Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Princely Frog

One day as I was dusting the windowsill in my bedroom that a devil's ivy plant sits on, I saw a little turd, slightly bigger than a mouse turd. I didn't know what had left it.

Several days later I saw a little frog sitting between the plant and the window frame, two or three inches long, green and spotted, with a whitish stripe down his side. He was so handsome I wanted to kiss him.

I didn't see him again for several days. Then, peering into the pot, I saw two eyes in the dirt. When my vision adjusted, I saw a very muddy frog well camouflaged in a scooped-out hollow under the plant. That's where he had been hiding!

How he got to my bedroom is a mystery. It seems unlikely he hopped up the stairs (tiny frog, big steps) and then just happened to find such a good living place. Such luck happens only in fairy tales. Why would he come up the stairs in the first place? Maybe the frog was in the plant when my friend gave it to me, but that doesn't seem likely, either, since I have had the plant for a year. The frog's mysterious appearance is reason enough to try the kissing, especially since he chose the bedroom for his home. Isn't that what you would expect a prince to do?

Even in frog form, he was a good companion. He never left another turd on the windowsill. Just knowing he was there, I spoke to him whenever I came into the room. "Hi, frog. How are you doing?" He was in a good environment – a warm windowsill, moist dirt under the plant, flies to catch for food, and plenty of water from the plastic container the pot of devil's ivy sat in.

He was undeniably a beautiful frog, once outside the mud. I understood how the fairy tale got started – except, no. The princess didn't kiss the frog because he was handsome. The point of the tale is that the princess was gracious enough to kiss something very ugly but very kind.

Yesterday I saw my handsome frog splayed out against the clear plastic of the water container, seemingly pressed between it and the ceramic pot of the devil's ivy. His throat was throbbing. The next day he was still there, his throat still pulsing against the clear plastic. When he was still there the next day, I became worried that he had somehow gotten so tightly squeezed in place he couldn't jump out. His throat was still pulsing, but he hadn't moved his position.

Maybe he needed help. Maybe he wasn't in the best environment, after all. Maybe I should give him a new home. So I removed the ceramic pot with its plant from the plastic container and quickly covered the container with a cloth before the frog could hop out. I carried him downstairs and out to the deck and released him in the pot of a dahlia.

I haven't seen him since. None of the dirt under the dahlia is hollowed out. I'm sure he's happy somewhere else, and I'm glad I gave him back to the outdoors because, after all, wild animals belong in the wild. Fairy tales were written by human beings; their morals reveal a human point of view. I didn't feel right keeping a frog as a captured pet any more than I would have a wolf or a lynx or a python. Wild animals belong in the wild.

Nevertheless, I miss my frog. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Swimming in Crater Lake

Several years ago I was interviewed by a young woman from Yale University who was writing a Ph.D. dissertation about our sense of place. One of her questions was, "Aside from your home, what is your favorite place in the world?" Here I am at my answer:

It's Crater Lake National Park, of course. I was there last week with my friend and hiking partner, Bob Cook. 

Crater Lake is technically not a crater but a caldera, a crater formed when a volcanic mountain collapses. Crater Lake's mountain was Mt. Mazama, which collapsed after its eruption 7700 years ago. Over the ensuing years and eons, the caldera filled with rain-water and snow-melt until it reached an equilibrium between that input and its evaporation. There is no other source of water  – thus Crater Lake's famous purity. 

The lake is a gorgeous 1949 feet deep, the ninth depest lake in the world, although it ought to be called the eighth deepest because Lake Vostok in Antarctica is 13,000 feet under ice so you can't swim in it so it shouldn't count. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States and misses being the deepest in North America, and the eighth deepest in the world, by only 66 feet. (Canada's Great Slave Lake is 2015 feet deep. I'm thinking about having it filled with 67 feet of dirt and rock.) Measuring by mean depth, Crater Lake is the third deepest in the world (and Great Slave Lake doesn't even rank) because the caldera's banks are so steep. The steepness above water indicates the steepness below water. All around, Crater Lake is deep, deep, deep.

