Between the Bark and the Wood

These mono-prints record the life of multiple organisms that, because of a life cycle that occurs (either in part or in its entirety) between the bark and the wood of trees, etch the wood as it were, either by physical chewing (insect larva) or chemical digestion (fungi and slime-molds). Appropriate specimens of wood are collected and converted into printable surfaces. Printing and additional layering is done using water-soluble wax-based pigments, watercolor and gold leaf on handmade papers and polyester films. Because of the highly irregular surfaces, prints are made by burnishing with agates rather than by utilizing presses

 

 

1. Western Juniper Series 12.0 A, 6.5 cm. x 18.5 cm., 2015

1. Western Juniper Series #12.0 A, 6.5 cm. x 18.5 cm., series of 22, 2015, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015.

 

2. Western Juniper Series 20.0 E, 14.5 cm. x 16.5 cm., 2015

2. Western Juniper Series #20.0 E, 14.5 cm. x 16.5 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments, gold leaf and watercolor on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015.

 

3. Ponderosa Pine Series 16.0 B, triptych 29 cm. x 15 cm., 2015

3. Ponderosa Pine Series #16.0 B, triptych 29 cm. x 15 cm., series of 7, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Waterford 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015.

 

4. Madrone Series 25.9, 14 cm. x 32 cm., 2015

4. Madrone Series #25.9, 14 cm. x 32 cm., series of 9, series of 22, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Yupo 57 lb. polyester, 2015.

 

5. Western Juniper Series 5.0 A, 9 cm. x 15 cm., 2015

5. Western Juniper Series #5.0 A, 9 cm. x 15 cm., series of 4, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

6. Aspen Series 18.0 A, 12.5 cm. x 32.5 cm., 2015

6. Aspen Series #18.0 A, 12.5 cm. x 32.5 cm., series of 4, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Waterford 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015.

 

 

 

7. Western Juniper Series 6.0 A, 6 cm. x 11 cm., 2015

7. Western Juniper Series #6.0 A, 6 cm. x 11 cm., series of 65, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

 

8. Western Juniper Series 20.0 F, 14.5 cm. x 16.5 cm., 2015

8. Western Juniper Series #20.0 F, 14.5 cm. x 16.5 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments, gold leaf and watercolor on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

9. Ponderosa Pine Series 17.1, 11.5 cm. x 29.5 cm., 2015

9. Ponderosa Pine Series #17.1, 11.5 cm. x 29.5 cm., series of 4, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

10. Western Juniper Series 2.6, 7 cm. x 13 cm., 2015

10. Western Juniper Series #2.6, 7 cm. x 13 cm., series of 8, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 140 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

11. Lodge Pole Pine Series 14.0 H, 8 cm. x 21.5 cm., 2015

11. Lodge Pole Pine Series #14.0 H, 8 cm. x 21.5 cm., series of 8, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

12. Madrone Series 26.6, 23 cm. x 29.5 cm., 2015

12. Madrone Series #26.6, 23 cm. x 29.5 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Waterford 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Madrone Series #23.3, 16 cm. x 37 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Yupo 57 lb. polyester, 2015

Madrone Series #23.3, 16 cm. x 37 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Yupo 57 lb. polyester, 2015

 

Western Juniper 21.5 cm. x 14.5 cm.

14. Western Juniper Series #8.0 J, triptych 21.5 cm. x 14.5 cm., series of 11, Water-soluble-wax pigments, gold leaf and watercolor on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

15. Western Juniper Series 19.0 C, 15.5 cm. x 18.5 cm., series of 6, 2015

15. Western Juniper Series #19.0 C, 15.5 cm. x 18.5 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments, gold leaf and watercolor on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

Between the Bark and the Wood cont.

 

series 21.4

16. Aspen Series #21.4, 5.8 cm. x 13.5 cm., series of 40, Water-soluble-wax pigments, gold leaf and watercolor on Yupo 57 lb. polyester, 2015

 

Series 3.2 C

17. Western Juniper #3.2 C, 7.8 cm. x 14.5 cm., series of 12, Water-soluble-wax pigments, gold leaf and watercolor on Arches 140 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 9.1 E

18. Western Juniper Series #9.1 C, 8.0 cm. x 18.5 cm., series of 8, Water-soluble-wax pigments, gold leaf and watercolor on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 10.0 B

19. Lodgepole Pine Series #10.0 B, 13.0 cm. x 37.0 cm., series of 4, Water-soluble-wax pigments, gold leaf and watercolor on Fabriano 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 3.0 G

20. Western Juniper #3.0 G, 7.8 cm. x 14.5 cm., series of 12, Water-soluble-wax pigments, gold leaf and watercolor on Arches 140 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 15.2 A

21. Lodgepole Pine # 15.2 A, 17.5cm. x 34.5 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Waterford 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 25.5

22. Madrone Series #25.5,14.0 cm. x 31.5 cm., series of 9, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 6.0 H

23. Western Juniper Series #6.0 H, 6 cm. x 11 cm., series of 65, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 26.1 A

24. Madrone Series #26.1 A, 23 cm. x 29.5 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Waterford 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 11.0 D

25. Western Juniper #11.0 D, 9.0 cm. x 25.0 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Fabriano 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 23.1

26. Madrone Series #23.1, 16 cm. x 37 cm., series of 6, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 22.

27. Aspen Series #21.6, 5.8 cm. x 13.5 cm., series of 40, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 7.0 B

28. Lodgepole Pine Series #7.0 B, 4.5 cm. x 14.5 cm., series of 10, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 4.0 A

29. Western Juniper Series 4.0 A, 9.0 cm. x 16.0 cm., series of 8, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Arches 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

Series 24.3 (8)

30. Madrone Series #24.3, 11.0 cm. x 37.0 cm., series of 8, Water-soluble-wax pigments & gold leaf on Waterford 90 lb. hot press watercolor paper, 2015

 

 

Fishing in the Desert

Fishing in the Desert

In recent days, he’s taken to fishing – sitting at the edge for a few hours – fishing in the river of beauty that flows through the sagebrush flats surrounding his home.  At first, his luck was good. He caught rabbit, cloud and mountain.  For bait, rabbit, of course came to carrots.  Cloud was attracted by desire – not surprising, as both like to hide vastness. Constant looking caught mountain or perhaps it was love. There were also nibbles from the unseen.

