There are days that wear on along the trail. Days of kicking up dust, feet dragging, and eyes on the hot and dusty (trail). Observation and attentiveness has hit zero capacity and the vision of the camp chair and a cup of tea becomes fixated within the mind. The first day of entering into Dark Canyon was no such day. It was one that blessed our senses with an overload of the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures of life in this magnificent ecosystem. It filled our minds with a complex of interactions and functions; thoughts that kept our packs light and legs strong in descent. It is days and locations like that of this day that confirm a naturalist’s gratitude for nature. As Thomas Fleishchner writes; “the role for natural historians as communicators is another turn in the spiral of offering – naturalist paying close attention to the world, feeling gratitude for glimpses of transparency between self and non-self; nature offering peace and insight back; and naturalist offering translations back to human community.” This day gave me many gifts but it was in the glimpse of peace that I received through sense for which I am most grateful. Here is my offer to communicate and translate.
A downward drafted breeze crawled into my sleeping bag, cracking my eyes to consciousness. The groggy, morning awareness brought forth the fact that nighttime dew and sub-freezing temperatures had laid down a thin layer of frost over all of our essentials. We shook off the cold by fueling bodies with breakfast: hot nutrition harvested from stuff sacks, originating from places now far away. This meal combined with the rising sun to warm us and this fine side of the world – the stone and thriving inhabitants included.
We departed our camp, the Woodenshoe trailhead, and even before hitting the trail became spectators of an epic struggle for life between two organisms. The predator of scale, a gopher snake, had wrapped within its coiled body a chipmunk, a mammal of fur that still had the tenacity to fight back. Upon closer inspection through magnifying optics, one could witness a problem. In the effort to trap the chipmunk, the snake had grasped a large portion of its own body in its jaws, as well as the tail of the chipmunk. If it detached its jaws, if possible, it would lose the chipmunk, a least a week’s worth of food, and remain exhausted from a fruitless battle. It had no choice but to hold on until the chipmunk was defeated from fatigue, even if that meant sinking its jaws in deeper, drawing more blood from its own muscle tissue. The chipmunk had its own perspective and concern however, and with bounds of energy, attempted pulling away from the snake, yet inevitably remaining trapped. It placed vicious bites and scratches on the reptile, only to sprawl back on the ground, legs scratching at the soil on the trail.
I lost myself in the perspectives of these two beings – both fighting for life, both with equal and intrinsic right to do so. Is this what Fleishchner meant by transparency? A glimpse between self and non-self? I was at one point the snake; pained by my mistake, forced to follow through with the consequences, regardless of the outcome. I was then the rodent, shocked and frightened, becoming desperate in my attempts to free myself from the grip of death.
Finally, in five incredible thrusts of energy, the chipmunk moved forward, dragging the entire body of the snake with it. By the fifth jump, it broke free. Even though with tail stubbed and leg broken, it would survive for now. The snake, with jaws still latched, feebly slithered into the grass to possibly rehabilitate. A battle without a victor…
Our senses were stimulated now; eyes searching and minds open to the insight that this place was able to give us. We continued down the trail, passing stands of enormous ponderosa pines, spruce, fir, juniper, and cedar. The olfactory nerves were next to be awakened in these thickets as we occasionally stopped to inhale the sweet, earthy red bark of the pine. It was upon the identification of this smell, like vanilla and honey, which I realized it was permeating throughout the entire forest. It was a smell that wrapped me in a state of pleasant thought and uplifted feeling in my soul. The innumerable molecules that I was sensing followed me for the remainder of the day while we traveled further along the trail, descending further into what is known as Dark Canyon.
We came across a few new plant species that we had not yet seen in our travels. Low-lying phlox covered the ground in many places, its green shrubbery and white flowers a stark contrast to the dark and rocky forest floor below. The Scarlet Gilia stood high above the ground via a woody stalk. Its display of vibrant, red flowers that flared out its four petals was not much unlike a firework. Its red color and high position is perfect for hummingbirds to feast on its nectar. This interaction is an unwritten agreement between flora and fauna characterized by trust that the behavior developed by one organism will continue to be complementary to and supportive of another mutual organism.
By lunchtime we had found a place to set up camp and loaf for the rest of the afternoon. The final gift for the day was presented after dinner, when the last gasps of sunlight had streamed over the earth. Our ears were given a concerto from Woodhouse toads, whose throats – swelling to half their body size, bellowed forth a shrill serenade of love. A Mexican Spotted Owl moved in with the grand finale, its unique pattern of hoots echoing into the night. At the end there was no applause, only the sound of crickets as the night pressed onwards under starlight.
With my senses set aflare I felt very much a part of this place, rather than simply a visitor. It is in the blending of self and place that I felt peace. A peace of the mind as its whirring slows into vanilla scent and visions of sunlight glinting off pine needles. And a peace of the body as muscles relax and melt into embracing beds of grass. It is that for which I am grateful.