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BENEATH CATHEDRAL ROCK

1.

I was in a tent, lying mummy-like in a sleeping bag, when I heard a syllable being shouted four or five times out of some dim region which is neither light nor day, neither worldly nor unworldly. It was a trogon's call. I closed my eyes, wanting to go back to my strange dream of the Egyptian darkness. The trogon called again, and I became aware of pale light shining through my closed lids.

I opened my eyes and experienced myself as remarkably alive. The frog-like croaking of the trogon was louder now; it bounced off the canyon walls and penetrated deep into the leaves. My consciousness was like a boat rising and falling on the tides of my breath. I opened my eyes and experienced the world as an oval of light surrounded by out-of-focus eyelids. How beautiful it was to be alive. I felt like a seed that had, after a long death, put up a green shoot that was hungry for the sun. I was Osiris, the one who dies and comes back to life.

The voice of the trogon seemed to be coming from another world--one where angels drift through clouds and Egyptian gods sit for aeons, pondering which move they want to make in the game of senet they have been playing for a million years.

The trogon call was an echo of the Big Bang. It was the Word of God made flesh. It was the sighing of an ill planet. It was a hand painted on the ceiling of a Vatican chapel, reaching for another hand. It was a sound from the world of forms calling out to the world of shadows. It was Atum, the godhead, calling to himself.

Our tent was glowing with the first light. Terrie and I yawned, stretched, and disentangling ourselves from each other as well as the Cimmerian world of dreams. Terrie ran her fingers through her red hair, disentangling it, too. Our wandering souls ceased to wander; they lost their multiplicity and came back into our bodies.

No longer did reality consist of a mystical union with the Morse-code hootings of the whiskered screech-owl. No longer were fantasy and reality intertwined like plants that have grown together. No longer did I walk the back of the serpent following the giant hummingbird. The trogon had called us into the second world, the one that is tangible.

2.

I unzipped the tent and stepped out. Looking up I saw several pale, pink cloud shaped like hieroglyphics. I placed my back against the checkered bark of an alligator juniper and gazed at the sycamores, Hathor's trees. These were the most beautiful plants in the canyon; they leaned to the right and to the left, twisting upward like hands with spread fingers. From each branch hung dark, limp, clusters of green stars.

A yucca stood by an immense pink rock. The jays and the woodpeckers were chattering. I heard the trills of a spotted towhee against the background of the sound of water running over rocks. His song said, "Drink your tea!" A lichen-splotched, gray rock, five feet long and two feet wide, arched up like the back of a whale out of a sea of poison ivy.

This was the crepuscular time, the time when deer wander, when birds begin to sing from their hidden roosts. This in-between time is greatly expanded in the canyon; there is dim light for a very long time before the sun finally emerges as a silent explosion of blinding light over the tall canyon walls.

Whether at home or in the wilderness, we like to eat our breakfast gazing at hummingbirds, so, when we camped in the Chiricahuas, our red hummingbird feeder always went with us. Making syrup and filling the feeders is, for us, a ritual carried out with the same thoughtful precision as a Japanese tea ceremony.

This morning blue-throated hummingbirds came darting through the sycamore leaves. These fluttering mysteries hung in front of one of our, red platic feeders like dark ghosts. The blur of their rapidly beating wings made them look like tiny fairies as they ejected their remarkably long tongues to lap up our gift of sweetness. Every one of them reminded me of Thoth.

Soon Mexican jays came out of the trees like bandits, fluttering down to the stone where we had placed millet and sunflower seed. The jays stole without shame, then flew off into the shade of the thick clumps of needles in the Apache pines where they perched, contemplating the possibility of once again attempting the evil deed.

These jays live in extended families of from a few birds to well over a dozen. There will only be one pair of breeding adults in the group. The others--offspring and, occasionally, a few young adult jays that have been adopted--jointly defend a territory, build nests, feed the incubating female and fledglings. When anyone in the group detects a potential predator the whole bunch of them will mob it and scold it. Sometimes when we are hiking on trails a band of noisy jays will escort us until we have walked beyond the territory they have staked out for themselves.

