March 20, 2018 ~~ Eagle and Nuthatch
As I walked out the door and headed towards the apartment, Katherine opened the studio window and called softly to me. “There is an eagle on the power pole.”
I took a few cautious steps to the left, where I could see over the apartment roof and saw the big golden hunched on top of the pole. She had just landed and was readjusting herself. Her golden head feathers sat atop a regal body, adorning large eyes and curved beak that radiated power and dignity.
I stood still, afraid to move. I stared at her as she stopped her looking around at new surroundings and stared back at me. I knew her. She was someone from another life and being, come to visit, seeing how I was doing in the life she used to share with me.
How could I think that? She was a bird, magnificent and otherworldly, but a bird just the same. But I knew. Her look penetrated my very soul. I silently said hello and thanked her for stopping to say hi. We stared at each other for a full minute as she continued to flex her feathers, shift her body, straighten up as she filled the top of the power pole.
I have seen lots of eagles, baldies as well as goldens. A golden—this same one maybe—the past few weeks had been adorning the power poles lining the long driveway out to the paved road. I always welcomed them and thanked them for their presence. They were there waiting to lunch or breakfast on the too numerous prairie dogs that littered the fields on either side of the lane. They were wary, usually flying off as I approached, but occasionally looking down as I walked or drove past.
After our brief conversation, she lifted off, huge wings lumbering in silent powerful strokes as she dropped towards the ground, then leveled off a few feet above the driveway. She flew a few hundred yards north, then settled on a taller pole by our blue gate at the edge of our property. I didn’t follow, but would let her do her hunting or meditating or whatever she does while sitting high up on her lookout perch.
A few minutes later, I finished my chore and looking up at the pole she had sat on a few feet from where I stood. Where she had sat, I heard a familiar beeping. It was one of my favorite feathered friends—the little white breasted nuthatch. I often see, but usually hear, one or two sitting as dignified as they can up there on the top of the pole, wandering around looking over the edge.
We usually have several of these little guys hanging around the house, gathering sunflower seeds from the feeders, climbing straight up and down trees, the sides of the house, along the window edges, calling back and forth with their constant beeping. They remind me a some English butler, with tuxedo and black skull cap. I have had them slowly come up to eat sunflower seeds out of my hands, but most often, they just like to climb up and down tree trunks. After a family hatches their brood in the spring, mom and dad bring the kids and clamber around for us to observe them. I like to think they are proud parents showing off their offspring. I never think of them as some lost soul coming to check up on me as I did the eagle. They are part of the landscape, sharing space with us, living their lives just as I live mine. They are simply neighbors and I think we enjoy each other’s company.
The eagle and the nuthatch. Both are birds and both share lives with me. How different they are, but how much they both add to my life. I would like to think I add to theirs, but I am sure they are indifferent to me. And I will talk to one as a friend, but to the other as a soulmate from a past life. One signifies power and authority. One is a neighbor I share thoughts with. I daily thank each of them for what they are and what they mean to me.
March 11, 2018 ~~ Cool Rock Serendipity
We stood at the trailhead in the cool shadows of an early Saturday spring morning. I knew there was a trail here but was surprised by the brand new Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area sign that heralded the beginning of the Cool Rock Trail. I chuckled at the rather unimaginative name. After climbing up a steep beginning of the trail and walking no more than a few hundred yards along the dry wash bottom, I wondered if I was reverting to a childhood vocabulary. Every other word I muttered included the phrase "wow“, what cool rocks.” The trail was very well named. It was a geological wonderland.
I quickly ran through the scientific geological litany: we were in the Morrison Formation which was topped by the Dakota Sandstone. Typical for this area. Rather boring brownish sandstone crumbled down like cake crumbs onto the pinks and purples and whites of the Morrison. But the tumble-down boulder and rubble piles that lined and obstructed the bottom gravelly wash was beyond imagination. It was nature’s creativity writ large. Around every bend in the wash, behind every boulder, was another rock or pile of rocks that required a “wow, look at that cool rock.”
