Friday, after a light breakfast of fruit, I packed my backpack, tied on a sleeping bag and headed up the River until today, Monday. Creek, actually, because once above the confluence of Anderson Creek the Navarro River becomes Rancheria Creek. and no longer has the official "river" designation. Liking to travel light, I left all food behind. Did you know periodic fasting increases one's life span? I read that somewhere.
A few years back, a Cherokee friend of mine, Tu Bears, "put me on the mountain" in what is called a "vision quest." Two years ago a Pomo friend asked me to visit the last known village site of her ancestors and to fast there in "quest" of connection and understanding and to honor her people. No Indians involved here, I'll just call it a vacation, a three day fast in solitude. A time to be alone and get to know myself and "my river" a little better. What better vacation could there be and quite affordable.
I walked upstream about an hour and a half until I found "my spot to be in." On the outside of a bend in the river, a good distance, maybe an eighth of a mile or more, could be seen in each direction before other river bends presented solid walls of vegetation. This expanse was beautiful and there I found a crevice in a low lying rock plateau that was filled with sand and had a small tree leaning over that would provide shade.
Following the guidelines laid out by Tu Bears, in my mind, I marked out an area no larger than ten feet on a side -- roughly 7 by 10 but later when I discovered that the only place the sun touched down in the afternoon was on a rock at river's edge, figuring I had extra square feet, I appended a two foot promenade down the required five feet.
That first morning was foggy yet warm enough to strip and, excited to be there, I was soon standing, bare-assed upon a hump of the rock plateau within my nest's limits, taking it all in. California roach, small, up to 4 inches, common river fish, were darting back and forth in the gentle flow close below. Birds of various kinds were flitting around and at one point a tree squirrel scampered along the gravel bar across the river. I stood there simply paying attention from 11 until about two when the sun hit the river's edge rock I mentioned earlier. I then moved down to it for the one hour of sunshine. A flock of crows, maybe 10, 12 in number, came around the lower bend and skittered around on the first gravel bar, then one at a time flew upstream to the next. All the time seeming to play, cawing and hopping and flitting up to trees and back. When they got just one gravel bar down steam from me, they took to wing and flew away.
A Kingfisher landed wild-eyed on a young willow branch beside me and gave a tzzzzz tzzzzz not too much unlike the buzz of a rattlesnake. I think he was pissed at my presence. Later I saw him dive for fish in the first pool upstream. I noticed the bug-eaten leaves on an alder, nothing left but a lacework, and the grossest warts on the leaves of the willows that made me laugh at the thought that I was glad humans didn't get them. Man, would we be ugly.
I stood mostly, sat occasionally until the stars came out and I yawned and went to bed. That first day on the river lasted about 11 hours. At one point in the evening, a lone duck flew by. In the dusk, a spider dropped from the overhead tree onto a very small, dead willow tree and proceeded to work on a web. I looked upstream once or twice hoping to see a bear at the far bend drinking.
I slept well and rose before the sun to sing my morning song and place myself upon the rock to begin the day's vigil. A Great Blue Heron landed upstream at the bend and then flew down to a riffle just in time to be there when two river otters slid into the pond below it. I scampered off the rock and seated myself in the crevice with just my head sticking up but the heron saw me and flew away. I could see the heads of the otters now and then as they swam back and forth working their way towards me. A dark, top-knotted bird dove like a Kingfisher a couple of times in the same span of river, I'm probably wrong but it looked like a stellar jay copying the Kingfisher. The two otters slid down the riffles closest to me and I scurried on knees to position myself as close to the river as my boundaries would allow and hovered behind a thin thicket of infant willows. I heard them splashing and playing not more than 20 feet upstream, then one came swimming past underwater, turned, raised it's head, and I'm sure saw me for quickly back upstream it went, they went, not to be seen again.
Late in the morning a duck floated down but when it got to those last riffles close by, apparently it saw me and swam back up to the gravel bar above and just hung out, I suppose waiting for me to leave. I did curl up in the now warm sand for a rest and when I rose it was gone. A few times that day flocks of crows did their gravel hopping, frolicking but when they got to me, they all rose together and flew away.
I was saddened somewhat that I would have such a frightening effect on the wildlife, driving them away, though I did realize, what could I expect? I also ventured the thought that just maybe they were all attuned enough simply to want to allow me my solitude. I didn't really believe this. The tree squirrel worked the oaks for acorns on the other side of the river at that first pond upstream, throwing half eaten or bad ones into the water. I'll bet he doesn't work those trees right across from me, I thought.
Slowly the day passed. Again for most of it I stood, only occasionally did I sit and ease my aching lower back. This is what I had done on that first "vision quest." I had made a rock alter to the East, the rising sun, intending to place my medicine bag upon it. When I discovered I had not brought my medicine and with nothing else at hand, I instead placed myself upon the altar. It worked so well that first time, why should I change?
The spider came again that evening, though this time I did not see how he got there. I did see him stop work for a spell and just hang out in one spot for the last remaining light of the day, probably in retirement for the night. The sky darkened, the stars came out and I went to bed, but not before one last look upriver to see if a bear had come to drink.
