I had to look up today’s word — apricity — and I like it a LOT. It’s a phenomenon I appreciate often when I’m out in the Big Empty on a winter day. And that, as we know, is one of my favorite things. It’s lovely to walk into a cold wind and then, turn around and feel instead the warmth of the winter sun on my back. Here in the Bark of Beyond everything is a little extreme and in winter, if you happen to be outside visiting with a neighbor, you want to stand in the sun. In summer? The opposite. Everyone runs for shade.
Yesterday the Maniac Alien from Hell (aka Teddy Bear T. Dog) and I went out for a cautious ramble. Cautious because of the numerous crane tourists. The cranes are also here in full force, and hanging out mainly in small ponds in the middle of the meadows some distance from the road. I doubt I will ever have the miracle of Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 when very few people came down here and the cranes, the dogs, and I had the place mostly to ourselves. That year the cranes stayed less apart. It was as if we were partners in a mysterious migration.
Teddy and I first headed toward the west, away from the wind, but when a couple of SUVs spotted a large group within lens distance, they pulled over, blocking the way. I know better than to take Teddy into a forest of new people, tripods, and expensive cameras. It’s all good. The cranes are a major part of the economy of my Valley, as I learned this year in an interview with one of the Festival coordinators who gave me the numbers.
As we were walking I noticed our friends approaching. I was happy to see them and curious about what Teddy would do. It’s the first time he’s met them since he and Bear dragged me down in a hurry to say “Hi!” to them. They and Teddy were great. The Halti made it possible for me to stop Teddy from pulling me or rushing toward them. Sharon grabbed his little feet when he jumped up on her (one step at a time) and told him what a good dog he was. We had a nice conversation and no one got hurt.
I was very grateful for their “help” in training that small but mighty force of nature.
“You probably won’t see us here this weekend,” Tom said. “We don’t like crowds.” I know what they meant. In a lot of places, the people who come to the Crane Festival don’t constitute a crowd. But out here?
“I’m going to be working in the Visitor Center a couple hours on Friday,” I said.
“Yeah.” I honestly don’t know why, but when the opportunity presented itself, I took it. It should be pretty painless, but who knows. “But, you know, I didn’t move here because I like people.”
They laughed. We’ve talked about China, Southern California and this remote and empty valley. “No, I guess not,” said Sharon.
“Covid really changed me,” I said. “Or revealed me. Not sure.”
Sharon nodded and chuckled in total comprehension. No one wants that to come back, but, at the same time, for some people — me, them (I first encountered them in 2021) it unexpectedly improved some aspects of life.
I like that so many people love the cranes so much that they will travel to my valley — to which there is little or no public transportation — from all over the world — and some come every year. It’s pretty wonderful even though I’ll be glad when it’s over.
Yesterday was just one of those days, so I grabbed some plywood and painted a garden sign. I just hung it on the fence. Now I think it wants me to sign it with my Chinese name and add my chop. Maybe… He was a lot of fun to paint and inevitably, painting cheers me up.
I’m not a birder. I now know what birders are and generally do, and that’s not me. Partly because with my glasses binoculars are hugely challenging and I don’t have and can’t afford a fancy camera. I think birding is a wonderful thing, but it’s not my thing. Still, I like knowing what I’m looking at and when I see a new animal I try to find out what it is, and what its habits are. One reason is so I will know how to look for it and the other is so I will understand the world we share a little better.
My “way” in nature is to get to know some small place. The reality is there are no “small places” in nature, so that’s kind of a paradox. Also, most of the time I’ve been alone with a dog or dogs in nature, so it’s not social in the normal sense.
Right now, besides the contest, I’m reading a beautiful book — The Desert and the Sown by Gertrude Bell. The title is lines from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Another beautiful book came in the mail today, Peter Matthiessen’s book, The Birds of Heaven. It’s about cranes and has beautiful illustrations.
Gertrude Bell’s book tells of her travels in the Arabian desert before WW I. She writes prose that’s pretty much the opposite of mine, but so beautifully done that it’s never wordy, never redundant, never pedantic. I love it. Maybe if I could write like that, I would.
Today I read some of the most beautiful words I’ve read in my whole life.
The setting is this. She is in an Arab tent at, I believe, the edge of Jordan sharing a meal with a sheik and entourage. Someone comes out of the night to the tent. Though he is an enemy of this tribal leader, he is not there with ill will or ill intent. Some of the other guests go out to meet him. They bring him inside and the host says,
“Good? Please God! Who is with you?” The young man raised his hand and replied, “God!” He was alone.
That passage struck me as significant in the context of the narrative — “I know we’re enemies, but I have come by myself, in peace, trusting your hospitality, not with an armed crew to do you harm.”
