Another time, another foray along the Merced River toward Vernal and Nevada Falls. Water soothes. As I walked, the sun rose over the Valley rim just southeast of Half Dome. Tall trees stood above the rim, backlit. The one directly between my line of sight and the sun became solid, gleaming white, those just to its sides had branches aglow, and the next ones out had whitened needles. Large birds, probably ravens, flying into or past the trees were unknowingly whitewashed as well. While the physics of this are straightforward that doesn’t detract at all from the magical feel of it. How variously we can experience common things just by a shift of light or angle. Magic isn’t the word I want for this. There is a hiddenness to things, and when we’re fortunate it partially reveals itself; when attentive, we open it to view. My first memory of this light phenomenon was years ago hiking a valley in the Mojave Desert, slopes covered in cholla cactus. I looked up eastward toward the rising sun and suddenly thousands upon thousands of cactus spines were deeply illuminated, glowing. It astonished me. In both experiences light penetrates and fills, whether pine needle or cholla spine. Another way that Nature speaks—of marvels simple but inescapably mysterious. I wish I could be more articulate about this. I am moved—something speaks from out there, perceptible when I listen. Entwinement, the good of life, its need and right to abide unharmed.
Later, another fine touch. Walking down from Nevada Fall on the John Muir Trail I come to an area where trail descends with high granite wall rising almost vertically to one side and steep falling slope on the other. Water flows gently down the wall. A narrow lip transects the wall fifteen feet above me and drinking-straw-sized waterfalls arc out, descend a few feet through the air, strike granite, and shatter into bursts of droplets that spread gaily out, some in free fall and others back onto the wall. These too captured the sun and shone diamond-like. Even more enchanting, the granite wall had a multitude of tiny garden spots all the way down, anywhere there was moisture to nourish them. A slit here where purchase could be got, a hole there, and often moss and lichen had gathered sufficiently to lay down a welcoming bed. A bit of grass, a tiny flower—these were randomly scattered over the surface and all seemed to flourish in their precarious perches. Such liveliness… What happens in a few weeks, though, when the water dries, how long can they last? I suppose they get their work done quickly—sprout, seed, spread their energies around; enjoy their floral being and allotted time; bedazzle passersby with their courage and beauty and improbability. And then pass on.
If someone asked if trees and flowers could grow out of a granite bed, what would you answer? Obviously not, you’d probably say. But the Sierra Nevada proves otherwise. Look at domes high above and you see they have tree “follicles” where none would seem possible. Up close I have seen 50’ high trees sprouted out of what appeared inhospitable rock. All over these granite mountainsides and mountaintops I see exuberant growth. It astonishes. Again and again, look!
As with the physics of light, botanical and geological science can explain all this. The nature of these plants is to reproduce; birds and wind scatter seeds; water and minerals and sunlight do their jobs. I understand all that and appreciate what it has to teach me. But I hear more, for empiricism is only one party to the conversation. Why the exuberance, this clear determination to spread life and beauty to the four winds? Why does Nature bother? What is the point? I don’t know for sure, probably life is its own purpose, but as I stand before that wall, water droplets falling on my face, eyeball to tiny leaf that homesteaded this granite wall, feeling (strange to say) a responsive love for that water, that rock, that sunlight and air, that adventurous, eager little plant, I do know that a lot goes on – on this Earth that doesn’t fit our categories, but for which I earnestly give thanks.
There are sometimes funny little paradoxes on the trail. I looked down toward the Merced and saw a placard on a stand in what appeared an odd location. So I diverted and made my way down. It looked as if it had been there a long while, a quote from John Muir posted on it: “…rocky strength and permanence combined with beauty of plants frail and fine…water descending in thunder, and the same water gliding through meadows and groves in gentlest beauty.” A few feet away, on another stand planted on the riverbank (amidst boulder and steep slope and trees—a lovely spot, no wonder someone chose this place to put Muir’s placard) was another: “CAUTION: Slippery rock surfaces.” Someone feared that Muirian lyricism would make people careless.
At the top of Vernal Fall, a bush reaches out over the cliff and looks down 300 feet. Among the leaves and branches, foraging obliviously (and making me nervous) was one of the ubiquitous ground squirrels. After a few minutes he returned nonchalantly to rocky solidity. I want to know how he appraised the danger. Brave and agile, he may not think it worrisome.
Photo by Ursi Schmied on Unsplash