The Element of Ether

The rain has returned, moving from downpour to rainbow and back again. The season has shifted as it does, suddenly, from the season of sun, dry grass, desiccation and heat to the season of water and cool clean air. The sun pierces the dark grey clouds and spreads brilliant light for a moment at a time, sparkling all the drops within its range, creating fleeting holes of blue through the layers of dark and lighter grey cloud.

Two days ago, the day was filled with the presence of blue sky. That morning as I stood between the rows of drying sunflowers behind the barn, near the arching vines dripping with the intricate obloid shapes of their hops, I heard a flight of geese flying behind me from north to south. As they veered east, I watched two hawks fly into the tops of two tall trees across the mown field in front of me. Then, as the enormous Vs of calling birds made their wide turn across the sky, one hawk spread its great wings and lifted into the air, flying in its own arc toward the north. The other hawk remained in its perch in the treetop, in the alert repose of the raptor, unmoving.

As the flight of geese swept around high behind its treetop, the air between vibrated with an unseen waft of the finest energy. This is the element beyond air, beyond fire, beyond water, beyond earth, made of infinities. I stood for that long moment, my breath having gone with it somewhere beyond.

I have come all this way and no distance at all to this spot where the sun warmed me, just as it warmed the intricate beauty of each fruiting hop hanging near my arm, my hand, these appendages that hang from my own erect trunk.

Just as the season shifts suddenly and then retreats for a moment, I am shifting, my body becoming more of ether than earth, more of dry vibration like the stands of fireweed, where, just moments ago, the last purple-red flowers flamed briefly at the tops of the stalks and where today the puffs of white seed sway in the wind, dancing on their brown stalks. I begin the process of drying, a transaction both of concentration and of emptying. The water drips from me, hardly wetting what is left, filling my cells with the purest knowledge of delight.

The Element of Earth

It was mid-September and the mornings were getting cold. The night before, I had laid out my clothes with a warm jacket, a wool blanket, wool hat and gloves and then slept soundly.

I was on a road trip on my own, a kind of pilgrimage. This morning I was going to the place that had called me back, a place on the high desert. I wanted to get there right at sunrise.

I left the house where I was staying very quietly, making sure to close the screen door carefully. The air in the dark pines was sharp with cold, the night turning to pre-dawn grey.

As I drove through the scruffy, sagebrush desert, light began to seep gently over the horizon. The road went on and on through a seemingly boundless expanse. The sun was staining the bottom of the sky warm orange and beginning to reveal the cloudless blue above as the huge rock formation came into view ahead.

The formation itself, now glowing orange and brown in the warmth of the rising sun, is the remainder of an ancient volcanic crater, looming up from the flat desert floor in a huge jagged semi-circle, one side open to the plains that stretch endlessly on all sides. I felt a warm flow of joy as I came closer and closer.

I parked in the dirt  lotand pulled on my warm clothing, locked the car and stood for a few long minutes looking up into the huge rounded enclosure, the rock walls looming high above me on both sides, orange and sandy brown in the morning light. I set off for the rocks under the steeper eastern wall. The air was still cool enough to make me thankful for the warm wool blanket I carried with the water in my pack.

These rocks of volcanic tuff had sheltered humans for at least thirteen thousand years, back when it was an island in a huge receding lake. They lived and hunted and fished all around the walls of rock. Their presence emanates from every shelter in the jutting rock, every waft of air, every clump of brown grass and sage. I felt it in the path still used now by tourists. I was all alone in their presence and would be for a few hours.

From below, I selected a spot among the huge rocks and vegetation near the wall’s protective interior face. A prairie mouse scuttered from the hiding place of one rock to another. A litter of small bits of tuff covered much of the ground where short brown grasses pushed up here and there. It was a place fairly sheltered from view from below and from the rays of the rising sun promising to gradually heat the air. It would have a commanding view of what had once been Lake Mazama, left by the receding glacier.