When he reeled in rabbit, close enough to touch his softness, he couldn’t see beyond the fearful eyes. Not knowing it could be good to be caught, rabbit bolted.  As cloud was drawn in, she stayed overhead day and night through three otherwise cloudless days but ultimately she became impossibly thin and disappeared.  He didn’t get to feel her touch either.  Mountain, so ancient he could not be moved, had to be let go. These were disappointing results as nothing was landed.  Perhaps he didn’t belong at the river or maybe he shouldn’t be fishing.   But still he sat.  And the nibbling continued.  Then came a strike – a big one.  He leaned back, ready for the battle but something was wrong, the pull was too strong and was coming from an unexpected direction.  He tried to cut the line but couldn’t.  Now, it was he who was being reeled in, bent, bent down until finally his head touched the dusty ground – bent, held… and then released.

Released!  Rather, he wished her hook were barbed, that she kept her catch, devoured everything, even the bones.  But it seems that is not her way, at least not with small fish, so he was returned to the river. But now, for a while at least, he’s in the river, not sitting at its edge.  Maybe this is the bath he’s needed, and soon perhaps, after being cleaned up a bit by the river’s gentle waves of luminous silence, he’ll get caught again – and with luck, even end up in her creel.

 

 

For Whose Eyes

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Project   In the summer and early autumn of 2013, naturally split obsidian nodules ranging roughly from two inches to six inches in diameter were inscribed on their exposed “inner” surfaces with the Lalita Sahasranaman (The Thousand Names of The Divine Mother) and Mata Amritanandamayi Astottara Sata Namavali (The Hundred and Eight Names of Mata Amritanandamayi).  The Lalita Sahasranaman was inscribed in Sanskrit using Devanagri script and in an English translation.  36 stones were required for the Sanskrit, 106 for the English translation.  The Mata Amritanandamayi Astottara Sata Namavali was inscribed in Sanskrit using Roman character transliteration and in an English Translation.  It required 23 stones and most of the verses had transliteration and translation on the same stone.

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Sanskrit from a Lalita Sahasranaman stone

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English translation from a Lalita Sahasranaman stone

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The 142 Lalita Sahasranaman stones were uniformly “planted” around the edge of a roughly elliptical space naturally free of vegetation, which is characterized by a uniquely patterned surface.  This place was “discovered” about a year ago and there are more pictures of the remarkable surface in the post titled “Church.”   The 23 Mata Amritanandamayi Astottara Sata Namavali stones were distributed around the same elliptical space but about 10-15 feet further from the center, in the surrounding sagebrush steppe.

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In addition, one stone without text was placed in the “center” of the elliptical space.  This stone with its empty bindu and “thousand” radial fracture lines seemed remarkably appropriate for this purpose. Placement of the Lalita Sahasranaman stones began and ended by verse 1 and verse 1000 both referencing the eastern-most point of the ellipse.  The stones’ placement moved clockwise and were roughly uniform in their distribution around the perimeter.  The 36 stones containing the 1000 verses in Sanskrit are farther apart than the stones with the English translations with about three stones for every 30 degrees of arc.  The 106 translation stones are appropriately interspersed depending on the number of verses on each stone with an average of three to four being placed between each pair of Sanskrit stones or 9 for every 30 degrees of arc.  In the case of the 23 Mata Amritanandamayi Astottara Sata Namavali stones, they also move clockwise around the perimeter with about 3 stones every 30 degrees of arc.  Verses 1 and 108 both reference the eastern-most point of the ellipse.

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Distinguished by their reddish color, one can see six of the planted Lalita Sahasranaman stones.

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This is a single planted Mata Amritanandamayi Astottara Sata Namavali stone.  Because these 23 stones were planted further from the center in among the sage, mosses and grasses it is not possible to see more than one at a time.

Why?    The project emerged out of a desire to become more deeply familiar with the two traditional texts.  The Thousand Names of The Divine Mother is an ancient document that is recited in its mantra form by spiritual aspirants of many traditions.  The Hundred and Eight Names of Mata Amritanandamayi, which is similarly recited, is of relatively recent origin as Mata Amritanandamayi, or Amma, is a living Mahatma.  It seemed that the intense focus on making each letter of each word of each verse would help one to better understand and assimilate the sound and meaning. Fortunately, my daughter whose education includes a reading and writing familiarity with Sanskrit and Devanagri joined me for three weeks.  During this time, she paced herself and etched the 1000 names in Devanagri on 36 stones.  I spent a somewhat longer time with the English translations and transliterations.  Both of us increased our understanding of and appreciation for these two texts and have found the value of their recitation enhanced.

What are obsidian nodules and where do they come from?   Various forms of obsidian are likely to be found wherever there has been volcanic activity.  The name obsidian is a few thousand years old and comes from the Greek meaning “found in Ethiopia.”  It seems that the rounded and irregularly rounded nodules used in this project are the result of repeated heating and cooling of lava.  This process allowed the molten silica-based material to collect, coalesce and later, to cool into nodules.  Millions of years after the deep lava flows, subsequent inland seas covered this country and finally as the seas receded, exposure to wind, sun and precipitation, weathered the lava substrate and pockets of the nodules were left behind. Over the years, I have run across these pockets of nodules and have been attracted to them particularly because of their sometimes virtually perfect spherical and elliptical forms and unique surface textures.

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A fresh pocket of nodules – undisturbed for who knows how long.

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How they got broken is an unanswered question.  Finding two halves that fit together separated by a fraction of an inch or possibly several feet does not help answer the question.  It seems there has been impact at some point or perhaps, the stresses induced at the time of cooling have

finally caused them to split open.

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Given that obsidian was a raw material used for making tools for hundreds if not thousands of years by Native American people, one wonders if those nodules that are split might be pieces left behind after forays to secure new supplies of good flaking material.   Occasionally, we have found pieces of nodules at places where Native Americans camped as evidenced by obsidian chips.  These camps are ten or more miles distant from nodule sources.

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We gathered several apple boxes of nodules and brought them back to camp to sort and clean.

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Before inscribing, the nodules were washed.  An unexpected thunderstorm helped conserve our supply of fresh water.

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The storm also produced an evening sky that made one wonder what it might have looked like millions of years ago with the lava flowing and the sky full of gasses, smoke and ash.

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Sometimes the color of the volcanic glass changes from black to reddish–brown, The black and red variegated is called mahogany and produces lovely organic, even fractal, patterns.  These patterns and the evening sky in the above photo seem to have something in common.

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Obsidian, unlike man-made glass, is not of uniform hardness or texture.  We learned very quickly to avoid dull gritty material and select high gloss surfaces.

