After a night of rain, the morning had the color and tone of a Great Blue Heron’s back. In the afternoon the sky brightened, and I went to look for the bird. There are places were I expect to see them as I drive the highways along the river. Great Blue Herons are part of my image of the Colorado River.
At my first stop three men fished, but there were no Great Blue Herons or any other birds to be seen. I could hear birds in the cottonwoods down the river, but that was private property protected by three no trespassing signs and one private property sign at the gate and another sign just inside the gate stating again the private property and warning me to stay out. I walked up hill along the fence. Finally, a ‘SKEWW’ and I saw a Red-Shafted Flicker working a shaley hillside inside the fence. I crossed the hills to a cinder-covered slope and a gulley, down which were strewn rusted tin cans, a desk drawer, and stretch of steel cable. A former dump? The entire area had a beaten look.
Upriver a few miles, I stopped among the hills where I could park near the river’s line of cottonwoods. The bright yellow leaves of the cottonwood fell—solely mostly, one and then another—falling, clapping against other leaves, floating out, arcing back, down, falling. The leaves that remained on the trees offered in the breeze a constant, quiet applause. A Golden Eagle circled slowly over the river bluffs. Little brown birds flitted in the tamarisk.
I pushed through the thicket of tamarisk and coyote olives toward the river, picking-up a coat of burs. A shattered tamarisk covered me in brief, golden brown camouflage, but it wasn’t sufficient; as I stepped over the final bank to the gravelly beach, a Great Blue Heron lifted from the water and flew up river. I had only a glance of the long beak and slate back before it was gone.
For every ounce of gold harvested from mines in the mountains of Peru, 30 tons of landscape are dug-up and disrupted. In little more than ten years, one North American company has removed 19 million ounces of gold from the Peruvian mines. [24 and 25 October issues]
Smoking four or more cigarettes a day for two years will reduce a man’s fertility by 75%. Nicotine has been found to reduce the strength of a sperm’s tail, making it difficult for the sperm to push through an egg’s zona pellucida. [25 October issue]
Amlou, a condiment eaten on bread for breakfast by the Berbers of Morocco, is said to improve virility. Amlou is made from oil derived from seeds of trees known as argan (Argania spinosa of the Sapotaceae). The Times was especially interested that Goats climb the argan trees to eat their fruits. The single, stony seed of the fruit will pass through the gut of a goat. These undigested seeds are harvested by women, who roast them to extract their oil. Seventy pounds of fruit are required to make a liter of oil. [27 October issue] (See also http://www.tabiavillage.com/Elsevier98.pdf for an ethnobotanical study of argan oil.)
I was reading in John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s (1980) The Necessity for Ruins to see how he wrote about landscapes. The softness of his voice was striking. The writing was flush with ideas and intelligence while also having great fluency, arising it seemed without effort or at least from a set of well-formed thoughts. I wondered whether it was simply self-assurance. Jackson must have posed questions to himself about landscape and culture to arrive at his intellectual constructs, but I didn’t get the sense that he questioned the constructs. The writing seemed that of a man with a moral universe that provided a ready frame for his constructions, which he presented in a disarmingly simple and straightforward manner.
Jackson’s essay “Learning about Landscapes” presented for himself an outsider myth. He lectured at colleges, became a teacher, but like “most laymen” he had “no conception of the Byzantine complexities of the academic world and its struggles for promotion, tenure and grants, which he claimed resulted in the initiates weaving lifelong shelters for themselves. At the time that he taught landscape studies he claimed that it had no academic legitimacy, but how could this have been true since he was teaching it in an academic setting? (I noted also that his book was published by an academic press) He claimed that his teaching had little practical or scholarly value and decided “I taught them how to be alert and enthusiastic tourists” (p. 3). He suggested, “What I was passing on were those experiences as a tourist—or the means of acquiring them—that had been most precious to me” (p. 3). Jackson founded himself not only in an outsider myth but developed also what Emerson called ‘self-culture,’ especially in the claim that his teaching was centered not in scholarship but only in self-experience.
Despite his distaste for academic traditions, Jackson’s view seemed to be essentially nostalgic. His writing conveyed a sense of loss, especially a lost connection to the divine. He wrote (p. 6): “I think we can envy those times when men and women derived something more substantial than esthetic pleasure from the view of a beautiful and prosperous landscape, when instead of a simple view, they saw the expression of what seemed an admirable social order, and they gathered evidence that man was till carrying out the divine mandate to bring nature to perfection.”
