by Paul W. Rea
Blown Away in Fantasyland
Alone on the open desert, I have made up songs of wild,
poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. . . . loved
the red rocks, the twisted trees, the red sand blowing in the
wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of
moonlight on my bed at night . … at one with the world
. . . . I have exulted in my play. I have really lived.
—Everett Ruess, letter of April 18, 1931
[p.17]It’s one of those cool and clear spring days after a rain, with pink and lavender wisps in the distance. Amid rock, sand, and sky, the ants are rebuilding their mounds. In May this slickrock country can sizzle, so I smear on sun block. Since there’s no reliable water here in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park, four canteens swell my pack. Not enough, but they’ll do, possibly supplemented by short-lived puddles.
[p.18]Switchbacks ascend from Elephant Hill and head toward the Needles and Chesler Park. Here I can walk by feel. If a boot strays into soft sand, I know I’m off the track. Freed from their directional duties, my eyes can roam. Expanding rhythmically, my chest draws in the spicy aroma of a cliffrose. After snows and rains trickle down this bare sandstone, cliffroses explode into creamy blooms nearly covering the bush. Among the sturdy shrubs that cling to rock walls, none better typifies springtime in these canyons.
Cumulus clouds now bulge pearly gray on their bellies. Ravens circle overhead, their husky clucks bouncing off the sheer rock. A coyote lopes by, trotting sideways to keep an eye on me, then gallops beneath the ravens, glancing up at them. Animals watch each other, especially when the presence of one species implies a meal for the other.
Striped and rounded rocks, examples of the Cutler and Cedar Mesa monoliths studding the Needles and Standing Rocks areas, gleam against a mare’s-tail sky. Unlike most sandstones of the Southwest, here there’s less of the windswept cross-bedding and more of the flat stratification that indicates sedimentation under water. The colors—beiges, pinks, creams, grays—resonate in bands. The redder layers come from river deposits originating on the rising flank of the ancestral Rocky Mountains, the lighter sandstone bands from submerged sandbars and coastal dunes along shifting shores.
Over time the borders between the bands have blurred. The ensuing eons plus the permeability of these sandstones have allowed ancient pigments to blend like melting Neapolitan ice cream, as Ed Abbey remarked. Embodied by this lack of regular stratification and clear boundaries, this unpredictability epitomizes the incessant change that characterized the Permian period, 250 million years ago.
[p.19]The trail surmounts a great whale’s back of slickrock, drops in and out of drainages, and heads through troughs—wide cracks that become narrow enough to snag the ends of my rolled pad. Yet despite the exertion of a three-mile hike under a heavy pack, I need a turtleneck. Odd. On a typical late spring day, a packer would have downed a quart of water on this stretch just to cool off.
As I trudge up the ridge, gravity and wind stop me mid-stride, throwing me off balance. This slit in the rock is a hellacious wind tunnel. As my thighs tremble from the strain, my hat sails down into the amphitheater. Clouds race in to heighten the grays of the towering boulders, to blur the line between earth and sky. Throwing down my pack, I dig for a flannel shirt.
As I quite literally push on, buffeted by the wind, Chesler Park sandblasts my face. Even glacier glasses with side panels don’t keep out the grit that sticks to the fogged lenses. The dust makes it difficult either to see the trail or to avert sharp yuccas. A huge conning-tower rock affords no shelter. Like chop along a breakwall, the wind whips from all directions. Glimpsing a haven through fogged and flecked sunglasses, I grope toward a huge slab with a crack behind it. Refuge. Spring in these canyons is a flirt; first she teases you into taking your shirt off, then she blasts you with sand—or even snow.
I yank on jeans right over my shorts, then huddle behind the slab, already out of extra clothing. Anticipating warm, dry weather, I haven’t packed a raincoat. Although I knew that temperatures in southeastern Utah often fluctuate fifty degrees in a day, my heart yearned for spring. In a protected back yard, it’s dandy to say, “I love the wind—it’s a force in nature that humans haven’t begun to control.” But out here vulnerability to such an uncontrollable force frightens me. [p.20] Exposure like this probably occasioned the “wilderness shock” experienced by early settlers and pioneers.
