that surveyor’s stake with the tires and get out by myself.”


With only 45 minutes left, the last thing I need is someone trying to help me. In truck driving, it’s always nice to have help, but if the helpers don’t know what you really need, they mostly just get in the way. By myself I can wiggle my way out backwards through the forklifts, pickups, and sand piles in a minute or two. If someone helps me, it might take half-an-hour, and I don’t have that to spare.


My truck stop guide claims that there’s a fuel station with parking eight miles away. Emma, my GPS, agrees, so I program her to guide me there and head back across the Tijuana River, east paralleling the border. As she calmly intones my directions, I inspect the roadside for alternative places to spend the next two days, should my truck stop turn out to be closed, full, or non-existent. If I run out of time before I stop, I’m a criminal. Should I be involved in an accident, it will legally be my fault, no matter what the circumstances. If anybody dies, for any reason, I can be charged with vehicular homicide. I take hours-of-service regulations very seriously, and last-minute parking is always stressful for me.


A mile ahead, I spot the sign for my truck stop. Thank goodness. As I pull in, I scan the lines of idling big rigs for the best empty spot, one facing the shaded north that I can approach from the right to make backing in easy. I also want one facing uphill, if that’s an issue, because if it faces downhill I’ll be rolling out of bed all night. And if possible, I don’t want to be next to an idling reefer or a truck from back east or the north, because they’ll run their engines all night to keep their air conditioners going. Eventually I find an acceptable spot, pull in and shut it down.


I take out my log book and calculate my hours. 2337 miles, not my longest trip, but certainly the fastest within recent memory. I’m bushed, with a string of 600-plus mile days behind me, up and over the mountains and through the long winding canyons. Autumn in the central plains to the dry late summer of the deserts. A pretty trip, but one that required constant and careful attention, hour after hour. But I’m out of time now, so there’s nothing to do now except take a breather and go to bed.


But first, a shower.















17 July 2010

Quakers in the Country: The Swimming Hole


The afternoon is hot and muggy, a sunny day floating halfway between spring and summer. I’m back at home for a few days out of the truck. Shawna pokes her head in the door, looking at me where I sit peacefully vegetating.

“We’re all going down to the swimming hole.”

“Okay.”

“You’re going, too.”

“No.”

“Yes, you are. You have five children you haven’t seen in two weeks, and they want you to go swimming with them.”

“Okay.”

Such are negotiations in my household. Sometimes they take longer, but they often follow this general pattern. And really, I don’t have anything against being cooperative, but I learned long ago that when I receive a marital ultimatum, it is very important that the initial response be “No.” This is mostly because it’s always easier for me to reverse myself and say “Yes,” than it is to change a “Yes” to “No.” But also, I am married to a strong-willed, left-handed, yellow-headed bark-eater who is both wonderful and accustomed to being in charge, and starting out with “No” reminds her that in the end, I don’t have to do what she says just because she says so. Not at first, anyway.

But the swimming hole is a wonderful asset to raising children out where we live, and she is right to stand there with her hands on her hips and stare crossly at me from the doorway. Here in Appalachia, there is water everywhere: springs, rivulets, brooks, creeks, rivers, lakes, and swamps, and it’s a sin not to take advantage of it. Our own property is bounded to the east by a deep ravine that funnels all the spring water for several miles into one channel that runs out by Jim and Jan’s place to the south. It crosses over the road at a submarine bridge, and then dips under it under a real bridge half a mile farther on. When it emerges from under the second bridge, it pours over a little waterfall into a large, round, and deep pool: the swimming hole.

Our swimming hole is pretty different from the typical city swimming pool. First off, of course, the hole is natural, with all the advantages and disadvantages that come with that. In town, swimming pools have clean tiled edges and concrete walkways. Our swimming hole has smooth gravel on the bottom and sandy banks between the water and the surrounding woods. In town, the municipal employees keep the grass mowed and the weeds pulled. In the country, the thistles scratch bright red runes on your bare legs like bored Vikings as you pick your way through them to get to the water. In town, there are fences to keep intrusive animals away. In the country, we walk around the swimming hole to look for the muddy footprints of the deer, raccoon, possum, and woodchuck that visited the night before. And in town, the water is cleaned and chlorinated by mechanical filters and chemical injectors. In the country, our swimming hole is full of algae, and sediment, and sticks, and green leaves. Fresh spring water is aerated by cascading over the stones and ledges of miles of open flow. And stuff lives in it, around it, and visits it whenever we’re not there. And sometimes when we are.

Today, we drive down to the swimming hole accompanied by only one dog, loping alongside the beat-up van as we clatter down the gravel road to the creek. Normally there are three dogs, but the two older ones apparently have other tasks this day. The swimming hole is only a mile down from the house, and we walk to it in the evenings all the time. The exercise this afternoon would do all of us some good, especially me. But somehow piling into the car makes it more of an event for the children, so that’s what we do. When we stop the car, the kids jump out immediately and climb down the bank to the water. Golden carries the little inflatable life ring he has brought down with him. Starbuck grabs his new fish net and makes a beeline for a position from which he can ambush the local wildlife. The dog snuffles through the ferns and lilies looking for mysteries to solve. I take off my shirt, pry off my sandals with my toes, and walk down the bank to the water and step in. Then I wade slowly through the gentle current out into the middle, where the water is up to my chest.

