Sunday, April 13, 2014

Living / Working at the Pace of Metabolism

All the coming week is supposed to be chilly with a lot of clouds. So much snow melted last week that the footing while I walked into normally damp woods was most uncertain, my knee-high boots almost filling while I wavered and reeled across from spot to spot of ground uplifted over the flood-pools.  I was headed for a patch of spruce bog that must have been left there, an intact patch of old growth, when logging took out other hardwoods or conifers that surrounded it. Not only were there slush, flooding and an indeterminate depth to each, but fallen trees lurked below ground where only my feet could find them. Every step or so was a save from plunging at least one arm underwater. I was carrying that same unfinished watercolor I keep talking about, the spruce grouse, and the water would have been numbing.

People in general--except I guess for a rare, not very sociable set of us--seem depressed by this kind of day, the leftover snow exuding its raw breath, saplings and treetops restless with wind-shiver--never mind the woodcock whirring pale orange out of hiding on old leaves, first baby leaves of wild strawberry, buds fattening on most branches. It has been a serious old-fashioned winter. Still I felt more alive than on any other day of the whole past week, which would be true to my own character.

It's natural to wish setbacks on any part of the business world and government that works to deny these nooks of wilderness the right to survive and propagate the plants that sew them together and the creatures at home there. Some of us keep account of the trends that threaten the well-being of wild territory we'd like to help conserve, and many of those trends are wrapped up in the knot of technologies that speed up all artificial, commercial processes as if their perpetual growth were everybody's dream. What happens when we run out of growing space? How universally will we know we've used it up? I have to trust the earth will know and will react, lapsing into its own episodes of dormancy and spurts of violence to re-balance moisture, temperature, or soil compactness. But that people at large will ever moderate what they flush away, cover up and use up, and how briskly they reproduce in accordance with the life cycles of everything else in our world, the way it seems only a few aboriginal people ever approached doing, seems utopian. What gives me hope is any evidence, even if theoretical, that conserving wild lands proves obligatory for us and our descendents to survive on earth. Commercial operations and our own proclivities could mess up our own support system so completely that all we'll have left is the wild, which, with any amount of vision, we'll learn to work with and blend into in all of our designing.

However, as one of those allies of swamp thickets hidden from sight of all but wild animals I say I will be one of them and carry my load over my own shoulders--motorized means bring only filth, expense and fatness--and will keep up my comfort through the heat of my own body when I go practicing my choice vocation. It was here, chilly-fingered but clad in layered clothing that included snow pants normal to the skiing season, sitting on a parka against the damp, that I attempted a little detail work, all about dead wood. I wanted the dead wood of spruce, especially to celebrate the adaptation to bitter cold through miniaturization of all plants including the wet-loving black spruce in a spruce bog. The season was early and conditions too cold and damp for working much with watercolor; it would dry too slowly, but I'd craved getting out there on a trial visit. A friend's husband long ago called this pneumonia weather. In any case I could see, a little better than before, what I still needed to do when the sun's been at work for us for a while longer.

No birds or beasts made themselves apparent as I crouched. I'm normally poised for surprise by warm-blooded kin while I'm in those secret places. While at the laundromat earlier I had read about prehistoric times especially to our west, in Roger A. Caras' Source of the Thunder: the Biography of a California Condor, ©1970 Little, Brown of Boston. I encountered this passage about the bird which is a survivor from times before the last ice ages and has been, to the extent possible, safeguarded in patches of California, Arizona and adjoining desertlands, a little fringe of the American expanse it once occupied, against extinction. The condor was long ago widespread in North America and was, Mr. Caras says, the thunderbird of native Indian legend. The Indians of our region depicted the thunderbird in their art.

     Several times she lifted her wings, spread her tail, and felt for a hopeful, even encouraging current of air. There was no such encouragement to be had. Finally she could take the strain no longer. The demands of her parenthood were too great. She lifted her wings straight up, reaching with them nearly five feet above her back. She extended the feathers of her tail, elevated it as well, straightened her legs, and pushed down hard against the perch. Then, in one coordinated movement, she brought her tail and both wings down sharply, shoving with all her might at the same time. Her full twenty-two pounds were instantly airborne and as she started to lose precious altitude she raised her wings again.
      ...After the initial twelve beats though, she was able to glide for a thousand yards, then she beat twelve more strokes to gain altitude. By this time she had passed over the ridge to where a rising thermal from the steep wall beyond surged beneath her. She rocked slightly and then lifted. She banked a few degrees to the left to adjust her direction, caught the thermal again, and curved off in the most magnificent soaring flight to be seen in the world of birds today. 

     When she flapped, the whooshing sound her wings made could be heard fully a half-mile away. Now, in soaring flight, at ever increasing altitude, the sound was less and was heard by no one but her. It was like a soft wind in a pine tree. Forty percent of each wing was open slot area, finely adjustable to her minutest flight requirements. Her extraordinarily long primary feathers, each an elastic and flexible wing in its own right, turned on their axes and were thrust automatically forward at a slight angle. She was moving at a speed of thirty-five miles an hour and still accelerating. It would be half an hour at least before she would move her wings from the horizontal again.

The whole day served to remind me that movement paced at the speed of a searching hand or a foreleg striding, or a raptor soaring home, may be ultimately the most justified--that slow and steady like the tortoise may win the race, because whatever burns the hottest at the mid-levels where we live tends to burn itself out, and so the tremulous water will be left alone attracting whatever grotesque or camouflaged creature comes to drink it or enters it to get across. The meek will probably inherit the earth.

                                                Labrador tea holds its freeze-dried leaves into the spring.Subarctic travelers, carrying as few provisions as possible, have for centuries steeped the leaves for hot tea.

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