James Mauch: Apparitions of Gratitude

If the arid lands of the Colorado Plateau have offered me a single lesson, it is that an unconditional gratitude for occurrences and opportunities, both simple and profound, is necessary for complete fulfillment. Serendipity waits around every bend in the canyon and is drenched in every shallow slickrock pothole, it just requires gratitude to recognize and discover it. Gratitude for these gifts in turn will spring forth even greater offerings in an endless spiral of nature’s intimacies. Indeed, it is those who possess a deep appreciation for their surroundings who will find that which they seek.

Dusk hits our small camp nestled between Navajo Sandstone riders and domes, halfway between the rim and the floor of Larry Canyon. We are mere bubbles amidst a rolling sea of slickrock, buoyant from good companionship and the promise of a burgeoning adventure. As plastic spoons scrape clean the dinner pots, one in our group departs to climb the nearest sandstone dome. As is the tendency with cohesive groups, each of us follow suit to discover collectively what this individual has set out to pursue. “The sun is setting, it should be a good view.” Words traded between breaths heavy from ascending the steep slope cannot, however, adequately foreshadow what is soon to be witnessed.

As we top out at the sandstone ridge, a slickrock wonderland is revealed to the west. Canyons upon canyons, buttes upon buttes, sandstone domes too numerous to count, and deep, unknown defiles obscured in shadow combine to overwhelm sight. The climax of this view, at the exact confluence between rock and sky, is the setting sun, a giant yellow orb providing illumination of all that we see. For a moment, the sun is part of the rock, continuous with a distant ridge that shares a similar complexion. We grow silent as the spectacle morphs before our eyes, canyons cast into the oblivion of night, novel buttes appearing for a few fleeting seconds of brilliant illumination. Such moments cannot be improved upon, their authenticity too raw, their beauty too tangible.

As the sun slips below the rocky horizon at a steady, visible rate, we are stunned by another sight. Perhaps on a whim, perhaps guided by a divine hint, one in our group turns a back to the magnificent westerly drama. What is discovered to the east is a white, spherical, and deeply pitted object gliding silently into the sky. A full moon blazes white with the energy reflected from our excitement as it gently ascends off its perch on the forested rim high above. Heads swivel in both directions, arms extend in 180 degree sweeps, fruitlessly seeking to grab hold of the celestial objects to preserve their congruency. At the exact moment the sun blinks out on the western horizon, the moon becomes airborne above the ridge to the east, its bottom arc losing contact with the land below. Hands are shoved back into pockets, legs firmly planted on the slickrock, and heads positioned to view the rising moon. We stand motionless, speechless, thoughtless. What can be uttered, what can even be considered, in a moment like this?

The spectacle before us, this celestial see-saw, is unlike anything any of us has ever witnessed. To call it the best sunset we have ever seen would be to do the event an injustice. It is not a sunset, it is not a moonrise, it is not of the Earth. What we have just seen belongs to the cosmos, and it assures us that somewhere, perhaps in a place beyond our comprehension – a place that is not a place – there is symmetry and balance. To consider the event an indication of universal order would similarly taint its relevance, as order is an exclusively human concept ill-fit for the wonders just displayed. But there is a connection, a convergence of sorts, at play here. Had our group chosen any other of the multitude of vantage points accessible from camp, the balance would have been upset, the moon being further above or below the eastern ridge at the sun’s disappearance. Had one of our party not broken away breathless from the sun’s performance, the moon’s rising would have been lost, its significance diminished. But no, events and perspectives did converge just so, the heavens revealing to us a glimpse of their essence.

Such events have the power to leave us with changed impressions and new ideas on the nature of things. These occurrences can grab hold of us and fix us to a thought, a question, or a place, never to release their grip. Surely, these kinds of worldview-shaping moments cannot occur often, lest our minds become jumbled by revolution, our senses saturated with the sublime. It follows, then, that moments in which we are let in on a secret of nature, when the inaccessible becomes temporarily tangible, deserve in return an expression of thanks. In other words, there is a place, a necessary place, for gratitude in response to spontaneous displays of nature that leave us speechless and changed.

Thomas Fleischner considers gratitude to be one of the eight essential qualities of a natural historian in his essay “Natural History and the Spiral of Offering.” Fleischner asserts that we cannot accurately and honestly understand our surroundings without first appreciating them for their intrinsic values. In the spiral of offering, it is gratitude that initiates attempts to know and positively interact with the environment that envelops us. In turn, these interactions and efforts at understanding further enrich those who choose to pursue them, as the study of natural history lends itself to insights and illuminations of how the world functions. Gaining such insights leads us back to gratitude, one dimension closer to the center of the spiral and the root of understanding. Of course, there can be no absolute understanding, no center to the spiral, as natural history is an eternal pursuit. But with gratitude, the spiral of offering never ceases in its gifts, and thus is benefited by its limitless nature. It is gratitude and an appreciation for the hints and glimpses that are the keystones to entering the realm of natural history. And once entrained in the ways of the natural historian, it is difficult to avoid gleaning new insights, forever receiving gifts with an unwavering gratitude.

The show has concluded now, the sun is a distant memory and the moon has risen sufficiently to decrease in size and recede in prominence amidst the few stars of the ever-darkening sky. We linger atop our slickrock dome, unable to pull ourselves from this place that has granted us a view of something unfathomably spectacular, reluctant to depart the site of a miracle. One by one, we pry ourselves from our perch and slowly descend back to camp, faintly remembering the remaining obligations and camp chores. But these worldly issues are of secondary importance now, as time will be needed to consider what we have witnessed. Before side-stepping down the final pitch to camp, I walk over to the very edge of the dome and gaze down hundreds of feet to the vegetation in the bottom of an un-named canyon. The twisted juniper, the flimsy Mormon tea – these plants that I can barely make out in the depths of the twilight canyon have nothing to do with the celestial convergence I just experienced. Or do they? Just as I feel a deep sense of appreciation for the sun and the moon, so too do I feel a strange thankfulness towards these individual shrubs and trees. I known not why, but these two plants remind me of the duality recently displayed in the sky. I retreat from the edge of the dome and at last turn for camp and my waiting companions. It may be an abstraction to suggest that the entire universe shares a connection, but such an abstraction can be justified. After all, perhaps it is a universal gratitude that composes the strings binding together all that is known and all that is unknown.

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