A blue-throated hummingbird at our sugar water feeder suddenly turned and darted away, making strange angular turns, vanishing into the leaf shadows like some image from a half-forgotten dream. A moment later, two other blue-throats started fighting like airborne warriors. They locked their long beaks together and spun round and round. The blur of wings and tails slowly drifted to the ground like a spinning samara from a maple tree. The landed in the dust and spun still making a cloud that hid them for a moment. Then they were still. One flew off into the trees and the other rose from the dust to claim the feeder as his own private possession.

How beautiful dawn is in the Chiricahuas, when the air is fresh and clean, when the ethereal calls of the white-throated swifts fall from the pink cliffs and filter through the trees like angel-prayers sent to a suffering world! A white-breasted nuthatch wandered aimlessly around the side of an oak's trunk, saying the only thing he knew how to say: "Nyank, Nyank." A cliff chipmunk crossed over the creek, hopping from rock to rock, his elegantly curved tail, echoing as his shadow also did, every movement of his angular body.

Three or four dusky-capped flycatchers were lamenting, all wailing about doom, all repeating the same sad truth destiny had assigned them to speak while no one listens. They reminded me of Cassandra in the Greek tragedy.

Directly over our campsite was Cathedral Rock--an airborne monolith, a bastion for the tightly packed dogma of red rock, a fortress for that wordless theology that antedates men, dinosaurs and even ferns. Lord Byron said mountains are a feeling. I take this statement not as pretty words, not as hyperbole, not as metaphor or elegant nonsense, not even as rhapsodic word painting; I take it as fact. Everything in nature is, in its purest form, a feeling.

3.

After washing dishes and chasing a Mexican Jay out of the open trunk of our car, Terrie and I began a hike up the canyon trail. We saw a pair of Canyon Wrens feeding a fledgling on some large rocks adjacent to South Fork's creek bed. These white-throated birds, who occasionally fanned their rufous tails, moved across the rocks with the smooth grace of a leaf shadow. There were checkered, brown, and beautiful.

While we sat at one of the stream crossings, a damsel fly landed on a rock. It's globular black eyes were separated from its head by long stalks. It's wings appeared to be made of blatantly sexy black lace. There was a small patch of red on the wings near where they touched the body. It looked like an insect designed by Frederick's of Hollywood. The damselfly was so tame I reached over and touched it. It flew demurely to another rock. According to John Alcock, the brief adult life of these elfin creatures is filled with sex and violence. Males stake out a territory along the creek, then defend it vigorously against all intruders. Aerial combat is often faster than the human eye can follow. The loser usually backs off out of sheer exhaustion. Their fights, like the hummingbird fights, are frequent; and the winner today may be a loser tomorrow.

Females damselflies give themselves to a male who they deem to possess a certain type of attractive property: the water must flow over the gravel just so. The two of them copulate as much as they can before death comes. We left this "just so" spot and hiked on through the leaves.

A short ways farther up the trail, we saw a female Bronzed Cowbird getting a drink of water from a pool between the rocks while a male strutted around her with the back of his neck all puffed up and his wings held out from his body and the tips of the wing feathers pointed straight down and fluttering. He looked exactly like Count Dracula.

While we were watching the cowbirds two collared peccaries walked out of the woods, stared balefully at us for a moment, then crossed the creek and vanished into the woods. Thought they are related to pigs, the peccaries are laterally compressed; their hair is wiry, and they walk on thin legs. Their canines are awesome, and their grunt frightening.

Peccaries almost always travel in bands. They have scent glands on their backs and members of a clan rub against one another so they will all share the same horrid smell. It is believed that collared peccaries--or javelinas--have been common in Arizona only in last hundred years. Baby javelinas engage in communal nursing; the mothers don't seem to mind.

Weldon Heald wrote of a family near Globe, Arizona, who made a pet out of a young peccary. They said the animal chewed gum constantly between meals. To most of the natives of Portal, javelinas are a nuisance; they are considered to be stubborn and destructive scavengers. Those who throw rocks at them or shoot them with pellet guns find that javelinas have a tougher hide than expected and are impervious to pain. They just stare at you as the missiles bounce off them and fall to the ground. If they don't like you, they click their teeth together. They usually don't like you. I haven't decided yet to extend the blessing I give to bears and goshawks to the javalinas: Let Albert Schweitzer and St. Francis bless them!

While we were hiking further into the canyon, we heard a trogon calling and wandered off the trail to try to see it. We never found the trogon, but we did find the cup-shaped nest of a solitary vireo in a small, spindly silverleaf oak. The nest was just four feet off the ground.

