Field Notes #4

August 10, 2007 | 41 comments
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It is the destiny of mint to be crushed. –Waverley Lewis Root

June 12, 2007
Rained most of the night. Morning’s cool and sweet. Good day to venture into a canyon. Because the storm has left behind puffy white seeds that could blossom suddenly into rain, I replace my extra water bottle with a rain poncho. In honor of the sky, scrubbed to a deep, shining blue, I wear my turquoise tee shirt. Usually I wear a white one with sleeves, but I like to wear this color when I hike. Weather permitting, I do.

The cicadas aren’t singing as fervently today as they were four days ago. On the west slope, where the morning sun strikes full, they clung to branches of junipers and pinion pines, revving their love engines. Occasionally, I found one thrumming on a rock on the trail. Clearly, though, they prefer the desert trees.

Cicadas see quite well. If you come within ten feet, they tumble from their perch, emitting an dry rattle sounding something like the rattlesnake’s classic “buzz.”

The first time I heard a rattlesnake rattle was at the Monte L. Bean Museum at BYU. Back then, they kept some live creatures in small glass cases. Without realizing what was inside one, I leaned over it for a better look at something on the wall behind. The second I heard that buzz, I experienced a powerful startle reflex. I jumped back from the case then looked in and saw the snake, coiled at at the ready, but it didn’t strike the glass, perhaps because it already knew the futility of such behavior. Or perhaps it was waiting to see if I heeded the warning.

I’ve crossed paths with several rattlers since. Some were close brushes; others, more distant encounters. In all cases, their warning buzz triggers a more powerful response in my brain than does the sudden honking of a car horn.

When a cicada tumbles and buzzes, it triggers the same startle response. At first. Cicada hum and rattlesnake rattle don’t sound exactly alike but it takes even an experienced brain a split second to make the distinction and suppress the recoil reflex: not rattler–bug. By then, the bug has fled.

As I was saying, cicadas see well and are not insensible; when you draw too close, they tumble, buzz and fly. I don’t know much about these insects but guess their good eyesight is a function of their big bug eyes. Their quickness reminds me of another large, bug-eyed insect, the praying mantis, whose level of responsiveness suggests an above-average aptitude for relation with its surroundings.

Four days ago, I realized as I walked through the drone that I wasn’t disturbed by how the cicadas changed the audioscape. My trail, usually vocal only when wind sighs or roars through tree branches, sounded like a racecourse for miniature cars. The sound excited me a little. I walked through the vibrancy feeling a charge as if I were passing through an electrical field.

Today as I descend the trail the cicadas are mostly quiet. They drop out of the pinion pines and junipers and fly away, their buzz only brief and muted. Too cool and wet, I suppose; the rain has dampened their ardour. On the trail I find a cicada shell, bulbous like a bumblebee’s body, paper thin, shiny, brown. When I was a kid in Virginia I collected these shells and played with them till they fell apart.

I said it was cool, but it’s humid, also; I started sweating before I reached the trailhead because what heat there is gloms to my skin, soaking into and matting my hair. I find most of the cliffroses bloomed out; their pale yellow blossoms withered, then the blooms puckered and sent out long, feathery appendages which appear to reach for something. Even so, the dying flowers bear the strong, sweet frangrance of plant sex.

At the trail’s sandier parts I find coyote tracks. They’re a familiar site, but I only see the coyotes themselves if they linger against their better judgement to wonder at me or if I pull a fast one and double back, suprising a God’s dog who didn’t think I had it in me.

By the time I reach the canyon bottom, it’s filled with cloud shadow. Tops of clouds turn back the heat I felt earlier. I cross a rabbit brush and big sage forest, where raindrops hang pendant from leaves or lie in shimmers along green creases. I walk beneath a cottonwood–old, venerable–just as a breeze slips into its leaves. They drop their payloads of cold rain on me. Water has muted everything; I could walk silently if I wanted. But silent footsteps could result in my coming upon something truly dangerous–a free range cow, maybe, whose protective instincts–instincts I understand well–might provoke her to drive me away from her calf.

I strike the canyon bottom and turn south, hearing, as I emerge from the rainy cottonwoods, a familiar, sharp, “Ehhhp! Ehhhp!” It’s the Swainson’s hawk nesting in the next cottonwood grove. At sight of me, he flaps quickly back to the vicinity of his nest. I’ve bothered this hawk and his family much with my observations of their business and my idle talk; we know each other well. But he still doesn’t like me.

The sand, wet as it is, is easier to walk in, providing firmer footing, but I hit a patch of the trail that looks drier than it is and slip. My fall pitches me to the left so quickly I’m unable to recover balance. I go down hard but since I’ve moved here I’ve found my one, great physical talent–I take a fall like a pro and am rarely hurt. Water bottles fly over my head, catapulted from my pack’s exterior mesh pockets. I collect my bottles and wits, mentally assessing my parts, and feel no warning pain.

Gaining my feet I immediately notice the faint imprints of fresh turkey tracks. In the hawk’s grove, I encounter the turkey itself. Startled, it trots out of the wash. I stand quiet, offering no threat, so it stops, regards me then walks forward at a leisurely pace, emitting a single-note cluck that sounds something like Pop! Pop! It disappears into the sage flat on the wash’s east side.

I sit on a favorite log to eat my apple-and-trail-mix breakfast and to write, but the roar of ATVs interrupts my peace. I grab my pack, walking willow, and notebook and bolt across the wash, heading for the cover of a huge cottonwood tree. I put on my brown sweater to blend in better.

My flight turns out to be fortuitous. The old cottonwood is in fact four cottonwoods leaning away from each other in a decades-old competition for sunlight. Because their trunks lean at steep angles, their limbs touch the ground in places, forming a natural shelter. Here, I find the remains of what looks to be an old cowboy camp. The open spaces between where the branches touch the ground have been woven shut with deadwood, forming something like a makeshift corral. There’s a well-established but long unused fire ring and plenty of room for tents. On the bank forming the northern wall, I see a turkey feather lying against damp leaves and red soil.

This shelter is replete with the natural song of cottonwoods–a song filled with ringing water notes–and birds’ song, if not actual birds, alights within. Wet, decaying vegetation tinged with the sage gives the air under the trees a tangy, ripe odor.

Just as the creek has risen slightly after the rainstorm, birdsong has swelled into the canyon. I hear canyon wrens among the orchestra, piping their falling scale. The ATVs appear to have turned north. I leave the cottonwood cowboy camp, walk to the creek, and cross it on a beaver dam. As I stop to admire the dam and wonder whether the beavers here are still active, I smell mint. Unawares, I have stepped on it. I look, find it–same kind as grows up by the spring. As I close my eyes to enjoy its mild incense, I hear doves cooing.

Hundreds of varieties of mint grow on this planet. According to Greek myth, the mint plant was once a Naiad, a water nymph, named Minthe. Two variations of her story exist. The most dramatic has tender, watery Minthe as mistress to Hades, god of the underworld. Hades’ wife Persephone discovers the affair and in a rage attacks the defenseless nymph, kicking her to the ground and then stepping on her to grind her into the dirt. Minthe becomes a plant, releasing at each vicious kick a charming fragrance, some say like odiferous moans. I move away from the mint to peer into the water running below the dam. At the sight of me, thin minnows zip away like darts of water. Meanwhile, bottomfeeding tadpoles lie in place, my presence lost on them.

