Tales from a River Bed

I stood there one morning, the serenity of the surroundings mirrored in my face. There, ahead of me, in the river bed with just a trickle of water making its way to the bay in the west was a snowy white egret. It stood there relishing its solitude. I have never seen them in groups in the riverbed. There are a few of them I spot every once in a while, but never together. Further in the distance stood a great blue heron – also alone, its regal grey neck craning to see I knew not what.

Great blue heron – when this grey beauty flies, one’s spirit soars too

This riverbed is an interesting place. Of late, I notice a little red fox darting quickly especially as the sun sets. How one fox cub managed to make its way into the suburban area so far removed from the hills on the other side of town is beyond me. I’ve seen coyotes up in the hills before, but never a red fox. There are many cats slinking around the river. I’ve seen water rats, geese, ducks, ducklings, deer. One some days, we see sheep grazing there, tended lovingly by a horseman with a cowboy hat who eclectically raises his hand in greeting, “Hola Amigos!” , and his shepherding dogs. 

On warm evenings, I am accompanied by cricket songs, and croaking. I read in a non-fiction book by Peter Wohlleben , The Weather Detective, that crickets only chirp when the temperature is above 54 degrees Fahrenheit. That is most summer evenings in California. 

The squawking of geese, the flapping of small wren-like birds, the beautiful chittering of birds, the blackbirds songs, the swooping of the sparrows, and cawing of ravens as they make their way home are all harmonious against the setting sun. The autumnal equinox is here, which means that the sun sets are getting earlier and earlier. Soon, by the time we are done with our host of meetings, life in the riverbed would have quietened down or is at least not visible.

The more time I spend in corporate worlds, the more I relish the simple pleasures of the creatures in the riverbed. True, they are affected more than we think by our lifestyles and the effects. The river -bed is a sad reminder of global warming. The Earth is hot and thirsty and is forever parched. The ribbon like strand of water is heavily regulated and trickles by not so regularly. The river bed itself is fully grown with reeds and tall grasses, creating the perfect camouflage for all the creatures that seek to make this place home.

A distant palm tree reflected in the river

I think the kind of landscape that you grew up in, it lives with you. I don’t think it’s true of people who’ve grown up in cities so much; you may love a building, but I don’t think that you can love it in the way that you love a tree or a river or the colour of the earth; it’s a different kind of love.

Arundhati Roy

But the river bed never looks the same. A trick of the light, the clouds scattered differently, the moonlight, the houses along the banks, and the creatures therein. There is constant change and yet, a constancy in its charm.

This trail near the new nest has become my own version of The Wind in the Willows. I stroll by there, sometimes yearning for the peek at the crane, or the heron, on other days just to catch a glimpse of the deer. Most days I go expecting nothing but come back fulfilled all the same. Some little thing has always worked its magic, and I come back refreshed.

Bestiary Tales in Covid Times

“Summer will be done in just two weeks!” trilled the children. The son was excited, as expected, by the fact that it was time for the autumnal solstice. (Earth’s tilt, cosmos, time are all fair game for him)

I stopped bustling about and nodded. It was true! That’s two whole seasons of Covid living.

Summer has been a blur. Sometimes, it was a happy blur of forests, rivers, beaches, craters, lakes, browning meadows, bundles of hay, wildflowers, towering trees, stars at night, comets zipping in the Earth’s vicinity, angry and mellow sunsets, pelicans and 🎼 “wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings” 🎶, hummingbirds flittering in the pale light of the rising moon, asters and star lilies in the shade of their massive neighborly trees. All of this with the sweet companionship of the family, and close friends – zooming in at times.

Other times, it was exhausting – heat waves, massive wildfires, poor air quality indexes, Covid numbers continuing to rise and showing no signs of abetting, protest marches, racism, bomb blasts, all on top of a news cycle that seems to think it has to deliver the heaviest punch into every day. It is like watching the world’s worst wrestling match. 🤼‍♂️ Really, someone should coach the world that not everything needs to be shocking and bigger and worse than ever before. It might be okay to watch a match in which the players seldom land a punch and are merely playing the game warily sizing each other up once in a while. 

Yet, life must go on, and it often goes along much better when we stop and look for promising moments in the gloom. There are moments that stand out clearly in this pandemic, when I felt a wave of gratitude overwhelm me, and I am also grateful for the sheer timing of these moments.

The time I stood on a windy, lonely strip of beach wrapping a towel about me for warmth and watching the sandpipers fly against the wind without wavering one bit, while I had a tough time just standing erect was one such. It was but a fleeting instant in which the little nippy sandpipers taught me about keeping one’s spirits up when the world is attempting to veer us off course every which way.

