Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wild and Scenic...

     Spring's warmer sunlight and longer days send snowmelt to swell the local Gold Country rivers coursing down their narrow, rocky canyons. Filled with silt that tints its swiftly moving water the color of a chai latte, the South Yuba River winds quickly into and out of view while following its snaking route from high in the Sierra Nevada towards the Valley's flat lands to the west. Later in the summer months, water warm enough to invite swimmers will slip lazily from clear pool to clear pool, skirting boulders strewn along its shallow path. However, now, in the early spring, it tumbles and dances and leaps in a beautiful ballet that belies the powerful force that keeps all prudent humans from entering its sweeping flow. Water cascades in white froth over barely visible boulders and is sucked into secret deep holes. Not even the most experienced white water enthusiasts venture into the frigid unforgiving waters in this season, in this stage of spring flood. Local river lovers admire the South Yuba from a higher perch this time of year.
     Winding along the northern edge of the South Yuba River canyon is a well-marked hiking trail high above the rocky waterline. Sometimes shaded by native trees, other times cutting through grassy spaces on the hillside, the trail provides a panoramic view of the river and its towering canyon walls. Sweltering hot and baked brown, this hike is not an inviting adventure in the summer. But in springtime, the hillsides are newly green and swept by a cool breeze that follows the water, creating an invitation not easily refused. The sky overhead is crystal blue and sports a few fleeting white clouds. Music made by the rushing, bouncing water rises up to fill the air. Birds flit and twitter among tree branches, adding their songs to the mix.
     The trailsides are dotted with an array of wildflowers in combinations that shift and change dramatically from week to week. Early rising docents have kindly labeled the flowers that greet hikers today: red-stemmed filaree, blue dicks, zig-zag larkspur, groundsel, and more. Yarrow and lupine, green and spreading, patiently await their turns to bloom.
     On predominate display, today, is California's own tufted poppy, bright and arrogant in its singular orange fluorescence. In places, the south-facing, green-carpeted hillside that descends precariously from the trail, is populated by colonies of poppies swaying and cavorting in the breeze. The numerous other wildflowers in sweet pinks, whites, and yellows, though quite lovely to wander amongst, simply pale in comparison. When spring's low slung sun sends its rays to backlight the poppies, they become riotous flames. One cannot help but love and admire the audacity of these California flowers that just scream, "Wake up! It's Spring!"

"In spite the durability of rock walled canyons and the surging power of cataracting water, the wild river is a fragile thing -- the most fragile portion of the wilderness country."  -Biologist John Craighead 

     The undammed and free-flowing South Yuba River is a part of "National Wild and Scenic River System," thanks to the heroic preservation efforts of local citizens banded together as SYRCL (South Yuba River Citizens League). The river trail leads east, upriver, from the state park's parking lot to the edge of the park. At the west end of the trail, the South Yuba River passes beneath a unique covered bridge at the aptly named Bridgeport. Once a small thriving community, it is now Bridgeport State Park. The bridge, built in 1862, is a 229-feet long single span covered bridge that is believed to be the longest of its type in existence anywhere. Originally a toll bridge, it served gold miners and settlers alike in California's early days.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Lightning at Ten Thousand Feet...