At the second beaver pond I find freshly cut cottonwood switches lying in the water–clear sign the beavers have survived. I walk up onto the high side of the bank and in the third pond see freshly cut rushes floating on the water’s surface and packed against the dam’s upstream curve. Then I see a beaver–it looks like a kit–swimming upstream, its mouth full of cattail stalks. Cliff swallow chatter distracts me. I look up and see them, just across the creek, hunting the east slope. Above them, my eye picks out other silhouettes–white-throated swifts. Swifts are longer in the wing than swallows. Their manner of flight is quite different from the blunt-winged little cliff swallows–in my opinion, more sophisticated. I glance back down at the beaver, then look up in time to see a pinwheel of motion falling through the air. A pair of copulating swifts tumbles end-over-end toward earth. They separate a hundred or so feet above the ground and fly up to rejoin the hunting party. I’ve heard of how the swifts mate on the wing but never seen it; it’s an extraordinary thing to witness. Cooincidence has favored me.

Sudden rockfall startles me and I glance from the swifts to the east rim. I see nothing except an eagle flying high above, turning a slow circle.

On my way out of the canyon, I stop at the spring. Usually I do this to listen to the sound of it, but today I pick four mint leaves to help me on the climb out. Crushing one leaf against my upper lip, under my nose, I feel its cool burn on my skin and an immediate invigorating lift, which I count on to boost me up one of the steepest sections of the trail. A sensation like joy fills my lungs. I hear the high, whirring tones of a hummingbird as it loops past.

At one of my usual rocks, I stop to rest, holding the three remaining mint leaves in my left hand, ready, like magic tokens. Their leaves feel soft, moist, and slightly fuzzy. I think how mint is a restorative herb able to alter your condition. Accounts of mint’s singular frangrance ascribe to it the ability to induce wisdom. I’ve used it to help my family heal from various flus. Smelling it now, my husband rises to mind in a way that feels like his presence. He finds homemade tea, heavy on the fresh mint, soothing to body and soul.

Harsh caws suddenly drown the melodious overlay of birdsong–magpies, full of complaint, fly from the rim northwest of me. Then I hear human voices; the magpies are fleeing those. The birds register the depths of their displeasure but they make no stand. At the sound of the human voices, I too go on the move. In a break in the trees I see them on the rim–several children, then an adult joins them. They are all on foot. Around here, people usually = guns. Less than two weeks ago, I was out in my garden when a bullet, probably a ricochet, hit the ground less than thirty feet away, sharply magnifying my caution. I take careful stock, then crush a mint leaf to give me a spurt of energy. The magpies take little notice of me, now walking just below them. I’m glad I draw no scorn. Gradually, they flow back in the direction from which they came. I crush the third leaf then emerge from the canyon at the edge of the prairie dog town.

The last leaf I crush as I hit the pavement to walk home. Its frangrance draws the canyon up after me for a few seconds more. Again, the odor recalls my husband to mind. In a burst of pleasure that hits my brain like the sudden release of odor from the crushed mint leaf, I realize how closely I associate him with this common but broadly gifted herb.

41 Responses to Field Notes #4

  1. Jim F. on August 10, 2007 at 1:15 pm

    PGK, my front door garden used to be filled with mint of several kinds, until the net of roots became so thick that we had to take out most of it or watch it choke out everything else. But picking mint is sheer pleasure. Unlike you, however, I rarely display mint-discipline, crushing one leaf at a time. I am, I must admit, too profligate. A smart, profligate person, though not a friendly neighbor, would be wise to replace a lawn’s grass with mint for the smell of treading on and mowing it.

    My favorite mint (and I’m hardly alone) is basil. At this time of year, I eat it with anything I can think of, but few things are better than fresh tomatoes and basil. But picking of the flowering heads to keep it from going to seed is a greater pleasure than eating it.

    My mint is oh-so-tame, but tame it reminds me of the deep beauty of things ordinary and even tame it connects my soul to the splendor of God’s world.

  2. Eve on August 10, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    Patricia, I love your descriptions. I now live far from the intermountain West, and they remind me of the landscapes of home.

    Thanks.

  3. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 10, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    Jim F. said, “My favorite mint (and I’m hardly alone) is basil.”

    Wow, funny you should mention basil. I’m just now shredding some to put in gazpacho. The smell of it’s on my hands, in the house. We must be on the same basil wavelength. Who says you can’t experience close connection with someone via experience invoked through language!

    Ooo, I love basil, too, but it has a hard time here in San Juan County because our harsh winds strike from all directions and strip off the leaves. I have to keep them in planters and carry them inside during spring storms. But if I’m not here or forget, all I get is stems.

    “Unlike you, however, I rarely display mint-discipline, crushing one leaf at a time. I am, I must admit, too profligate. A smart, profligate person, though not a friendly neighbor, would be wise to replace a lawn’s grass with mint for the smell of treading on and mowing it.”

    Don’t worry, I’m no better; I get massive mint hits when I make those homemade teas, usually in the fall during flu and cold season. When I’m out romping among wild mints, though, I try to control myself–it’s not my garden, after all. But yeah, where you have the water, planting mint where it can fill its destiny to be crushed would imbue your lawn with a mystical cachet. I understand certain kinds of thyme and oregano planted, say, between path stones produces a similar heady effect.

    “My mint is oh-so-tame, but tame it reminds me of the deep beauty of things ordinary and even tame it connects my soul to the splendor of God’s world.”

    Me too.

    Eve #2: You’re welcome, and thanks for reading.

  4. Ardis Parshall on August 10, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    I understand certain kinds of thyme and oregano planted, say, between path stones produces a similar heady effect.

    I did exactly that in the few years I was able to take care of a yard, with very low growing, very small-leaved thyme varieties planted between paving stones and along the edges of my sidewalk, letting the plants trailed over the edge of the pavement. Lovely to walk on, and in the hottest days the aroma hung over the whole yard. The slightly bruised plants quickly recovered.

  5. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 10, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    Ardis, I haven’t been as organized. One year my oregano got away from me and took over much of our front yard. When I mowed the lawn, the effect was much more interesting than it was when it was just grass growing there.

    As usual, anybody out there having field notes, feel free to add them to this post. This will be my last set of field notes. (Sighs of relief from the “nature bores me” segment of the bloggernacle community.)

  6. greenfrog on August 12, 2007 at 10:48 am

    PGK,

    Wonderful evocation of the connection between mint and mind and memory.

