It is creeping toward me, accompanied by a quiet drumroll of crickets. I sense it coming before I perceive it. The sky outside the windows is dark but the stars are already shying away from its approach. I lie in bed peering steadily in its direction trying to catch its first appearance. Is that it just behind the pines?
Of course it is not really creeping toward me but I who have been traveling relentlessly toward it throughout the night, traveling at more than 700 miles an hour perched here on my small point on the earth’s surface hurtling toward this rendezvous. There it is! I see it now, dimly, but perceptible nonetheless. The outline of the trees to the east is more clearly etched. Stealthily the light is changing but so discretely, it is impossible to catch it in the act. From the east, greyness is titrating into the black sky, evolving from gunmetal to a rosy-grey sky. The apple tree branches outside the bedroom window become a black lace applique to its surface. The greys melt into pearl, spreading upward until the sky becomes a quiet brightness. Pink streaks appear before dissolving into a flame colored horizon behind the stalwart pines. I am so busy watching the shifting colors I fail to notice that a translucent tender blue has overtaken the sky.
Our historic homestead lies deep in a canyon carved by the Salmon River, poetically known as “The River of No Return.” Because the property is a narrow bar along the river encased by mountains, the sky becomes light long before the sun climbs over the eastern ridge. An old growth forest wraps its pines and firs down the mountains and around the homestead’s clearings. Once the sun breaches the mountaintop its rays are filtered through the trees in downward slanting shafts of light that hang in the air and create complex patterns on the forest floor. The effect is ethereal, almost holy, the trunks of trees transformed into a many-pillared cathedral illuminated by the stained glass window effect of the early sunlight sifting through the branches. Were the early builders of churches thus inspired? The little time I have spent in churches was as a gawking tourist craning my neck at the brilliant windows and soaring columns of Europe’s cathedrals or standing in awe of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. But now this forest, this hillside, these mountains and this river have brought me this feeling of reverence. This has become my church. The mundane act of the morning walk to the outhouse is transformed.
In the cloudless bright of mid-day when light permeates everything I rarely notice it as something extraordinary. But there are days when heavy grey clouds race across the sky and the lighting becomes dramatic. The clouds become a theater light board and call the cues, controlling shafts of light that create an illuminated mosaic on the earth. The orchard is covered with follow spots that feature an apple tree, then a patch of green grass, then the cabin. Light sweeps across the hillsides focusing on some place it finds particularly intriguing. The soloist might be a rock face or the flash of a waterfall. Perhaps I am fascinated as a result of sitting in darkened theatres for so many years watching lighting rehearsals, captivated by the capricious qualities of light that can transform a darkened space.
Summer rainstorms regularly provide us with dramatic performances. On one such occasion the sky down river was a glorious azure blue with grey-blue and ivory-apricot clouds looking oddly silky-smooth…like an Aubrey Beardsley sky. Upriver the sky was dark and ominous. Thunder rumbled in the distance and occasional flashes of lightning announced the approach of the storm. Earlier Doug had attached a large tarp to the front of the cabin that served as a shade and rain awning… the big top. As the storm arrived Doug and I sat out under the big top, audience to a dramatic show featuring relentless spears of lightning and percussive thunder. The electrical storm was just the first act. As it exited down canyon the rain made its entrance…so violent…as if it were pummeling the earth with its fists. The temper tantrum gradually wore itself out as the clouds began to break apart, gentling the rain as shafts of sunlight reappeared. Suddenly the rain was brightly backlit by the sun, creating the illusion of a million strands of spider silk slanting from the clouds to the earth, land and sky woven together with a drop stitch. Veils of rain glided down river while shards of mist drifted in the opposite direction, vaporous ghosts that tucked into the side canyons playing hide and seek before they melted into the rain. Birds, seemingly undisturbed by the storm, darted across the sky. Hummingbirds cavorted from feeder to feeder to background music of birdsong and the percussion of rain on the tarp.