It’s cool, but not at all cold, and the flowing water is very comfortable in the hot and humid afternoon. The current keeps the water stirred up, so the temperature around my feet is as comfortable as the temperature around my middle— very unlike a lake, where the stratified water means your toes are always chilly. I sink down over my head, then surface and shake the water off my face. Ankle-deep in the shallows with her skirts hiked up, Shawna leans out to catch the dog by the collar, and then industriously begins to work over his neck, looking for the ticks he can’t scratch off himself. Always the practical woman, I observe, scratching myself absent-mindedly.

“Dad! Throw me!” shouts Paoli. I look up to see her waving both arms at me. I slip through the water, then pick her up bodily and throw her as high and as far into the middle as I can. She goes under, then surfaces, grinning and bouncing on her toes to keep her face above water too deep for her to stand in. It won’t be but a year and she won’t have to bounce to keep her head above the surface, I think to myself. All the kids are growing pretty quick. It’s made more obvious to me now that I only see them for a few days each month while I drive a truck, fighting a losing battle to try to keep them in shoes. Every time I see them they all seem to be taller, thinner, more aware, and more sarcastic than the last time.

“Throw me too, Kevin,” says my oldest son Griffin, eyeing me speculatively.

“Not on your life. You’d break me,” I reply. “You’re taller than Shawna now.”

“I know,” he says. He turns away and paddles over to the girls so he can pick a water fight with them.

He has become significantly taller than Shawna, I notice, as he stands and initiates sibling combat. It seems like just yesterday he was learning to talk. Maybe someday soon he’ll learn how not to.

I sink back up to my neck again, and then turn and tip-toe slowly through the deeper water over to the bridge. The bridge shelters a wide but shallow concrete spillway, a low-roofed shaded cave with the gentle stream overrunning the floor. Under a few inches of water, the smooth slab is blanketed in dark green filamentous algae, all stretched out straight in the current, wiggling their tail-ends in the little waterfall, there at the boundary between the dim and the brighter light. I climb up onto the slab and stretch out in the flowing water, wiggling my tail-ends in the little waterfall as well. I could stay right there all afternoon, but my biology-minded Number One Daughter has other plans.

“Dad! Did you see the snake?” Devra hollers.

“What snake is that?”

“The one that lives in the crack over there between the rocks.”

The kids return to their splashing and wading, while I reluctantly rise out of the current and wade over to the corner of the bridge. Down here closer to the creek, it’s always appropriate to check out snake discoveries. We don’t have copperheads up on the ridge top, but in the shady hardwoods the beautiful gray and brown pit vipers are a reasonably common discovery under the decomposing logs and between the stones that crop out in the ravines. I sink way down into the water, and peer into the narrow crevice between two of the old concrete highway slabs our township stacks up to make bridge abutments. There in the half-light, a small Thamnophis stares back at me impassively out of one eye, the little waves reflected from my own body sending small sheets of water across the few inches that separate us, rocking it very gently.

I stand back up. “Garter snake!” I announce to the kids, who have forgotten all about the snake and are busy splashing water into each other’s faces. The little garter and ribbon snakes are much commoner than the vipers, and generally hang out close to the water to pick off the frogs and tadpoles. They’re good-natured creatures, although they generally defecate on you when you first pick them up to remind you that they’d really prefer to be left alone. I sink down into the water again and look back into the darkness. The little snake has disappeared, having apparently decided that being left alone today might be more difficult without some pre-emptive action on its own part.

A kingfisher suddenly rattles overhead across the stream, halfway between the water and the treetops. There’s lots of different kinds of birds here by the swimming hole, most of which are off in the branches or underbrush right now waiting for us to vacate the premises. There’s a great blue heron, or maybe two, that come back every year to live through the spring and summer in the brushy, more private parts of the creek farther upstream. In the undergrowth you can sometimes spy a woodcock with her babies, little feathered miniatures of their mother. If you surprise them, the hen will fly into the shrubbery but the babies will squat down and peep, waiting for their mother to come back and gather them up. At the moment all I can identify is a robin, calling in that slow-paced maniacal lilt that they favor, away up the slope towards the ridge top. Were I to come back and sit here very quietly, I would undoubtedly be treated to a psychedelic show of eastern passerines: tanagers, orioles, warblers, buntings, finches, and who knows what else, drinking or bathing at the edge of the water. Maybe even Paoli’s yellow parakeet, the one that unaccountably opened its cage door one day and flew through the front door into uncertain freedom.

None of those are around right now, though, so I step up out of the water to see what else is visiting the swimming hole today. Down by the tail end of the pool, the banks narrow in and the current speeds up as the water forces its way down the rocky channel. There in the taller weeds and thistles, a dozen dark and iridescent damselflies are hunting moths and mosquitoes. They’re all the same species, fairly large with glossy black wings and bodies, and blue highlights wherever the light is reflecting. I look closely at one perched on top of a bent blade of grass, and see it carefully munching the remains of a midge of some sort. The damselflies are very different from the dragonflies—the darners and such that also reproduce and hunt in these pools. You can tell a damselfly when it alights for a rest because it will fold its wings together above them like an old Navy fighter plane, while a dragonfly will rest with its wings held out horizontally. This particular species is also apparently a weak flier, always choosing to hunt in the quieter air within the woods, while the dragonflies can be found more or less anywhere their powerful flight systems might take them. They’ll hang out here for the rest of the season, flying, eating, mating, and dying, an annual cycle that’s been underway for millennia.

