05 Big Bend

I loved Big Bend National Park. It’s a vast wilderness of desert mountains and canyons on the West Texas-Mexican border. It had more acres than visitors in a year. The Rio Grande forms the park’s southern border with Mexico. The park has birds that aren’t found anywhere else in the United States. If you wanted to see a Colima Warbler or a Lucifer’s Hummingbird, you had to go hiking in the mountains of the park. Not until months into my rangering did I realize another characteristic of the park. Being on the edge of international airspace, there was no airplane traffic. No contrails across the clear blue sky. It’s hard to notice what’s not there.

Working for the National Park Service felt so idealistically right. I was inspired to give my all in service to this park and the opportunity it created to uplift each visitor. Around me were other staff with similar dedication to the mission of the National Park Service. My first week on the job, when retired men in jumpsuits came walking in from their RV’s, I assumed they would glance away from the long-haired hitchhiker. When, instead, they gave me a hearty “Good morning” and reached out to shake my hand, I realized I had built up a wall of prejudices during my hitchhiking years. I had closed myself off to experiencing the goodness within these people. But now I was a clean-cut National Park ranger, perhaps one of the most highly-respected jobs within the government. (Lots of people came up to me with a grin, saying, “This is one thing I don’t mind paying my taxes for”.) Now people opened to me and I could open to them, knowing it was my opportunity to represent the National Park Service in the highest way I could. I was in service to a Land that I was palpably aware was re-creating park visitors, waking them from a trance in a way similar to the way that that Yukon pass had awoken me.

On the wall of my small government apartment I had the following quote from Gary Snyder’s “Four Changes” (1970):

“Since it doesn’t seem practical or even desirable to think that direct bloody force will achieve much, it would be best to consider this a continuing ‘revolution of consciousness’ which will be won not by guns but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, eschatologies, and ecstasies so that life won’t seem worth living unless one is on the transforming energy’s side.”

I felt, without doubt, that I was living on the transforming energy’s side.

 

We worked a forty-hour week, but they had the schedule worked out wonderfully so that the last day of our week was the earliest shift, meaning our work week ended in the early afternoon. Our first day back was the late night campfire program, so our next work week didn’t start until the early afternoon. That created almost three full days for hiking! I hardly ever left the park. Once a month, on the last morning of my days off, I would take my ice chest and drive the two-hundred-miles round trip to Alpine and buy groceries for the following month, getting back an hour before I started work. Sometimes another ranger going into town bought things for me so I could put off the trip for a few more weeks. Almost all of my days off were spent exploring the park, hiking in a white, loose-fitting pair of light pants and shirt my sister had sewn for me.

 

One of the perks of Big Bend was that the former chief naturalist had encouraged scientific research. There were a lot of graduate students, sometimes accompanied by their professors, doing research for their doctorates on hummingbirds, lizards, century plants, volcanic rocks, gophers. I found myself gravitating to these people who were so passionate about deriving understanding from precise observation. Never having been with scientists before, I was not aware of how strong their emotion was for the world and for this work. I had this “Mr. Spock, logic unclouded by emotion” image of what a scientist should be. But a deep love for the world and the joy of fitting just a piece of it into the great puzzle was the bedrock of so many of the researchers I spent time with. I came to admire how aware and respectful they were of the line between what they actually knew and what they hypothesized. So many of their answers to my questions began with “Well, it depends … “ and they would continue by explaining how the specific situation I had asked about was being shaped by multiple variables, not just the one that had inspired my question. They also used words that had precise meanings. As I learned their precise meanings, these words led me to see the world more precisely. I started to appreciate how precise terminology nourished precision in thought and conversation.