Or the moment, when on a road trip to a solitary house by the Umpqua river, the road wove on, the heat rose in waves around us, and the shimmering waters of the Lake Shasta looked like a green beast taking it easy in the summer, and laying low for what lay ahead. A few weeks later, the Sierra Nevada mountains were to be threatened by wildfires on a magnitude that sent the state of California reeling. Looking at the dry lands about us for a couple of hours, I felt a moment of dread, when the road turned, and a beautiful gushing river accompanied the road, and there on a rock in the middle of the river was a great big bear, looking contented and trying to fish or just cool off. 

As we took our summer walks in the evenings, I stopped so many times to admire the geese splashing into the waters after their great squawking, while the pelicans achieved this feat with none of the noise, but all of the grace.

I remember the time we looked up on a stroll to come eye to eye with a great turkey vulture. The elementary school going son was with me, and he thrilled at it. “Amma – I know you take pictures of the flowers  everyday because they only last for sometime, but this…oh…this is so special. It is so .. umm.. “ He struggled for the right word, but I think I knew what he was going for. I felt it too. There was a majesty about the bird that was hard to describe. There was a divinity and a razor sharp quality to its gaze that falconers love. I have tried to experience this when I read the book H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. But all I needed was that encounter lasting all of two minutes. 

“The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.”

― Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk

Really! How much our fellow creatures have to teach us?! 

I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing — not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of.” H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

Just like that, Autumn comes in all its glory to teach us what it does best. Preparing for Winter.

Hill Billy Tales

We took a short trip to the beautiful place in the mountains where the Sierra Nevada mountains meet the Cascade range of mountains. It is also where the grasslands sport a sign that says ‘Welcome to Oregon’ as you keep driving north in California. Studded with lakes, rivers and waterfalls, amidst the towering glory of the tall trees, the place really welcomed us with marvelous, serendipitous finds, wholesome joys and gave us moments of Zen that I know we will look back on with contentment for years.

shasta1.JPG

We drove smartly past grasslands and hills rolling by and sailed into Oregon in style. Within a few miles, we saw the quintessential American landmark: Signs indicating how many miles to the nearest Visitor Center.

15 miles to the Visitor center.
10 miles to the Visitor center.
The count down was on. The highway signs were creaking with the beckoning of the visitor center. This is one of those times where you can see Marketing mess with your minds: What if we missed the sight of a lifetime because we ignored the signs to the V Center? We succumbed and went in to find a sleepy town that had two main streets and two cross streets connecting the main ones (Lest the folks of the town come at me: I exaggerate, but you get the pic).

Once in there, we tootled along for a walk by the river admiring the swallows and giving them the names in the fancy pamphlet. We spotted a narrow sign that stated ‘River access’, and off we went through the thickening vegetation. Brambles scratched, the sound of the fresh flowing water was soothing to the ear, and the teenage girls (daughter and niece) looked distinctly uncomfortable with the mosquitoes but gallantly kept from complaining. In a titter and a tat, we found ourselves amidst lingerie on a rock, a dog that was wondering whether to rouse itself and check out the strangers, and two people camping by the riverside.

“Oh…sorry to bother you. We did not know this comes to the campground – just admiring the river.”, we said largely for the benefit of the dog, who felt that he must earn his keep and came along to check us out.

An old man clumped out of the trees, and said in his gruff voice that it was alright, and that the river and the river bed did not belong to him, and anyone was welcome. His unshaven face gave him a mane-like countenance, his voice reeked of not being used often, and he looked like he had been living on the rough for sometime. I felt the children draw closer to me and gave him a nervous smile.
He went on to tell us about how he has been camping by the riverside for a while now. “ I am down from the South,” he said.
“Oh really! We are here from California too.”
He threw his mane back and laughed.
No Ma’am. Am from down south!” he said puffing his chest out with pride.
“Oh you mean southern states like Louisiana?”
Yes Ma’am – a true hill-billy I am. You meet a hill-billy before?

riverside

This is where the conv. got a little strained. I mean, I had not met a true hill-billy before, or atleast I did not know the conditions for classifying someone as a hill-billy. I spent my childhood in the remote hills, and still startle at loud motor noises like metal being grated for a salad, does that make me a hill-billy? I gave him a silly, strained, forced laugh to which he looked at me keenly, and said “Why? What is wrong with me being a hill-billy.
“Uh..Nothing. Nothing at all. Do you like being a hill-billy?”
I do! Course I do! There are sum who can’n live off earth-like. Me? I can live off the earth – I can find meself some berries an’ hunt an’ fish like.
“That is very good.” I said.
I have to admit my admiration for the man rose. I have often wondered whether we have the ability to survive anymore. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that we are slowly devolving to a point of not knowing how to survive by our wits. We seem to rely on GPS for going to the corner grocery store, the corner grocery store seeing the trend, is telling us, “Please please don’t bother. Just press a button and we’ll send a drone along with milk and such. You just keep pressing ‘Yes’ on that remote when it asks you whether you want to continue watching.”