These ideas were extended in the essay “Necessity for Ruins,” in which Jackson suggested that preservation of wilderness areas was part of general movement to “restore” the “original” [italicized in original] landscape. He wrote: “It seems clear that the whole preservation and restoration movement is much more than a means of promoting tourism or a sentimentalizing over an obscure part of the past—though it is also both of those things. We are learning to see it as a new (or recently rediscovered) interpretation of history. It sees history not as a continuity but as a dramatic discontinuity, a kind of cosmic drama.” He went on to liken it to a recognition of a “golden age” of harmonious beginnings, but the materials will fall into neglect and the times will be forgotten until an age of rediscovery, in which we “seek to restore the world around us to something like its former beauty.” (p. 102). Jackson argued that the interval of neglect was needed—saying it “is religiously and artistically essential” (p. 102). “[R]uins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins,” he wrote (p. 102), and this was his “necessity for ruins.”
For Jackson, this restoration offered a nearly religious redemption for a populace that could lead a charmed “state of innocence” in which they “become part of the environment.” We would become nouveau noble savages through restoration of ruins. “History ceases to exist,” he wrote, but I could not follow his equation in which restoration made life ahistorical.
The myth-making was fascinating. Jackson’s cycles of landscape neglect and restoration were beyond rational, intelligent thought; they were religiously essential. Jackson’s sentimental imagery of a golden age may have had value for swaying opinion, but the ideas fell short, for me, of the ecological imperatives of healthy, functioning ecosystems. The ideas failed to recognize that restoration was a myth when it comes to the biological landscape.
[J. B. Jackson, 1980. The Necessity for Ruins. University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst]
After the volume of hunters kept me from hiking yesterday, I went to Fisher Towers today, where I could expect more climbers than hunters. Fisher towers are Gothic spires blown and washed from the fins of a mesa. At near-sighted distance they look like mud—some of the elegant cathedral towers of Europe probably look equally suspect from that distance. As we expect to find near the spires of Old World cathedrals, a priest and nuns are close at hand—here they stand, blown from sandstone, appropriately rigid on a ridge beyond Professor Creek.
I could see the sheen of cars in the parking lot from miles away as I drove down the canyon of the Colorado River. The lot was full, and the first mile of trail was busy. Extended families and groups of young friends. Couples with dogs. Voices fell from the rock spires as if the hoodoo gargoyles narrated exasperated tales. “Right around that knob.” It was only the climbers. A woman resounded: “This is the wrong trail, Earl. Look at that.” She pointed at me. “There’s the trail.” Earl crouched on a slickrock ledge. He had a camera with a long lens at his eye. “Have everybody stop out there so I can get their picture,” Earl called. “No,” the woman shouted back, “they’r’ on their way down.” The people in the group were spread over the rounded layers of slickrock on the way to the wash that connected with the trail. “Yo, baby!” a man with a bandana on his head yelled to Earl and raised his clinched fists overhead in victory when he had reached the wash. Earl was poised for the photograph. “KRAK, kwaak-kwaak-kwaak”—a raven circled on still wings that folded suddenly, fan-like, then just as quickly sprung back to full extension. The raven landed on a high hoodoo where it could oversee the action. “Off belay.”
At the end of the trail, I listened to the falling leaves of Fraxinus anomala—the single-leaf ash. “Flip . . . flap”—as they tumbled and slapped other leaves, then—as they struck the sandstone gravel—a light “phlick.”
Colorado River at the northern slope of the Uncompahgre Plateau
Western Meadowlarks sang this afternoon from greasewood perches below the Book Cliffs. The song, which begins sweet, turns slippery. Meadowlarks recall Iowa. As a teenager in Iowa, I bicycled in the evenings after work on the paved county roads that separated the cornfields. The fences along the fields had wooden posts, where Eastern Meadowlarks sat. As I approached on my bike, the Meadowlark songs rose sweetly and turned slippery as I passed.
The yellow breasts of the Western Meadowlarks matched the leaves of the cottonwood line that extended along the wash coming from Demaree Canyon in the Book Cliffs. The orange of the hunters in the canyons didn’t match anything; the prevalence of the warning color was sufficient to keep me from walking.
Plants receive little attention in Frank Kingdon-Ward’s (1913) The Land of the Blue Poppy, the book he wrote about the first plant collecting expedition he led to mountains of southern China. I was surprised by the little attention he gives in the early chapters I read last night to botanizing or even to the plants he sees. His attention during his earliest weeks in the mountains was consumed by baggage, porters, French priests, local people (“wonderfully pretty” Moso girls), river canyons, and rope bridges (“not properly a bridge at all” and the “rope” consisted of twisted strands of bamboo). There were few plants until young Kingdon-Ward went up a hill to hunt for pheasants. He wandered over the hilltops and into a valley, where he picked-up a trail and began walking back to camp; except, he was lost. Dusk brought rain, and he spent a cold, wet night “curling up like a cat” at the edge of forest. The next morning he took another wrong path; when he settled from the shock of the repeated wrong choices, he turned to the flowers:
“There were a few anemones in flower on the grassy slopes, looking very miserable in the driving snow, besides numerous rhododendrons on the edges of the forest; and I remembered with glee that at the base of each rhododendron corolla was a big drop of honey. However, after sucking a score of flowers without obtaining much nourishment, I started eating the whole thing which, though glutinous and insipid, was not altogether nasty.”