    For reasons I can’t fully figure out (perhaps the solitude you surreptitiously pursue?), your beautiful articulation reminds me of this bit of silliness:

    Spring Canyon, at mile 66, enters the Green from the east on the outside loop of Bowknot Bend. Dad and I find a sand bar lawned over with soft four-inch tamarack sprouts just down stream from the mouth of Keg Spring Creek, today a sandal-sucking mudpit. The greened-over sandbar looks like a decent campsite. We unload and set up camp. Twenty feet back from the sandbar grows a tangle of tamaracks. The guidebook says the canyon is worth a hike. When we get up in the morning, we try to find a path through the thicket. First, we scout the streambed – typically the clearest route into every canyon. With my first step down from the sandbar, I sink in the mud to my ankles. After a gastric sucking sound, I extract my stuck foot. My next step sinks almost to my knees. The thicket has to be better than dying in the Green’s version of tar pits. I escape the muck, wash off in the river, and we try to bushwhack past the river-edge growth. Unbelievably, in a world surrounded by desert, with the river’s jungle undergrowth, we literally cannot see two feet ahead. Neither of us thought to bring a machete into the desert, but we now wish we had. We push, slip, trip, stumble, scrape, bleed, squeeze, and slide our way between and around thumb-thick tamarack trees. The passage seems interminable. The only thing lacking is some corny narrator picking up Joseph Conrad’s line, “The horror, the horror.” The tamaracks can’t be impenetrable, because we are penetrating, but it’s ugly. Suddenly, the ground rises a foot or two and we’re into brambles and cottonwood shrublets, twenty feet further and we’re surrounded by sparse rabbitbrush and cactus. Go figure. We look at each other and laugh. At camp, we’d changed out of the river-dirty shorts and shirts and into something clean for a change. Our attempt at civilization lasted only until we entered the tamaracks. Our best guesses for the green sticky streaks covering our tee shirts, shorts, arms, legs, faces and hair, is that aphids must like to suck tamarack juice, because our pushing and squeezing through the tamaracks has left us grossly slimed with what appears to be squashed green bug guts. We squirt a bit of our drinking water and use the backs of our tee shirts, which are free of the bug guts streaking the fronts, to wipe the goop off our faces and arms. Trudging through the hot desert soon cakes the sticky parts with dust. We’re filthy, and it’s barely morning.

    We walk through what now seems like a standard desert canyon. This one is not particularly narrow. There is no sign of the water that must still flow beneath the blazing sand that forms the wide base. That there must be water there is certain: the water that made the streambed an impassable mudpit had to come from somewhere, and, since it was above the level of the river, had to be replenished relatively constantly. So while we’re certain we’re walking no more than fifteen feet above water, the only sign of it is that there are cottonwoods anchoring bends in the dry creekbed. We soon find traces of the dirt road the guidebook predicted. Easy footing, we walk along its twin tracks, then up and over a roadcut into the purple Moenave formation siltstone. It is hot. Even this early, temperatures are well into the 90s. There is a scattering of desert brush, sage, saltbush, and broom. Dust-colored lizards flit away before we even notice them, registering on our consciousness more like ghosts than flesh and sun-warmed blood. An hour’s walking and the road starts to slope up, we follow a ways before we discover that the road is climbing out of the canyon, not further into it. Instead of backtracking the half-mile or so we’d have to traipse, we scramble down the talus and scree, discovering that no one has tried to stabilize the slope. When Dad sees the small rockslides accompanying me down, he waits. Maybe just to watch the fun, maybe if I get squashed, he’ll be willing to backtrack down the road. We reach a bench of the purple Moenave formation again, this time forming a high wall to the creekbed below. We skirt along the softer stone, find a scramble, and re-reach the streambed.

    Proving that we are capable of getting lost more than once, we arrive at a fork in the canyon that is not detailed in our brilliant guidebook. Each side turns out of sight. The one on the right has a few more cottonwoods growing at stream bends. Like other western trees in autumn, these have small patches of leaves that have already turned to flame yellow. They look odd amid the dark green surrounding them. Everything else looks about equal, so we choose the right this time, betting that where there are cottonwoods, there are springs. Five hundred yards along, the canyon turns from south to east, steepens sharply, and fills with Navajo formation talus. We find small wet spots where seeps green things up. The box elder trees scattered amid the boulders show are beginning to redden toward winter. We scramble around, under, over, atop the boulders. When we reach the top of a house-sized boulder we can finally see a bit. What we see is that we’ve climbed into an alcove in the Navajo sandstone rim, surely not the canyon we thought we were hunting. Skinned and bleeding, disappointed, and worried that our water supplies won’t hold out for many more hours of exploring to see if the other fork was the one we sought, we scramble back down and around, reaching the dusty streambed again. We even look for footprints, hoping that other hikers may have left some sign that the guidebook wasn’t totally nuts. The only footprints there are our own. We check the sun, figure that it’s just before noon, and turn into the other fork. The streambed cuts from one side of the canyon to the other, into the sun, then the shade. Where it reaches the wall, it scoops out smooth bowls in the sandstone, the opposite bank made of sand and dirt sloping slowly down to the cracked puzzle-pieces of dried mud at the bottom. We climb up sandstone stair-steps leading the stream course higher. In a shaded bend, the mud is still dark with evaporating runoff. Another ghost-like flitting registers in my brain as a lizard. I look again and find in the dark mud patch a dozen or more froglets. Here, too, they cling to what’s left of water. When I crouch down, they hop cautiously away, raising puffs of dust. But they lack the water and mud that would make their escape successful. I hold their cool bodies in my hand and see no future for them. They can’t survive here without a rainstorm soon. The sky shows no relief. I put them down and we move on, a little more careful of our footsteps. Around another bend in the canyon, we find open water. A shallow, slimy seep emerges from a sandbank, runs across the hard sandstone of the creek, and disappears again into the sand at our feet. Soon, the creekbed runs with a trickle, then a constant flow of water. We stop, take off our boots and strap on sandals, leaving the boots behind. The canyon has narrowed, box elder, willows, and gambel oak growing along the drier edges, cattails and rushes in the wetter ones. We reach a glass-smooth pool, and pause to filter some drinking water to fill our bottles. That done, we wade into the pool, our feet quickly churning the crystal water into a soup of brown mud and chunks of dislodged green moss. We climb over trickling waterfalls and find the canyon even narrower. In the pools ahead of us we see life, darting for shade in the water just as the lizards do in the sun. I pause to see what sort of fish live this far up into the desert. I’m startled to see not fish, but bugs, specifically, relatively huge damselfly nymphs, inches long, filling the ecological niche where you’d usually find minnows. This far upstream, where catfish and carp can’t reach, there is no one to devour the oversized, and slow, nymphs. We push through cattails that have grown far over our heads, now at least ten feet above the water. Finally, we stop short of the canyon’s end, compelled partly by the limited time we have and our desire to explore other parts, partly by the deepening water and cattails. I snap a picture of the course, we turn and descend. When we stop at a small cascade to rest, I pull out a bar of soap and razor and shave. Close to the cascade, I can see froglets, these with a much better chance of survival, perched amid the dripping, spongy moss. Farther down, we find our boots and socks where the canyon made the shift from dry to wet. Reshod, we work back down to the Green River.

    This time, from the slightly higher canyon, we can see that our entrance to the canyon actually took us through the thickest section of undergrowth. We pick out a clearer path that should allow us to emerge a bit upstream of our campsite and safe from the tamaracks, and plunge in again. As planned, the bushwhacking is marginally easier and considerably shorter. But we come up short when we find that we’ve emerged not at the water’s edge, but a good fifteen feet above the river. We had managed to forget that we’re on the outside of the river’s bend. We’re standing on the part that gets carved away every day, every night, twenty-four by seven. We haven’t any idea how deep the river is here, and the tamaracks and briars grow right up to the dropoff. We can’t skirt the river edge back to camp. Faced with the prospect of fighting back into the tamarack to reenter camp from our original bushwhacking course, I come up with another alternative and explain it to Dad. He looks dubious, but agrees.