As I watch the damselflies flutter back and forth across the creek, I feel a gentle, inquisitive nibbling at my ankle, down in the water. Minnows, usually. There are various species of shiners and suckers in the shallow water, and this late in the year the little darters in the riffles will also be a few inches long. I look down, but the water is too natural for me to see more than a foot or two below the surface, so the identity of my visitor remains a mystery. It could be a crayfish. We have lots of those in here as well, and once we even tried to keep a pair of them in our fish tank for a while. They’re not really compatible with the fish, though, as the crayfish proved to be expert minnow-catchers, and quickly reduced the fish population in the tank to near zero. The crayfish are too fast to catch with Starbuck’s dip net, and we usually only get them by accident. Now, if I had a seine, then we could really work the creek over to see who and what made its home in there. But that will have to wait. Starbuck has decided to wait, too. He’s taken a Styrofoam boogie board and stuffed it into the back of his T-shirt, and is now lurching across the surface like some sort of aquatic Quasimodo. Golden is faring much better in his inflatable ring, navigating the entire pool with the happy competence of a six-year old tool-using primate. I remember doing the same thing myself, long, long ago in a swimming pool out on the Kansas prairie.

I step over to the bank and up onto the cobbles than line its edge, and that poke sharp little dents into my feet. Most of the stones are homogeneous gray limes and yellow sandstones, which of course is only to be expected, because that’s the rock that the stream is cutting through all the way up its ravine to Dave’s place on the hill above us. The pebbles and cobbles here are an endless source of road metal for the township, which is good. The township has 86 miles of road to take care of, and virtually no money to do it with, so free gravel is always a benefit. Old Melvin Kemp will come down to the creek with the township’s front-end-loader, with his brother Kenny driving the dump. Melvin then steers into the water and loads up enough gravel for the day, and then he and Kenny go deposit it uphill on our road. Of course, when it rains or when the snow melts the same gravel and pebbles tend to roll and slide right back down into the creek, so perhaps one of Melvin’s grandkids will scoop it up again from the same spot in another fifty years for some future road project yet to come. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen either of them for some time. I wonder if the township has run out of money completely.

Above me the slender but towering black locusts shade the swimming hole from the sun except for the brief hour or two when it is directly overhead. The locusts are wonderful trees, tall, straight, and quick-growing. The wood doesn’t rot in the ground, either, so they make tough and long-lasting fence posts. And as an added bonus, in the spring they produce thousands of beautiful pendulous flowers, which you can smell a mile away on the warm, humid nights. I have a tin can full of locust pods that I picked off a tree at an Amish sawmill I loaded at last summer. I meant to plant them in the spring, but missed my window, and now I’ll have to wait until next year. Planting trees is a hobby of mine around here. I scatter hundreds of tulip poplar and maple seeds along the roads and the edges of the woods every fall, and also toss all the peach and plum pits out into likely spots whenever I have them. I’ll be long dead by the time any trees reach full size, but then, that’s no excuse for not doing necessary work right now. People take being dead far too seriously, in my opinion. If anticipating being dead meant you shouldn’t be doing worthwhile work, then nothing would ever get done.

I’m brought back into present time by the kids shouting happily at each other in the water. Shawna is standing over on the bank with her skirts still hiked up, surveying the scene like Pharaoh’s daughter inspecting the Nile for crocodiles. The dog, released finally, wanders back and forth along the edge, searching for raccoon sign in the shallows, and the waterfall continues to murmur quietly to itself under the bridge. A peaceful, complete, and fleeting afternoon in the springtime.

The afternoon won’t last, and neither will this little swimming hole. It never does, because transience is the nature of things. Towards the middle of the summer, the rains begin to fail, the springs give out, and the flowing creek flickers finally into isolated pools and gentle trickles. The cool water warms up and loses its oxygen, becomes shallower and murkier, and swimming here becomes a less popular event. But that’s far into the future now, months away, and today the swimming hole sparkles at its peak of late spring glory.

Shawna was right to pressure me to come down here today, because this brief intersection of all our lives is now stored forever in my mind. Many years from now, when the kids have children of their own and the world has turned a few thousand times more, I’ll still remember this day: the children, the water, the stones, plants, and animals. And living out here so far from anyplace anybody else wants to be, the swimming hole itself will likely be more or less the same, but with grandchildren and great-grandchildren hollering and splashing under the bridge.

And maybe another snake in the crevice will look out at them, and decide to wait until the evening to come out to hunt frogs.

12 May 2010

Quakers in the Country: Cowhand




It’s morning on the ranch. After we feed the stock, Roger and I check with Joel to see what he wants us to do for the rest of the day.


“First, I need you to go get WinWin,” says Joel. “It’s time to measure his horns.”


And so it begins . . .


WinWin is a fully-grown Longhorn bull, currently out with the cows across Muskrat Road from the big house. Dickinson Cattle Company is the largest Longhorn breeding ranch in the United States, and happens to be in Barnesville, Ohio, about twenty miles from where I live. For a while I had a job there as a cowhand, one of the things a Quaker can do from time to time, when he lives in the country. If I lived in a place like Philadelphia, I might have a different job, maybe a school teacher, or abbot of a Quaker monastery. But I live in the country on purpose, and one reason is because I’d rather punch cows than be tempted to punch people.


