Monday, June 27, 2011

How to explain? (Why bother? Delicious mystery, delightful understanding.)

After a month -- four weeks, five, then six, -- I still wasn't happy in Colorado. The scrub oak was too scrubby, the snow too slushy, the skies so dull, too dull, the park too passionlessly picturesque. I tried making friends with the deer and the grouse, tried finding flowers and bones, nothing. Tried hiking along the canyon's rim, tried hiking to the bottom and back up again, down up, along around across, nothing. Tried taking pictures, writing stories, singing, skipping, dreaming, nothing. The river rushed and burbled on by the canyon into which it had cut.

I gave up, resigned myself to the fact that I'd made a bad decision, didn't belong here, should have stayed on the open plains.

Then one day, late evening, late May. Heavy clouds filled the sky; the earth was brown, brown and grey and dead. It was cold, windy, still adamantly spring. I slipped out for another walk, desperate to see the sun set, the rain fall, the ravens swoop, something, anything. I stumbled blindly down the trail -- a trail I'd already hiked dozens of times, no longer bothered seeing -- down through the scrub oak, along the rim, past the juniper, past the overlooks, past the visitor center, down down, until I couldn't anymore. Couldn't keep going. Sat.

Sat on a rock. The closest rock. A set of boulders, gneiss. Two billion years old, give or take a few millenia.

"Finally found my rock," I realized, "Every place has a rock or tree or stretch of sand that makes something inside you say 'oh.' Then you sit and think and watch little wrens trace grand circles between the canyon walls. And you know you will visit your rock or tree or beach again tomorrow."

So I have.

I don't know how to explain it, but just like that, I fell in love with the place.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

From Colorado, a year and a new quest later

(Disclaimer : I wrote this mid-May, but didn't post it because I couldn't add photos. [So many beautiful places! But the Internet connection is too slow.] I'll continue to try to post images; for now, the evolution of ideas is what matters.)

Yes, a year. More than a year.

After the last post, I left Kansas and moved to southwestern Wyoming, where I wandered happily around the windswept ridges and plains, rediscovering the sense of freedom and wildness that wide open spaces afford. Maybe it was the fact that I no longer had to follow the same trail over and over and over again, loop loop loop, or maybe it was that there's so much public land there open for exploration, or maybe it's just that shrub-steppes, with their scraggly sage and wind-tattered skies, speak to me, sing to me in some way that other landscapes don’t. Oh, Wyoming.
Last summer slipped by too quickly, dream-like, rich with (now, admittedly, somewhat roseated) sunrises and thunderstorms, walks and hikes, camping and climbing trips to Idaho and Utah. Following a brief residency at Petrified Forest (a sort of recalibration of my geographic self. Pilot Rock!) and a spin through several deserts and forests, canyons and mountains, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Colorado -- many miles on my poor little car and memories planted in my traveler’s mind, -- I returned to the shrub-steppe of southwestern Wyoming and settled in for those long, lonely days of autumn.

Then winter -- winter! I reawoke for winter, for the clean, austere whiteness of winter. White, so many shades of white. So many shadows, so many stars sharp at dawn. So many sounds, so many storms, wind, wind, wind, wind, [cold; freezing; alive].

That was the year. A year of walking, climbing, driving, skiing, waiting for winter to bloom into spring. A year of listening to the wind howl. (And oh, how the Wyoming wind howls. Haunted.)

A year spent not writing a blog.

So why now?

Well, I’ve left Wyoming. Moved south -- to western Colorado. After a full month, I'm still trying not to regret it. There are many factors, complex, intermingling: I was getting too comfortable, too complacent, yet at the same time feared that such beauty couldn't last; the snow would melt; the truth be uncovered,...good god, I don't know what possessed me to leave, my peripatetic self, running away...

There are some places -- Utah's red rock, with its panoply of fins and canyons, arches and spires; southeast Alaska's rainforest, with its moss-softened cedars and spruce, oyster-spitting shores -- that you just love, immediately and deeply, inexplicably, viscerally. There are others -- New Hampshire's White Mountains, with their granite outcrops and ivied halls; St. Petersburg, with its canals and museums, palaces and parks -- that you can learn to love, or at least like.

Then there are those that you try try try, perhaps too hard, to appreciate -- sorry, San Franscisco; sorry, Konza -- and just can’t. Cannot. Can not. Even though you really want to or ought to, you just can not, do not, will not.

So, now, Colorado, with its deep dark canyon and tangles of serviceberry-scrub oak (brown), its blue grouse and resident black bear (audacious), its music festivals (expensive) and farmers markets (not yet begun), its trucks and SUVs (loaded with ski- and bike-racks), its ubiquitous snow-capped peaks -- what kind of place are you?

I don’t know yet. That’s why I’m blogging again.

It’s a little like Tolstoy’s happy families vs. unhappy families conundrum: I loved Wyoming (when it wasn’t blizzarding), so could only write: “[Sorry, Ed Abbey,] this is the most beautiful place on earth. It’s even more beautiful this week than it was last week, more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Beautiful, wild, beautiful, free, beautiful, [bitterly cold and windy,] beautiful, beautiful...” Blah blah blah. Pure feeling, pure sensation, pure beauty; not much thought in that.

