To Be Better Than We Are

“It is not from ourselves that we will learn to be better than we are.”
Wendell Berry

The canyon was tuff.  Sometime ago, long before my memory or that of my parents, a volcano erupted and spread ash across this New Mexican landscape.  When the hottest of ash returns to land it welds itself to one another and creates welded tuff rock.  Over time, the not so hot ash slowly compacts itself into consolidated tuff rock.

We walked the sand wash upstream to the mouth of the canyon.  Unlike the wide open sage canyons of our youth, this canyon is no more than forty or fifty feet wide at the mouth.  Unremarkable, Belinda and I walk past the mouth’s vegetative slopes.

A good stone’s throw up canyon it narrowed.  The slopes lost their laid-back lean in favor of a more vertical nature.  Favoring terminology of wall rather than slope the canyon walls narrowed as we walked.  When the wash was little more than two or three feet wide and the walls closed in overhead, the canyon had lost any feel of what I think of as canyon.  But then that feeling was of another land culture.  The people of this landscape, though, add a descriptor to this canyon ground: slot.  Slot canyon fits well for the walls become so steep, so vertical, few plants find even the smallest of a perch to settle upon and live.  And should a seed make its way to some mid-wall ledge, the chance of enough rain finding its way between the walls to afford the seed a chance toward bringing for the life within is small.

The canyon walls of ancient tuff are of consolidation type rather than weld.  It’s nature is similar to that of the sandstone outcroppings found in my youthful canyons.  Like that sandstone, the toughness of this tuff rock is that which can be whittled away by rubbing a good stick against it.

The wash swings to the right and as we come around the canyon widens, for a moment.  Off center the wash stands a fir tree.  Maybe sixty or seventy feet tall.  It had somehow been birthed in this canyon; somehow had tenaciously held its ground in its youth; somehow had thrown deep and meaningful roots into the tuff to become what was before us.  A feat of life?  A natural life?  Or little more than the nature of sacred existing between tree and tuff and the water who made this canyon—who evaporated and returned another day to nourish the seedling in times past.

In those past times rains collected on upstream slick rock.  Rushing downstream, the water, with a tenacity only water knows, encouraged tuff to loosen, break from its rock brethren, and settle in the wash bed who now mimics our boot soles. The tree who grabbed hold of this landscape, made it hers, grown and lived and birthed untold cones who were washed downstream to make their own attempt at creating tree-life, now stood tall with roots exposed where one with hardly a slouch could walk beneath and know something of care, grandeur, and the sacred.

To sit in this place is to sit within sacrament.  The blue sky eases its way into the canyon, blessing the tree, the walls, and the tuff sand wash.  The tuff walls accept the lightest of sounds as its own; hallowing a silence where the gift of breath itself is revered.  To sit still, moment upon moment, is to allow the place to become something of what it would be without our intrusion.

A lizard moves in stop and run spurts clinging to the canyon wall.  A small stone, no larger than a piece of sand dislodges and falls to the wash floor.  A bird arrives and settles into the tree.  Soundless at first it moves from branch to branch.  Then stops.  Chirps. The sound is sharp and clear. But the walls allow no feedback.  However, the sound moves down slot.  For moments later multiple chirps arrive from below.  Chirps are given up and down canyon, the place settles, knows their voices, and their hymn consecrates place.

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