Looking for somethings

Northern Cardinal
It probably does no harm to have a plan; to have thought about what you would like to happen, and then, with a plan in place, to do as much as you can to make it happen.  That seems to be a recipe for getting the most out of the bumpy ride that is opportunity, for making sure that what little time you have is well spent.  But too much planning can get in the way of the delightful surprises and shocks that come along to mess up your day in the best and most unpredictable way. Failure to prepare has well known consequences, but over preparation turns you into a clock watching bore and a trip into a timetable.

I had not planned to go to Arizona, so I thought it more necessary than usual to prepare.

It was an opportunity that dropped into my lap in an otherwise work dull morning.  It was a gift horse and appropriately I have no skill or interest in dentistry. Outside my office window it was early autumn, but in Arizona it would be early spring.  And in spring, a young man’s mind turns to thoughts of returning migrants.  Or roadrunners.  Or hummingbirds.  Or something.

Soon my mind was spinning with the possibilities of the things I could see – I discovered that there are in fact two species of roadrunner (three if you include the Warner Brothers creation) and hundreds of species of humming birds.   From this basket clutch of diversity I managed to narrow my aim down to the Greater Roadrunner and Anna’s Hummingbird.  This was the shortest of short lists, but despite my best efforts to think otherwise, Arizona was a work trip not a birding expedition.  I needed to keep things in perspective.  Better a sip of single malt than a bottle of backyard hooch.  Quality over quantity.

It rapidly became clear that identifying a roadrunner would not be much of problem.  This ground living cuckoo looks like very little else on Earth – the resemblance to a skinny chicken is clear and its snake chasing abilities legendary.  If I saw one I was sure I would know what it was.

Broad Billed Hummingbird
Hummingbirds?  Well that would be a horse of another colour.

And colour seemed to be the fundamental problem. As far as I could tell from my rather old guidebook, hummingbirds are basically green, with long beaks and the ability to fly backwards and sideways at high speed.  And they can do this whilst concealing the few distinguishing feathery marks they possess. To be fair, the book did mention differences in throat colour, but that seemed like asking people to differentiate between inevitably red Ferraris by the shape of their wheel nuts – possible in theory, but only ever achievable by fanatics (or my son!). I’ve been a birder of some sort on an off all of my life, but my ability to identify rapidly moving, often disappearing, green blurs is still rudimentary. 

I did not feel confident. I decided I needed professional help.

I am still jet lagged and eating my plastic spoon breakfast when my phone chirps.   Laurens, my guide for the day, is outside my motel in Scottsdale – about half an hour early due to light traffic and an early start.  We talk over what claims to be coffee.  I liberate a couple of breakfast bananas for lunch, grab the small mountain of gear I insist I need, and head for the car. 

Almost immediately the day list starts to grow – grackles in the car park, doves and ravens by the side of the road, and overhead an adult Bald Eagle.  This last bird generates even more interest that a normal eagle sighting – a bird unusually out of place and worth noting. An American kestrel on a roadside wire. Flocks of distant dark birds, which are probably more grackles.  I watch treetops and wire spreads, damp ditches and irrigation canals.  I hope Laurens watches the traffic.  A Great Blue Heron from a roadside pond, its wings, legs and neck tangled and splayed – once it the air it regains some semblance of order, with tucked neck and trailing legs.

The slow tick tock of conversation bounces from seat to seat, as two people who have never met find a shared ground of birds seen and missed, and in the language of habitat and ecosystem.  Birds of a feather, flocking together.  There is no talk of earth energy or crystals.   There is talk of physics and biology, of form and function, cause and effect.  And eventually, inevitably, there is talk of the possibility of hummingbirds and roadrunners.  Which is really talk of probability and chance. The car heads west on roads made familiar by their total newness.  I recognise a few plants from the trip to Sedona and beyond.  My uncertain internal compass, skewed by another change of hemisphere, spins and misses even the cardinal points.  I know the sky is up and the ground is down.  All else is conjecture. I feel lost.  I am pulled back by conversations of home, of things I knew, of places I had been.
Broad Billed Hummingbird
We pull off the road and over popcorn gravel into a car park.  Boyce Thompson Arboretum looks like a garden centre, with pot plants spread on wooden trestle tables, offered for sale.  The compass point spins and spins.  Why are we here?  A charm of lesser goldfinches lifts from the car-side plants, and by the gate a Northern Cardinal, blood red and obvious, feeds on the soft berry seeds of head-high bush.  The question is answered.  The compass point settles. 

