One morning –very early–for it was dawn and dark outside– I saw two strange birds outside my window. I could see only their silhouettes which were enormous as birds go. At first I thought they were hawks, but their heads were too big, and their bodies too square and chunky. Then I thought they were vultures, but they did not have hunched shoulders. They were roosting high up in the tree next door, but not near a nest.
As the dark light changed into yellow sunrise, I could make them out better. Not only did they have enormous bodies, they also had enormous heads with tufted ears and big round yellow eyes. They stared back at me in this patriarchal way, as if I were a court clown annoying a pair of kings.
I had never seen owls this big before. When we lived along the Ohio River, we often saw a family of owls but they were funny little creatures — a gray mama with her five white babies that lined up in a row and turned their heads back and forth as they said “who who who.” They had a sweet energy about them and reminded me of that nursery song, “‘Sing,’ said the mama, ‘Sing if you can,’ and they sang and they sang all over the dam.”
But the owls next door are different.
They stare back at me as if they wish I’d fly away. They stare with those eyes — oh! those yellow eyes! and those big straight eyebrows that tilt up, as if they’re making strategies for Wall Street. And they have these enormous muscular legs –with fierce claws mean enough to carry off a cat or a small dog!
The owls next door are there every morning, staring back at me. Some days I see not two but four of them! Between them they have enough fierce energy to take on Patton’s Army! They have a name: Great Horned Desert Owls. They are predatory creatures of the night, and they are at their deadliest when the sun goes down. Once I was able to watch one of them zero on a little rodent with those terrible swift eyes and then –with all the pressure, purpose and precision of a high-tech drone– he angled down and grabbed that rat.
The Native American tribes here near Tucson respect the owl kingdom very much –in fact, some even say owls are harbingers of death. In some legends owls are a channel between this world and the world to come.
Albert Einstein wrote, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that we can comprehend the universe.” I think he meant we can understand physics in terms of numbers and formulas and pi’s written in white chalk marks on never-ending blackboards. But what is just amazing to me is that we can understand and relate to strange creatures like Great Horned Owls in the way all living things understand one another, even though our lives are quite different.
Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that the most incomprehensible thing?
The Nature Conservancy’s beautiful Ramsey Canyon is where Tucson people go to escape the heat …
People ask us here in Tucson,
“How do you stand the 110 degree summer heat? “
We desert rats think to ourselves,”What wimps for asking!” …
… yet our polite answer is, “We go up to the High Country!”
Arizona High Country is only a few hours out of town. One nice place in High
Country is Ramsey Canyon, world-known for gorgeous hummingbirds
And dorky looking frogs.
The Ramsey Canyon trail is steep and uphill, but worth it for the view. The
country is a mix of desert and mountain pine, because it is where the
Sonoran desert meets the Rocky Mountains.
About half-way up I see a mama turkey with six babies. I did not know
that turkey babies climb up Mama Turkey’s back for rides.
I make friends with a squirrel. He jumps around in Shakespearian iambic
Under the Greenwood tree …
who loves to lie with me …
Here shall we see no enemy
but winter and rough weather …
Da Dum da dum da dum da dum…
I forget that the Canyon has bears and puma and I take the colors of
the many greens and the sweet way the trail winds.
I watch a spider happily at work.
And I spot a gentle deer in the meadow, and watch him as
he leaps like a springer spaniel to eat some leaves.
I follow him into tall grass,
all the time all spaced out watching him, all rapturous like St John of the Cross
I was so caught up and rapt away,
In such oblivion immersed,
That every sense and feeling lay
Of sense and feeling dispossessed;
I do not notice a coiled-up rattler at my feet —
his hissy sound like water rustling —
his mean little hooded eyes —
and his awful open serpentine mouth!
YIKES! Run away!
Suddenly formerly friendly forest is forebodding!
Every tree looks like a monster!
Friend-squirrel stops to eat; he knows my mind is playing forest tricks
on me. He also knows I stepped on the snake first.
