By Heron Brae
Broken Top, Oregon
An essay inspired from my experiences in the second year internship at Columbines School of Botanical Studies, 2005.
Holding my faded bandana to my mouth I step out into the late morning sun from the car and the long drive from the city. The air is crisp but I keep taking my sweater on and off every time I step in or out of the hot sun. We start on the main trail, heading away from the road and into a large moist mountain meadow. We are familiar here. As botany and herbalism students, these plants are old friends, these smells comforting like a childhood summer vacation spot returned to after many years away. I lay on my belly to inspect the spiral inflorescence of Spiranthes romanzofiana, the “twisted sister” our teachers call her. We laugh and feel some kinship with this small white orchid—she holds some aspect of us, fierce (some would say “twisted”) women from the city.
We leave the main human path to follow the stream, up, up, up. The familiar mid-elevation forest is scattered, giving way in patches to hints of what is above: pebbly, dusty earth sliding beneath our feet, drying my fingers as I lean down to inspect the squat and stunted plants, and spindly alpine hemlocks cling to the shifting, porous ground.
The creek leads us up through open meadows and continually shrinking forest. Soon we stop to catch our breath–for the air is thinner than even an hour ago–to see the whole mountain stretched there before us. The earth rises from the point of our contact through an expanse of rolling open slopes to meet the craggy piers and majestic glaciers at the peak.
We continue through the scalding sun, each step a deceptive disappointment, as we slide backwards up the hill, gaining a fraction of a step for all our effort. The last point of shade is a large boulder that rests at the transition from gradual incline of dips and rises to vertical scramble. It is the last haven; we have long since left behind the last tree and upward offers no hope of relief.
I grab at rocks above me, heaving myself up on precarious ledges, not looking at the rushing water falling downward lest the dizziness take me over. My head is filled with thin mountain air, which does nothing to curb self-evaluations as my body refuses to act as tough as I want. I am at the end of the group, noticing my weakness and forbidding it to make me rest lest I fall farther behind.
At the last heave, my body crawls over the edge and into the crater. At the verge of tears, light headed, out of breath, and shaky limbed–I look up. And there, nothing is between the whole world and me. Solid rock looms high above me, thousands of layers of brilliant orange, rust brown, green-gray, hazel brown, sandy gold, crimson. I touch the rocks next to my body. The air, the colors, the textures, all senses are dramatically vivid; I am too humbled to speak.
As I take in the sensations in awe, time blends together; I am the closest I have ever been to understanding billions, in years. This is Earth timescale. I sit huddled in the small shadow of a boulder, away from my group of chattering friends. The sun is harsh, and the air is chill. The glacier is nestled under the ridge, a rushing river pouring out from beneath it at my feet.
Nothing about my life, or human lives in general, seems ultimately important when I think about how long this mountain has stood here. It emerged as a volcano from under the sea countless time ago; it stood at its peak height, and the eroding process began. Weather is harsh at tens of thousands of feet—winters last most of the year, glaciers scrape, rivers wash away, lightning pounds fires across almost barren peaks, whipping ancient hemlocks into blazes, renewing so another hundred-something years of meticulous growth can again be returned to dust. The height and majesty that this mountain stands at now are but a memory of it’s long and varied life. Impermanence is in fact the rule of this mountain. It appears unchangeable and solid at present, yet change is what has created its form, as it exists to my eyes. It takes effort for life to inhabit this place, but life is all around me. And all evidences of its presence leaps forward to me as a miracle. Green algae drips from the highest peak toward the back of the crater, butterflies dance in the wind and suck nectar from radiant wildflowers nestled next to the creek. I get the picture of my life as part of a much larger dance of life. I think of the countless organisms that have existed before me, the people who were my ancestors, and the ancestors of this place. I remember the voracious, powerful will of life and the rule of its interconnectedness; this, in the face of impermanence, is comforting to me. Life will continue no matter what humans decide to do.
I climb to the creek’s edge, stoop, and drink without fear from water on the earth’s surface. My heart beats, Thank you.