The garden beds and pathways are slightly down at heel, but clearly not unloved.  Plants, some labelled, some not, drift over the edges, softening the lines of human design.  Where garden beds meet at corners, damp patches, faint with moss, form. Grackles shuffle peck through the greenery, seeking food, flicking away the unwanted, the inedible.  Dark feathers ripple through black and blue.  Although they are a common bird, they remain undiminished by abundance.  I try to get close enough to take photographs, but the corner shadows resist, placing a black bird in darkness.  I take another two steps forward and immediately lose interest.

A small wooden shade building sits at the meeting of three or four paths.  Around the base of the building are plants heavy with brightly coloured flowers.  Hanging from the roof of the building are small bird feeders, charged with a clear liquid.  And surrounding both are hummingbirds. 

Lots of hummingbirds.

Laurens starts to name the species.  Anna’s.  Coasta’s.  Broadbilled.  Males. Females.  Look left.  Look right.  Just look.  It’s a jump-start kaleidoscope of biodiversity.  Surprising in the extreme and wonderful to behold.  I had seen hummers the day before, but with the exception of a ten second view in Sedona, they had been tree top silhouette, robbed of colour, identifiable only by their remarkable, defining outline.

These birds were alive with colour and speed.  Flying jewels of emerald, with flashes of brightness at throat and tail tip.  Photography was rendered almost pointless by the abundance of possibility.  Where to look? What to focus on?  The buzz of wings behind and to the side, a flicker of fire here and there.  I did not want to see these sights as just more TV, filtered through the eye of the lens.  I just wanted to watch. 
Anna's Hummingbird
The sight of these birds, just a short walk from the car park, and their apparent abundance was surprising in at least two ways.  Firstly it seemed too easy; as if nature had given up a gift with too little work on my behalf.  Surely, such things should only be seen on mountain tops, or deep in the heart of forests, untouched by blade or sharp toothed saw.  This, of course, is nonsense.  Nature is not conscious of any of my efforts, the birds are here for their own purposes alone, and I am nothing more than an obstacle to easy flight.  A mobile, and sometimes scary form in a landscape mapped by food plants and nest sights, with territory edges maintained by hormones, display and bright colours.  The fact that their world and mine overlap is a coincidence for them and a boon for me.

The second surprise runs deeper, all the way back to a flickering black and white TV in a chill house in Somerset.  All the way back to a man in pale trousers and light blue shirts, speaking in hushed whispers about things I would never see.  About whales, wombats and wide-open spaces, red deserts and tall mountains.  About bowers and birds of paradise.  And sometimes, about hummingbirds too.

Such birds seemed impossibly exotic, and frail beyond belief.  How could they fly as they do, migrating away from the cold of the winter, being drawn back by the longer days of spring?  Even on the grey scale TV you could see the frantic energy needed to drink from hanging flowers.  A high-octane lifestyle that I would surely never witness.  But here they were and here I was.  Enchanted.  I could have stayed all day, but the birds moved on in search of sweeter pastures, and so, reluctantly, did I.

And just around the corner it all started again.

This time the birds seemed a little more cooperative; sitting on bush branches while I moved slowly forward, feeding on hanging flowers for more than a second at a time.  Time enough to focus.  Time enough to compose.  Time enough to know I could put the camera to one side, and just watch.  Which is what I did.

We moved off to a small pool, where swallows hawked for insects. American Coots, looking less bald than the ones I am used to, proved that bad-temperedness is a family trait as they chased each other around the weedy edges of the pond.  New birds kept coming – sparrows, wrens, thrashers – but the cup was already full and more became just more again as it overflowed.  I kept seeing hummingbirds and the wonder never ceased.

But finally, something did break through and almost top the bejewelled hummers.  Walking down a path flanked with pale barked gum trees – a vision and smell of home – Laurens stopped to listen.  He had his head tipped to one side, in a pose that favoured sound over sight.  I could hear nothing different, but then my ears were full of unfamiliar sounds.  The familiarity of the trees clashed with the alien soundscape, and I had no idea where to look or what to listen for.  The trees formed a skeleton of familiarity, but the sensory cloth that hung from it was unknown.   With the still head and fast hands of a well practiced watcher Laurens lifted his binoculars to his eyes.  “There!  Vermillion Flycatcher”.  Following his eye line into the treetops there it was.  A patch of pure, blood red colour.  Even when I could see in the field of my own binoculars, and watch its beak open and close, I had difficulty linking the movement to its call.   Photography was next to impossible, too high, too distant, too small.  But the view through the glasses was stunning.  I could but hope that a female unseen in the trees appreciated the show as much as I did.  This was, for me, an unexpected bird, a treat bird, a bird unlooked for.

