A cave on one of the cliffs at South Fork has, just inside its entrance, a statue that resembles the Holy Virgin. For a few weeks in the summer this grotto is the home of millions of Mexican freetail bats. At dusk I have seen them stream out from the Virgin's cave like a black cloud of smoke. They sometimes form a wide, twisted band, which stretches across the entire horizon. I have seen peregrine falcons dive through this river of bats, looking for a meal.
The canyon itself is a long avenue of trees. Though sycamores are the most conspicuous, evergreen oaks are abundant--as are junipers, bigtooth maples, madrones, Apache pines, walnuts, and ash. There are yuccas scattered throughout this narrow forest and grape vines hang over many branches. In shady areas are Douglas-firs--serene evergreens, usually found only at higher elevations.
Canyon wrens, lower elevation birds, share this fecund world with hermit thrushes, birds of the peaks. Penstemons, are often seen along the trail. Their trumpet-shaped blossoms are spaced just far enough apart to accommodate the rapidly beating wings of hummingbirds.
Clumps of pale grass can be seen on the canyon floor, and large, pink, rounded rocks are scattered everywhere. From time to time a triple-tailed tiger swallowtail will soar through a sunbeam, and occasionally the sad face of a white-tailed deer will appear in the leaves. Apache fox squirrels are here-- also coatimundis, mountain lions, skunks, and a few bears.
This mountain valley is a mythic place where time moves as slowly as a constellation of stars. This beautiful canyon stirs the imagination and sets loose the chthonic gods that dwell just below the surface of everyday reality. I enter with the same joy that hummingbirds enter flowers. The walled world nourishes me. And, when I leave, I find myself covered with a spiritual pollen.
All summer I traipse the winding trails, nourished by the kaleidoscopic wonders the earth presents to me. The canyon has many rooms and many doorways. The narrow trail and the creek bed separate and cross each other again and again--like the two snakes of the caduseus, or the ida and pingala of Kundalini yoga.
While I walk the twisting trails, the canyon's spirit twists through me. I see the birds, the trees, the cliffs and butterflies as jewels in the net of Indra.
After reading Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, I decided to think of my nature hikes as meditations. As I walk I breathe in, saying yes to life; then I breathe out, thanking the earth for the many precious moments it gives me. I throw one foot out in front of the other, ascending ever so slowly up the natural staircase that leads into the mountain's mysterious heart.
My moments in the canyon are like beads on a rosary. I contemplate them with my total attention. Each is unique, Each more valuable than the finest gold.
I hike, enjoying every step, loving every leaf and every stone, condemning nothing, honoring all that presents itself to me. I wish peace to all that lives and moves and flaps in the wind. I wish peace to the Yarrow's spiny lizard, sunning himself on a rock, enjoying his splendid dragon-self; I wish peace to the solitary vireo, singing from her nest as she incubates her eggs; I wish peace to the sunlit cliffs above; I wish peace to the Douglas-firs and Schott's Yuccas.
When the Buddhist monk walks, he from time to time hears a bell, then stops for a short while, enjoying the vegetation, the birdsong, and blue sky. Entering deeply into the heaven of the present moment, he gently passes across the sky with his eyes, and he gazes at the green leaves with the profound fascination of a young child.
There is no bell that rings in Cave Creek Canyon, but there are appropriate moments for pausing and looking around. A hepatic tanager will suddenly sing half a song, or a beam of light will break through the leaves; a swallow-tailed butterfly will zigzag down the creek bed, or a blue-throated hummingbird will hover in front of a purple thistle. In each of these moments I experience grace. I breathe the canyon in and out, holding it just the right amount of time, and I often smile as I breath the canyon out, letting it be, not wishing to change it or possess it. The way to heaven is heaven now.
