Triple Falls Portrait

Bare rock protrudes
Extends the mountain side
Moss, lichen cling
Little River cascades
Down three rocky tiers
Waterfalls churn
Pummel granite slabs
Thunder reverberates
Through the valley
Mist, spray permeates
Prism droplets sparkle
Water grinds stone
Forms shallow pools
Tree limbs overhang
Provide shade
Wind sprinkles leaves
Float on the surface
River meanders
Dodges boulders
Black racer glides
Startles wading bathers
Rainbow trout hide
Elude fishermen’s flies
Eastern sweet shrub blooms
Fruity fragrance drifts
Arouses hikers’ senses

By Suzanne Cottrell

Author at Triple Falls

Suzanne Cottrell, an Ohio Buckeye by birth, lives with her husband and three rescue dogs in rural Piedmont North Carolina. An outdoor enthusiast and retired teacher, she enjoys hiking, biking, gardening, and Pilates. She loves nature and its sensory stimuli and particularly enjoys writing and experimenting with poetry and flash fiction. Her work has appeared in The Avocet, The Weekly Avocet, The Remembered Arts Journal, Plum Tree Tavern, The Skinny Poetry Journal, Three Line Poetry, Haiku Journal, Tanka Journal, Poetry Quarterly, Women’s Voices Anthology (These Fragile Lilacs Literary Journal), The Pop Machine (Inwood Indiana Press), and Nailpolish Stories, A Tiny and Colorful Literary Journal.

Photo is a portrait of the author at Triple Falls in DuPont State Forest in North Carolina, USA.

Desert Musings

“The heat was hot and the ground was dry But the air was full of sound” from “A Horse With No Name” by Dewey Bunnell

From the very first time that I visited our Southwest, it became clear that the “barren” deserts were far from barren. Not unlike the areas of the eastern coastal plain that are dubbed “pine barrens”, the label is as inaccurate and misleading as it is evocative. And with a few notable exceptions, the southwestern desert does not resemble the dunescape depicted in old movies about the French Foreign Legion, or Lawrence of Arabia, or even, well, Dune. There is a lot of life, beauty, majesty, and yes, heat, in our deserts.

I recently spent some time camping before monsoon season, under the open skies in the area of the country where three of our four major desert systems, the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan converge. That geographic and ecological merge takes place in the ”three-corner” area where Nevada, Utah and Arizona come together. This area covers from portions of the north rim of the Grand Canyon, northwest through the Valley of Fire, and northeast towards Zion National Park. Flora and fauna representative of all three eco-systems can overlap here, making it an extremely interesting destination for a desert naturalist. Although daytime temperatures quickly soared into triple digits, once topping out at 127 degrees, it strangely enhanced the experience of spending time in these environments. In this type of heat, there are not herds of critters thundering down most arroyos. However a quiet approach and practiced observation can reveal not only uniquely beautiful landscapes and vegetation, but the birds, animals and insects that inhabit the region. Add a good pair of binoculars, and a cooler (read shady) place to rest and scan, and you can check off even more boxes on your life lists or field guides if so inclined.

Author's son by desert wilderness signThe Colorado River and it’s impoundments, Lakes Mead and Mojave are the best known and most popular recreational water in this region, and with good reason. Lake Mead National Recreation Area offers water-based sports and eco-tourism opportunities surrounded by desert habitat remote enough to be inhabited by the occasional Gila monster. But this is not the only water here, although fishable options require a little more exploration. You can find fish in various parks in or near Las Vegas, like the oasis that is Floyd Lamb State Park near Tule Springs. However, my favorite spots in the region are near St. George in southwest Utah. In the foothills above the town, it was a unique experience to catch a few largemouth bass in 114 degree temperatures on my last trip. Obviously water temperatures were much lower, but the lack of cover and discernible structure left few options for places where fish might congregate. In this case, it was a few floating weed mats that provided secure ambush points for the bass to forage from. Terrestrial creatures similarly seek out protection and cover in their sun baked desert home. And although the sighting of a Gila monster or even a desert tortoise is rare, there are plenty of other critters scurrying about, hiding in the mesquite and creosote or scrambling amongst the crevices in the sandstone rocks.