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This was a gritty piece but it was hard to resist because of the beautiful banding.   Even in the best pieces, the motion of the fine diamond tip is frequently interrupted by impurities in the glass or dramatic changes in hardness or topography caused by fracture lines.  After a few days of inscribing, finger, forearm and shoulder muscles were far stronger because of our attempts to control the diamond point.  Toward the end, we both had more control of the diamond point.

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Every now and then, we’d get an exceptionally uniform surface and writing would be a joy with the diamond cutting as if through butter.  This one, even though curved came out to be a real beauty.

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As time went on it became increasingly difficult to resist those stones with complicated fractures as they offered challenges to beginning and ending verses in different ways.

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As the number of inscribed stones began to increase, we started keeping track to avoid later confusion.  Once there were about sixty stones keeping track in a spiral got confusing.

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Labeling with masking tape ended up the simplest solution.

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Next, we made a simple map to determine where they would go to be properly distributed around the perimeter.

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After determining the exact cardinal points with the GPS function of a cell phone and placing markers at 30 degree intervals, the marked stones were appropriately placed.

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When their positions were determined, planting began.

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The soil where we planted the stones of the Lalita Sahasranaman was probably completely free of organic matter.  It was almost as hard as mortar and had to be chipped and scraped with an awl and spoon.  In most cases, the stones were planted deep enough so that just the top-most portion was above the surface.

After those in the hard alkali were planted, the stones were packed in with some of the removed dirt and the smaller surface stones, some of which had growing lichens on them, were carefully replaced.

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The last thing was to sprinkle a few of these tiny stones.  We collected them where they were thrown up on the surface by ants who remove them from their underground passageways.

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Watering to seal the alkali was the final step.  From here on the natural elements will take over.

 

The pleasure of planting quickly became evident as we responded to the challenge of installing each stone in such a way that it appeared as if it had been there forever.  In many cases, the stones became so well integrated that they are now very difficult to find.  This is especially the case with those that are well aligned with the surrounding rocks or planted in among the sage, moss and grasses.  Below are some before and just after planting.

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10 – 15

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10 – 15 planted

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273 – 297

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273 -297 planted

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326 – 354

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326 – 354 planted

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922-935

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922-935 planted

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995-1000

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995-1000 planted

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In the case of the stones of the Mata Amritanandamayi Astottara Sata Namavali, they were planted in soft, loose soil full of organic matter.  Their holes could be dug with the fingers alone and the stones nestled easily down into the accumulated duff.

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31-35 (108)

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31-35 (108) planted

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95-97 (108)

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95-97 (108) planted

 

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86-87 (108)

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86-87 (108) planted

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76-80 (108)

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76-80 (108) planted

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58 – 61 (108)

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58 – 61 (108) planted  In this case, by mistake I skipped a verse on the stone on the left and so made a second stone with the omitted verse so they could be planted together.

 

Views of some of the things that live around the edges

 

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These mosses grow on the some of the rocks.  The greener ones were photographed after a light rain.  They seem to grow very slowly and some may be quite old.

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Lichens are also common here.  These seem to like the intense sun and grow where there is maximum exposure.  Their colors are consistent with that choice.  They also grow very slowly.

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This is moss under sagebrush after a light (.05 inches) rain.  The green chlorophyll formed in the night to be ready for the morning.  (There are also lichens growing on the bark)

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By afternoon, everything is brown again.  They are quick to take advantage of any moisture and equally quick to shut down when intense light, heat and dryness return.

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More after-rain mosses.  When they are green they are another world that hardly seems like the high desert.

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This is the home of a black-tailed jackrabbit.  It is on the edge of the ellipse and overlooks the 50-60 series of verses of the Lalita Sahasranaman.  When one considers that the winter temperatures get to -20 F and and in summer go up above 100 F, one realizes how warm and also cool rabbit fur must be.  This shelter doesn’t seem like a lot of protection for raising baby rabbits but like all the life forms here, they seem to manage.

First snow

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The next morning, after a 20 degree night and clear skies, a few hours of sun melted much of the snow that was not shadowed.

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The above three are from the 108 and therefore in the sage where it is more shady.

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The High Desert

Dawn.jpg

 

The remote high desert of Southeast Oregon lies at the northwestern edge of America’s quarter-million square-mile Great Basin—a vast landscape from which no water escapes except by absorption or evaporation.  One’s first and lasting impression of this arid land is its hugeness, its emptiness and its silence. Even to those who move at high speed along its few highways, it seems endless; for some a boring though necessary hiatus between two points of desire, but for others a strikingly beautiful landscape—and for a few, a chosen destination.

Here, the complex geology of ancient oceans, dramatic lifts and repeated volcanic flows, often covered with the diminutive sagebrush, has given rise to an immense spaciousness that dominates our senses and creates a unique context that is imposed on all we see and feel.  Everywhere we look, there is expansive distance drawing our attention out to its limits; exhilarating steep canyons are carved into dramatic escarpments lifted up as much as a mile from silt-filled, alkaline playas so flat and extensive that like great lakes or the ocean, they reveal the curve of the earth.

Between the north-south escarpments: Steens Mt., Hart Mt., Guano, Abert and Winter Rims, lays a gently contoured treeless sagebrush steppe. From wherever we stand in these steppes they stretch so far out into distances that the sagebrush at our feet quickly becomes texture and texture dissolves into sinuous thin bands of featureless color.  Eventually, many miles out, even bands of color merge with the desert’s dry atmosphere leaving the eye seeing, but without resolvable object.

Overhead, regardless of season, a limitless, deep, violet-blue sky extends from horizon to zenith, uninterrupted in every direction. Occasionally, moisture-bearing storms and, more frequently, transient cloud-trains and their moving shadows serve to dramatize our perspective, to define and make more comprehensible this distance that is often difficult to grasp.

Because of the expansive vistas, the true scale of often-ignored natural events becomes evident here. As the sun sets in a cloudless evening sky, first the far off eastern horizon, and then the entire eastern sky are overtaken by the intense gold-becoming-rosy boundary of the earth’s shadow—it’s penumbra—the partial shadow-light, refracted and colored by the density gradient of the earth’s atmosphere. The lower the humidity, the greater the color intensity, while high humidity, as is often common elsewhere, obscures or completely hides the visible expression of this phenomenon. As the earth continues to rotate, the setting sun drops below the western horizon and the earth’s shadow continues to rise up from the land into the fading eastern sky where the once intense golden shadow-edge is transformed to a soft rosy glow. As the shadow rises, it leaves behind an utterly cool, ever-widening and deepening blue umbra. Finally, long before the shadow reaches the zenith, all color and light is lost and umbra becomes the absorbent depth of night, an adamantine night that reveals the quiet drama of ancient starlight asserting itself without earthly interference.