Just when the sandstorm lets up, sleet swirls right into my shelter. I’ve got to act before hypothermia freezes me solid. My first aid kit contains a space blanket, but this thin cover flaps wildly in the gusts. Now what? Wool socks serve as mittens, and a sleeping bag becomes a makeshift tent. Though my bag now hoods my hunched body, sharp drafts still spike my legs. I shrivel further into a ball and breathe into my socks-as-gloves. As exhalation warms this burrow, I drift into a hypnotic state, beyond any sense of time and place, becoming my breath. The hail pecks on fabric to become my only awareness. My eyelids pulse a rust red, melding iron in blood with iron in rock.
This hibernation experience has felt wondrously childlike, but is there also something childish about my response? To most children, nature means sunshine, goldfish, dimestore turtles, puppies, kittens, a protected hollow in the shrubbery or a tree fort. Winter means snowmen and snowballs on sunny days. When it gets dark or storms, kids scamper indoors. Adults, on the other hand, know rationally not to expect shelter in a desert. But when an area is so inspiring, so picturesque as this, it’s difficult not to feel some shock when I experience the raw forces which fashion it.
The sleet stops and the wind slows. What time is it? What a silly question. How arbitrary to divide the day into 1,440 units, much as we fragment so many other things, including ourselves. Glancing at the left wrist is one of those habits, only one among many, that lessens the outdoor experience by recalling human constructs. Yet who can claim that he or she has not brought societal stuff into the wilds?
As I arise, sand in my brows, a strange world appears. [p.21] Even allowing for my impaired vision and altered mental state, the light seems weird, the air looks orange, just short of the “veritable sand fog” that early desert writer John Van Dyke saw after a sandstorm. Tinted snow dusts the grasses and crests the mushroom-topped monoliths, further intensifying their reds. Low clouds render the lighter bands in the rocks even more pastel. Colors intermingle. Where millions of grains of silica have pinged millions of others, the rocks gleam after their latest sandblasting.
It takes eons for sand, after countless collisions, to round down to a fine particle. Once broken off from quartz crystals, sand grains recycle through the ages. Silica sluffed off ancient granite may scuff through countless collisions over two billion years. As a result, a granule’s roundness offers one clue to its age. So while the slickrock I’m treading on is a quarter of a billion years old, the grains composing it are infinitely older.
The Needles behind Chesler Park project a skyline of spires that tower four hundred feet above a lagoon of peagreen grass. During the nineteenth century huge herds grazed these canyons, nearly wiping out the native tall grasses. Starting in the 1880s, cowboys drove mile-long streams of cattle either southeast to summer pastures in the Abajo Mountains or northward through the Moab valley to the railhead at Cisco. Moab was a rough cowboy town and rustlers hid in the canyons, as did other outlaws. Around 1890 Robber’s Roost became the hideout for Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, who knew this convoluted landscape as well as anyone.
If the ravages of overgrazing were not enough, much of this incredible area was almost lost beneath a dam. In 1961 the new Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall, flew over these canyons to inspect the storage potential of Glen Canyon [p.22] Dam, then under construction. Astonished, he exclaimed, “God, that’s a national park out there.” Seeing is indeed beholding. Project Lighthawk, run by volunteer pilots to promote conservation, now flies government officials over areas that are at risk.
Spectacular as it is, Chesler Park seems diminished from when its stirrup-high grasses waved in the breeze. As Aldo Leopold, the founder of environmental ethics, observed, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” The establishment of the park in 1964 promised a gradual elimination of grazing so that the native blue grama, galleta, and rice grasses could come back. However, cheatgrass, Russian thistle, and other invader species have still not yielded. Nor has trespass grazing ceased. A 1993 Department of Interior report indicated that while most of this land is recovering from past abuses, cattle still enter because the park is not entirely fenced.
The destruction wrought by livestock runs deep, well beneath the surface. The microbiotic or cryptogamic soil, a dark crust of living earth on the Colorado Plateau, is biologically crucial. Park ecologists have found that native grasses depend on this miraculous mix of lichens, mosses, algae, and fungi whose interrelationships are concealed beneath its bumpy surface. Its spongy texture absorbs moisture and binds the sand to prevent erosion. Where it’s been disturbed, the crust makes a slow comeback. Often it gets trampled again by two-hoofed critters who also chum up the sand.
