Making the transition from the rain forests of Oregon to the second driest state in the country has been quite the adventure. Utah is beautiful in a completely different way from the Pacific Northwest. There are the red deserts with ravens high above them; the aspen forests that flutter like wings; the long chains of mountains that catch the sun on their faces. Everywhere you look, in Salt Lake City, there are mountains, much gentler than the great peak of Mt. Hood, but still magnificent. I am still getting to know them, but that will come with time. I’m almost halfway through my two-year Environmental Humanities graduate program (hence the lack of blog posts the past few months!); another year to go, and another year to get to know this beautiful landscape!
They stretch long;
the wings of birds pulsed up in flight,
silhouettes positioned on rust,
orange as the backs of deer, sunlight quietly waiting.
“Does it have a tide?” I asked.
“A very slight one.”
“Are there ever any actual waves?”
“When you get out far enough.”
“Do people swim in it?”
“Sometimes. Usually it’s too cold.”
“It doesn’t smell like the ocean,” I said, but they were skipping stones and had stopped listening. Too many questions, I guessed, but that was okay, because as they threw their stones in long gallops I gazed and gazed, entranced by the runny soup broth texture of the water.
“See—you can’t even see the other side,” my friend said as she whipped a stone across the surface. “And no wind. Every time I go to the Oregon coast I come back looking like a drowned rat or something.”
Lake Superior was technically a freshwater sea, an inland sea, the relic of glaciers, so I’d expected it to be comparable to the ocean. There was nothing I could place that wasn’t oceanic; it was enormous, and the water hushed and breathed. There was nothing about Superior that dwindled its sea-ness, except for the smell and something that was missing, something more than salt. I expected this to change, and I stared and I stared, but the longer I looked, the less like the ocean it became.
“It’s really not much like the coast at all,” I told my friend, and I threw a stone into the water.
If I was upset when I was younger I would run to the trees. I would stare up at them and hope that they might know me. I would stare intensely, my whole neck tilted back, and I’d hold my body still so that when the wind came through I would feel like a mountain overlooking the sea, the clouds and the water and the tilt of the earth spinning around me, like I was the one steady thing in this world.
Far from my sea of ferns and cedars I found a greater steadiness. The desert is a place of slowed time. Ancientness is everywhere. As we perceive it, the ruins and petroglyphs speak of eternity; they are time capsules; they are symbols of both immortality and fragility.
All around are ancient seabeds, arroyos and washes, eroded cliffsides half-digested by rain. A millennia of changes, visible before my eyes, and yet from my place, from my senses and from all the shortened count of human time, this land has lived forever.
As I follow the cairns between sagebrush I am completely alone. At last the trail is empty. I stop, just briefly, and hold my breath. Nothing. Nothing at all. No wind, no tussle of blackbrush, no cries of ravens. No hiking boots, no hot breathing. For this moment I am underwater. I am in space.
I find water. The sun softens. I want to jump in and swim against the river currents, but I don’t, because it is too close to sunset, and I don’t want wet hair when the night grows cold. Instead I stare at the plumes of white and I try to imagine what the water might feel like as it tosses and pulls its way through faded colors—gray, blue, and sandy red—past the Grand Canyon, past cow pastures, past ancient time to some desert basin. This, the Colorado River, will not reach the sea as it once did. It is a dying river. For some reason this is what breaks my illusion, the spell of a desert afternoon; this is what sets the world in motion again. Maybe I am moving just the same as any of them, and there is no such thing as steadiness.
I cannot reach you on foot; I cannot run to you on sunny days, or sit quietly on your banks. I will never know you well, but I doubt anyone does. I’ve heard little about you. It seems that you’re not charismatic enough—nothing like the Colorado River, or the Green River. You aren’t large or fast or striking in color. You are the equivalent of an old dog who sleeps all day. Sweet, placid—easy to ignore. But you are also an oasis in a nearly waterless land, and I don’t think you’re cherished enough for it. Maybe this is because you reside on the west side of town, the poorer side, the place of industrial plumes and coal trains. Here, there are signs in Spanish and homeless people on sidewalks. Here, the buildings are blocky and ugly, utilitarian, made to store commodities and to please no one. Maybe I’m harsh to judge, but I think you’re the most beautiful thing in this part of town. And you and this whole area could be valued if you were only noticed. Maybe someday they’ll see what an asset you are, and they will sit on your shores and gaze lovingly at your slow, green water. Until then, I will be the one who notices, all the way from the other side of town.
I woke in the morning to snow. On the way in we’d hiked after dusk, so I hadn’t seen the river yet, nor the mountains on either side. Throughout the day they revealed themselves, coolly, like the moon rising above the horizon. They were blue, and in some places flat on top, like forbidden towers. As much as I disliked the idea, there was, indeed, something sublime about them. They seemed untouchable, impossible; the realm of starlight and feathers.
As the fog cleared the snow began to melt, and we ventured out of our tents. This was a group backpacking trip, school-sponsored, and we spent the day marching on mudded pathways. Our boots made crisp, leaf-crunch noises over the frost. This kept us warm but there was always that wind, there, which burst over us at random openings between spruces. With great joy I surveyed the plants, plucking gooseberries, chokecherries, currants, and the last, shriveled raspberries of the year.
At lunchtime we crouched by the river to fill our water bottles. When I held mine to the light I could see all the hairs of moss, all the splinter-thin leaf veins that I’d captured along with the water. I purified it with a UV stick. My fingers numbed through the aluminum; through my gloves.
