Vulture Flats

There comes a point in early summer where everything grows quiet. I notice the shift not quite consciously, as it remains just under the surface for a few weeks, until it grows into enough of a nag that I find myself wondering “What’s different?”. As I walk trails that I visit frequently, I find my attention darting around, as if I am looking for something, but am met only with external stillness. At some point, it dawns on me that Spring is over, and we have entered the maturity of Summer. A season that has found its feet, where getting on with the business of life becomes the focus. Youth is over and the seedlings have grown stout, flowers are beginning to bear fruit and the fledglings have taken flight. Summer lacks the racousness of Spring, where everything is twitterpated and flirty and hummanah hummanah come here baby. Life reaches its apex, and from such great heights past and future are revealed. It is an uncomfortable paradox that just as the sun reaches its zenith, all shadows are illuminated. Contained within the arc of life at its peak, is also the promise of its inevitable end.

If I were to place myself on the seasonal wheel, I would land smack dab on this point of the longest day. The approach of my 40th birthday this year has come with a  spectre that enjoys jumping out at me from corners and sneaking up behind me when I’m unawares. (My birthday, by the way, is not until November, so tuck those wishes back in your pocket. Unless you would like to use one to make time slow down, and then, by all means…). Not so much a mid-life crisis, but I would definitely say I’m in a mid-life reckoning. I totally get why some people go out and buy that sports car. I think all of us buy into, in whatever small or big way, that sense that our life is coming, but has yet to arrive. That we still have time for it to start. That someday is around a corner somewhere. As I approach my own zenith, I find panic striking suddenly, in short lightning bursts, because something will remind me that this is it. Not only is someday something I can’t wait for, I am a little bit terrified that it has already passed. While I was wandering around inside of myself, half of my life has gone by. It’s not new at all, this sense that I want to live life to the fullest, to be as present as possible. It’s just that the stakes seem higher now, because I don’t have as much time to do it. Making a choice to check out  is like deciding whether or not to spend my last 5 dollars on a mocha. I might have instant gratification, but it will be short lived.

I used to find this stillness, this sense of pregnant pause, almost unbearable. In the city it would come on as a sense of ennui, or gloom, which seemed so inappropriate…it’s Summer! Shouldn’t I be feeling some other way? I would chalk it up to foggy coastal Junes. Except it becomes even starker when I am in the golden rolling hills and scorching heat of my Northern California heartland. As I have learned to not get jumpy, and instead settle down with it all, beauty, poignancy and a little bit of grief emerge.

These past few years, I have been blessed to hold this experience as I walk along the sandstone, the bed of my favorite stretch of Dry Creek. It’s beauty is humble, and hard to see, but once in view I find it profound. As a place rarely visited by humans, the trace of animal activities are everywhere, the most noticeable being that of Turkey Vultures. I stumble across their pellets of spit up bones and fur and feel like a forty-niner picking up a golden nugget. I find the broken egg shells of California Quail, the dropped feather of a Great Blue Heron, the scat and tracks of a raccoon, and I find my way into the Universe like John Muir  did in the forests.

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness. J. Muir, 1938.

Great Blue Heron feather, Quail egg, Vulture or Heron pellet made up entirely of Crawdad. You get a line and I’ll get a pole, honey.

Raccoon toes and brown algae.

Pay attention to poop. Becoming familiar with animal scat will make you a nature detective extraordinaire. I wasn’t totally sure if the pellets I was finding were from owls, vultures or herons. The giant bird poop featured above tells me that it was probably a Great Blue Heron. 

Oh my gawd! Why is she showing us a picture of THAT! Ewwwww! *Nervous adolescent giggle*. BECAUSE people, if you want to track animals, and I think you should because it’s awesome, then being able to identify scat will become a prized skill. Also, it’s fun to get giddy over poop. This is from a raccoon. Can you tell what it’s been eating? Poking the little logs with a stick revealed that it was made up almost entirely of Manzanita berries. I didn’t know that raccoons ate those…did you? Now you do.

Birth and death. Growth and decay. Food and shit. Life.

As I walk I marvel at the geology, earth history written in the stones. The life cycle of the creek is re-enacted in slow motion, as before my eyes I see the way the sand stone hardened and formed around larger rocks of a different substance. Across the water I see the striations in the boulders and realize the fast blink of my life. I hear the song contained within the earth and it is deep and low, infrasonic, slow. I am humbled. I am grateful.

In the early morning I rest in a spot where the year before I made a friend. I wonder about her, wonder where she is now.

I stand up to stretch, hands up to the sky, reaching to earth, updog, downdog. I see something on the rocks in front of me. My question is answered.

The coloring on the still visible scales tells me this was a kingsnake. Perhaps my friend, perhaps one of her relations. Fern and I sit with the bones, gently wiggling the vertebrae, wondering  and hushed. We go on a treasure hunt, finding more remains here and there, compiling them together with found richness.