I climbed up and moved from spot to spot until I found one that had just the right view and was comfortable enough to sit for the hours until I would no longer be alone. Wrapping my blanket around my legs and feet, pulling my hat down over my ears, buttoning up my coat and putting on my wool gloves I began my sitting.

I greedily breathed in air permeated by expansive silence. No sound of human activity, no calls of birds, no movement of air. Stillness. The rock walls enclosed the whole space around my back and sides, looming upwards, earth jutting up towards sky. Gradually I felt each cell drawing in the solid brownness of it, the smooth greyness, absorbing the particles of earth and lava that had been compressed by huge forces over aeons. I settled into the earth, encompassed by its strength.

Before me spread the plain, the sun still tinging east-facing rock with orange as it rose gently higher. Humans had lived with this expanse for millennia. When early human lived here, it had been an enormity of water, stretching to the horizon. They had woken each morning with the presence of this rock, rubbed their eyes, stretched, yawned and begun their day, their eyes taking in all this beauty. We have all felt it the same way. We absorb the immensity. We reflect it in our eyes, our hearts. It stretches out within us and settles, as I had settled.

Sparrows came and scratched near my feet in the sandy dirt and dry grasses for moments, looking for seeds, heads cocking this way and that, ever alert, skitting off quickly. A big hawk flew out over the plain, rested in the air and then circled slowly back to a perch on the cliff above me where he stayed, watching. Everything returned to stillness. My mind became completely still yet full with the substance of earth.

The light changed so slowly that even change seemed stillness. The sun’s warmth gradually spread through the roundness of the opposite side of the crater while I continued to be hidden in shade. I felt the warmth in small currents of air begin to reach into the shadow.

Within the world of the enclosing walls, one by one, two by two, individual rocks took on shape, color and character. The colors of their solidity shifted from greys to warm browns and reds. They cast long shadows as the sun rose gradually higher, their dark spread the only movement. At the far edges of the crater, the rocks were already losing the depth of their deep colors to the bleaching light of the sun, losing their earth and becoming ether. But the huge walls retained their strength, their earth, even as the reds and browns began to disappear.

I sat as it all shifted slowly, slowly through me. I shed the blanket, the gloves and the hat and opened my coat. Other small birds flew among the rocks, chirping, warbling brief snatches. A prairie falcon swooped, calling its wild call, speaking to me, and flew out over the plain. Always the expanse, the weight and strength of enormous rock. Earth. Stillness. My body settled further as if enveloped by earth.

It was only after the sun was halfway up the sky that I heard the distant sound of a car. I watched as it drove along the road leading to the crater where I sat hidden, the warmth of the day having now penetrated further into the circle, light now where I had been in shadow. With slow deliberation, I put my warm clothes into my pack, drank some water and gathered myself to stand. As the car came to a stop down below at the entrance to the crater, an older couple emerged, looking up and around them, getting ready to ascend along the trails into the encircling cliffs.

I threaded my arms through the straps of my pack as I began climbing around the big rocks there half-way up the wall, picking my way, unnoticed, to the back of the crater. I had the whole day to explore the trails through the sagebrush and the rock formations that covered the expanse of the ancient crater. Each formation of red and brown tuff had its own qualities of earth. I wanted to pull it all in as I walked and breathed.

One by one and in small groups, more people gradually came to walk the trails. We spoke to each other briefly, always about the rock, about the awe. It was reflected everywhere.

When I had explored every nook and cranny as I would the body of a beloved, breathing in the various fragrances rocks, dust, dirt and sage, climbing up the trails to the top of the outer tip of one edge of one wall where it opens out over the prairie, viewing the infinity from the opening in every way, I finally left the intimacy of the grand but still enclosed space and walked out along the outside of the crater. I seemed to breathe a newer air there than that inside the walls. I craned my neck and looked up at the great height of the rock cliffs. There I sat and ate my late lunch under the sparse shade of a juniper tree.

After I had eaten, I walked the sandy trails back to the center of the crater and sat on a rock to absorb the entirety once more before I left.

Earth.

