Making Wings

 

 

 

 

 


I

 

Last night I took a walk through the neighborhood and paused on the sidewalk beside a stranger's house. Through a window of a child's room, I saw a caged mouse playing on its plastic drums and tubes as though it were expecting to escape. I moved closer to the window and watched from a hedge the small mouse climb into a tin wheel and furiously run in place, as the wheel spun faster and faster. I thought the poor thing would tire or loose its footing and tumble helplessly within the wheel, or worse, that as it tumbled, he would crush his tiny head between the wheel and the metal pin that held the torturous contraption to the cage. But it didn't, and I left the house satisfied with the skills of a pet mouse that apparently had no other less frustrating desires than to turn a stupid wheel. Turning its wheel, I thought, must be its only job, its most fulfilling activity. The purpose of it all, I expect, was to turn the wheel, a routine no more noble than mine I confessed before turning the corner behind the old church. The purpose for too many of us, I thought, must be to grow up, marry and bear replacements who will keep the wheel turning. I argued with myself the rest of the way home. The moon was lovely, but I ignored it and thought of the wheel instead. But it never truly rolls, I thought outloud; it turns above the ground just a decimal point from touching, from really moving. It's just turning...turning on its drum, its divot, its pin, its hub, its dowel, its rowel, turning, turning, turning. Generations keep running in place, playing the odds, paying the dues, making things better, keeping it going, keeping it turning, letting the wheel keep turning, turning, turning.

Everywhere but in Valencia people are mowing lawns, planting fences, tuning engines, counting receipts, baking bread, hanging laundry, keeping the wheel turning. Tradition, not convention, holds us here in Valencia . In the valley, the wheel does not turn. We keep it still, anchor it in the beach, in the brackish water of Vero bay. But if I choose, I could sit on my hands upon a dune and watch the sky, and when the clouds thin, I can raise my head to watch the sea terns dipping into the waves and coming forth into the sky, back into the light. I could watch them glide inches above the sea...inches above the seatop at unfathomable speeds. The littleness of the bird, defiant and inimitable against the rushing backdrop is equally unfathomable, yet the little bird dismisses it without a sense of ego or bravado. Mass and energy, sprinting elements of wind and water exist outside the wheel where ambition and progress is overruled by freedom and instinct. If I chose to, I could watch the performance from a bluff, unconcerned with its science as the terns artfully fly undaunted by the sea's eerie and magnetic charm. I could watch these little birds dance like ice-skating companions whose familiar touches have been practiced to extinction. I could observe this foreplay of physics, the mating of balance and gravity that is today, at this precise moment, more dynamic than ever.

And then suddenly comes the peace. The serenity between the breezes, the incoming waves, the barking of the gulls. It's like stepping off a treadmill and hearing its wheels and bearings rub slowly to a stop. And everything is calm. A visual stillness comes like a meteor getting darker the deeper it moves into space, the harder the eye strains to see it. It is like a rest in a musical score when the chorus and the orchestra stops for a beat or two and nothing plays but the space: the silent part that comes at the end of a foreign film before the credits when it is quiet and the last scene freezes upon the screen. I could see and hear that today on Tower Hill if I chose to. It is the last scene when serenity takes over and the recapitulation finally and really does surrender. The tern drags a talon along the seatop much like a lazy schoolgirl floating in a raft downstream dips her foot into the flood, dragging a toe beneath her.

 

 

II

 

Dakota Creek separates into several streams before flowing into the bay. One stream, the longest, meanders around Tower Hill, a giant dune that provides much sport to hang-gliders in the summer and fall. Cattails, sweet smelling shoregrass and reedy vegetation pops up along the "finger creeks," we call them, although none of them are officially named. Dakota Creek's fingers are no longer than 400 yards except for its deformed thumb that rolls around the western base of Tower Hill before thinning out a half mile northward. The thumb is thicker than the other finger creeks and becomes muddier the longer it stretches. But it is here, to the southern beach around Tower Hill, where most of us come.

The springtime is the least popular season at the dunes and Tower Hill when the mosquitoes and horseflies come in from the sea or rise from the dunes, from those secret pods only revealed in nature films. The earth must eat them in one way or another because when I come in the summer, there is nothing in the air but the birds. In the summer the sea birds fish here; and in the summer, I come to watch them.

Sometimes the wind is too strong for the tourists to hang-glide. Tower Hill becomes clean again. Little people climbing up and down are washed away by the wind, like psoriasis jettisoned from its host with a mighty blow. But the sea birds, comfortable with their skills, keep on soaring, ice-skating in the air and on the surface of the bay. The bay can become violent under certain conditions. The moon pulls on it every evening. The wind sends it swirling upon the coastline, spinning into tiny tornadoes the height of a doorway. Seawater crashes against the rocks, and its own ebb and flow under the moon's eerie gravity, and the wind's capriciousness deters a hang-glider from even parking his car but does not skew the precision of the sea bird's routines. Triple axle, double lux: the jargon of battling competitors— the sea, the wind and the birds. The wind talks a mean talk. It is Wagner's third movement: the loud part, the fast part, the part we wish for to end. The waves continue to tease the terns, gravity and balance continue to test them, but they were designed for the wind, and the sky continues to adore them.

