Thursday, November 11, 2010

Word Notes

Pete and I recently drove to California to see our son, Andy, at his new winter location outside Exeter, California. We hauled a three-horse live-in trailer and three recipient mares across western Colorado, the high deserts of Utah, the barren Mojave Desert, and finally into the San Joaquin Valley. On the way we planned for a stop-over in Moab, Utah where I attended a workshop at Moab’s annual Confluence, a reading and writing conference. I was pleased to hear one of my favorite authors present. Bill deBuys, conservationist and author of The Walk, discussed the art and craft of writing. He noted the importance of pace and rhythm in writing, likening it to creating a musical lyric. Those of us in attendance all nodded in agreement about the appeal of lyrical writing.

Traveling with Pete the following week, I found myself thinking about Bill’s presentation and how words and their phrasing create music for the listening ear. After we had safely delivered the live-in trailer and three mares, Pete and I enjoyed a couple of days in Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks. Reading my way through the park museums and literature I didn’t find what I thought of as lyrical writing but I did find words that sang out, holding my curiosity until I understood their meaning. I found it an interesting exercise and discovered a number of intriguing words both in their tone and definition: words like sapwood, heartwood, talus, Silver Apron, Ahwahnechee, chuckhars, and nunataks.

In Sequoia National Park, where the world’s tallest tree stands, nearly 400 feet high, its longevity is attributed to its unusually thick bark and the layers of wood within, namely sapwood and heartwood. Sapwood is the youngest wood of the tree, drawing in and managing water reserves from the roots to the leaves of the tree. The heartwood, the innermost wood, is the oldest wood, particularly resistant to decay. Through the adversity of weather, fire, and insects, these layers of wood adapt, heal, and continue to grow for centuries.

In Yosemite’s deep valley, talus is created when the tall granite wall’s top surface layers slough off as a result of natural weather and mechanical erosion. A talus, in simple terms, is a rock pile. The talus provides nooks and crannies in which native animals find physical protection year round. Hiking upwards to the precipice of Vernal Falls we discovered the Silver Apron, a once a rugged granite surface now worn smooth over millions of years by the waters of the Merced River. The transparent and silken river flows over the Apron moments before it takes a thousand foot tumble over a stunning granite cliff.

In the recently renovated Yosemite Museum I discovered the history of the Ahwahnechee, the first native tribe to inhabit the valley floor. These early inhabitants called their home, Yosemite, the valley of the gaping mouth. They subsisted largely upon acorns which were stored in chuckhars, an oval storage bin made out of natural materials, much like a birds nest, and supported by poles up off the ground. The acorns were ground into flour which was then leached to remove toxic tannins. Crossing Tioga Pass to the east as we headed home, a line of nunataks appeared in the distance in sharp contrast to the smooth and rounded granite domes and walls of Yosemite Valley. Nunataks are rugged high mountain ridges standing high enough above the glacial fields to have escaped glacial erosion.

The simple exercise of listening for the music I heard in words captured my curiosity and imagination. Whether these words have their origin in Latin or Greek or a Native American language, once enticed, I began walking my way through the landscape of their use, whether it was the heart of giant Sequoia or the clever and practical storage bin for life sustaining acorns.

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