The mushroom hunters flooded the parking lot like mice and headed over the swaying suspension bridge, baskets in hand. Noisy, gregarious, they set out on this Saturday morning at the same time I was headed for my walk, to a place I attended to like church. They were not from here, having come from their cars and the parking lot. I left them behind on the bridge, and headed north through the woods. It was April, flooding season. The melting snows in the mountains swelled the Snoqualmie, and the river spilled into side channels and billabongs. I waded through a foot of water on the path and found the deep mud trail that took me to a wooded glade high above two ponds. There awaited a log perfect for sitting on, next to a western cedar whose lower branches, under the tree’s protective canopy, resembled ropes covered in moss scarves. When I returned, an hour later, one of the mushroom hunters caught up with me on the bridge back over the river. He was stout, older. His basket was empty. Nodding towards my binoculars, he asked: did I have any luck?
People see my binoculars and assume I am there to look at birds. To separate the birds from the woods. I bring them as an adjunct. I come here to find my ipseity — from the latin “itself”– my suchness, the me that lies underneath my memory. The binoculars only a reminder that there are things beyond reach, many things veiled under, or over, the landscape.
There was plenty before the eye in the damp woods. I watched a tiny barred winter wren–its Latin name is trogloldytes troglodytes or “cave dweller, cave dweller,” perch and trill with its tail upright and bent backwards over its own head. No bigger than an espresso cup, the wren hopped unscathed around the sharp polished leaf-blades of Oregon grape. Indian plum lined the trails and dangled delicate oval foliage like grace notes in the understory. Alders — elder trees, seventy feet tall, bore sweaters of emerald moss and the sheaths of brand new cottonwood buds littered the mud. Hummingbirds zipped through the understory like helicopters, too small and fast to see but one could hear the “zzzzz” sound of their wings. Woodpeckers took up their contact knockng. First one, then another, all on different pitches, a competition of hope or regret. As I came near water, a kingfisher flashed me and scolded the air. All around the wind smelled of the hail and thunderstorms coming from the south. Does hail have a smell? That day it did.
I emerged into a field that sprouted huge mounds of fresh earth, some a foot high. I counted at least twenty, then stopped counting. Moles eat earthworms, not grassroots as is commonly believed, and molehills are literally worm traps. The moles’ saliva carries a toxin that paralyzes an earthworm but keeps it alive, so moles store can the earthworms like leftover spaghetti in the fridge. Scientists have found up to a 1,000 earthworms in a single mole larder. When the mole desires a midnight snack, he need only visit his pantry, where he squeezes the earthworm between his two front paddles-shaped paws, emptying it of dirt before ingesting it. The mole’s own taste, should one have a mole cutlet, is, according to one source, ‘deeply unpleasant.’
As I stood on the bridge pondering the mushroom hunter’s question, I remembered what I had just seen, but also recalled how some mornings the timbers of the railing were covered in splintered hoarfrost. Today had dawned with pale orange fire over the mountains. The river underneath where we stood was swollen, deep, and wide. It cut past thick cottonwood stands and headed northwest, where it would join other rivers and thirty miles later empty out to the Salish Sea. The water hissing around the bridge supports was ancient and knowing. The water–all of it– had come from somewhere else, from seas and rivers all over the world: the Congo, the Zamezi, the Orincoco, the Roque and the Salt rivers, the Amazon, the Limpopo, the Lochsa and the Luva. The Olifants, or Rio Elefantes, and the Indian Ocean. Some of the river was stained with the blood of 20,000 Zulu killed by the Voortrekkers. Some of the water came from the Alph and the Onyx rivers in Antarctica. Some of it had flowed past Shackleton’s men as they waited for rescue, or snowed down on them in the Ross Sea. Some of it trickled off the shaggy coats of mammoths, or frozen, shattered at the hooves of bison. Some of it touched the amber flesh of newborn dolphins. Rained on our ancestors Australopithecus, then Homo Erectus, then a Roman soldier. Did Pliny the Elder sail through some of this as he headed towards Vesuvius, curious to note the nature of that strange cloud?
How to explain to this stranger that some of this water had been frozen on Mars, some of it helped loose the energy of the stars, and now, here it was. Tonight the water would flow underneath the dippers, under Gemini, under Castor and Pollux, who longed to share immortality with each other. Did their mother, Leda, swim in these waters before she was raped by Zeus? The water carried immortality as well as any other thing.
The stranger waited, longing to know if I had had luck, while several hundred feet away, an eagle, born weeks earlier, curled at the feet of its mother, deep in sticks and salmon bones, dreaming. This was no distant day; as we stood on the bridge, we were living within the answers.