Although desert flora may seem as if it can survive anything, in fact it’s slow to restore. Brush flattened in the 1950s has still not grown over the jeep tracks. Since the Needles area has long been a popular backcountry destination, hikers are told to stay on trails. Although they wail about the damage [p.23] done by cows, hikers often ignore their own impacts.
Chesler Park beckons, its writhing grasses as green as luna moths, its pinnacles tawny as the rumps of desert bighorn sheep. Huge fins rise from the meadow where low grasses still bend in the gusts. Seed eaters such as kangaroo rats and black-throated sparrows frequent these sparse meadows. Homed larks huddle and face the wind, their breast feathers puffed or flattened. Since they live in such open places and return to where they were hatched, these larks have little choice but to face spring sandstorms. Before today I seldom considered how many birds and bugs freeze to death in storms.
Around the giant dome in this enclosure trots a mule deer, nostrils puffing steam and whiskers quivering. Somehow, despite the cold, a fly buzzes above his tensed-up back. Then he bounds with great regularity, feet together, his black tail bobbing. Since he has recently shed his antlers, he moves with even greater grace.
When clouds engulf the sun, once again I seek a haven. Shouldering my pack, I explore alcoves and amphitheaters along the trail toward Devil’s Kitchen and Needles Outpost, watching the humped slickrock undulate from point to bay. Some alcoves offer better protection than others. Finally I settle for a bay where a gnarled old juniper provides an additional windbreak.
This haven is a desert garden. Fremont barberry with holly-like leaves and desert four o’clocks, their magenta trumpets waving in the wind, both landscape the scene. A patch of golden mule’s-ear sunflowers glows nearby, swirled as though painted by Van Gogh. A deep scarlet paintbrush flares inside a gray sagebrush. All these plants are well spaced, implying the open simplicity of the desert.
[p.24] This cozy spot is mine for the evening, complete with its rock-enclosed yard, a private footpath, and a sheltered kitchen. After exposure to raw elements, my mind seeks security through order. One part of me craves wilderness, another fears it. In response to my dread of relinquishing control, or my need to make the strange seem familiar, my tendency is to project human forms and colors upon nature, often through names.
While I hunch over the stove, skies darken and begin to sprinkle the sand. When the flame flutters too badly to cook, I retreat to my tent where my breath clouds the greenish light. As the stakes become loosened by the gusts, the tent flaps like a plastic bag on a bush. When I venture forth, hoping to cook quickly between sandstorms, haste makes the sauce boil over. I grab tongs but the pan, glued with cheese, sticks to a stove that’s blasting like a blowtorch. I reach for the nearest branch to hold down the stove. When the old branch snaps, my Deluxe Noodles With Zesty Parmesan Sauce plops on the sand.
I howl, but the wilderness engulfs my cry. As canyon writer Ray Wheeler notes, this experience leads to “the sudden diminution of my ego—of my sense of importance—against the scale of the landscape, the planet, the cosmos.” We hope that nature will humble us, but when it does we resent the deflation of our egos.
The rocks seem to mock my hunger. One hoodoo resembles a chefs white hat, another a voluptuously-rounded clover leaf roll. I maraud my own campsite, tearing into a bag of almonds and pinion nuts. Honey and crackers stick in my whiskers. Solitude allows me to forget the rules of polite society and even enables me to become an animal. To reconnect with nature, I let the beast off the leash. Activating [p.25] the wilds inside links me to the wilds outside, as well as to a Deeper self. Wilderness is a place to vent passions—fear, anger, even hate—that the social world won’t accept. When we allow it to, wilderness fosters re-creation in the best root sense.
Once feeding time is over, I bound down the slickrock and spider up to its rounded landing. Spidering, really scuttling around on all fours, face up, not only gets the rock scrambler to otherwise inaccessible places, but also offers a way to know the rock more intimately. As I spider up or down increasingly steep inclines, my fingers explore the sugary surface of the sandstone, groping for niches or ridges. My fingernails grip and grind like claws as I skid down a chute.
