Thursday, January 17, 2008

An Hour at a Time

"Follow your genius closely enough and it will not fail
to show you a fresh prospect every hour."

—Henry David Thoreau

It's amazing what a brief hour can reveal; how much can be seen and experienced in so short a time. There are few friends whose company offers as many rewards as an hour spent with the mountain in springtime. Or anytime. A short time away, a mere week's absence, changes the scene completely at this time of year. An hour here changes me. There's always something to learn here. This is where ideas and feelings flow together. The mountain is a true and reliable teacher—if I fail to learn anything in an hour on the mountain, the fault lies in me.

April 13: Full of spring, today's hour on the mountain. A day to observe the appearance of each new plant, and be rewarded for expectations based on long experience with this trail. There ought to be spring beauty right here on the trail, and looking carefully near a warm rock, I find it. Then surely the pasque flower must also be showing—and at a bend a first clump is in bloom. An eager bee forces its way into a closed flower. Around the corner, I realize it's not so early after all—an entire field of pasque flowers comes into view.

The downward trip offers a second chance: lower on the trail I spot pasque flowers and mountain ball cactus in full bloom, but overlooked on the way up. Over-looking is easy when the pleasures of the scenery distract. Always watch your toes. Watch everything if you possibly can.

Downward: playing leap-frog with an iridescent green bug who insists on staying on the trail, but manages to avoid my feet, barely. Below, a small butterfly tries the same game. I reach him; he flies ahead and lights again. Repeat. For a hundred yards or more, a few feet at a time. Where is he leading me? Do they ever get stepped on, playing this game?

These frequent walks also enable me to spot favorite plants long before they become very obvious. Knowing where to look is the trick to learning to recognize even their first leaves. The snowball saxifrage to come is today only a red bud-heart in the middle of its leaf rosette. Next week the stem will be half up, perhaps three inches above the rosette, and the following week it will be in full bloom.

One section of trail I think of as relatively barren this time of year. Of wildflowers at least. No, it's just over-looking again. Here's a whole slope covered with yellow violets in full bloom—where were they on the way up?

May 6: Towhees are visible today: one squawks nasally at me from a nearby maple, but gets flustered when I attempt to squawk back. Most days, they're invisible but clearly present once the ear is accustomed to the small sounds made by their scratching dance in the dry leaves. At first, I wondered what creature was sneaking about; now I welcome the reassurance of their presence.

After customary counting of coup on a favorite oak clump, I lie down under the big oak for a look up at its intricate sky-lacing branches, as I have all winter. Today, however, the flower buds are fat and leaf primordia are expanding toward visibility. Soon the sky will be a minor part of the composition, and the fascination will be with the way this tree distributes each leaf to obtain exposure to the light.

What's that movement on the opposite hillside? A small mammal, creeping from bush to bush, puzzles me. Seconds tick by as I watch. A weasel perhaps? No. As the seconds stretch, A view of its long bushy tail suggests a rock squirrel, often found in the foothills. A football field away by air, and twice that distance by snake—I'm lucky to see it at all, and wish for binoculars. Later, I decide its light tan color makes it more likely a bushy-tailed wood rat. Rewarding speculation, as I've seen no evidence of wood rats (a.k.a. pack rats), although they're 'supposed' to be here. It's always an experience to encounter a critter going about its business. Sitting here, I've watched deer browse on that hillside, and foxes chase each other across it. But never a creature such as this. The encounter is a special one.

"What one finds... will be what one takes the trouble to look for."
—Joseph Wood Krutch

Originally written 1989.

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