Cowboys tend to look a bit different from what many people expect. I don’t wear a cowboy hat (unlike various of my recent ancestors), but I do use a leather thong threaded through a couple of grommet holes in my Amish-made broad-brim to let it hang down my back, which fits in with cowboy chic. And I’ve worn cowboy boots ever since I was a kid, given a choice. I’m from Oklahoma, after all. But otherwise I look more or less like any normal plain-dressing Quaker, rather than a cowhand. Most people seem to picture a cowhand looking more like that old picture of my Uncle Willie, there to the right, all saddle leather, lariat, and dramatic moments. And I suppose if Uncle Willie were still around, he might agree. Certainly his photograph is pretty impressive. But I expect that most cowboying back then was as routine as it is now: feeding cows, herding cows, sorting cows, medicating cows, finding lost cows, finding lost calves, building fence, digging holes, and on and on. Chores are always divided up, and my own personal task every morning and evening was feeding the bulls in their stalls and shoveling manure. Did you know that a full-grown Longhorn bull can fill an entire 7-cubic foot wheelbarrow full of manure every day? And somebody has to shovel it. The bulls just ignore you while you work around them, because dealing with manure once they’re done with it is beneath them. And as an annoying monkey, you’re frankly beneath them as well. Except when you get told to do something unusual, like to go get WinWin and put him someplace where you can measure his horns. Then you have to deal with them on different terms.


WinWin was out doing his job. Hanging out with the cows, waiting for the few fleeting hours when they would go into a standing heat, and then making sure that they delivered a pedigree calf later in the season. That’s what he was good at, and WinWin took his job seriously. Roger knew about where he would be, so we mounted up the four-wheelers and rode off.


Dickinson Cattle is a modern cattle ranch. Seven hundred cows and calves, four or five ranch hands, four or five four-wheelers, three moldy saddles in a trailer, and one horse. The horse was wise to ranch work, and spent most of his time avoiding people. Not a problem, as the cowhands preferred the ATVs. No catching, no saddling, no bridle, no cool off, just turn the key on to go, and turn the key off when you’re done. Simpler, and much more to the liking of the horse, who would make himself scarce anytime anybody looked like they might get close enough to actually put a bridle on him.


It was a beautiful spring morning in the month of May. We puttered down the lane between the fenced pastures, stirring up a little dust behind us in the warm air, passing late mustards and locust still in bloom, occasional sky blue chicories to the sides, the cherries and elms on the slopes and behind the fencelines in full leaf. A warm breeze blew over the green pastures, carrying the smell of sunny meadows and cool shady woods, water-wet creek bottoms, and murky cattailed sloughs. Longhorns are descended from the cattle brought to the Americas by the Spaniards centuries ago, and are lean and very self-sufficient, with several centuries of evolution to adjust them to the dry climate and scarce feed of the arid west. But the Longhorns liked the eastern deciduous woods just fine, and used them to their advantage when hiding out from cowhands like Roger and me.


Eventually we find WinWin, lying in state in the company of four or five of his harem, calmly chewing his cud, already having filled up on water earlier in the day.


“How many?” I ask.


“Just him,” says Roger. “It would be easier to take him and four or five cows, but Joel only wants him.”


And of course, it will turn out exactly as Roger predicts. WinWin rises to his feet, a magnificent bull weighing over two thousand pounds, brown and black splashes on a smooth white coat, his horns spreading something over sixty inches from tip to tip, the whole reason for the approaching adventure. He inspects us calmly, still chewing, powerful and composed.


WinWin isn’t dangerous out on the grass. None of the bulls are, except by accident, really. In general, Longhorns are intelligent and easy-going animals, and only when they’re confined in stalls and have clearly defined territorial boundaries do you have to look out. Then they can maneuver their horns through the bars with mischevious accuracy, and knock off your hat or break your ribs, easily and at their own discretion. But out in the open, they have nothing in particular to defend, and will quite happily move along from place to place at the whistles and hoots from a pair of monkeys on ATVs.

But they’re still cows, and cows are herd animals. WinWin doesn’t mind getting up and moving, but he doesn’t like the way we slip in between him and the others, trying to push him in the other direction. Nothing good can come of that, he knows. The cows instantly recognize that they are free to go, and treacherously abandon WinWin to his fate. WinWin watches for a moment, and then deftly steps around us and trots away, after the girls. Roger cuts in front of him, WinWin makes up his mind to run for it, and we’re off.


WinWin is a huge animal, five feet at the shoulder, five feet across at the horns, and when he runs he shows just how much power a Longhorn bull can command. He thunders across the flowers, Roger on his right shoulder and me close in behind as we try to turn him in the direction of the pipe corral to the southwest. His immense body rocks above the ground like a battleship, the rhythmic pounding of his hooves propelling him forward, a giant mammal at home on the grass under the blue sky and cumulus clouds, in his element and confident. He turns to the right and slows suddenly, then slips behind Roger and heads east again, back to the cows, back to common sense. Roger guns the throttle and circles around to his right, pushing him back to the west while I move in to his left side to keep him from repeating the trick in the other direction.


“Look out, Kevin! He’ll jump!” Roger shouts.


WinWin’s hooves slam into the ground as he races us to the trees in the creek bottom. At his left shoulder, I push ahead and close in at twenty-five miles per hour, my hat flying behind me on its thong like a kite, crowding him away from the trees but not getting too close. WinWin is quite capable of leaping clean over my head as I approach, and I see him rolling his eyes at me to gauge my distance. If he makes a mistake and lands on top of me, it could well be fatal, so I drop back a few feet.