I was beginning to wonder at my lack of creativity in describing what I saw. I did not wonder at the run-away creativity of this natural wonderland at our feet. Pink rocks broken in square or rectangular blocks, small to large. Pink with white dots and circles. White with brown spots. Yellows and purples, striped and spotted. Large brown boulders with straight striations, curved and hollowed out amphitheaters, all on a small scale that forced me to avoid picking up every other rock to carry home as a souvenir.
Progress was slow up the canyon, but we had no end objective. The objective was to wander slowly uphill, gazing at the cliffs above, the rocks at our feet. The objective was to try and figure out where the canyon wren was as we continually heard the descending call of one of my favorite birds, rarely seen, but whose call echoed throughout the canyon like the call of the mystical sirens of old.
The fast-moving string of clouds from west to east finally ended as the sun, at last, came over the east canyon wall, erasing the cool morning air. Now I could stand in the sun, soaking up the warmth like a lizard warming his blood.
I have encountered similar dilemmas in the past. How can I describe the grandeur of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to someone who has never seen the canyon? How can I explain the majesty of an Alaskan glacier from a boat watching giant cliffs of ice calve into the sound? How can I capture the magnificence of a giant sequoia as I crane to see the top from my humble place at the huge base of this creation of nature?
Words can come after much consideration and deliberation. But words cannot capture the emotion, the awe, the realization of the artistry of nature. The old saying kept coming to mind: you just had to be there. For some inexplicable reason, I kept thinking this jumble of rock artistry actually did compare to these other sights, however on a much smaller scale. The only words that came close were “wow, what cool rocks.” I really had regressed to childhood wonder. I looked upwards at the red and purple and brown rocks poised above me, touching the blue of the sky striped with a few lingering wisps of white cloud, streaked with gossamer as if being pulled apart like taffy.
The canyon continued to snake uphill, the sides sometimes widening into almost rockless slopes, then narrowing as the red and brown cliffs shot straight up. Taking occasional breaks from the rocks, we marveled at the ancient lichen encrusted holly oaks and single leaf ash, mixed with sparse juniper and Mormon tea. There was life here mixed in with the lifeless rocks. But the rocks were not lifeless. They carried colorful life as green and orange and white lichens covered the boulders in a struggle to see how much could fit onto one rock. Layer over layer, the lichens almost equaled the artistry of the rock itself.
When I felt I could absorb no more, I heard the faint call of the canyon wren, high up on the canyon cliffs. I know that is the sound I will hear when I do pass into the next universe. It is haunting, yet hopeful. It is like the sound of running water, the breeze through the grass, the soothing thunder of surf on a broken shore.
We had wandered uphill far enough. It was time to turn around and pick our way through the boulders. Seeing the rocks, recognizing others like old friends we had seen only minutes before, it was a journey back to the real world. Although there were other footprints in the soft dirt, we knew this had become our secret place. We would share it, hoping the others would see and appreciate what we did. This had become sanctuary where the real world would await us. A world of wonder and peace, with a blue sky, wisps of clouds and the haunting call of my canyon wren.We all can find our own serendipity. It is at our feet if only we choose to look. We open our eyes, listen, feel the breeze, see the wonders. Life surrounds us and life itself is a serendipity.
April 10, 2018 ~~ Rocks and Phlox
I stood looking ahead with slight concern as the trail started up another steep hill, through the jumbled and broken rocks. The hike had been steep and hard the first half mile but had leveled off and the walk across the open bench land sprinkled by a few huge rocks was a welcome relief. The view to the east was expansive—the white-topped Ruby Range ended the distant horizon. Below and a couple miles away, we could see an empty coal train silently winding along the Gunnison Riverlike some toy, heading for the coal fields above Paonia. Of course, the massive lump called Thunder Mountain by the Utes, Grand Mesa by the rest of us, stood imposing above the Mancos Shale badlands below. But this day, I was not interested in the geology. I was in an official Wilderness, finding the challenge of the McCarty trail to be invigorating.