On this trip, we hiked up to and camped on a high butte in the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Recreation area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management. In the Parashant, dispersed camping (primitive/backpack) is allowed, and we spent our nights in the Mount Bangs/Paiute Wilderness portion. The view on all sides of seemingly endless desert was serene as the light faded, the grub sizzled in the fry pan, and the temperature moderated somewhat. The air would began to stir, and the first of seemingly endless waves of cooling breezes arrived. Aromatic winds of varying velocity and sound would sweep up and onto the butte with us all night. As the desert disappeared beyond our immediate campsite, small creatures like pack rats, whiptail lizards and geckos could be seen in the beam of a lantern at times.

And far away from the light pollution, and unobstructed by an overhead tent roof, the magnificent June night sky presented itself. As we laid back on tarps and accordion sleeping pads, our entire field of vision was consumed by stars. Clusters, constellations, the Milky Way and even three meteors, provided the evening’s entertainment. The display was almost surrealistic, and it seemed as if a giant talking head of Neil DeGrasse Tyson might suddenly materialize to help explain exactly what we were witnessing. But in a way, no explanation was required to savor the experience. The visual art of the southwest night sky in this setting was visceral. Perhaps somewhat like walking into a room in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and confronting a wall size Jackson Pollack painting for the first time. Just seeing and feeling can be enough in both cases.

campsite in desertAs dawn approached, the waning wind and the morning calls of the birds worked like an alarm clock, stirring me off my sleeping pad and coaxing me to the east facing edge of the butte. Sitting on my haunches with my arms wrapped around my knees, I sat waiting for the world, as far as I could see, to awaken. Of all the beauty that you can encounter in the desert, this time of day takes a back seat to none. As spectacular as the red rock formations or distant peaks and neighboring mesas and buttes can be bathed in full sunlight, this is something else yet again. The light of false dawn through daybreak offers an opportunity to see this desert world revealed through yet another magical and incremental lens. As the sky begins to glow over the farthest ridge line, you can imagine you feel the warmth rise up the slope towards you. As the sun crests the rocks and begins it’s slow pursuit of the shadows across the valley floor, you no longer need to imagine the heat, increasingly an unmistakeable but pleasant warmth at this hour. The few places that will hold shade during the sunrise are now becoming clearly defined. Picking my way carefully down the rocky slope, I sought to find footfalls that would not disturb the somewhat delicate crust of the desert soil.

On the desert plain surrounding our butte, chuckwallas and banded geckos were present, probably in greater numbers than The few I noted among the brush, small cacti and rocks. Being quick enough and pretty well camouflaged, horned lizards were even more difficult to spot, and unfortunately not a hint of a Gila monster. No tarantulas either, but a few scorpions scouted the terrain much the same as I did. Voles darted in and out of a few sagebrush varieties, and a raven called from a small juniper bush. The birds were wary and distant, but the one phainopepla I identified was the first I’d ever seen. It was feeding on the random buzzing flies that popped up occasionally in the area. That wasn’t really too surprising, but the number of whitish, gray and muted brown colored butterflies was unexpected, considering the relative scarcity of plants in flower. Exploring slowly around the buttes where we camped at night in the relative cool of dawn and early morning, always revealed a varied mix of interesting desert species.

I found it interesting that the yelping and howls of coyotes were not among the sounds we heard in the evenings, although they were certainly present. Our major encounter with a larger mammal came on our final day, when we sought out the relative cool of the mountains in Spring Mountains Recreation Area, part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in Nevada. I say relative, because although the trail to the summit of Mount Charleston led to snow and ice fields, the trek upwards began at the trailhead lot where the afternoon temperature read 101 degrees. It was nearby in the Willow Creek section of the Spring Mountains that we encountered the megafauna of our trip, a herd of six mustangs. Slowly moving through a sea of scrub some fifty meters in front of us, the largest mare led four of the wild horses on their pre-selected vector. The large roan stallion slowly walked in our direction, positioning himself between us and the the rest of the herd. Calmly, but alertly watching us watching him. When the other horses had made their way deeper into the desert, he turned and followed them down a dry wash, around a hillock, and out of sight. A horse with no name perhaps, but he will always be “Unforgettable”, a fitting enough moniker, my mind.

Photos by the author

Sweet and Sour

I slapped at a nagging mosquito. Mozzies? In broad daylight? “This is just ridiculous,” I muttered.