But now -- now that I’m in a place that should be beautiful (a National Park, for goodness sake) and that should be wild (Congress designated it as such, more than a decade ago), I feel lost, bored, uninspired. The place feels barren, trammeled.


And what, if anything, can I do about it? Another experiment -- (how) can I learn to love a place?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Catching Up 2 : March

After the cold and grey, snow and ice of February 20, I didn't go to Konza for several weeks. (Every Sunday morning, I wake up dreading the idea of having to put on my long underwear and lace up my boots, dreading having to check my camera for batteries and car for oil, dreading the drive down slick streets and the mud-torn access road, dreading a car-filled parking area and a trail that can't possibly live up to my expectations, my demands. Some weeks the thought of going is just too much for me. I don't know how to explain it; it's just too much.)
During spring break, then, I made a tour of two other tallgrass prairie preserves. First, the official Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (managed by The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service), located an hour and a half south of Manhattan, KS. I'd gone last fall, but hadn't been at all impressed by the polished, professional Park Service Interpretive Ranger song and dance / bus ride. (Though must admit the ranger did an excellent job facilitating intellectual and emotional connections to the park's tangible and intangible resources and universal concepts. My parents liked it.)(And I will also admit that my impression may have had less to do with the actual experience than my general frustration / bitterness at the time, considering I was wearing a large leg brace and trying to hobble around on crutches.) Maybe it was the fact that I didn't have to take a bus tour, or that the sky was low and grey with pre-spring-ness, or the sheer joy of being able to walk (walk! Upon the blessed earth!, to invoke Abbey), but mmm it's a fantastic site -- several miles' worth of trails tracing open swales, diving into creeks, weaving around cottonwood groves, and crossing through gates with minimal signs, directions, and views of the highway. Much left to explore!

Second: Tallgrass Prairie Preserve (owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy) in Oklahoma (directions are a little fuzzy -- lots of semi-marked dirt roads, but gorgeous scenery). A large site; bison, bison everywhere, as well as several oil wells (?!)(inholdings?); fairly short trails, but well worth the trip.

It's said that the more you venture out, away, to wild unknown places, the more you learn about yourself and your relationship with your home. Back to Konza, then?
Lesson #1 (I guess I'm in a list sort of mood) :

I needn't have gone off and traipsed about other prairies to see Konza with fresh new eyes; I came up over the first hill expecting the same familiar grey sky, brown grass, only to discover a bare, black ridge -- burn! Spring, time for burns!

That was a happy surprise, seen from a distance, but then lesson #2 :

Look closely. It still wasn't what I thought. The burn couldn't have been lit more than a week or two earlier, but happy little green shoots were already bursting from the charred earth. Life returns.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Catching up 1 : February

A little behind -- I've not yet written about the first week of February -- another blustery winter day, --
then mmm, two weeks later -- one of those rare, still mornings when fresh-falling snow traced every blade of grass and made it hard to tell what was earth and what was sky.

(Easy to forget, now, too -- as I look at the photographs and type peaceful adjectives, -- how darn cold it was. My fingers were blue and white by the time the camera whirred into action; hence a shot containing a loop of the wrist band.)
Frozen photographer issues aside, these were the most peaceful, beautiful walks I've had at Konza. (Come to think of it, the inclement weather was likely the reason why I had the whole place to myself -- no other hikers; not even any animals; just me and the prairie. I almost felt a touch of solitude.)
It would have been a good time for solitude / meditative moments. February was busy (read: excuses for not blogging for so long) -- in my ongoing attempt to make some sort of sense out of all my Konza musings (by proceeding smoothly from an onslaught of pure sensation through filters of perception to the grand goal of nice, tidy cognition or comprehension or dare I aim for insight?)(Ha!), I was designing a poster on "Reconciling Science and the Aesthetic Experience," preparing a presentation on the same subject in the context of a "nature / culture dialectic," and also defending my dissertation proposal (which centers on perceptions of and attachment to wide-open prairie landscapes, including Konza).
Too much to do. Too much sitting in front of a computer, typing out field notes and shuffling photographs. Too little wandering around the prairie. Always too little wandering, too little sun and snow, grass and wind.

Konza Konza Konza. Sky and earth, then signs and trails; hawks and deer, then people and cattle. A 2.5 or 4.4 or 6.0 mile loop then the 8 or 9 mile drive back to this city, this noisy messy busy boring bored micropolis.
I'll say it again, as much as I still hate Konza, I'm almost coming to love it. Cold and grey.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

January blues

After spending a month traveling from the woods of Missouri to the suburbs of Tennessee, the ranges of Nevada to the basins of California, here I am, back in the plains. Back at Konza.

Sunday morning was beautiful, really, though hints of an overcast afternoon hung in the air. Manhattan had been socked in fog for nearly a week -- enchantingly mysterious at first, then just grey and soggy, -- so the sunshine seemed especially bright while it lasted. I don't know whether it was the slightly chilly temperature or the fact that I was there so early, but I had the whole place to myself -- no other cars, no other hikers at first. Nor birds nor cows nor any other semblance of life -- just the brown brown grass, the blue blue sky, and me.