Did St John ever get so spaced out that a rattler snapped at him? I think
about that as I wander up to the top of the mountain and watch
civilization below. I take it in, no longer thinking, just feeling the
transcendental experiences St John knew so well:
I entered – where – I did not know,
Yet when I found that I was there,
Though where I was I did not know,
Profound and subtle things I learned;
Nor can I say what I discerned,
For I remained uncomprehending,
All knowledge transcending.
It is time to leave, but in the new stillness of my heart,
I know that I will come back to High Country sometime soon.
Jane St. Clair’s very short story,“Roadkill,” won Literative’s July 2016 Contest.
I’ve never seen an Arizona Jackalope myself but then, Arizona Jackalopes are quite rare. Part of the reason is they only mate during lightning strikes in monsoon season.
Common jackalopes, sometimes called warrior rabbits, are native to Wyoming, New Mexico, Nebraska and Colorado. They aren’t the same as Arizona Jackalopes.
Common jackalopes look like huge rabbits with antlers. They’re extremely mean and fierce. The Arizona jackalope is much bigger than the common jackalope, who only grow to be about two feet tall. Ours are at least eight feet tall and weigh well over 1200 pounds.
Back in the Old West, Arizona cowboys rode jackalopes, especially during round-ups, because they proved to be more durable than horses.
You can catch jackalopes by putting whiskey out for them, their favorite drink. Once your jackalope is drunk, he’ll move slowly and unsteadily, and therefore he’ll be easier for you to trap, although it will still be very hard to do. The problem with capturing jackalopes is they can use language. They’re known to yell, “He’s over there!” in order to throw you off track when you are trying to catch them.
The Arizona Jackalope is an endangered species. However, the little bitty ones in other Western states are not. In fact, you can still get a hunting license for the Wyoming Jackalope, although their hunting season is restricted to June 21st between the hours of midnight and 2 A.M.
Jackalopes are probably related to wolpertingers.
Wolpertingers are a German species that also look like rabbits with antlers, except wolpertingers usually have feathered wings. Another distant cousin to jackalopes is the Swedish skvader, a cross between a rabbit and a grouse.
The Arizona Sand Shark
Arizona Sand Sharks are often confused with California Sand Sharks, even though they are two distinct species. The main difference is since Arizona has no ocean, our Sand Sharks swim only in washes and rivers, which are dry most of the year. Arizona Sand Sharks have adapted to land, but they can only live without water for a few days.
Arizona Sand Sharks are deadly to humans, so it’s important to remain at least three bus-lengths away from them. As you can see, our Sand Sharks have rows and rows of lethal teeth as sharp as a new Bowie knife.
(It was very dangerous to get this picture for you.)
(Especially when he jumped up for an attack!)
You’ll only see Arizona Sand Sharks after a desert wash or a dry desert river fills up during monsoon season.
On the other hand, California Sand Sharks are very common. They often scoot along beaches, terrifying everyone in sight. By the way, beach balls look exactly like seals’ eggs to California Sand Sharks. Since seals’ eggs are California Sand Sharks’ favorite food, this means you have to be particularly alert when you’re playing beach volleyball.
In 2012 a horror movie called “Sand Sharks” went straight to video, becoming an instant classic among those of us who love these amazing animals.
The other day I was reading a crime scene investigator’s textbook about stages of bodily decay, a process used in CSI to determine time of death. It made me think of wabisabi, the Japanese idea that decay is part of beauty. I found it hard to believe in wabisabi while picturing Norman Bates’ mummified mother, until I remembered a wabisabi fable that goes like this.
Once there was a monk-in-training who could not get his mind off a beautiful young woman. He thought about her day and night, and finally told his master, who ordered the young monk to go ahead and keep thinking about her day and night. That was a perfectly okay thing to do, as long as he meditated on how this woman would grow wizened and old, and then die and decay.
