“Within the recesses of the forest, even when in the midst of it (the deafening noise of the insects), a universal stillness appears to reign,” Darwin, Brazil, 1830’s.
In Fall of 2017 and in Winter 2018, our adopted relationship with a Sky Island Spring deepens as we tap into the exquisite silence of hidden waters. There, we hear the prima vox, the “voice primordial,” of a desert Oasis, its’ plants, invertebrates, and mammals, sustained by life-giving water.
Fall 2017 Visit to the Spring
People seeing the Sonoran Desert for the first time often miss subtle signs of autumn. Higher in elevation, tucked into riparian areas, where seeps and natural springs are found, Cottonwood trees, Arizona Sycamore, Willow, and Arizona Ash, flame with outrageous color.
This day, we will witness leaves on the trees silently morphing from smooth yellow to mottled red to papery ochre, pressing together in an annual return to the wet earth, caking into a baklava of rich humus, imprinting the soil in a cycle of endless regeneration.
In her essay, Why Leaves turn color in the Fall, Naturalist Diane Ackerman observes that the leaves echo our own hope upon death:
“Not to vanish, just to sublime from one beautiful state to another.”
“Though the leaves lose their green life, they bloom with urgent colors, as the woods grow mummified day by day, and Nature becomes more carnal, mute, and radiant,” Ackerman writes.
As we hike to the Spring, the temperature cool, smelling of winter rains, and the sky gray with curtains of virga on the horizon, whole flocks of birds fly overhead, no doubt on a migratory route.
Steph points out a hidden canyon high in the cliff face, a classic v formation in the rock with a clot of dark green growth at its apex. We wonder if there is a hidden spring there or a seep, water percolating through the rocks in the cliffs and bubbling up like the spring we are descending into. The hydrology of the mountain range can by its nature be unpredictable, but we know water is there; the lifeblood of the dense tribes of trees we see.
Through binoculars, we examine dark vertical streaks on the cliffs, “desert varnish,” a mysterious glassy patina that generations of scientists, including Darwin, puzzled over.
High up, near the desert varnish: another V-shaped canyon. We wonder how many undocumented springs remain hidden in Arizona.
We are deeply humbled by our naïveté. There is so much we do not know.
Indigenous, first nations people could well know. Craig Childs, the author of The Secret Knowledge of Water, cites the belief of native people of the Southwest:
…that natural springs were “points where creation came to the surface and spilled out, where a hand could actually reach forward to feel the emergence.”
Other dark crevasses in the rock near the ridgeline draw our gaze. Could a mountain lion be drinking right now at a high spring?… Or ocelots – rumored to be in this mountain range – or even a jaguar, cats that do not fear water. Most natural springs remain hidden, a good thing. Would wild animals survive in the desert without them?
We slip down the shale-covered hillside, the “ecotone,” grassland border surrounding the spring until we find the trail. I am grateful for my walking sticks. We are learning to hike slowly and mindfully. It’s a long walk to enlightenment. Smart to follow deer paths.
Stands of dried grass tamp down the trail, like old hay on gray ground. We spot pumice-like lava rocks, up to a million years old blasted from vents in volcanic fields in Mexico. The rock’s shapes and surfaces resemble living coral from the Sea of Cortez, a few hours south of the border
Other large smooth stones are aproned with circular blooms of lichen, evidence of life persisting in the most unlikely of places, even on sun-blasted faces of stones.
The variety of scat on the path – deer, rabbit, coyote – also clues us into species roaming the ecotone. We pass shallow hollows in the dirt where smaller animals, rabbit or fox, may have bedded down.
Suddenly, in the distance: rat-tat-tat of semi-automatic gunfire. Sounds like a firing range. The gunshots originate from the back side of the ridge but still, I jump, my startle reflex working overtime. Each shot raises the hair on the back of my neck.
We wonder how animals handle the sound of gunfire bouncing off the cliffs. Do deer tremble? Coyotes shake? Rabbits run? I know how it makes me feel.