The sea tern swoops and scoops: dinner bought; a wave reaches, claps and spits, the bird looks skyward and is saved. The wind pushes beneath its wings and it rises sharply into the deep sky. The third movement ends. The recapitulation is a slow, comforting adagio the higher the tern flies, the higher the wind pushes it.

Like the bee and begonia, the tern and the sea are surrogate companions. The sea stirs up appetizers for the bird, entices the tern to come closer. But the air is the tern's truly beloved. The air carries it around the seascapes, whitecaps and feathers rub against each other. A jealous wave reaches for the bird to swallow it, but the wind pulls it away into a cloud. Daedalus warned his son of the air's sensitive margins. The air carried him upward where the sun destroyed his wings. And gravity's eerie black magic, that magnetic energy that one can only know while falling, pulled the young Icarus seaward, waveward until there was nothing he could do but drown.

 

Tower Hill and Mare's Point are situated beside one another. Tower Hill, being a 300 foot sand dune, is closer to the sea. People from all over come to Tower Hill with their hang gliders and launch themselves over the sea. They gallop down the sandy slope until a waft of air pulls them upward. They come down after gliding above the beach, disassemble their wings and climb back up the dune to repeat the process. There is no grass on the hill and I wonder how it has remained a dune for so long with a million pairs of climbing feet, brushing the sand downward into the bay. Doesn't sand roll downhill? Does gravity exempt it? Does God rebuild it every evening while we are sleeping; does he scoop a palmful of sand and sift it through his giant fingers rebuilding what we grunions in all our extravagances destroyed?

There are plenty of out of the way spots within the dunes. Some parts are grassy and other parts are low and sandy with moguls high enough to isolate most average-sized people. I accidentally brought a date here once. She was a math teacher from the elementary school directly below the mission library. We met one afternoon while passing through the church patico. I suggested that we meet for a drink to discuss the mystery as to why the patico was always empty, why the little garden was unable to hold a single visitor. We met there after work the following day and left immediately for the coast where we settled within a pocket of dunes for a little wine and conversation. Within a page of dialogue, we seemed to have run out of things to say. To my relief she asked me to run back to the car to fetch her sweater although more clothing was something I didn't think we needed. I hustled to the car without incident, but heading back in the opposite direction once the errand was half over was more difficult than I thought. Every dune looked the same and I couldn't remember which one my date was sitting behind. We didn't see much of each other, in the intimate sense, that evening or thereafter. Within a half hour or so of searching dozens of pockets within dozens of dunes, we ended up meeting at the car: one of those fail-safe measures you issue your children at the mall. She arrived first, shivering, less romantic than before and somewhat anxious to leave. If she'd only have raised a flag or something. But what other alibi could I give her than the truth?

Needless to say my turbulent shortcuts back to town did nothing more than nauseate her. We stopped for a Coke to settle our stomachs and talked that generic talk that so often does nothing but embarrass and intimidate. We realized before our sodas were gone that in spite of our initial passing in the patico, our personalities had since then destroyed any intimate opportunities that we may have previously imagined. It's funny how places can do that, how they can mislead you, misguide you, leave you ultimately as empty as they are.

 

 

Mare's Point is 50 yards inland of Tower Hill and about 80 feet higher. It's grassy and flat, more like a mesa than a point. It has a precipice of sandstone and basalt that lays uncovered on the leeward side toward the coast, toward the boats in the bay that see its pink layers partly obstructed by the giant dune. From the precipice you can see the very top of Tower Hill. In the right light its baldness is shiny, but its dome of white sand goes sallow in the shadow of Mare's Point. I cannot stand on the edge without having that urge to fall, without sensing gravity sneaking around the precipice, wanting to pull me down.

Gravity has its own twilight: a lulling brightness with just enough power to grant vision. Balance also has this lesser power. Standing on top of the parapet outside the library, even my slightest gesture will send me over the edge. One must lean against gravity, must expect the mischievous nature of balance to tug at you, to encourage you to fall. Even while riding my bicycle along the sidewalk, gravity and balance sneak up from a side, persuading the wheels to the edge where it sucks me off course and into the weeds.

Edges and boundaries can smell fear like a dog. They know why I avoid them. Gravity, balance and fear, like MacBeth's three witches, unmistakably foretell the future...the end. Balance will poke me with its finger and I will fall, waiting disassembled on the ground for God to scoop me up at night and sift me through his giant fingers until I am once again reformed.

 

 

III

 

In the middle of a summer day when the hanggliders are circling the beach and the terns and gulls are swiping snacks from the sea and the sunbathers, I will sit in the sand, rubbing my hands against the warm spots. Now and then, in an attractive breeze, I'll face the wind and catch the scent of Hawaii: fruity smelling oils so incongruent to the smells of Valencia that the innovation of it all is pleasing, refreshing like discovering a new kind of ice-cream or marmalade or cocktail. It's as startling in the same respects as discovering Waikiki Beach rolled up against the sidewalk one morning while going to the curb for the daily news. Suddenly, in my boxers and bathrobe, I am a part of something fresh and exhilarating, but nonetheless unreal.