WinWin seizes the opportunity and dives into the trees, running for the other side between trunks too close for Roger to follow quickly. While Roger twists and turns the handlebars to get through, I turn and tear around the woods to the north, across the slope and down to the creek on the other side to get in front again. WinWin emerges triumphantly from the brush and steps into the water, looking back at Roger, just as I reach the creek and jam the ATV to a stop directly in front of him. As he pauses to reassess, Roger catches up. Then together we pinch him between us, and urge him back to the southwest, towards the fenceline.


Again and again we cut and push, gradually working WinWin closer to the fence. The waltz between the cow and the cowherders continues for another twenty minutes, slowing all the while as Roger and I get more and more tired. WinWin is exhausted by this time, too, his rib cage heaving. Finally we reach the fence and block him in, Roger off his right shoulder and me again urging from behind. With nowhere left to run, WinWin acknowledges temporary defeat and slowly walks along the fence towards the corral, head hanging low under the weight of his mottled brown and black horns


He enters the open gate and Roger and I ride in after him. Roger drags the fence panel closed, and I turn the key and climb off the ATV, whistling and hooting gently to urge WinWin into the corner where we can drag the panels closed alongside him in a makeshift squeeze cage. Joel is already there with the tape measure.


“Dang! What did you do to him? He’s leaking from everywhere.”


Head down, WinWin is indeed leaking: urine, green manure, drool, and a running nose to boot. More exercise than he was expecting. I refrain from telling Joel that I’m close to leaking from everywhere too, and instead slap WinWin on the butt to encourage him into the corner.


With the three of us heaving and pushing, we finally get WinWin positioned alongside the fence and squeeze the panel against him, holding him securely in place while Joel stretches the tape between his horn tips. Spread is important in pedigree Longhorns. If a bull manages to grow his horns over sixty inches between the tips, it’s an automatic $5000 increase in his sale value. Dickinson Cattle has bred the world’s record Longhorn on their ranch, a beautiful and sweet-tempered dapple-gray cow named Shadow Jubilee, with horns over 82 inches across. More cooperative than WinWin, too.


WinWin is a bull, not a cow, so his horns are shorter and heavier. After thwarting several attempts, WinWin finally holds still long enough for Joel to read the tape measure.


“Sixty-five and five-eighths,” he says, stepping back. WinWin is a very good bull.


Roger and I unchain the fencing panels and drag them back so WinWin can step out. He looks at us wearily, and I can almost hear him cussing us in disgust. He finally steps out of the corner and walks slowly to the open corral gate, and then heads back out into the grass, back towards his cows, back towards peace and quiet away from the annoying monkeys. I’m still tired, and still close to leaking.


“Okay,” says Joel. “Now go get Victory Lap.”


And so it begins . . .


*           *           *

By the way, all the cow photos were taken by Darol Dickenson on his ranch, and are used by kind permission of Dickinson Cattle Company, Barnesville, Ohio. I have no idea who took the photo of Uncle Willie.














20 April 2010

Great Basin


Romans 1:20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse . . .


They call it the Great Basin, and after the last two days, I know why. I was sent through here with an oversize load of farm equipment, headed through Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada to California’s Central Valley, 2000 miles through springtime in the American West. With a full day and a night in the Great Basin.


It was certainly a full day for me, 500 miles, more or less, although 150 years ago the trip took much longer. I have the advantage of 450 horsepower, ten gear ratios, 18 wheels, and extremely well-built roads. But the one the permit department assigned me was Highway 50. I looked at my maps, and then asked Dawn, my dispatcher, about it.


“My oversize route through Utah and Nevada says Highway 50, not the Interstate.”


“Take whatever they say. You have to follow the permit route.”


“It’s the old two-lane right through the middle. There’s only two towns and no rest areas for 486 miles. Where do I park the truck for the night?”


Eventually I look more critically at my maps and see a few possibilities. And in truth, I know from spending half my life in the west that stopping for the night is actually not that hard. West of the Rockies, I can find places here and there where a 72-foot truck 12 feet wide and 14 feet high might be tucked in without attracting attention. So I agree, and set off.


Driving a truck across the west is easy compared to the old days. I know, because I can read the evidence in the topography. When a modern road crosses the mountains, it cuts across the ins and outs of the necks and draws, smoothly following curve after gentle curve up and down through the road cuts. But if you look, you can often see the traces of the older road, the one that runs the passes farther into the draws, and farther out on the necks, sharper turns, and steeper grades, necessitated by the smaller graders and dozers of the old days. Often the pavement is still there, a reminder of the Ford V-8s and Nashes that once chugged up that slower and more difficult path, boiling their radiators the whole time. And if you know what to look for, you can sometimes see an earlier road still, one diving even higher in and lurching even farther out, criss-crossing all the newer roadbeds, one built by mules, and by men with picks and shovels. I’ve walked those early roads before, and they speak of Spanish missions and pack trains. Sometimes you find old campsites, and once I picked up an ox shoe off the rocky road bed.


I drive a day and a night through mountains, passes, snow capped ranges, perfectly sloped bajadas and alluvial fans. Where my road passes through the dynamited cuts in the country rock, I am treated to endless cross sections of massive lavas, cinders, pyroclastic flows, ash falls weathering to a rainbow of clays. The horizons are composed of lava flows tilted and eroded flat eons ago, buried again by more ancient eruptions and now exposed once more, standing upright like the giant pages of a stony encyclopedia telling a story of cataclysm and quiet. Occasional sandstones and quartzites tell of wetter days, or sandstorms long gone by.


