Monday, August 22, 2016

The patience of nature; patience in nature

Yellowstone National Park is a busy place. This is partly because of its geography.  At its centre is a giant caldera or basin, part of which  you see here.  The mountains around the basin were created by massive volcanic eruptions that occurred 2 million years ago, again 1.3 million years ago, and then again 640,000 years ago.  After the last eruption, the centre collapsed, creating a plain or basin.  Visitors to the park are treated to the scenery around the caldera, where roads have been paved through the mountains.  So there are very few roads for a lot of people.

You meet a few of these people at the numerous overlooks that allow you to get out of your car and take a longer look.  You meet even more of them at some of the highlights like Tower Falls, where large tour buses stop.  Visitors come from everywhere in the world--you hear a veritable spice market of accents and languages as you patiently wait your turn to come to the railing that gives you an unobstructed view of the falls.  And of course, if they have come from Korea or Eritrea, they want to take a photograph of their family with the falls in the background.  This is where one of Bill's practices came in handy:  seeing a family being photographed by the person who is never included in the family album, he always offers to take a picture of everyone, and is greeted with delighted gratitude.  His gesture takes some of the impersonality out of the crowds:  for a moment, you are part of other people's experience and desires. 

But the crowds themselves are extraordinarily polite.  While for the most part we do not make eye contact--looking instead at the landscape--people did not push or shout or let their children--finally released from the car--run wild.  Interestingly, while I heard some crying children, who sounded frankly exhausted, I heard no shouting or fights, saw no wrestling or impromptu games of tag that used tourists as hiding places or barriers.

Part of it is that we are simply gobsmacked by nature, by its near-incomprehensible sublimity.  Shouting or wrestling or pushing here would be like shouting, wrestling, or pushing in a cathedral.  The calm crowd is doubtless an effect of the kind of people who choose to visit Yellowstone, rather than N.Y.'s Times Square, on a vacation.

But part of it is also nature itself.  My friend, Katherine Arbuthnott, has put together a brief synopsis of the research relating to our relationship with nature.  She notes that "a growing body of research consistently shows that contact with the natural environment improves our physical, cognitive, and emotional health."  Time in nature lowers blood pressure and decreases surgical healing time.  "Two large studies, one in Canada and one in the UK, showed that mortality rates from all causes decrease with more access to natural areas."  Time spent in the natural world has a positive effect on our emotional health, decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression, and, frankly, making us happy and enthusiastic.  Spending time in the natural world also "improves childrens' school performance, reducing ADHD symptoms."  Adults who spend time in nature are more creative.  Now you know why writers take all those long walks. 

So we weren't simply responding aesthetically and imaginatively to the grandeur around us.  Something inherent in nature shapes our response, which can be prompted as much by prairie grassland as by Yellowstone National Park.

 But I also like to think that we were also channeling nature's patience.  On our final day we visited "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River." While the canyon is certainly deep, that fact that Yellowstone consists largely of yellow stone--the colour of the lava--and its much smaller size, makes it less spectacular than the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  Yet two stunning, massive, and powerfully noisy waterfalls illustrate a process that has gone on for eons and continues:  water eroding rock.

Here we see something as fluid and elusive as water shaping an environment, like a blind sculptor carving stone over millennia.

I like to think that we were also influenced by metaphor.  In the Norris Geyser Basin or at Mammoth Hot Springs (we didn't drive as far south as Old Faithful), we had a chance to see earth's inner life come to the surface in steam and liquid. 

You can't see it through the steam, but this pool is bubbling at a boil.  Although there have been no volcanic eruptions here for thousands of years, there is lots of activity and pressure under the earth's crust.  Maybe it hasn't exploded because it lets off steam a little at a time--a lesson my mother (and probably every other fifties housewife) could have benefited from.  And maybe all those well-behaved kids jumped on the beds when they got back to the hotel or ran rings around the picnic table while dinner cooked over the fire.  At least I hope so.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