     As we topped the granite ridge, to our dismay, the sky ahead was black and boiling with angry clouds. I don’t know what we expected to see, but we had hoped that the storm clouds would not be sitting directly atop the very pass we needed to cross. Not only was our forward motion blocked by this wall of weather, but it was moving so fast and furiously in our direction that we had no time for a retreat to lower, safer ground. Instead, we three had to play out the scene from a clich├ęd disaster movie, and hope that the event didn’t end badly. Later, we would each confess to visualizing the newspaper headlines about the bodies of three hapless hikers being retrieved and then being posthumously embarrassed at finding ourselves in such a ridiculous predicament.
     Scurrying back down the rocky path we had just labored up, we backtracked to a small patch of green a few feet lower than the tippy top of Donahue Pass and began preparing to hunker down to let the storm pass overhead.
     “Okay, girls, what exactly are we going to do here?”
     “I’m sure as hell dumping this pack and anything metal I’m wearing, and then I’m going to that grassy spot to lie down.”
     “It’s not much lower here than it is at the top!”
     Each of us has frantically tossed her new and treasured backpack unceremoniously against a rocky wall and is digging helter-skelter through the pack in search of any and all warm and waterproof clothing, scattering undesired items about on the ground. Donning long underwear, fleece and raingear top and bottom, gloves and hats, while abandoning metal-laced watches and glasses, we hastened to the deepest of the slight dips in the landscape. Positioned between a small snowmelt pond and huge piles of granite boulders, we ran down our lists of sage backcountry do’s and don’t’s.
     “I know we’re not supposed to stand under tall trees.” Not a problem here way above tree line. “But I also think we’re supposed to stay away from water and big rocks! So, should I be closer to the pond or the rocks?”
     “I don’t think it matters anymore; the storm is on top of us! Just get down!”
     Having spread ourselves out, each of us now curled up into the fetal position. Covering our heads, we did the best we could to protect ourselves from the pounding deluge, that thankfully waited until we had wrapped ourselves in our plastic clothes to begin its assault. Around us, engulfing us, the sky was black, turning the early afternoon to a nearly nighttime darkness. Lightning rent the clouds. Some high above us, leaping from cloud to cloud, making intricate webs of light in the darkness. Other, thicker bolts slashed vertically to and from the peaks that surrounded us on all sides. Counting the moments between flash and thunder was impossible, so simultaneous were they. Flash, BOOM! Flash, BOOM!  The light and noise went on and on and on. At the storm’s peak, came the whipping, icy wind, and the rain turned to pelting hail. Even as the clouds around us grew thicker, blinding us, wrapping us in mist and 10,000-foot-high fog, the ground became white with piles of hail.
     I keep my face covered, like I do in scary movies, peaking out between my fingers in momentary bouts of bravery, slamming closed my finger-shutters with each repeated round of Flash, BOOM! I still see plenty, enough to scare me to my core. “What am I doing here?” I think loudly, “What are three smart women doing in this predicament? We know better than this!”
     Prayers, pleas, and promises flow like charged liquid from my mind. I urge them upward and outward, hoping they will penetrate the ion-filled sky and find a sympathetic reception with the powers that be. I visualize a golden igloo of protective light arched over and around us three, as we huddle, vulnerable, on the small patch of green in the sky. Repeating my words like the mantra that never ends, I hold the image steady in my mind’s eye, the wildness of the weather battering the glowing dome protecting us.
     So cold, I am shivering uncontrollably even in my layers of fleece and plastic, and my teeth are chattering. “Has it been an hour? How much longer will I be able to stay here?” I wonder.
     I wiggle and rub my extremities in an attempt to get my body temperature up, but to no avail, the shivering and chattering go on. The weak link is my feet; I am still wearing my Tevas with socks that are sopping wet. I had changed from hiking boots to sandals when we crossed the creek early in the sunny morning. It was the first of several crossings that second day of our long trek, and a rather daunting first crossing, with the water coming up nearly to my hips. Abandoning the boots had felt wonderful at the time, but that decision, and the subsequent one to not take the precious time to change back to boots in face of the on-rushing storm, now proved a problem.
     It suddenly occurred to me that there was the minutest of pauses between the flashes and the BOOMS now. The storm appeared to be moving ever so slowly northward. We were still wrapped in clouds that sat on the rocky pass and cloaked the peaks to the point of invisibility, but the violence and the wildness was moving slowly away.
     At precisely the moment those thoughts filled my cold-slowed brain, a voice rang out, “Let’s go! The storm’s not on top of us anymore! Let’s go!”
     Galvinized, our three bodies leaped up like one, and moved with focused energy to the waiting packs. In mere moments, we had packs on. In the same way that distraught mothers lift cars off the crushed bodies of their children, the very packs that we struggled to hoist and buckle earlier in the day were suddenly light, nearly airborne.
     Faster than we could have imagined possible, we scuttled across the broad granite pass, and began finding our way down the other side. Frozen feet were impossibly sure-footed, rock-hopping downward from one massive boulder to the next. The trail was invisible, no cairns marked the rocks, and vast expanses of the downhill slope were covered with snow. Our feet did not care, they fairly flew, so eager were we to “get down off this damn mountain!”
     Halfway down to the green Alpine meadows below, I had to stop. I could not feel my feet; they had been completely numb for well over an hour. Now that the immediate danger of the lightning and thunder had passed, and my adrenaline surge just about used up, they were beginning to feel like clumsy clubs or stumps, and I was fearful of stumbling in the rock maze we were crossing. While Cappy and I sat on the wet rocks and began the slow process of changing from sandals to boots and dry socks, Jane, who had been wearing her boots all day, scouted around for some suggestion of a trail.
     Within minutes, and well before our bootlaces were tied, she caught sight of a muddy, brown line cutting through the meadow not far below us. Amazingly enough, we were right on track, our basic sense of direction had led us nearly to it. Breathing a collective sigh of relief, we pressed forward, with dry feet, toward the flat green spot still another 1000 feet below us. Despite its considerable distance, being able to clearly see our destination buoyed our spirits.
     John Muir Trail, Day 2, July 20, 2006.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Literary Love Affair...

