Consider the wind, among other things
Published on -12/24/2012, 7:48 AM
Indian summer has finally run its course, after a week of shirt-sleeve weather in December. Today, finally, the sky is gray and overcast, and a cold wind blows from the northeast.
Lovely day for a walk.
This sky is not without its redeeming qualities. Like lines of surf advancing toward the shore, high bands of pale clouds surge out of the west, followed by thicker drifts rendered dark against the feeble sun only by virtue of their own density; not storm clouds. No rain for us today.
A few cloud clumps ahead of the front still capture enough sunlight to glow brightly, as though illuminated from within. Such a celestial scene invites hosts of shivering angels, draped in alabaster robes, gliding on albatross wings, strumming their golden harps, adjusting their halos, wishing they were real.
The wind down here is softly noisy -- whining past the power lines, singing in the cedars, hissing through the grasses.
Populations of different grass species flank the road, beds of tall, wiry filaments succeeded by patches of shorter stems still retaining their seed plumes. They all ripple when wind gusts muscle their way along the crisp brown steeplechase.
Occasionally, the breeze channels wind chimes' faint tinkling, airborne from its source on somebody's distant front porch. Some elements of civilization aren't all that unwelcome.
We accept the wind -- wind happens; but most of us don't consider the vast, impersonal forces in play. The breeze that blows your hair back is only a tiny spinoff of enormous processes -- order emerging from chaos -- light and shadow, heat and cold, stasis and fluctuation, even the spin of the earth beneath its atmospheric blanket, tossing as it turns, a sunlight junky with terminal insomnia.
The more we learn about our world, the natural world, the only world we have, the more we understand that we are not the center of any cosmic obsession. We're miniscule in the grand scheme of things, only along for the ride. But this realization is not cause for despair; quite the contrary, it's liberating. We can't blame ourselves or any other powers and principalities for many of the unpleasant things that life serves up. The "purpose" of our life is what we make it to be. We create our own life's meaning, and it's not sprayed on us at birth by some ethereal taskmaster. We can assume responsibility for the things we can control, and count on each other to help us cope with the adversities imposed on us by Nature or our own mistakes.
We are what we are, and we do what we can. And that's ... OK.
Except for the pines, cedars and junipers, most of the trees have lost their leaves. Their crowns seem dense, but they still present a gaunt and skeletal silhouette against the sky. They sway in the wind -- beckoning or threatening, it's hard to tell. Like river deltas and coastlines, the trees display a beautiful fractal geometry, manufactured in response to inherent natural characteristics -- what we sometimes characterize as "laws of nature." The patterns repeat -- branches yield to twigs, twigs to twiglets, and so on and on until they abut the constraints imposed by physiology and the environment.
The sandy road is peppered with tracks -- deer and dogs, cats and rabbits, coons and people. This deserted stage must be a busy place after dark, the cast of dozens performing before a silent audience.
A small area bare of vegetation sports a solitary red ant pile. The ants are on winter sabbatical. At some time -- it could only have been in the remote past -- this area was wet and muddy. Some vehicle left the road long enough to imprint its tire tread across one half of the pile and its carefully-arranged gemstone-quality gravel grains. The dutiful ants apparently had time to repair some of the damage before the season changed, but theirs is still a split-level apartment complex.
Clusters of ground-cherry bushes dot the shoulder. Their fruits are shriveled now. Wish I'd seen them earlier, when they were still edible. Enclosed in paper-lantern husks, ground cherries are close relatives of tomatoes; in fact, they are just smaller versions of the tomatillos used to make salsa verde. When they mature, they turn yellow and sweet. One autumn, Dad picked a bunch, crushed the naked fruits, added a little lemon juice, pectin and sugar, and made ground-cherry jam. He also made a mess of the kitchen, according to Mom, and the jam was too lemony, but Dad claimed he liked it.
Incongruously, surrounded by dry and dormant plants, a dandelion seems to be enjoying the cool. Its fresh yellow blossom is flanked by a couple mature puff-balls, which retain their symmetry despite the wind. There are other active plants too, including a patch packed with pretty green rosettes of feathery leaves. I think they must be the first-year stage of some biennial -- most likely a weed, if such things exist.
Lacking the full panoply of colors and smells that we enjoy during the rest of the year, this season is often regarded as drab, even depressing. That's not fair. There's always something remarkable, something extraordinary, if we bother to notice. Something beautiful.
This is the equilibrium of nature. We are part of it, not just detached observers. It is us, and vice versa.
Regardless of what the calendar says, take time to tune in.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. firstname.lastname@example.org