Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Notes from the Wild Folk: A Visit to the Alpine

For a week of days and of star-thick nights, I was steeped and clarified both by the Sierra Nevada air, by the wind down the granite passes that sang the trees to oceans, by the sight of ancient ragged ridges 9,000 feet high and more, by the company of my family and of my new friends—juniper and aspen, rowan, goldenrod and chickaree. I am still adjusting to sea-level. I never thought I'd say such a thing, being such a lover of wild coast and fog! The last time I was in the Sierras, closer to 11,000 feet, I was desperate for the lower elevation because I found it very difficult to sleep. This time, I felt like Nan Shepherd in The Living Mountain, when she writes, "I am a mountain lover because my body is at its best in the rarer air of the heights and communicates its elation to the mind [...] At first I thought that this lightness of body was a universal reaction to rarer air. It surprised me to discover that some people suffered malaise at altitudes that released me, but were happy in low valleys where I felt extinguished." (Page 7). While I certainly do not feel "extinguished" in the low valleys where I live-- and in my heart am an ocean-side, misty forest kind of girl—I did experience the "feyness" of the heights that Nan Shepherd so joyously describes. I felt giddy at the end of each day with the richness of our rambles on the high ridges, to the clear lakes.

Goldenrod, yellow herald of late summer, bloomed everywhere (well, mostly near water, though not this ridge-top adventurer), so sun-bright it was impossible not to smile at the sight of her. 

For the first time, I met mountain ash, aka rowan, a native variety of that small tree of mythic proportions. I've known about rowan since I was a young girl, reading books full of medicine women and Celtic magics. Once, I thought I spotted a rowan tree growing in the front yard of a strange, stained-glass windowed house around the corner from the home where I grew up. I'm not sure if it really was, but I was certain this tree meant that the woman inside was a witch, and possibly one of dubious intentions.

 Up here, in the Desolation Wilderness, the rowans provided sudden bursts of scarlet amidst a landscape dry with summer,  colored mostly with the dusty silver shades of granite and juniper, the fawns of bark and stone, the evergreens, the sharp blue of the sky. I gathered some berries to string up over our front door, for protection, though some say that rowans attract fey folk as well as guard against them. Mostly, that string of red will stir my blood with the beauty of those alpine waterways where she grows, singing soft songs of protection to the ducks and the grouse, the beaver and the mountain chickadee, come night.

Thanks to my trusty Laws' Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada  (a fabulous book I've had since my time at Heyday, but hadn't really found the opportunity to use until now, full not only of the usual flora and fauna but also insects, lichens, mushrooms, stars, tracks, clouds, all hand illustrated with both character and accuracy), I fell into an ecstasy of identification. There were so many new plants and birds 7,000 feet in the air, and some 200 miles east of my usual haunts. This coffeeberry, for example, I could identify as such, but something about it was different-- the shape of the berries, that array of autumnal colors-- and then I learned that the Sierras have their very own coffeeberry (no doubt a favorite of the gray foxes as well as the Sierra red fox, as it is down by the sea too), Rhamnus rubra. After a day long ramble, upon returning, I would grab my Laws' Guide, make a cup of tea, and flip through it pleasurably, seeking the new friends I'd met.

And then there were the aspens. Their trunks white-dusted and full of dark eyes, their leaves a dance and a shimmer in the wind. As my mother said, there are certain winds that you only notice because of the aspens, who pick up the slightest breezes and ripple. Their full name is quaking aspen, or Populus tremuloides, and the flower essence of this tree is used for panic and anxiety. The latter I can understand, but not for the reasons often used—there is nothing about the dance of the aspen that reminds me of fear, of tremors, of quaking. Not at all. This tree is all light and water and lilt. It shimmers and flickers. It does not quake like a man trembling in his boots at the sight of a bear, such as the name evokes. Aspens remind me that in the face of a wind, sometimes the best thing to do is come totally and fully alive.

The sight of aspens dancing thus is immensely, immeasurably calming. It has the same effect as the sight of water rippling or waves spreading with foam. Why these things are soothing and centering, I cannot quite articulate. Aspen leaf stems are flattened at the base, so that the leaves may move back and forth, fluttering in the slightest breeze. I wonder why the aspens have chosen, over many millenia, to grow thus. And why one side of the leaf is dark green, the other silvery, so that in that flutter is the effect of light on water—this is a Great Mystery, indeed.

At Lily Lake, rimmed with aspen, alder, cottonwood and willow (how I love the water-loving trees!) my mother and I shared morning tea, a short walk up from our cabin, and spotted the home of a beaver, probably made from the silvery aspen branches, a beaver favorite!

The original architects, those fellows, inspiration, I'm sure, for the earliest tents and houses.

High up the ridges, I fell completely in love with the tatterdemalion silhouettes of the old, wind-tossed junipers. The more gnarled and silvery-barked, the more ancient—and the more beautiful, in my mind. These trees seem to grow straight from the granite. 

Their dusty blue berries are a favorite of many birds, especially robins, as well as the numerous species of chipmunk and ground squirrel who live here, and the black bear too. 

The juniper is a sacred, wise plant, and I am writing an in-depth column on the subject for the wonderful EarthLines magazine, so I shan't give away too many tidbits here. Suffice it to say, juniper's berries and boughs are at once medicinal and magically powerful—clearing, cleansing, warming, and rooted in underworlds of stone. I spent a fair amount of time with my hands to their bark or rock-bound roots, wondering what stories they held inside.

Beyond the first juniper ridge, we ventured to Grass Lake. My brother (above) and I both swam to a little island in the middle. The water was cool but refreshing, not the gasping temperature of snowmelt that I've felt before. 