The Egyptian goddess, Hathor, was called Goddess of the Sycamores. In Cave Creek Canyon Hathor's sacred, white-trunked trees stand radiantly among the more somber oaks, madrones, and Douglas-firs. The star-shaped leaves of the sycamores are limp and deeply forked; they hang, high and low in the canyon like the thousand hands of a compassionate Bodhisattva, bestowing blessing on all that lives, plays, suffers and dies in the walled world of the mountain valley.
The Egyptians believed there is a large sycamore on the western horizon, where the sun sets and the dead go when life ends. Hathor always sits hidden in the leaves of that tree, ready to reach down to provide food or water to the deceased. She is the first to let the dead know that the universe is benign, that life is not a cruel joke.
One of my joys is to sit by the creek, watching painted redstarts as they hop and flutter over the wet rocks, snatching small blue-gray butterflies.
As I sit, I dream. My fantasies mingle with the images of nature. I think sometimes of the great novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, who often stood in fields of flowers, daydreaming about butterflies. Nabokov has walked in this canyon. In May of 1953, he lived on the ranch where Terrie and I spend the summer.
Nabokov says in his autobiography that he does not believe in time: "I like to fold my magic carpet after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern on another. Let the visitor trip." In my mind I have my own magic carpet; I have it folded so that memories of peak experiences in the canyon are juxtaposed against other memories in a non-linear way.
I like to think of the painted redstart as a design woven in the intricate mental tapestry I unfold when I am doing soul work. The little bird moves in my mind just as it moves in the creek bed. Again and again it opens like an old-fashioned lady's fan. As it opens itself it exposes bold white rectangular patches on its wings and tail.
All the edges of this little valentine seem to tremble. The bird is as black as wet coal, its belly is rose-red, and it carries a white teardrop on each side of its face.
On my magic carpet's intricate design I see another redstart down the creek feeding in the same manner. It flies to an oak, where it positions itself on a long, crooked limb and begins to creep in loose spirals, probing into all the crevices, fanning out its wings and tail. Perhaps the white patches startle insects. Or maybe the bird simply loves being lovely. Annie Dillard says nature's gratuitous beauty is every bit as great a mystery as her cruelty.
As I sit by the trickling creek, I unfold another layer of carpet and see a rustic cabin located at the entrance to South Fork. I see a shrine to Mary outside the cabin. There is a woman standing near the statue. She tells me she and her husband are from Douglas; and they have a Forest Service lease to the cabin; it is their weekend retreat. They call the cabin Marila in honor of the Virgin who has blessed them. Though I am not Catholic, the image of the Holy Virgin, has haunted my consciousness ever since.
I think often of Our Lady of Guadeloupe--and the pagan nature goddess she replaced. She has brought me religious experiences that I have not sought or even desired. I associate her with verdant nature and with these mountains, the Sierra Madres, which begin in the Chiricahuas and extend hundreds of miles into the mysteries of Mexico.
In my imagination I unfold the carpet some more and see an embroidered image of Terrie and me hiking a little farther up the canyon, stepping on mystery, breathing in the swirling, cascading, rhythms of the song of a hermit thrush.
As I walk, the earth heals me. All my angers and sorrows dissipate. I leave them behind just as the black-tailed rattlesnake leaves behind his skin. I see clear water flowing--over, around and between the stones in the creek bed; it is scrubbing everything clean, while creating tiny waterfalls and thousands of white bubbles. I stand for a moment in total silence, realizing that Cave Creek Canyon has become for me the spiritual center of the universe. It is my Nile.
On the path which leads farther up the canyon, yellow-eyed juncos are hopping in and out of the shadows. Cinnamon-colored dragonflies with large red eyes zigzag up and down the creek. They fly a few inches over the pools and currents, often nearly colliding with the rocks. One lands on a rock where water is flowing by on both sides. In a moment the dragonfly is in the air again flying almost sideways, making sharp, manic reversals, hesitating, then darting off in a frenzy only to return and sit Buddha-like on another nearby stone.
