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Some Things I Saw This Equinox Morning

March 21, 2012

For the past three years, wherever I am, I’ve made a point of trying to greet the rising sun on solstices and equinoxes.  It’s easier in some places and times than others – the summer solstice sunrise is several hours earlier than the winter one, and my neighborhood at school doesn’t have any clear view of the eastern horizon.  This being my last year here, I was determined to do it properly.  So I got up in the darkness of six a.m. and, after drinking a cup of strong tea and packing my breakfast and lunch, clipped my lights onto my bike and cruised down to a park on the other side of the valley to watch the sun rise.

Purple bicycle in front of arched wooden bridge in pre-dawn light

I got there about twenty minutes before the sun was due to rise, so the eastern sky was pink tending towards blue and the pre-dawn light lingered around the trees. (It was not, however, as bright as the picture above would suggest – my camera tends to compensate for light levels whether I want it to or not.)  The water levels were lower than I’d ever seen them before – very different from the full banks and corresponding floods of last fall.

Rosy sky over hills and trees, reflected in glassy water

The canal was absolutely still, disturbed by neither bugs nor wind nor boats. I saw a few people, mostly dog-walkers and joggers, and one couple who had come out to greet the sun like I had. Dog-walkers aside, it was utterly quiet.

Bare trees outlined against sky streaked with clouds

I found a picnic bench and sat down to wait. The sky grew steadily lighter, until I could see a glow lurking behind the hills and knew the sun was on its way. It’s strange, really, that I should find sunrise so exciting; it’s happened every day for the past 4.56 billion years, and will happen every day again for many more billion. But seeing that glow under the horizon, ready to spring free, makes my heart pound as if I were watching a drama, and every sunrise is new to me.

Orange sky over hills, reflected in water

The geese have been coming back; I hear them in the evening and the morning, but haven’t actually seen any until today.

Silhouettes of two flying geese and trees

And then the sun came and I could no longer look towards it. I could look towards what I was waiting for until it came, and then when it did I had to look away because of the brightness. I feel like there’s a metaphor in that, but it’s slipping my grasp right now.

Sun rising, reflected in water, with driftwood in foreground

I ate my breakfast sitting there by the water: eggs, cinnamon rolls, an apple. I had dyed the eggs the night before, with tea and turmeric and beets, though the color from the beets didn’t stick. I remember dying eggs this way as a kid; we used some red vegetable that dyed the eggs blue, which might have been red cabbage (whose color changes depending on the pH of the solution). The colors are so vivid in my memory; I wonder if they will be as bright in reality when I try again next year.

A pink egg, a yellow egg, a brown egg, and two cinnamon buns

The sun, creeping up over the hill, cast golden light on the trees behind me, and shadows across the grass. The water became more restless, too; a breeze picked up, and fish started biting and splashing.

Morning sun on trees

The park I was sitting in didn’t have any paths, so I’d parked my bike near the entrance. Walking back, I saw that the sun had also gilded the only boat sitting in the marina, the Columbia.

Sun reflecting off a boat

Most of the trees are still bare, though flowers are starting to bloom. Come summer, these picnic benches will be filled with people – though possibly not at 7:30 on a Tuesday morning.

Sun shining through dark trees onto picnic benches

And so, in the early morning, I set off for my next destination: a waterfall in a park about twelve miles away. The ride was about as flat as is possible around here, and the road had a good wide shoulder the whole way. With the lake on my right and the sun at my shoulder, I passed streams and little gorges and sun falling though trees, houses and cottages, and more than one raptor. Though there was a fair number of cars, most of them were going the other direction, into town. In between the cars I saw a few bicyclists. “Aren’t you cold?” shouted one across the road, shooting downhill in a long-sleeved shirt and fleece vest. “…No?” I replied, pedaling uphill in shorts and T-shirt, and then we parted ways – it’s hard to have any extended conversation on a bicycle when you’re going opposite directions. In truth, though the day hadn’t yet reached its projected 80 degrees, I was quite warm.

I reached the park a few minutes past nine, somewhat to my surprise – I’m not a terribly speedy bicyclist. I spent a few minutes trying to find some place to lock my bike, finally settling for the middle of a herd of picnic benches piled up for the winter. Then, because the park was still empty of children and I have not yet managed to grow up, I played on the fantastic playground for a while. I wish they would make playgrounds sized for adults; we have so few opportunities to hang on things, climb on things, crawl under things, and run around – and when we do, it must always be in the deathly serious names of fitness and competition.

Silhouette of spiderweb-like jungle gym and trees

The only other people there were a few fisherman.

Silhouette of trees, bait shack, and fisherman by a misty lake

The rowers arrived shortly after I did; having seen some in the canal at sunrise, I first thought it was the same ones. But there were more of them in these boats and they were men instead of women. They stayed only a short time, docking with each other to swap around a few people before turning around to head back through the sunrise to town.  Fog still lay on the surface of the lake, and the hills were misty; the sun would burn off both by noon.

Rowers on sparkly water

With the hot and early spring, many things are blossoming already. In a normal year in the past, it would be about forty or maybe fifty degrees in March, with frost at night; this year, it’s been in the seventies the entire week. I don’t know what this means for the coming summers, which get quite hot enough already.

Branches with red blossoms against bright blue sky

The water’s still pretty cold, though. I wouldn’t want to swim in it yet.

Shale beach, clear water, and a piece of driftwood

After a while messing around on the lake shore, I went to the back part of the park, where a deep gorge cut into the hillside ends in a spectacular waterfall. The gorge gets the full brunt of sunlight on its south-facing cliff, where only desert plants can grow. Its north-facing slope, slightly less steep and always in shadow, is home to hemlocks.

