Canyon Wren song rainbows the morning in a falling arc of three-second beauty, the fluted notes slowing and then drifting away. I seek the singer and have yet to find the soloist.
Violet-green Swallows cross-stitch an azure sky. Perhaps they catch the wren notes in open beaks, here where the basalt pours in solidified waves upon a shore of manzanita, ceanothus, bitterbrush, and currants.
In this pandemic time of staying home, I am coming to know one sliver of forest nudging up to the immensity of Central Oregon’s lava fields. On a short-sleeves afternoon, I’m writing on a yoga pad set on the ashy soils. Long pine needles in bundles of three twill the earth. I run my fingers over the sharp, golden-brown fabric that shields the tiny orchestraters of the ecosystem.
Treetops clamor in Pygmy Nuthatches insisting on proximity, resisting social distancing, and favoring the flummery of the topsy-turvy circus.
From a stalwart juniper wrapping roots in the basalt, a Townsend’s Solitaire sends a lone note to the sheltering sky. Two butterflies, the color of amber and obsidian, flicker in a double helix of rising flight.
Each day, I find a new unfurling of spring. Now, the currant bushes begin to bloom, their petite, tubular star flowers as pink as ballet shoes. I press my nose to a blossom and frilly green leaves as soft as baby skin, breathing in a resiny spice with a hint of honey.
Spring blossoms are exquisitely timed, beginning with the coral bell clusters on the manzanitas. When the sun shines through the stiff green oval leaves, you can see a watershed of veins.
Ah the manzanitas—what’s not to love about these rhododendron-sized shrubs with their trunks and limbs of supple bark bearing the colors of aged whiskey and port? Manzanitas teach us that living and dying can be fused on one branch.
I’m noticing the manzanita flowers are paling after weeks of exuberance, even in the snowfall of early April. After the currants will come the cinnamon-scented, buttery blossoms of bitterbrush, and after that the ceanothus will shimmer with white sprays. The synchrony continues in the parade of pollinators. This is the time of tortoiseshell butterflies. Native bees and flies buzz, reminding me of all I do not yet know.
Three years ago, I had my doubts about this land of lava fields above the Deschutes River. I thought of the 7,700-year-old or younger lava flows as a barren moonscape, where every step is an ankle-breaker. I’d stay with the river, where the kingfisher exhorts me to frolic among all that is verdant.
How wrong I was. The miles of black and gray lava from the eruptions of the Newberry Volcano may look as ominous as a thunderstorm. Close up? Junipers twist and pines gnarl in a determination to live. Moss glows within crevasses of exposed lava tubes after the roofs collapsed. Lichens drape skeletal junipers in lime green whiskers. Where a bit of soil takes hold, a wildflower sprouts.
Hiking takes fortitude and a sturdy pair of boots. The key is to choose each step with care. At a sauntering pace, the intricacy and grandeur come into focus.
My favorite discovery is an island grove of ancient ponderosa pines, their broken tops visible from this wedge of forest. I wonder if the coyotes that yap and howl from the lava at night find a cushioned haven there?
The lava is companioned in Canyon Wrens, ravens, coyotes, cougars, chipmunks, and the traces of all who live here—from the floating silk of a spider web to the woodpecker hole in a snag.
I confess. I’ve been wanting to use “companioned” in a sentence, since reading Nan Shepherd’s, The Living Mountain with a Twitter #CoReadingVirus book club, facilitated by the eloquent and generous nature writer Robert MacFarlane.
Among Nan’s many poetic and keen observations, she wrote: “These tracks give to winter hill walking a distinctive pleasure. One is companioned, though not in time.”
And indeed, I felt companioned across the self-distanced world with hundreds of like-minded souls who shared quotes, reflections, photos, music and poetry. Whisked to the Cairngorms of Scotland, we walked in step with Nan, every sense enlivened by her curiosity. I carry her slim volume and open it to one of my marked sentences:
“Light in Scotland has a quality I have not met elsewhere,” she wrote. “It is luminous without being fierce, penetrating to immense distances with an effortless intensity.”
What then is light in Oregon? Ah, it depends if light falls on the ocean, the rain-laden forests, the Cascade Mountains, or here in the high desert of Bend. This light can be bright and brittle without breaking, and as cleansing as a rain shower.
The afternoon light sparkles through pine needles to gleam upon manzanitas and ceanothus in a stream of greenery. Sunshine polishes the coppery feathers of a Rufous Hummingbird, sipping nectar from currant blossoms.
Once more, I hear the Canyon Wren singing from the unseen perch, a descant of offerings from the living lava.