I fell asleep quickly though at some point in the night I awoke needing badly to pee. When I unzipped my bag I startled something just below me in the river and it splash, splash, splashed away. I was startled in return, but not really frightened, a bear would have loped and made a splash..... splash......splash... and cats don't like water so it wouldn't have been a mountain lion. It was just a deer.
I awoke on Sunday, my last full day to be there with one resolution, I wasn't going to stand and make myself so visible to all the critters, only to frighten them away. Besides this vacation was supposed to be an inward as well as outward experience. I would cuddle down in my crevice and sit as invisible as possible for the rest of my stay.
Surprisingly, the day seemed to pass from stage to stage much quicker. I could still see down the river, but unless I leaned way over I saw only sketchily through the laced alder leaves. And I could see the river right in front. At one point I heard a plop, plop in the water just downstream and leaned to see the squirrel nutting the oaks downstream. I was right, he had bypassed the trees across from me.
Guessing it was about one o'clock when something caught my eye way downstream through the alder. Again, I leaned out and just barely made out four, no five, ducks swimming upstream. I was sitting in the sand in my crevice and my first thought was to scurry up the hill and hide to watch them swim by. But realizing that would violate my confines I quickly grabbed my olive green long sleeve shirt and draped it over my tucked up knees. Then I took a bright green, paisley bandana and draped it over my head in such a way as to hide my beady eyes and half bald head. There I sat, David the duck blind, waiting for this great adventure.
It wasn't long either for soon they were there and having a ducky time. too. They were squawking and diving and chasing one another around and standing, it seemed, on the water while beating their wings. I thought, when they first approached, I had seen some babies, but as they passed I counted something over 20, all full grown. I could hear them upstream but I couldn't see them. I vowed not to rise to look, thereby probably scaring them. I just sat, thinking maybe I would stay in my blind the rest of the day. Shortly, three of those guys were back cocking their heads in such a way it seemed as to eye me and eye downstream, possibly for stragglers. I thought of the babies I believed I had seen. I fought it but I found, for some reason, I just had to swallow. When I did, a loud gulpy one, they looked and scooted back upstream. I just sat there. Soon six of them were back. This time they continued on downstream and I saw how when they passed on the far side of a small gravel island I could see only their heads and they looked like babies. I sat for maybe another hour as the duck blind when again, low, way down through the alders, I saw those guys coming back. As before, when they passed, there was well over twenty in all and again they were having a gay old time and really enjoying themselves. Holding back, I assume keeping track of stragglers, were three ducks that scooted up the last riffles with their wings beating and feet working as if they were walking on the water.
I saw a lot of butterflies that day and lots of insects, too. Once a pair of dragonflies lit on a stick not far in front of me. One guy's butt was stuck on the top of the others head. Shortly the guy in back, in the head hold, twisted his butt under and up and started poking the front one in its underbody just between the wings. One guess would be that they were somehow procreating and, being somewhat shy, I suppose that thought is what made them so hard for me to watch. I found myself arrogantly pronouncing that it was a damned stupid way to make love and turned my attentions elsewhere. A half hour later when I looked back at the stick they were gone and I was glad.
At dusk I heard a rush overhead and looked up to see a large flock, I'll guess around forty, zoom down the river. A moment later three more flying in a tight, straight, diagonal line zipped past.
Just before the stars came out that last night, I found myself pointing and guessing where the first ones would appear. As it turned out I was right. It doesn't really take long to begin to become familiar if one is paying attention. When the stars did come out and I went to bed, I found I had a fitful time at sleep. For my thoughts had returned to a neighbor of mine and his mom and I was and am unsettled.
As you probably have realized, I have been telling only of my outward experiences, those others, the ones that have come from being and looking closely inside myself are too personal right now and need some time to be re-examined. But one I will share with you, for it is a realization I have had before and only just now seen in new perspective. Death, as birth, is absolutely natural and necessary to the process of Life with a big L. Without it there would be no Life. Birth and death are like the two opposite swishes of a fish's tail that propels it along. It would go nowhere and could not exist if there was no swish to the opposite side. As when you blow up a balloon and then let go the exhalation sends it scooting, gives it life. As the sunup AND the sundown defines the day, death is one of the opposites that is absolutely necessary for creating the balance that is the makeup of Life. Death, no matter how it comes, once one is there must be an exhilarating experience.
The anguish, though, remains with those of us left behind. My neighbor, a 21 year old resident of Philo hanged himself just shortly before I left to go upriver. I am deeply sorrowed at his passing but trust that he has found the peace he has sought. For his mother left behind I can only moan long from a place deep, deep inside at the core of my being. Oh God, oh God, how terrible it is to lose someone you love. How unjust and unbearable for it to be one's child. May she, in her mourning, down the road, come to some understanding, some peace with it all. I am just so, so sad and so sorry.
The next morning I awoke, as I did this morning, now Tuesday, with a heavy heart. I slowly went about making my preparations to leave and around 10:30 I did so. Twenty ducks flew by overhead heading upstream.