21st Century Naturalist
I'm perched on a hillside looking down at Spring Creek and I can't help wondering what's left for the 21st century naturalist. What's left to discover? Where's our uncharted territory?
There are elk droppings at my feet and a cool breeze overhead. It's summer in the Sacramento Mountains and fall is approaching. I love this time of year when sweltering heat gives way to cool breezes.
I've been hiking up Spring Creek near my cabin searching for anything interesting. "In search of what?" I ask myself. "I don't know," I respond. I would love to discover treasure like I would find in my years of living in the Mojave Desert such as bighorn sheep, chuckwallas, rattlesnakes, petroglyphs, pot shards, mine shafts, and homesteads. I would like to find anything but trees and other people. How sad I would be to meet someone else searching for something interesting in my creek. How irritated I would be to know I wasn't alone. It's not that I don't like trees or other people but sometimes you just want solitude. In fact, I love trees and the nourishing life giving piñon pine is my favorite. And people, well people are OK... when they act right.
So far, I've found a covey of small birds, some beautiful wild flowers, and a lot of fallen ponderosa pines. I'm afraid the bark beetle is at play in my Spring Creek and that's a tragedy. I'll lose them all and I mourn that. The ponderosas are stellar beasts that tower over scrub oak, alligator junipers, and piñon pines like the big brother of the Lincoln National Forest. Red bark, thick trunks and fanned needles wave hardily in the wind. Like dead soldiers after a fierce battle, my ponderosas are losing.
As I walk up creek, hummingbirds searching for supper from my bright red pack buzz me. I guess I'm not supposed to wear a red pack if I want to be "in tune" with nature but I'm glad I am as I hear gun shots in the distance. I doubt there are very many elk wearing red backpacks in the forest.
Walking further up creek, I flush out bird after bird. Each peeps at me in disgust for disturbing his life. A canyon wren chirps and I squint in his direction where I spot an old Chevy truck lying on its side against a row of trees. The trees abruptly stopped the truck from reaching the creek and damming its waters in flood. How terrible the dam would have been for the course of the creek but saved by the trees. And now, the truck rests probably forever on the creek's bank only to watch years of flooding rains bring the creek to life if only for a day.
Occasionally, I hear a car traveling up Westside Road. I'm really not too far from civilization although it feels like I am. I smell the fresh pine scent of the ponderosas and piñons as I walk and listen to the sweet chirp of different birds. I feel the breeze of Indian summer. It's all I need to fell like I'm far, far away.
I need to be far away sometimes. I need to run into the woods where no one can find me, where no one can give me bad news, or break my heart. I need to be one with the woods and just exist with the trees. Sometimes I need nothing to do but be.
I'm buzzed again by a hummingbird disappointed by a lack of feast. Warbling, screeching, screaming, and chirping, it's all I hear. Birds. I can find birds in this forest of all varieties but have yet to see the creator of the droppings at my feet. Elk. Hidden, elusive, and afraid. The birds are not afraid but the birds hold no such allure as the dominant elk to a man with a rifle. I don't know if it's hunting season in the Lincoln right now but the elk don't care. They're not coming out for anyone. Not even a 21st century naturalist searching for treasure.
The butterflies are still here but like the elk they stay away. I can't get within ten feet of them before they catch a breeze and blow. It's like they know of nets and the collector's hand. Passed down from generation to generation, the butterflies know that man is bad. But how many generations did it take for them to realize that? How many butterflies are pinned to cardboard?
I'm hearing a strange sound in a nearby tree. If I get up from my perch to look, the bird will surely fly into the sky but I'm curious. So I'll make him fly. There he goes. Feathers in flight. It's a medium-sized black bird with white markings on his wings. I can't identify him. He's nearly a blur like the large bird that flew over while I was crawling under a dead ponderosa across the creek. I saw only a shadow before me and as I quickly turned bumping my head on the log I saw only a red tail. Red-tailed hawk I guess.
There's a small dry shrub poking thorns in my knee and I notice a rash developing on my thigh. I must have brushed up against something while exploring the boulder-strewn creek.
A cricket's chirping a note that will certainly lead the cricket eaters to their next meal, What is he thinking? Is he trying to find a mate in broad daylight? Doesn't he know romance is strictly a night thing? His desperation will cause his death.
My perch is littered with dry pine needles and miscellaneous rocks. Lichen coats many of the rocks. I love how lichen accentuates and compliments rock shapes with its ruffled, avocado green growth. The rocks must be proud to be adorned with such decoration. Only the special feel the lichen's hug.
There are a few pieces of fossilized limestone. Riddled mostly with crinoids and a few clams. These rocks are a lesson in paleontology and leave me thinking about the ancient sea that covered New Mexico almost an infinite number of years ago and left behind only a few clues of its time. As I look at the lush green carpet of trees on the hills before me, it's hard to imagine waves crashing here and sea creatures swimming there as happy as clams never anticipating their demise.
My black bird is back. He's chuckling. He's laughing at this 21st century naturalist writing words about the wind and sea in the middle of the forest. I'll try again to see him. He's clever this little bird. He stays just out of sight. I hear him but I can't see him. I also hear a motorcycle ripping up Westside Road. I doubt the rider has any clue of what's around him. He's just searching for a dirt road to tear up. I doubt the rider has any thoughts of an ancient sea or the fallen ponderosas. He's just looking for a good time. I doubt the rider is a 21st century naturalist.
A raven honks in the distance. A few clouds are developing in a powder blue sky and now I'm sitting beneath a beautiful 30-foot tall ponderosa. Its deep red bark cradles my back and I'm watching for the black bird. Perhaps he'll come out and allow me to glimpse his avian being. Alas, I'm not worthy and must flush him out.
I peer into the alligator juniper where he sits but the sun is blinding and I still can't see him.
"Where are you little bird?" I ask as if he'll say, "Over here little man." But not. My voice scared him off and away he goes.
So, I return to my ponderosa and fish a twig out of my shorts. I can't help but notice that a piñon shares the same soil as the alligator. Both of about the same age, the piñon grows at an angle from the alligator as if the lesser of a Siamese twin. The alligator has the edge but they both thrive. It's a cozy community.
Just now, my black bird with white on his wings returns to laugh at me once more. And a piñon jay alights ironically on the piñon twin. He's unaware I'm sitting under the ponderosa. He ruffles his feathers and shakes out some down. He's searching too for something interesting and just as he spots me my black bird coughs and the jay jumps from the sound startled to find that he is in the middle of the blackbird and me. The jay disappears in to the trees.
I'm growing tired of this game of cat and mouse so I think I'll just start hiking. I'll leave the black bird in peace and return to the creek where red-rocket wildflowers reach for the sky and boulders block an easy path. I'll resume my search for something interesting in this vast pine and juniper forest as if there's something more interesting than what I have already found.