Through this meditation, the novice found out that every stage of her life is part of loving her and part of her beauty. Perfect wabisabi love is loving the imperfect. Very Zen, eh?
You as a human being are NEVER going to make anything that is perfect. Whatever you make is going to rot and decay and get left behind. Perfect art is imperfect. We are ourselves imperfect wabisabi beings.
If beauty is in imperfection, you’ll see the most beauty if you look at the world in an earthy and authentic way. If everything around you is shiny-new and corporate, if you have fresh paint and plastic people everywhere, your world is hard and cold and ugly. You need wabisabi for balance.
Then there’s the Sonoran desert where I live. The natives say nothing dies on the desert, and it’s true. The heat and low humidity means everything here lasts forever. Cars don’t rust, cattle skulls just lay there in the dust, and everything from rotting window sills to crumbling murals just hang around forever.
In fact, whole towns just lay there where people left them. We have one ghost town that still has a table with poker cards on it –left there a hundred years ago when the copper mine closed and all the cowboys and miners left town. The ramshackle remains of the town are wabisabi.
Wabisabi reminds us to seize this day and to be unafraid of what is ahead and changing. Wabisabi looks into forever and takes us there with it.
“Yosemite’s mountains are calling me, and I must go back, ” John Muir wrote. Yosemite haunts you with its beauty, and the memory of it gets into your mind until you have to go back.
I was lucky enough to return to Yosemite this spring, and yet I felt disappointed because it was raining.
After all, you go back to Yosemite, as Muir said, “to hear the waterfalls and birds and winds sing … and to get as near the heart of the world as you can.”
This is hard to do when you’re standing under a waterfall and getting soaked.
In fact, it was raining so hard that the Upper Yosemite Falls merged into Lower Yosemite Falls, creating one giant gush of water falling 2400 feet.
Then I climbed up to Glacier Point where the incredible view was so squishy and obscure with rain that the tops of the High Sierra disappeared into gray brume. I watched a dragon cloud slowly sneak up on a darkened peak until he embraced it with his gigantic arms and wrapped his fingertips around it so that the peak itself vanished.
It kept raining and raining and I still felt disappointed until I thought about Ansel Adams.
Ansel Adams was the first to photograph Yosemite, taking all his pictures in black and white because they did not have a color process in the 1920s. I found out that when it rains, Yosemite becomes a black and white image so I could see it the way Ansel Adams did.
Ansel Adams had an intention of a picture should turn out. “I had been able to realize a desired image, not the way the subject appears in reality but how it feels to me and how it must appear in the finished print.” He captures the beauty of the High Sierra in bold contrasts, dark and white lines, and white images of misting falling water. His Yosemite pictures are beautiful, emotional and unforgettable, even though they are in black and white.
Ansel Adams with the perfectionism of a real artist would sometimes sit in front of a mountain for hours, waiting for the right moment. But on that rainy day in Yosemite, it occurred to me that perhaps he was sitting there because he liked to, because he was listening to the waterfalls and birds and winds sing, and getting as near to the heart of the earth as he could.
He looked like a skinny German shepherd dog with a big bushy tail.
He had a noble confidence about him.
The animals you meet most often in the desert, like rabbits, pocket mice and ground squirrels, get these scared looks on their faces whenever they see a human. They run away or else they freeze like statues and hide in plain sight. They understand the importance of not being seen. But not this coyote. This coyote had confidence and nobility. He looked at me without fear, and I thought he was beautiful.
In all the Native American legends, coyote is a trickster or the Wise One. He’s usually a mischievous prankster who doesn’t pay any attention to any rules. He’s smart, crafty, selfish and conceited. In the one and only Anglo legend about coyotes, he’s called “Wile E. Coyote.”
I never believed how really smart these animals are until I watched one cross Oracle Road. This is a big, six-lane highway with a 50 mph speed limit and a meridian. This crafty fellow took his time, looked both ways, and crossed with his head up in the air, as dignified as a Londoner on a Sunday morning.