When the moon is present, the entire nighttime landscape of nearby and distant sage recedes into silvery coolness and the desert becomes so expansive and free of referential scale that even when rising over a mountainous horizon, the full moon’s orb is unable to compete with the desert sky’s expanse and seems tiny, almost inconsequential.

And again, each morning before sunrise, the earth’s shadow appears, now in the west and now warming the landscape as it descends into a rosy then golden illumination of the western horizon.  So, here in this high desert, we start and end the day with vast unobstructed views of intense beauty generated by the rotation of our planet and its doings with the sun. Twice daily our attention is led on a journey of abstraction; it moves from a distant horizon scores of miles away, up into the softly tinted luminous atmosphere several hundred miles deep and finally through the daytime blue or the darkness of night to the unfathomable distances of space itself.

There is a compelling beauty embedded in this experience of distance that attracts our heart.  By this attractive power, occurring in part by virtue of the resonance of equivalents, the desert’s hugeness reveals to us the depth, even the content of our own vast inner nature.

Along with its remarkable distances and space, we are also confronted by the emptiness of the high desert.  On its surface, many would describe the high desert as plain, stark or even austere—certainly minimalist is a fair description and it does appear empty when compared to our cities, farmlands and the glorious magnificence of many of our wilderness areas.  But there is a lesson here too, for just as the variety of life, from atom to croaking frog, emerges from undifferentiated emptiness, be it quantum mechanical vacuum state or undifferentiated pure consciousness, so, hidden beneath the high desert’s seemingly empty surface we find it to be vibrant with life, filled with intimate touchable secrets; a rich play of ever-changing fullness.

Walking on the vacant plains of the desert steppe, miles can pass and everywhere, one looks out over sameness—the almost-uniform colors and texture of sage-covered contours extending to subtly different distant skylines. Moving patches of darkness, blue-purple cloud shadows that are compressed by perspective into narrow bands and lines float across the landscape revealing, by their contrast, features in the landscape otherwise lost to the pervasive sameness.  Occasionally, looking across the land into the distance, one notices a slight but abrupt change in the scale of texture—a line, beyond which, the texture of sage becomes suddenly finer.  One sees there an unexpected break, a discontinuity, a rift in the desert fabric.  As we walk, approaching the rift, our slowly steepening angle of perspective reveals a crack that in turn, becomes a circular basin.  What our limited perspective had hidden is now seen to be half a mile or more across and deep enough that it is not fully exposed until one reaches its rim-rock edge.

These hidden basins are like secret places where life, seizing opportunity, emerges and flourishes.  Even when their location is known, they retain a sense of the mysterious, for until one can look down into their world, one is blind to the unique life unfolding there.  At the basin’s bottom there is often temporary water and with water comes visitors; unique vegetation, insects, birds, rabbits, coyotes, antelope and occasional wild horses.  After a winter snow, basins become a web of tracks revealing the play of their animal life—jackrabbits and mice feeding on seeds, coyotes bedding down for the night and the occasional pair of passing antelope.

Climbing just a few feet down through the fractured rock of the basin’s rim, one sees the sagebrush is older, taller and more vigorous.  In spring, flowers and grasses are suddenly more abundant and lizards are likely to scatter into the safety of cracks not already inhabited by pack rats.  Winter winds drift snow into these rims, and these drifts, coupled with the partial morning or afternoon shade that slightly delays melt, slowly deliver an additional increment of moisture—just enough to give life here an edge over that of the sun-scorched plain a few feet above.

Here, among the rim-rock is a rosy everlasting, delicate and fragile—a few wooly-green basal leaves and a long stalk topped with furry flowering clusters of pink, yet, true to its name, not only surviving here, but persisting in its beauty long beyond expectation.  Tiny annuals; purple dwarf monkey flowers, white alyssum and golden gilia, grace the disturbed soil at the entrance of old badger diggings and the perennial yellow, turning-to-red clusters of compact cushion buckwheat are preparing their contribution to the local food chain.  These flowers were not here a few days ago and most will be gone in a few more, but, like us, they have their season and their role.

Is the character of this empty place so different from us, from our heart and mind which in occasional moments of stillness, reveals the otherwise hidden beauty of our own vibrant consciousness? Don’t the desires, feelings and thoughts that populate our lives emerge from that seeming emptiness of consciousness?

Silence is present too and is assertive, an expression of the desert’s profoundly quiet and empty surface but also of its deeper resonant power. By far, the loudest and most common sound is that of wind moving across the land but this sound is not actually an attribute of wind, which is a silent flow, rather it is an artifact of our stationary presence, of our eardrums vibrating to the modulating pressures of moving air, itself, the medium through which sound is transmitted. Elsewhere, like in the occasional high escarpment aspen grove, the wind rattles leaves, but here in the steppe there are no trees, though occasionally, strong gusts may cause the sage to respond with a soft sibilance.  When the air is still, generally in the early morning and late evening, there is only the sound of seasonal bird song and insects.  Occasionally, in summer there is distant or nearby thunder and about as often, a passing raven makes his presence known or coyotes call to distant comrades with their high thin voices.  In winter, we hear the absorbent silence of falling snow – the deepest audible silence of all.  There are of course, the internal sounds of heartbeat, blood flow and other body processes that often go unnoticed in noisier environments but after we notice and habituate, these sounds seem to disappear.

Listening to this intense quiet results in a freedom from auditory pressure much like the inner experience of undifferentiated vastness that comes from looking into the desert’s dissolving distances.  In this silence our sense of hearing can disengage from its constant outward search and our mind can settle to its own silent ground state. From there, with the mind quiet, the heart is temporarily freed to extend both inward and outward, lovingly, without obstacle or object. In this way, guided by a suitably structured outer environment that dissolves their objects, the senses innocently bring us to an inward encounter with the silence at the very root of life.

For those who notice and are willing to give time, the high desert will capture and transform them step-by-step. First, the remarkable geography and space compels our attention.  Then with the attractive power of an irresistible, fated love, it pulls us into its unique beauty until we find that same beauty reverberating and echoing throughout our awareness. We find ourselves loving this world. An undiscovered gratitude wells up that enlivens a powerful resonance between our innermost hidden nature and the high desert’s own character. It draws out the elemental from the depths of human experience and reveals this essence as unencumbered Self.