     “Joan,” my mother says my name.
     “Joan,” she calls a little louder.
     I startle, blink, and locate the source of my name. “Huh?” I reply.
     “I want you go outside for a while. You’ve been shuttered up inside all day. You need to go out and get some sunshine.”
     “In a little while.”
     “That’s what you said an hour ago.”
     “Just let me finish this chapter.”
     “Alright, but I want you to go out and move a little. Your blood is puddling.”
     Five minutes and five pages later, I uncurl myself and stand to stretch before heading outside.

*      *      *

     Hundreds of characters have at one time or another held the lofty, yet short-lived, honor of Joan’s Favorite. From Nancy Drew to Huck Finn, from Anne Frank to Ender, from Frodo to Alice, many have had their 15-minutes in lights. Am I fickle? I don’t fall in and out of love, rather, I have intense crushes on the courageous, adventurous, lovable, and wise inhabitants of the stories I read.
     “This week’s Bookademy Award for Best Female Character in a Dramatic Role goes to… the envelope, please…”
     It’s not that I love too little; it’s that I love too much. After a while, I can’t even remember all their names. In my mind’s eye, I can see their adventures, their trials and their triumphs, their brushes with death and their love affairs as clear as if it were just yesterday when we met. But details like their names escape me.

*      *      *

     I save my deep love for authors. I have had lengthy affairs of the heart with writers, gone on binges with storytellers. Certain authors, I have returned to time after time, never able to satisfy my desire for their bewitching words, their siren voices, always yearning for one more chapter, one more story, one more book.
     Storytelling is a sacred art, a gift from the gods and inspired to great heights by the Muses. Some write well enough, some quite well, but only a rare few angelically. A well-crafted story, though not always pretty, is beautiful. It has the power to transport me to times and places where I have never been and to immerse me into those times and places so powerfully that I know them intimately. I have traveled to distant solar systems, ancient villages, concentration camps, and magical cities. I have dined at banquets in the courts of kings and lay with the bloodied and dying in muddy battlefields. I have hiked through pristine forests of unexplored lands, felt the magic of fairy dust tingling on my skin, and ridden behind smoke-belching locomotives. I’ve been joyful in triumph, mournful of loss, giddy with love, and despairing of all hope.
     Words, eloquent and exact, are the sacred medium of the writer’s craft. I savor the way they flow over my tongue when I read them aloud. When I read them silently to myself, my mind’s ear hears them just as clearly, as they flow over my mind’s silent tongue. Well-chosen words, strung together with great care, create emotions, make connections, unveil brilliant ideas, and dare to change long-held perspectives.

*      *      *

John Steinbeck. Jane Austen. Ernest Hemingway. John Michener.
Ken Follet. Mary Stewart. Leon Uris. Orson Scott Card.
Neal Stephenson.
Barbara Kingsolver.
Pat Conroy.
Demigods all, in Joan’s Wordsmith Hall of Fame.

     Each of them has laid claim to a piece of my heart. Each of them is a teacher, a guru, a mentor, from whom I have learned about the workings of the world and my innermost intimate self. Witnessing, through their words, acts of courage, I have learned to be courageous. From their stories of pain and deprivation, I have learned empathy and compassion. I have been inspired towards creativity while immersed in word pictures of beauty and become galvanized by images of injustice. Between the lines of their stories, I have found truth and the roots of wisdom.
     Good writers compress time and space for us and reduce the “degrees of separation” between ourselves and others. With authors’ able assistance, we expand our minds to wrap them around new perspectives, the traditions of distant cultures, and the lives of people and civilizations long dead. In ways only possible in stories, we get to “know” strangers better than our own neighbors, because we are privy to their secret hearts’ desires and learn what motivates them. The paradox of this simultaneous compression and expansion starts us on the path to changing, first our perspectives, then our world.

*      *      *

     The reading lamp at my side carves a golden cave of light from the darkness. Curled comfortably around a book, I had not noticed the sun set nor the window fade to black. I had not noticed the room go cold, nor did I hear my stomach grumble. Looking up, I am surprised by the time. Knowing I should head to bed, I pull the fuzzy warm throw more tightly around my shoulders and tell myself, “Just one more chapter… Just one more chapter… Just one more chapter.”