Like so many desert creatures, coyote sleep in the day and come alive at night. They have this magnificent howl –it’s loud and extreme and pierces through the darkness like a terrible scream. And yes, sometimes they do look up and howl at the moon.
People used to think coyote eat only meat, but now we know that they eat anything they find: seeds, human trash, saguaro fruit, roadkill, and yes –roadrunners. Their only real enemies are mountain lions, wolves, and us. Maybe because they’re so smart and eat everything, coyote are not on the endangered species list. They are classified “least concern” which means they”re multiplying and thriving. They’re moving into big cities like Chicago and New York, and I think they’ll do just fine there.
If you see a coyote, I hope you take this advice from Chief Dan George, Tsleil-Waututh and make his acquaintance.
One thing to remember is to talk to the animals.
If you do, they will talk back to you.
If you don’t talk to the animals, they won’t talk back to you, then you won’t understand, and when you don’t understand you will fear, and when you fear you will destroy the animals, and if you destroy the animals, you will destroy yourself.
– Chief Dan George, Tsleil-Waututh (1899-1981)
If you want to watch a coyote howl and hear his nighttime sound, try this little video by KB Bear:
The first time I read Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Pied Beauty,” I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. Dappled things?
Was he really thanking God for the speckles on trout? After all, that’s what “stipple on trout” means.
Trout are pretty cool looking, but really?
The next thing you know Hopkins is thanking God for the stripes on cows. Stripes on cows are also cool, but yet …
The more I thought about Hopkins’ words and kept looking around me, I finally understood what he meant by Pied Beauty. Gerald Manley Hopkins meant that speckled or dappled things as well as striped or brinded things are all around you, and they are beautiful in their own way.
Beautiful striped skies, for example.
Or the way that tree shadows form long wavy stripes on sand …
Or even everyday striped things like an everyday striped cat …
Or the wondrous beauty of vast striped things like the Grand Canyon ..
Then I began to see dappled things … the dappled things all around us … like pebbles in speckled patterns …
And how wildflowers can be dappled too …
The ability to see dappled and brinded things is a beautiful revelation.. because as Simon and Garfunkel wrote, once you’re dappled, you love life. ..
“…I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep. Let the morning time drop all its petals on me. Life, I love you, All is groovy …”
Thank you, Brother Gerald, for opening us up to dappled things.
Pied Beauty by Gerald Manley Hopkins
GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-color as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
G.M. Hopkins poet and monk
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
The New York Times recently sent a photographer and writer to do a piece on Tucson architecture. Most of us in Tucson do not even know we have architecture, much less that we are living an “unsung architectural oasis” in a “dusty outpost on the fringes of the Sonoran Desert.” See Unsung Oasis.
Now the fellows who came here from where cement grows instead of cactus did not even pick my favorite examples of Tucson architecture –the San Xavier Mission, the courthouse, the credit union at Wilmot and Speedway, and the Tucson Barrio.
can see, our beautiful mission was never finished and one tower still needs to be topped off some 324 years later but then, things move more slowly out here compared to New York City.
The other building that I personally think is a great example of Tucson architecture is the Vantage West Credit Union on Wilmot and Speedway.
Every time I go by this building I’m tempted to hang from one of its corners and see if I can tilt it up and down.
It looks something like a gigantic boat made of mirrors.
A lot of buildings in Tucson can look church-y, including the old courthouse.
I love all the bright colors intrinsic to Tucson architecture. You can really see them in the Tucson Barrio around 100 South Stone Street near downtown. I really love the Barrio’s neat doorways and windows.
However, the New York Times writer mostly liked Tucson architecture because of Sunshine Mile. This is a stretch of 1950s buildings on Broadway between Euclid and Country Club.
He may be on to something because when you walk along this street, you do feel as if you’re on the set of a Doris Day movie. The Times writer raved that “Tucson possesses some of the densest concentrations of mid-century Modernist architecture in the Southwest, although it’s hard to find.”
