Peter Shelton

What if you couldn’t see?

Posted in Animal Dreams, Watch columns by pshelton on July 15, 2010

I was moving through an aspen jungle. It was a jungle. White columbine and waist-high bluebells hid the ground while a fluttering canopy closed off much of the sky.

Most exotic were the bird songs. Back-and-forth flute-like calls seemed magnified in the super-acoustics of reflecting leaves. What kind of bird were they? And where exactly? I struggled to catch a glimpse of them, but failed. I’d sit still. I’d move. Either way the singers remained camouflaged overhead.

What if, I wondered, I couldn’t see anything? What if, on my walks up the hill, I could only listen? I thought about David Brower, the pioneer rock climber from Berkeley, 10th Mountain Division captain and, after the war, outspoken defender of wilderness as executive director of the Sierra Club. The man John McPhee called “the archdruid.”

Brower’s mother became blind when David was eight. She could feel her way around the house, but she didn’t want to give up her beloved walks in the mountains. So, from 1920 until her death in 1939 David was his mother’s eyes on rambles around Echo Lake, south of Lake Tahoe. I heard Brower speak several times. He had a wonderful storytelling gift, ripe with concrete details, and I wonder now if he didn’t develop that gift as he was describing the light, the water, and the birds to his mother.

I tried closing my eyes, but that was strictly an intellectual exercise since I was alone and moving through rough terrain. Moving was, in fact, the point, and I needed my vision. But from then on I kept the audio turned up a notch, as if it were the more essential sense.

No sooner had I left the aspens than I was surprised, quite close, by the scream of a red-tail hawk. I think it was a red-tail. I didn’t actually see it, but the sound was the same high shriek I’d associated with red-tails in the past. Terrifying, surely, if you were a rabbit or a squirrel, or someone whose imagination ran to horror films.

A little farther along I heard the sound of water well before I could tell where it was coming from. Turned out it seeped from a leaky stock pond and burbled through an accidental marsh the way a bubbling Zen fountain calms some people’s entry halls. Around the pond itself frogs chirped like amphibious crickets. When I looked for them, they stopped. When I turned away, they started up again.

A chickadee struck up a conversation from a thicket of mountain mahogany. He followed me for a while, hopping from branch to branch and nattering cheerily about someone named fee-bee-bee. Are chickadees not afraid? Are they extra curious? Was I missing the message? The companionship was nice as long as it lasted, as if I’d been picked up by a crazy person walking along a city sidewalk.

In the dark timber up higher I listened to the creak of a long-dead snag that had blown over and lodged against a living spruce. The wind had come up—though I couldn’t feel it down in the shadows—and the tall, silver-back bow scratched its plaintive wood-on-wood overture 60 feet off the ground.

At Buckhorn Lake the wind swished overhead in stiff evergreen needles, but it hadn’t yet, on the lee shore, found the water, which was glass-smooth and clear. If I listened carefully, I could hear trout in the weedy shallows rising with a bloop for bugs unlucky enough to touch down. Get ‘em! Get those mosquitoes!

So engrossing was this cheering-for-the-trout reverie that I failed to notice a darkening sky and would have sat there longer had I not caught the low rumble of thunder off to the south. The sensation was more a feeling than a sound, like standing outside a bowling alley while gutter balls roll inside.

The next one, though, was louder than the first, the third a whip’s crack. I was moving now, moving fast to get to the car parked on a switchback a couple of miles below. With clear views to the south I could see charcoal curtains over Owl Creek heading to Deer Creek and Billy Creek, which is one creek over from where I was. Lightning spiked the undersides of the curtains, but it was the thunder—sharper, heavier—that was the more important message, the real gauge of time.

Now the aspens amplified no lyrical bird calls. Their flat, pumpkin-shaped leaves thrashed against one another in a green seething louder than I would have thought possible. Go now, they seemed to say. Puny human, this is an order.

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