    We glance upstream. The river is as empty as it has been since the first day. I pull a length of rope out of my day pack, and double it around a tree at the edge of the bank. I check its length. Doubled, it is three feet shy of the river’s surface. We strip naked, strap on sandals, stuff our clothes into the day pack (Dad adds his glasses, just in case), tie the pack to the ends of the rope, which don’t quite reach the water’s edge, and I lower myself as far as I can and jump. The water is deeper than I’d planned for, I go under, then bob up, pulled along the bend by the current. I grab a tamarack root, laughing, and tell Dad to jump for it. He does and we head downstream sans canoe (and everything else). We make it to the canoe and campsite, re-equip ourselves with shorts, and paddle back upstream to collect the day pack, pull the rope around the tree, and smile at the adventure. We strike camp and head downstream again.

  7. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 13, 2007 at 1:59 pm

    Sorry it took me so long to get back, folks. Had finals to grade and grades to finalize.

    greenfrog, what fun! I enjoyed this tremendously. Thanks for the trip! I’ve never thought about exploring the Green, preferring rocks and washes that only flash with water from time to time. Probably has something to do with my not being able to … (looks this way, then that) … um, swim.

    I did hang out around the Allegheny River in NW Penna when I lived there for a while. Garter snakes big enough to drag you under.

    As for “solitude,” maybe you have some idea what that is; I’m not sure. I go out into nature seeking experience. Not sure how to explain what kind, but I know it when it happens.

    May 31, 2007
    Boiling, cooling, and pouring nectar has become part of my morning routine. I left the nectar to cool on the counter and went down to water the beans and onions. While I was in the garden, a couple of hummingbirds repeatedly buzzed me in the way I recognize as meaning, “Our nectar cups are empty; fill them!” (Rough translation, and I don’t know if hummingbirds would use the semi-colon or choose stronger punctuation.)

    If you watch hummingbirds for any length of time, you realize that flight makes up a large part of their language. You see the same flight postures, or variations upon them, over and over. Territorial displays, bickerings around the feeders–besides their shrill chirps, the way they hang on their wings and fan out their tails, the amount of space they choose to move across, etc.–it all says something. To other hummingbirds. And if you watch closely, it says something to you.

    So if a hummingbird does something out of the ordinary around your person, like sweep in close to your face or loop around your head, you ought to wonder if that particular flight expression is addressed specifically and directly to you. I have learned from experience that when the nectar cups are empty, one or two precocious black-chinned males will find me and pester me in this way, flying in close to my face or buzzing the top of my head. One male flew down and hung between furious wings a foot out from my face, pivoting to the left and right so that his gorgeous sheeny violet throat patch flashed fetchingly, then he flew straight up to the nectar cups. Immediately, I went to check the nectar, to see if it had cooled enough. I wanted him to know his communication had succeeded, that I had received his message.

    Animals speak volumes. What they seem to understand, at times better than some of us do, is that language is an act of relation rather than being simply “talking at” someone or something. So for animals, not only does the burden of expression lie on the “speaker”–the one doing the talking–but also upon the hearer; that is to say, it is the hearer’s business to comprehend, or at least to respond in cogent manner to the address. The hummingbirds, intelligent and expressive as they are, out of relation to me, have developed a word or phrase of flight meant only for me and not for each other, a gesture on the wing that gets their point across. This flight-phrase has arisen from the exigency of my role as nectar-bearer and their role as, shall we say, hummingbird gods, who drink the nectar the dull creature delivers to the abode of the gods they’ve made of our back porch. The other two species of hummingbirds that visit our feeders–rufous and broadtails–are not as outgoing as the black-chinned. During the two summers I’ve been providing nectar only black-chins have put the matter to me directly. But they are here longer than the others; they arrive first in the spring, and my relationship with them is long established before the broadtails and rufous tribes arrive.

    Humans often make this mistake of thinking that language only resides in the speaker; if the hearer fails to comprehend, then often speakers assume stupidity or language deficiency on the hearer’s part. Bur really, language resides in the relation between them. Even misunderstanding “says” something of great value, even when neither the speaker nor hearer understands what has occurred.

    To assume animals do not have language is to limit language to a tiny portion of what it actually is. To limit language in this way is to place the burden of communication upon the hearer. Such is not communication, but assertion.

    Then there is the question, that great gift of language. Many animals engage in questioning. Well-intentioned human questions have a certain songlike structure that other animals recognize and respond to. As I’ve discovered in my classrooms, many people don’t understand the question’s power. Overall, people are not very good at recognizing answers they get in response to the questions they address the natural world. Fault for that lies with us, not nature.

  8. William Morris on August 13, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    Cottonwoods. The light, the cotton, the thick branches for sitting. Water skeeters. Skipping stones. Cutting reeds for play swords. Picking asparagus.

    The main irrigation ditch where I used to play is since paved over.

  9. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 13, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Thanks, William. Cottonwoods deserve honoring. I didn’t know about cottonwoods during my green years in the East; my main trees were hickory nut, gigantic oaks (white oaks, I think), and sweet gum. But out here, I depend upon cottonwoods, on their being there, on what they say about prospects for shade and water.

    Anybody else? Don’t be shy–add some field notes! C’mon, do it! (Please?)

  10. Adam Greenwood on August 13, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    Y’all have set the bar a little high for us johnny-come-latelies, don’t ya think?

  11. Bob on August 13, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    #5:” This will be my last set of field notes. (Sighs of relief from the “nature bores me” segment of the bloggernacle community.” Nonsense !! This short pause even happened to Simon & Garfunkel!

    “Upon its release PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY & THYME was regarded as a landmark recording; time, however, has taken a toll. In the wake of the many artists Simon and Garfunkel inspired, their mixture of folk-rock and electronics no longer seems as fresh as it once did…” BUT I still like it!

    #8: Are you sure you are not thinking about the “Lombardy Poplar”? The “Mormon Tree” written about by Wallace Stegner in his book, “Mormon Country”?

  12. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 13, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    Adam, #10: Only bars here are sandbars, like in greenfrog’s field notes.

  13. Bob on August 13, 2007 at 6:20 pm

    Field Note from Bob: “Cutting reeds for play swords”. Sweet. All I remember is a Willow switch my Mom had on top of our hot water heater and how it felt on my butt following a misdeed. And the foolish mistake I made throwing it away (a lot of good that did!). I was made to go out and replace it: “make sure it’s just right”.

  14. greenfrog on August 13, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    The account of hummingbird flight and meaning reminds me of this:

    A great bird climbs into the segment of the sky far above me where the day has already dawned, the straight spread of charcoal grey wings, backlit by sunshine, the crescent moon still hanging in the morning sky. He tilts his wings forward and down, sliding, descending down the slope of air. He nears me and I can see his grey leather head, the palm-leaf veins of each primary flight feather illuminated by the sun. Dark edges where the feathers overlap. I hear the wind over his wings, a soft rushing.