In the late afternoon I take our dog Rita with me, walking down the trail to the riverbank to sit in the shade. The river is now rising as a result of the warm weather, in fact I can watch it rise in the hour we spend at its side. Watching the water gradually inch upward along the bank made me think of childhood days at Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara when we would sit on the sand and watch the tide slowly rise toward our toes. I think of a quote by Loren Eisley, “If there is magic on this planet it is contained in water.” The river’s surface is blindingly bright, burning gold in the low angled sunlight. Eisley’s poetic quote fires my imagination and I think, “If there is magic in this universe it is contained in light.” Bright green grasses glow at the feet of a regiment of dark pines and firs that march up the canyon walls from the river, like a romantic illustration in a fairy tale book. The effect is heightened by a hatch of tiny insects on the river that rise into the air in waves. At this distance they look for all the world like depictions of fairies. Backlit by the sun they sparkle against the dark backdrop of the forest for their brief aerial dance, meant only to find a mate. From my fly-fishing books, I know they are the final stage of metamorphosis of their species, basically nothing more than wings and reproductive organs bent on creating the next generation in the few hours they have left to live. I think of fairies prowling the night, hell-bent on finding sex, their biological clocks ticking away. I don’t remember any fairy-tales with that plot but If you only had their few short hours to live this would be one of the better places to spend them, glittering in the air currents above a golden river looking for love. Surely the legend of fairies had to be born along a river in a fly-fishing country.
Some afternoons Doug & I sit on the porch of the 1905 rustic log cabin toward the end of the day, like so many souls must have done over the last 111 years. The low sun filters through the tall pines, imbuing their millions of needles with reflected light. You would believe that each needle was crafted of freshly polished sterling silver. In contrast to the pines’ reflective glitter, the firs seem to absorb the light, glowing softly from within. For whatever time we have here, this view is ours…the luminous firs and shimmering pines swaying capriciously, like metronomes unable to agree on a tempo.
Our evening ritual is to sit together on the terrace that Doug created in front of the cabin. From here we watch the sun setting in the panoramic view of the canyon, an Albert Bierstadt painting come to life. The Rainbird sprinklers irrigate the hillside below and, although it sounds mundane, it is beautiful to watch the water droplets falling through the light. Caught in a swirling breeze the mist travels across the landscape in shape-shifting translucent veils, the diamond-bright vapor creating ghostly figures. We pretend that these are the souls of those who lived here in the past, their spirits made visible by the mist clinging to whatever ghosts are made of. They share our cocktail hour. The coda to the evening is watching the earth shadow encompass the historic cabin, then creep stealthily over the meadow and orchard toward us. Once it has us in its grasp we not only see but also feel the difference. The planet turns its other cheek to the sun’s radiance.
At the end of each day the sky-show is unique. There are summer nights when the heat seems to burn the color from the atmosphere but tonight the sky burns with hues from across the color wheel. Clouds lying along the western ridge are lit from within. One could imagine a cavalcade of Renaissance angels erupting from the heavens, cascading down the canyon walls, darting in and out of the trees. A few thin-feathered clouds are sprinkled above, looking as if one of their depressed, compulsive members had plucked the marabou out of her wings and thrown it out into the heavens.
During cocktails Doug and I had a discussion that morphed from the beauty of nature to the nature of beauty. Do all living things experience awe? Why are we wired for wonder? Several nights ago, on my way back to the cabin from putting the chickens to bed, I raised my eyes to the pearl-grey sky, dazzled by the sight of a white-gold sliver of a moon wreathed in chinchilla dappled clouds. Did the world’s first woman on her journey under African skies stop in her tracks stunned by such a sight? While I am not someone who believes in any organized religion, this powerful, inherent sense of reverence is the best argument I can think of for the existence of the supernatural.
I call our tiny bedroom “The Star Chamber”. The windows that make up two of the walls begin at the level of the bed and rise to the ceiling. Most nights the air is as clear as glass, inviting starlight to invade the room. Lying in bed, you can see the silhouette of the mountain ridges, black against a million sparkling pinpoints of light. I watch the star formations creep across the sky, in and out of the spaces created by the dark pines. Sometimes the pines seem to capture the stars in their branches so that they twinkle like lights on a Christmas tree. I wonder if that is where the idea of a lighted Christmas trees originated…from someone like me long ago watching this phenomenon in the dark.
Waking throughout the night I catch glimpses of the constellations sliding past, this spherical planet rolling through the cosmos on its miraculous journey. Living here, folded into nature’s heart, the immensity and luminosity of the universe slaps us up the side of the head and says, “Look here! See the light!”