The words could be read in a different way. What is a solitary ramble but a journey in the company of *God?
I took that out to the Refuge with me today and thought of it when a solitary crane broke from the flock and flew, circling above me, calling out to his comrades. Why he did this, I don’t know, but I loved it. I believe he was checking me out, asking, “Good? Please God? Who is with you?”
You can guess my answer.
*God to me is a word that means the Great Universal Mystery in which we exist and that exists within us. I am a panentheist and I believe that everything, all of everything, together is God. God is just the name I learned and it works for me. It could be Lamont but we know Lamont died, run over by a dune buggy at Puerto Peñasco, and came back as an Albatross.
Bear and I just returned from a paradisal walk out at the Refuge. It was cold, windy and hundreds of geese and cranes. This might be the best thing in the world for both of us.
A few weeks ago I noticed a bird that had been taken down by a fox or maybe another bird. I kept Bear away from it until today. She found it, rolled in its proximity and was very happy finally to get some of that on her actual fur — but not much and mingled with snow. When the wind is like it was today, and I stop, Bear gets between the wind and me and leans like she’s a windbreak.
I guess she is, kind of.
Featured photo is Mt. Blanca…
This is looking toward a pond near the entrance to the Refuge. My goal was a video of the sounds of the wind and the clamor of geese and cranes, but I got lucky and got some video of cranes, too.
I guess maybe walking with Bear in the Big empty isn’t physical exercise. We walk one mile in 50 minutes. I’m not sure it gets my heart pumping or any of the things exercise is supposed to do. It involves a LOT of stopping and Bear smelling things and me looking at things. Each of us is often held spellbound by something.
If Bear wants to stop, I stop. If I want to stop, Bear stops (and leans against me). It’s incredibly sweet, and I could walk forever with Bear like that. I never want to come home, even when we’re out in “bad” weather. It hit me that it would take half a day for us to walk the loop. Probably even longer because there would be places Bear has never “smelled.”
Yesterday was beautiful. No wind to speak of. Comfortable temperatures, and many, many cranes. It was a classic Bear and Martha walk.
Here’s a VERY short kind of “look.” You can see the cranes in flight if you are on an actual computer and let the video fill your screen. Anyway, you can hear them. It’s kind of a miracle that the cranes are even in the frame. I pointed my phone at the sky, zoomed in all the way, and hit “record” or whatever. At the end Bear pulled my arm because she smelled something wonderful in the grass. 🤣
Cranes are fun to watch in the sky. They can turn a certain way and become totally invisible, then seem to reappear. They call out constantly and others join them. I watched this group grow until it was four times bigger before they took off for wherever they wanted to go. At one point in our walk about 20 flew directly over me. That is probably meaningless, but my first year walking out there, they avoided flying over me. I like to think they’ve decided I’m part of the Refuge and it’s all good. I like to think that, but it’s probably not true.
Along with the cranes were “my” two ravens and a red tail hawk. At one point I swear three cranes were chasing a raven away. I don’t know if they do that, but that’s what it looked like. As for the lone goose, he’s got plenty of company now. ❤️
I have volunteered to work at the Crane Festival. There was an opportunity that had my name on it. I’m going to work two hours in the “Visitor’s Center” (little office, usually closed) at the Refuge. I don’t want to make a big time commitment or hang out with a lot of people. I have volunteered for the Friday, which is less busy than Saturday. I’ll be giving people maps and directions, and, apparently, a bag of goodies.
It seemed right since Bear and I are unofficial Crane Tourist Greeters already. I’m even looking forward to it. I plan to wear a mask, and I’ll be working alone.
I’ve realized over these past few months exactly what Covid did to me and took from me. I’m still not normal or maybe “normal” is a new thing now. I’m even reluctant to get yet another booster — it was AFTER the booster + flu shot that things began to go quickly downhill for me, as if my system was overloaded with anti-bodies and went after me. I don’t know, of course, but it has been a long haul. It’s a LOT better now, but only an idiot would go back there.
Silence. No truck on the mile-away-road. Me, Sandhill cranes above, my quiet dog Some geese. Surprising new shoes lift time’s load from my feet. Pure blue above autumn’s bog. The noise in my head recedes when I hear the timeless chortling of the sandhill cranes. I watch them fly and wonder what they fear. Shotgun, fox, coyote? Fields bare of grain? I’ve seen them scatter when the eagle flies Above them, hoping for a meal, to be Disappointed when the cranes scatter high Out of reach. Cranes fear enemies they see. Humans? Destroy the world from pure caprice, I doubt we can replenish wasted peace.
