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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Night skies and Sunny creeks

One thing that John Muir and Lao Tze agree on is that you’ve got to spend time outdoors. Connecting up with “Godful nature” or “the flow of the Tao” is critical, each claims, to maintaining the health and sanity of humans. Being in the natural world is its own reward, of course. I do it mainly because it makes me feel super, which is more important than even St. John or Sage Lao recommending it. This summer, I’ve been doing it a bit differently—more sky than creek.

In years past, I’d grab a beach chair, pedal precariously on my bike to nearby Big Chico Creek (ever try to balance a beach chair while pedaling?), and plop the chair in some shallow water. Sometimes in shade, sometimes in sun, I’d just sit there quietly for perhaps an hour. The water flowed by, over my ankles and feet, cold at first then merely cool in the heat of the summer day.

Dragonflies cruised by me on their never-ending quest for insects and the territory to garner same. Flame skimmers were especially abundant, their red bodies like flying fire against the green of the riparian vegetation. The skimmers were too busy guarding their territory to pay much attention to me. But the delicate blue damselflies were another story, often alighting on my knee or wrist for a rest, before resuming their foraging. Their tiny legs tickled my skin, and I always regarded it as a benediction when they chose me as a safe haven from which to ponder the world.

I’d usually be within sight of a Black phoebe as it fly-caught over the creek. These birds swoop out from a perch on an alder, nab several insects mid-flight, then alight on a bare limb as they swallow, their black tail wraggling happily up and down. That tail-flip is the sure sign you’re looking at a phoebe rather than some other flycatcher.

Every five minutes or so the piercing cry of a Red-tail hawk comes from the valley oaks back beyond the alders and sycamores close to the creek. Occasionally I’d see the flash of these raptors sailing from tree to tree, suggesting the abundance of rodents and small birds that live along the riparian corridor here.

Very occasionally, a deer (always a doe) would timidly push through the coffee berry and poison oak bushes lining the creek, and step into the water for a drink, then daintily high-step to the other side of the shallow creek, sometimes followed by one or two fawns. Not the least bit timid, on the other hand, are the butterflies that come careening down the creek. Early in the summer, it’s Pipevine swallowtails, with Tiger swallowtails abundant mid-summer. Seeing a brilliant orange-and-black Monarch butterfly is a rare treat, but they do show up, doubtless fresh-hatched from the milkweed plants that occur creekside.

I still sit in creeks; I enjoyed much the same scenes this Fourth of July, before (and after) family and friends joined me at Raspberry Hole for more human-centered festivities. But this summer, for some reason, I haven’t made it as regularly for creek-sitting. Instead, I’ve been pulling a chair from our back porch out into the fenced-in back yard and watching night come to the sky.
There’s not quite as much wildlife making appearances under the darkening sky as in the daytime creek, but still I do have visitors. Oaks and walnuts line the fence, so of course tree squirrels early-on are scampering up and down the tree, and doing their circus-tip-toe along the top of the fence. As the light fades, one particular robin regularly soars from the fence down into the lawn and gravely inspects for grubs. I’ve become rather fond of this fellow.

And when the darkness has gathered sufficiently in the sky, the bats begin their flapping acrobatics. They are gathering insects just as the dragonflies and phoebes at the creek, but not nearly so elegantly. Still, their skill at abruptly changing speed and direction, literally falling and darting through the sky, are impressive and entertaining. I fervently wish I could hear the steady pulse of sounds they are emitting to locate the darkness-hidden insects by echolocation. But the frequencies are mainly beyond what the human ear is equipped to pick up (even before six-decades-plus have begun to erode the functioning of that equipment!).

I eagerly watch for the first stars to appear. Usually, of course, it’s a planet or two that is first spotted in the darkening sky, Mars or Venus. The night plane from San Francisco moves steadily across the dark shortly after the first stars have been spotted. Fairly frequently, the uniform light of a satellite traces its way in the sky, also. I don’t see too many “falling” stars these days, perhaps because (like my hearing) my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. And I’m not usually out more than 45 minutes or so, so falling-star treasures are infrequent.

I stay in the backyard until darkness has fully settled in. The same magnificent oaks and walnuts that attract the squirrels also block my view of the night-sky’s horizon, so I’m not able to see many of the constellations. If I’m lucky, I’ll convince Tammy to take a night-time stroll around the neighborhood with me, and then we’ll feast on the Big Dipper, Orion, and others.

With or without a concluding walk, the time under the darkening sky is a gift. It’s different than daylight creek-time, but it’s all good. Both these times in the natural world refresh me, and connect me to the deeper rhythms of our lovely planet. Just like John Muir and Lao Tze experienced, also.
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