Monday, March 19, 2007

A Precious Message You Bring Me

There have been places so beautiful and vast that my senses and mind have been overwhelmed, unable to absorb all the grandeur. One place that struck me this way most strongly was the Canadian Rockies. We were there fifteen or so years ago, and I can still remember standing at a scenic overlook, gazing at the miles of unbroken forest, deep valleys and mountain peaks and getting the feeling that I was looking at a photograph or nature documentary, and not something real. Oh, the view was beautiful and awe-inspiring to be sure, but there was also something unsettling about it. Perhaps, because I’ve spent my whole life living in the East, near sea level, I lack a frame of reference sufficient to place such vast landscapes in a context that I can truly understand and feel comfortable with. I don’t know if it’s innate, or learned, but perhaps some of us just feel more at home in a landscape that shows the hand of man. I can still remember a certain feeling of relief when we left the mountains and drove through gentler lower valleys that offered lovely rural scenes with pastures, fences, simple homes and country roads.

A few weeks ago we were visiting our daughter in Berkeley, California and we made a short visit to Yosemite National Park. After a lifetime of Walt Disney specials and Ansel Adams photographs, I was eager to go there at the first opportunity.

We drove inland from the Bay Area, passing through Altamont Pass. The name “Altamont” bounced around inside my slow, leaky brain. When I saw the magnificent wind farm on the hills around the pass (See “Hope Persists,” March 10, 2007), I thought that was the memory I was seeking. Some time later, I unearthed the deeper memory. Altamont was the place the Sixties died. At the close of the decade in December of 1969, the Rolling Stones played a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California that turned into a deadly disaster. The decade of peace and love dissolved into a riotous scene of brutality and murder. Some of us who thought the world was on a better path were slow to acknowledge the truth.

Perhaps it is with some small cosmic irony that my little journey from Altamont to Yosemite, in a way, skipped over a century from 1969 to 1869. For one brief moment, it felt as if I stepped into the nineteenth century to discover a spirit bird.

We enjoyed a wonderful visit to the park, acting like typical tourists, driving to all the famous attractions in Yosemite Valley like the Arch Rock Entrance, Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Falls. We were suitably awed by the towering granite monoliths of Half Dome and El Capitan. We basked vicariously in the wealth and elegance of Ahwahnee Lodge. My suspicions were confirmed when only a short hike from the road up to Inspiration Point left all but two other tourists behind. Most Americans hate to walk. There we drank in a view that has been made famous by countless photographs.

I knew I would never be able to comprehend such vast and intense beauty on a short two-day visit. Even those who experience love at first sight long to spend a lifetime with their new lovers. I knew this quick trip could be little more than a brief encounter.

While the grand mountains clamored for attention, I kept hearing a soft serenade from the small river that meandered through the valley. The Merced River tumbled over the rocks, alternately forming pools and riffles. Pictures of dry flies and rising rainbow trout drifted before my minds eye. I imagined bathing in summertime where the river formed low falls as it cascaded between boulders. Perhaps this river reminded me of the streams I visited in the Catskills and Adirondacks of New York in my youth. I was comfortable with the scale.

The road we traveled shared the valley with the Merced and for two days the river called to me. As we left the park for the last time, I wanted to spend a few minutes close to the water. We paused at a wonderful spot that afforded easy access to the water and a spectacular view of Bridalveil Falls across the valley. At the water’s edge, I hopped from rock to rock, pausing to watch the crystal liquid flow over the stones on the creek bed. I watched the swirls and eddies and saw a leaf drift by. A bird song came to me from across the river. Above a high cut in the opposite bank was a grassy meadow and I thought the unfamiliar call must be coming from there. I scanned the brush and grass with my binoculars expecting to find perhaps a finch or other enthusiastic singer but I couldn’t find anything.

Then, a movement caught my eye out in the river itself. A small, dull gray bird was sitting on a rock in mid-stream. Surely, this plain-looking creature couldn’t possess such a melodious voice! As soon as the bird flashed his white eyelids, raised and lowered his stubby wings and bobbed up and down in place, I knew what it was. I had seen an American dipper once before in the Canadian Rockies and I was thrilled to see one again in a mountain stream of the West. These birds are known for their unique habit of walking and flying underwater in search of food. Another name for this bird is “water ouzel” and I prefer this unusual name as it seems more appropriate for a bird that exhibits such exotic behavior in such wonderful places.

Balancing with binoculars on a boulder, I watched for about a minute until the bird buzzed downstream. Even though I slipped off the darn rock a moment later, slamming my shin into the stone, leaving a gash that is still scabbed-over weeks later, I felt the invigoration that comes from those magical moments when nature provides an experience that seem mystical. It was almost as if the spirit of the ouzel was saying goodbye and inviting me to someday return to Yosemite. I limped back to the car happy that my short visit had such a satisfying and memorable ending.

The next morning, I was enjoying my morning coffee, some bright sunshine, and a few peaceful moments outside our motel in Mariposa before heading back to the coast. I was reading a used paperback copy of John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra that I picked up in one of Berkeley’s great bookstores. I was reading about one of his explorations from his sheep camp along the north fork of the Merced River in 1869. I felt a tingling in my spine when I read that on July 29th he saw this:

It is about the size of a robin, has short crisp wings serviceable for flying either in water or air, and a tail of moderate size slanted upward, giving it, with its nodding, bobbing manners, a wrennish look. Its color is plain bluish ash, with a tinge of brown on the head and shoulders. It flies from fall to fall, rapid to rapid, with a solid whir of wing-beats like those of a quail, follows the windings of the stream, and usually alights on some rock jutting up out of the current…

What a romantic life this little bird leads on the most beautiful portions of the streams, in a genial climate with shade and cool water and spray to temper the summer heat. No wonder it is a fine singer, considering the stream songs it hears day and night. Every breath the little poet draws is part of a song, for all the air about the rapids and falls is beaten into music, and its first lessons must begin before it is born by the thrilling and quivering of the eggs in unison with the tones of the falls.

Then, on July 12th while camping higher up along Cascade Creek, he noted this:

Here I find the little water ouzel as much at home as any linnet in a leafy grove, seeming to take the greater delight the more boisterous the stream. The dizzy precipices, the swift dashing energy displayed, and the thunder tones of the sheer falls are awe-inspiring, but there is nothing awful about this little bird. Its song is sweet and low, and all its gestures, as it flits about amid the loud uproar, bespeak strength and peace and joy. Contemplating these darlings of Nature coming forth from spray-sprinkled nests on the brink of savage streams, Samson’s riddle comes to mind, “Out of the strong cometh forth sweetness.” A yet finer bloom is this little bird than the foam-bells in eddying pools. Gentle bird, a precious message you bring me. We may miss the meaning of the torrent, but thy sweet voice, only love is in it.



At 7:33 PM, Blogger Lynne said...

Powerful and beautiful, this post of yours brought me to tears.

At 10:20 PM, Blogger Larry said...

Sounds like some wonderful memories. I've never seen a Dipper but I did see The Stones.-I can assure you that it was not even close to being free but at least no one was hurt on the night I went .- That seems to be a wonderful book-Maybe I will try to find a copy of that book to read myself.

At 10:48 AM, Blogger Lilly said...

"they sweet voice" the voice of nature "only love is in it"

Amen, Mojo, Amen to that!

At 11:21 PM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Beautiful post, Mojoman.


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