“Well,” Frank said, consulting the compass again, “I think it’s to the south.”

Zacarias shook his head. “No, no, to the southeast.”

In truth, we were mystified. How was it possible a lake we’d visited during a giant otter census only six months earlier had vanished without a trace?

Sirena was one of several lakes in the Peruvian rainforest that my husband and I surveyed regularly with our two local assistants, Zacarias and Benjamin. Earlier that morning, we had established our river camp and set off for the lake, expecting to arrive at Sirena within the hour. Zacarias wielded a machete, clasping under the other arm a ripe pineapple – we planned to eat it later, while watching the otters. Benjamin backpacked the heavy, inflatable canoe and carried a spare machete. Frank was in charge of the compass and camera, while I juggled the oars and pump. We realized too late we’d forgotten our map and GPS but that didn’t worry us; we knew where we were going.

We chatted as we walked through the forest, pausing frequently to taste wild fruit or enquire about a tree. Zacarias sliced through corkscrewing vines with competent flicks of his wrist. A large, electric blue butterfly winked past, its lilting flight surely a ploy to avoid predation. I kept my eyes peeled for larger wildlife. After walking an hour or so, certain we must be near the lake, we stopped for a brief rest. The sun burned white through the forest canopy.

“Just a few hundred metres now,” Frank said, wiping his face with his sleeve.

I sighed and eyed the pineapple. “Let’s keep going.”

As we continued, the conversation became peppered with remarks like, “This way,” “No, I’m sure it’s that way,” and, finally, from an exhausted Benjamin, “Where the hell is the lake?”

It was no good. After another break, we decided to go back to camp and return in the afternoon.

“With the map and GPS this time.” I looked meaningfully at Frank. He was our map reader; maps were his responsibility.

Wearily collecting our gear, we headed straight for the river instead of retracing our steps along the tortuous trail we’d cleared in our search for Sirena. A short-cut seemed a good idea, and then we’d simply walk along the river bank to camp.

Tortoise on Jungle leavesSoon, we stumbled upon a tortoise – a symbol of bad luck to jungle residents – plodding across our path. Frank and I glanced at each other, grimly amused by our shared thought. How ironic. I stooped to stroke its sun-warmed, patchwork shell as I passed, thinking fondly of my pet tortoise of long ago.

Seconds later, I heard a dull thud behind me. I swung round and saw the tortoise lying on its back in the leaf litter, its head retracted into its shell. Benjamin stood nearby, breathing hard, his face flushed.

I found my voice. “Ben! Why’d you do that!?”

His eyes refused to meet mine.

“Jeez, it’s just a superstition,” I added, trying not to shout.

Ben nodded slowly, shamefaced now.

Picking up the helpless tortoise, I examined its shell before placing it back on its feet. “It’s okay. No harm done.” But morale was low as we wordlessly resumed our hike in single file.

Zacarias, still clutching the pineapple, hacked a way through dense undergrowth of thorny bamboo with renewed vigour, apparently optimistic the river was close by. As time passed, though, his slashes became more perfunctory and we were forced to drop to our hands and knees to negotiate the greedy thorns. Vicious, red ants swarmed up our limbs whenever we faltered, and mosquitoes the size of leggy bluebottles whined in our ears. My pump and oars kept snagging on the vegetation.

What the hell are we doing here? My fingers found and yanked a bloated tick from my ankle. My shirt clung to my back, and there was a long tear in my trousers. This whole, damn forest should be chopped down and turned into matchsticks. Right now.

We eventually staggered into camp. Speaking in terse monosyllables, we assembled in the large tent we had erected on the beach. Zacarias slumped in a chair and inspected the blisters on his hands. Taking a GPS reading, our first since making camp, Frank and I pored over the map we had forgotten. A silence followed, while Benjamin listlessly sliced the pineapple. Frank’s finger pinpointed our position.

I stared at him, dumbfounded.

“Oh, for Chrissake,” he groaned. “We’re nowhere near Sirena. It’s much further upriver.”

For five sweaty, laborious, painful hours we had searched for a lake where none existed.

Minutes later, we were spluttering with laughter, our mouths full of juicy pineapple. Zacarias, still chuckling, clouted Frank on the shoulder. “Just a few hundred metres now, huh?” After all, it was Frank who had identified the wrong river bend as our starting point.