    The unbroken continuity of his wings’ shape provides lift. The surface of the top curve of the wing is longer than the flat undersides. When the wing splits the air, the air rushing over the curved top side has farther to go than the air passing the flat surface beneath. Since the speed is the same, the greater distance above than beneath creates a low pressure area, a vacuum. The higher pressure beneath the wing pushes the bird higher. There are no gaps in this bird’s flight feathers to allow the pressure gradient to equalize. So he soars, apparently unworried by the physics of his flight. On wing, he turns his head and inspects [my wife], then spirals up hundreds of feet more into the cool morning sky. At the tips, the wing tops lose their foil shape, but catch the wind like dandelion seeds, bending upward with the flow of the river of air.

    He turns and wheels. The prayer of his morning flight mirrors my own, a shadow of the flying cross that sails, contorting over each contour of each talus stone. The morning’s climb to the ridge of Bowknot Bend has taxed my stiff legs and sore back. I wonder if the vulture, too, needs the slow morning flight to stretch the lactic acid from its wings and breast. Another joins the first, and together they stretch their sail wings and drift in the upwelling rivers of air that cross the low point in the canyon walls.

    [my wife] returns from her solitary explorations, I ask, and she tells me these are turkey vultures, Cathartes aura, that they have grey heads that redden as they mature. So they’re juveniles. Huge, seven feet from tip to tip.

    Civilization loathes vultures. The desert treasures them. We package our dead, shrink wrap our meats, embalm our loved ones. Better deading through chemistry. We try to freeze them in Lucite, preserve Sleeping Beauty beneath a glass bell jar, as though we could stop a river in its course. In the desert, economy reigns. Desert vultures take the dead and dying, their sunlight, their water, their proteins, their fats, and turn them into grey feathers, yellow claws, eggshells and chicks.

    I find a flat rock just beneath the ridge line and lie down. [my wife] leaves to explore more. The vultures turn, turn again, and drift out of sight, beyond the gooseneck canyon rims. I watch in silence as the earth turns slowly toward the sun, my head against the stone holding still, to see the exact moment of sunrise at this spot. The earth keeps to its slow spin, the sun at the canyon rim glints, then gleams, then blazes. I squint and close my eyes, feeling the warmth on my face, sunshine, photons from nuclear fires a short few million miles away.

    Warmed, I rise, recross the ridge, and explore the top of the talus slope at the base of the knife-edge cliffs that rise toward the river bend. The sun has yet to dawn here, but in days past has baked the grasses into buckskin-colored fountains that rustle softly in the morning breeze. Tufts of desert plants on the slope grab life out of the rotted sandstone soil. A precarious perch, a bad place for perennials, but a few seasons growth is enough to spread their seed. Their reproduction imperative satisfied, the plant line continues. Something, it looks like leafless green branched sticks, maybe an ephedra, grows out of the dust.

    Alone and haunted, I look for silver sage to crush and smell and remember. Though it’s everywhere in Colorado and Utah, here I can find none. Seeing the dry grass again, I grab a bunch. Its toughness surprises me, instead of a handful of dry leaves of grass, I get roots, too. The plants are stronger than the stones that hold them. At the edge of a steep drop, I strike match to stone, ignite the grass and watch its smoky flash-burn on the flat of a boulder. The smoke smell sharpens my focus on the stone. The grass burns quickly to the damp roots, then smolders. When it has released its brightness and smoke, I rub out the glowing embers with a finger. The carbon that the grass pulled from the air last month now stains black a patch of stone already stained red by oxygen. The last wisp of smoke rises above the knife-edged ridge into the sunshine and disappears. Remembrance paid, I pick my way back to the saddle, find [my wife] and descend.

  15. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 13, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    Haha! Wry guy Bob, in #13, proves it: There are no bars set here.

    Bob, is this a typical example of Mother’s nature?

  16. Bob on August 13, 2007 at 9:43 pm

    #15:I do not know where I should be placed on the Nature writing scale. Low I would guess. But if Greenfrog and PGK, can fit in the tent with Hemingway, then there is room for us all!

    Field note from Bob: I am about ten now, for whatever/many reasons, it has come down to my mother and me visiting the graves on Memorial Day. My sister Pat died, at age six , four years before I was born. My Grandfather’s grave is just down the way, he died ten years before I was born. Half the flowers go to my sister; we move down the line. The flowers are placed, my mother stands looking down at her father’s grave while I look at her. I knew then, and still know, this was a good man, by my mother’s tear. My mother was not one to suffer any fool!

  17. Bob on August 13, 2007 at 10:08 pm

    #14: ” Alone and haunted, I look for silver sage to crush and smell and remember” .Wallace Stegner, in his visit he his childhood farm, could find nothing left for his memories. Except a ‘smell’. All was gone but that. He searched, trying several plants, then he found it: Wolf Willow’ Now the name of one of my favored Nature books.

  18. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 13, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    greenfrog, very intense. Your narrative creates something like a movie in my head as words swirl into pictures. I don’t see you exactly, though I picture your hands holding the dry grass with roots attached, setting it ablaze, smudging the embers against the stone.

    Your reference to rotting sandstone made me think of this entry.

    May 15, 2007
    I went into _________ Canyon and worked my way down canyon to the spot where I imagined the spring to be that I discovered four days earlier, following a well-worn deer trail through crytobiotic soil. When I strike the side canyon containing the spring, I find the way rough going. Vegetation tangles and snarls to form barricades. I’m not really in good enough shape to deal with all this, but I’m moving along the canyon’s sides on the slopes, looking for a trail of some kind–any kind. Some creatures or other ought to have cut trails to reach the water. The air here in this side canyon is redolent with the fragrances of cliffrose and desert primrose. The water laughs as it trickles through rock and overgrowth, its light, silvery tinkle underlying the sweet fragrances like a theme.

    It’s hot now and I’m tired, forcing choices. At one point in my toiling I see two ways to go. Up one way I see the inviting shade of an overhang. The other goes down into the spring. Which way, then? I’m reaching the limits of my stamina; I choose the shade.

    Working my way up slope I feel bushes and trees push me from behind, snag me from above, claw from the sides. Lines from Andrew Marvell’s The Garden spring to mind: “Stumbling on Melons, as I pass / Insnar’d with Flow’rs, I fall on Grass.”

    I reach a very loose-soiled bentonite-type slope where every footstep takes me backward, carving a couple inches off each stride. I go very carefully, knowing no rock or handhold is stable. The way is steep and the overhang appears easy to access, but of course, it isn’t. At the base of this rotting stratum I see something that could pass for a trail, but studying the wear pattern in the soil I realize it’s only the drip trail from water running off the rock lip above. I follow it anyway, compensating for the degree to which I slide downhill, and approach the overhang only to find a fallen juniper, dead for ages, twisting across my way. Gripping its branches, I haul myself over. The soil here is very rotten; every grip, every brace point crumbles at the touch.

    At last I reach the overhang and find a reasonably comfortable rock to perch on. While I rest, a canyon wren lands on the rock lip just above and sings its desert song. I’ve never heard the cadence so close.

    A hummingbird grazes by my left ear and displays to something–another hummingbird, I suppose, out of my line of sight–in a cliffrose twenty feet below me. Again and again it traces a pattern in the air resembling the symbol for infinity–an elongated, horizontal, figure eight. After that, it swoops twenty feet up into the air and plunges downward then rises again, wings whistling with speed. It repeats a capital-J pattern, concentrating an impressive amount of time on the matter.