The closer we come to the spring, the more bird calls. In between calls, to our distress, more gunfire, louder, on the other side of the ridge. Blast, bird call… Blast, our Human song.
A flash of red, high in the trees flanking the Spring: a bright Northern Cardinal. Later, we see a Gila Woodpecker in the spring. A Cactus Wren scolds and a dove mourns.
We duck slowly and carefully under immense branches, dropping our voices, conscious we are entering hallowed ground. Others may be lingering at the waters. I have longed for the contemplative balm of the spring and I am not disappointed. The world is silent, timeless here. The birds are quiet, and the semi-automatic gunfire has thankfully, stopped. All sound goes subtle, muted like a seashell to the ear.
A slight breeze picks up, rustling the remains of the canopy. Leaves flutter to the ground and the ambient air temp drops a good 10 degrees, a portent of winter to come.
We walk with long strides slo-mo, cross-country skiing through a dense carpet of cushy leaves and deadfall. Yellow Cottonwood and orange and red sycamore leaves shush beneath out feet. I wince, not wanting to surprise any inhabitants.
The autumnal leaf matter has so seriously altered the topography of the area since our last visit, we can barely make out the first pool covered with plant debris. On the way there, I trip over deadfall but go down softly, cushioned by the leaves.
As citizen Science volunteers with The Sky Island Alliance Adopt-a-Spring Program, we gauge the health of the Spring, measuring length, width, and depth of the water source. As we quietly work together, I sense small eyes watching us, curious and aware of our presence. I don’t sense any fear. I imagine this must be because we too are quiet and reverent.
Just a few months ago, during the Monsoons, we were overwhelmed by the chaos of color. Now, all of the monsoon’s (second summer) wildflowers are gone as are the hummingbirds and the butterflies in constant movement. Missing also are the abundance of grasshoppers but we do see ants, flies, and spiders moving through the ground leaves, and one dragonfly on the water.
And bees. Clustering at the very place the spring emerges, its’ inception, the incarnation of the water, translucent wings catch the light. With more water than they could ever wish for in the spring’s pools, they lust for the very origin of the wet, drawn inexorably to it.
Circular masses of large deer grass lend a kind of animal softness to the bank of the spring’s pools. Massive mother patches line the bank on one side of the water and smaller patches on the other.
A discarded Mexican blanket on the bank, made from wool, breaks down naturally in the elements, changing with every season. I’d love to harvest some of the still colorful woven fiber and weave the essence of this place into some new art, but it’s not wise to remove anything from the area. Every aspect of this place, every stray thread, belongs here in the House of the Spring, destined to become building materials for nests or burrows, beds for small beating hearts.
I think about the necessity of pause for all living things, how these pools, teeming with life a few months ago, have gone into a kind of abeyance. I think about the powerful elemental draw to the interior that marks this season of the year, the long wait for the light of new life to return.
A shimmer of blue undulates in the dark waters of the spring and I look up to see a blue-sky hole in the cloud cover, startling in its’ rarity.
“Go ahead, touch it, I dare my partner Steph, and she does.
“Wha?!” She gasps, drawing her hand back.
“That’s the softest thing I have ever felt in my life.” She says, mouth gaping in shock.
I nod. I have felt other soft-leaved sensuals in the field: Woolley lamb’s ears… Mullein…… Hairy Desert Sunflowers, but nothing like this.
Steph shakes her head in utter incomprehension. Her long artistic fingers are so sensitive they practically have eyes at the tips and right now their tiny pupils are dilated. An alarm is sounding in her body. A seasoned scientist with no frame of reference, she thinks this cannot exist.
“It feels like an animal,” she says. “What if it’s the only thing of its kind anywhere?”
The exotic plant, all leaves, no flowers, stands by its lonesome in an easy to miss section of the spring. Maybe it is the only one or maybe it’s just never been seen before, by non- indigenous humans that is. Does it have a purpose? Is it a medicine or food? Could it simply exist as an expression of beauty? Beauty never seen?
