Beholder and Beheld

May 5, 2017

These things, these things were here and but the beholder

Wanting…(Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Hurrahing in Harvest”)

The other day a friend and I drove up the highway along the Bitterroot River on the way to a little spring fishing. We spoke about a question that Jedediah Purdy asked in a recent lecture at the university: “What are people for?” This is an old question, older that Wendell Berry’s book of essays on the subject and at least as old as the opinions of people who wrote early catechisms.

My first paddle of the season points toward an answer to this question.

It was very difficult to leave town. So many things clawed for my attention—concerns about one of my sons, a former student who wanted to tell me about her Senior Project, arrangements with a contractor who will rebuild our falling-down deck, the dandelions, oh, the dandelions. And then I hit the going-to-school and work traffic early on Friday morning; and then the tour bus got a flat tire across from the light adjacent Costco. I thought I’d never get out of town.

But I persisted. The weather predictions offered an acceptable level of risk for a solo paddler in cool conditions. If I got off the water before 4 p.m., I might miss the lightning and the sudden gusts accompanying a cold front. After seven months away from the lake it felt good to step into 40-degree water, to drop into the boat, kick off and glide over the concrete boat ramp and into deep blue.

Trusting the cloudy and calm conditions, I paddled across the strait to Wild Horse Island, humbly remembering what the first few thousand strokes of the season feel like. I paddled up the west shore of the island and noticed what I thought was a single Bighorn sheep on a ledge below the highest red crag. I said to myself, You might be able to hike to the top for a closer look.

 I pulled into Skeeko Bay, the only boat in the bay, and hauled Bluebird above the rising level of the lake. I vented my dry suit to help me cool off and started up the trail, pausing to take photographs of big Ponderosa Pines whose cambium layers had been harvested by first peoples visiting the island. I had promised these photos to an archaeologist friend. A winter with ample moisture and now spring rains made the island soft and lush. I found shooting stars all across the forest floor while everything else seemed about to bloom—arrow-leaf balsamroot, some variety of mustard, death camas, lilies, and all the other flowers whose names I seem to forget from one season to the next.

I made my own switchbacks up the steep slope toward the red crag, trying to imagine where the Bighorn might be on the other side of the peak. When I was two strides short of the crest, she suddenly bolted, alarmed either by the vibrations of my soft footsteps through the ground or perhaps my scent. I could only get a glimpse of her back as she fled from me. I took the last two steps more slowly and began to scan the slopes and gullies below me. In only a few seconds she had descended a couple of hundred yards down the steep slope toward the lake. Now, though, I saw a newborn lamb velcroed to her side. The ewe had chosen an incredibly remote and almost inaccessible ledge to give birth to and then protect her lamb. Alarmed, she had retreated to another ledge beyond the range of my basic camera. I simply stood and watched. Besides, as I later discovered, a smudge of sunscreen on the lens compromised all my pictures: I would have to remember what I saw. A couple of wads of shed hair were the only sign of the sheep’s presence on the ledge.

Content with having found the sheep that I first spied from the water, I turned back toward the bay. Simultaneously, an eagle and a pair of geese crossed over the island’s saddle but from opposite directions, the geese just under the eagle. At my feet lay countless mosses and flowers still waiting for that perfect combination of light and warmth to unfold.

As the only person on a 2,100-acre island at least one answer to the old question seemed clear. I felt a duty to behold, to behold each creature in its struggle for existence, and to behold all the living systems that support the living while recycling the dead. We are here to notice the fire scar and the blooming flower, the shotgun shell case and a downy feather on the beach.

Continuing to trust the conditions, I returned to my boat and resumed my paddle. At first I thought I would only paddle to the northern-most tip of the island; but when it seemed I would be allowed more, I continued around the island, down the east side and through the gap past Melita Island. In Osprey cove I found a mature bald eagle in a snag, the brilliant white head and tail giving it away on a cloudy day. Watching the bird, and hoping not to startle it into flight, I realized that we are also the beheld, the rest of creation beholding us to see how we do on the land and water we share.

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Paddling Lessons, Part IV: Pinesmoke

This post is the last in a four-part series. In these posts I remind myself and other Flathead Lake paddlers about some of the risks and rewards of early season paddling.