*      *      *
     After some early crushes, James Michener was my first true literary love. In a youthful and lustful binge, I consumed several of his massive volumes, some of them double volumes, one right after the other. Starting with Hawaii, I savored my way through The Source, Caravans, Chesapeake, Centennial, and The Covenant. I was mesmerized by the way he takes the reader to a specific place, and then recounts the rich and enticing history of that place from nearly the beginning of time to the present. Volcanoes explode and dinosaurs roam in chapter one. Generations, after generations, of fascinating people are born and die, or move in and out of the place. I became a firsthand witness to the multitude of interconnections and layers of causes-and-effects that drive history forward and move people to progress with it, eagerly or reluctantly, peacefully or violently.
     I felt my mind expand to accommodate the vast timeframes Michener compressed between the covers of his books. A dawning awareness of the mysterious threads weaving people and events together over vast numbers of years came to me in epiphany-like moments of realization. For the first time, I knew myself to be a part of the fabric interconnecting us all through time and space. Those transcending moments of clarity in my young life have had, to this day, a lasting impact on my personal life philosophy, as well as, fostering in me a powerful desire to visit distant places to witness firsthand the stories of their peoples.
     In a departure from his usual format, Michener wrote The Drifters about a group of young world-wanderers during the 1960’s. In this tale, instead of limiting place and allowing time to stretch over eons, he limited time to allow space to stretch across the globe. It was with this story Michener made his greatest mark on my heart, feeding the fires of my wanderlust, fueling a yearning to follow in the gypsy footsteps of “the drifters” to become like them, citizens of the world. Practical constraints limit my world-wandering, but within the covers of books, I can travel limitlessly. Both forms of travel minimize the "degrees of separation" between "us" and the different, or distant, "them," broadening my perspective and enhancing my sense of empathy and compassion for all members of the human fabric.

*      *      *

     The Aborigines of Australia believe that, gifted with the power of speech, people are the voices for all Creation, and as such, we have the responsibility to tell stories for all of Earth’s inhabitants and even for Earth herself.
     Writers are my heroes; they go about changing the world one story at a time, one reader at a time. When I grow up, I want to be one, too. I want to be a writer, a storyteller. And I want a Muse of my very own to help me be heroic in my writing, to help me be one of Creation’s clear voices.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Silver in the Sky...

"The aim of life is to live,
and to live means to be aware,
~ Henry Miller

     Lying on my back on a granite slab high in the Sierra, a narrow rocky peninsula reaching into the inky blue waters of Loch Leven, I gaze lazily upward to the clear blue late-August sky, clearing my mind and taking in the glory of the brisk and breezy day. The air is pristine, infused with the crisp scent of pine. Breathing, I feel the clear, cool oxygen molecules enter my lungs, my bronchial tubes, hitch a ride on red blood cells, and deliver a burst of energy to each and every cell in my body, down to the tips of my toes. I am intensely aware... aware of the hard sharpness of the earth beneath me... aware of the vast blue space extending above me... aware of the soft cool breeze sweeping away the warmth of the sun's rays... aware of...
     Suddenly, the sky around the sun is filled with iridescent and sparkling fairy dust -- no, not dust -- floating strands of fine thread. Millions and millions, perhaps billions and billions, of silvery silk strands twinkle in the afternoon sun. I hold my hand aloft, blocking out the blinding light like a palm-shaped eclipse, to better see the morphing, shimmering shapes. An illusion of the eye, I'm sure, they appear to fly only in concentric circles around the sun, creating a huge, shining, spiraling vortex of silky wisps. I am mesmerized by this totally unexpected and miraculous phenomenon.

     Watching the floating vortex dancing weightless above me, images of the planet Pern, from fantasy novels by Anne McCaffrey, come to mind. Pern is a distant human-colonized planet that is home to real, live dragons. Every several decades, in a pattern as regular as clockwork, Pern passes near her sister planet, which is populated exclusively by fungi. When the planets pass close to one another, long shimmering strands of fungi spores float and drift across the short distance of space and passively land on Pern's surface. Shifting to aggression, the fungi voraciously devour all they contact. Dragonriders, astride their flying dragon steads, are the planet's only defense. Though her description is eerily similar, certainly, the fantastic phenomenon I am witnessing is not the advance guard of a fungi space invasion of Earth.
     A much more benign image, also from fantasy literature, arises next in my mind. The closing scene in E. B. White's classic story, Charlotte's Web, has Charlotte's progeny taking to the air. Millions of baby spiders, riding on air currents, each with its own delicate spiderweb parachute, are whisked airborne safely to new homes.

     It is much more likely that the singularly mysterious phenomenon I am observing is a mass migration of miniscule spiders on iridescent web filaments, rather than an army of invading fungi space aliens, but in either case, it is magically beautiful. I wonder, were similar real-life observations by storytellers McCaffrey and White the inspiration for their delicious novels? If so, one author described the actual natural process that he witnessed, while the other, like me, chose to remain under the magic spell created by her own sense of wonder.