Anything is possible in this singular stand-alone spring with its unique and provocative ecosystem. We imagine the next time we visit the plant will be gone. Every time we come we find a wholly different spring. We marvel that we can still be surprised by such natural mystery, stumped by the unknown, bemused by our own innocence.
Ecology as a Contemplative Practice
“Darwin’s manner of deep watchfulness allowed the ordinary ground of life to become sanctified, to be brought into Sensus plenoir – a fuller sense – through the offering of simple attention.” Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Author, and Naturalist.
Charles Darwin, like many scientists in general, is not commonly associated with being “spiritual,” yet profoundly spiritual he was as his observations matured into a kind of contemplative practice, muses Theologian Douglas E. Christie in The Blue Sapphire of the Mind; Notes for a Contemplative Ecology.
Mindfulness, meditation, and centering prayer originating in the world’s religions, now part of our kid’s school programming and present-centered cognitive science, are practices that quiet us into relationship with the essence of life found in nature, with Dylan Thomas’s “force that drives the water through the rocks.” And our basic senses – sight, hearing touch, taste, and smell – allow us fresh wonder, and the gift of empathy, a felt sense relationship with the natural world.
“…what would it mean for contemplative practice to be considered an integral part of a deepening ecological awareness? Christie asks.
Winter 2018 Visit
The sun is shining but the wind blows bitter, chapping the skin on contact. Waves of wind curl the bleached grass, pressing it against the hillside.
On the way to the spring, we pass stands of fallen cactus: saguaro and prickly pear in a state of decay, crumbling under our feet to dust, reminding us of the importance of the season, death, and resurrection. We pass tall grey ocotillo, skinny standing bones, thorned, sentinels of winter in the desert.
Deer trails etch deeper into the hillside, revealing how fragile the surface of the desert really is. Trails created even once carve into the topsoil like scars on the skin. The only thing that soothes and sometimes removes the mark-making are the rains, scanty this year.
Though the grasslands are winter-dried and tamped down, tiny pokies with feral intelligence find their way into my socks and I need to stop, drop, and remove my shoes.
Dotting the trail like bread crumbs in a fairy tale: chunks of Chalcedony milky quartz. Some resemble circular geodes broken open. Some are vulva-like and are shaped like roses. I always think of them as Desert Roses though this term is actually associated with rocks created from gypsum. Common in the Sonoran Desert grasslands, Chalcedony Quartz pieces are a child’s ‘jewels’ of the desert.
I pick up a palm-size Chalcedony Desert Rose and think about Tucson’s beloved “Pink Rose of the Desert,” the Benedictine monastery shuttered this year after 75 plus years gracing our region. The monastery was lived in and loved by the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, a contemplative order well-versed in the traditional Benedictine practice of Lectio among other charisms. Lectio (Latin for Divine reading), devotional listening with the ear of the heart, continues to inform my growing contemplative take on the natural world.
Maple-like Arizona Sycamore leaves litter the hillside having blown up the slope from the spring. I pick one up and cup it in my hand. Fragile to the touch and dry as the desert air, it miraculously retained its shape, curled up like a starfish. From A Botanist’s Vocabulary, by Pell and Angell, I learn that in winter the leaf’s “acuminate” tapered points draw in toward the center, towards the “petiole,” where it connects to its stem. The pull to turn inward and draw down, to contract in the process of dying, untethers the now concave leaf, freeing it to chart a new course: a paper boat on the wind.
The first thing that jumps out as we approach the spring, almost assaulting the eye: bright white branches of the huge Arizona Sycamores. Called ‘ghost trees” in winter, with their leaves stripped bare, they display an austere beauty, a natural authority over all other elements in the Spring. Next to them, the cottonwoods look shabby-chic like old heirloom lace.
Entering the spring, there is a sense of coming home. We hear naught but one single solitary bird: the dove mourning. The spirit of winter has officially abducted the spring. It is now an otherworldly destination, commanding solitude, silence, and peace.