I remained there on that rock until the sun was once again more than halfway down towards the horizon and the heat its most intense. Again, it was again perfectly quiet in the bleaching light. The last of the people had driven away. I sat until I couldn’t sit anymore. I took my time walking back to the car, absorbing each prospect as I went.

After I’d let the heat of the oven inside the car dissipate, I drove out along the arching road away from the crater, past the settlers’ cemetery, turning my head or looking in the mirror again and again as the sun, descending towards the horizon, began to touch the colossal volcanic walls with warming browns and red. I stopped the car and got out to see this unimaginably immense sanctuary of rock once more, small now in perspective.

The intimacy of being in its midst, the stillness, remained, even as it appeared to dissolve from earth to ether there in the gathering darkness in the distance.

 

 

The Element of Water

Water.

There is the water that runs down as melting snow from the high mountains.

Water that carries the flour of rocks ground by the glaciers that lie between mountain peaks that loom even higher–mineral flour ground by the weight of the glacier’s  captured snow, then suspended in the trickling streams that tickle the glacial underbelly as the cold, cold water seeps through the layers of ancient ice. Flowing from everywhere in the ice, pulled by the forces of earth, trickling down across the grey and brown surfaces of granite, dolomite, and gneiss, they feed into one flow.

This growing river’s water is sometimes white with the glacial milk, sometimes green as it dances in the light and begins to roar with the power of all this water, traveling down.

We climb up the trail along such a river which is rushing down the mountain all at one enormous speed, with all energy reaching upward and plunging downward in a tumultuous dance.

The sheer force of it runs through me, obliterating all else with its roaring, soaring endless song.

Then, there on the other side of the plunging, churning water, a slim tree had fallen and was caught between rocks in the river’s bed, stretching out what was once its sun-reaching height to point upriver.

As the water churns past the rocks that grasp it, its tip bobs up and down, its rhythm a complex counterpoint in the music of the water,  part of the symphony that all human symphonies yearn for.

In these waters that are as much air as water, as much fire as air, there are birds called Dippers that fly through the river itself. Although I watch carefully as I walk along the banks, It is only later in my dreams I see it, a small brown and tan bird, plunging into the frothy white and green waves, going upstream, flying with strokes of its wings in the clear depths, catching bugs and popping out again to bob along downstream for a moment.

As we travel higher there is a place where all this tremendous force, this deafening flow, is slowed by a gathering of the debris it has itself carried down the slopes. Behind the debris it pools, resting quietly before it gradually penetrates the barrier and resumes its fall.

The flow has become a lake above this dam, shining an ethereal turquoise as the sunlight strikes the particles of mineral milk, an apparition neither of earth nor sky but of some otherworldly realm. Watching from the shore the lake spreads inside you, reflecting all quietly, expanding to the outer edges of the soul. A bird may fly through this space, calling. If it does, by its nature, it will pierce into the heart of things.

Looking around, the mountains rise into the ether, snow still clinging precariously to their upper reaches.

Enormity.

We walk further along the trail, through the forest of cedars and hemlock, now beginning to turn to pines, birch, and ash along the rock slides in the flats around the lake.

Here water trickles down everywhere, flowing from the melting snow above down to the lake.  We jump over some streams, splash through others. The sound of the water here is as gentle as the music of a softly blown flute, flowing everywhere around us.

On the way back along the lake and down along the trail, the tremendous flow of the river carries me with it, dizzying in its dance, its love of gravity.  Certainly, there is somehow fire mixed in the cascading water–fire and air.  This is why a bird can fly through it.

As we walk, we hear a boom followed a moment later by a flash of light searing a white line through the openings in the dark trees. More of the elemental fire. The predicted storm.

The rain begins to fall sparsely in large drops, some dripping slowly off the leaves of overhanging shrubs. The smell of ozone wafts through the pervasive fragrance of the cedar.

The rain begins in earnest as we stand in a dry spot under a tree and pull our rain jackets out of our packs. There’s a satisfaction in the cool, dry smoothness of them against our still-warm skin as we continue our downhill walk in the rain.