Anna's Hummingbird

On the way back to the car park it dawned on me that we had not seen any Roadrunners.  Was I disappointed? – well, yes.  But did it concern me? – not really.  On a day of emeralds and rubies, it would have been greedy to ask for more.

In an Altered State (Part 2)


Finally I may be awake.

I step from the bus into another car park.  The landscape around me is red.  Red soil, red stones, red pillars and cliffs.  If it were painted, it would look unreal.

The red rocks of Sedona spring from the ground with a rough edged, youthful kind of enthusiasm.  Not for them the well rounded, whale back lines of other, older, landscapes.  Of course, the formation of the red cliffs, pillars and domes has taken a time unconnected to a single life and the rocks themselves are 300 million years old.  Geology relies on numbers with vapour trails of zeros, numbers that drift off towards a failure of understanding.  Numbers that simply stack oldness upon oldness.

But the sharp lines of the land show that it is still active and alive, that its geology is not dormant, that process is overcoming permanence.   Sedona sits on a great plateau that is being pushed upwards from below.  As the land grows higher, the forces of erosion and weathering cut it back down, creating the sharp edges and steep slopes.  Here the land may rise an inch in a human lifetime. It’s a landscape that, geologically speaking, is sprinting into the sky.  It’s a landscape that shows how deep time and small changes can cause remarkable things.

It’s also a landscape on to which people seem compelled to force meaning, but not necessarily understanding.

Even before we get out of the bus, our guide is talking about Earth Energy, crystals and vortexes.   I feel my spirits sag.  Sure, the domes of rock are impressive, and they do take on the form of giant funnels – or even the swirl of water as it disappears down the plughole of a bath.  But to explain these shapes in the landscape through spinning centres of energy, some coming up from the depths of the Earth, others retuning form whence it came, seems a step beyond credible imagination.  It seems to be an explanation that reaches for significance, but fails to bring meaning, and in doing so, overlooks the simple grain at a time reality of geology.  I am unsure if the other passengers on the bus feel as I do. In that situation I take the easy – if possibly cowardly – way out; I walk away and stay silent.

Maybe it’s the ghost of a bad night’s sleep, maybe it’s the lack of my own family rudder, but I feel adrift.  (There is, of course, the possibility that negative Earth energy could be corrupting my aura, but I consider that unlikely.) The landscape is remarkable, but I keep finding things that sit between it and me.  Human things.  Imposed things.  Things that take away my attention.  Back at the bus the guide names the rocks around us: Courthouse, Cathedral, Capitol, Bell.  All but one are named for agents of control – maybe even repression – as if somebody has tried to take a landscape and make it their own, knowing deep down that it was somebody else’s first.  It was done in Australia, and it seems to have been done here too.  If you wipe away the memory of all that went before, in your mind you have a clean slate, to claim as your own.  And in an empty land, it’s easy to ignore the people who were there first. The landscape is beautiful, one I would love to explore, but my thoughts are unsettling.  I feel like an uncharitable guest, a conclusion jumper on an air-conditioned day tour. 

And then things get worse.

Before we enter the main strip of Sedona, we turn off for Chapel of the Holy Cross.  Seen from below the chapel is a concrete building, with a coffin shaped outer skin, and an inner skeleton of a single cross.  Initially the building seems intriguing, but then a series of dark connections start to form in my mind.  The guidebook says that the Chapel “sits upon” two small red-rock domes.  But to my mind the better words would be “sits within”.   The visual connection between crosses and swords is clear for all to see – the handle, guards and blade of a sword form a perfect cross.  And here in this building, the blade of the sword is being driven into stone beneath it.   If the shape and form of these rocks did mean (or does mean) something to people, then this seems to be nothing short of symbolic murder, or at least, assault.  

As a kid I would often visit the town of Glastonbury in the green of the Somerset countryside, another town rich in crystal readings and talk of energy.  But it is also an epicentre of things Arthurian – the man-myth who became King by removing a sword from a stone.  In Sedona, a culture becomes king by driving a sword into a stone. 

On the pathway to the chapel, people make exclamations of faith, and stop to throw money on to the surrounding stones in the hope of influencing the future.   Around the edges of the ancient pathways that lead towards Glastonbury, archaeologists find concentrations of coins, jewellery and bladed weapons, thrown into the long gone waters, presumably in the hope of influencing the future too.  Ancient rituals and modern faith.  Pagan ritual on the way to church. 

