Thursday, December 22, 2011

Learning from the Solstice

In what seemed a cruel tease, the sun bathed Walla Walla (and Palouse Falls, left) in full force on the shortest day of the year. This after weeks of sunless, soul-less gray fog, a refrigerated purgatory that was too warm to sustain hoarfrost's sequined flocking, and too cold for anything else. In the still, shrouded air, nearby mountains vanished. Proximal hills were the only thing in view.

Perhaps the blessing of this quiet landscape was just that. Closeness. A forced intimacy, like sitting in a small restaurant with only one other patron. You begin to notice things. The odd rhythm of his chewing. A piny odor that transcends your beef stew. In an occasional surreptitious glance, there is the uneven parting of his graying hair, a day-old shadow of a beard, a worn copy of The Grapes of Wrath that he appears to be reading. Perhaps you start a conversation. Perhaps you find things in common. Perhaps you get to know someone in shared isolation who you otherwise, in a crowded cafe, would never even meet.

The fog-bound hills are sort of like that. You notice the curves of plowed and planted wheat, now panting for lack of moisture in a record-dry Fall. The tracks of coyotes and field mice. A single star-thistle poised to conquer new territory. A boulder, just slightly too big to remove from the field, that has occupied a hilltop for 15,000 years. A patch of blue-bunch wheatgrass clinging to a steep, but mercifully uncultivated, slope. You begin to see the place in its details. You begin to make friends. And on the darkest days, cold, fog-bound, and foreboding, friends are good to have.

Too often we hurry past the proximal landscape. Too often we ignore the details of place. We miss the connection. We ignore the stranger at the next table. We study The Environment as though it was a ravaged place in China or The Amazon, or a vanished Kentucky mountaintop. But what is truly important (not to say that China or The Amazon or Kentucky mountaintops are not important) is the landscape we can touch. A place we can develop a conversation with, a lasting friendship. The coyotes and field mice and starthistle and bluebunch. The connection to place, and, importantly, the system that keeps place intact and functioning. We live here. We depend on here. We should get to know who lives here, that stranger at the next table who can enrich our lives, if not our souls.

Now that the sun is out, I can see the mountains. But my eye is drawn to these silt-laden hills more that it was a month ago. I have learned to see them for themselves, rather than only an accessory to a grander scheme. The shortest day of the year can provide the longest of lessons.

Labels: , ,