I first noted the change of season Friday afternoon. We had a wind-driven break in the smoke so I saddled the big mare and rode her out through the woods, across the scab flat, and then slowly along the narrow trail above Squaw Creek Canyon. I was mindful of cats on this ride – a mature female lion killed three pet goats on a cattle ranch near us last week — but with the air finally, albeit briefly, clear of smoke, the chance to mount up and ride was simply too much to resist.
The squirrels have been extraordinarily busy out there.
I noted the change again on Saturday morning, when I was down at the barn and a raft of Canada geese came in low above the trees. There is something primordial in the honking of geese, something in those plaintive notes that corkscrews right up my spine because, like the very best of the blues, they offer a passport into old-earth workings. Maybe it’s the way the sound carries in the pines. Maybe it’s old memories of the eastern Sierra, high-desert flyways of my youth, when I sat in a haystack calling coyotes, mesmerized by the honest chatter of geese as they winged across a fogbound valley.
Saturday morning the geese were headed west, not south, but it was a prelude to the larger southbound flights we will see and hear in the coming weeks. And one of my favorite moments of later fall comes when I am in my study at night and hear geese honking in the cold pitch-darkness. When that happens I put down my book, or my pen, and close my eyes. And for just a moment I go flying with them through the dark.
If there were any doubt that the Cascades are turning toward fall it was settled this morning. This time of year there is a certain cast of light in the sky, a tint of blue that lets us know the earth has tilted, ever-so-slightly, while we have been distracted by our frenetic summer business. This morning, as I fed the animals and mucked out the stalls, the sky was a bright fall blue — there was a cool thinness in the wind chasing the trees, and a kind of knowing slowness in the eyes of all four horses. It was that look in the horses’ eyes, more than anything else, that sealed it. By noon the door had closed and it felt like summer again, but I had already peaked through the threshold, and once you’ve seen what’s in the room it can never be unseen.
There exists, I think, in early fall, a kissing-cousin to the euphoria we all feel when we’ve been sick and the fever finally breaks. There is that moment when the body and mind surface from illness. It’s a great and lifting instant, when we rise out of sickness feeling suddenly light and lithe, grateful for a return to good health. And when that happens maybe we are even a little ashamed, or maybe we should be, of taking our health for granted.
Fall, to me, and much more than spring – which holds a more determined kind of promise — always has that feel. Perhaps it’s because I know that hunting season is close, that days of stalking an animal with a rifle in the woods, of sharing stories of the hunt and feasting on the harvest, are in the offing. Maybe it’s old memories of gathering cattle out of the desert at the end of grazing season. Maybe it’s more immediate, like the bright red tomatoes waiting to be picked down in the garden.
Maybe it’s just looking forward to long cold nights with a great book, a fire in the hearth, and the dogs at my feet.
Whatever it is, it’s this time of year, more than any other, that encourages my mind to ramble and wonder what will become of this place. What will it look like here, on this modest ranch in the ponderosas, in 200 years?
While riding the mare on the trail above Squaw Creek those thoughts consumed me. Down below, the creek was running, there were deer in the canyon meadow, and I kept thinking about Fremont, who passed through here in 1843, on his way south and to an epic of discovery, adventure, and near starvation before his party finally made it down into the Sacramento Valley.
While sitting the horse on the canyon rim, and watching the low, swift waters run around gravel islands in the creekbed, I was also aware that calling it Squaw Creek is now considered offensive – we are meant to call it Wychus Creek, though I resist that nonsense whenever possible. And I was aware of signage tacked to the trees on a stretch of canyon forest announcing new ownership by a conservancy group – an altogether modern layer on the history of the canyon.
It’s that layering of history upon history that interests me. I know that our place, the Figure 8 Ranch, has passed through a number of iterations. Within living memory it has been logged, hunted, and quite suddenly developed. My wife and I are largely responsible for the latter. The house was here, and the shop, but we built the barn, the arena, the turnouts, the garden and the greenhouse. We planted the fruit trees and thinned the junipers. We landscaped it and we fenced it. We made a house into a home in this rarifying pocket of the less-developed west, and we are grateful for the difference that opportunity has made in our lives.
But what will remain of all this two centuries hence?
There seems to be a natural impulse for human beings to leave a mark. The ochre handprints blown on the walls in the deep recesses of Altamira, for instance, or the Hunger Stones of the Elbe River, where one of the stones reads: “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine”: “If you see me, weep.” That remarkable stone, which sits in the Elbe near the northern Czech town of Decin, records years of drought and famine, beginning in 1417.
This summer, in that country, the stone is fully exposed to the sun.
There are little monuments like that all around us — carvings made by desperate pioneers in the Martian beauty of High Rock Canyon in northwest Nevada, in the petroglyphs carved into stones by Paiutes not a mile from my parents’ place on Willow Creek, in northeastern California.