    An eagle flies over–golden. Time to cool off and restore myself.

    After resting, I continue working my way up slope only to come to what for me is a dead end of stone ledges. Now I face the dilemma of backtracking through that loose soil and finding a fairly reliable way back down and across the spring’s course. The going is very rough; I have to backtrack many times. At last, I make it to the streambed, which is littered with stony obstacles. I wriggle through a cleft–my only option–and slowly climb back up the opposite slope. I’ve spent as much time and energy on this puzzle of how to reach the clean water in the sand-bottomed pool at the seep’s head as I can afford today. Probably, there’s a way up this north slope to the canyon rim, but I’m shaky from what for me is profound exertion and I decide to head for the canyon bottom and the cottonwood-shaded ATV trail. Struggling along, I find a wash whose sediment looks familiar. This whole area is laced with little washes, but each one is different. Following this wash, I eventually meet up with myself, my footprints from earlier. I follow these, backtracking myself, steps weary. An eagle keens as it sweeps along the canyon’s east rim; canyon wrens laugh; some other bird with a rattle for a call buzzes the air every few seconds. I find a shade-filled hollow beneath two junipers and lie down. I’m probably painfully late for Mattea’s feeding, but if I push myself any more, I’ll jeopardize my safety.

    So … after resting I turn north in the general direction I’d come, and crossing, following, wandering in and out of, and meeting now and again my old footprints, I wander back to the ATV trail and emerge onto it at one of the sun-baked sage flats, which is good and hot. Legs and feet tired by this time but leg muscles still willing and able to trudge me along. Soon I’m winding in and out of cottonwood groves, deeply grateful for the shade. I strike a more familiar part of the trail, and as I’m only about an hour away from home, now, I drop my guard, with the result that I engage in an act of mutual stratlement with a small group of cows and calves resting in the undergrowth in a cottonwood grove. One cow rises noisily to her feet, and I know that in a conflict with a cow right now I couldn win, so I back down, re-cross the stream, made a wide circle around the cows, cross the stream again and regain the trail. One more rest stop, then up and out.

  19. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 13, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    Bob said, “But if Greenfrog and PGK, can fit in the tent with Hemingway, then there is room for us all!”

    Yes, my point exactly. Not sure I can abide Hemingway’s snoring, though.

    “I knew then, and still know, this was a good man, by my mother’s tear. My mother was not one to suffer any fool!”

    Great lines! Got any more, Bob?

  20. Bob on August 13, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    #19: OK..I can hold it in no longer! Bro. Co-poster, it’s clear you have a head full of beautiful images, but the best Avatar you can come up with is ‘Greenfrog”?!

  21. greenfrog on August 13, 2007 at 11:52 pm

    Following this wash, I eventually meet up with myself, my footprints from earlier. I follow these, backtracking myself, steps weary.

    Self-awareness language intentional?

  22. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 14, 2007 at 12:33 am

    Yes it’s intentional, because coming upon my own tracks, my recent history in an area, always amuses and, in some strange way, fascinates me. Something to do with time and event. So here I am, following myself. Except backwards, the way by which I came and am now returning. Time past and time future and all that.

  23. Bob on August 14, 2007 at 1:12 am

    #21 & 22: Louise L’Amour…right?

  24. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 14, 2007 at 1:58 am

    Bob … Louise? Louise L’Amour? Did Louis have a twin sister?

  25. Kaimi Wenger on August 14, 2007 at 2:28 am

    Yes, P.G. I told you in the course of this paper that L’Amour had a sister; but do not look for her in this blog. She died young —alas, she never wrote a word . . .

  26. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 14, 2007 at 9:54 am

    Huh. Well, shame on me for not knowing that! A great loss, I’m sure.

  27. Bob on August 14, 2007 at 11:02 am

    *24,25,26: All right , all right, you found me out; I can’t spell! But I think I will make it: “Prospects remained high for my being able to walk, talk, go to public school, hold down a job, pay taxes, vote, and in every other way be a productive member of society”. (PGK). They once asked Stegner the difference between his Western writing and L’Amour: “About a million dollars.” Did you know that Stegner took Freshman Writing at U.of U,

  28. Bob on August 14, 2007 at 11:09 am

    Don’t know what happened to #27,…from Vardis Fisher? Fisher may have been nuts, but Stegner felt he still warranted respect a one of the best “Mormon’ writers.

  29. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 14, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Just having fun, Bob.

    BTW, Professor Wenger, um, will that be on the test?

  30. William Morris on August 14, 2007 at 1:46 pm

    Re #11: The part of the ditch that was left ungraveled over while I was a kid had one giant cottonwood on one end. Several thin trees that may very well have been Lombardy Poplars and thick forest of tall reeds with a well-worn path that went along them (and sometimes curved in to the bank and sometimes away from it). The entire section was maybe 30-40 feet wide and a city block long.

    Re #28: I have a copy of a German translation of Vardis Fisher’s _Children of God_ that was given to me by a Romanian man who collected books. He refused to take the discussions, but he was very excited to “repatriate” this book that had been sitting around his dusty villa for decades.

  31. Bob on August 14, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    #30: Funny you used “repatriate”. So many of the “Mormon” writers, Fisher, Stegner, DeVoto, and many others, considered themselves “Expatriates” of the Mormon Church. Born into it, but never ‘signed on’. Stegner did however loved playing Church Basketball. If you Google Fisher, you will find a great U-tube type interview of him in the 60s.

  32. Kaimi Wenger on August 14, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    P.G.,

    Actually, that’s a (lame, probably) adaptation of a paragraph from A Room of One’s Own, where Virginia Woolf writes:

    “I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare had a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young – alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle.”

    (See http://books.guardian.co.uk/extracts/story/0,,2070468,00.html )

  33. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 14, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    Yeah, so … will it be on the test, or won’t it?

  34. Kaimi Wenger on August 14, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Like I tell my students, everything covered during the course is fair game. :)

  35. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 14, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    For the T&S gardeners.

    Date: Sometime this past spring.

    After building two raised beds with rocks we’ve hauled from the gravel pit, and after planting one bed already prepared, I left my son to fill in the new beds and went upstairs to eat breakfast and recover. Arms, legs, feet, stiff and sore from rock hauling; I’m just about done hauling rocks this year because I’m getting weary of sore muscles and stiff joints. At my age, hauling rocks is something of a challenge, but I’m interested in the fact I can still do it.

    I go out again at about seven. The desert has cooled off pleasantly; the sky keeps just a few clouds to the western horizon. I roll out the weed barrier and plant the peppers in one of the remaining two beds and melons in the other–watermelons and casabas. As I finish planting the casabas, my ten-year-old daughter comes out. She has decided to help me. “Then will you help me plant the beans if I prepare the soil?” I ask. She says she will.

    This child was my big gamble, my leap of faith after the birth of my disabled daughter. Many people stop having children following the birth of a disabled one; I had my son two years before Mattea was born, but after Mattea, my husband and I decided to wait and see. Shortly after Mattea turned six she stabalized somewhat. I said to Mark, “If we’re going to have another baby, now’s the time.”