And life abounds, too, in distinct communities that come, go, and come again as I travel up and down through the life zones that radiate from a eutectic of elevation, water, and solar aspect. Ephemeral herbs in the wet springtime playas give way to upland sages and Mormon tea, which then yield to Limber Pines, Pinyons, and Junipers. In the canyons the mule deer look up as I pass, always startled somehow by my noisy arrival, so different from the self-composed bighorn sheep that won’t deign to lift their gaze even when I let the air horns loose to see if they care. Jackrabbits and avocets, vultures, ravens and bluebirds, all ignore me as I pass, but sometimes come close to investigate when I stop to check the chains holding my load. And of course, I know that the real world comes alive at night, when the kangaroo rats dig themselves out of their hidey-holes to look for seeds, and the kit foxes come out of their own holes to look for the kangaroo rats. Three kangaroo rats a night, I remember, and a kit fox never needs to drink liquid water. Bats and bears, pocket mice and wood rats, snakes, lizards, moths and beetles, the Great Basin is an immense and interlocking system of flora, fauna, minerals, and topography, all intricately linked together to maintain a dynamic equilibrium that reflects relationships maintained for millennia. Like a marble rolling to the bottom of a mixing bowl, the different life zones that I pass all hold together in their own way, and adapt to changes in the orientation of the bowl by rolling to a new center, a new balance point, one that automatically shifts to recover stability.


I see the handiwork of Creation in this stability, in these various self-correcting systems that characterize the world, and not just here in the Great Basin. To me, they are sufficient evidence of a Creator. But then, I’m easily convinced. It’s just as easy to look at them and deny the role of conscious creation in their patterns of balance and complexity. Various non-theist Friends tell me in conversation that nothing is demonstrated by nature’s balances that can’t be easily explained without the imposition of a conscious hand at work behind them. Nature needs no explanation other than nature, they say, and the complexities are of no more consequence than the complex shape of a puddle of water that just happens to fit its depression in the ground with molecular accuracy.


And of course, they have an excellent point. If you start with their assumptions, then this view of the universe makes perfect sense. There’s nothing wrong with its logic. Now, understand me when I say that non-theist Friends are a diverse and complex bunch, and some will also explain that non-theism doesn’t discount the possibility of a creator, it just doesn’t require one. But others will sometimes say that they won’t believe in something that can’t be proven, and isn’t necessary to explain the data. In that respect they have some affinities with the first generations of Friends, who also refused to integrate discoveries that were not personal, but sought their own visions like the Paiutes and Shoshone that occupied the valleys I drive through now. But these first Friends also credited the experiences of others as starting points of their own spiritual journeys, and then chose to investigate them themselves, ultimately to possess what they said they professed, to credit the discoveries of others when they were convinced in their own lives. I don’t always see this receptivity among non-theists, this willingness to be convinced.


I once asked a non-theist what physical evidence could convince him of the existence of God. He answered, “Nothing.” And of course, with that attitude, nothing ever could.


Part of the reason may be that many non-theists are strong logical positivists, believers in a philosophy that assumes that the world must be explainable in terms of empirical phenomena, “natural” things that can be tested and verified, at least theoretically. I’ve heard a non-theist explain his beliefs in those terms, and I was surprised. Logical positivism has faded in philosophy in recent decades, but some non-theists will roll it out and dust it off as if it made sense. Among others, Karl Popper punctured the idea that only seeing is believing in the 1930s with his publication of The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Popper showed that in the end, nothing can ever be proven—only disproven, and disproving falsifiable hypotheses is how modern science works. This subtlety escapes a lot of people who claim to believe only in things that can be verified. When I ask them to verify their hypothesis in the non-existence of God, they have asked me if they should believe in any old stupid thing that can’t be disproven, neglecting to notice that their own belief system is one of them.


But as a Christian unprogrammed Quaker, I’m not the person to adequately defend empiricism, or logical positivism, or the various other –isms of the Enlightenment. Although I’m a hard-core defender of a mechanistic universe of orderly laws and principles, I see no conflict with a theistic interpretation, nor do I see any need to assert the old deist argument, the hand that winds the clock, sets it down, and wanders off to other celestial interests and pastimes. To me, the difference is in the assumptions.


Old Thomas Kelly once wrote, “Logic finds, beneath every system of thought, some basic assumptions or postulates from which all other items of belief are derived.” In many ways, my own assumptions are those of a simpleton—I don’t require the world to make sense to me, no matter how much I know about it. I’m willing to believe in things even when they’re metaphysical and just can’t be proven at all. I assume that the ultimate engines of the universe might operate under different laws than those which turn its proximate wheels. When asked the question, “What happened the day before the Big Bang?” one non-theist I know answers by stating “I don’t know, but I’m confident my system of belief will someday have the answer.” I’m a bit different, there. I don’t assume that the world has to cater to my understanding in order to be credible.


This is in sharp contrast to folks who see no need for a Creator. Sometimes when I ask about their assumptions, they tell me that they don’t have any. I once asked an atheist physicist if he could explain his world view to me. He told me, “I don’t have a world view. I merely believe in what nature demonstrates to be true.” He was a tough nut to crack, because somebody who doesn’t even recognize the underpinnings of his own understanding is walking the world in a blindfold.


