19 March 2007

Spring Hike: reading the book of nature

Nature is eloquent, speaking to us in various signs. We read these signs much as we read or decode spoken language and other social forms of semiotics. In terms of human understanding, there need not be a wide gulf or sharp division between the human and non-human world.

Leaving the truck at the S-curves near the top of a pass on the Continental Divide, I read the first signs of spring--pussywillows along the road.

Climbing up a finger ridge that runs down from the Divide, I thought how much I love this area. Though it is like a child or friend recovering from some horribly destructive habit like meth or heroin, there is beauty in this recovering landscape ravaged a century ago by the Anaconda Copper Company's clear cutting and then smelter pollution. Usually, I see it while elk hunting the area once or twice a year; but it's also a pleasant early spring hike. Though I carried snowshoes to ease crossing the deep drifts between ridges, for the most part the wind blows hard and constant down from the Divide, sweeping the snow from the ridgetops and west facing ridge sides. The ridges are studded with the earth's vertebrae--marvelous limestone outcrops; they stand amid the earth's shed hair--trees a century dead.

An old mining claim marked with a Christian's cross. What were they prospecting in this limestone? Was this perhaps a contact zone between limestone and lava? I don't know. My skill at reading the language of geology is limited.

Bears roam these ridges and this valley. They leave their mark on aspens as a sign to other bears, or to humans who read a bit of ursinese.

Wind and water claw the land the way bears claw trees. Here, the claw marks of running water on a low ridge across a glen. We can read this as erosion caused by the deforestation and subsequent poisoning of vegetation by the Anaconda Copper Mining company.

Here, some patterned ground--the language of wind riffled snow, pebbles, and vegetation.

RTD and I pause for lunch. Although a pleasantly warm and sometimes sunny morning, the nagging wind has made me cold. It feels good to hunker down over a fire on the lee side of the ridge.

Spring is a time of life. The "bull" mice travel long distances to find mates. This little deer mouse, tucked in amid the Oregon grape and lichen, was a mysterious victim of winter. RTD's found it, her nose reads the signs of smell the way my eyes read elk tracks.

There is a slash in the earth, a crevice like Gaia's vagina. Here there is life: the rich green color of watercress leaps to the eye like the cries of a new born child. The water flows warm (60 deg F or so) year round, ice free, and mineral-fat from its limestone birth. In a month or so, there will be westslope cutthroat trout swirling and spawning in this rich water.

For me, today, it is the source of a pound or so of watercress to flavor a big potful of boiling corned beef. As my hands pick over the watercress I am like a hungry man reading Braille. My mouth waters as I recite the story.

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