Frank grinned ruefully and licked his fingers. “Well, is it my fault these meanders all look the same?”

The next day, Benjamin discovered we’d left our spare machete behind somewhere in the bamboo thicket. We looked at each other. The decision was unanimous.

“Leave it. Let the ants and mozzies have it.”

Visit Jessica at her website: Words From the Wild.

Photo of tortoise by Andre Baertschi

A Walk on the Oxfordshire Ridgeway

Today I took a walk up to my favourite spot on the Ridgeway. It’s been a little while since I have been there, and I wanted to see how it had changed, what magic nature had worked, how it would feel like a different place since I last saw it, overcast and grey and covered in the white, milky puddles that ancient chalk footpaths make.

The sky was blue but the air cool when I arrived at the top of Chain Hill. Instantly, the instinctive expansion of lungs and stomach to draw in the light, windswept air, and the dropping of shoulders. I don’t get up here enough. A short walk this morning, a couple of hours wrestled from the week to refuel, slow down, see what I am missing – to really look.

a footpath running along a hillside I should know it already, of course, but in my absence the world has changed immeasurably, in a way that every time, though I should know better, takes me by surprise. There are, I could easily believe, a thousand shades of green. Unreal, neon-lit grasses, deep emerald leaves, the nearly-black of shaded undertrees, the lime newness of unfurling buds, the changing dusty yellow-sage and winter-brown of fields as clouds race over them. Enough variety to make life below this high old pathway retreat and curl up, distant.

Verges which I know busied themselves with snowdrops against a bare, black and white background are now shoulder-high with shoots and violet flowers. The grass that runs down the middle of the track is dotted with white and yellow buds and thistle-shaped heads. The sky above is the kind that seems put together to amaze us, to force us to recognise how large the world is, how ridiculous our arguments, our problems: cobalt blue, with faint lines drawn long before smaller white circles. There’s something about being surrounded by all this colour, above and below, that fills the mind and leaves no room for negative emotions.

I read somewhere, and I wish I could remember where, about the benefits of simply being surrounded by nature and away from the devices that we use to fill our senses at home – that the bright colours and movement and noise of our televisions, computers and mobile phones cannot compete with the way in which all our senses are needed when we’re outside – the noise, the movement, the detail, the scents, the feel of grassheads on your palm. This makes absolute sense to me. I don’t hate modern life – it’s wonderful that we can share information in a way that has never been done before. I just hope that we don’t forget what else there is, outside. That we remember that pictures of nature are inspiring, but they aren’t the same as being there, and breathing it in; the sound of wind whistling through treetops, and the playful changing light.

As I walked from Chain Hill to the iron age fort, the sun grew warmer and the light brighter, so that I feel, now, a couple of hours later, that a light and warmth is still held behind my eyelids. Soon I realised how much I had missed – that sense that you can walk the same path every day, and it will never be quite the same. Different things will happen, different details will appear under different lights, impossible as it is to see without filtering everything through your own mind. Such walks fill me with a sense of peace, but also with an underlying sadness that I can’t be there everyday. I’m missing things. Things so important and unfeasible in their simplicity. That somewhere, while I sit in traffic, kites are circling and flowers are unfurling. There’s something comforting, though, in knowing that whatever else happens, this goes on. The green sap pushing through the world as it turns, producing tidal waves of growth as the seasons wash from one continent to another.

What things did I see, and not miss, this time? Butterflies, tiny and violet blue, like jewels on a Victorian dressing table, looking as if they would taste of dust and sugar; brown, with bright orange circles, sunning themselves on flowers that tilted with the wind; pearl, and quick to flutter away into the white cloud above. Their cousin, a long, furred caterpillar with an armour of small spikes that wriggled across the pebbles and which I paused for, to make sure that it reached the grass on the other side, safe from the tracks of cyclists’ wheels, and which thereby shrank and wonderfully paused my world for a few minutes.

a path through a bluebell woodPassing underneath trees so thick with leaves that delightfully spooky-looking shadows covered the path beneath me, a cloud of buttercups glowed like gold coins. Above the branches, a crow burst across the sky in a shocking black cross, like a warning, like a shout. Back in the sun, a chaffinch warbled proudly from a branch end, showing off his salmon breast. All these seemed suitable, when after an hour I arrived at the iron age hill fort which I had last climbed up on a windswept day, hands tucked in pockets.