Something stops me mid-breath. Silence steals my breath as the vast landscape seems to listen. Is this fairyland real or just painted in pastels? Far below, gloaming in the twilight, stands a sand castle. High ramparts, topped by observation towers, rise above the straight boulevard leading through gates. Beyond them rises a medieval hill town, its buildings spaced regularly. Farther below are houses with mushroom caps for roofs. Some lots remain vacant, much like those at Pompeii.
As explorers observed, this country jars our sense of proportion and human scale. Its vastness both exhilarates and distorts. In 1859 explorer Captain J. N. Macomb imagined the Needles as a Manhattan bristling with spires twice as high as Trinity Church. His journal keeper saw “battlemented towers of colossal but often beautiful proportions, closely resembling the elaborate structures of art.” With so much naked rock, much of it weathered into surreal shapes, the mind sees spires and pinnacles in familiar terms. We humans can’t commune with this much bedrock otherness, so our imagination relieves our sense of alienation. But wait, why [p.26] pathologize a lovely fantasy? The self-examined life can become the opiate of the introspective.
Back at the campsite one wood rat gorges itself on my disaster of a dinner. Another munches on my crackers. One jumps when it hears my footfall but soon returns to the banquet. Sand is no deterrent to them; in fact, it’s a feature of their high-silicon diet. I scan the site for any shiny possessions that my bushy-tailed friends might carry off. These cliff dwellers will pick up anything they can heft. The Needles District boasts several types of wood rats, with more kinds living in close proximity here than anywhere else in the world.
One well-fed rat scampers up the cliff into a blowhole that’s filled with dung from countless generations. Individual wood rats live alone, but their dens, fortified by the feces and urine that cement leaves, twigs, and sticks, provide good protection. Preserved by the desert’s dryness, some nests date back thousands of years. Because of their great antiquity, such dens provide information about changing climates and vegetation well before the last Ice Age.
Old pack rat nests also preserve fragments of plants and animals encased, amber-like, in crystallized urine. This led to some amusing misunderstandings among hungry pioneers: “We found balls of a glistening substance looking like pieces of variegated candy sticking together,” observed a prospector headed for California in 1849. This fellow assumed that this fossilized rat excrement “was evidently food of some sort, and we found it sweet but sickish.” Though I’m famished right now, I’ll gladly share the secret of this natural rock candy with desert rats of all sorts.
At home in the soft sand, I recline on the slickrock to watch the grainy twilight. In the grand distance, far beyond [p.27] the Henry Mountains sixty miles away, the sunset highlights the horizon. A new moon sails the sky like a boat in the blue. A passenger jet blinks into the sunset. I recall myself at thirty thousand feet, nose pressed to the bubbly glass, longing to explore the wrinkled landscape below. Once the jet’s rumble expires, the silence of the desert almost seems to scream in protest.
I arise early and explore the imaginary castles and towns. With only one canteen I stride easily along the peninsulas of slickrock, jumping the deep, straight joints that separate them. Amid all this curvature, the grabens—shallow, sheer-walled valleys—also seem both welcome and incongruous. These two straight features both reflect the geology here.
To comprehend these complex processes, one needs to back up over three hundred million years. Early in the Pennsylvanian era, as the first dinosaurs were hatching, the central part of what is now the Colorado Plateau began to sag, filling with seawater. Over many millennia, as this basin settled and more seawater first entered and then receded, massive deposits of salts accumulated. At its maximum extent the Paradox Basin extended from northern New Mexico to central Utah, covering much of this area with thousands of feet of salt, gypsum, and shale.
About three hundred million years ago, as sediments began to fill the basin, the salts became viscous enough to ooze upward. They often, in the words of geologist Donald Baars, arose as “intrusive salt walls that pierced all overlying strata in an attempt to follow the path of least resistance.” Under great pressures this salt continued to bulge for nearly 150 million years, often arching into domes within the rock. Later the groundwater dissolved the underlying salt. As cavities in the rock enlarged, the surface layers often collapsed. [p.29] The result was the parallel faulting that formed long “salt valleys,” one of which encloses Moab, Utah.