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;— Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
My sonnet is a casually constructed Shakespearean sonnet. You can learn more about the form here. Wordsworth’s — which I woke up thinking about this morning — is a Petrarchan sonnet. You can read about that form here. Reading Wordsworth’s poem this morning I was struck by the changing conventions over the centuries — allusions to Proteus and Triton might not mean much to us and I realized I’m unlikely to personify anything in nature. No ocean I write will have a bosom, and I don’t think I’d ever describe clouds as flowers, but maybe. One amazing thing Wordsworth did with his poetry is change forever the way we see daffodils. My favorite might be this:
The Child is Father of the Man
My heart leaps up when I behold A rainbow in the sky: So was it when my life began; So is it now I am a man; So be it when I shall grow old, Or let me die! The Child is father of the Man; And I could wish my days to be Bound each to each by natural piety.
It’s been a while since I’ve experienced the spiritual services in the Big Empty. It’s not an automatic thing, but this morning Bear let me know in NO UNCERTAIN TERMS that she wanted to go. OK. Face not washed (mine), teeth not brushed (again, mine), dishes not done (obviously, mine) we headed out in the crisp autumn air.
There are hundreds of cranes here now. I have heard them for about a month but not seen many. That is, in my opinion, totally up to them. I have that luxury which people who travel thousands of miles to see these birds do not have. It was crisp — 9C about 45 F — a beautiful moment for a walk with my dogs. Teddy was busy checking the boundaries for nocturnal intruders and grasshoppers, but Bear was hanging close as she does, so I rested my hand on her back as we walked, something she loves (and I love). The morning was completely silent except for the purring and chortling of the cranes. I stopped for a moment, hearing them approaching, watched four land about 50 feet from us, in brush near a road that’s closed to the public.
A little later, captured by the beauty of some golden trees, I stopped again to listen to the cranes and the ambient silence. That’s what happens in the Church of the Big Empty. Bear lifted her head; her ears perked up. I turned to see where her eyes were looking. Four cranes were coming toward us about 15 feet above the ground. They flew in front of us, about 10 feet away. I felt for all the world (and it’s unlikely) as if they were saying “Hello!” to us. “How was your summer? Nice to see you again!” My eyes filled with tears, I was so happy to be so close to them again.
Cranes have a very unusual effect on people. I’ve tried to figure that out, but no luck. I’m one of the people who is deeply moved by them. Cultures all over the world — diverse and ancient cultures — regard them very highly and some see them as a model for human behavior. I have sure learned some good lessons from them over the years such as “Keep yourself alive.”
I don’t have photos of that moment. I’m at the point now with so many crane photos that I just want to watch, so you’ll have to take my word that it was beautiful. I do have THESE though…
I’ve spent the last forty years of my life looking at birds. It’s true. I’m not a “Birder,” I don’t care about collecting “sights” of rare birds, but if you’re out in nature, birds are there. They captivate me. Here — and a reward of living near a wetlands — are birds. There is a lot of food in a wetland. My first real bird was the red tailed hawk I watched in the coastal sage chaparral of Southern California.
They also watched me.
Every winter afternoon I took my dogs for a hike, there was a mated pair of red tails waiting for me, one in the air, one perched on a boulder up the hill from the road. I took this personally. I decided (having read my Carlos Castaneda) that the hawks were my spirit guides and we had a spiritual bond. They even seemed to “hike” with me. For example, one day, I was walking along a ridge, and one of the hawks was flying “beside” me, watching me, at eye level. Another time, at the top of the low mountain, I sat on my usual rock overlooking San Diego and the bay. One of them flew straight at me and made eye contact from about 5 feet before he flew off on a thermal. It was all amazing, and I learned a lot from watching them.
But were they my “spirit guides?” I guess it depends on what is meant by “spirit guide.” Teachers, definitely, absolutely. Did we have a bond? We did and that’s the best part. One day I drove to the spot where I usually left my car. There was the hawk on its usual boulder. I opened the back door to let Molly and Kelly run up the hill. For once I didn’t hurry, but stood by my car and watched my dogs. The hawk followed my dogs. Kelly was a Golden Retriever; Molly was a Malamute/Aussie mixed. Both dogs were formidable hunters. The hawk stayed close to the dogs and when they got near a bush — white sage or black sage usually — the hawk watched.
That was when I understood “our bond.” Layers of sentimental spirituality shook off me. I felt them fall. Our bond was more important than that. My dogs and I helped the hawks find food, a bond way more profound than any I conjured in my mind.
As I hiked my hike I thought about the thousands of years dogs, humans, and raptors have hunted together. I had fallen into that relationship just like that, without knowing it.