Ultimately, I suppose the answer lies in whether we require our assumptions to be proven. I don’t require very much proof to be convinced of things, so in many ways I’m a pretty sloppy thinker. But what I do believe, I believe in a positive way, in that I believe in things. When asked what Quakerism meant to him, one non-theist Friend I know of replied: “The rejection of sacraments, the rejection of clergy, the rejection of steeple-houses, the unprogrammed nature of worship, the lack of dogma or doctrine, the lack of an infallible scripture, the Quaker business method, and the commitment to live life through the testimonies and the Quaker community . . .” His view of what he called his religion was essentially negative, a list of things he didn’t believe in. After you took those away, there was actually little left except practice, devoid of underlying meaning, to my way of thinking (not his). Now, this is not bad. Jesus himself had little good to say for belief that didn’t result in practice: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.” But inherent in my world view is that why you practice something is ultimately significant, sooner or later. I might row a boat across a river in the company of a cheerful and hardworking companion at the oars. But when I reach the other bank and discover that he is a cannibal conducting me to his family’s dinner, you can see that practice is sometimes only equivalent at the surface, and underneath things are not so congruent after all. But of course, a non-theist might reject the existence of an underneath in the first place, or of the other river bank. Again, a difference in assumptions.


And so it is with the Great Basin. As I write, I have left the deserts behind, and a cool night has covered the western end of the valley where I have parked for the night. The air is wet with the smell of irrigated alfalfa, and the evening sounds of a small Nevada town fill the background, passing pickup trucks and clear but distant voices, rather than the quiet heartbeat of a wilderness devoid of human beings. The Great Basin has reminded me of why I believe in the things I do. In my own experience, I find the answers to questions of existence best provided by the metaphysical view of a conscious creator. My assumptions are different from those of my non-theist Friends and acquaintances. And in truth, I find my assumptions supported regularly, when answers come to questions in the form of omens, impossible coincidences, visions, auditions, and the discoveries of others that are coincident with my own. Many non-theists aren’t satisfied with that level of verification, and continue on looking for sharper answers to the hard questions, or give up asking.


But I’m content with my own solution. Like I said, I’m easy to please.


19 April 2010

A Sense of Place



I slowly climb the steep slope through the chaparral, picking my way carefully between the wait-a-bit thorns of the catclaw and the black spines of the agave, both tenaciously gripping the sparse and shallow soil in the open areas between the trunks of the Ponderosa pines. My boots are no match for them anymore, the heavy soles worn paper-thin and tied crudely to the tattered uppers with scraps of parachute cord. The thin air on the Mogollon is already warm in the late morning, the sun bright, high, and hot, reflecting off the south-facing outcrop back into my face like a heat lamp.


And then I notice something out of place. Uphill and 30 feet ahead of me on the sandstone lies a small piece of chert, its snowy whiteness a geologic error against the green and brown pine needles and the buff slickrock. The thick limestone a few hundred feet below me is full of chert nodules and lenses, but uphill from this sandstone is nothing but basalt and the clear blue sky. The chert is unnatural in this Place. There is no reason for it to be here.


I walk over to the chert and pick it up. And then I understand. It’s not a nodule after all. In my hand is a stone knife, a Neolithic scraper with a flaked edge the radius of an old silver dollar, and a carefully napped hilt. As I turn it in my hand, my thumb slides naturally into a larger percussion hollow, and then the knife slips into place, a perfect fit between my fingers, the first hand to hold it for centuries.


He was right-handed, too, I think to myself.


And I look up from the knife, and then the shapes shift, the light changes, and present time melts away in anticipation of the Visitor. I am in the same Place, but a different Time, one no longer bound by the small cutpoints marking the beginning and end of my own life. I share a moment out-of-time with a man dead for a thousand years, and see the world simultaneously through both his eyes and my own. The Ponderosas we stand under are the same, the clean brown sandstone and the Manzanita chaparral are the same, the view of sixty miles of open country to the south is the same. But it is a sameness shared across a gap of many lifetimes. The sameness attests to a shared experience of this Place, this little clearing, unchanged between the moment one passed by and misplaced a tool, and a different moment another passed by and picked it up.


The sense of timelessness passes on, and once again I am left alone in my own Place, in my own Time. I slip the stone knife into my frayed canvas belt pouch and continue uphill towards the basalt flows. Hours later I will discover that my rock hammer is missing, the steel ring in my belt empty. Instead, in my pouch is a stone knife, a trade I have made with the guardians of Time, a piece of his Place exchanged for a piece of mine, two hands reaching through the portal in opposite directions, making contact.


I’m occasionally granted a sense of place in this way, a privilege to see things, or at least to suddenly understand them in a way that is so clear that it becomes sensory. Usually the moments arrive in the form of a recognition, a sudden sense of the world that has always existed just beyond my understanding, just beyond a curtain. The Visits are usually in the form of a consciousness of a larger cosmos, the awareness of an actor observing himself on the stage, of footfalls fording a braided stream of places, events, lives, and deaths.


I think that the key isn’t so much in any particular knowledge as it is in a receptivity, a readiness to step out of one’s own time and see with different eyes, to hear with different ears. It can happen to anyone, and I read of the same experience that I have in the lives of others. The universe tells its stories to anyone who will take the time and trouble to listen. But so often we just don’t take that time and trouble, we’re just never ready, or we’re too busy to notice the Visitor.