Whereas settling formed the grabens, fracturing explains the joints. During the middle Permian period, when mammal-like reptiles were evolving 250 million years ago, deep sand dunes began mounding in what is now southeast Utah. Later, during the Jurassic age of dinosaurs, limestones began to build on the sandstones. Much later, about sixty million years ago, the Monument Upwarp lifted what is now southeast Utah, northern Arizona, and northeastern New Mexico. As the Upwarp heaved, the overlying Cedar Mesa sandstone fractured into great blocks.
Because the Upwarp sloped toward the junction of the Colorado and the Green rivers, when subterranean streams flowed down this slope, they dissolved the salts. Thus undermined, some of the huge blocks sagged while others subsided. The resulting great cracks, widened further when the flexible salt deposits slid toward the Colorado River, furnished the rough cuts. Rain, ice, wind, sand, and gravity are adding finishing touches to the more resistant spires, needles, and fins. These are well worn lands, eroded down to resistant remnants.
Beneath this wavy gray slickrock, I find a route down to the city of striped spires. A roadrunner perched on a bleached juniper suns its striped feathers. Below it a whiptail lizard hunts on a sunny rock, thrashing its tail as it cocks its head at a fly. Suddenly predator becomes prey. A roadrunner grabs its meal, then springs four feet straight up into a juniper. The whiptail hangs limp in its beak. Though they’re not good fliers and therefore don’t migrate, roadrunners can sprint at fifteen miles an hour. Most large hawks lack the ground speed and agility to capture these lizards, but roadrunners have made them a specialty.
[p.29]Last night’s boulevard leads toward the castle. In full daylight these giant monoliths look less like human constructs, though their straight cleavages remain astounding in any light. I wander among the towering rocks, seeing and hearing no one. The Joint Trail, one of the many crevices in the sandstone that encircles Chesler Park, runs straight like a trench. Keeping my topographic map handy, I follow washes and jeep trails. Clouds keep temperatures in the sixties, conserving my water. Canyon upon canyon winds on and on in a riot of erosion. As Ebeneezer Bryce remarked, this would be “a helluva place to lose a cow.”
My boots crunch on the pebbles of the drainage, allowing navigation by ear, while my eyes lead me around just one more corner. As rock needles reach toward the clouds, I try to note those striped with rust-and-cream bandings, but there are hundreds of such rocks in just this canyon alone. This proves about as useful as leaving a trail of crumbs.
Before long I’m lost in a labyrinth. Which way now? Following my own footprints doesn’t help much, for too many boots have tramped these washes. But if so many people have trodden here, how come I’ve gotten lost? A swig from my canteen washes down the last of my trail mix. Getting lost may signify something, such as the importance of watching for truly distinctive landmarks. As I pour over my map again, compass in hand, I hear voices.
Surprise. Well-groomed jeepers offer beer and sandwiches. While they’ve four-wheeled legally to arrive here, they do nevertheless dispel the backcountry magic. For me, at least, such interactions trigger a reversion to societal consciousness. If “Have a nice day” rings hollow on the sidewalk, it sounds much worse on a backcountry trail. This said, however, I’m very glad to find my bearings, to [p.30] swig the cold beer, and to scavenge the food. Now that I know my whereabouts, I return to camp before I get lost again. The question is, should I stay another night, skimping on food and water, or hike out before dark? Another night of magic is worth the discomfort, I figure. Dinner consists of an elegant hors d’ oeuvres course of trail mix, followed by a main entree of peanut butter, enhanced by some vintage eau de canteen. I pass on the local rock candy for dessert.
At dusk, hoping to see deer in Chesler Park, I crouch behind a rock to wait, downwind. As the light wanes toward a Maxwell Parrish blue, the air turns grainy again. My eyes strain. No deer. I rub my arms quietly and wait, shifting from foot to foot. The sky has now become a deep blue, well on its way toward indigo. No deer. Strange, for Chesler Park offers the best forage for miles around. In the cool twilight air I stride back to my tent, warming up and making no effort to lighten my footfalls.
