Forgive, please, the late, overhasty and not especially informative nature of this post, but I wished to get something up for Earth Day before the opportunity passed. As usual, consider yourself invited to report on your own Earth Day activities in the comments section.
Here in SE Utah, Earth Day opened gorgeously. Warm and blue. To the south, only a few drawn clouds showing, thin as weeds that snow flattened. Around the Abajos to the north rise those striking cloud formations that always provoke my wonder. Can’t remember what they’re called, but I think of them as the “jellyfish formations,” because to my eye they resemble man-of-war jellyfish: small, top-heavy clouds trailing long, wispy tentacles of vapor that appear to dangle into lower reaches of the atmosphere. As I’ve sought to understand those cloud structures, I’ve read what’s actually happening is that the tentacles are water vapor rising out of unstable air, seeking a more settled region of the atmosphere. Once the vapor finds that more stable region it forms a cumulus cloud, which may in turn provide the seed of a cumulonimbus cloud, a thunderhead.
To start my Earth Day in what’s becoming my customary fashion, I’ve gone alone to my favorite high perch in Crossfire’s cliffs to be with the birds. Coincidently, the first winged visitors to arrive are— heh— turkey vultures, four of them. I’m looking in the opposite direction from which they approach, so the first clue I have of their presence is the rustling of large wings.
Maybe people aren’t aware of how much noise birds make when they fly. In the past, I’ve felt clumsy in the desert and as if the noise I made in passing was somehow unnatural and intrusive. After four years of learning to, first, go more quietly myself, and second, hear the wild mixture of presences, from wings ruffling the air to lizard feet stirring leaves, I realize all of these air-, water-, and earthborne creatures make a terrific din in a place where cars, trains, airplanes, barking dogs, or fighting neighbors don’t devour in great gulps the Earth’s quiet pauses between movements.
Birds are especially noisy, their wingbeats whistling, whumping, whispering, and generally registering audibly with every movement. Except for the owl, of course, whose wing structure and feathering make it into a silent stealth bomber. Even when birds like swifts aren’t beating the air with their wings, the way they slice the fabric of the wind frequently makes the same sound as a high velocity projectile zipping past, vrrrrr and vvving.
So three of the vultures pass by, not flapping now, but drifting so close in I can meet the eye of each that’s my side of the bird’s head. A trailing fourth bird comes along, and I happen to be looking its way when it rises suddenly from just above the ledge barely thirty feet out and at eye level. Immediately spotting me, it staggers momentarily in the air, surprised. It flaps its great wings two or three times to regain control. Those wingbeats sound exactly like the noise that drew my attention ’round to the previous three birds, so I think one or more of those three, coming upon me suddenly, similarly staggered in startlement. I’ve witnessed ravens exhibit the same behavior, stumbling mid-air on coming upon me unexpectedly and too close in for their comfort.
But vultures are, at their cores, unflappable. After that rustle of alarm, they regain composure and return to their drift, not batting a wing and apparently without altering their course by much. Off they all four go, sailing along the cliff faces, till on some signal they rise into the air and head west.
White-throated swifts zip around, as expected, filling the air with their laughing twitter, though it would of course be wrong to suppose they only sing for the sake of making noise. The white-throated swift incident I wrote of here suddenly, dramtically, and forever altered my consciousness of what birds are about . I’ve learned much since then, the chiefest thing being to pay closer attention. It hardly atones for my ignorance in that haunting incident, but I’m better for it.
Birds touch each other with song and through song keep in touch. In the case of swallows and maybe swifts, both of which on the wing are extremely chatty, I suspect some form of echo location at work. Both species hunt through the air for their food, snatching it on the wing, like bats. Watching swallows swirl in against a cliff, I noticed that at certain points in their singing they suddenly turn away from the stone, as if echoes of their flight notes bouncing off rock informed them better than their sight when to veer away.
Nothing I think might be is conclusive, of course. But sometimes, where understanding is to flourish, you must first prepare the gound with an abundance of imaginings.
In proximity to me waving its wind-stirred, blue-berried limbs stands a juniper in company with a hearty ephedra (Mormon tea) growing beneath one of its branches and in toward its trunk. At my left foot, in what must be only a shallow mound of wind-deposited soil that has collected in a stone basin, stands a very small— twenty-to-twenty-four inch tall— pinyon pine. Growing in tandem with this is a similarly dwarfen cliff rose. It would seem those two alone would strain the resources of the patch in which they grow, yet a third occupant lives close in to the pine’s roots, a claret cup cactus, forming a single reddish bud off one of its small, star-spined barrels.
For years, these three plants have grown in companionship together on their little soil island situated on a sea of stone. What do these three plants know of each other, living with their roots entangled as they must be?
I stand up to stretch my legs and walk to the other side of the cliff in time to witness a finch flutter straight up past the cliff singing a jazzy tune. It flips over in the air and flutters back down out of sight. As I return to my perch, I notice a large mammal crossing one of the beaver ponds about a quarter of a mile south of where I stand. I think it’s a deer but there’s something off about its movements. Hard to tell from here, but it appears to be limping heavily, and a drag in its walk suggests pain overall.
Budding cottonwood branches hide it for a moment, then it emerges to my sight, walking in that slow, suffering way across the old sandbar that has become a sage flat . Then it’s gone.
Looking more closely at those cottonwood trees, I notice they’re not budding in concert, or don’t appear to be. Why are some trees greening up way ahead of their kin? Next time I’m down there, I’ll pay closer attention.
The swifts have gone now, having moved on to other hunting grounds or responded to a different signal. I look up in time to witness a great blue heron parachute into the canyon, its huge wings arched to slow its descent. It glides down a slope of air toward the stream in perfect control then drops below bank level. Through breaks in the trees and where dips in the bank permit, I see it flapping its wings as it cruises along the stream seeking an advantageous landing spot.
High above, an eagle soars. I try to follow its flight, hoping it might come close by. But while I’m watching, it suddenly disappears. This talent eagles have for disappearing into the light amazes me. It seems they have nothing to hide them up there but thin air, yet they conjure themselves into it and appear out of it like sorcerers.
Time to go home and plant trees, a project we started last night but failed to complete. The kids and I worked all evening while the stars appeared, Orion twinkling out of the blue. We dug in our hard red soil, getting only three and a half of the six planting holes excavated. Tomorrow I hope we can go hike the Grand Gulch trail, as far as time permits, so we need to try to get the tree-planting task done today, if possible. Also up this week: starting my summer vegetables from seed: squash, melons, cucumbers, etc.
Later. The first hummingbird arrived at the feeders today, a male black-chinned. I was out on the back porch pushing my daughter Teah, whose birthday it also happens to be, in her wheelchair up and down the porch’s length when I heard the bird’s trill. My other daughter inside the house saw it through the window and came out quickly, eyes aglow. We both smiled broadly at each other, happy at the bird’s arrival. “Our hummingbird masters have returned,” I said. “Go mix up the sugar formula.” We’ll spend the next four plus months serving these demanding little creatures and reaping the profound rewards of their company. They start out shy, watching us carefully while they feed at the nectar cups, but eventually they’ll start accosting us whenever conditions don’t satisfy the precision of their natures. During the summer, we accomodate black-chinned, rufous, and broad-tailed hummingbirds, but the black-chinned birds are the most populous and social.
Soooo … dear reader, what did you do this fine Earth Day?