He means you have to find Sunshine Mile, for example.
I like the Sunshine Mile building that looks as if it sprouts chimneys when no one is looking.
Hirsch’s Shoe Store from 1954 and the Top Hat building are particularly cute, though the Haas and Solot buildings are more famous.
The Times reporter also wrote how he liked how Tucson “boasts more about its thrift stores than its hipster brunch spots” and that he liked Tucson’s “dry clear air and abundant supply of wizened drifters right out of Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’ …
… and “how deeply he enjoyed the ramshackle dispersion of the city.”
Is that high praise or what?
On behalf of wizened drifters in ramshackle cities everywhere, I say, “Thanks, pardner. You’all come back real soon.”
Usually I am standing by a vortex .. One of the seven energy votices in Sedona. Each one is sacred to the Native Americans, who have always called Sedona their home. They don’t go there to hike but rather for vision-quests or to work out their medicine.
The sky is always this bright turquoise and the rocks with their turrets and furrows are always this intense rust red ..
Sometimes I look up and see the red rocks cast an enchanted jagged outline against the sky .. rocks that have this magical quality to form a dreamscape you’ve seen before .. You get deja vue the first time you stand there … even if you know you’ve never been there before … because you are looking at a place that exists and has always existed somewhere inside you … A place of “Then sings my soul… How great Thou art …”
The New Age People say a vortex is where the earth’s energy is more concentrated, and it is supposed to awaken you. The word conjures up a volcano shape and a whirlwind of energy — funneling and fierce.
The vortex at Bell Rock actually has a funnel shape …
While the Cathedral Rock vortex looks like this …
Another vortex sets near the entrance of Oak Creek …
Boynton Canyon vortex has Kachina Woman jutting out like this ….
When you stand in a vortex in Sedona, all you may feel is a lightening up … it may just be a slight feeling of relaxation … as if you are being carried along weightlessly …
I have been to Sedona many times .. And once I even went there in a dark gray rainstorm. At first I felt disappointed until I went out walking and I could see that…. even without its colors, Sedona is just as magical and just as enchanted, but in a different way.
Yet it is the colors that always call me back. They are a kindergartner’s colors .. a primary crayon box of bright red, green, yellow and blue.
I have always loved the way the ocean is ever-changing and moving so that it hypnotizes and yet at the same time relaxes your mind. To me, she has light feet and dances the samba. But now I live in the mountains, and they are more sober than friend-ocean. They play great thunder music – symphony, not samba.
My own mountain is called Pusch Ridge but that is such a prosaic name for a huge everest that looks like a gigantic dinosaur.
I am not the only one who sees this mountain that way. A Feng Shui master took one look at Pusch Ridge and proclaimed him to be a dragon protecting our valley. Like China we too have crouching tigers and hidden dragons in our mountains. A dragon protecting your valley, though, is considered very very lucky.
He is never the same from day to day or even hour to hour. At sunrise he wears a halo.
At sunset he turns bright red and then fades to black.
During monsoon he is green; during dry heat, he is brown. In some lights he is purple mountain majesty;
in others he is maroon with a white top of snow.
Sunlight and moonlight can drop into his holes or a cloud can turn parts of him into gray umbrage.
I greet him every day. I love him. I trust him. Like friend-ocean, he is eternal and forever.
If he could speak, he would say like the Navajo people do in their Blessingway ceremonies:
In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk.
With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.
It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty
–Navajo Blessingway Ceremony
Henry David Thoreau once said it is wise to fall in love with your own small and special piece of real estate. He had Walden Pond, but I think he would have loved Pusch Ridge.
* * * * * * * * * *
Jane’s essay on Emily Dickinson placed in the 2015 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Essay Contest. See “The Colonel Catches A CatFish”. Read Jane’s funny flash fiction in The Reject File “Husky.” Jane’s story “The Man Who Liked 1959” placed in a contest from Twisted Road Publishing and will be included in a print anthology of stories from that publisher.