Then movement strikes the corner of my eye. Two big, broad ears, a rack of antlers, and then many more ears loom in the dusk, not forty feet away. These deer are stalking me, pacing silently back and forth, ears twitching with the slightest noise I make. So curious. The buck weaves his way in closer, watching me all the time, then lifts a hoof to scratch his flank. What do these deer want? This is a popular backcountry area; they probably expect handouts. For minutes on end I watch these visitors, my gaze panning from dark eyes to dark eyes. Suddenly feeling the chill, I ease open the zipper of my tent and slip inside.
Hooves thud on sand and grind on rock, followed by snorts of frustration like those of a dog that sticks its head into an empty dish. Something obscures the stars that were penetrating the pinholes of my tent. A large animal is standing over [p.31] me, its sharp hooves separated from my face by only a tissue of nylon. Pans clatter. My stomach gurgles. I peer out the window. One doe chomps on my visor, a last line of defense against the desert sun. These beasts actually seem aggressive. “They’re only deer,” whispers my rational mind, yet my heart races. As the deer move on, my head eases onto the pillow, ears twitching.
To conserve water I rise before dawn to hike while it’s cool. Venus, the brightest star in the sky, dances in the east. Called “phosphorus” by the Greeks, the Goddess of Love beams a dozen times more brightly than Sirius, her closest rival. Yearnings for love put a bounce in my step as I complete my desert sojourn. On the other side of the Rockies, my beloved Barbara awaits my return.
On the trail back, this time without the wind in my face, the scenery is glorious. Fins and pinnacles tower above a great natural amphitheater where the vistas are sensational. Just beyond my boot, a shiny black wasp drags a brown spider, its legs still limp, toward its nest. Below lie the white-capped giant mushroom rocks of Elephant Canyon. In the mid-distance, the sheer cliffs of Needles Overlook soar far above the slickrock pinnacles, their edges sharp in the crystalline air. Behind them, nearly sixty miles away, rise the snow-covered La Sal peaks. Two days ago, in my rush to avoid the wind and sand, I missed all this when I kept my head down except to watch my airborne hat.
Descending into Elephant Canyon, I see more that I missed. Anasazi petroglyphs and pictographs stand out at a confluence of canyons. On the right side are four delicately lined hand prints. In this location, a natural route out of the drainage, one imagines that this rock art functioned (at least in part) as signposts. If so, the directions they indicated remain [p.32] well beyond my ken.
The canyon floor is paved by hard gray rock. Embedded in it is a fossil tooth within the Elephant Canyon formation, which was deposited roughly 280 million years ago. Here in Canyonlands the rock from this period runs up to a thousand feet thick but outcrops in only a few places. Since my canteen’s nearly empty, I scan the drainage for water pockets, but there’s no water here, at least none that I can access.
In the chute formed by a joint, vine-like roots stretch like conduits through a stream tunnel for nearly a hundred feet. An intriguing tree unfolds its serrated leaves. Its branches hang clusters of flattened but leafy hop-like bladders, each containing a seed. The ranger later informs me that this is a rare Western hop hornbeam tree, a close relative to the American hornbeam and once more common in these parts. Since this small tree prefers damp defiles along the Colorado River, much of its favored habitat now lies beneath Lake Powell. Growing in a joint as it does, it represents those plateau province plants that thrive in cracks where runoff water is concentrated, and elongated roots can reach a long way to find it.
Other native plants take advantage of rain that sheets off the slickrock. Tucked into such a foot-of-the-cliff niche is another cliffrose. Its five-lobed leaves, dotted with tiny glands, are smaller than its creamy flowers with yellow stamens. Already some of the blooms are going to seed, hinting at the feathery plumes that, later on, make the cliff rose resemble Apache-plume and even clematis. The cliffrose served both the Fremont people and the Anasazi, who shredded its bark to make their clothing, mats, sandals, and rope.
While desert plants have evolved a great variety of ways to locate, conserve, and store water, we humans have not. A [p.33] final, tepid swig from my last canteen tastes particularly awful. Now I’m running on empty, out of both food and water.
These three days have pointed to how our comfortable everyday lives separate us from nature. We often see splendid images of this canyon country but don’t usually taste the grit. Videos on wild places tempt us to consume natural history while crunching popcorn beside natural gas fireplaces. Because they’re so engaging and informative, such packaged surrogates may tempt us to accept the illusion that we live outside of nature. While the planetary environment deteriorates, such images can lead us to believe that all goes well “out there.”