And, what are we in our deepest nature?  Aren’t we huge, without boundary or limitation, even infinite?  Aren’t we the fullness of love and at the same time love’s infinite generative emptiness?  Aren’t we utter silence? But, being honest, do we truly know this?  Do we have the capacity to live our inner nature as our day-to-day reality?  And, if not, isn’t it our job to do so, to be what we really are in each moment—to know our Self?

If Self is not our practical day-to-day life, then where do we live our lives?  Being truthful, it is likely in a kind of fascinating private ignorance, on the surface of life, in our small busy spheres, passing from one desire, one feeling, one thought to another, constantly moving, completely caught in the exigencies of I and mine—living on the surface.

But here in the high desert, the very surface is an unbounded space whose ascendency overwhelms other experience. And, for the purpose of our education, a sight or a silence that draws us beyond sensory limits is a start at becoming acquainted with the truly infinite.  Just lifting our eyes from the ground to the distant horizon, a matter of a degree or two of angle change requiring a fraction of a second, and instantly our attention, our awareness expands from the small scale of grasses and sagebrush to a proxy-infinity.  And how many times does this happen in a day?  How many times a day does the wind stop, do the bird songs cease and we find ourselves listening to inner and outer silence? The desert is creating a bridge for us; a link between the inner and outer realities of life and by constant repeated example, we learn.

We learn like infants and children accommodating to the new world into which they are born. We respond to the desert’s unique character by making fresh neural connections. Slowly, a growing familiarity with the huge, the empty and the silent unfolds in our awareness. As we become comfortable with this transformation, as all our senses and perception freshen, the visible unboundedness of this expanse begins to be felt, the delicate fullness of emptiness is known and the sounds of silence are clearly heard; we become saturated with vastness in all its forms. Along with growth, the heart, now freed to exercise its fundamental role, is found to be longing for a unity of all things, a oneness that would permit no separation. Perhaps it is this longing that is the greatest gift of the high desert.

Does the desert really do this? Does it have intention? Can it possibly be a friend who cares for our growth? The answer depends on whom we listen to. While the heart can easily say ‘yes’, ‘the desert is my helper’, even ‘my beloved’, the mind, characterized by intellect and rationality, by its job of separating and discriminating, can probably only know the desert as a passive expression of the empirical world.  Whatever the case, the growing love we feel is real, it is not a fiction and we are not passive.  In fact we are compelled, driven to this transformation by our heart’s instinctive need for growth and unity.  And in this, at the very least, the desert is our heart’s willing partner—a benefaction that surrounds us on all sides.

How simple it sounds. But of course, there’s a hitch.  Growth here, and perhaps anywhere, would be easy if it were up to the heart alone. But we have another, less willing partner, our ego—the ‘I’, the ‘me’ and the ‘mine’. Unfortunately, the ego’s idea of growth has nothing to do with knowing and living the infinite; instead, its version of ‘big’ lies in inflation, more and more of the same old small, more of ‘I’, more of ‘me’, ever more of ‘mine’.  So, when confronted with an unbounded expanse or deep silence, much less with the infinite Self, it only knows to resist what it takes to be an existential threat.  And it’s clever; being mind, it fights back with doubt and with the mind’s ultimate weapon, fear.  ‘Identify with me,’ we hear it say. ‘Fear the solitude, the expanse and the pure elemental world of the desert.’  But, while the mind may listen, the heart knows better; ego is an error, not a partner, and its resistance to growth and experiential knowledge cannot be sustained forever.  So, with patience, faith, and above all grace—fear, along with its progenitor ego, is hammered thin here, hopefully, left behind, a forgotten steppingstone on the path of transformation.

In time, and the desert does have the time that is needed, as doubt and fear dwindle to insignificance and ignorance gives way to truth, and fullness of heart blossoms, what is properly small can become humble.  Then life can be lived simply, as it is, truly infinite, whole and unbounded.  And, throughout all, the high desert, like a gleaming anvil, remains—huge, empty and silent.

© B. Witham 2016

 

 

 

A Use for Wild Horses

Wild Horses

Certainly, they must have known I was here long before I noticed them.  My little trailer sitting on high ground in the midst of grey-green sagebrush is visible for miles around.  When I first saw them, over two miles distant, they appeared as slow-moving, dark spots in an otherwise almost-dissolved texture of receding sagebrush—four cows, I assumed, moving south, probably from a nearby basin waterhole.  My attention was on a cell phone call, though my eyes, as they always seem to do out here, were scanning horizons.  I thought of checking with binoculars but preferred to focus on the conversation.  When the call was complete, they had disappeared and I went on with my day.

Considering the lack of snow and rain, I was surprised that cows were coming into this part of the high desert.  It was an especially dry spring and the rancher whose cattle these would likely be had just checked the nearby waterholes and found them mostly empty.  Feed too, was scarce.  All his cattle should now be out on the desert far to the North where more snow fell.

For the next few days I wondered about them and finally, not seeing more of a herd, decided they must have been strays and sent a text to the nearby rancher’s cell phone but never heard back—probably he doesn’t text.  I let it go.

Three days later, the same dark spots appeared again in the distance.  This time, picking up the binoculars, I saw correctly—five wild horses.  I could tell the stallion by his size but even more by his guardian role—aloof, standing still and at this moment facing my camp while the others grazed; the protector.  The smallest of the five, tight against its mother, was the right size for this year’s foal.  I was happy to know there were wild horses nearby.

A few days after that, I went for a long walk to explore the southern edge of a three quarter-mile wide basin.  Until you come to its edge, the basin is invisible because of the abrupt way it sinks beneath the flattened contours of the surrounding landscape.  In this country, where you can see out over almost everything, that makes the basin an adventure.  I took binoculars thinking there might be new birds and was rewarded.  While crossing the center by its dry waterhole, I got to watch a sage thrasher sit on the top of a tall sagebrush cleaning his wings and tail—a perfect display of body parts.

On the way home, headed north after exploring the dry southern drainage, which in wetter years would have channeled water from the southern plateau down into the basin, I was cutting across the basin floor close to the rocky rim of its eastern edge.  The walking was easy, flat and free of rocks so I could walk and at the same time, look sideways at the far western edge of the basin that I had never explored.

Resolving that the western rim would be the destination for a future walk, I faced home, stepped up my pace and then briefly scanned the sloping rim to my right.

