A change of scenery

Little Sugar Creek, Charlotte, NC

I am becoming reacquainted with so much of what I took for granted— fireflies, downpours, indigo buntings. I didn’t expect it all to feel so familiar. I’ve never lived in the South, but after three years in the Great Basin, North Carolina Piedmont feels close to the home I’ve been homesick for.

At least at first glance. It’s dizzying to look closely and realize the leaves are in shapes I’ve never seen. I’m swimming through birdsong which is not quite identifiable, but lingers in the back of my mind. Is it that I used to know or that I am about to know? When I start feeling uneasy, the skittering of an anole around the trunk of a tree brings me back to my senses.

The best books I read in 2020

Fiction: On Earth Were Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Non-fiction: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf, The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Poetry: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

Lava Beds National Monument

At the deepest point of Heppe Ice Cave, there’s a pool of water that stays partially frozen throughout the year. When I hiked down into the cave last week, the layer of ice was visible about a foot under the water’s surface. I stood in twilight at high noon. A house finch flew down from the mouth of the cave and landed by my feet. He didn’t seem to mind me, just drank leisurely from the pool. I waited him out— watched him flutter and disappear back into the light.

Heppe Ice Cave

The Monument is 46,000 acres without a drop of surface water— only what snowmelt collects at the bottoms of lava tubes. A ranger told me that over the phone while I was planning the trip. I imagined an inhospitable landscape not capable of supporting human life, but I was terribly wrong.

Pictographs at Symbol Bridge

I didn’t take Tule Lake into consideration. Just north of the Monument, Tule Lake was massive before the Bureau of Reclamation drained most of it for irrigation in the early twentieth century. Tule Lake sustained Native populations for the last 11,000 years.

Sagebrush Mariposa Lily (Calochortus macrocarpus)

The north half of the Monument, closest to Tule Lake, was the site of the Modoc War of 1872-1873. At Captain Jack’s Stonghold, one can walk through the series of lava formations that Modoc leader Kintpuash and sixty followers used as trenches and fortification for five months. Despite their small numbers, they held off hundreds of US Army soldiers in a last-ditch attempt to protect their homeland. As a Jew, I was reminded of Masada.

Schonchin Butte Fire Lookout

Intent on catching the full moon rising, I hiked Schonchin Butte at sunset. It didn’t occur to me that it was the Fourth of July until I saw the miniature fireworks way out on the horizon. It was a terribly sad thing to see those fireworks over the battlefields, knowing that Kintpuash was ultimately hanged and the survivors were packed in cattle cars and shipped to a reservation Oklahoma.

There’s so much more to grapple with than the walls of caves.

The daily dilemma

The Buddha practiced walking meditation on the banks of the Neranjara River. That muddy water is just an out of focus memory now—years since I forded the warm, shallow river by foot on my little pilgrimage to the Mahakala Caves. These days I practice on the banks of the Truckee River, which is cold and clear and far away as can be.

There’s a path through a patch of wild roses that I like to pace. No flowers this time of year, but a good path— well worn— between two ponderosa pines.

My foot rocks from heel to toe in a slow arc. Sun on the front of my legs, the back of my legs are cold. Sun on the back of my legs, the front of my legs are cold.

I tell myself, “when walking just walk,” but I was raised by devoted birdwatchers.

It’s always something. I hear a red-tailed hawk cry above me and try not to look up. Try not to look for her shadow either. I hear a jay and try to discern—scrub or Steller’s? Twenty steps, turn, twenty steps, turn.

Mid-turn I glance up, and my eye catches on two mergansers swimming upstream. Their heads are below the surface, scanning for something good to eat. They are joined by a third, and overhearing the little barks of their private conversation gives me a thrill.

How can it be enough to make the mental note, “hearing?” How can I resist running upstream with them? I need to know what else they might have to say.