May 26, 2003

Lessons in Stone

Found. Journal entry September 1976 (revisited and rewritten through the filter of memory in May 2003). After our Sipsey trip, Steve left for Edinburgh and the next year for Aukland for more post-doc work. I visited him in New York in 1978 for a hike into the Adirondacks, then lost touch with him. I located Steve by email recently-- married, two kids, still involved in his life's work in research of neurophysiology of human disease. We said everything we had to say to each other after decades of growing apart, and I guess that's that. I wonder if he remembers this trip from long ago in some deep place in the archives of his life, as I do. I'd like to think so.

Steve would leave soon for at least a year of study abroad. This was our Great Hello to the wonders of nature, and a rather significant goodbye, not knowing when or if our paths would ever cross again. Before us, three uncharted days in a hauntingly beautiful part of the Bankhead National Forest of north Alabama. We had stopped to eat our lunch of French bread and cheese. We stopped because an enormous square moss-covered boulder overlooking the Sipsey River insisted that we share its shade, and its view of the deep pool at its feet, full of tiny shimmering fish. Three or four miles from the nearest road, we might as well have been in the rainforest of Brazil. This wilderness of branching sandstone canyons and grottoes seemed far more tropical than anything one would expect no further south than northern Alabama. The humidity alone made one imagine equatorial jungle. We watched expectantly for anaconda.

We said little to each other, sitting in reverential silence, taking in the dappled light that undulated through the dense canopy after a brief shower, shafts of light falling on the moving stream of clear emerald water. Soon, and as if the scales had suddenly fallen from my eyes, I was able to see past the reflecting surface of the little river, deep down almost to the sandy bottom of the river. There, a dozen identical finger-sized fish pointed the way upstream, gliding and swaying side to side, but never moving forward, were never swept backward, never rested from their efforts against the current.

My friend saw them, too. At length I remarked to Steve, "You know, those fish must expend an enormous amount of energy swimming against the current, all day every day, just to avoid being swept to the sea".

He replied matter-of-factly, "We all do, Fred, we all do".

The tepid water of the creek was our trail, and we waded into wilderness against the August heat of Alabama. The shallow river cooled our legs as we moved further and further away from the nearest marked trail or road. The humidity was palpable. From time to time, we would soak our bandanas in the stream before putting them back around neck or forehead. Stopping on a sandy island to get our bearings, Steve's face was soon buried in the map, intently following the contour lines up one thin ravine to its source, looking for the perfect place to pitch our tents for the night, and soon, by mid-afternoon if possible, so we could enjoy the being there as much as the getting there. I looked up just as a hummingbird positioned itself motionless an inch from Steve's ear, attracted, we later assumed, by his red bandana. I warned him not to move; he froze. Steve was relieved when he found the threat I warned of was nothing more than being ear-pollinated by a long-beaked bird! It stayed just so, long enough for me to get a picture. I have lost the picture, but kept the memory perfectly, hovering in time.

By the middle of the afternoon, we had discovered one particularly splendid blind-ended canyon typical of the Sipsey area, carved by a small tributary of Thompson Creek. The small side-stream plunged over the rim of the ledge above, splashing into a pool of jagged rocks that were so long in place, they were swathed in thick moss and tall arching ferns. Trees grew atop them, roots wrapping round like tentacles of jellyfish, to find the forest floor. The sound of water echoed and hissed like a seashell held to the ear, reverberating in this conch of stone. Here we would stay the night. Nestled back under the broad high dome of ancient rock, we spread our gear on a bed of dry leaves that had drifted into the hollow of rock the previous fall. And then, we had the rest of the afternoon to slow down and absorb the wonder of the place, to let it seep into our bones, and let go the hectic rhythms of the city and highway.

We made ourselves comfortable, stretching out to rest under the ledge of rock frozen in place for millenia, like a breaking wave, 40 feet overhead. Our 'roof' extended out beyond us in a towering brow, toward the nameless stream in the V-shaped bottom of the narrow valley. Tall trees, especially Cucumber Magnolias and massive Tulip Poplars, competed with each other to gain the most benefit of sunlight, lifting their topmost branches above the rim of this hidden green, wet, shadow-filled cove. I have seldom felt such serenity as in this timeless place. The massive unmoving stone whispered to us of permanence, changeless stability, security. I put this into words as best I could, sharing them with Steve. Then we were quiet again for perhaps an hour, lost in our own thoughts.

As we lay there on top of our sleeping bags, hands clasped contentedly behind our heads, I felt a small mote of something fall on my face. Soon, Steve did too. Then a few more specks, and we both realized in the same instant what was happening, and together saw the irony of it. These specks of sand had been falling in just this way, relentless over eons, like ticks from a great granular clock of massive sandstone. With each tick, tock, grain and speck, the great rock diminished. On this particular day, two human minds were there to comprehend it.

The very substance of the sanctuary of stone around us that had spoken to us of permanence-- fixed and immutable features on our map-- was speck upon grain, yielding to forces tearing matter apart, marking time, surrendering to the pull of gravity. The very mountain was moving each moment to the sea. Those tiny motes in our eyes would join the fish we had watched earlier in the day, holding their places in the stream. Pebble and sand would then move with inexorable slowness into larger and stronger streams, at last to find rest in the Gulf. This end, too, suggests the false certainty of a final end. Sand specks will become stone, stones compacted will be lifted up into mountains yet once more, and grains will fall, one by one, and wash away, and live again in mountains.

Posted by fred1st at May 26, 2003 05:56 AM | TrackBack

Wow! What a beautiful story, Fred. The picture you painted drew me in so completely, I could see the river and woods myself. Thank you...I was taken back in time and recalled similar fond memories of hiking, camping and wading rivers in my bare feet. Not to mention the bandanas.... :)

Posted by: deb at May 26, 2003 08:43 AM

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