 

The park also had a small but quality library of resource books for the staff. Eugene Odum’s Fundamentals of Ecology revealed the workings of the natural world. Reading Odum was like reading the Cliff Notes for that golden book in my dream. Hundreds of diagrams mapped the pathways of atoms such as carbon or nitrogen within different ecosystems. Though each element had a pathway of chemical transformations unique to it, the underlying pattern was the same. The element would chemically combine with other elements to form a variety of molecules that plants or animals needed to build or maintain their bodies. The molecule would be breathed or eaten or drunk or absorbed into the body or roots where the atoms within the molecule would be chemically rearranged with others to form a molecule that helped form part of the body and could perform some action unique to it.

But at some point, the process of living would rearrange that molecule in question so that it became part of a molecule that was no longer needed, maybe even toxic, requiring the body to eliminate it. Once outside the body, that molecule would be broken down, usually by bacteria, into simpler forms that could once again be used to build molecules useful for another living thing. Though the atoms kept changing into different molecules that came and went, the constituent atoms themselves were never created or destroyed. They kept being used over and over again, throughout the history of the Earth and the possible billions of years before when they were forged in the nuclear furnaces of earlier stars, now long gone.

Hundreds of other diagrams tracked the “fate” of incoming solar energy within different ecosystems: desert, marsh, forest, grassland, tundra. Different ecosystems were capable of absorbing different patterns of solar energy. Like the atoms, this energy could move along a variety of pathways. And like the atoms, the energy could not be created or destroyed. But unlike the atoms, energy could not be used over and over again. Though the energy never vanished, its ability to do work was gradually depleted until all that was left was random molecular motion, heat, that gradually dissipated into the cold blackness of space where it could do no work. There was still as much energy as before but it had all run down into a completely unusable, uniform state.

What made the book so amazing was that its diagrams were not theoretical. Each box and arrow in each diagram had a measured number (often having been measured by Odum and his students), revealing its relative importance and rate within the flows of that system. I carefully studied every diagram, wanting to extract every bit of information or revelation of pattern contained within it. The rate of energy flow through cold-blooded, buoyant-in-water fish, for example, was very different from those of warm-blooded lumbering land mammals. The year-round pattern of energy flow is very different between rainforest and arctic tundra. The cycle of water molecules through a desert is different from a marsh. Different systems had different complexities of paths but they all had the same fundamental pattern of atoms turning in great molecular cycles like a mill wheel powered by a river of solar energy flowing through.

 

One day I was sitting by a desert spring, gazing into its pool. Some parts of the pool drifted in perfect pairs as if joined. When I looked closer, I discovered the pair was something floating on the surface (bubble, fallen leaf, floating insect) and its shadow cast onto the bottom. Once I realized the angle at which all the things in the pool were casting their shadow, the pool acquired precise depths. My focus grew more precise. On the surface are insects moving within the reflections of the world above and beyond the pool. But when I focused on the bottom, I went below the confusion of reflections to a cooler, slower world. As I watched an insect crawling, its path would intersect with an even smaller insect. Sometimes beetles rose to the surface, clasped a shimmering bubble of air between their legs and dove again, leading my focus down through the water column.

My attention kept returning to one insect crawling over the bottom of the pool. A college biology class field trip came upon me as I sat observing. I asked the professor what that insect’s role was within the pond. He replied, “Ah! You’re an ecologist. You want to know what it does, not what its name is.” His comment made me aware of how immersion in the park was changing me. It helped me shift from feeding park visitors (and myself) the “empty calories” of names to the much more “nutritious” and immersive wonderings of “what is actually happening?”

 

Teaching

I gave a slideshow campfire program on the complex geology underlying Big Bend. Presenting the same program each week gave me a chance to polish it. A spontaneous joke that worked would be repeated and I’d play with the timing of its reliable laugh. I

researched topics that were rough so I could explain them more smoothly. I rearranged and replaced slides to strengthen the program’s emotional pull until my presentation slid smoothly towards an enthusiastic, applause-guaranteed conclusion followed by much hand-shaking and thank-you’s from the audience. I was a star. I was succeeding in replicating for others the effect the Denali campfire programs had had on me.