    Since some chance existed that the CMV might recur with the pregnancy, we scheduled extra ultrasounds to keep track of the baby’s development in case we had to prepare to receive another lost child. But at ten pounds six ounces, she was as round as a turkey and pink with good health. The first time I held her in my arms, I thought, “I am comforted.”

    Dusk is falling, but as I rake the tilled ground smooth in preparation for planting beans I notice I’m casting a shadow. The ground holds tinges of sunset’s afterglow, but the source of light causing the shadow comes from behind me, a three-quarters-full planter’s moon. After raking the ground, my daughter uses its handle as a planting guide, setting out a nice, straight row of bush blue lake green beans. My daughter likes to eat the beans right off the plants, so we plant hundreds. I tell her to plant them two inches apart but she hasn’t a full sense of space, especially given how the darkness affects perspective, and she places the seeds rather close. I correct her then move the rake down the row so we can plant the next section.

    Soon we have a nice, straight line of white, kidney-shaped beans lying on the soil’s surface. By now the moon is high and bright; the beans glow in it, little kidney-shaped half moons all in a row, each one perfectly visible. I drop to hands and knees on one end of the row and Val gets down on the other and we begin pushing bean seeds a half an inch or so into the dirt. I enjoy the feeling of pressing the hard seeds into the soft dirt; I enjoy how the ground grips my finger. At one point I hit a damp patch of earth; cold seeps out of the wet ground, or rather, in an exchange of energy, the cold ground draws off my body heat. The chill goes to the bone. My shoulders ache from crawling but the work goes quickly. I finish two-thirds of the row when my daughter and I meet. Along the way, I find a few moonlight-bright white seeds Val has dropped off to the side and push them into the ground at random spots outside the row.

    Then I smooth the soil over them and pat it down, hard.

    Soon the whole row’s planted. All that remains is for me to water the bean seeds and the other plants already in. It’s easy to see the gound where the beans are planted. Moonlight reflects differently from the packed earth from how it does the rest of the turned soil. I pour water from my watering can and watch the light split and spark in the dozen or so thin streams the rose separates out. Each time I leave to refill the can, I can tell easily where I left off watering and pick right up again. Garden tools lie all around, but everything is so brightly lit and beautifully apparent. I move through obstacles as if it were day. My daughter asks if she can be excused and I say all right.

    I finish watering the beans and turn to the melons, peppers, and tomatoes. Nighthawks trill and I look around, trying to see them in the grainy gray air, but I can’t. Stars lightly freckle the sky. Wondering where the Big Dipper is, I find it almost overhead. Woodhouse toads looking for love bray “Waaaaaaaa, waaaaaaa, waaaaaaa,” over at a neighbor’s pond. A horse neighs. Sounds of children playing in the dark–laughter, cries.

    But soon all my neighbors go inside and I’m mostly alone. It’s far from quiet, though. There’s the roar of water hitting the weed barrier as I water the peppers, the nighthawks continue their cries, somewhere over at an abandoned outbuilding on my neighbor’s property I hear cats growl, the shed’s door bangs shut in the wind. Water puddling on the weed barrier looks like quicksilver.

    By now it’s deliciously cool. Moonlight has become intense. My shadow is deep and clearly cut. Thinking about the moonlit coolness, I remember I used to imagine that this is what I tasted in apples freshly picked in the early morning–moonlight. “Ripened in the cool cellars of the moon”–that’s how I thought of those apples. I put away loose tools and gather up litter–empty seed packets, scraps of weed barrier, and so on.

    One last look at the garden and night sky. Moonlit nights hold back the “out there,” the “beyond us.” Nights like this are more about the here and now, like day. I feel held to Earth by moonlight, my shadow sharp, water sparking. When I watered the peppers, I noticed how their hue of gray suggested green. I can see the tiny onion spikes I planted days ago, devoid of color. In the flower garden I see baby’s breath flowers splayed like stars, clear, brilliant white. Suddenly I notice color–the dianthus, also called Sweet Williams. A deep fushia by day, by moonlight they are dusky scarlet. I pull myself away and walk up the back stairs to the house, moving on to other tasks.

    A little while later I walk out on the back porch in time to hear a coyote chorus, a short conversation arcing across the canyon and rolling hills.

  36. Bob on August 14, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    #34: Gee, my teacher always said “What I didn’t teach you during the course, will be on the test”. And “Shakespeare never wrote any of that stuff, it was another guy with the same last name, living in the same village”. And (drum roll), firing his finger at me “Name the greatest philosopher of modern time’!! “I Kant”…”You’re Right”!

  37. Bob on August 14, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    #35: ‘For the T&S gardeners.” Now this should have it own Thread! I have a whole shelve of: My year at/on…, My Maine Farm, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (Teale), Living the Good life (Nearing), etc.
    It’s right next to my PEZ collection!

  38. greenfrog on August 14, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    Another piece. I offer it in response to Bob’s question about my selection of avatars. Years ago, but shortly after the experience this passage reflects on, I found BeliefNet’s Mormon Issues Discussion Board, and I decided to invent a throw-away avatar I could use to post carelessly. I liked the frog for its very ambiguity — air or water? I liked the transformation evident in the critters. I liked the way its development was open and easy to observe. And I liked, somewhere deep inside of me, the froglet’s combination of risk-taking and instinct and working against all odds, hopping through hundred-degree sands in search of springs and new niches. I threw in the “green” because “frog” was already taken, and because of my general political bent.

    As others have observed for millenia, identity, once established, tends to perpetuate itself. I’ve never found a convenient time to discard greenfrog and assume a different guise. Should I now?

    But here’s the piece. I originally wrote it as an elaboration of the bit I posted earlier about finding froglets hopping through the sand and dust.

    Whatever their species, the lives of the froglets are not hard to fathom. About April, females laid eggs in the stillwater ponds and eddies along the streams and river banks, probably down close to the Green where water is most abundant (and the singing of the males at night most loud). Favored males, perched on the female’s backs, spread their milt over the newly exposed eggs, completing the second half of the chromosomes that would determine this froglet’s composition. The female deposited these eggs in well-chosen waters – they survived the egg-predation of birds and insects and other frogs; they avoided the temperature extremes of desert air.

    Tadpoles, little black-and-brown, big-headed fish, eat everything – muck, plants, bugs, and each other. If they could get their collective mouths around the herons, they’d eat them, too. But usually it’s the other way around. So mostly the brave ones, the ones that venture outside their shallow pond, end up as protein for some other DNA hosts, rather than reproducing on their own. A pity? Not really.

    The mother frogs don’t invest much of their proteins and fats in each froglet-to-be. The tadpole stage is a way for the species to acquire the protein it needs to create frog bodies without draining the female of the protein she needs to create more DNA replicating machines – more frogs. More obviously than most other species, a newly hatched tadpole is far from finished. It is a larva. A sterile stage between egg and reproductive unit. It exists as an efficient means of acquiring protein and resources that allow it to develop features the species uses to survive – larger brains, more mobile body units, greater water carrying capacity to permit greater exploration and travel. Of course, other species have chosen to have the females provide those things in greater supply to their young. Birds and reptiles lay eggs where their fetuses pass through their tadpole stage with nutrient rich yolk-sacs attached to their bellies. Mammals nurture their young with mother’s milk and feeding for years following birth. But those strategies wouldn’t work so well for frogs in this niche. The numbers game of predation doesn’t allow that much effort and resources to be expended on each offspring. So the zillions of them are left on their own.