Inside the nest, the three nestlings were lying together arranged in a perfect circle, each with its head lying on the back of the next bird; they formed an endless ring of life. Each seemed to be wearing a white pair of eye-glasses. Leaf shadows from taller trees were fluttering and swirling over these nestlings and the entire little tree that held their nest. The baby birds looked ready to fledge; their feathering, especially on their heads, shoulders and backs had the smooth gray look of an adult bird.

We backed off, hid ourselves from view and watched. Soon both parents came with food. The open beaks of these youngsters seemed enormous. With their tiny necks and fat bellies they reminded me of the hungry ghosts that Buddhists says haunt the contemporary world and characterize our time.

One of the nestlings came up and perched on the edge of the nest. We thought we were going to see him fledge. He stretched his wings, preened himself, stretched his neck, tilted his head to look at overhanging branches, then he just stood there until it started getting dark and we had to leave.

We stopped to look for the tiny flammulated owl a friend, had--a few days before--pointed out to us. We quickly spotted the owl about twenty feet up, leaning out of a hole in a sycamore. His sleepy, all-dark eyes opened for a moment, then gradually began to close. I touched the trunk of the tree, and one eye--his left--opened for a moment, then gradually closed. The shadows of a clump of leaves bathed him in a gentle cascade of dark patterns. The tiny owl's eyes had now become a pair of thick, perfectly straight slashes across the middle of his face. He looked like a Mayan god. The feathers of his neck moved in the gentle breeze of the canyon.

While we were watching the little owl, a friend and fellow trogon-lover came walking out of the woods. It was Jeff, a young man who had come all the way from Tucson on a bicycle. Jeff was here to heal, recovering from a painful divorce. After watching the flam with us, he told us another remarkable bird, a Spotted Owl, had been frequenting the area where he was camping. He invited us to come there after dark. He said he would try to call it in.

Soon after leaving Jeff and the sleepy little owl, we had the good fortune of seeing a male trogon. He was sitting as still as a leaf. His head was turned from us, and his posture was remarkably ungraceful for a bird of such exquisite coloration. The bird sat with a hump in its dark emerald green lower back. The trogon turned its head to show us it's ruby belly, and we saw that it was holding a pale green katydid in its yellow beak. Then the trogon flew off with its long tail flapping behind it like a streamer. Undoubtedly, it was going to a nest hole in some sycamore.

After a day of bird watching and hiking, we started walking back down the narrow path that had led us into the canyon's mysteries. The narrow sky overhead became overcast and we became fearful of becoming drenched by a sudden storm.

Summer rain, though localized, can be heavy. Often the jagged peaks of the Chiricahuas become drenched while the nearby desert remains dry. Often one part of the mountain gets rain and the other doesn't.

As hail and lightning fly about in the smoke-like clouds, connecting the mountains with their true home, the sky, the Chiricahuas soak up water like an immense cactus. As the mountains drink, the inchoate offspring of bridled titmice swell inside of eggs, and deer wander through the canyon leaves, breathing the mist. In the higher regions goshawks, fly from peak to peak, screaming in the rain, landing on gnarled trees, their muscles trembling from the power latent within them, their remarkably acute eyes scanning the cliffs, their hearts beating to a rhythm unfathomable to creatures like human beings, who think in dichotomous categories.

In our part of the mountains on that particular day the rain didn't materialize. We returned to our campsite beneath Cathedral Rock, where we relaxed for a while in the shade by the creek. When evening came we fixed ourselves a light supper. Our whole world was soon in shadows except for Cathedral Rock, which was glowing with the light of the evening sun.

4.

Darkness was rising up the canyon wall; it climbed Cathedral Rock until the monolith was lit only on its top rim. Soon Cathedral Rock held no light at all. For a few moments there were bright areas at other places along the rim of the canyon. Then these thin yellow regions, too, became darkened. Our entire world was now dusky blue, dusky pink, and dusky green. The sycamore leaves began to tremble in the evening breeze. This caused Hathor, who lives in the spirit world, to dance.