I’m drawn to those quiet little outbursts of humanity demanding attention, that impulse to declare with some permanence: “I was here”. It is the same impulse, I suppose, that drove my wife and I to put our handprints in the wet concrete when we built our barn. For good measure, we added the paw prints of our dogs, and I scratched in our names and the date with a nail.
But I wonder who, in some distant future, might look down at that and think about us, or do as I do in the face of a petroglyph and try to conjure the mind and presence of the people who spent hours and days scratching a design into granite. It’s a demanding ritual, to stand and admire these things, and like most of history our takeaway can never be more accurate than a police artist’s sketch. It’s a trick of the mind, a template, a rendering, an impression, and letting our minds run with an outline is perhaps the very best we can ever do.
But there is a critical limnal impulse in both the carving and in the study of the carving, which exist as a kind of Greek sphinx proposing riddles we must solve if we are to survive on the road to Thebes.
I’m drawn to the limnal mind, which seeks an awareness of the layerings of history, modernity, and the future. We can do excellent work in that space, where we live and breathe and study in the transition between the old religions and the new ones. But mostly we don’t, or can’t stay there very long. We’ve been fragmented so violently by modern culture that it is harder than ever to draw a line from Altamira to the Figure 8 Ranch, from the reed sandals discovered at Ft. Rock to Nike headquarters, and from there into some unknown future – though it seems important that we keep trying.
Jonah Goldberg, writing in Suicide of the West, proposes this:
“We used to layer meaning atop meaning, horizontally, like one sheet of tinted film atop another. Utility and sacredness, habit and ritual, convenience and tradition, metaphor and fact – each lay atop one another, producing a single lens through which we viewed the world. The scientific revolution changed that. We now hold each sheet of film separately and look at the world through it. We have one sheet for religion. Another for business. Yet another for family. We pick up each one like a special and separate magnifying glass for each specimen…By separating out the different meanings of our lives, each one seems more diluted, less all-encompassing and fulfilling. We miss the unity of the pre-Enlightenment mind. And so we yearn to restore meaning where it isn’t. We yearn to end the division of labor and find ways of life that are ‘authentic’ and ‘holistic.’ We attach ourselves to ideologies that promise unity, where we are all part of the same family or tribe. We flock to leaders on the left and the right who promise to tear down walls and end division – but always on our terms. So much of the rhetoric about the evils of money and the ‘capitalist system’ isn’t really about money but about how so much of our lives has been chopped up by this division of psychic and spiritual labor, banishing the ecstasy of the transcendent from our daily lives. This, in short, is the romantic temper. The romantic wants to pull down the walls of compartmentalized lives and restore a sense of sacred or patriotic unity of meaning and purpose.”
We are all, us Running Iron types, if we are trying to do this right, something like the Comancheros, who lived a borderland existence between the Comanche Empire and the Spanish, between the old and the new, between the rising and falling fortunes, and who scouted the future carefully as an entirely new breed called Americans came onto the country. They were limnal in a sense I most admire because they had resilience and pluck, great courage and tenacity, and honored the past with a steady and wary eye on their flanks, and on their future.
For the Comancheros, threading the needle was a matter of survival in polar climes. And so too, perhaps, it is for us.
The word sphinx, incidentally — and only because I mentioned the road to Thebes — comes from the old Greek verb “sphingo”, meaning to “squeeze” or to “tighten up”, and so it’s easy to walk that trail down to the word sphincter, which is a thing that tightens for us all when we watch the evening news, or follow the headlines with any sincerity. Those headlines are almost never limnal or transcendent, they are instead like axe blows on a round of seasoned cordwood, splitting our daily life into pieces meant to feed an all consuming fire.
Which is a thing I resist by paying attention to the change of season, by watching the geese and the squirrels, and by looking long into a horse’s eyes. I resist it by riding a big mare out on the country and letting my mind wander through the trees and among the rocks into the canyon below, an exercise that plugs me into history both far and near and, I suspect, a behavior that will still resonate for free men in some distant future when horse-power may make a triumphant return to the fore.
I promised only the rambling blues, but I’ll leave you with this, a final sliding note with a nod to Muddy Waters.
A few days ago I checked on the bees. While the earth was tilting on its axis and the wildfires of perpetual drought were burning, while we were about our madding business of keeping the republic, the bees have been sailing on according to their own compass.
I’ve learned to work with them without the aid of a suit, moving slowly, talking quietly, like a careful and conscientious house-guest. And so, cautiously, I cracked the super with my hive tool. And here was my limnal moment: even before I lifted the inner cover I could smell it, richly aromatic, not wafting so much as flooding my bloodstream by syrupy transfusion – the ancient and eternal gift of glistening, golden, saturating honey.
And as I stood there I suddenly realized that all of it — the bees, the honey, the hive, my earthly body and the grass and the trees, were floating in a cloud of smoke.