    As the tadpoles grow larger, they morph in a miraculous process imitated by most mammals in utero. Their heads get longer, adding on backbone and belly, their tails shorten. Hind legs erupt, aping evolutionary processes written into their DNA eons ago. For several weeks, the tadpole cruises the warm shallows, a strange mutant hybrid neither fish nor fowl, odd legs protruding from the base of a swimming tail. Front legs erupt during those weeks, and suddenly the fish looks quite quadriped. Other changes have been occurring, less obvious from the outside. The tadpole is equipped with gills. The oxygen it needs for releasing energy from adenosine triphosphate – the same fuel in my muscles – it gets from the water. That requires some delicate balancing – to keep the eggs in an evironment where they won’t be smashed to pulp, they need to stay in still water. But still water lacks the oxygen of moving water. To keep the eggs in an environment that will provide the tadpoles with enough oxygen, the water has to be shallow – or at least the eggs and tadpoles have to inhabit the shallower areas of the water where the surface area between the water and the air is highest. But that’s where they’re most likely to get eaten. You get the picture.

    So females produce zillions of eggs and males tons of milt and Nature firmly walks along the precarious edge of the frogs’ extinction. What looks, after the fact, like a most unstable and improbable balancing act of physics and biology and evolution and geology and ecology, simply is. It has occurred. Like thin sandstone arches and gigantic boulders balanced atop spires. How many millions of boulders fall to terra firma before one balances? How long does the balance last before the rock finally falls? How many frogs evolved and died out before this species fit the jigsaw puzzle niche of resources and equipment and everything else?

    Once legged and tailless (or nearly so), the frog’s body has reclaimed the protein that previously composed the tadpole’s gills and tail. The frog breathes air. Curiously, it still takes in some oxygen through its skin, even when in water, but the lion’s share it gets, it breathes. These critters are about a half-inch long. And they are everywhere. That’s the miraculous part. With a system so well developed as this, you’d think the frogs would be found in suitable wetlands. But we find them even in remote seeps and springs miles from the river. These spots are separated by distances that take Dad and I hours to hike through bone-dry, blazing hot days. Thinking, I toy with theories. The first, because I fish, is an analogy to trout. In some places, you can find isolated trout populations – or you could, before state departments of wildlife planted them everywhere. In my home, it is the Greenback Cutthroat. It is a survivor living in high mountain streams and lakes. And nowhere else. At some point in the past, the population got isolated from other trout populations – glaciers receded, rockfalls made the stream impenetrable from lower parts, ancient seas retreated. The trout remained in the balance that suited them. They continued to evolve, we ended up with Greenbacks. That’s not these frogs — they require water to survive. These canyons dry out — not every year, but often enough to prevent legacy ice-age frogs from surviving intact.

    Besides, I find the frogs hopping through the dust. Amphibians. Hopping through the desert dust, temperatures around 100, not a trace of water, not even a trace of humidity anywhere. Tender creatures programmed for water, snacks for dozens of other lives, hopping through dust. Unless the fall’s monsoon rains come early, their lives are dust. They’ll no more make it to the seeps and springs we’ll find three miles farther up canyon than I could walk to Europe. But when we get up the three miles, we find their colleagues. Zillions of little red frogs peeping in the water between cattails. They got there from an irresistible desire to find new territory. The mathematics of their species is oblivious to the millions of individual lives that are lost to create one reproductive pair. As individuals, they do not matter, not to the balances of nature. The only thing that matters is whether some will make it. And if they do, it matters whether their DNA is sufficiently sound, if mutations irrelevant or beneficial, whether they can reproduce.

    The balanced rock does not even sway. In fact, it cannot. If it did, it would topple, like all the rest of the fallen stones. The frog’s reproductive pattern is no different than the fluff of dandelions or the tiny grains of columbine seeds. Produced in the billions in these territories, the seeds drift windblown, fall on infertile land and die. They lodge in rock crevices and are eaten by birds and mice. They fall into the river and drown. The individual seeds are no calculus for nature. Only that there are enough to get some to fertile land, strong enough to grow and reproduce.

    For the species, the individual little froglets I try not to step on are probably irrelevant. [As it turns out, the monsoons that year came late. It is likely that none of the froglets I saw in the dust ever made it up to the springs. I could have stomped on them all and had no measureable effect on the population. They all dehydrated and died. For humans, death through dehydration is unpleasant. Each froglet that I did not step on, and that did not get eaten by birds, by lizards, by ants, scorpions or spiders, died for lack of water. It suffered measureable pain and died.

    Even if the abstraction of a “species” does not care, the individual certainly does. Each froglet, if you catch it, will try to escape. It leaps in any direction available. It urinates, hoping to startle you into dropping it. If you catch a rattlesnake, it will bite. The individual recognizes threats and responds. Sometimes frantically. There are shrews in this region, mouse-sized predators, whose hearts beat 1200 times a minute. When captured, they die from the psychic stress. Live free or die, indeed. I cannot argue that those individuals are irrelevant. The individual matters. Not from the perspective of the canvas, but to itself. Its life, its thoughts, its actions, its altruism, its selfishness, its cruelty, its consumption, its creation, its resources. The hand holding the canvas’ paintbrush, drawing itself.

    So do I step on them? I cannot easily wear the mantle of an indifferent observer. It matters to the froglet whether it survives. If it matters to the froglet, it matters to me.

  39. P. G. (Patricia) Karamesines on August 14, 2007 at 8:27 pm

    #38 is remarkable, greenfrog. Thank you for posting it here.

    I took a chance posting nature pieces at T&S, greenfrog; you’ve provided a dazzling return on the language I put out there. You’ve changed how I think of the Green River; now I’ll associate it with you, I’ll see it through images you painted here. Thanks for that and everything else you brought to the outing. I count you as a newfound friend.

    Everybody, this has been an experience to remember. Thanks to all who posted field notes and made comments. I’m going to wrap up my T&S experience with one or two more posts then go home to A Motley Vision.

    Anybody who has been thinking about posting field notes but hesitated–there’s still time! Go for it!

  40. greenfrog on August 15, 2007 at 11:36 am

    What fun this has been for me…

    I yet aspire to find words for the Egyptian scents of the datura blossoms, for the waves of heat, for the seedy, thorny, watermelony taste of cactus fruits, for the territorial soundings of songbirds filling empty canyons, for the slanted sunlight on stone.

    Thanks much.

    gf

  41. plover on August 21, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    This is coming in late, but I am hoping that PGK or greenfrog (or anyone else) may be able to answer a question for me. Yesterday when I took my daughter to school, we stopped in the parking lot and saw a red crested cardinal attacking a mirror on a jeep. The bird would perch on the car door (next to where the window disappears) and then fly and flutter at the mirror. He did this for as long as we watched him. This morning my daughter saw him again, but this time he was pecking at his reflection on a windshield. When I left later this morning, I saw him fluttering away at another car mirror. Is this unusual? By the way, we saw our first plover, back from Alaska, yesterday.

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