I had intended to write about the wonders and mysteries of the sun, and although it was a shaft of sun that prompted me to tell this story, autumn colors on Yellow Creek were responsible for luring me forth into October sunshine.
The morning was a "see-your-breath-cold" time at Yellow Creek halfway up the Feather River Canyon near Belden. When I arrived at ten o'clock, the steep chasm of the mountain stream was still in dark shadow, so I hastened on to the more sun-warmed openness of Spanish Creek upstream. My main object was the Indian Rhubarb plants that spread their broad leaves along the streams and turn a delightful, photogenic red before withering with the first frosts.
Frost had already browned the higher-elevation rhubarb, and oak and maple leaves were at peak color before descending downward - "...past things coming up..." as Robert Frost said. At 1:30 I returned to Yellow Creek - just in time to see the shaft of sun that streaks into the shadows for a few noon-time hours each autumn day.
Deep in the canyon there was some brilliant red Indian Rhubarb dotting the edge of the charging rapids, and I could see that the shadow from the sun, as it dropped over the edge of the ridge, was soon to come. I positioned the tripod and lined up my camera on a colorful composition of plants reflected in the water, and decided to wait until the shadow darkened the foreground. I had maybe l5 minutes to wait for the proper moment, and like still-fishing, there was time to look around until action.
Looking upward, I could see the massive moss-covered mountain walls and ancient-looking oak trees anchored at the top. Clusters of colorful dogwood and yellow maple were highlighted against the somber, pine studded landscape, and only the constant chatter of the stream gave any sign of animate life.
Then I noticed the water ouzel [American Dipper], preening at the edge of a gravel bar 50 feet away on the other side. It was seemingly unconcerned with being alone in a massive wilderness and the dangerous perils of the rocky canyon, nor with me across the stream puttering with my equipment. We were neighbors of a sort, the only two forms of animal life to be seen, even though our physical structures were vastly different. The little fist-sized feathered bird with the pointed beak and wondrous wings indeed contrasted with my clumsy, two-legged body with a cloth covering.
Yet, we both occupied a space in the world and both breathed the same air. We functioned in the similar way of taking food in our mouths in a digestive process that ended with defecation. Although I was intellectually superior, I think, I could not live off the land like the bird but rather depended on community food distributed in grocery stores. Indeed, I would perish of starvation and perhaps loneliness if I were stranded in the canyon for only a few nights.
When it was apparent that my presence did not alarm the dipper bird that often dips up and down and even takes dips in the water!, I tried to communicate. At first, I merely whistled several of the old hymns, and "Down in the Valley," knowing that the water lover is melodious and often alights on the boulders and sings gaily. It continued preening, busy with the process of rearranging its water repellency. I tried talking, softly voicing English words in a non-English environment. "Good day, little bird, I'm your friend. Come over on this rock and let me take your picture." That was foolish babble, but I thought it might make the ouzel curious enough to slip over to see what was going on.
No wonder the water ouzel was John Muir's favorite bird. He called it "the hummingbird of the mountains," referring to its musical nature. There is something comforting in seeing another life form accompanying you In The Great Unknown. The ouzel seems to cherish its solitude and freedom, and seemingly goes about its business happily plying the watery environment for sustenance. There are those moments when it presumedly interacts with another ouzel following the unavoidable dictum of propagating the species, but usually the bird follows its solitary drummer and sputters from rock to rock alone.
I would have been disappointed if there had been no water ouzel. It has become a custom to go to Yellow Creek in the autumn and commune with the colored leaves and fresh, flowing stream. The ouzel is part of it, and I am always reassured when I reconnect with what I expect, and know that nature lives in a habitat that is intact. The thought of the mere presence of the components of a wild community is strengthening to the mind. Although I visit Yellow Creek only a few times a year, it is comforting to think of the place where the water flows and the water ouzel flies and dives.
Finally, that ouzel finished preening, and with a few dips up and down, started probing the gravel shallows for supper. There seems to be no fear of the deadly depths where the air breather can drown, or dangers in the ominous forest anchored into the mountain walls, or the prowling mink or the lurking Cooper's hawk that could snatch it away. It lives as long as it can live.
Finally, the shadow advanced, relentlessly moving toward the sun-warmed boulders protruding from the stream like bulky ships trying to survive, and I was busy composing my best laid photographic plan. When I looked up, the ouzel was gone, and I wondered where it would stay when darkness devoured the canyon.
I was alone again, even as John Muir had undoubtedly been on many lonely treks into the wild. I welcomed the sight of the gray squirrel loping down the canyon wall to get an evening drink before hiding away for the night. It paused to pick up an acorn before scampering to a safe place somewhere above in the depths of the forest. Then another, and another, came to drink farther upstream. It was as if each one had its cabin site and honored its own waterfront.
The sun disappeared and it was dark and chilly along the trail. I paused to look back and wish those occupants of the wild good tidings. May their kind be there when I return. That is the eternal hope.
Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without words,
And never stops at all.--Emily Dickinson
© 1999 Rex Burress
October 26, l999