It turned out to be another “wow” hike into the rock wonderland of the canyon country. “Cool rocks” of another type, but still full of wonder and amazement. After the confusion of where the trail went and where we were on the map, we stopped for lunch on that open flat, then slowly continued on up the winding trail. The “wow” view was at our feet and not the towering cliffs above or the distant mountains. Familiarity breeds the jaded taking-for-granted of such scenery and those cliffs were impressive. They were the starting point for all the rocks we were walking through, over, and around. I could never take for granted the geologic time scale of a place like this and I did realize we were frozen in a slow-motion time frame. The cliffs and mesas they lined were receding, slowing crumbling and eroding to layer the ground around us with the fantasyland of rocks large and small. If I could speed up time, we would be dodging the tumbling rocks and jumping to keep from having the sandy and rocky ground under our feet slowly sink to the valley floor far below. But time was on our side and for us, the ground was permanent, slowly growing grass and trees and cactus.
The jumble of rocks, small, medium and large, often snugged up against the beautifully artistic twisted and gnarly dead juniper trees and branches, littered the ground. Unusual rock shapes, colorful orange and green lichens, all painted and sculpted the micro view. Unlike the cool rocks of Cool Rock Canyon further upriver, these were mostly of one origin—probably Dakota Sandstone, although some certainly hinted at different origins. But on this day, I didn’t care.
For those of you who are familiar with the Colorado Plateau canyon and cliff country know what I am about to say. For those of you who are not familiar, stop immediately and add this part of the world to your bucket list. The Escalante and Dominguez portion of the larger Uncompahgre Plateau is only a hint of the Utah slickrock country to the west. Sort of like the Sistine Chapel ceiling is only a hint of what Michelangelo created.
This canyon country, in our backyard for years, but unknown to us, has captured our fascination, reawakening the memories of the Utah canyon country. It matches the grandeur I had found in such places as the nearby Rockies, the magical Mt. Rainer and the Cascades, the powerful headlands of the Mendocino Coast, the forests of the Sierra Nevada. We were only on the edge of the canyon country, but the shapes, colors, textures of the jumble of rock, tumbled down from cliffs above us and scattered on the flats of the mesa bench were beyond description.
As we reached the limit of our aging legs and lungs, we found the last hillside covered with pink and white springtime phlox blooms. Springtime was either late or almost nonexistent in this drought-plagued year. But the phlox came through. As we stood and admired the blooms highlighted on the dark browns of the rocky soil, we noticed a couple turkey vultures circling above the cliffs forming the upper horizon. Blue sky slowly being covered by a thin haze of cloud streaks outlined the skyline. We called this final hillside buzzard point. A fitting end to a springtime hike and discovery. It all adds an exclamation to discoveries yet to be found.Kowing there were hidden and unknown canyons and mesas still to be explored, we stopped to enjoy the view and wonder what treasures still lay ahead. I sighed: so much to see, so little time. Ah, but time. Time, that unseen force that sculpted this land and promises to continue on, just as the buzzard continued her circles far above. If only I could join her in her bird's eye view. Some things must be left to the future.
March 22, 2018 ~~ Do Rhinos Cry?
I watched with sadness the news of the loss of Sudan, the last known northern white rhino. I wonder if his daughter and granddaughter shed a tear for his loss. I know we all should have. He was the last, but he was old and ready to leave. There are no more to take his place. Except for his two female offspring, also in captivity and unable to run free as they should have, he is the last. It is sad, worthy of tears, but it happens way too often.
Somewhere along the way, too many people have lost the understanding that we are just one of many. If something doesn’t have economic value, the ability to make some entrepreneur wealthy, then it isn't important. Our children and grandchildren are no longer part of nature. We are above such things as dolphins, even though they may have intelligence close to ours. We are above Pacific salmon even though they can navigate their way thousands of miles across the ocean to their birthplace, while we often can't find our way home from the bar stool. We are smarter than the polar bear even though they can survive where we never could. Opposable thumbs do allow us to destroy as well as create.
I know extinction is the norm. In all of Earth’s history, 99% of all species that ever existed have gone extinct. Some have occurred slowly, often morphing into a different species. Some may have occurred rapidly, like dinosaurs, although we can only guess about that one. There have been several mass extinctions but the one occurring now is the most tragic. Humans are causing this one, in our race to commit our own suicide.