Kingdon-Ward retraced his steps, began to formulate a better plan, when he recognized that “the rhodendron corollas had given me a violent pain in the stomach.”
This deleterious rhodo-phagi made me think of loto-phagi, and I turned my attention to Tennyson:
The charmed sunset linger’d low adown In the red West; thro’ mountain clefts the dale Was seen far inland, and the yellow down Border’d with palm, and many a winding vale And meadow, set with slender galingale; A land where all things always seem’d the same! And round about the keel with faces pale, Dark faces pale against that rosy flame, The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.
I shall read more Kingdon-Ward tonight to see where the allusions lead me.
The curves and browns of canyon walls lifted on the wings of butterflies to play at the drying vegetation in Horseshoe Canyon this weekend. On shallow, gravel terraces the cottonwoods were well committed to fall. Each had at least a fringe of yellow. I was glad to rest in the cottonwood shade. The sun was sharp. My shadow was cast behind me on the rippled and pocked bottom of the sandy wash as I walked through the morning.
We see ourselves first as shadows, rendered by light into an elemental human form. While distorted by the lay of the land, we are also enlarged by the lengthening day. Cast on a canyon wall, one’s shadow can stand tall—taller even than one’s self just before darkness.
At darkness, we make gods of our shadows, ghosts of our memories. Those are transformations Nietzsche made into philosophy. Some thousands of years ago, people in Horseshoe Canyon made an iconography of the shadowy human form. Seen from a distance they look like little more than pale red slashes painted on the slickrock—as if someone were keeping count—but as you near the painted rock panels the figures take form. A populace of shadows. Shadows framed by snake and bird. Shadows bearing beasts in their breasts. Shadows bearing humans. The powerful dead attended by shadows.
Art is a will to persist. Transforming the elements at hand from a slurry of pigment into the shadow of being must have seemed a viable alchemy for people who hunted and gathered and lived against the overhang of canyon walls. They could see the abundance of animals in the narratives of hunting. For nomadic people, returning periodically to the painted canyon, the persistent shadows must have reinforced the continuity of clan and their community with birds and snakes.
New books arrived this week. The first to arrive was by Frank Kingdon-Ward, one of the great plant collectors of the 20th century. Kingdon-Ward collected in the Himalaya for the horticultural trade. Repeatedly through his adult life, he marched through the high mountains, especially of northern Burma and southern China in search of good, new material for horticulture in the United Kingdom. He wrote about the traits of the plants in he sought in his book The Romance of Plant Hunting. The book that arrived in the mail this week was a 1973 reprint of his second book The Land of the Blue Poppy, which was originally published in 1913 and based on his second expedition, the first that he led, in the mountains of China. Here’s Kingdon-Ward at the beginning of the book: “. . . travel had bitten too deeply into my soul, and I soon began to feel restless again, so that when after four months of civilised life something better turned up, I accepted with alacrity. This was none other than the chance of plant-collecting on the Tibetan border of Yunnan, and though I had extremely vague ideas about the country, and the method of procedure, I had mentally decided to undertake the mission before I had finished reading the letter in which the offer was set forth.”
Frank Kingdon-Ward about a year before he left on the blue poppy expedition. [from Charles Lyte, 1989. Frank Kingdon Ward, the Last of the Great Plant Hunters. John Murray, London]
The second new arrival for the week was W. B. Turrill’s 1963 biography of Joseph Dalton Hooker. Hooker is one of the prominent figures of Victorian science in the U.K. Along with T. H. Huxley, Hooker promoted science as an institution, sponsored and supported by the state, and pushed for its professionalization. While turning science into a profession for themselves and future generations, Hooker and Huxley are also well known as early advocates of Charles Darwin, one of the ultimate ‘unprofessional’ natural historians. Much of the public face of evolution as it began to transform British science and society after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species had the face not of Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace, but of Hooker and Huxley. While Joseph Dalton Hooker is fascinating for his various promotions—Darwin and evolutionary biology, rational institutions at the base of society, professional science, the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, which he directed after his father’s death—I’m now especially curious about Hooker’s experiences as a plant collector and traveller. He traveled on a voyage of discovery to the Antarctic with James Clark Ross in 1839 to 1843. After failing to obtain a chair at the University of Edinburgh, he traveled in the Himalaya and India in 1847-1851. Later in life he continued his botanical travels, making shorter trips to Syria and Palestine in 1860, Morocco in 1871, and North America in 1877.