In early June of 2010, on a cool but clear morning, I drove up to the Walstad fishing access with the thought of paddling to Wild Horse Island to see what flowers were in bloom. On this day I saw something I had never seen before. The memory of this experience reminds me to keep venturing into the world of early season paddling.

Again from the logbook:

This early in the season there are only a few trucks and boat trailers in the parking lot. I take a minute to walk out on the dock and assess conditions on the lake before setting Bluebird in the water. The jet stream flows in a straight line from the southwest—unlike the mid-summer norm. Wind from this direction means I’ll have a quartering tail wind and corresponding waves as I cross to Wild Horse Island. I adjust myself mentally to what it will feel like to be pushed from the stern quarter. I slip Bluebird into the water and settle myself, feeling for a low center of gravity before advancing into the waves that create an awkward rolling motion. Assisted, even if awkwardly by waves I cannot see, I make the crossing quickly and soon slide above the tumbled ramp of island shallows. I round the island’s tail and drop into Skeeko bay.

I love to hike on the island at this time of the year, so I haul Bluebird out of the water and roll the boat over in the shade of one of the big pines. I tuck my wetsuit, pfd, and booties in the cave of the cockpit and switch to more comfortable clothes and footgear for the hike. Before starting up the trail to the isthmus I check the State Park log. I discover, somewhat to my surprise, that no one has recorded an earlier visit to the island this year. Looking forward to whatever I may discover, I hike up the ridge, down into the canyon between peaks and then back up to the top of the middle peak. As memories are attached to places, I recall that this saddle between peaks was important to friends who died in a January crossing of the strait. I come to pay my respects to other people who loved this island.

I move quickly and fairly quietly through the soft bunch grasses and the windblown pine needles. It feels good to walk on the moist, almost spongy ground, so unlike the conditions in August or September. Below me to the right I spot five big deer and a red-tail hawk. From this high vantage point I take time to look at everything around me, searching for movement and anomalies. Taking time to look before moving, I find Bighorn sheep in the distance. They are bedded down in the trees. On a scabby, west-facing slope I find dozens of Bitterroot, blazing out of the windblown gravel like pink stars. It feels as if springtime is rising out of the ground and into my legs.

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Pleased with everything I see, I drop back into the canyon then pant up to the west peak. Before skipping down to the bay I take time to look south. From this last high point I see something that startles me. It looks as though the forest is on fire. Thick clouds of smoke rise up out of the trees and billow away in the wind. The smoke is thick enough to cast running shadows over the forest and grasslands below. Remembering the Mann Gulch fire and the fifteen men who got caught in an upslope conflagration, I don’t want to be caught in a similar situation. Needing a good decision, I study the scene below. It eventually dawns on me that the smoke is the wrong color—yellow not brown or gray. I suddenly realize that the wind is blowing pollen from the pine trees not smoke. Pollen streams from the trees in enormous yellow plumes that look like smoke. This explains why I saw so much pollen on the water while in mid channel. All is well. From an ecological perspective the timing of the wind and the release of powdery pollen have met each other perfectly. Astonished by the conjunction of such things, I continue my descent more amazed than afraid.

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Back at the beach I change clothes again, tuck myself back into Bluebird and slide into the bay. During the hike I consumed all the water I brought. I sweep away a fan of pollen beside me and dip my blue bottle into the lake. I raise it and take a big, long drink, leaving just a little for when I land again at Walstad. Refreshed, even if on my way to gastric distress that shows up later (I should have filtered the water), I turn out of the shelter of the bay and paddle down the west shore of the island. Now I face into the same quartering headwind that helped me fly to the island earlier in the day. I settle into an even pace, having learned not to hurry the process in an attempt to get out of the wind. It is enough to take one strong firm stroke and then the next, to let my body roll slightly with the boat’s roll rather than fight the motion. I try to let the energy pass through me rather than oppose it as if it were an enemy. I am reminded of Lao Tzu’s approach to resistance. In Mitchell’s translation of Chapter #30 the old man says:

For every force there is a counterforce.

Violence, even well intentioned

Always rebounds upon itself (#30).

Trying not to rely on force, I paddle on, accept rather than resist the quartering seas off the starboard side.

As near as I can tell, I was the only person on Wild Horse Island today, the only person to see billows of pollen so dense that they cast shadows over the undulating slopes. Though the weather at this time of the year is volatile and the water still cold, I am grateful for a chance encounter with the perfect timing of the living world.