Stillness in the High Desert

high desert pinesSomeone asked me this morning what I do to fill my days here at 5000 ft in the Sierra Mountains of Southern California. The answer is simple: I sit.

I don’t mean I sit and read. Mostly, the book lies face down on the arm of the chair, the computer closed on the foot stool. I start out with good intentions and the next thing I know I’m just sitting.

For one thing, it’s hot. Back home in Toronto, we cherish the idea that dry heat is bearable. The soup-like heat and humidity of the Great Lakes has driven most of us to air conditioning. Up here, few houses have it. In my naiveté, I thought the mountain breezes would take care of that. Not so. And I have given up on the idea that dry heat is better. Parched is not better. Drinking liters of water is not better.

Today, July 4th, 2014, we are having inclement weather. There are small white fluffy clouds drifting between us and the sun. Usually there is snow on Mt Pinos until June or early July. This year it was gone by April. There is a river bed with high gravel banks indicating that torrents of water have smashed through them. Now it looks like a long, narrow gravel pit. Smokey the Bear stands with his upturned shovel warning us the risk of fire is high. There will be no fire works tonight.

I spent an hour earlier today sitting on a rock under a willow tree at the edge of what is optimistically called a lake, really a pond. The water does come down from the mountain but is tightly monitored. It has to be at a certain level – for fire fighting – but it is dangerously low.

Last week an ingenious machine mowed the algae and the cat tales so there is more open water now, but the red wing black birds have taken it in their stride even though their population density is astounding. I didn’t realize they were such a social breed. Each family’s territory must be small. It’s a small pond. But they get along, defending their nests together. I saw 8 or 10 chasing a hawk with a fledgling in its mouth. On the sidelines, another 20 or 30 cried out in protest.

Sitting in the leafy shade with a breeze ruffling the water and cooling me, I disappeared into the background. A mother coot or mud hen with two babies kept diving under water as if to demonstrate the technique, but the baby coots just kept chirping, so she started bringing up bits and feeding the nearest one.

American Coot

American Coot

Ducks were calling from the other side of the pond and every so often, an unseen frog seemed to answer. Eventually, two ducks swam around the reeds and into the little bay at the foot of the tree. One was much larger than the other, but both seemed to have adult colours.

mallardA red wing landed in the branches above me and began whistling its fat whistle. There was no mistaking the song but he didn’t seem to have his red epaulets yet. The next thing I knew he was gone and a Stellar’s Jay was scolding there.

The breeze was fragrant with cedar from the chips on the path, with the smell of mud and  pine needles.

Every so often, a vehicle drove into the small parking lot. Most sat briefly and moved back out. The town was curiously empty on this holiday, but those still here seemed to be doing auto tours. One guy stayed, dragged out a big ice chest and a fishing rod and bade me, “Good afternoon” as he made for the picnic tables farther along the shore. Afternoon? I thought. Another couple made for the archery range armed accordingly.

Every so often, a fish jumped.

What kept me from hurrying off was that I was waiting for a better hiker than me to return down the horse trail. A few days before on a cooler day, I stood waiting on the dusty trail under a pin oak with many trunks. I had learned not to sit out there for fear of ants. I stood there for half an hour, gazing at the mountains and studying the trees, enjoying the breeze that funneled down the hill. That taught me the joy of staying quiet and still and engaging all my senses.

It was my stomach that got me up today. It told me it was well past lunch time. I left my bower and started back up the sun-baked road home.

We sent out a search party on a golf cart to bring home the walker who had made it all the way to the creek and had been sitting with her feet in it.

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