 

One evening, my campfire program coincided with the full moon. I announced that after the program, I would lead a moonlight walk down a desert wash for anybody who wanted to come. About twenty joined me. The light-colored sand and gravel glowed in the moonlight, leading us into the night with only the muffled shifting of sand underfoot. We slowed as we drew near a spring. Frogs were calling. The air grew moister, felt cooler, more alive. We became still, listening, absorbing this experience of a desert spring in the moonlight.

I started feeling an energy emerging within the group like a telepathic vibration aligning us all to this place. I had never felt anything like this before. I didn’t know if others were feeling this or if it was just in my head, but it was growing stronger. This unknown feeling made me nervous. I was the ranger, the leader of the group, responsible for what was happening and this feeling undermined my sense of authority. It was outside of me; beyond my control, unknown. So I said something mundane to turn us all back again into a group of people out with the ranger, ready to head back to our cars.

That was first contact. Now, decades later, I actively strive to invite and sustain these moments of emotional connection with the world beyond our self. I nourish the silent opening. But I was young back then, just beginning to learn about teaching.

 

I had been hired partly because of my geology and astronomy background from college. The night skies way out in the West Texas desert were amazingly dark and clear. Many city people saw, for their first time, the Milky Way, the galaxy we have always lived within. The park had a small, high-quality telescope to offer night sky programs. I gave weekly astronomy presentations which began with an inside slide show and then went outside for star viewing.

One late August evening, I led the group out for the star viewing. As eyes dilated and city people commented on the vast number of stars overhead, I scanned the familiar stars to quickly review the sequence of constellations I would run through. I knew the feature attraction would be the three first-magnitude stars (Altair, Deneb, and Vega) directly overhead forming the Summer Triangle, a large right triangle. Deneb was the tail feathers for Cygnus the Swan (also called the Northern Cross) which is overhead in late summer, flying straight down the Milky Way, a poetically lyrical sight – especially for those city dwellers who had never seen the Milky Way. Cygnus would be the highpoint of my star program. So I glanced up to orient my talk around Cygnus and – it wasn’t there! It should be right up there… and there are bright stars up there… but they didn’t form anything – not a swan, not a cross, just a bunch of stars. Whatever was up there couldn’t be a planet because Cygnus isn’t on the zodiac. I was baffled. The sky did not make sense. Off to the north were the familiar circumpolar constellations but Cygnus had vanished. I was cognitively stunned but I couldn’t show it. I was the ranger responsible for this program, responsible for the accurate dispensing of authoritative knowledge. I could not appear ignorant to my audience; they might think me unworthy of their trust, feel disappointed that they were stuck with an incompetent ranger. Therefore, I talked about the Big Dipper and Little Dipper to the north and Scorpio and Sagittarius to the south but completely ignored the bright stars overhead that I couldn’t figure out. At the next week’s star presentation, everything was as it should be and once again I could wax poetic about the swan flying down the Milky Way. Only later did I learn what happened.

“The spectacular nova V1500 Cygni burst into the evening sky on August 29, 1975, disrupting the familiar outline of the Northern Cross. Many independent visual discoveries of this magnificent nova were made, particularly Minoru Honda from Kurashiki, Japan, who first discovered the nova at a visual of 3.0 magnitude [a measure of apparent brightness] on August 29th. The nova soared to a peak magnitude of 2.0 the next day, then rapidly faded down 3 magnitudes in three days, descending a total of 7 magnitudes in 45 days! V1500 Cyg was the fastest, largest amplitude (~ 19 magnitudes), and second most intrinsically bright nova of the last century (only Nova Puppis 1942 was brighter).”

American Association of Variable Star Observers, http://www.aavso.org/v1500-cyg-nova-cygni-1975

So, I had a group of people gazing up at the “second most intrinsically bright nova of the last century” and I didn’t say a thing about it because I had to be in control; I could not admit to my confusion and share my disorientation. What an ass I was! Positions of authority are seductively tricky things.

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