That deepness accounts for the bueness. The guide on the boat explains that at great depths of water all colors of visible light are absorbed except blue. Or something like that. I get the general idea, but I have an alternative explanation: blue is the only color that can dive so deep and survive.

Crater Lake is not only blue, blue, blue; it is pure, pure, pure. It's so pure the pilot of the science boat I was on one year stopped in the middle of the lake so all the rangers could lean over the side of the boat and fill their water bottles.

The surface temperature of the lake generally lies between 50º and 60º. Nice. Very nice. I have swum in Crater Lake many times. I have also swum in the second deepest lake in the United States, Lake Tahoe, in California, and in the third deepest, Lake Chelan, in Washington. They are blue, too, but I can attest that Crater Lake is not only the deepest and the purist lake in the United States but also the bluest. You can gaze into its color for many long minutes and still not believe it. It is the bluest blue imaginable. It is the color of a summer sky when it's so hot the blue looks like it's on fire. At Chaski Falls, 1000 feet below Crater Lake Lodge, the guide talks about snowmelt and evaporation while the tour boat lingers in water that is such a rich turquoise I long to jump over the side of the boat into it. Bob holds onto me.

Our boat left its passengers on Wizard Island for a few hours so we could climb to the top of its cinder cone volcano. I was still preferring to do uphill hikes without my horrid boots, so I made the 755-foot climb barefooted. At the top I asked Bob how many people he thought had climbed Wizard Island barefooted. He said, "One." I wanted to climb down into the volcano's crater so I could say I had been inside a volcano inside a volcano, but the lava rocks were sharp on my feet, so I walked around the crater instead. I succumbed to boots three-quarters of the way around and wore them all the way back down the mountain.

I had just time for a swim in the little bay at the boat dock before the boat arrived. I put on my bathing suit and walked into the water, then submerged and started swimming. I swam deep into the blue, out to the end of the bay and into the bigness of Crater Lake. I swam into the blue-purple of gentians, then into water so deep blue it was almost black. I would have continued, on and on in that ecstasy of blue, except after ten minutes Bob hollered at me to come back so I wouldn't miss the boat. As I swam back, I took long sweet drinks of the water I was swimming in.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Evening Storm, July 7, 2015

I. Color
Just before sunset Humpy Mountain turned dark green with a horizontal strip of deep, shining gold at the top: Gerard Manley Hopkins's "shining like shook foil." Puffy, pink-gold clouds rose above the mountain, darker clouds south of them. Lightning flashed occasionally. The ground took on a deep pink Alpine glow (Heidi in the Alps: "Toute en rose!"). In the south a rainbow emerged from the rose-tingled background, subtle and faint, almost transparent, letting the rose-pink sky show through the rainbow colors. I stood on my deck to watch the show, enraptured by color.
II. Resplendence
How modern my description is with all its color. An Old English poet, enamored like all Anglo-Saxons by shining gold objects and burnished weapons, would have emphasized the pulsating glow, the radiance of the clouds in the dying sunlight. Hue, the backbone of my description, would have been secondary to surface in his: the gleaming lights against the lowering shadows of the clouds. To the Anglo-Saxon poet, the rainbow would have been like the sky behind it because it was similarly luminous, not because it was similarly colored. With his Old English vocabulary so rich in words for surfaces, he would have emphasized the glossy light of the clouds in contrast to the darkness, and because brilliant scintillations convey a sense of ecstasy, he would have used them as a metaphoric platform for praising God. If I were to be both myself and the Anglo-Saxon poet, I would convey an impression of both the color and the glow of that magnificent sky, omitting God and praising the glorious light itself.
III. Music
As I watched the changing colors and brightnesses of the sky, I could hear in the forest below me a strange animal call, like an intake of breath with a rising tone at the end. Insect? Bird? Tree mammal? For weeks I have peered penetratingly into the woods to detect its source and seen nothing. I have gotten up in the middle of the night and walked outside to shine a flashlight into the tree the sound was coming from and seen nothing. But tonight in the rosy sunset I saw a bird fly to a tree and make that sound. My binoculars showed the large eyes and corkscrew neck of an owl, smaller than a barred owl, maybe a saw-whet. I could hear him singing, with that strange sucking-in whistle, to another owl, who answered with a daintier voice. They kept singing to each other even after dark, even in the dribbling rain that finally accompanied the bright lightning flashes and the glowing rose-pink sky. Then the owls were quiet, or gone, and a more insistent, rejuvenating rain and a wind in the trees made their own music of whooshes and patterings with an occasional accent from the wind chimes.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