Conversation languished for sometime after this, and the daughter came to my rescue, by shoving the creature catalogue in his hands, and asked whether he had seen river otters before. He gave her a pleased smile and told her about all the different bird and animal-likes he had seen in the river, and said he had never seen an otter before. His classifications and naming differed somewhat from the pamphlet, and his ‘white birds’ and ‘grey lil ones’ and ‘those brown ones up top’ were definitely easier to look out for.

We were well on our way after bidding him and his dog good-bye. Living on the wits may have suited him, but for us, we needed a good sandwich before we could go on, seemed to be consensus of the group. The husband reached for the phone, and I smartly took it from him saying, ‘It is such a small town, I am sure we can just drive down and find a Subway sandwich place. If he can live without technology, why can’t we?”.
‘It will be much quicker with a phone!’, he groaned, but I heard none of that nonsense: it was drowned in that growl that emanated from the stomach.

Life’s greatest lessons are learned when tempers are short. Everyone argued that the sandwich place was the other way, and after 3 u-turns, 4 no-no-not-that-one false starts, a hungry gloom settled upon the car.

Sniffing out a sandwich place in a car with its A/C on in full blast and closed windows is an art you got to learn. The hill-billy might have done it with the dog’s help, but we had to admit defeat.

I confess that we finally pulled out the phone to locate the place in a 3 mile strip. But after that: Boy! We were bulldogs and nosed on straight for Crater Lake with the GPS on. After all, evolution also means knowing how and when to use the right tools, what?!

crater_lake

The Polite Goggles

The summer heat beat down on the grasslands, the ranches and the river flowing nearby with a kind of fierce energy, determined to show us both how hot and long it can go on, on the summer solstice. We were out on a camping trip, and I cannot imagine how it would have been had we been pitching up tents and hitching it in the heat. As it turns out, we went in for cabins with full blast A/c and bunk beds that provided hours of entertainment to the bendy amongst us. The children want to climb something. If trees are not available in the searing heat, the bunk beds were just fine too.

Reminds me of this cartoon I saw at http://www.afuntab.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Funny-Quotes-about-Camping-2.jpg

Source: http://www.afuntab.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Funny-Quotes-about-Camping-2.jpg
Source: http://www.afuntab.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Funny-Quotes-about-Camping-2.jpg

The campsite was near a river and the thought of flowing fresh water nearby is always a calming influence.

Camp River

We played by the river for some time.

Water-playing

Then someone suggested that we beat it to the swimming pool instead. So, we did. I had brought along a pair of pink and blue goggles and the children were remarkably well-behaved around them.  When I had the extra one in my hand, one child asked me politely whether they could please use it, “By all means!” said I beaming. A few minutes later, another mermaid swam up to me and said, “Could I have the pink ones please?”

I beamed again and gave the pink one. This is when things started getting complicated. The mergirls and merboys were having a go in the swimming pool and every now and then, one of the merfolk would splash up to me and ask, “Aunty, can I use the pink goggles?” I’d say ‘Of course’ and go on chatting with my friends. A few minutes later, another merchild would ask “May I use the blue goggles please?” and I’d nod my consent to that too, little realizing what my little assents were causing inside the pool. It turns out that there was a fierce war raging around the goggles. One group wanted to use them and the other did not. The game had me fogged when the details emerged. So, every time somebody came up to me and asked me whether they could use the goggles and I said ‘Yes’, the folks went to the opposing lot and said that I had allowed them to use the goggles and the rightful owner of the treasure was their team. Then, another one would come up to me and I would nod again and the drama would start all over again.

When did I catch on, you ask. Well, to tell you the truth, my school teacher parents would have detected the war a mile away, but I was so intent on chatting with my good friends  and it had been such a long time since I spent a summer teaching children, that it took a large-scale splash party in the pool to make me stop and think. What helped was that two folk were swimming up to me in great speed clearly trying to get to me first. The moment I had nodded my assent to one, child 1 whipped up a victory splash and whooped in joy. I saw the crest fallen Child 2 and only then realized what was going on.

This poster should have come to my mind a little earlier, but it didn’t.

Camp girls

Well, if anything, despite their struggles to get all the goggles to their own teams, they had been exceedingly polite and had maintained the quorum of splash-envy, and so deserved a goggle each whether they wanted it or not.

The waters don’t always show the currents and depth, do they?

Pictures: Courtesy one of our friends