Conversations

 Pyramid Lake, NV

Pyramid Lake, NV

It’s a rare privilege to find the lake so calm on a warm spring afternoon. Wedged into a basin between rugged desert mountain ranges the surface area of Pyramid Lake is a smidge larger than its cohort, Lake Tahoe, the source of its water, the Truckee River flowing between from the Sierra Nevada down into the Great Basin. Wind is resident in this open landscape, continuously rippling the surface or whipping it into foamy crests. But not today. The briny water is buoyant, almost viscous. It takes the disturbance of my swimming or the launching of our kayaks to break the bond between water and land and give voice to the shoreline. The just audible hiss as the water ripples down the tiny stones and mysterious shells of the beach. Floating is effortless, directionless, our pudgy boats gliding away from shore as if pulled outward toward the voices. They come from the far shore and from remote spots out of sight on the vast surface. The conditions offer little resistance to the transfer of sound, amplifying it in fact. Canada Geese call from the opposite shore miles away and invisible. Western Grebes seem satisfied that our somnolent approach is unthreatening and maintain the chirping calls to one another scattered to our low horizon in rafts of three or four. In the air there are Gulls and ever present Raven, a solitary Tern, full bodied White Pelicans in small untalkative groups share a fine whisper of exhalation with each wing beat and the whistling of gliding wingtip feathers, subtle and exquisite sounds normally unavailable without this rare calm. As the warm glow descends toward evening Lahontan Cutthroat Trout breach the surface in sudden ker-plops and the steady sounds of our companions are joined by the heart-quickening sound of the Common Loon, the unmistakable yodel seems almost foreign to this near-treeless land. A fresh checkerboard plumage is a clear message that they’ll soon be seeking a more private north woods pond.  It is a rich conversation to which we are welcomed despite our tendency to be overbearing, drowning all others with the insistent cacophony of civilization.  We can reciprocate with a calm and attentive presence and be humble in the fact that our own sounds are rarely a beneficial contribution and only when added sparingly.

            Raven is a good conversationalist. There are people who may disagree, people who don’t enjoy the versatile repertoire of Raven. It may be that they aren’t good listeners. Many people are not. To be a good conversationalist it is necessary to listen at least as much as you speak, to sincerely pay attention to what the other is trying to tell you and not just formulate your next response. I often feel as if Raven is trying to tell me something. Her gestures and sounds are so commonly available throughout the Western States as though in her message, elemental and persuasive, she has infinite patience for us to one day look upwards and comprehend. If you camp atop Comb Ridge in southeastern Utah the ravens will check in on you several times a day.  They will express a collaboration of group flight that is unmistakable in its joy; unnecessary and gratuitous inversions and rolls, drops of great altitude followed by effortless hovering on the continuous updrafts. One startles me as he crosses over my head a couple arm lengths away moving laterally and casually dropping a few coded words in his quiet guttural tongue. This couldn’t possibly be the whole story but it a good start.

            In the heart of Buenos Aires National Wildlife refuge, amidst a savanna of mesquite trees and knee-high grass we’re the only people for as far as the open landscape could reveal, except for a Border Patrol vehicle stationed on a remote hillside, though otherwise showing no signs of activity, and an infrequent Homeland Security helicopter flyby. The namesake winds have been steady all afternoon before dropping distinctly into a silence so enveloping and profound that it reminds me that I should have been kinder to my hearing as young man. Just at the point where time becomes irrelevant the faintest laughter rises across the low ridges to the west. This grows into a soft chorus of yipping voices in ecstatic communion, the unmistakable song of Coyote. In the western landscape you should sleep with your window cracked. Better yet sleep on the ground in the open air, nylon tent if you must, but your head at snout level.  The next night again the stillness and again the voices, this time slightly closer and from the east subtle and unintimidating but an unambiguous message that we are enveloped in the home of another being. The hint of joy and excitement in this voice is mitigated by notes of lonesomeness and obligation.

           The desert southwest of our spring travels presents an improvisational poetry of subtle signs and biologically repeating riffs, each arroyo a variation on a theme. The season is offering an information overload of exuberant fecundity when chance allows or the obscure poetry of resourceful desert survivors patiently awaiting the next opportunity. There is a small talk of feathers and tracks; residue and scat, far more relevant and engaging than the dissonance of mediated voices encountered each day. I recommend finding a good sized Saguaro and stand in its presence as the wind is serrated by 10,000 spines creating a unique smooth hiss in the dry Arizona air that most certainly has something to tell you. As patient as any tree the cactus won’t bother to compete for your attention. If unmolested, Saguaro will be here far longer than we aught to need to understand its story.

 Saguaro, Ironwood Forest National Monument, AZ

Saguaro, Ironwood Forest National Monument, AZ

Tim GillerComment