In the Desert

When I heard that we would make a desert water20190213_130149 drop on this trip, I was excited.  I prepared for the walk carrying gallons of water jugs, as well as my own water and supplies.

What I failed to prepare myself for was the terrain of the Sonoma Desert.  The area surrounding Tucson is largely flat.  One hour south, near tiny Arivica, the desert consists of steep hills and dry water beds, all covered with stone and sandy earth.

20190213_134259The area is beautiful and inhospitable at the same time.  Huge temperature fluctuations, torrential rainstorms, and land that supports only thorny trees, scrub grass, and cacti make for a unique climate.

The first hill winded me badly.  I was assured that the way would get easier (it didn’t).  Going was slow going down the hill and I took my first tumble of the day, catching myself before rolling 100 feet to the river bed below.

At the bottom, we drank water and ate fruit, rejuvenating ourselves for the next mile or so along the rocks.  Steep cliffs overlooked our way.  We passed under barbed wire and constantly had to avoid low-hanging branches. Rocks m slid beneath our feet on every step that could easily turn an ankle.

20190213_115427We arrived at a water drop.  A shady area with a dozen or so water bottles and a few cans of beans.  People had written messages on the many empty water bottles, such as “Via con dios!” Some food cans were empty.  The pull top tab had corroded on others and we could tell that migrants had tried to open them.

We pressed on another half a mile or so, reaching another water drop site.  More empty bottles and cans.  The group decided to leave our water jugs here, and we cleaned up the used containers.

On the way back, I tripped stepping over a log and took my second fall of the day.  I hit the exact same place on my shin, scraping the shin nastily.  When we reached the first drop off point, most of the group cleaned up used containers while two colleagues bandaged my leg.

At this point, my pride was beyond repair, because I later took one last spill when my knee gave out just as a reached the crest of a hill.  I finally managed to get back to our van without further harm (or embarrassment).

I had walked a few miles, with a guide, on a cool, sunny day, with plenty of water and food.  Migrants by the hundreds walk these same paths daily in the hopes of living in this country.  They walk miles just to get to these drop off points and then miles more to get beyond the 100 mile range of authority of the Border Patrol.  Many are caught and brought to the federal court we witnessed the day before. And some die on their journey to freedom.

Gangs at the Mexican border routinely rob them.  Women, children, and LGBTQ individuals are particularly vulnerable.  Even able bodied men fall victim to the cold, to flash floods, and getting lost until their supplies are gone.

So, please do have the tiniest bit of sympathy for my clumsiness and lack of  physical conditioning.  But share the bulk of your concern and love for the thousands who simply want to work for a fair wage and to raise families without fear of government terror and murder.

A Community of Loners

I walked alone through the woods. Only the distant sound of engines and the narrow, sandy trail before me recall that human civilization lies not far away.

Shriveled ferns now cover the forest floor and the once abundant mushrooms have nearly vanished. A squirrel hops calmly in the distance. A rustling reveals the striped back of a chipmunk in the brambles.

A snake wriggles across the path and freezes in expectation of my departure. The hated snake; so reviled in our culture. The image of Evil and of the Fall. And yet, this little fellow wants nothing of me other than to be left free to pursue his life.

A few bright green and healthy ferns defy their surroundings. One tattered mushroom, then another nearly perfect specimen boldly stands watch in the grass. They stand alone. And yet, they are not alone.

They share with each other an energy, a spirit of living in the midst of the declining season. Here with the snakes and ferns and mushrooms, I am among a community of loners, an army of life energy battling the forces of conformity and resignation to Fate. I am a Chaplain in a hospice of hope and perseverance.

I walk in a hospice because, after all, everything must eventually die; that is, the organic shell binding us to this particular reality will one day cease functioning. But, everything thing exists forever in the Spiritual Realm.

My path joins a much larger trail. At the junction, a bench invites me to sit and jot notes. Two women on horseback ride up. As they pass, one inquires, “Are you drawing?” A short time later, a father and his young son approach. “Is he fishing?” I hear the child ask. “It’s a nice day for reading,” the man poses to me. A young woman comes up. She commands her spotted spaniel to “Heel!” several times. I feel for the animal who clearly wants to know, “Can I come over and greet you?”

What exactly am I doing?

I am feeling empathy for creatures no free to pursue their wishes and whatever brings them joy. I am experiencing and learning all the time, letting the omniverse speak to me; and I am actively seeking out that mystical voice. I am also creating my own interpretations of those messages.

And I am in solidarity with the fighting ferns.

Frogs Redux

The morning after the frog serenade found me on the path once more. I felt somehow compelled to return to the site to experience the amphibious aria again.