One afternoon standing on the same ridge I watched “my” hawks teaching their young one how to evade attack from above. I got good lessons about teaching from watching them. The parents each had a role in this. One hawk flew above the young hawk, one below. The upper hawk would dive toward the young one, like a raven attacking. The young hawk was supposed to evade the attack. IF the young one succeeded, the lower hawk came up from below and lifted it with its wings, a beautiful gesture of “Good hawk!” If he didn’t succeed in the evasion, he got pecked. This went on a long time, long enough for me to see the young hawk get the, uh, point perfectly. When the parents saw their young one understood, they all took off on a thermal. “Life or death, little guy,” the upper hawk “said.” And it was.
Red tailed hawks are not true hawks, but buzzards. A lot of people confuse “buzzard” with “vulture.” In my mind vultures are pretty great birds, but they got kind of a bad rap in popular culture from Bugs Bunny to Faulkner’s grim book, As I Lay Dying. There is a group of turkey vultures who hang around Monte Vista in late summer and fall. They like to lurk in the tallest spruce trees, one of which is in Elizabeth’s yard. As luck would have it, during the time I was stove up with Covid, I went out front to water something and there was a long, beautiful wing feather on the grass with the end broken off. It had come from one of the vultures AND my sparrows — who nest in a box on my fence — had customized it as decoration. I checked the box to see if my theory was right and sure enough; the end of the feather was poking out of the hole. It’s a beautiful feather; golden underneath and brown on top.
I could probably write all day about birds I’ve observed, but… One thing I’ve learned is that chances are very good that every cool behavior I observe in nature I will observe only once even if it’s something that the animals do every day. I won’t be there to see it.
My favorite feather in my whole collection of equally favorite feathers is from a Sandhill Crane. I found it in April 2021, the spring that it was just me and the cranes out at the Refuge. There was a spot where Bear, Teddy and I would stop, sit on a boulder and just watch the show. It was wonderful to sit still and let spring’s life unfold in front of me. April was toward the end of the crane’s visit to the San Luis Vally, and by then I had become kind of dependent on their company. I found the feather near “my” boulder the last day I saw cranes that year.
I know they didn’t leave it “for” me but it still felt that way.
Yesterday Bear and I fought our way out of the house (seriously, poor Teddy… No no, he’s fine. I just had to force him to stay behind by shutting the door) so just the two of us could have a quiet walk on a cloudy day. I really needed it, and I think my Bear did, too. It couldn’t have been more perfect. Wait, how can something be “more perfect?” It can’t. And that isn’t even true. Snow would have made it more perfect. OH well… That’s like “More best.”
We had an audience — some friendly crane tourists had come up from New Mexico and were making do with some ducks in an irrigation ditch. “What’re you seeing?” I asked.
“Ducks, mostly, mallards.” They had the gear, the cameras, long lenses, everything. They were READY. One couple even had a VW camper van (sigh dream on, Martha). They also had what some crane tourists don’t have — a sense of humor. “We saw some cranes, maybe 25,” the man gestured to a barley field to the southeast. I nodded. It’s important to see cranes. Every crane tourist wants to — well, almost every crane tourist. I’ve met a few people who were happy to see whatever they saw. Those are my kind of crane tourists. Of course, he wanted to know when they were usually here in the fall. They hadn’t come all that far — just from Taos, a couple hours away.
“They don’t come in that huge group in the fall. But, I’m no expert,” I said, “I’m just out here all the time.”
“That makes you an expert.”
“OK. Well, from where I stand as an expert, cranes do whatever they want whenever they want.”
“Nature, huh?” said the guy, grinning.
“Yeah. We’ve had a warm fall — it hasn’t even frosted yet — so…”
“You think they are affected by the weather?”
“It seems to me they are. In 2020 when we had that early snow, they were early. Well, have fun!!”
Bear and I continued our Bearigrination. It was such a pleasure walking in the cool breeze. While we didn’t see any cranes — this time of year I don’t think anyone can be out there without wanting to see them — I saw a Harris Hawk swooping low over the ground and a Red Tailed hawk hunting. Bear studied the ground with passion and feeling, liberated from the responsibility she has when Teddy goes along. When Teddy comes, she feels she needs to stay beside me.
There were many dead garter snakes along the road attesting to two things; one, they’d been dropped by birds. Two, they’d been run over by cars. I could kind of tell from the position of the corpse and it’s location on the road what had happened. I don’t want Bear being interested in them — dead or alive. They won’t hurt her, but…
Because of Bear’s attention and scrutiny to the edges of the road, I picked up a Red Tailed hawk feather and a soda (we say “pop” not “soda” in Colorado) can I might not have seen. It was beautiful, relaxing, soothing and just what I needed after my tussle with gravity on Monday. The aspen are rapidly turning up in the mountains. I couldn’t get a good photo without borrowing one of the cameras belonging to the crane tourists, but believe me, wow. The featured photo is from around Kenosha Pass and was taken by my friend Lois a few days ago.
You must be logged in to post a comment.