In the center of playgrounds of leaf litter strewn all over the grounds – plugging even the Badger’s holes – we are astounded to see patches of lime green grass, asparagus-like shoots, dotting the grounds like candles on a cake.
There’s more water here than we’ve ever seen!” Steph exclaims. Black soil gushes under our feet with each step. Showers in the mountains above, rain unseen, must have fed the underground waters.
Higher than the known top of the seep, giant round balls of deer grass can only mean one thing: A new water source. We watch with awe as water flows down the entire valley of the spring, sparkling in narrow shafts of sunlight beaming through the canopy.
Last summer, our first time at the spring, Steph and I, along with Sami Hammer, Conservation Biologist at Sky Island Alliance, our guide that day, nicknamed the largest Sycamore, Tarzan’s Tree.
Sycamore tree trunks grow wider than any other hardwood in North America) and this tree is no exception, measuring a good 4 ½ feet in diameter. The tree must weigh in the thousands of pounds. Tarzan’s tree cantilevers over the middle pool of the spring, it’s huge exposed roots gripping the bank like the tentacles of an octopus squeezing its prey. We sit on the ground, our backs tucked up against the roots, and marvel at the improbability of its on-going horizontal survival: Is the tree growing toward the water or the light?
We estimate the Sycamore to be upwards of 200 years old. Water-loving Sycamores are some of the oldest trees on earth and noted for their longevity (500 – 600 years in some cases). After 200 years, the tree rots inside and hollows out, but lives on, ensuring nest sites for Elegant Trogons, owls, and many other birds. The spring’s ecological zone is packed with the stately elders.
Sycamores figure prominently in History from Hippocrates to the Ancient Egyptians and in literature e.g. the poetry of William Carlos Williams’ Young Sycamore and in the Bible:
“I was neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I was a shepherd, and I took care of Sycamore-fig trees.” Amos 7:14
Here in the Sonoran Desert, we must be the shepherds, the stewards of all the plants and pollinators and natural springs critical to wildlife corridors on both sides of the International border.
Douglas Christie finds parallels between naturalists (in the tradition of John Muir and Thoreau), and Scientists: “…the way they have trained themselves to gaze at the world and the language they use to describe their experience of the natural world… One can find “a deeply contemplative sensibility that reveals a reverence and even a love for a world not often accounted for by the limited vocabulary of science.”
The reverence gained in my own winter of years does not escape me. It is here in the spring, that I feel most congruent with the cycle of seasons, with life and death, the fecund dark, and life-giving light. After Fall, in the great pause of winter, the animals, the land, our bodies, and our souls, are granted the balm of contemplative rest.
The sun begins to slip behind the mountains and the temperature drops fast. It’s in the low 40’s now. We are expecting a freeze tonight and we still have to measure the spring’s all-important water flow: an entire liter of fresh clear water in 5.25 seconds! My fingers, wet and starting to freeze tell me it’s time to go.
As for our mystery: the softest plant ever, we found its’ young shoots again and photographed them. Later research leads us to believe they are saplings of Velvet Ash, native to Arizona. The Velvet Ash tree can grow up to 40 feet tall in riparian habitats, its’ leaves velvety only while young.
7 thoughts on “Contemplative Ecology in the Sky Islands: To Everything a Season”
Absolutely gorgeous writing! You make the desert come to beautiful life on the page, Val. Thank you for sharing this.
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Thank you, Barbara!
Out-of-this-world writing about an in-this-world place….
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Thank you, Jim. This in-the-world Desert Spring is truly out-of-this-world!
A beautiful blog – thoughtful writing, unique and compassionate insights, and nice photography! I appreciate your mixing of science and faith. I’m a horticulturist and deeply versed in science, but the hand of the Creator is ever-present in all I see. I’ll look forward to each new offering.
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Many thanks debinthegarden for your much considered comment. I will be thinking of you when I write about our next visit to this hidden spring. 🙂
Lush and evocative – I’m surprised NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine hasn’t scooped up this poetic writer.