Splashes accompanied me as I walked along the pond. Unlike other local wetland areas, the turtles here seem skittish and retreat to the water as I come near. The area laid still and quiet. The morning was more humid than I had expected and the mugginess seemed to repress activity.

I passed the place where I had picked up a handful of molted Canada Goose feathers the day before. Then up a rise and I heard it begin – the distant tones blurted in rapid succession from hundreds of throats. Unlike yesterday, I did not just smile – I actually laughed out loud at the sound.

As the volume increased, so did the activity around the pond. This morning, frogs were hopping around unconcerned and it was now the turtles’ turn to sit still in observation. Unlike before, I could see little green heads popped up all over the surface of the water, the sun picking out each singer clearly in the algae-laden pond.

Motion drew my eyes upward. I saw a Loon swoop past, and just seconds later a graceful white Egret flew in the opposite direction. I hardly had the chance to appreciate those views before an even larger figure attracted my attention yet higher. Overhead, there it was, the B-52 of birds – a Bald Eagle. I had seen examples at the Pittsburgh Aviary, but never in flight. The massive wingspan seemed to dwarf the surroundings.

Once the majestic bird left my sight, I returned my attention toward the never ending din from my frog friends. I saw movement in the leaves just a few feet below where I stood. I moved carefully around, but could not pinpoint the cause of the unnatural shaking. I moved to the other side of the tree trunk before me and stooped to see a muskrat busily munching away, clearly oblivious to my presence.

All the while, the frogs continued their racket. They sounded like a crowd of old men laughing at a dirty joke that I could not understand. I began to wonder if these other animals were attracted to the site just as I had been. Could this gigantic noise coming from such tiny creatures actually lure other animals?

I suppose the answer lies in whether or not one believes that animals do things for reasons beyond satisfying basic needs – food, shelter, procreation. Of course, that raises the question, “What qualifies as a basic need?”

I know that laughter qualifies for me. No matter how good things get, I must have fun. Is it so unreasonable to imagine that animals find each other funny? When you think about it, if anything, the frog orchestra should chase other animals away. Predators could sneak up more easily under cover of the croaking. And the noise would certainly attract attention from far around.

I believe that dogs and cats clearly show pleasure when scratched just right, or when snuggling with us on the sofa (especially if they are not supposed to be there). So, why can’t other mammals, birds, and turtles have the same emotions? Humanity certainly does not own a monopoly on feelings.

Concert on a Summer Morning

After many days of sweltering heat, the morning was glorious. I veered off the main trail onto a side loop past Wood Duck Pond. As I walked past smaller inlets toward the larger body of water, I heard occasional movement through the trees. The sound resembled something larger moving through the dense brush, like a deer. So, I stopped frequently, peering through the leaves.

Seeing nothing, I suddenly heard a remarkably loud noise ahead on the trail. I walked toward the sound, growing ever louder. Honking? I had heard a similar cacophony when geese were fighting over ownership of a particular spot. The volume increased with each step.

I crested a small rise and could now see the pond stretching into the distance. I realized that the voices I now heard were not birds, but a vast chorus of frogs. Their range was somewhat limited, but I could still pick out dozens of croaks ranging from second alto to perhaps baritone in pitch.

I walked carefully, not wanting to interrupt the performance. But, my presence seemed to affect the singers little. I approached the edge of the path, which then dropped a dozen feet or so quickly into the water. The overgrowth, however, kept me from seeing my crooners.

In my mind, these frogs could only be massive. The local acoustics were certainly not conducive, and yet they belted out their notes clearly. I envisioned soccer ball-sized amphibians crouched along the shore, with perhaps a conductor perched on a convenient lily pad.

A splash. Then another. Finally, I managed to follow one into the water and spotted his head. Why, these creatures were surprisingly small, no larger than the palm of my hand. Once I got the knack of spotting them, I saw them everywhere. Heads popping up out the water all around, with bellowing cheeks puffing up. Absolutely amazing how so much sound can come from such a tiny body.

I don’t know why, but I felt giddily joyous and could not repress a smile. Listening to this ensemble brought me true glee as I listened. The sound overwhelmed everything and I become lost in the music. The sound dominated the area, almost assuming a physical presence.

In the last years of his far too short life, jazz musician John Coltrane worked on a concept called a “wall of sound.” The intent was for the music to come together literally into a solid wall, so that the listener no longer distinguished individual notes. Some of the best examples seem, to ears unaccustomed to this music, almost noise. But, Coltrane had experienced a spiritual awakening and was pursuing what he considered cosmic music.

The din of my little green frog concerto brought me close to that sound. And when you hear that cosmic wall of sound, only joy results.

(please forgive the poor quality of the video – I didn’t even realize my phone took videos until I tried this morning)