The heat of the day remains as an undertone to all this chilling water, leaving pockets of warmth in the cooling air.

As we walk into the quiet of the lower forest the rain has stopped.  I am empty. There is nothing left but soaring space containing only pervasive and quiet joy.

If it were not so late in the day, I would turn around and climb back again, climb further above the lake. I would stay in the presence of all this water, all this elevation.

It contains its own yearning.

 

The Element of Air

They were cutting the big hay fields up at the top of the hill, old Wayne Larson’s fields. 

Our friends with the lavender farm next to the fields called us to ask to see if we might be able to identify the huge hawks that were circling around over the fields and the farm. One had even chased aside a bald eagle. From the description, we weren’t sure.

I’d been meaning to take a walk, so after finishing the small bit of planting I was doing, I headed up the hill.

It was a beautiful afternoon after a chilly, greyish morning. The sky was perfectly blue. The wind had died down to a breezy level. The air was finally really warming to the return of the sun. The robins were repeating their simple songs back and forth to each other across the road.

Before I could even see the fields, I saw the raptors soaring around in that celestial space. As I approached the farm, I could see several bald eagles drifting around, some close to the ground, others up above the big Doug Firs at the edge of the field. Then the hawks, large bodied, some bigger than the eagles, two flying in patterns around each other, others scattered through the air. I was already soaring with them.

As I walked up the side road around the back of the farmhouse, I saw my friend weeding in the raised beds. It took her a few moments to notice I was approaching, then, taking off her headphones, she pointed up to one of the hawks flying over the big fir at the back of their yard. We watched it careen out over the field, joining dozens of other birds soaring, swooping and perching in the tallest trees on the far side of the big field.

We spent the next hour totally captivated by the show. The others had come out of the house. My friend the photographer had been trying to get some good shots of the birds as they flew past. Now he, too, sat and watched. There were at least a dozen bald eagles coming from all directions and dozens of other raptors. I spotted a pair or two of graceful harriers. Others were clearly red-tailed hawks of different sizes, some with gold on their bodies, some dark, some with truly coppery tails Some seemed so heavy and big I thought must be Cooper’s Hawks, but the coloring seemed wrong.

Absorbed in trying to see the details of their markings and the shape of head and wing, we all began to feel the exhilaration of the air.

I’d seen great gatherings of raptors before, once along a river near La Center, another along a field in Sumas, but never so close and with such intimacy. Our stories of birds and flight came one on top of the other. I somehow had a glass of wine in my hand and the joy of friendship and the lift of the thermal air currents was palpable. We were becoming as close to the birds of the air in spirit as was possible.

We watched while some dark hawk flew by with a mouse in his beak. He changed direction quickly as an eagle swooped towards him. The eagle made a grab for the morsel and missed. The owner of the prize swooped up into the air and back the way he had been headed, maybe to feed a brood.

Eagles vied for the highest perch in the trees, calling in their seaside screeches. The vibrancy of the whole scene lifted us. As the big hay mowers moved into the next field, the rodents must have had enough time to run for cover in the field closest to us. The show moved to the field to the east, though birds still hovered and pounced periodically close to our view.

Here and there, a harrier or a red-tail rode a draft above us, silent, motionless, absorbed in the repose of the air. One pair of harriers did a quick pas de deux as they moved back and forth from one field to the next.

As the mowing machines moved further away and the activity began to subside, my friend went back to her weeding and her husband went down the access road to pursue another photo or two. I hugged his sister and we said our good-byes, knowing the mood would unfold into the evening.

As I resumed my walk, I thought to give my mother her Sunday call on my cell phone. As she said hello, I could hear a note of depression in her voice. She was in the throes of watching the evening news there on the east coast. When I asked how she was doing, she began a litany of all the national idiocies perpetrated during the course of that single weekend day. I said, “Forget that! We know enough about all about that! Let me tell you what I’ve just been doing. It will definitely change the mood!.”