In another Place, at another Time, I sit down on the dry grasses atop a little hill overlooking the creek bed and pull out my lunch of oaten cakes and cheese. My hands are still oily from the tetracycline patties I have just rolled into two truckloads of beehives, sitting in 30 neat clumps of four down in the tarweed and bluecurls below me, tiny children’s blocks from this elevation. The thinly-grassed hills to either side descend smoothly into the flat valley floor and disappear sleepily beneath the sediment, but the stream bed cuts a vertical-sided arroyo that wrenches from side to side, gouging a trench across the valley floor steep enough to break a cow’s leg. It’s not stable, I think, it doesn’t fit here. This topography is depositional, but the stream erodes. There’s no reason for this little prairie to be like this, I think to myself, not for the first time.


And then the shapes shift, the light changes, and again, present time melts away, and the Visitor returns. I look down the valley and see the same Place, but in a different Time. As I watch, the bright yellow tarweeds transform into thick grasses, and clumps of cattails appear. Water appears, the dry arroyo narrows to a clean and flowing rivulet, following a meandering course through the valley, overgrown to the sides with overhanging vegetation. The bare hillsides to either side suddenly sprout young pines, which rise to become forests. I no longer view a dry valley from the 20th century, but instead see an Ice Age landscape from a hilltop of another Time.


It was a cienega, I think to myself. Of course.


The secret of the valley is clear to me now. In the presence of the Visitor, the eroded and gullied valley now tells a story of deposition, of clear-flowing creeks bringing rich soils and minerals from the glaucophane hills above down into the floor with every rain, slowly burying the ever-rising marsh, home of sloths and elk, voles and jumping mice, food for the foxes, wolves, and bear.


Again, I am granted a vision of continuity, a sense of Place and of Time, of my own role as a player in a small scene within an eternally unrolling tapestry, a piece of an immense canvas, one much older, but much younger than myself. I see my own story of wintering my bees here in the tarweed as one chapter of many taking place in this valley, not the first, and not to be the last. The lush Pleistocene valley is written in the meandering stream course, in the thick alluvium, while the hot and dry desert of present time is disclosed by the dry hills, by the vertical stream banks, and the excavation of the rich sediment from another Time, in this same Place. For a little while I see both lifetimes of this Place, and then, as always, the sense of timelessness recedes into shadows again. After a little while, I stand to finish my work among the bees.


Elsewhere, in another Place, at another Time, I lie on my back on the weathered clay and gravel, gazing into the scattered blue light of the sky, the familiar tiny flecks of light wiggling across my field of vision, the countless scintilla that no ophthalmologist has ever been able to explain. Beyond this small mystery in my vision ride the greater mysteries above me, the moon one day past new, a narrow white smile pasted high into the sky, and the sun setting yellow and cheerfully over the mountains in the cool spring evening. I lie on the clay, oriented north and south, and visualize the arc of the sun’s path as it rises on my right and curves to the left, followed a few hours later by the waxing moon. The bodies are unmysterious, as well known to me as the robin that sings in the nearby junipers, amiable companions on my journey through this life, often present, but seldom consciously observed or even thought about.


And then the shapes shift, the light changes, and again, present time melts away in anticipation of the Visitor. The ground heaves under the great circle beneath my back, rotates through a quarter, and reappears as an immense planetary body in a strange and unfamiliar form. I adhere to the vertical side of a slowly spinning sphere, an immeasurably small mote clinging to a colossal ball of heavy metals, aluminosilicates, and gases, itself only transiently held together by the same forces that pin me to its surface. My point of view wheels up and through the atmosphere, and the blue sky fades to the deep black of hard light in the airlessness above.


The flat crescent moon grows in my vision and fills out into another sphere, the reflected light from behind me resolving the complete body in shades of cratered brown and black, illuminated harshly sunward and dimly by earth and starlight on its other half, clearly visible to me now. Against the darkness, the sun hangs in flames at the center of the enormous cosmic dance, tiny balls of heavy elements like the one clutching at my back whirling in huge ellipses around its vastly greater center of mass. Without pause, my vision races farther out still, until the sun and its system of satellites shrink to a miniscule orrery within a seemingly limitless universe composed of countless other systems, some smaller, some larger, but adding up by the thousands, by millions, of suns, and planets, and then of galaxies. And close at hand the stars hang in the Heavens, their fusion furnaces blazing in ecstasy. I see the candles of the Lord sing together, the sons of God shout for joy, in celebration of the beauty and wonder of Creation, the messengers hurtling outwards at immense speed with the good news.


And as quickly as I ascended, I am thrown back to the surface of the earth, the gravel again sharp against my back as the blue curtain of the sky is drawn over the black and infinite Heavens. The stars recede into the distance, and the song of the robin returns. Above me the smiling moon still serenely trails the sun towards the sunset, drawing the terminator ever closer, the edge of darkness that trails the Light.


A sense of Place is a humbling thing, but not humbling in any way that implies diminution, of a loss of value or purpose. The Visits come and go at their own schedule and their own purposes, but are always meaningful, always instructive. For me, the visitations provide a context, a view of who and what I am that enables me to become more fully attuned to my own role in the cosmic dance, a more sensitive participant, one more deeply aware of my assigned steps. And one day, of course, the Visitor will return, and take me away with it when it goes. I have no fear of that day, for nothing in its arrivals or departures hints of animosity or indifference. Instead, the lessons are personal gifts—generous and welcoming previews of a greater and deeper sense of place that one day won’t fade and retreat, but will remain with me forever.