Not much to think or say (running out of things to think or say) -- pretty pictures to share (hopefully I won't run out of pretty pictures), a nice day, a decent place to walk. Konza.

(Right. Then there's the bridge sign. I've become accustomed to it by now. Ambivalent.)

Monday, December 14, 2009

First Sunday in December

Cold. Cold cold cold and grey. I didn't really want to go to Konza (as usual) but had been sitting in front of a computer for about two weeks straight and needed some fresh air. Besides, there'd been a blizzard mid-week, and I was curious to see Konza in winter. (Real winter, none of that sunshine-and-blue sky nonsense that we'll probably get in January. Winter. Cold and grey.)

The prairie in winter then -- cold and grey. And icy. Very icy -- most of the path icy -- so that I had to pay attention to where and how I stepped, and/or do the boot-shuffle across slippery patches. Someone had been out skiing, someone else snowshoeing, but from what I understand, both activities are against the rules. Rules. Sigh.

I should be somewhere skiing right now. Somewhere else, where I could swoosh swoosh swoosh through the tall grass, across that big horizon, somewhere between white earth and white sky (Digression, sorry: digression away from this comfortable little apartment, from this inane little micropolis, from this computer, from this lifestyle; digression away to the prairie, to the big open grey icy prairie, newly shaded with snow, cold under the clear night sky. I should be out skiing right now. But no skiing at Konza. And no being out at Konza after sunset. No camping. No straying from the path. Paths. Rules. Trammels. No room for digression...)

Back to what Konza can offer, then, that day three weeks ago is it already? when it was just me and the cold grey wintry prairie. A study in noises. Not so much landscapes -- the snow had decided to sublime, a thick mist hovered in every hollow, mystery, mystery, beauty -- but soundscapes:

Sounds! Tweeterings of robins -- I think every red-breasted little bird in the state had decided to come to Konza to sing of the snow; the air vibrated with songs and wingflaps, joy.

Sounds! Twinklings of grass -- the breeze was relatively calm, but if I paused, listened carefully, I swear I could hear frost-coated blades tinging together, acres and acres of tiny windchimes.

Sounds! Crunch crunch crunch, huff huff puff, that's all I really heard, unless I stood still -- just my footsteps, my bootcrunches -- real crunches, loud crunches, not just gravel crunches, but cold crystal-breaking crunches; I huffed and puffed and crunched around to the first loop, then skipped and hopped and twirled and stomped -- Cr-crunch! Crunchcrunchcrunch! Crrrrrrrrrrunch! CRUNCH! -- out across the path. Must have looked silly, sounded silly, but who can resist fresh snow, leaving dizzy tracks all the way down the trail? Besides, there was no one else there. No one else wanted to go to a cold, grey, icy, misty, crunchy prairie. I wasn't disturbing anyone's peacefulness.

Peacefulness. Pause. Beauty. Winter.

Forecasters predict lows around zero tonight, another storm Wednesday. The robins will be cold, the prairie grey, wind-swept with snow.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Sun, wind, and a rogue cow

Sunday the 22nd, another beautiful day. I went "backwards" again, winding alongside the wooded creek to begin with, saving the prairie for the end. That way, rather than start off eager, inspired, cold wild happy, only to lose interest and have to plod through the last few miles, I get to warm up my legs, my mind a little before walking out onto (into?) the bright windy landscape.

Of course, that does mean that I start off bored, slightly disgruntled. But I'm usually so desperate to walk somewhere anywhere that I don't mind too too much that I have to drive all the way out to the trail, park my car with all the others, share the place with joggers and children wandering off trail.

Maybe it was just that I was excited to finally get out of the woods, or maybe it was that I'd just run into a friendly couple that was obviously enjoying their hike the day the place, but when I hiked up the hill and emerged at the top of the ridge, views of grass grass grass sky sun, mmmm.

Then I started seeing sights, thinking thoughts, clouds and grasshoppers and a bright red gate!

The cows were there again. This week, they didn't just stare at me, rather continued to happily munch away at the forbs by the fence. I took a few photos (color!) and was about to continue on when I heard a nonchalant "moooo" off to my left, from among the bushes/grasses alongside the trail. Umm? There it was! A rogue cow! (I don't know why "rogue" sprang to mind, but it was free, defying the fence, feasting on the ungrazed vegetation! Hooray for the rogue cow!) More photos, as it joined the same frame as its poor fenced companions; I couldn't help but attribute some sort of symbolism to the scene.

Interesting, though, when I got back to the bridge by the beginning/end of the trail, I was extremely annoyed to see a family standing down by the creek bed, throwing rocks into the water. They weren't rogues; they were rule-breakers, sign-ignorers. I want to sploosh in the water too, people, but "Stream monitoring project. Please stay on trail." Isn't it the same instinct, though, to tend toward wildness, delight? Layers of culture inhibit deeper, rawer appreciation?

Ugh, Konza. Trails. Signs. Rules. Experiments. People.

(That said, it was beautiful out there again this past Saturday -- grass rustling with warmth, horsetails sweeping the sky.)