The finches are calling to one another from the feeder in the side yard and the desert olive in the back, from the neighbors' sycamore across the way. Their calls strike me as a kind of echolocation: sound waves sent out to meet another bright body and be reflected back from it. Lesser Goldfinches are not comfortable being alone. Their whistles and sighs and rasps—"Are you there? I'm here." "I'm here. Are you still there?"—are a way of affirming each others' presence and and making the strength of connection clear. They are a kind of safety net, a reassurance that all is as it should be.
Humans are social animals, too, or so said Aristotle, more or less. True aloneness is for the very few: ascetics who seek enlightenment through solitude; misanthropes who shun their fellows. Solitary confinement is an extreme form of punishment that trespasses on the cruel and unusual. We are wired to live in community. A rift between people is a hard thing and a sad one, our own version of the goldfinch whistling to its kin and hearing nothing in reply. In the face of that emptiness, we, too, grow distressed.
I've found myself thinking about rifts this week, after my old friend from out of town and I drove to the Sandia Crest and rambled around for a few hours along the knife-edge of the mountains on the eastern rim of the Rio Grande Rift.
|An off-shoot of the Sandia Crest trail, somewhere around 10,500 feet (3,200 meters) above sea level,|
and about a mile above the Rio Grande valley.
The Sandias aren't actually part of the Rocky Mountains. Unlike the Rockies, they weren't formed when the earth's surfaces crumpled together, but rather when they tore apart. Movement along California's San Andreas Fault put pressure on land in what is now southern Colorado and New Mexico, causing the crust of the earth to split. In the same way that pie-crust dough, rolled too thin, tears apart in a series of ovals, so the earth, as it tore, formed a series of long, rounded valleys: the San Luis in Colorado, and the Española and middle Rio Grande valleys in New Mexico. In the middle Rio Grande valley, the break on the east side of the rift tilted the Sandia Mountains up; on the western side, the weakened earth allowed heat to vent as volcanoes.
|Looking west over the Rio Grande valley, with the river in the foreground, and the cities of Albuquerque, Corrales, Rio Rancho, and Bernalillo alongside it; volcanic Mount Taylor is in the background about 60 miles away.|
In between mountains and volcanoes, the land sank, inviting water to drain into it. Those waters became the Rio Grande. The river then nurtured life in a variety and to an extent that otherwise would not exist in the desert. The shady bosque—the cottonwood forest—that runs the length of the middle Rio Grande valley, the seasonal flights of sandhill cranes that I love, the large human settlement of Albuquerque along its banks, would not have been possible without the Rio Grande Rift.
The Sandias themselves are full of rifts of different kinds: the Great Unconformity, a mysterious gap of eons between the mountains' Precambrian granite bones and their surface coat of late-day limestone; the cracks in stone worked by time and weather and exacerbated by the insistent roots of limber pines;
|Some of the Sandias' limber pines (Pinus flexilis) are more than 1,500 years old.|
the disparity between the long lives of the pines and the brief ones of flowers.
|Coral bells, or Sandia alumroot (Heuchera pulchella)|
In the mountains, as in the valley, a great diversity of life is made possible because of the Rift. Sandia coral bells, now much-loved nursery plants, grow wild only here, in the limestone crevices of these mountains and the neighboring Manzanos. Alpine flowers flourish on the open heights.
|One of many Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) among Geyer's wild onion (Allium geyeri)|
and miscellaneous small, yellow flowers. (That's as specific as I can usually get with small, yellow flowers.)
Columbines gleam among the high-altitude spruce and fir.
|Desert columbine (Aquilegia desertorum)|
The Rio Grande Rift and the many smaller rifts within it are stories of possibility, of new avenues for life, of openings where roots can take hold and water can flow, and small beings can find shelter and safety. Not all of those possibilities will turn out well; many years hence these roots may widen the gaps in stone to their own destruction:
|A limber pine on the edge.|
but in the meantime life will have thrived on the glorious brink of disaster for centuries.
I am struck at what a different effect rifts have on us humans. Try as I might, I cannot twist these geologic stories of possibility around to a tidy moral tale. My own experience of rifts does not conform to the mountains'. My friend has returned home, and I am mildly bereft. When I walk in the door the sense lingers that I should be walking into a conversation. I'm not. A gap yawns between friendship lived in person and friendship across continents, a rift, even though no division but space lies between us.
In the face of a chasm, we don't look expectantly for creative niches to fill. We reach out to nullify it, to bridge it by any means possible. We call out plaintively like the goldfinches, "I'm still here."
Are you there, too?