Bill and I have just come back from an intensely wonderful holiday in Montana and Wyoming that ended with two days in the north end of Yellowstone Park.  Thanks to Google Maps, we took one route down and another one back.  The direct route to Bozeman Montana took us along what we kept calling the "ghost road," because although it was excellent two-lane blacktop, we met almost no other cars until we got close to the small rural centres that the road threads together.  The landscape was endlessly interesting on this route (not so much when we took the expressway back), looking a lot like the Qu'Appelle Valley, except there was no "valley" and no "table land" that marked its edges.  It went on for miles and miles.  It was as if some enormous hand had reached down and wrinkled and scrunched and crunched paper or linen into crags and slopes and hills.  Then at other points, there were miles of surreal round hills that looked like a pot on full boil.  Once we came on a literal forest of slowly twirling wind turbines perched on top of hills--I counted at least seventy--serenely aiming north and each turning at its own speed.

I didn't know how to read this landscape, which was often fenced in but shouldered no crops or cattle.  I realized that "readable" landscapes have a purpose that is clear to humans--which is a little anthropocentric.  That use might be to provide examples of the sublime in all its glorious denial of our puny human purposes--but it's still use. As for fencing in the sublime....

Every small town in Wyoming has its brick heritage buildings, and after we had been thoroughly charmed by Bozeman's Main Street, with an artists' cooperate named "Cello," a yarn store called "Stix," and a co-op restaurant, we went to Three Forks State Park searching for the beginnings of the Missouri River--you know the one called "The wide Missouri."  The river begins with three shallow creeks coming together.  It originally flowed north until an ice age turned its route south.  You can see in the photograph above how modest its beginnings are and how it is hemmed in by the gentle hills Gallatin Mountains.  Yet when we crossed it on the eastern side of the state on our return home, it is indeed "the wide Missouri."  By the time it joins the Mississippi River, it has become the longest river in North America.

It made me think of patience, of the quiet, humble determination that flows on in so many of us, suddenly coming to full fruition in a painting, a poem, a photograph, a letter or a garden.  What we wanted to capture--that elusive element of our experience or thought that seemed so far from reach or expression, just at the edge of our imagination, or in the corner of our eye--after drafts and sketches suddenly arises, surprising us with its graciousness, its willingness.  Too often we don't see that it is the creation of our own dogged patience.

I saw patience as well in the stones.  As anyone who has been in my workroom will tell  you, I've brought back stones from a lot of vacations.  I can't do this any longer, not only because I am running out of room (or things would get so crowded that my room wouldn't be serene any more) but because I now see that if everyone took a stone it would bugger up the landscape.  So my answer was to take photographs of stones.  These too make me think of patience.  Each of these was doubtless part of the mountains that cover Montana.  In fact, Montana is so crazy with mountain ranges that they finally called one of them The Crazy Mountains.  Lava explosions; uplift.  Then something violently tears, pounds, or knocks a small piece away from the mountain and gives it to water.  Who knows how much later it is brought back to shore, rounded and smoothed?

After our time in Three Forks State Park, we tried to find the beginning to a circular route I'd planned through the Pioneer, Highland, and Tobacco mountains, but we couldn't find the minor road that was its beginning.  Instead, we found the Lewis and Clark Caverns.  Bill loves caves, so in spite of the fact that it was a two mile hike, the first three-quarters of a mile outside up a treeless mountain nearly a mile above sea level and at 32 degrees, the second 1 1/4 miles underground involving over 600 steps up or down, some of them through narrow passages that forced you to walk up or down stairs bent over, we took it on.  (I was clearly the oldest person on the trek, but not the last one up the first 3/4 mile.  I did just fine on the Beaver Slide, a passage so narrow that you have to slide through it on your bum, turning half way down.)  I don't know what initially creates these underground spaces--more uplift, I'm guessing--but once the space is there it takes time for the minerals in the soil above the cave to dissolve in water and come slowly dripping down, creating stalagmites, stalactites, remarkable columns where the two meet, flows of stone that look like waterfalls.  It takes about a hundred years for a stalagmite or stalactite to grow in inch.

Here, I thought about layers.  How, at its best, our experience of people and the world is layered, how we manage sometimes to carefully peel away peoples' public personas or our own preconceptions about how the world works to see the crystal underneath.  And how we imagine the layers under that, the complexity that has its own order.  How art is layered:  how we build up those layers as we draft or paint or compose an image or a tune, and how the audience or reader takes delight in the complexity we have created.