Did anyone shed a tear for the loss of the mastodon, the Hawaiian honeycreepers, the ivory-billed woodpecker? Should we? Will anyone cry for us? Maybe Sudan shed a tear for us before he left, the species who hunted him to extinction due to a ridiculous greed for his horn. What about the panda, the polar bear, the California condor?
I wrote once about Martha, the last remaining passenger pigeon, who died lonely in a Cincinnati zoo years ago. Like the bison who thundered across the plains, her kind roared through the skies in uncountable numbers. The pigeons are now gone forever, but the bison still remain, reduced to a pittance. We should cry for all we have done in our greed and ignorance. There will be no tears shed for us. There will be a thunderous cheer instead by the species we failed to annihilate. We should cry now for ourselves.
April 2, 2018 ~~ Birds, Butterflies, and Bees
April first and it was no fooling. A warm winter but cool start to spring left the annual green up a little slow. But not for the apricot trees. Always blooming too early, they rarely bear fruit due to April and May freezes. Time will tell in 2018. But April first left no doubt. The blossoms were in full bloom. And pollinators were ready and on the wing. Finches were munching the blossoms. Butterflies were hovering and flittering from branch to branch covered with pollen. And the bees were in full voice, swarming and buzzing, yellow legged, leaving no silence on this spring day.
Spring, a time for life to rise and start anew. Whether finches singing their hearts out, through a mouthful of fruit blossom, butterflies silently bouncing from tree to tree, or bees humming their toneless tune, life was anew for another season.
What does all this mean? The formerly barren branches were alive with a colorful hope of new life. That miracle continues as it has for eons. The tree with its flowers, the birds soon to sit on eggs, the butterflies and bees—all are in that automatic effort to create new life. Whether fruit with seeds, eggs that hatch into new birds, cows with calves and deer with fawns, life springs forth.
As with the apricot blooms, we all seek heavenward in that never-ending search for life, its meaning, its continuation. Could we all be like the apricot blossom and provide beauty, food, joy and hope to those who depend on us? Think about it.
July 4--Version Forty-Eight ~~
We drove up Leroux Creek, as we did one year ago. The 2017 version of our annual July 4 family photo was the last for Goldberry, our companion for nearly fourteen years, as age and arthritis had taken the fire from her, if not her spirit. So on this 2018 version, we were accompanied by Elanor, on her first family photo July 4 expedition. She was still new, not allowed off leash at home; this would be her first trip to the mountains and a free run for her. She kept close but did not understand the camera, as all other dogs had learned to pose like a professional.
We started this July 4th photo tradition forty-eight years ago, not realizing it would become the tradition it has. It tells a story of adventure, travel, companionship, and family. One wall in our home shows us as newlyweds with new four-legged companion, Strider, roaming the southern Colorado mountains, then through the years with additions of Gandalf, Varda, Goldberry, and now Elanor; through California, Utah, South Dakota, and back to stay in Colorado.
But during the drive for this trip, I sensed something different. The road was horribly washboarded, more than usual. The drought was playing havoc with the wildflowers, spare but still beautiful. We saw almost no campers, although one spot hosted something akin to a crowded big-box store parking lot, with a dozen or more huge satellite-dish-adorned motorhomes and accompanying four-wheelers a blight in the forest. We have always been able to find ourselves alone in beautiful settings, even on this crowded holiday, and we found it again here, but I felt something not right.
I scanned my memory, visualizing the places we explored over the years. The Conejos River country, North Park, the California high country and California seashore, Boulder Top in Utah, the Black Hills, and twenty years here in the North Fork and Western Colorado. I realized that all those places may still be there, but the world surrounding them was not. Aspen die-off and spruce beetle kill, continued overgrazing by cattle, millions more people, an apathetic attitude by the campers themselves (they could enjoy themselves just as much in a paved parking lot). This forest and meadow setting—all those special places we had discovered—were gone. The mountain air and abundant water were not the same. The places might still be on the maps, but my world had changed, leaving the pure and fresh feeling accessible only in my memory.
Sure, I had changed, but the world had as well. My former agency, once the pride of the federal fleet, is no longer admired. The young attitude of the environmental movement—starting with enthusiasm as did I in my work to change the world back in 1970—is now stale, derailed by a society that has lost its way. And, abnormally hot, even in the high elevations, due to the “hoax” called global warming.