As night came we saw the noisy silhouettes of four acorn woodpeckers congregating around a knothole about twenty-five feet up in an old sycamore. After much confusion, one assumed the central place and dipped his head several times into the hole, going deeper each time and finally disappearing into the hole. After some chattering, fluttering and moving about another woodpecker positioned himself at the hole and went through the same routine. Then the third and the fourth. Each bird hesitated a moment before taking the plunge, savoring perhaps one final time the world of leaves and branches which each of these birds must love so dearly. I remember awakening later that night obsessed by the image of the four of them nestled together in Hathor's dark womb, waiting for the dawn.

One of the whiskered screech-owls began to call, not very far away: a cluster of little whistles, all on the same pitch, then another, then a burst of notes in the odd, syncopated rhythm of Morse code. It is the Morse code I love the best. I imitated the owl with a simple whistle, and the owl called back. Pursing my lips, I imitated it again, and it called back a second time. Terrie lifted a flashlight, and the big yellow eyes of this tiny bug-predator glowed in the splendid darkness. Certainly he saw, as we sometimes do, that there are two worlds: the physical and the spiritual.

We drove up the canyon to meet Jeff by the flam's tree, just off the gravel road in the lower part of the fork. He was waiting for us, a dark silhouette standing silently in the darkness. At his request we turned off our flashlights. For a long time the three of us stood there. My eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, then I entered the present moment, seeing as night creatures see. The trees about us stood as black, many-armed, wise, though not sentient presences in the blackened canyon. Above the trees the interface of black cliff and black sky made a jagged line. That line was no accident. It had been left here in the Dreamtime when the Ancestors left their fooprints on the world. We listened very carefully to the color black. We breathed the color black, and felt it seeping into our bloodstreams. I felt a aura all about my body and saw the aura of Terrie and Jeff. I knew that the three of us were formed of the vibrations of the Dreamtime. So, also, the unseen owl.

There was a slow crescendo of silence, then a tapering off of that silence. I became acutely conscious of the act of breathing. I knew that the black night was flowing in my veins and arteries. I was an animal, like all the other animals--and an angel. The canyon was a thought in the mind of God.

I remembered what a beautiful thing it is to be alive and breathe. At the tail end of one of my deep and joyous breaths, I found myself startled by the gentlest of noises. It was Jeff, but it didn't sound like Jeff. He had begun to imitate the owl. He made hoots, grunts, barks, whistles, odd sounds that evolved slowly into a sort of fugue. He had become a shaman and he was talking to his own power animal in a non-human language. The three of us were standing at the threshold between two worlds.

We gazed at the many-layered darkness, expecting an owl to materialize. None did. And no sounds occurred in the alluring gaps Jeff left here and there between the phrases. I thought of the caves in the darkened cliffs and the Indians who once dwelled in them. I thought of generations of Apaches camped by the side of Cave Creek, hoping all night long that the bears wouldn't come. I thought of mysterious connections and mystical identities. The Apaches were here just as much as we were.

Our friend, Jeff, wasn't just calling the spotted owl, he was the spotted owl. Through many nights of intimate conversation with this owl, Jeff's soul had touched the owl's soul. Suddenly, I decided that I didn't want to see the spotted owl. It was Jeff's owl, not ours. Jeff's singing tapered off and ended. After a long silence he apologized for his lack of success. Patches of his face were starlit; other patches, seemed to not be there any more.

After we turned on our flashlights, he walked back into the woods towards his tent. Terrie and I returned to our car. When I opened the door, a light came on and the seat-belt buzzer began to sound. The night was no longer mysterious. We were once again firmly grounded in the world of things and physical causality.

We rode behind headlight beams back to our own campsite farther down the canyon. A gibbous moon was rising in the haze over the cliffs just to the right of Cathedral Rock. Such light! It was almost like a sunrise. The creek bed, with its rocks and its sandy banks was lit up. It looked like a magic band of light winding through the trees.

Standing by our tent, I closed my eyes and blocked out all input except for the sound of water trickling over the rocks of Cave Creek. Terrie touched my arm, then took my hand; I felt at peace--like the woodpeckers must have felt nestled together in the hollow of the sycamore.

The next morning we returned to the site where we had found the vireo nest. One bird had already fledged; it was perched with firm feet and a wobbly body on a nearby branch. Another was standing on the edge of the nest, looking all around through his white eye-glasses. As we watched, he hopped back into his nursery. Two heads and two beaks then came, side by side, over the top of the nest. The shy siblings rested their heads on the nest's edge.