Blowing sand and hungry rodents have reminded me that the world wasn’t designed for humans. Hiking during a sand-and-sleet storm, I have felt the sharp bite of the wind, experienced the forces that sculpt this fantasyland, By baring their ancient bedrock, and especially by disorienting us and denying us water, the desert arouses primal emotions and rekindles self-awareness. Where there’s no place to hide, we’re forces to find ourselves. As I approach my van, muscles cramped from dehydration, my well-files fingernails reveal experience not with fantasy but with soft-rock reality.
The Old Friend that Smelled like Gin
Like a puffy cloud, a powder-gray tree nestles into the weathered gray slickrock. Nondescript. Yet this tree beckons, its gray berries dotting its dull-green foliage. As I approach, shoelaces catching on brush, I realize that it’s “only” a com-[p.34]mon Utah juniper.
After that generic identification I focus on this individual juniper. Dead branches bristle from the otherwise rounded crown. Beneath the speckled form, strands of loose bark hang like frayed clotheslines. Behind these, gray and cinnamon-streaked bark peeks through the boughs.
I reach for contact. Grinding a needle between my fingers frees the scent of cedar. After running a gray berry green, I whiff the aroma of gin. Then my tooth breaks the berry’s surface to disclose its bitter medicinal taste. Fin, flavored by oil from those berries, is short for geneivre, the Old French word from the Latin juniperus, meaning “youth.” These trees do stay green for a long time. Their wood, so often used for fence posts, resists decay. Juniper seeds can lie dormant for years until a freeze cracks their tough coatings.
To feel younger, why not climb this old juniper? But when I grasp a limb, strands of bark break loose and drop me backwards! Brittle branches crack around me as I hit the sand, feet in the air, dust in my face, hands still clutching some of the scruffy bark. I look like a horse that’s rolled in the dust. Pinyon jays jabber derisively nearby.
Wounded vanity put aside, I finger the bark in my hand. Its thick end looks like a rope that’s been chopped off.; Brown wormlike needles and dried berries litter the sun-mottled sand. Just above my face the browns of the bark look like creosote. Mustard-green lichen hangs from dead twigs. I feel cozy, like a boy hiding in the shrubbery. Soon enough, though, discomfort intrudes. As shriveled berries begin to feel like marbles, I sit up. Twigs gouge my scalp as stumps of bleached branches, each bowed with age, jab my bare back.
Why has this tree spurned my hug? The essayist Montaigne remarked that a defect in us “hinders communication [p.35] between animals and humans.” Surely, then such limitations also keep us from relating to plants, our more distant relatives. With the five senses alone, intimacy eludes us, so intuition or imagination may offer better connections. Perhaps if we adopted the yoga posture of “the tree,” standing on one leg with our foot rooted, we could feel more akin to trees. Or perhaps if we talked to them as we do to house plants, we might find relief from the estrangement that ails us, not them.
In Desert Solitaire Ed Abbey contends that he could write a book about not just junipers but about a single tree. Yet too often common plants become like robins, items we identify at a glance, generically, from a distance. We stop looking once we glimpse the robin’s proverbial red breast, which is really not red at all. We carry our categories into nature, ignore the individual for the type, and then wonder why we’re not seeing much that’s new.
Cultural baggage dulls perception. By presuming to see this individual tree as an old acquaintance when I actually know only its species as a type, I might well have missed the individual. Contrary to what most of us learned in biology classes, to classify is not necessarily to understand. This is why Roger Tory Peterson, famed illustrator of bird guides, indicated that “I don’t enjoy being out with birders—they want to identify a bird and get on with it. I like to spend an hour with one bird.”
Naturalists can utilize both approaches. They can both marvel at the general characteristics of junipers and also use them to appreciate one twisted individual that’s survived for centuries. What stories does its wood hold? How would this tree narrate the comic anecdote of the overly friendly homo sapiens? If we could connect with it, it would certainly enrich us. Imperceptibly, perhaps it already does.