The Ledge

I sit on the edge of the cliff, neither in the valley nor on the summit, halfway between two worlds, able to witness the forest floor from the ledge where I sit. Although it is not very large, a talented arborist could fell a tree on it. Able to look down into the forest canopy below I see the sea of green, mottled greys and browns and hear the birds tweeting just after the rain, starting to come back to life, starting to move again. The raindrops sit heavy on the leaves, as they do on the brim of my hat, using them as a soft springboard on their journey toward the pacific. The leaves start to dry and the water starts to coagulate, completely rounded, tucked under itself, sitting on the surface rather than coating, glinting in the sunlight, gently waiting for what’s next.

The rock I sit on is hard, metamorphic, a million years old, yet in the dust more recently deposited on the ledge I can see the craters of the impacts of the tiny rain droplets, puddles have formed in the divots and wells within the schist. A damselfly comes and visits one of the puddles and sips, after a moment it takes off again. The Oregon grape at the back of the ledge has started to morph from its deep cadmium to olive with burgundy tips, donning its fall costume. The snail gently crosses weaving between boulders that to me look like pebbles carrying his spiral home on his back.

I look just underneath the ledge, there is a small cleft in the stone, some rodent took rest here. I see its droppings and the remnants of gnawed pinecone embedded in the small cushion of moss.  It hasn’t rained hard enough to wash away this exposed evidence. The serviceberries that remain on the bush nearby, just out of reach of my ledge, grow in a vertical crack on this geological timeline and are dried up shells of their former plumpness. The seeds are still inside but not stratified, these ones have no chance. The bird has to eat the serviceberry; the acids in their stomach must eat away at the hardened coating for moisture to penetrate it. When the bird passes the seed it then sits in its own nutrient-rich bed and sprouts, having its shell removed. The hardness of the acid brings forth the softness of the cotyledons

There is a small pine on this ledge with a scar about 4’ up the trunk with pitch all around it. The scar goes well through the cambium layer through to the heartwood. It couldn’t have been caused by a stag rubbing off his velvet, how would it have gotten down to this ledge on the cliff? No, this was made by a man, one who has shared this ledge who had far less respect for this space than most.

Pines stand elegant, stately, and strong. They grow in the cracks of the cliff across the valley, finding any nook or cranny in which to gain a foothold, towering unobstructed by anything else. Nothing else is willing to grow there save for some moss and yellow-green lichen. Gods looking upon the valley floor, they drop the product of their love, a forest in each cone. Boulders at the base of the canyon speak to the ever-changing geology that these majestic Gods will eventually succumb to, Greeks felled by Titans.

I scan up the opposite canyon wall and as I move up from the moist valley floor the color shifts from bright greens and yellows to somber oranges, reds, and browns. There is very little standing dead on the valley floor but much habitat for the woodpecker and the insect at the top of the canyon. This makes me wonder, had rain come a few weeks earlier, would it be green and lush like the valley or would it still be browns and reds, russets yellows and burnt umbers.

Ninebark on the opposite canyon wall has all but dropped its leaves in the hot dry ends of summer. Protecting itself by removing the place where water may escape. It sucks its life down into its roots until the conditions are more favorable. When there is enough moisture it will spring back with renewed vigor. For now, it stands a skeleton of what once was, a premonition of what it will become again.

Brother birch and matron maple share the valley floor. The coral stems of the dogwood stand out in the shadows of the lower valley. Fissured bark of the giant cottonwood, standing well above the aspens, is filled with remembrance like so many faces. So much time it has taken to get a bark that thick, a tree that large. What has this tree seen in its lifetime in this valley to cause it to have such an expressive exterior? I have noticed the changes, the trails that have sprung up where there were none, made by man, not by deer, I’ve even helped to make some of them. What has this cottonwood noticed in its lifetime? Do I wear what I have seen on my exterior as well?

I speak fewer words now than I did in my youth, my laugh lines and crow’s feet tell my story just like the bark on the cottonwood stands as a silent testament to its resolve. My once soft skin is marked by scars and toughened by kisses from the sun like the small pine on the ledge I bear the mark of others and am worn by the elements. When I speak my words are far more measured than they once were; thoughts that hibernated in my mind to come forth again at their appointed time as cones that sow the forests of my constitution.

Clouds part briefly for a moment. The sun shines down transforming the sea of amazon into a glittering absinthe transparency. I hear the gentle croaking of a frog in the valley, like a wood rasp on hardwood energetically chattering away to its lover, content with the newly arrived moisture. Years ago, the aspens weren’t so tall, now the tops nearly reach the ledge I am sitting on now. When I was younger they were mere saplings sitting on the valley floor. They have grown as I have grown; they have become bigger, bolder. They have sought their own space, as have I. As I look down the valley I see that the tops of some of the aspens have been snapped off by the wind that occasionally roars up the valley in a squall. We all are humbled by powers greater than ourselves.

The third tallest tree in this section of the valley is actually a standing spire, barkless and grey with a few snag branches here and there but mostly denuded. When the sun shines just right you can catch a glimpse of gossamer webbing that spans the branches. There is life in this dead tree, not life in the tree itself, but life that uses it. It is no less important now than when it was green and lush. It’s a high-rise, an oasis of habitat, the sage that supports, advises and shoulders the burden of the young so that they also may one day see old age, such as it is.

The swallows brave out from under their rain shelters and take to the sky, diving and darting through one another, barely avoiding midair collisions in their playfulness, in their glee at the return of the glorious sun. This is a dance that they have been perfecting for millennia. A dance upon the currents of sky which started long before they arrived at the party and will continue long after their species has retired to eternity. Rather than viewing the currents as an obstacle, they use them, perfect them, and are uplifted rather than disappointed by them.

Wind comes up from the bottom of the canyon, starting as a small drone, moving to a swift rush and then it thunders upon this ledge as it passes. The clouds slowly move across the sky with ominous nickel undersides and edges illuminated by the sun. I know that they are moving much faster than they appear to be. They move perpendicular to the wind that comes up the canyon valley and rustle the leaves of the aspen ever so gently, fluttering left and right, wavering and wobbling as they do on their frail stems. I am able to smell the earthy scent of decay, light upon the winds of time, the beginning of something new, the end of something old, its timeless march to the hereafter.

A pesky fly hectors me, no doubt he smells the decay, and he breaks my trance by buzzing all around. He thinks it is time for me to move on, time for me to go. I’ve been coming here for 30 years; this place is home to me. I’ve stayed elsewhere, I have a house, but this grandeur is my home, where I’m alive. I share it with the swallows, the hawk, the rodent and deer, the spiders, the ants, the gnats and those who I love. I don’t want to go; I like it here in this shared experience. The fly doesn’t own this space any more than I. We don’t own space; we use it for but a short while. Perhaps he is reminding me my time is up for today. I should relinquish this space to share with another. Like the seed of the serviceberry, my hardened outer shell has been eroded by this beauty so the softness of my soul may come through. I step to the edge of the void, my back to the open air and face to the stone; I check my harness and rope and lean back to join the valley.

First appeared in “Trestle Creek Review” edition 31