Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Small Ponds

In June of that year, I drove out of the city, circling, serpentine, circuitous, on the Columbia River scenic drive. I rise, I fall, and double back, through pine forest, past cliffside and after time, stop at an overlook, gather my pack.

To the engineers and pioneers and settlers who saw the wild beauty of this valley, as they penetrated her, pierced her, the valley was a place of infinite quality. And of this came strange vision. The circuitousness of the old scenic drive was propitiative prayer to nature, in its curves like an erotic poem following the figure and form of a wild love.

But now eroticism has been exchanged for domination, and the noise of auto traffic and shunting trains fills the valley. I look at the heavy traffic below, on 84 the newest road, gouged straight at dredged rivers edge, and the two railroad tracks, that confine and rule the ancient word of the river like parallel chains, and see how the valley has become a place to get through, quickly. But I will approach the old stillness here, upon Rowena plateau overlooking the Columbia, at Tom McCall Preserve.

The flowers are in bloom, color everywhere. I wander across the plateau, among small ponds, swales, mounds and native grasses. The stony scablands are filled with Columbia Desert Parsley, Broad Leafed Lupine, Yellow Bell, Balsam Root, Grass Widow, Shooting Star. Blue and purple and yellow and white. More flowers than I can name. In pattern and relationship, unique to this place. Fortunate thin soil too stony to farm, and a view once too distant for replicated habitation.

I walk past the grasslands and oak, to the edge of the plateau,, sit on the rimrock, from top a cliff I watch red tailed hawks and turkey vultures spiral in the open air beneath my feet. Across the river, the mirror of the formation I sit on, is naked topography pealed back, 8 layers of thick basalt, each a repeated cataclysmic flow of lava, from when the earth broke open 12 million years ago.

This gorge was carved twelve thousand years ago, scoured to the bedrock in the ice age floods when Lake Missoula broke. The glaciers dammed Lake Missoula, until in their icy weakness they fell, and the lake tumbled and roared out, hundreds of miles per hour, scouring everything in its path. And the glaciers returned and the lake built up again, and broke again, they say a hundred times, cutting through stone like a mile wide hydraulic jet, charged with abrasive of boulders and stone, destroying all in its path. Later, a few thousand years ago, an eruption of Mt. St Helens leaves four feet of ash. This is the ground on which the flowers grow.

I meditate upon the topographic disasters as cataclysmic purity; first, landscape for hundred of miles of flat, glowing dull red thick sheets of lava, which then cools, and leaves the earth as seamless flat solid stone. Then the earth surface white, crystalline, covered miles deep with sheets of ice. A great blue lake, flooding the earth, pinned in behind the ice. And then the ice breaks and the flood is unleashed and the stone is cut. The great emptiness of geologic time, marked by million year apocalyptic clock ticks of cataclysm.

Below in the gorge, the two railroad lines, and three highways, and the dammed river, and the Sunday drivers, and the noise of traffic and rail and barge, are only the most recent and most minor disaster.

A barge moves upstream on the Columbia, a train moves on the tracks towards Pacific shore. Small rain comes down here, dark clouds above the bluff. It rains hard across the river. I can see patches of blue sky to the west.

I sit and watch gusts of wind cross the tops of yellow grass patches filling a swale. A motion subtle and beautiful. Light yellow brown patch of wild grass; lightness shimmering in the breeze. Muted golden and silk, made visible motion of wind. Austere and abstract, a beauty of basic elements, yet in interplay almost irreducibly complex. A beauty as of mathematics; its Navier Stokes equations describing fluid dynamics in a few simple symbols, but with solution as the motion of wind on grass, unsolved by man. I watch a few golden brown small moths over the swale, managing to somehow flutter through the unsolved complexity.

Red winged blackbirds call around a couple of ponds, the bright orange patches on their wings like flying neon. Ponds like hidden jewels, a Persian paradise, a garden; water, hidden, hemmed in on all sides by trees., cupping water lilies and cattails. Big drops of rain splash down to the accompaniment of the croak of frogs.

I head up, back across the highway, towards the overlook. There are strange cucumber like pods scattered on the path, gnawed into by animals. The sign warns of rattlesnakes, ticks, Poison Oak. The path up is lined with scrub oaks dressed with moss and lichen. Desert parsley has gone to seed in the highlands, and looks like a strange alien bush.

I take my time to the top, take in the view, then set out to return, but foolishly head down contrary to the way I came. I struggle downhill through a narrow overgrown path, using gravity to push me through wet brush, arrive at a break in the forest, and realize that if I were to continues I would be miles away from my destination. I must struggle back up to the point. For every step I took down, I must press back up. The branches of the low lying shrubs scratch me, press against my face. My legs grow sore and I sweat and pant.

I finally regain the summit. I lean my head back in my exhaustion and close my eyes and feel the drops of rain hit my face and taste the sweat washing off. I open up a can of herring and taste the sharp saltiness and the mustard and drink of my flask down deep with water in my thirst and hunger. I feel in the bottom of my sack and unwrap some small crushed chocolate bars. My strength returns. As has the sun.

I can smell the sweet air. The drops of rain on forest leaves are glistening like diamonds in the direction of the sun. The sky has transformed from overcast grey to Cumulus and Cirrus in blue. The sun shines on the Columbia, so strong that the river, in its big curve, has become bright, shining, golden. Upstream, East, almost invisible, from a small wooded island, a luminous band moves almost straight up in the sky, the left half of a rainbow, it arches almost straight up, from an island. A ghost shadow of transparent color.

I watch tiny canyon wrens take great arching curves through the wide space of air over the valley below, and I head down again. If my journey was to be plotted on a map the line down would pass back over itself, the route leading to the summit would be doubled by the curve down, but my path will not be the same, everything is changing.

I pass down round a switchback, and below, across a mountainside field, seen in profile, two startled mule deer fix me with their stare, then turn, leap in effortless arcs, over the fields of wild flowers, until their white rumps vanish in the underbrush. I can hear the birds; talking, making music. For a moment, emplaced in solitude, I think of Charlie Parker; Ornithology. The music of the wild here in this place being created and heard by no one except for myself, who is here by chance; a music that will never be repeated, this time and place unique.

Time passes. The sun sets. I will drive back in darkness.
As I follow the highway, I contemplate cataclysms to abstraction. Will mankind’s mark on the face of the planet suffer into deep time as these flowers hard scrabbling for temporary purchase on the surface of an implacable earth, or do we aspire to volcanic cataclysm, will we shape the earth like a lava flood? If I could speak the language of the birds would they tell me?

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