I stood overlooking a hillside edged with spruce and aspen, and sparsely carpeted with brilliant red scarlet gilia blooms struggling to make it through the worst drought in a century. Maybe the change is me and not what I was seeing. As an ecologist, I understand as much as anyone that nature changes. It is amoral, not good nor bad, just there. I was seeing change, but I was also seeing a change in me.
Sure, the world I grew up in, and matured in, is gone; that is not unusual. But I was in a melancholy mood to start the day due to a birthday wish from the day before. Not my birthday, but a high school classmate of fifty-five years ago. He asked our classmates for a song, and it was a key for me, unlocking memories from so long ago. It was Try to Remember, sung by many groups, but a favorite of mine from the Brothers Four. It laments the passing of time, the aging we all encounter. “Try to remember when life was slow and oh, so mellow. Try to remember when life was so fresh that no one wept except the willow. Deep in December, it’s nice to remember without a hurt, the heart is hollow.”
Our July 4th tradition brought back memories from so many years gone by. A young man now gone the way of all young things through the years. I think I have passed my September and see December not so far off. Yes, it is sad, so much gone by. My heart has its share of hurts, so it is not hollow. But it does echo with the memories of Julys gone by with friends gone as well.
We cannot dwell on the sorrow, but sometimes, it does make the heart beat stronger, yearning to relive the good times now gone. All I can do is look forward to another July 4, wetter, with more vivid and vibrant wildflowers, maybe in a new, yet to be discovered location. There is always something to look forward to. We just have to look a little harder, past the hurt of times gone forever.
Explorations, Searches and Discoveries
Recent Essays by Joseph Colwell
May 23, 2018 ~~ Cool Rock Becomes Sweet Rock
Longtime friend Julia visited us for a few days. I wanted to show her the Cool Rock trail south of the Gunnison Gorge. On a sunny but cool May morning, we hiked the short distance up the dry wash to where the “cool rocks” create a maze of climbing and scrambling challenges. After her first “wow, what a cool rock,” I laughed and said I would count the “cools.”
There were many, but after a while, they turned into “sweet.” I wasn’t sure how or why the cools became sweets. Julia said words can make a difference. Well, yes. Words are what I use prolifically to describe what I see around me, especially in times like this. So I thought about words and what they mean.
What was the difference between cool and sweet? Was I showing my age? John Denver and I used “cool,” something from decades before. But John used “far out” more often. I still see him in concert laughing and saying “far out” when someone in the crowd yelled, “far out, John!”
Someone from the BLM had named the trail the Cool Rock Trail. At the time, I thought this someone had a lack of imagination. After my two or three dozenths “wow, what a cool rock,” I realized the name was appropriate. But was it also “sweet?” Did it mean the same thing?
I thought the rocks “cool” but was this a generational thing? If kids now use something like “sweet” or “awesome,” do they mean what I wanted them to mean? My older brother might have used “hip” or even “groovy.” Years later, teenagers might have used “gnarly” or “boss.” Even “keen.” Did they all mean the same thing?
What did I want it to mean? To me, the “cool” in referring to the rocks means something special, out of the ordinary, worthy of adding significance to, amazing, even special enough to bring out the spiritual or sacred.
I have commented earlier that I find a place like this sacred. Someone else called it holy. What is the difference? Was this generational, or cultural? I found holy to have a more religious overtone. To me, sacred, or even spiritual, caught my intent better. It is a place where my inner spirit, my soul, finds peace. It is not to imply a religious dogma or belief.
How do we use words and why? Do they change over time? Are expressions of awe, amazement, and wonder generational? Are the generations changing? Do I see something spiritual in its natural beauty but the newest generation just see something uncommon, without any significant meaning? I fear the generations coming of age now do not connect with the Nature I connect with. I see the beauty in the swirls of rock, the erosion, the sculpture. I know the geologic history, how rocks erode and why. Even how and when they were formed. Does the younger set see this since they are not part of the Nature I am part of? They live in the cities and urban areas where they are afraid to be left alone in a canyon such as this. I worry when they may say awesome just as a word and not as a feeling.