The cliffs are full of vertical fractures known as joints, which probably opened due to natural hydraulic fracturing from gas development in the organic-rich shale. There are two joint sets here at right angles with one another, resulting in that stairstep shape you can see at the top of the cliff.

Sedimentary rock cliff topped with trees

The lowest visible part of the rock formation (below) is very, very fine-grained black shale formed from anoxic muds deep in an ancient ocean. You won’t find any fossils in this rock – many field trips’ worth of students, dared by their professors, have looked. It breaks in thin, razor-sharp sheets and looks almost oily when you pick it up.  This is the sort of organics-rich rock which is involved in the arguments on hydrofracking (a thing, for the record, which I whole-heartedly oppose).

Foggy shale formation

Higher up, the grains in the rocks get coarser as the ocean shallowed over time. You can see alternating bands of horizontal bedding in the cliff from fluctuating sea level and other events: time, stacked up like pages in a book. Sometimes I get dizzy standing in the bottom of this gorge, like I have fallen down the well of time and can’t get out because I am too small.

Sedimentary cliff topped with trees, displaying different kinds of bedding

I mentioned that my ultimate destination was the waterfall at the end of the gorge. Well, I did take pictures of it, but none of the pictures could do it justice: the roaring, the spray on my face driven by wind that seemed to blast out of the cliff, the turbulence of the river pouring out, the enveloping theater of the cliff walls. So imagine it, if you will, or find a local waterfall and go there yourself. Neither pictures nor words can sum up the feeling of presence and awareness of the cliffs leaning in and the mightiness of the water which carved that gorge over time.

I had one cinnamon bun left. I tossed three crumbs to the waterfall as some sort of offering, ate a bit myself, and went on my way.

“On my way” was back into town, where I had planned to end my expedition. But the day was still young and despite already having bicycled twice as far as I ever had in a day, my legs still felt mostly fine. So I ate lunch, swung by the library to refill my water bottle and look up directions, and headed out again to another state park – this one substantially closer.

Light falling through a spring forest onto fallen leaves

It was afternoon now, the sun high and westering, and the forests were full of light. Fall’s debris still lay on the ground unrotted, but new leaves were sprouting from many of the trees.  The waters in the gorge were pretty high, though not as high as I’ve seen then (we haven’t had much rain in a while), but the paths and steps – built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the thirties – were as steady as always.  Looking down, I could see where the water had not only carved the gorge deeply, but also rounded out pools like little cauldrons and undercut into less resistant rock.

Stairs along a gorge wall

I kept walking upwards, out of the gorge and towards the top of the hill.

Light falling on a forest path

Moss grew everywhere, carpeting rocks and trees in green. I’d noticed the unusual quantity of moss at back at the waterfall as well, and everything smelled of slime. I wonder if this has to do with the strangely warm winter we’ve had, which dropped rain instead of snow; I’ve never seen so much moss around here and wouldn’t expect it in a relatively well-drained forest.

Mossy fallen trees

I stayed on the path. There was plenty of light left in the day, I had spare clothes, water, and food in my backpack, and I thought my memory could hold the twistings and branchings of the trail, so I (perhaps foolishly) decided to go wherever it would take me. Eventually I realized I had stumbled on a trail I’d looked for some years earlier, going the other direction, and never found. This trail connected two state parks and their streams and waterfalls, and knowing it was not more than a couple miles long, I determined to follow it to its end.

Picnic benches in a grove under blue sky with puffy clouds

The path had other plans; I lost it in a huge unmown field. It was a familiar field, edged in woods and crossed by powerlines; the last time I had been there was when I got lost there in early fall several years ago, hiking the other direction with friends, and the trail had not been more clearly marked since then. Then, it was a riot of wildflowers; now, dry grass and thornbushes ruled, with cattails in the marshy low areas. Though I knew how to retrace my steps it seemed a long way, and I couldn’t remember where the other end of the trail started up again. But the powerlines, I remembered, intersected a road, which led back to the path which led back to my bicycle, and home.

Lone tree in the middle of a field

Sometimes you need to know when to give up. The world looked dark; the afternoon’s predicted thunderclouds were rolling in. Standing on the height of the hill, I could see my destination and knew my legs didn’t have the energy to carry me there, and still less back. My water was running out, I was starting to feel the sleepiness brought on by rising too early, and the morning glory of the waterfall’s majesty seemed only a dream in my memory. So I let the road take me back to the trail which wound through the woods – darker now – until at last I reached the sunlit grove where, in the absence of racks, I had locked my bike to a tree.

Road and telephone lines under quasi-stormy sky

It’s a good thing the ride home was not very long, because I was finally feeling the strain in my legs, and every bump in the road hurt. Thirty miles may not be much if you’re a seasoned cyclist, but I usually just bike for transportation and don’t need to go very far. You can also tell I’m not a seasoned cyclist because when I reached the bottom of the hill where I live, I dismounted and started to walk – at a certain steepness it takes less energy, and I go just as fast. I got home at about five-thirty after eleven hours outside, sunburned and thirsty and sticky; drank a liter of water and ate three more cinnamon buns; and lay down on the couch until I could muster enough energy to take a shower.

I woke up briefly when two of my housemates came in. They had spent the day pulling sediment cores out of the canal and were even more covered in mud than my jaunt through the field had left me. I woke up again twelve minutes before sunset and watched it out my window, instead of from the top of the hill like I had planned to. I ate leftovers for dinner, followed by ice cream, tea, and another cinnamon bun.

So there was sunrise, wind, waterfalls and rocks, forests full of light, seven cinnamon buns, and a sunset. And it was a good day.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2012 9:23 pm

    I love your pictures.


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