Whoa!  Five wild horses stood statue-still, looking directly down at me.  They were half way down the nearby slope of the basin between two jutting rim-rock outcrops; a couple hundred yards away at most.  No question, they were those I had seen out in the flats and whose fresh tracks were in the dusty earth where I’d been walking.  They might have been watching me much of the morning.

Now, way closer than ever before, I could also sense their curiosity.  I too stopped, turned toward them and stood for a good ten minutes.  Then, arms tired, I sat down on the ground, cross-legged, elbows on knees steadying the binoculars and still watching.

The stallion was a rich chestnut with long jagged black mane and tail, black legs from the knees down and a small white star perfectly placed on his forehead just below black ears.  The mares were lighter brown with few markings except one forehead blaze. The foal was an almost perfect copy of the stallion excepting the star that was elongated to a white stripe.  As individual animals, they were each beautiful in their own way, though the stallion was somehow remarkably so. He was beautiful in his integration, strength and power.  And, he was beautiful in his context, his independence—being out here, living wild and caring for his little band.

While I sat and watched, he walked from one side of the band to the other, always standing apart and always a few steps closer to me than the others who now seemed only mildly interested in my presence and who would occasionally lower their heads and look for the sparse grass.  The foal moved a few feet from its mother and lay down.  No one was going anywhere.

When about twenty minutes of watching each other had passed, I decided to leave and hoped to do so without threat or disturbance.  I slowly stood up and, politely averting my gaze, deliberately looked north, away from them, toward my previous direction of travel.

After a few steps, hearing something behind me, I stopped and turned back.  The stallion was charging obliquely downhill at top speed, toward an intersecting point just ahead of me—mane flying, tail with hair, that had touched the ground, now streaming out behind him and dust swirling up on all sides.  For a moment, the dust engulfed him as he made a dramatic stop just short of where our paths would meet.  Now, fifty feet away, he stood and forcefully looked at me, his body shining and flashing in the brilliant sun.  Then he circled me, not completely, but in arcs, back and forth about 100 feet to the right and left of my line of travel.  He moved in this path several times at high and low speeds and did so in each of his possible gaits except walking.  At each turn, he wheeled and in a few of the faster turns rose on his hind legs.  Watching this lean muscular body beneath its scintillating coat, the changing gaits, the rhythmic, perhaps exaggerated, patterns of leg motion and the horizontal flaring tail was a stunning vision of perfection, of animal energy and beauty.

I did wonder, ‘Why is he doing this’ and I’d guess there is a behavioral answer but I didn’t care to explore that explanation.  He didn’t feel threatening and whatever such explanation might suggest, it could only be half the story.  The other half, ‘Why this display of such extraordinary beauty?’ or even, ‘How could it be that he is so stunningly beautiful?’ these were far more important.  Was it his intent to be beautiful?  Was the beauty in his wildness?  In his precision?  Was it the privilege of being here; was it the honor accorded?  Why such an overwhelming experience of beauty?

Something, unique to that moment, permitted me to see him differently—as if time were deepened, stretched or stopped.  How could time be stopped, yet his exquisitely patterned movement continuing?  How could there be motion without the passage of time?  It was as if the precise, still images of captured motion presented by Muybridge’s classic The Horse in Motion were somehow viewed in flowing motion rather than in discreet still increments, yet, I could still see all the detailed information otherwise available only by a careful analytical viewing of stopped images.  I was seeing much more, maybe faster somehow and deeper, but certainly in a way I had never seen before.  Is this what it means to really see beauty?

When his performance was finished, he became fully quiet, turned and without looking back, effortlessly trotted back up the slope to his waiting band.  From there, he watched as before.  I watched too, happy, overfull with an expanded and grateful heart.  Then I resumed walking toward the north slope of the basin.

As the distance between us increased, he led his band down the slope and westward into the basin, headed, I assumed, for a different part of the desert where grass and water might be more plentiful.

I didn’t want them to go.  I wanted them to stay nearby, even at a distance, to continue to deliver their beauty, as helpers, or even just as reminders.

 

Later that afternoon, I looked up from a book and they were there, specks, off in the east, nearly three miles away on the flat, silhouetted against the sky.  They did not go west after all and did not leave.  They were still here, distant, and barely visible even with binoculars, but a joy nonetheless.

 

And then again, this morning, they were there in the extreme distance.  Later, even when I was sure they had finally gone off the far side of the eastern plain, I saw them; this time, walking less than a quarter mile away.  Walking and watching.  When I stepped outside my trailer, they switched to a slow easy trot and dropped out of sight, down into a nearby basin.

I didn’t want to disturb them but I did want more of them and to get close again.  So, I set out on foot in a big half-circle through shallow ravines and swales, hoping to get behind them on the down-wind side of where I believed they might be.  An hour later, crouched behind sagebrush I managed to see them; this time, without being noticed.  They were in the bottom of the basin they had entered an hour ago, close to its west rim.  He was standing with his back toward me, knees locked, head down facing the other four who were lying in the soft dust, two with heads up while the mare and her foal, slightly separate from the rest, though touching each other, were stretched out flat and limp—surely asleep.  The positions and postures of each were somehow so expressive of a fundamental and pure sweetness, peace and safety that my heart melted and I reluctantly retreated, afraid I might be sensed and disturb them.

Continuing to walk another mile or so, I decided to go down off the high ground to check for water in the waterhole near where I had first seen them.  Looking back, before going over the crest, I saw him watching me; he was alone, up on the flat now, above the basin where they had been resting.

I’m glad I went down to the waterhole, there was lots of water, not enough to support a cattle herd but plenty for the nearby antelope, coyote, rabbits, birds and these wild horses.  While last year this hole was dry by August, hopefully the water will last longer this year—maybe so.

Climbing back up out of the waterhole and heading back toward my camp, I crested the same rise and again could see miles into the West.  And there they were, only a mile or so away, all five coming toward me on the same track that I was using to return home.  They stopped, I stopped, and then we both resumed walking toward each other, closing the distance between us to less than a quarter-mile.

This time, I saw him suddenly leap forward and again he came full speed and stopped—close enough that I could hear his breathing—powerful but soft exhalations.  Like a skilled show horse, he delivered another extraordinary performance, filled with exuberance, prancing and spinning.  Again, he captured and thrilled my heart.  Almost blind to his moves, I was caught by the pure abstract perfection and engulfed in a wave of expanding love, first for him, then for all creatures, then for everything everywhere.

When he was finished, he lightly trotted back to his band and together they headed off to the same flats where I had first seen them days ago.  I was left with an overflowing heart and a quiet mind, but also a kind of emptiness, a deep longing.