I wonder what the world looks like to a dragonfly as he gazes out at it with a thousand eyes. Perhaps he sees the world in its true multiplicity: a billion fragmentary truths, a billion fragmentary lies, a chaotic, though apparently ordered, blending of contradictory information. Perhaps not. According to the Zenrinkushu, even the Buddha does not understand the world when it flows in all directions at once.
A whole area of the magic carpet now opens with a string of contiguous memories: It is early June. Terrie spots a bat flying limply down the creek with the sun shining through its wings. The bat lands clumsily on a rock, then crawls down to the water and drinks. It is tiny, no larger than a small mouse. We wonder if it is sick or injured. Looking very much like a broken piece of an umbrella, the bat crawls under a rock, then back out again. Its wings look like black leather interlaced with red veins. It has a face like a brown hyena, looking pitiful and evil.
As we get closer, the bat it shows us a mouth full of pinkish white teeth, then hisses. We watch as it climbs awkwardly, sometimes flapping its wings against the rocks, more often just dragging them like excess baggage. The bat reaches the bank of the creek and starts climbing up the side of an Arizona cypress. After getting about three feet off the ground, the bat positions itself upside down, supporting itself with tiny feet which cling fiercely to the coarse bark of the cypress. The carpet shows us walking on.
A short distance up South Fork, we see the resplendent colors of a male elegant trogon appearing and disappearing in the leaves of an oak. The bird is catching pale green caterpillars. While plucking victims off the leaves, the bird pumps its tail and hovers, its emerald-and-gray wings flapping against the greenery, its fiery red belly appearing in bits and pieces in the jumble of branches and leaves.
When this green-headed bird perches, we see its yellow beak and the red ring around its eye. In a moment it is hanging upside down with its tail pressed awkwardly against a nearby branch. From this position it leans its head back to catch a caterpillar over its shoulder.
The shadowed feathers of this foot-long bird absorb and hold the soft light of the dense canyon forest in a way that was dazzling, yet muted. Every movement the bird makes produces a new configuration of deeply saturated light with colors that are vivid and impossibly beautiful, like the colors of gemstones decorating an alter in the subtle light of a dark Egyptian temple. Perhaps we are in a dark temple. Perhaps every bird is a window through which we can catch a faint glimpse of heaven. Or maybe we are in the underworld, the realm of Osiris, where darkness gives light and death gives life.
We walk on through the canyon. Every turn of the path brings us fresh visions and unexpected emotions. While resting on a large cushion-shaped rock, we watch a sulfur-bellied flycatcher perching in the shadows of a hanging vine and muttering to himself. This is another of the so-called Mexican species, found in the United States only in the canyons of southeastern Arizona. It is a bird-lister's bird. Daily I meet people who have traveled here, from all over the Unites States, to see it. But, for me, it as a personal friend. The sulphur-bellied flycatcher makes an unmusical squeak, high-pitched and strident, yet with very little volume. It sounds like a child's rubber duck.
I move my hand along the carpet designs as a blind person moves his hand along Braille. I find a place where we think we have located a small owl. There is a frenzy about twenty feet up in a silverleaf oak; bridled titmice, painted redstarts, dusky-capped flycatchers and a black-throated gray warbler are all mobbing an area of the tree and scolding. Though it doesn't look like anything is there, we walk all around the tree, trying to get a better look. Then we finally see a four-foot long gopher snake zigzagged across a thick limb. The snake is motionless and gazing with swollen eyes at nothing.
We hike a short distance, then see a female trogon flying without a sound through the woodland shadows. She lands on a bare limb, then sits for a few moments. She is rose where the male is red. Her brown back and tattered coppery tail draw no more attention to themselves than do the trunks of the Apache pines or the pink rocks lying on the ground.
Then there is a sudden burst of brilliant red and bright emerald green coupled with a flapping of wings. The male trogon seems to spontaneously explode into existence out of the shadowy leaves above her. He comes down over the female and lands on the middle of her back. As she turns her lower parts to one side, the male trogon twists the lower half of his body to wrap around her right side. His wings flutter furiously and his long tail swings from left to right like a pendulum. The angels of love flow from him to her. He is Osiris and she is Isis. They are creating Horus. Suddenly the trogons are apart; they both fly off. The male calls from a hidden perch somewhere in the woods.