On a sharp corner, below the chapel, cars and vans park so that people can use the two portable toilets that have been placed there because there are none at the chapel itself.  At the top of the hill one thing happens and at the bottom of the hill, it’s something else. 

By the time we leave the chapel I need time and space.  A place to think.  A place to stop thinking.  A place that does not feel like I am standing downstream of a bad idea. A place to look for the things that make sense to me; I go looking for water.

Oak Creek and its self made canyon run through Sedona like a breath of fresh air. Although homes and hotels flanked the part of it I saw, it was mercifully free from signs and symbols.   There was only a single sign that read “No Trespassing”.  It had been shot through at least ten times.  I struggled to know if that itself was a good or a bad thing.

The river was so clear that only the turbulence at the surface betrayed the water’s presence.  A gap in the clouds let the Sun peek through to show each and every grain on the tumbled rocks on the riverbed.  I hoped for fish, but found ducks and squirrels instead.  American Widgeon whistled to each other as they gathered in the hope of thrown snacks, and further upstream a pair of Wood Duck – the male richly coloured and ornate – cast suspicious glances at me before taking flight.  A squirrel splayed its legs around a tree trunk as it paused to watch me.  Tail flicks and high-pitched chattering suggested he was not best pleased to see me.  The feeling was not mutual.   Many of last year’s leaves were still fluffy packed between the water washed stones on the bank – I could feel another Webber B fracture in the offing.  A large rounded stone – maybe even a boulder – offered safety, rest and a patch of sunlight.  I accepted them all.  Small lizards, a surprise in the valley chill, emerged from hiding to sit in the sunshine too.  There were still no fish.

Clouds moved at speed across the sky, shedding their sea-born loads, eager to get somewhere else.  The water in the river was slowly gaining colour, its deeper parts hiding the bed.  It must have been raining upstream all morning. 

The path back up from the water opened the view of the whole creek, dense with trees, flanked by steep cliffs.  Thick banks of cloud gathered around the valley edge and threatened rain.  My mother would have said the blue-grey clouds promised snow.  Later in the afternoon she would have be proved to be correct.

I had entered Sedona feeling a kind of pressure building in me.  The kind of pressure that comes when people ask you questions you don’t want to answer truthfully.  A conflict between the role of the guest and the role of self, where you have little right to impose your opinions, but failing to do so feels dishonest.  It’s a fine line to tread.  Internally I stray, my face probably an open book.

In the last patch of vegetation before I return to the car park a jewelled flash of life lands on a branch in front of me.  It’s an Anna’s Humming Bird.  This is no silhouette of a bird, but a full view.  Metallic feathers.  Sparkling colours.  A tongue that seems to be licking its needle beak, seeking a last drop of nectar.  I don’t know who Anna was, but her bird sits for no more than ten perfect seconds, departing in a blur of wing buzz speed.

Each to their own.  I found what I was looking for down by the creek, in the noisy silence of a dry leaf woodland, slowly waking from winter.  I found it in the threat of spring snow.  In chance encounters with birds, squirrels and sun hungry lizards.  I took away more than I left, and while no place is unchanged by our presence, I doubt that the next person to walk that path would know I had been there.  The next visitors can make of it what they will, but they don’t need me, or my signs or symbols.  Whatever fine line I was walking has broadened.

By the time I reach the car park, some sense of balance has been restored.


As the bus winds up road, the morning rains wash down the creek to towards us.  The water time travels through the landscape and gives a glimpse into the future.  As the water browns and rises, a heron is flushed from the creek, and inexplicably lands on the road in front of us.  It’s a bird defined by length, spindly and fine. It looks at the bus along the length of its beak and takes flight to a more fishy location.  Heavy rain pounds the windows and the road runs with water.  Maybe the heron knew what it was doing.

I notice the bus has no windscreen wipers. The rain is being pushed by the speed of the wind, beading and flowing upwards and outwards, taking some kind of water repelling substance with it.  Another residue being added to the soil and water we all share.  Another complication, produced to save us from the toil of flicking a switch cunningly hidden behind the steering wheel.  I feel the line thinning, and turn to watch the rain become snow.

There is little conversation within the bus; the grey of the sky seems to have seeped through the windows and doors.  The snow becomes heavier but then suddenly stops.  We stop to look a small waterfall, but drive past a rock arch.  The uncertain weather tries its hand once more at rain. 

Eventually we pull into a car park next to some heavy wooden buildings.  A common Raven looks up from its exploration of a litterbin.  Even with the bus door open, the only sound is silence. I get out and, appropriately enough, turn my collar to the cold and damp.  I know where I am but I don’t really believe it.  How can what we have come to see still be hidden?  How can the most famous hole in the ground, a canyon so large it really is Grand, be just over there, but still out of sight?