I walked straight back to camp, and in so doing, dropped down into the basin and passed through their afternoon rest stop.  Somehow, even the prints in the dust where he stood and they rested and napped were sweet; they too spoke of the beauty and harmony I had seen.

 

That evening, the entire sky darkened with an almost unbroken cloud ceiling.  Moments before sunset, the sun, dropping beneath the cloud, lit up its rippling bottom and filled the entire desert—horizon to horizon—with intense rosy light.  Looking east, to the distant high plain, against the glowing pink wall of distant mountain snow some sixty miles away; five wild horses were silhouetted, tiny but huge.

Do they know of their gift, of the gratitude and deep longing that fills my heart?  Do they know the nature of the beauty they have shown me?  I think that somehow, they do, and I choose to believe that they live as authentically as I saw them—deeply embedded in the Beauty of being—and that for them, there is no separation, no longing and no need for gratitude; they are complete.  I believe it is that completeness that I long for.

© B. Witham 2013

An Apple a Day

P1000004

 

I

My list called for 24 apples.  Those, plus the six back in the fridge would be enough for the next month.  Then I would come to town again for water and a few fresh items: potatoes, carrots and more apples.

As everyone knows, a daily apple is health insurance but also, apples keep well in unreliable refrigeration.  I can’t say that I always look forward to the suppertime apple, sometimes it’s mushy but I still get it down.  Organic apples are the best – especially now in September before the new crop is in.

To my surprise, the Lakeview Safeway had organic apples along with carrots and potatoes in their produce section.  There wasn’t much else, but living alone in the Oregon high desert is not intended to be a gustatory experience: breakfast; oats, chia and aseptic milk soaked overnight, dinner; rice, dhal, dehydrated tomatoes, kale and peppers from last years garden and supper; rye crisp-bread, butter, cheese, pickles and an apple.

When the time comes for a trip to town, it’s an all day event.  It always requires a trip to the Laundromat, and during the wash and dry cycles, running around to the hardware store, post office, filling propane and gas cans and eighteen three-gallon water bottles.  The last stop is the Safeway.  By then, I’m in a rush to get back to camp.  Being in a rush is a perfect setup for bad behavior – we get important.  So is sticking out in the crowd.  What’s left of my hair had gotten sunburned and long, the day’s tee shirt was a favorite shade of magenta, a good color with the purple bandana, but hardly common.  Hat was from an Amish store back in Iowa, not properly Western.  Pants, though not jeans were close enough to every one else’s and boots were authentic for southeastern Oregon, though they do have steel heel-plates that are a bit noisy on Safeway’s asphalt tile floor.  Skin, hair, clothing and glasses were covered with a thick layer of road-dust from the drive in.

I could hear the click of my heels and feel my unique importance as I kept to my rushed agenda, seriously checking off items on the To-Do List.  Last on the grocery section was to push the cart to the bins of organic apples; Honeycrisp and Gala.  Honeycrisp is the new expensive darling and sometimes a very good apple.  I got two for treats and put them in their bag.  Then I got twenty-two from the Gala bin, checked out and headed back to my hidden camp.

Almost a month later, in early October, the apple supply was down to three or four.  One had been alone for a while in a plastic bag at the bottom of the trailer’s tiny fridge.  I got it out for supper and noticed it was a bit wet – maybe slimy – I thought maybe I should wash it but ignored the thought, ‘after all it’s organic and I shouldn’t waste water.’

At 2 AM the next morning, I was awakened by stomach cramps.  I got back to sleep for an hour and then woke up again.  The cramps were worse.  By daylight, I thought I felt somewhat better and force-fed myself breakfast.  Then I went for a morning walk.  I cut the walk short and went back to lie down.  The cramps got worse.  Then came vomiting, fever, and repeating bouts of dry heaves.  Since I hadn’t been sick in years, I started wondering what could be happening.  While unlikely, there is a nasty sometimes-fatal flu passed on by desert rodents.  I had been hand feeding chipmunks and kangaroo rats.  But I’d never heard of that flu being in Oregon.  Flu from human contact was a possibility but it would have had an unreasonably long incubation time since I hadn’t seen anyone for a month.  Food poisoning could be a possibility but I was eating what I always eat – same thing every day.

As symptoms became more intense, I became alarmed.  Grateful that I could get a weak cell phone signal, I called the hospital in Burns and though the signal kept breaking up, managed to talk to a nurse.  She wouldn’t diagnose but did say I should come in to the ER.  When I told her I was alone and four hours drive from the hospital, she warned me that if it got much worse and I became dehydrated it might be difficult or even impossible to maintain the normal consciousness necessary for driving.

It did get worse.  A lot worse.  I tried drinking sips of water and even the water wouldn’t stay down.  I was dizzy and my thoughts were increasingly bizarre.  I got to thinking, ‘This is it.  You’re at the end, make sure to creep outside and find a proper place to lie down, otherwise by the time someone comes here, the inside of the trailer will be a horrible mess.’  Then I thought clearly, ‘Nonsense, this isn’t your time, if you’re sick, drive out.  But where to?’  I was confused.

I got in the truck and started driving.  At the top of the ridge just above my camp, the last possible spot before the ridge irrevocably blocks the cell phone signal, my phone rang.  It was a long-time friend and Amma buddy calling to say hi and see how I was doing out in the desert.  At that moment, cell phone in hand, I stopped the truck and got out for another wave of dry heaves.  When they stopped, I explained I was sick but trying to drive to town.  “What town?”  “I don’t know.”  “You’ve got to know.”  ”I’ll try to call when I get to the gravel’ (the only other place to pick up a signal for the next few hours).

I drove in an increasingly thick mental fog with the cramps almost continuous.  Fortunately, I knew the road as I’d been clearing it of rocks all summer.  When I got to the main gravel road, I turned toward Lakeview without thinking.  Then I stopped and called.  I knew I couldn’t drive the three hours to town but felt I could make it to the Antelope Refuge where two people live this time of year.  Surely, they would help me.

I was having trouble seeing and keeping focus during the waves of pain so, I drove very slowly.  When I finally got there, they were expecting me as my friend had already called.  I sat outside with the heaves.  The person in charge told me they were not permitted to transport me to Lakeview (Federal law) but he could take me to the town of Plush and would call the Sherriff to have an ambulance meet us there.  That help he could give.  He was a kind person and I remember thinking it was good that someone like him would be looking after the antelope herds for the next few years.