It is a strange, low-pitched, unmusical call that the trogon gives, much like the call of a frog or a hen turkey; it is monotonous, plain, and vulgar. But it is also sublime. I hear in the trogon's call the voice of many unnamed mountain gods, rejected and ignored by both science and organized religion; I hear in the trogon's call the voice of the Apache goddess, White Painted Woman. And I also hear the voice of the Celtic Green Man, who has been accidentally imported here by white Europeans, who don't even know he lives in their souls.
Soon we see the female trogon in flight again, farther away, being coy. She lands on another horizontal, barren branch at a position deep inside the canyon forest, but visible. The male appears over her in another burst of color and movement. The love-making of Isis and Osiris happens all over again as a nearby hermit thrush casts its subtle but complex song into the leaves. Then both trogons fly off and vanish into the tangle of trees, rocks and shadows.
My carpet now shows us walking with little conversation, deeper into the shaded canyon, ascending its rocky steps while gazing up and all around. Birds sing and leaves sway in the breeze. We find a pool where some maple leaves are floating, all blown in the same direction by the wind.
Puffs of white clouds are beginning to spill out from the cliffs and cross the narrow sky. Oddly the clouds are flowing in a direction contrary to the direction of the canyon wind. The carpet shows me turning in a circle to see all the cliffs. Nowhere in Cave Creek Canyon does one escape their larger-than-life presence. They give one a sense that our life takes place in a world which is embedded in an even larger world. These pink cliffs are the backdrop for everything that happens here; they are like the Olympian gods or the Ennead of the Egyptians. They giving us perspective and remind us of our expendability in the total scheme of things. They impose upon us limitations, rules and contingencies; they remind us of the existential givens of life: instincts, hormones, death, the laws of physics, the uncompromising forces that pull all beings towards their final destinies.
Looking up past a sycamore tree, foggy-eyed, dreaming, I see a large cave, a perfect amphitheater with a platform jutting out before it. The mysterious Indians who lived in the canyon before the Apaches dwelled in caves like these. I see that a few malnourished trees are jutting out from the red rocks near the cave.
As I look, every jagged edge in these red cliffs seems to convey some subtle emotion, some twist of the soul. Holding the edges of these cliffs in focus and following every bend of their wavy lines seems to help in some way that is difficult to articulate to differentiate subtle emotional states deep in the soul. We grow inwardly as we gaze out.
Hiking farther we come to a pool which is about ten feet in diameter and four feet deep. Surrounding the pool are several large boulders. Behind the pool are three sycamores fanning out from a common base and behind these sycamores is the receding wall of the canyon.
Images from nature have been used for thousands of years by shamans as vehicles into the spirit world. In my first introduction to the techniques of ecstasy, the shaman instructed me to think of an opening or crack into the earth while listening to her drumming. My task was to envision myself going down into that crack to meet, somewhere deep in the earth, an animal teacher who would tell me for what purpose I was born into my current incarnation.
South Fork seemed the logical place to imagine, and for some reason this pool seemed to be the place that opened up to a passageway to the underworld. Because of my uneasiness in water I decided before the drumming began to envision the opening to be behind the rocks that surround the pool, but when the rhythmic pounding began to inhibit the left hemisphere of my brain, I found my imaginary self flying through the air and descending directly into the water, then sinking into a multicolored, kaleidoscopic whirlpool. I descended, bending to the right and to the left. I went much further than I expected.
