A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Friday, October 14, 2011

An Evening at Lake Meredith, Texas

Sitting on the rim of the canyon that contains the Canadian River – when there is a river – I look across the broad flat bottomland that would be covered by Lake Meredith – when there is a lake.  It is a long canyon, a mile wide, lined on either side by cliffs a hundred feet high.  The river cut this canyon over many hundreds of thousands of years.  Melt water from glaciers in the Southern Rockies and the more abundant rains of the Pleistocene ice age carried the land away bit by bit, across what is now Oklahoma to the Arkansas River and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico.

A dam several miles to the northeast would not have been here then and the river would have made its own course wandering back and forth in the wide flat bottomland, flooding grandly from time to time and always cutting its way down through the ancient stone layers so clearly displayed today in the canyon walls, still holding the river – when there is a river – to its main course.

I put my binoculars to my eyes expecting, as I do every time (immune to either learning or disappointment) to see a river and its inhabitants as I have instantly constructed them in my mind: 15 thousand years ago; the trackways of the megafauna crisscrossing the valley.  The river – always a river – snaking its way, in wide meanders, across the green valley floor; in places it would form channels of liquid lace, large and small rivulets punctuated with beaver ponds, taking most of the valley from steep side wall to steep side wall – and these were not ordinary beavers, but 6 feet or more long with a head as big as a bear's. In places where the valley bottom was more plain than river channel or willow forest, I imagine groups of the bigheaded, short-legged horses of the really old west; fifty in that clearing, a hundred in another.

Of course, when the binoculars touch that spot just below my eyebrows where they rest, and as I focus them and my eyes, the image is just the one that I was looking at a moment ago, only 8 times closer.  Unlike an astronomical telescope, they will not look into the past.

Today there is no river. 2 months ago there was no river and the remains of the lake was even smaller, in the rainless 110º heat, than it is now. I don’t know when the river was last a river, but the National Park Service has taken to calling the southwest end of the valley a wetland, not a river or a lake. New Mexico has not been a reliable source for rain or snow and also the water flowing out of that region is corralled on its passage in Conchas Lake and Ute Lake, as well as being taken for various domestic and agricultural uses.

I search in vain with the binoculars, having given up on them as a time machine, for signs of rivulets and flows strung together sufficiently that a river might be speculated or imagined.  There were some places where water had flowed in miniscule proportion from a recent rain.  The bottomland sands were a wet tan and not an almost bone dry white; but no secreted away little channel wending its way as some final trickle of the mighty Canadian River.

Over half a mile away a little finger of shallow water from the lake wetted the sand to a real brown. On the water were 300 or more birds, perhaps ducks – not the Pleistocene horses, but I thrilled a bit as I saw them.  I knew a man long ago who would have been able to tell what they were even from here; to me what are no more than black specks, some with flicks of white showing as they moved.  There was a pair of large white birds further away sitting on, or near, a small bar well out in the water; swans by size, though maybe not. Several great blue herons took up their solitary posts along the waters edge.  And various other birds in small groups: a few white specks gathered in one place and a few black specks gathered in another.

I present this inventory because I first take an inventory, looking through my time-locked binoculars, as part of the comprehension of the place,.  Denied the ancient megafauna, I’ll make do, even seek fulfillment, in present reality; and I enjoy being reminded of Sievert’s supernatural skill at identifying birds from the smallest clue – in the comparison of my incapacity to do so.

Then again maybe they are not ducks.  There was a flight of the birds, for reasons that birds do these things, and they took off and circled away like shore birds.  Perhaps the water there is only inches deep and the birds are wading.  So now I wonder if they might not be willet sized shorebirds and not small ducks at all.  The big white birds are still swans, at least they are not pelicans; I’m still just happy to watch them.  A tiny black dot at the head of a water comet pacing slowly along in the smooth water near the shore is almost certainly a grebe.

As the sun moved lower in the sky, the angled light defined the smooth bottomland sands and I could make out small trackways tracing out from the valley edges: coyote, deer, mastodon?

(Later in the night, in the bright darkness of the full moon, some of these questions were answered.  Flights of many tens of ducks circled up the valley along the steep edges, lead and followed by frenzied calling.  Since I was sleeping, at least at this point lying down, right on the valley rim the birds flew close by.  At one point I tried to see them with the binoculars and was shocked to focus, quite by accident, on no more than ten birds filling the field of view – shallow rapid wing-beats of quick moving ducks flashed by in an instant and were gone.  I could easily imagine hungry coyotes harassing the ducks in the shallows, sending them in the duck version of angry noisy circles of flight.)

I knew, as I fell asleep, that soon I would need to incorporate this experience and others like it into the other images of the trip, the giant gas-drilling rigs and gas collection facilities that spread like black Mad Max time cities along the low upland ridges, the land plowed to raw dirt from horizon to horizon, the little towns with empty buildings at their centers, the helpful and friendly people all along the way… It was like with the birds and coyotes; all too far away to see clearly and too dark, even in the light of the full moon, to make out the details: all clues to the present and the future; a world with which we must all come, individually and collectively, to grips.

Gratuitous motorcycle traveling photo

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