Grass which had seemed sparse and bare underfoot now swept past my knees, leaving small circles of dew damp. From the top of the fort’s ridge, I saw that what had been bare grass, impressive in its stillness and plainness, was now a waving field of yellow and white, tiny flowers and paper-like grassheads. Truly, I had missed the arrival of a new world. I could be in another country. I kneeled in the damp grass to see things from its level, as the sky grew immense overhead and insects fizzed around my head. No wonder the birds and bright colours had been trying to prepare me for this.

There is something immensely comfortable in the thought that you can stand on ground that was moulded by human hands hundreds of thousands of years ago, and yet be amazed to see it change from season to season. Its permanence, and flexibility. Its continuity, despite all odds, and the way it can burst forth with life from days of ice chill and bare soil. In changing times, I feel invigorated by the reminder that such earth does not care for current political changes, for what I have to achieve this week, for tarmac roads and busy offices. It will be there, even while I am away, preparing another surprise, a new show, a shift of details that will prove so rewarding when found. It is possible, there, to feel both tiny and young, and older than the years, part of the sky and soil that surrounds you. It doesn’t matter what you believe in. It’s just free, and alive.

As I turned to head back to the rest of my day, I saw from the corner of my eye a dark shape drifting through a field of emerald green crops to my right. A deer, solitary, and moving slower and more gently than I have seen before, as if swimming through the plants, enjoying the view, as if floating. Hands raised over my eyes, I stopped to watch – she was so close, but unaware of my existence. Time paused. Then, she lifted her head and looked directly at me. I froze, unwilling to break the moment that had snared us both in it, a tightrope drawn between us. A shallow breath later, she gently swung her head round, and carried on her slow, sedate way, parting the green waves. Knowing that neither of us mattered, really, just the parts we were playing in this life, this time, this round, as the sun travelled overhead.

Photos by Adam Edwards

Moki Creek, Utah

Rills at the stream’s edge repeat thought.
I think of the many animal tracks covering
the continent, can’t step anywhere without
hoof, paw, claw or flipper, hair-thin touch
of a water-strider or a spider landing
there before my booted, five-toed foot.

If I put out feelers, I can sense, not a foot
away from any skin cell on my body, the thought
(or actual presence?) of the past that covers
or hovers around me. I breathe without
hesitation, each breath inhales a touch
of past exhalations, floating, landing.

Things live beyond themselves, the very land
is made of rocks that have risen, a foot-
long branch scatters needles like thoughts
from a purposeless daydream where I discover,
again, how mercilessly quickly time goes, without
a by-your-leave, without a parting touch

so I could feel I’ve been present, have touched
at least the stream’s rills or smelled the land’s
damp scent. I want the imprint of my foot
to be more conscious, want my thoughts
to last, as memories I’ll later discover,
palpable parts of day I needn’t do without.

Sit down here with the invisible, without
conscience’s scolding chatter, free to touch
almost unbearably cold water. Over land
infected with risen rocks, places where foot
after foot has passed and tracks, like thought,
wash down over the course the stream covers.

Look across where trees’ reflection covers
water, one existence layering another without
the need to ask permission or excuse the touch
it lays imperceptibly, surely, as it lands
on water’s surface and changes the passing, foot
by foot, down this slope into my thoughts.

Not to take without giving, not to measure, foot
upon foot, each thought by its ‘profound discovery.’
To land in the midst of myself, to be touched.

By Grace Marie Grafton

hiker under giant stone arch in desert

Grace Marie Grafton is the author of six collections of poetry, which can be reviewed on Amazon’s site. Grafton_Whimsey_CoverShe lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, with a redwood tree outside her kitchen door and a native live oak next to her deck. Nearby are red squirrels, raccoons, salamanders, and (never seen) mountain lions. Other of her nature poems can be found in Canary (online), Peacock Journal (online), Third Wednesday, Poecology and The Common Ground Review. Her book, Whimsy, Reticence and Laud: unruly sonnets, is rooted in her love of nature. She has taught for decades with CA Poets in the Schools, frequently taking her grade school students outdoors for their poetry lessons.

Photo of A hiker at Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, United States by Koji Hirano.