It seemed that the tunnel was endless and I feared that I would never reach the mysterious animal-god. But finally my imaginal self did reach bottom and there hovering before me was an immense hummingbird with whirring wings and a fanned tail. It's throat was deep red and it's back was impossibly green. I waited for it to speak, but it just hovered. Though I pleaded for it to tell me why I was here, I heard only the drone of its wing-beats. When I finally gave up on getting an answer, I had a somewhat psychedelic vision of fields of flowers--hillside after hillside covered with red, blue, and yellow petals. The colors were intense and deeply saturated. I knew the reason I was here was to look at the flowers.
The Apache pines and Arizona cypresses by this pool, which leads to the underworld, are tall, stationary, dark, and silent. Beneath them are maples and willows, bathed in sunlight and tossing in the wind. Yellow columbines are growing out of the rocky bank of the creek.
We hear another hermit thrush farther up the canyon. I sense the canyon is an Egyptian poem written with hieroglyphs, and the thrush is whispering its magic words, using the lost language of the soul.
The cliffs on this part of the magic carpet are steep, almost straight up. Some seem to lean toward us. The ground is covered with pine needles. Bracken ferns cast shadows on the rocks. A boulder on one side of the pool has water reflections lapping against it like flames. Beneath these swirling reflections, in a horizontal crevice about a foot long, is a nest.
There is no sound but the wind. The ferns hanging over the lichen-covered rocks begin to sway, responding to subtle fluctuations in the wind. Their reflections on the rocks sway, too.
Yellow columbines by the creek bed beneath the boulder-protected pool sway to the same rhythm. And the reflections of the columbines sway. The sound of the wind increases and then diminishes. I hear the thin songs of the white-throated swifts falling through the pine needles like prayers. They are like tiny seraphim worshipping Isis and Osiris.
Just as we are starting to walk away, Terrie says, "Look!" A small bird darts into the crevice. We lift our binoculars and see the head of a Cordilleran Flycatcher above the top of the nest, serenely gazing out over the open space above the pool.
After a while I walk behind one of the boulders to see a Canyon Wren in a horizontal crevice on the lower part of the canyon wall. He turns to disappear into one of the darkest places, then comes back out singing. In a moment he darts back in again, only to come back out singing once more.
I know of no song more beautiful. There is nothing I miss more about western canyons when we are away from them than this simple aria. How can I describe the gratuitous bit of auditory beauty this elfin bird spews out. It is a pure example of grace. The song swirls down the scale the way water swirls down the canyon rocks after a rain; the song reverberates in one's head like a whirlpool formed by the sudden opening up of a passageway into the underworld. When he sings, he is praising the goddesses, Isis and Hathor. It is his greatest joy.
I seek nothing more in this strange, incomprehensible, wonderful world we live in than to enjoy the life fate has cast upon me with the same simple joy that the canyon wren enjoys his life on the rocks. We were made for ecstasy. Nabokov spoke of "a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone." Nothing is more important.
I have come to an edge of the carpet, at a place where we force ourselves to resist the temptation to see what mysteries are lying beyond the next bend, we decide to hike back down.
Soon we realize the evening has come. The sun has vanished behind the cliffs. We hear someone playing a flute. Some unseen musician was improvising, celebrating, I assume, the cliffs and the leaves. The music seems much like the music of the hermit thrush we heard on the trail. In the slow, loosely connected phrasings of the flute player I sense I have found the beginnings of all true art: a oneness with nature, a bending, a movement of man and nature together like two dancing partners, a singing that harmonizes with a larger chorus, a vibrating emotion between two silences, a brush stroke in a painting that is so large one never knows its true subject.
Robert Lawlor tells of an Australian aborigine who listened carefully to the sound of a bee, then attempted to reproduce it on an enormous wooden flute called a didjereedoo. He was so successful that the bee's body appeared from the flute sound. It was in its Dreamtime form. The flute player then dissolved his own body to become the sound of the humming bee. He entered the bee's body and flew off with it. Someday people in America will play flutes with such significance. And they will become the voices of the animals.
I must put my magic carpet away. If I reveal any more I will lose part of my soul. I am like the sycamores, introverted, and I will not share all my treasures.
© 1997 Larry Gates
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