Sunday, October 10, 2010

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

or Mountains:  A Good Idea

No matter how much I enjoy Albuquerque, I also like leaving it now and then.  After spending a lovely weekend with my parents, who were down during the Balloon Fiesta, I went holidaying last week, wandering down to the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico for a few days.  Just to be outside again, not just out on the patio but really outside in The Great Outdoors, has "filled the well" in ways that have me purring with contentment.  Cities are all fine and good, what with the modern conveniences and all, but fresh air, sunshine, and dazzling landscapes are even better.

One thing New Mexico doesn't have a shortage of is dazzling landscapes.  (Fresh air and sunshine are fairly plentiful, too, now that I think about it.)  Many of them are best appreciated from afar, and it has been pleasant to be focused on the distance rather than close-in, looking upward and outward more than is my wont and marveling at vast expanses, wide open spaces, and big hunks of mountainside.  Vistas.  Drama.  Rugged cragginess.  Scenery in general.  Geography may not offer the action and intensity of, say, a football game, but it's a perfectly satisfying spectator sport on its own.

As a participatory sport, of course, it's even more rewarding, and I enjoyed getting up close and personal with a fair amount of geography on hikes at the Catwalk National Scenic Trail, the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, and the Fort Bayard National Recreation Trail.  When I say "hike," though, I want it to be clear that I have never been a capital-H Hiker in big boots and a big hurry.  I certainly admire those who can clamber over rough terrain at three miles per hour, but I don't understand them.  I go to the opposite extreme, and if I make it through a mile in less than three hours, I get irritated at myself for rushing.  If anything I'm a naturalist, though even that's still a bit grandiose.  I just like being in the mountains looking at things.

And "looking" is far too small a word for the attempt to experience a landscape—to absorb the "stilliness," as a much-loved aunt likes to call it, to take part in the quietness and vibrancy, the simply lovely and the jaw-droppingly sublime, to follow the contours of a land and delight in (most of) the lives that dwell in it.  To me the joy of hiking through a stand of ponderosa pines is not actually hiking through it but stopping to catch a whiff of its vanilla-scented sap.  (A good hiking trip demands that you spend at least part of it rubbing sap off your nose.)  And as long as you're there with your nose in a tree, why not pause to admire the rich variety of its colors, the canyons and mesas that age has carved into its bark?

In fact, I think that the entire point of hiking is actually to pause—to listen to the chuckle of water on stones, to mourn the death of a butterfly, to wonder at a sapling growing in an unlikely place.

The thing is that when you get up close and personal with geography, it turns into a microcosm again—you just see a lot of miniature worlds in sequence that add up to the world in general.  Each seed head and flower has its own self-contained beauty; each fallen log and rock is its own little ecosystem, even while it is part of the larger system of the forest.  Its existence means life to some small creature; its loss would be catastrophic to the insects and lizards and lichens and birds that depend on that particular rock, that particular trunk, for sustenance and shelter.

Every so often the obvious up and hits you and makes you wonder why you're so slow to catch on.  It really shouldn't surprise me that a lot of microcosms create the world, but I've been wandering around anyway saying, "Wow!  The forest is the trees!" as if I'd just discovered something profound.  In any case, it's been wonderful to see both this week.

And I still have a little smudge of sap on my nose.

A post-script to a previous post:  Look what my parents brought me last weekend...


  1. Your writing is, improbably, at least as beautiful as your pictures. I'm so enormously grateful that I know you.

  2. I'm inspired by rugged cragginess too.

  3. Greg, that's incredibly sweet of you. Thank you.

    klbrowser--And there's nothing like the rugged cragginess we grew up with! Much as I love the NM mountains, I'm still a Colorado snob at heart...

  4. Stacy -

    Wonderful blog... Pix are simply fantastic. The message is inspiring. To me the first three shots are examples of the macrocosm views which will lead us into the microcosm view as the last four scenes show us. It is in the found stillness of nature that we can come closer and closer to the real things of life.

    Finally got some rain yesterday - had to dig out my big golf umbrella (isn't umbrella an interesting word!!!)here in Denver. It has been a dry season for us that last few months.

    Peace and happiness...

  5. Mark, thank you so much for your comments! I agree with you wholeheartedly about the found stillness of nature.

    Three cheers for the rain and for golf umbrellas at need—I think it's actually been dryer in Denver this year than here in Albuquerque. And yes, it's kind of funny that an umbrella—a "little bit of shadow"—is what we use to protect ourselves from rain.

  6. Lovely piece, Stacy! Mark aimed me at your blog, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was writing about sniffing ponderosas in a recent blog post too--good to know you're out there getting sap on your nose too.

  7. Susan, thank you! I've just been able to take a brief look at your blog on Walking Nature Home and look forward to reading more. Your book looks absolutely wonderful. And it's so lovely to discover other sap-sniffers out there.

    Mark, that's so kind of you. Thank you.