I object to some place names that my Anglo Saxon forebears used to replace the names our ancient first peoples called things. Most of those we no longer know. For example, why did McKinley push out Denali as the name of the sacred white mountain up north? Why did Gunnison take over a river, a town, a county, a mountain, and numerous other things? Surely the Ute and groups before them had more descriptive names.
I’m sure someone unfamiliar with this area would say these were “cool rocks.” But I saw them as cool lavender, white, and maroon Morrison Formation rocks that indicate this area was a mudflat or under shallow water in a fluctuation estuary or riverbed millions of years ago. Much more descriptive, isn't it?
The bird that called its descending and haunting call from somewhere up on the cliffs, might just be a bird, but it is my favorite, the icon and symbol of the canyon country in this part of the world—the diminutive and to me almost sacred canyon wren. A bird is not just a bird. A canyon wren is not a red-tailed hawk is not a raven is not a mourning dove. They are different and the names are descriptive.
The clouds were not just clouds. They were swirly, almost diaphanous wisps indicating the upcoming weather, soon to be cumulus and possibly cumulonimbus of building thunderheads. The ancients knew this; they didn’t need TV weathermen to tell them what to expect. What were their names for the different clouds?
Cliffs lined the canyon. Some cliffs were blocky, angular, almost a rectangular collonade of dull brown. Some were flaky, purples and maroon, wavy rounded columns. Once again, I cautioned against putting rocks in one category. The Dakota sandstone is millions of years different in age, a different color and hardness. The Morrison famously contains dinosaur fossils, a crumbly mudstone in places, white with brown swirls in others. Some cliffs you didn’t want to stand underneath, Julia cautioned me. I laughed and said she was in more danger of earthquakes in the Bay Area than I was of a cliff falling on me here. Each of us has to know the dangers we live with. We all live with some.
Towards the end of the trail, huge house-sized blocks of Dakota sandstone jumbled across the dry wash bed. I think it was at this point Julia said the cool had turned to sweet. Really? It meant access had become very difficult for me. The sweetness now meant mystery. I agreed with that. It wasn’t cool anymore. It went beyond super cool. Maybe even beyond sweet, but in this case, I took sweet to be almost unknowable. It would take much more effort to continue hiking on. Maybe sweet meant taking a risk that included challenge and even danger. It was indeed cool. It can mean whatever I want it to be. Isn't that what makes each of us so cool? Even sweet.
February 22, 2018 ~~ Orchid
We walked down the hill in the crisp sunshine, temperatures in the mid-twenties. The fresh snowfall from the day before dusted the ground with white. When we reached the creek, we saw the tracks. Big cat, puma, lion, catamount, panther, cougar. She goes by many names, moves silently as a night breeze. Sleek and powerful, she is grace and dignity with fur. I looked around.
I had recently reworked the trail crossing of Laughingwater Creek. This ending of the Wetfoot trail had undergone several iterations. I could not find a good place to cross the creek. Opening up a new route by cutting out a large sumac bush, I then placed several large flat rocks as stepping stones. I was bringing Katherine down to show her my work.
This new crossing must be good, I thought, as the big cat had crossed there, leaving footprints in the snow still on those flat stepping stones. I couldn’t tell which direction she was heading, but I did follow the tracks as they lead down the trail away from the crossing.
She might still be nearby watching us I realized. The tracks were not huge, smaller than my outstretched hands. I guessed it might have been two sets, maybe mom and last year’s kitten. We followed them along the trail, then uphill. She was wandering all over. I was not surprised she was here. This was perfect cat country since it was remote and not near any road or house. Our house was uphill and several hundred yards away. I have no doubt that I have had cats watching me many times because I have spent hours walking these trails in the winter. Only once before had I seen a live one and that happened to be almost in this exact spot nearly 20 years ago.
I share the forest with her and she leaves me alone. I welcome her presence and honor her, yet am satisfied seeing the tracks and not her tawny body. We all share this life and this home. I named her Orchid since the tracks went by a place along the creek that blooms with a rare orchid in May. Peace to you, Orchid, I whispered as we left the tracks at the top of the hill. She was still wandering and looking for her next meal. I wished her well.
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