Finally, strapped into a sitting position in the ambulance, moving on pavement from Plush to the Lakeview hospital I could close my eyes and meditate.  Even with the recurring waves of pain, meditation was deep.  In fact, the medical attendant monitoring my vitals became concerned as she watched my heart rate go down to 48 and blood pressure drop precipitously.  I didn’t want to talk but whispered in answer to her questioning, “It’s okay, it’s deliberate.”  Deliberate slowing of heart rate doesn’t fly in Lake County and several times she tried unsuccessfully to do an EKG.

Meanwhile, inside, Amma became my entire world and any concern for personal safety dissolved.  Then, in a sudden flash, I was back in the Safeway a month ago.  Again, I could hear the click of my heels and feel myself, the self-important director of my little world.  Again, I pushed my agenda and my shopping cart down the isle to the bins of organic apples; Honeycrisp and Gala.

I decided to get two of the more expensive Honeycrisp for treats and so put them in a bag.  Counting out the 22 Gala, I emptied the Gala bin to the last apple.  But in doing so I also included one Honeycrisp that had gotten mixed into the Gala bin.  I noticed this and thought ‘Hey, you should put that in your Honeycrisp bag.’  Then I thought, ‘Don’t bother, Safeway should keep things separate, if they can’t it’s their problem.’  Catching myself, I thought, ‘Nonsense, put it where it belongs, pay the extra few cents.  You know better.’  While tying up the bags, I answered myself, ‘Naah, just keep moving.’  Don’t worry about the Safeway.’  Then, ‘What are you thinking?  You’re cheating on that apple.  It can’t be good.  You’ll probably get food poisoning from it.’

Aiaaah!  Food poisoning!

The mental re-run went on; I pushed down the aisle to the checkout and while other things were being priced and bagged, again thought, ‘That apple, it’s not right.  What’s got into you?  You don’t do this.  You correct the checkers when they under-charge.’  Fix it!’  My answer, ‘Now it’s too late, too embarrassing to dig around, find that apple and switch it out to the Honeycrisp bag.  I’d have to explain to the checker and I’d look bad.’  As I pushed my cartload of stuff out the door into the parking lot, I felt crummy and thought, ‘That was not good.’

The mental re-run probably took less than a minute – by the time I got to the end, I was happily laughing out loud and thinking, ‘Amma, you are unbelievable!  I know I’m stubborn and a slow learner and yes, it does take a two-by-four to the side of the head.  Thank you, I get it.’

With the laughter, my eyes opened.  The two ambulance attendants were looking at me alarmed.  ‘What kind of a nut did they have here?’  Instantly, I felt perfectly fine.  Never better!  No cramps, no pain, nothing.  All I wanted was a drink of water and a walk in the fresh air.  Then they reported that the vital signs they were monitoring were suddenly normal and they relaxed too.  Ten minutes later after small talk, everyone was at ease and we got to the hospital.  I walked inside happily, was greeted by the questioning ER staff and asked to sign a paper stating that I had refused admission of my own free will.

The only problem now was that it was late in the day and my truck was three hours drive behind me on gravel roads that get maybe three or four cars a day this time of year.  How would I get back?  Could I hitchhike?  But of course, there are no problems for Her who orchestrates the flow of life.  I probably didn’t even need to mention my stranded condition, but the moment I started in, the ER nurse interrupted and matter-of-factly said, “Oh, my husband is coming in from a ranch out that way to take me to dinner.  He’ll give you a ride back to your truck.”  Given there are maybe five ranch dwellings in hundreds of square miles out that way, what are the chances of that?  A bit stunned, I thanked her, and inside, was again awed by how completely Amma takes care of her children.

I got water, walked for a few miles, had a Grilled Cheese sandwich, French fries and tea (Lakeview’s offering for vegetarians), went back to the Safeway where I bought some fresh milk and a bunch of unripe bananas that I hoped would keep for awhile and then watched the sunset until my ride came.  I was back in the high country and in my own bed before eleven.

A few months later, at public darshan in Detroit I gave Amma a shiny apple to be funny and received one of Her enigmatic looks.  At Devi Bhava, when I got up from Her huge embrace, She asked, “How is your health?”  “Fine,” I said, but thought, ‘Why is she asking me that?  I’m perfectly healthy.’  I am so slow!  But walking away, I got it and enjoyed a good laugh.

When I finally got the ambulance bill, it seemed very high.  I called and left a message asking for an itemization and requested that the bill be submitted to Medicare.  They never replied by phone or in writing.  A month later, I called again.  The woman was scattered but nice – apparently my bill had fallen through some kind of administrative crack and been forgotten.  She was a bit surprised that I was calling back so insistent on paying what I owe.

II

I had thought this was over.  But as time went on, nagging doubts surfaced.  My overly active mind gets caught in the trap that lies between scientific rationality and faith.  Part of me (and this is the part I like and seek to encourage) knows that Amma is whom I believe Her to be and that even though I don’t see or understand the mechanisms, the “cause and effect” relationship of the above events is an honest and proper description of the experience.  But the other part of me – my mind and ego, seeking to protect itself and remain in control – is willing, and quite able, to provide a scientific statistical explanations for such events.  It likes to throw up doubt that undermines the real truth and thereby thinks itself safe from its limitations.

Of course, a statistical approach to reality is a useful and persuasive tool.  We use the tool every day.  Unfortunately, it seems to leave little room for faith in anything other than itself.  Certainly, in this case, it provides protection from that which my heart readily accepts and knows to be true.  My heart is right and even my mind, at least when it’s quiet, knows that the heart is always the real winner.  It would be nice to quiet this mind with its unfortunate habits once and for all.  I’m tired of its self-serving doubt.

About six months later, in April of the following year, I was able to return to the high desert.  My last stop before setting up camp in an even more remote site was a trip to the Lakeview Safeway.  Walking down the produce aisle in quiet shoes, unremarkable clothing and with a recent haircut, I came to the organic apple bins.  This time I needed exactly 15 apples.  Again, I selected Gala, as Honeycrisp were almost twice the price.  Counting, eight into the first bag and then six into the second, I reached to the very back of the bin, hidden from view by celery and pulled out the last apple in the bin.  It was not a Gala.  It was a Fuji.  Instantly it got its own bag.

What were the chances for this repeat performance?  My statistical guess is, “impressively small – though possible.”  But if, as I believe, it came from One who truly looks after Her children, from One who never tires of delivering life’s lessons, it is straightforward, an event to clean up the details.  And, a bundle of doubts have disappeared, hopefully, for good.

© B. Witham 2013