At the Enchantment Lakes
     Last week the lakes called Enchantment Lakes, in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area in the north Cascades, cast their spell over me. Leprechaun Lake, at 6680 feet, enticed me into its snow-cold, Irish-green water, then kept me there for a long swim. I looked for water sprites as I swam through dainty little Sprite Lake, but they must have hidden in the lakeside snowbanks (or was I the sprite?). And then the perfectly named Perfection Lake (at 7000 feet), with its magnificent granite walls and cascading snow-melt waterfall on the far side, whispered, "No lake is perfect until you swim in it," and so I did, and so it was.
Swimming in Leprechaun Lake

     To swim in a high-altitude lake with snowbanks melting into it and granite peaks towering over it; to swim through that deep blue or emerald green water, my mother's diamond ring flashing sparks of color in the sun; to swim with my head up so I can look at the mountains around me because if my head is underwater I might as well be swimming at the Y (and because to get the top of my head wet intensifies the cold when I get out of the lake); to immerse myself slowly – stepping to my knees, my thighs, my belly, then ("This is the hard part; once I'm in it's easier") the full plunge, the sudden intake of breath at the cold, the readjustment of the body to the temperature, and then I'm swimming for five, ten, twenty minutes; to be so fully at one with the water and the mountains – this is to fall under a spell of enchantment. Just as every time I set off on a difficult backpacking trip, I wonder if I can still do it (71 being different from 41 or even 51 or 61), every time I contemplate swimming in such lakes, I wonder if I can still do it. Either I can, or the enchantment worked, for last week in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area I had thirteen swims in eight different lakes.
From our campsite on Snow Lake

     The enchantment also worked on my feet. On the steep, hot hike to Snow Lake, where my backpacking partner, Mike, and I would camp for the night, after a swim in Nada Lake I balked at putting on my boots. My feet had been much happier as I walked back, barefooted, from swimming the length of the lake than they had been in the boots, and even with the weight of the pack, they preferred being bare to being shod. So I walked barefooted, figuring I would put my boots on when I needed to. When Mike pointed to the rocky hillside we would be climbing, I said, "That looks like boot country," but when we got there, I didn't put on my boots. Some enchantment was protecting my feet, the danger being not so much stepping on sharp things or twisting an ankle as stubbing my toe, which I did several times but never to the bleeding point. I continued walking barefooted the final 2 1/2 miles to camp, over hard rocks and soft forest duff, through squishy damp ground where water seeped through the hillside, over rough roots, sharp rocks, and springy moss. My feet were so much happier that the next day I climbed the rock cliffs up to the lowest of the Enchantment Lakes, Lake Viviane, barefooted, too. The next day when we hiked back up to Lake Viviane and beyond it to Leprechaun Lake, Sprite Lake, and Perfection Lake, I was sometimes shod and sometimes not. For the trip down the mountain I wore my boots.
Barefooted backpacking

     It was an enchanting backpacking trip with many swims, strenuous walking, beautiful jagged peaks reflected in lakes, an occasional mountain goat on the rocks,

white granite against green lakes, powerful waterfalls and crashing cascades, some challenging rock climbing and water crossings on logs and rocks, but the descent into 107º heat at Leavensworth just about did me in. I thought I would suffocate with the heat. Once in the car, Mike and I headed immediately for an ice cream. Then we had a shower at a friend's house, and I spent long luxurious minutes putting cream on my feet.