By nightfall the frost and the fog had returned. I huddled carefully within my tent. True darkness. Then, sometime in the deep of night, I heard a long weee-ahhh, a great, sharp whistling yell from across the river. The first thought that came to my mind was a bugling elk. I’d never heard an elk, nor was I sure what bugling was, but I just had that feeling about it. Later I looked it up, and I was right; it was an elk, a male urging forth the rut, establishing his own form of elk sublimity. This was a sound that reminded me there were not just elk out there, but bears, and mountain lions. There was something about it that was far more river than mountain—far more tangible, even in all this cloth-darkness, yet still foreign enough to give me chills, to make me feel a startled sort of awe. This was a sweeping place. The sharp-metal sound of the elk was not small, but it was for some reason comforting. Obviously I was not alone here, in my backpacking group, but it was good to know that I wasn’t alone out there, either, in this land of snow and mountain and elk, and I soon fell asleep to the great confluence, and all that it echoed.
We hear the clearing before we see it. A parting of winds, a pause in the flickering. We emerge from the flame-trees. Our faces are painted yellow in the light. Flames burning underwater; flames that carry no heat; that is the way of the aspen trees.
From the meadow we see the ski resort across the canyon. In the snowless months it is a wound, a bald spot that is made more unsightly by those metal towers that beam, useless, in the sun. We turn our backs to it and continue uphill, through the grass, past elderberry bushes and what might be wild licorice. What I want most is to see a moose. I’ve never seen one. Today is no different; we have seen no moose, but we did hear a raven somewhere off to the east.
The path becomes mud in low-lying spots, and that’s how I know the lake is near. We turn a corner and there it is—small, still, rimmed by shrubby willows. Behind this we see the mile of aspens we’ve just walked through. From here they are an undulating summer curtain, or perhaps a kite, and despite their fall colors I feel as though it’s summer.
We sit on the bare sand beside the lake. The water-wind chills us, but we do not move. The sun is on our faces. Our breathing becomes low and flat. The aspens shhh in the distance. Time recedes and we lapse in to water-induced meditation, softer and softer, until we are as smooth as the surface before us.
Memory. Hill and wind unfold at once. Sagebrush. Lodge pole pine. Pronghorn antelope. They run as ghosts at dawn, blurred like distant rain, the echo of clouds that shift over the horizon as though they have deflated, are deflating, ghost-clouds reaching some thicket, some lakeshore, the backs of deer, a rain-world intangible here by the water; brushstrokes.
I’ve missed the water. My new desert home is nothing like this. I’ve not seen a river since I left Oregon; I’ve not seen a lake since I drove past the Great Salt Lake on the move over—car full of boxes, the water only slightly visible from the highway and just beginning to shiver with sunset.
Here in Montana I feel as though I am walking on a mirrored sky. Even the non-reflecting grasses hold clouds in their vastness. The lake is distinctly oceanless. It is tied to nothing, unlike the rivers at home, which flow to the sea, the Pacific, whose fogged closeness I used to smell in southwestern winds. Now I smell the alpine, some northward basin wind that speaks of steppes and mountains converging.
I used to walk with my dog down our neighborhood streets. It was only a short walk to the water. “Come on, Ginger,” I would tell her, and we would run for a moment, “let’s go see the river,” and she would pant, and we would slow down, and after a time we would see the green, slow-moving Willamette, which in my mind was always simply the river. I felt some pride in calling it that, rather than by its full name. It meant I knew it well. It was simply the river, River, as central to my lifeworld as the moon or the sun or the wind.
This lake is a guest in my world. I do not know it, nor will I, since I’m only here for a few days. I am like the trumpeter swans, the great blue herons, the ibises. I am like the antelope, silent, and moving, and reverent; destined for dry places, made of memories—made of water.
This is the gathering place.
Down below, a blanket, a fur like the unhealthy coating on a tongue. Amorphous—the emerald of rotting things. No one would dare wade through these waters. From a distance there is nothing beneath. Under the glint of blue-sprawled sky, it is only water. The geese find it clean enough. They don’t mind the concrete sidings, or the brown stars of sediment that trace their way inkily through the shallows. With their long necks bowed, as snakes, as willow fronds, they wander on land where the sidewalk is slick with mud. To step past them necessitates a bow in return. The path winds past them, through them, to a grove of cottonwood trees, trunks grayed, porous. A creek runs here beneath a wooden bridge. It smells like river rocks, and the water is clear as melted ice. In a city where most of the creeks have been sacrificed, hidden underground to prevent flooding, it is a privilege to see uncaptured water, and to gather along its shores. No sounds besides water crinkle and distant car grumble. A magpie strings forth, an iridescent ribbon, gracile as the necks of the geese. He pecks at the sand above the clearness. For one moment he stands still, watching the water flow—a shining movement that is magnificent to both of us.
We are walking in the sun, along the blue-green edges. I stop to hear the grass. Sedges and cattails speak a particular language, rushes another. Grasses are perhaps the most clear, but only when they are tall and seeded with knots of wisp. We listen for some time. We hear a sliding, an endless tunnel, as light is captured in the curled, flushed seeds. These are not native grasses. I linger while you pulse away, mud-stepping toward two ducks, whose soft, white feathers you prefer to tufts of grass. But my attention is graven. The grasses are still speaking. I hear in them the songs of trembling water; creekside echoes that are older than this pond. The water is still, in this afternoon sun, but the grasses shimmer. They do not belong here. I want to hate them for it, to step on them as you have done, but I cannot. They are still speaking, and I am here, listening to them bristle, and flock, and sing in the language that you have forgotten.