That night I slept peacefully, dreaming here and there of birds and air. When I woke up early in the morning, pursued by some motion in a dream, I saw the swollen, upside down half moon through openings in the blind. I got up to see it through the window, and then padded out, naked and barefoot, to see it in the naked night.

It was shining golden in the southwestern sky. I have never seen the moon shine with such a yellow gold, lemony and glowing with a kind of penumbra blending hazily into the night sky around it.

Another celebration of the air.

 

What It Is To Burn

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Under the big white tent in the forest we met that night, as agreed. There was a man with a double hand-held drum, a woman with a violin, a man with a oboe, a man with a tenor sax and me with my flute. We were all in our early twenties.
There was a knot in the middle of my chest and my heart was racing. I was not at all sure I could play with these musical people, whether I could play without a sheet of music in front of me to dictate the notes. I had played classical flute for years, well enough, but not with the beauty I really craved to hear. A few times I’d played freely for myself, in the woods, playing nymph to a stream and to the occasional accompaniment of the German Shephard named Blue who lived with us in our cabin in Vermont. I was clearly a romantic, loving the solitude of it and the mystery. But that night as I stood, poised under the tent, listening to the sound of crickets and an occasional night bird, I felt wiped clean, my mind emptied, listening for some sound within.
The violin started with a simple melody, joined soon by the drum who picked the rhythm from the flow of notes, structured it and lead it forward. The sax and oboe started to speak up, inserting their voices into the conversation, changing the topic, pulling the rhythm. It needed the voice of the flute, the pure soaring. So there it was.

At first the voice of the flute was mine, hesitant, uncertain, poking here and there in the discussion, trying to find a way in. Then the oboe turned to it, eager to hear what it had to say, imitating, reflecting, and then questioning.

It was when the sax came in to the conversation, though, that we all realized we had been invited to a dance. We swung around each other, gracefully at first and then with more abandon. I, standing there, blowing my breath into a long piece of metal, stood back in myself and began to hear a music that I was not playing, that the oboe was not playing, the violin was not playing, certainly not the sax or the drum. It was a swirling of melodies coming from somewhere in the middle of the tent, in the middle of the forest, played by no one but playing us all. Water jumped in the air, splashing, spraying. Somehow the air caught fire. We became the fire itself, hot, leaping, Latin, sexy, burning, crackling, purifying with joy.

The fire burned for some long time, or it might have been intense and brief, as it consumed its fuel and burned it away, sometimes roaring, sometimes quietly crackling, to ashes. As we all listened, it died into the cool light air of the night, a breeze wafting here and there and resting finally in the quiet of the darkness.

We packed up our instruments, speech being far away, hugged our good-nights and went to our sleeping bags, burned away, yet filled with vastness.

The Burn Pile

Last night the wind was still and the weather mild so we lit our burn pile and pulled up a couple of chairs to tend it and sit together to watch the life in the fire.  This time we were burning some of the last of the combustible pieces of the eleven years of accumulation here on the farm.

In the October soon after we’d moved here, we sat together around a similar bonfire and listened to a pair of Great Horned Owls sing their love duet from the tall cottonwoods on the east side of the garden. That was a moment of magic and optimism. We dreamed aloud to each other about our future here, the farm stand we would have, the vegetables we would grow.  We named the farm that night. It was an inside joke. Now, we are burning the hand painted white, red, green and blue signs we made to direct passers by to the farm. We saved just one. We’ll leave it in the back of one of the stalls in the barn for the new owners to come upon when they’re exploring their new territory. F.A. Farm, they might wonder. What was that?

Now we are wrapping up our lives here, divesting of almost everything. We’re down to a pile of boxes in a stall in the barn, some essential garden tools, our two old bikes and the furniture we need to live until we leave the house and lock the door.  Orion has danced over the barn as the fire has burned lower and the coyotes are yipping off in the near distance, a pack of them after some mice or a stoat they’ve flushed. No owls tonight.

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