However, I learned about halfway across that I'm a mediocre swimmer at best, with no technique and little stamina, and that it was really quite cold. I experienced a somewhat sobering moment in the middle, humbled by the dark blue expanse of water under and all around me, and remembered that floating on one's back in the water provides excellent respite. So I dog-paddled and back-floated, breast-stroked and frog-kicked my way to that granite island, and arrived trembling from head to toe with the effort. There, my brother and I lay on the warm, mica-flecked stones and felt the peace of wild things flowing in through our skin. A chickaree (little tassel-eared squirrel) called, and a kingfisher. The wind hushed through the trees. The stones held the warmth of the sun.

The Sierras are defined by granite, it seems to me. It is foundation and bare bones. When you walk these ridges for a day, your feet get sore from the hardness of the ground, the granite jarring your bones. I am put in mind of more of Nan Shepherd's words:

I have written of inanimate things, rock and water, frost and sun; and it might seem as though this were not a living world. But I have wanted to come to the living things through the forces that create them, for the mountain is one and indivisible, and rock, soil, water and air are no more integral to it than what grows from the soil and breathes the air. All are aspects of one entity, the living mountain. The disintegrating rock, the nurturing rain, the quickening sun, the seed, the root, the bird--all are one. Eagle and alpine veronica are part of the mountain's wholeness. (The Living Mountain, 48.)

Even the grasshoppers have come to look like the rust-hued stone. They leap and click through the summer air.

In places, the rocks are newborn and sharp, all edges and rifts.

The air everywhere smells of the dry butterscotch sap of Jeffrey pines, which rises up from those bark clefts like a sweet mountain brandy.

You can almost feel the presence of snow, even in the height of summer, in the way the slopes are shaped, the hardiness of the low shrubbery. All that green, which looks like moss from a distance, I believe is a combination of low growing huckleberry oak, manzanita, and bitter cherry.

Bitter cherry, growing more lanky here, is a new plant to me-- the first wild cherry I've ever met, with tiny vermillion berries and glossy bark.

And I was very surprised and delighted indeed to find a smooth acorn amidst the little leaves of this shrubby plant, which I was desperate to identify for at least half an afternoon. It's the small pleasures that matter...

Like a teardrop stone, a juniper, and a cloud.

Or the very last bloom of the mountain heather, a deep and ravishing pink.

One afternoon, we climbed to a lake high enough that we could look back across the other lakes we had visited. They appeared like blue footprints, trod in granite. Nearer us, on the boughs of fir trees, the cones glistened as if made of ground crystal or the glinting green of certain rocks. "Each of the senses is a way in to what the mountain has to give" (97), writes Shepherd.

The taste of little dry thimbleberries, sweet and tart and full of seeds. The smell of butterscotch and dust, and juniper. The wind down the mountain passes and through the many pines and firs a rush as loud as oceans, with the calls of chickaree and flicker, Stellar's jay, kingfisher, inside. The heat of hot rocks under a lake-cold skin, or the fibrous juniper bark against the fingers. Blue sky, blue lakes fallen from it, sharp granite, the evergreen, the goldenrod, the rowan red. Yes, Nan, I have found my way in.

Come dusk, my brother, father and I went religiously to sit on the boat dock with a pipe of Highland whiskey tobacco (a guilty pleasure) to watch the bats come out, and then the first stars. Of all the small pleasures, this one must be supreme—bats, stars, the lake water painted with wind and crepuscular light. Night is a whole new country, full of stars thick as the mica in granite. Night is when the black bears roam nearer, and the Milky Way makes a path through the mountain passes. Night, and the air had autumn in it, cold.

It is the hinge between dusk and night that I love best. And here we sit, on the edge of it, my brother and I hunched in precisely the same posture (it must be familial), watching the night come in. No matter the myriad distractions and stimulations of this world, nothing can replace the feeling of one's eyes, searching and searching the dusk blue just the same color as those dusty juniper berries, until at last—ah!— they find a star, a chip of quartz, and relax. That first star, Vega, clear as the alpine air. 


  1. You write as beautifully as ever, Sylvia. I love the way you describe the stars, and your entracement with the "feyness" of the mountains. I recently received your tale "Our Lady of Nettles" packaged lovingly in the post, and spent several nights pouring over it... I even wrote a little blog post on this lovely and singular experience, if you'd like to see it? Here it is:

  2. Gorgeous Sylvia. You have transported me.

  3. Amazing grace as always! I feel moved to comment on this post because just this week I have discovered the Rowan tree, after much wondering about it's berries. We are making them into a jam and I am delighted to find it's story. Your words bring great comfort and inspiration to me.

    1. Sweet Lily!! I have been meaning to write back a proper letter to you for ages. Know that I have not forgotten! And also, Norwegian Folk School! This is amazing and also quite serendipitous-- I myself considered just that at one point. :) We have much to talk of I am sure. Will include a wee letter with your first Elk Lines. Lots of love to you, and thank you so much for all of your kind words. I hope you are having a magical time in the north.

  4. So gorgeous. I can never tell if I'm a high mountain person or a misty coastline person but I love being in both (and seeing photos of both). I think it depends on my mood :). I love your writings. Agree with Asia, totally transportive. <3

    1. I thought 100% I was a coastline person until this particular trip; the Sierras stole my heart! So I totally agree! I just love both. Thanks so much for visiting and your kind words! I love your writings too. Also yeah, crepuscular, one of my fave words ever. Picked it up reading Pablo Neruda when I was sixteen or something terribly romantic like that. xx

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