A slight rise leads away from the car park towards a waist high rough stonewall.  The raven waits on the wall, watching a second tumble through the air.  The airborne bird flashes below the level of the wall, flying too fast to avoid the collision with the ground that never comes. It reappears at the same time as my line of sight passes the top of the wall.  Void. Air.  Absence. A deep space where logic would tell you none should be.  The trick of perspective hides the Grand Canyon until you are nearly on top of it, nearly in it, and reveals it like a surprise.  You know it’s going to be huge, and you know when you are going to see it, but the rush of revelation is shock.  It goes from hidden to visible in a few footfalls.  If the contours were reversed, so that the Earth had been thrown up rather than worn down, you would have been seeing for hours; the skyline, and maybe even gravity itself, would have been buckled by the presence on the horizon.  

But you stand there, feeling the tug of vertigo, secretly thankful for the litigation preventing wall and stare through sky where there should be land.  And down below, in the canyon base, you catch a glimpse of the Colorado River, robbed of the colour that gave it its name by the stillness upstream.  A small thing, green and clear.  A river tamed by dams, and human slowness.  A river that, in the past, cut down and through layer after layer of rock, down to some ancient foundation, hard enough to resist.  A river that, a grain at a time, formed the Grand Canyon.

If in carelessness, or deep sadness, you stepped from the stonewall and out into space, you would fall down through the long history of the Earth, travelling the layered time machine of the stacked strata until, with brutal suddenness, you would come to sudden halt at rocks laid down almost 2 billion years ago.  A collision of the two concrete realities that drive the world – geology and physics.  You would have fallen through a time scale as unimaginable as the terror of the fall itself.   The exposure of such rocks and the creation of such a landscape, would be impossible without the same time unimaginable and a river, cutting down as the land rises up to meet it,  shifting the world from one place to another one grain at a time.

It is in such places as this that the beauty of simplicity is revealed.

In such places there is a need for the company of the ones you love.  In the face of the simple scale and extent of world you can feel small and alone without a hand to hold, without a flash of red hair or a disbelieving look, changing into a startled smile.  With camera in hand I do my best to capture the fleeting surprise, the startled air of a place so big.  Deep down I know this is probably futile.

Above the canyon the sky seems stretched thin, like a response to the presence of air where there should be Earth.  Weak sunshine pulls distant faces close, and darkness pushes the close further away.  Above me the roulette of weather rests briefly on fine.  Soon the snow starts again.  Soon the cold returns with a sharp wind.  Too soon, we have to leave.

The possibility of sleep

When we pull over again we are on the edge of another desert.  Not the desert with cartoon perfect cactus we had passed through this morning, but one painted with soft light, cut through by the straight lines of wires and fences, rising to a horizon smoked with cloud.  What grass there is, grown from a flush of September rain, has been baked down to a pale yellow brown.  Wind blown fragments hang on wire fences and twist in the sharp wind.  The sand at my feet has a slight cast of red, and is studded with hundreds of pebbles, some of which were crystals, clear and shiny.

The late afternoon light is low and metallic, gold and copper.  The crystals shine.  Moving your head from side to side makes them sparkled. I pick up a fistful of sand and let it flow through my fingers.  The pebbles rattle as I shake my hand.  The sky is wonderful, but I was still looking at the ground.  I roll the pebbles in my hand – most are rounded – and that’s what attracted my attention.  Round stones means water.  In the desert.  A long, long time ago.

I tip my hand to the side and the stones slide off and fall back to the sandy ground.  People notice what I am doing and look at the ground too – eager hands started collecting the crystals.  I wish they had not noticed. 

I step away to look at the sky. It’s huge.  Storm clouds push from one side, the sun from another.  Wires that sing in the wind also catch the last of the light.  I lie on the ground to see the sky.  When I stand up I brush the sand from my hand; desert sand, water sand.

Back in the van, people curl up as best they can to sleep.  I wonder what will happen to the collected stones.  I wonder how many will end up pushed to the back of cupboards in fragile plastic bags, forgotten, or ignored.  

There is still sand on my hands. I roll the grains between my thumb and first finger until they fall to the floor, one grain at a time.

Out of the window the landscape flickers, flashes and merges.  The close is rapid, the distant still.  A fleeing earth, a constant sky.  A parallax warped vision.  I think about the day, one grainy flicker frame at a time.

It would soon be dark.  A long day was ending.  A strange and good day was ending.  

Once more, sleep beckons.