I like these bones and am tempted to bring them home. But lately I have been more inclined to leave the magic where I find it. I don’t need any more reminders of my worth. So I let the bones rest where they belong, slowly seeping their incarnation back into the stones. We take seashells off the beach, antlers out of the woods, crystals out of the earth, and then we wonder why natural places feel so vulnerable and unprotected. Maybe it would make a difference, maybe not. But still…I left them there.

Not everything is heat and skeletons. The Acorn Woodpeckers chuckle like squeaky toys, the Quail startle the daylights out of us as they break the silent grass with worried wings, tiny babies flapping behind them. Hawks and vultures circle overhead, swifts swoop down to drink from the water, a hummingbird follows me around like there is a nectar filled flower 2 feet above my head. Minnows. Turtles. Frogs that shriek when you walk by and belly flop into the algae.

Delight at shrieking frogs.

I cursed myself on that last post, daring to say that I thought we were in that “it gets easier” stage. I laughed with Anne’s comment that she doesn’t know if “easier” exists and sometimes it’s more like “one hour at a time”. Indeed. My daughter was a beast on this trip, with tantrums regressing back 6 months or so. Travelling and being uprooted is hard for a little one, bringing lots of insecurity for a consistency loving Virgo. Our time spent waterside, whether creek or lake, was the best of times.

Hey, hey, I’m from the Lower Haight, gettin’ all up in your country, yo.

Everywhere there was Klamath Weed. Known to most as St. John’s Wort, I’ve always known this friend by her local nominer. There was also Pennyroyal, Coyote Mint, Mimulus, Mallow. I spent my last precious morning at my favorite spot, snipping thankfully the yellow heads of the Klamath Weed, nestling them into a jar with olive oil, so that I can pour on and rub in some of that solstice sun when the clouds hang heavy in San Francisco.

Whatever you are doing today, in the big picture and in the small, I hope you are able to take a moment to bask in the Midsummer Sun. Happy Solstice!


12 thoughts on “Vulture Flats

  1. As always, so beautifully written. Poignant and lovely and totally throat-grabby. I just turned 42 on Monday (aaaalmost a solstice baby) and I’ve been having plenty of those near-panic moments of wondering if the life I’ve been waiting for all these years has already happened? Have I been wasting time just skimming along on the surface of things, instead of digging deep to find the meaning? Especially in the last few years with interesting and sometimes frightening life circumstances, I’ve been trying my hardest to ground and center myself whenever I remember to in order to come back to Right Now, and to just dwell there (here) for as long as I can. Before I get distracted again. Heh. I think I’m doing pretty good if I remember to do this at least three times a week… like going to the gym. Call it emotional fitness. ;o) I’m glad you’re here, chronicling your own efforts to do the same. It really is immensely helpful to this reader.

    Also, thanks for my first ever glimpse of racoon poop. Ha. I think those critters eat just about ANYTHING. I do know they’re fond of cat food left out on the front porch. ;o)

  2. what a perfect, perfect, perfect solstice post. thank you. i’ve been attracting hummingbirds myself lately 🙂 i am glad that you got to roam your beloved landscapes of life and death, magic and decay., and like always to carry some with you back into the busy city world. i think that you have done everything and anything a forty year old could dream of in her truest heart, and will of course continue to do so. full ripening love to you and yours!

  3. A beautiful post, the writing, the pictures and even the poop. If there is one thing you can count on as a parent, nothing stays the same for long. Fern will continue to find her way, and I am grateful that you share that with us. We are having beach days this week , sunny and 90’s. The water is warming up for Fern’s arrival. L, Grandma

  4. Beautiful post Mary. I can totally identify with that strange melancholy that settles in at certain times of the year. That panic that rises with the questions. Am I enjoying this enough? Am I really living the way I want to live? Will I ever read all the books I want to read? Hear all the music I want to hear? Is this where I should be right now?? It can be difficult to ground myself in the present. That place is really beautiful. Through your photos I can almost feel those smooth, sun-warmed rocks under my feet.

  5. i say spend your last five dollars on gas to that place there with the snakes and bones, turtles and frogs. uuugh. gas. but yep. unless you have a horse. spend it on hay. or a bike! an eight hour bike ride could be cool. then you’d have 5 dollars for beer. or just skip the ride and drink beer. not a mocha. i’m a great influence.

    i get the sports car thing now too. or the wallaby thing. or the 4th baby thing. or the botox. i’ve come to understand that stuff too, which i didn’t think was possible before. i’m in love with this lady….

    let’s just think of her a lot.

    david has a friend, the one getting married this summer, who told him recently that the summers of their lives are over, and he is embracing the fall and winter. i was shocked by that. but that’s his reality. and he is freaking embracing it. with honesty and living it fully. won’t even stop smoking. i’m gonna say we are still in our summers. till 60!! k? let’s just say that. then maybe at 70, we’ll be in solid fall.

    i’ve never heard it called klamath. the st john’s in my garden has been looking so magical to me lately. i’m going to do exactly what you did. my skin wants oil like my body wants water. a lot a lot a lot.


  6. such a beautiful post. i have felt the summer sadness, and have tried to make sense of it, and have felt out of step because of it. it seems right to try to accept and embrace it. thank you for once again reminding me to Be Here Now, even if it is uncomfortable.

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