"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Late Blooming

Sweet peas are a flower of my childhood. Their fragrance has the power to send me back to North Idaho summers, a version of my mom I saw far too little of, and the innocence of a time when I believed anything was possible. Nearly every year of my adult life I plant sweet peas. Some years they do better than others, but I always look forward to the bit of time travel the bright jewel blooms provide.

I had high hopes this year. I got the seeds planted early, in a half barrel that gets good sunlight. I stuck  with traditional seeds bought at a local feed store, unlike last year when I spent a lot of money on fancy mail order heirloom seeds that didn't produce any more flowers, or any better fragrance than the cheap kind. I watched the shoots push through the soil and grow into vining stalks that climbed and clung to the trellis. The foliage was thick and green and healthy.

And for weeks, there were no flowers. Not one. When we got back from the canyon, I expected to see a cascade of color and to walk into a storm of radiated fragrance. That was certainly the case for our other flowers. But not my sweet peas.

Eventually a flower bloomed. One. And then there was another a few days later. Within a week I was able to make a very small bouquet, which left the plants completely bare of flowers. And they stayed bare for quite a while longer.

A week ago school preparations took over our lives. Walt started with kids last Wednesday. I start with kids this coming Wednesday. This particular year is more consuming than normal for me with a new building where we have limited access, are still waiting for pieces of furniture, and where all routines have to be redefined and relearned. We have new standards, new testing, and a whole new way of scheduling.

So when I got home a couple of days ago, my mind was busy trying to sort all of that out. I greeted Toby and Bunkie and Walt through a fog of half-formed solutions and myriad unanswered questions, made thicker by the fog of accumulating fatigue from badly slept nights. As I stood in our backyard, working to still my mind and to be home, soaking up the particular warmth of the late afternoon late summer sun, the sweet peas caught my eye.

They were covered in color. Little dots of pink and red and purple and white, making the whole plant look for all the world like a lit Christmas tree. At the end of August when I would have expected the plants to be dried and shriveled and done, their blooming season is just starting.

Exactly like my life.

For a long time I despaired about ever blooming at all. It seemed like too much had happened, and it took me too long to heal, and I was too old. It seemed like whatever flowers I might produce would be weak and spindly and starved-looking. Second best. More foliage than anything, without the rich aroma and vivid colors guaranteed from plants that bloom in season.

In the canyon this summer something awakened in me that I expect will carry me to the end of my days. An emerging understanding of my connection to the larger whole of life. A clarity about what's important, what's needed, and what's the opposite of those two things. A new ability to not try so hard to make things fit my picture of how they should be, and to live with the resulting uncertainty with a spirit of adventure.

Even though retirement is close enough for me to smell its sweet fragrance, the years between here and there offer their own promise of deep living. A school year I'm actually excited about. A fresher version of myself I'm looking forward to getting to know. A trip to Italy in the spring. An old marriage re-energized by the wild flow of the Colorado River. I may be blooming late, like this year's sweet peas, but the flowers are that much more precious because of their unexpected arrival.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


We started seeing prickly pear cactus fairly early in the trip. Actually Walt and I saw an abundance of it on the shuttle ride from Phoenix to Flagstaff. We'd also seen squadrons of saguaros standing at attention on the side of the freeway. Because my blood runs with the forest moss fern green of the Pacific Northwest, all those cacti were an otherworldly delight to my eyes.

On day six of our float twenty-one of the twenty-four of us hiked up the Bright Angel Trail, and twenty-one new people hiked down to join the trip. Several of those new people had the age-old red rock of Arizona in their blood, and so cactus was every-day to them.

The farther west we floated, the more desert-like the beaches became so prickly pears were everywhere. Several varieties of rotund barrels dotted the slopes. On a calm flat stretch as we scanned the shores for signs of sheep, someone pointed out what looked like a giant bundle of incense sticks poking out of the rocky ground.

Ocotillo. And while not a true cactus, they are spiny and live in deserts and among cacti.

The Arizona natives seemed particularly happy to see these sticks. I was less than impressed. Erin, my new friend from Tucson, explained that ocotillo go dormant in the dry season, but once the monsoons start, and there's moisture, they turn bright green. And, she said, when they bloom, there is a single red blossom at the end of each branch.

Incense sticks turned into lighted Christmas tapers.

The monsoons had just begun, even though it was very early in July. We'd encountered rain off and on since the second day of the trip. Never for long, and always a welcome relief from the heat. So I was not surprised when just a bit farther downstream people started pointing out ocotillo in all its green glory.

The Arizona people would soften as they talked about ocotillo. There would always be a quiet thrill of excitement whenever we'd see patches of the green stick bouquets adorning the rocky shores or perched at the tops of canyon walls like guardians granting us permission to pass. They all had ocotillo stories, and many had ocotillos in their yards. One woman said it was her favorite plant from childhood because it played a significant role in her favorite picture book, Roxaboxen.

Hearing that, I felt like an old friend had just walked into the room. I've used Roxaboxen in my teaching often, and had rediscovered it just last year. Until that moment I'd never made a particular connection to the ocotillos that fill the pages of that book.

That was when I started seeing ocotillo differently than the other flora that are a part of the Inner Gorge ecosystems. Prickly pear was cool because it was in fruit and barrels were entertaining because they looked a bit like minions (or as one of the guides said, penis gardens). But ocotillo tugged at the same part of me the river and the colors and the song of the canyon wren did.

For the remainder of the trip, people would be heard quietly murmuring, "ocotillo," almost like a prayer. It was not at all unusual for someone to call out "ocotillo" as we passed, much in the same way they'd call, "sheep," (big horn sheep) or "GBH," (great blue heron ). Occasionally someone would point out a plant in bloom, flickers of red light dancing at the ends of long fuzzy green stems against a sapphire sky.

One evening in camp, when all the color of the day had followed the sun behind the canyon walls,  I looked up to see a single ocotillo standing over us, silhouetted against a fading Impressionist sky. It maintained its post all night, its shape defined by starlight later, offering comfort of a kind when I was up to pee in the small hours. Even as we broke camp and floated away the next morning, I watched it sit in solitary dignity and felt its whispers of sanctuary.

On the last day, as we traveled by school bus from the take-out at Diamond Creek along a road that was barely more than a rocky stream bed, one of the last sights my heart absorbed before we found ourselves on the pavement of civilization was a grove of ocotillos. The thickest stand any of us had seen so far. Someone in the back of the bus pointed it out, although I expect most of us had spotted it on our own. Several were blooming. Ocotillos can live to be a hundred, and judging from the size of many that we were seeing, this was a grandmother garden.

In the weeks since our return, our canyon experience has continued to expand the boundaries of my heart. The wonders we saw and felt grow brighter in memory. The river and the sand and the heat and the ancient rocks and the people I shared them with are all embedded, permanently I hope. And standing in the midst of it all, watching over,  is the miraculous, marvelous ocotillo.