The mother who was nearby did not come, but the brave one already fledged; he squawked and fluttered his wing tips in a gesture of helpless, but demanding submission. We watched through pine needles as the second bravest bird was up again on the edge of the nest. He sat there for a very long time, and--just as we were about to give up on him--hopped three inches to a branch separate from, but very close to the only home he had ever known. A new phase of life had begun, lonelier, but even more ecstatic. After a moment he hopped to a third branch almost four inches away. Success. He looked around, then hopped to yet another branch which was too slender to hold his weight. As it bent rapidly downward with him holding on to it for dear life with his strong toes, his outstretched wings tilting one way then another in an attempt to regain balance. He came off the bending twig, then hopped a few inches to another, slightly sturdier branch. This one held him. He sat there for about five minutes regaining his composure.

We heard the sound of wind coming down the canyon; branches swayed for a minute or so as cool air funneled down from the upper regions; then it was quiet again. The stubby-tailed little bird flew boldly and directly to another tree about forty feet away. One of the parent birds flew behind him and put food in his open mouth. A Strickland's woodpecker chattered loudly as all three of the baby vireos--the one in the nest and the two now fledged--spoke as a single chorus, begging.

The shy third bird lifted his head, lay his beak on the side of the nest, looked out. Then he vanished into the secure depths. Quietly I stood to see him sitting in the exact middle of the nest, his head and shoulders held high. We finally walked away, taking one last look back to see his sad face barely peeking over the side of the precious home that he would soon have to abandon forever. He was no longer embedded in the Dreamtime, yet carried that Dreamtime, as all of do. The bird was unborn. He would live a while, ecstatically, then be eaten by a goshawk, ecstatically. The bird's future death would be an undeath, for all is the Dreaming. When the spirit slows down it becomes matter, and when it speeds up again it becomes spirit again. We are the dreams of the Ancestors, and we come and go in many different forms. It is all beautiful.

Later that day, out of idle curiosity, we walked over to where the canyon wall started its steep ascent. Between two yuccas we saw what looked like a dead clump of leaves suddenly coming alive; it flew for a moment, then landed about eight feet away. It was a bird: a whippoorwill. Her brown, mottled body blended in almost perfectly with the leaf clutter on the ground. She was splayed out as if she had been injured.

I took a step towards her and she flew thirty feet up and away to the top of a boulder on the side of the canyon where she sat gazing down at us through large dark eyes which were almost hidden in the shadows of her round dark face. Beneath her face was a white band; the band became a rich buff color where it wrapped around the sides of her neck. At the place from which she had first came up we found a small depression with two white eggs. A single dead leaf was draped across, not covering either one very well. We looked back up at the mother bird, now seen in complete profile. She was lying flat against the gray rock, looking very much like one of its many irregular humps.

Several hours later we walked back down the canyon and checked on the vireo in the nest. He still had not fledged.

We spent the next hour walking and meditating.

One day later we decided to look again for the nesting whippoorwill. When we came to the place where we had found her, we approached and saw that her head was up much higher than the day before. She quickly came up off the nest site and landed on a log about eight feet from the nest where she put on one of the grandest displays of mock ferociousness I have ever seen.

She puffed herself up and arched her wings out and down from her body so that she looked twice as big as usual. She scolded us while teetering back and forth, first standing on her right foot, then on her left. Her wing tips vibrated like the tails of two rattlesnakes. She looked like a swaying Halloween mask. After she saw that this was not going to frighten us away, she suddenly jumped into the air again and flopped down on the ground ten feet away, spreading her wings awkwardly like a badly injured bird. In a few moments she was up in the air again, at first fluttering like a moth, then turning towards us to swoop down within three feet of our heads. After dive-bombing us a second time, she landed on a broken tree stump about thirty feet away and scolded us: "Whip!... Whip!... Poorwill!... Whip!... Whip!... Whip!"

We vacated the territory after she dive-bombed us a second time, but not before glimpsing two pale cinnamon-colored products of the Dreaming that lay limp in the fallen leaves; one held its beak up weakly and peeped softly, the other stood with its eyes closed and its oversized forehead curled down against the ground.

What beautiful youngsters the whip-poor-will had brought into the world! It was no wonder that she was defending them so ferociously. We vowed to leave this new family to what ever private business it needed to attend to. They belonged to Isis and not to us.

1998 Larry Gates
 

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