On windy days, I can smell the sea and the meadows in a single swallow. Yet in the air there is nothing specifically titillating. The sunbathers have returned to their out-of-town homes, and my imagination is no longer subjected to their subtle aphrodisiacs. The fundamental chemistry of Valencia 's breezes is a headful of sea, fields, mountains and meadows that are altogether curious and overwhelmingly familiar. It can be as comfortable as a nap and as pleasing as a lover's kiss.

 

The glass door to the library is almost always open, and when the sheers catch wind they resemble another pair of wings or the entourage of an angel. They do not lift or propel, but illuminate; they swim in the air like streamers; they announce, they accompany.

The library for a while reveals a femininity that it otherwise does not have. The sheers make me think that someone is coming, someone beautiful, someone uninhibited by strange places and unfamiliar people. The presence in the library is like that of a young woman in the forest, rising from a pond, walking on water. Unbeknown to her, I watch from within the ferns as she covers her shoulders with a light towel and combs her hair as though she were meeting a lover.

Something fresh, tender and sensuously feminine circulates throughout the room, hanging around until my presence is noticed and the room grows cold again and I return to my study. The image is Wagner's last aria: the melodious part, the slow part, the part that lingers when the final curtain falls.

It can be quite haunting at times when I'm alone: like the orange sunset illuminating the upstairs studio at home. The flowing sheers in the library let in a force that rustles the newspapers and maps left open upon the table. The artist must be missing me. Or perhaps she is as mystified by my room as I am by her's and has come to investigate. I'll sometimes say her name out loud and try assigning her a face from a magazine or an advertisement from the newspaper. The pictures always look the same: a different face but the same dark hair and brown eyes, the same olive complexion, the same sullen, contemplative expression of a real artist. She knows me better than I know her. She has seen me at my worst; my carnal nature is easily read. I suppose she has seen me at my best as well if she hasn't been busy with her work or walking along the creekside.

The wind rustles notices and articles tacked to the bulletin board, interrupting my work, giving me reason to take a break and wander around the library or relax in my study. Other times a fragrance from the garden enters the room and interrupts my reading. It overcomes the scent of books and paper and fills the room with Valencia 's originality—the freshness of her sky: the trademark of her vitality. And it is this vitality that causes me to pause in the middle of a sentence or while beginning a chore or before falling asleep at night.

 

Wildflowers are in full form throughout the spring and summer months. Valencia 's fair weather brings forth an armada of butterflies and moths. On windless and inviting afternoons, school children gather in the playground to embark on field trips to the botanical gardens or the bay museum. All the adults who stay behind are seduced by the sunlight in a park or by the shade of a tree.

A few of the library's patrons sat outside on the balcony, watching a yellow moth no larger than a quarter tossing itself from a stone to a stem to a leaf. I've seen his kind before. They never stay long but they always return, sometimes in numbers, sometimes alone. But unlike the bee, they always stay outside in the air that lifts and adores them. The creatures seem so helpless, like toddlers learning to walk in sand or on hillsides of wet grass. But after billions of years and millions of generations, the yellow moths are still here among us learning to walk, learning to fly. Evolution has ignored them, it seems, as maybe it has everything.

A Spicebush Swallowtail Butterfly, a true Papilionidae is the largest butterfly in America and the most spectacular in Valencia although it is seldom seen here and has never been officially identified in the valley or the entire region. Its reputation and intense beauty and fragility will sometimes convince people of its very presence, yet I think it is more fancy than fact that it has ever actually been sighted here. But I am almost certain that I had seen one late last summer gliding around in the gardens downstairs. Its white spotted apex and outer margin, deep purple fore wings and metallic- blue hind wings produced a legion of admirers throughout the day passing through the mission grounds.

The largest Papilionidae in Valencia is Speyeria cybele or the Great Spangled Fritillary. The Speyeria is primarily orange with black spots and is nearly three inches across. It is rarely seen outside of a few shady gardens of violets on the hillsides far from the bay and Mare's Point.

Occidryas anicia, or the Anicia Checkerspot is everywhere in Valencia . It is an Hesperioidea or skipper as it is commonly called by the way in which it bounces around patches of indian paintbrush, beardtongue and figworts. Sometimes they fade into their environment and cannot be seen until they change flowers. They travel in schools and when they all take flight, the desire to hold out an arm, to touch them, is overwhelming. They look like tiny puzzles of orange and white, their black seams separate them from matter of every color. They are the summers' favorites. They, and the Lycaeides melissa.

Lycaeides melissa is one of the most handsome species in the valley. In English it is called the Orange-bordered Blue or the "Melissa Blue." It is a true Hesperioidea no more than an inch across that can latch on to my car antenna and endure the gales I make on my way to the post office or the gas station. By the end of my errand, it has walked along the windshield wiper and onto the top of the car. A gentle nudge from the edge of an envelope sends it off into the breeze and another field or windshield on a lot across the creek. Watching it settle and then open its wings is like being in a cathedral under a stained-glass window of vivid silvery purple-blue. Its antennae are thick-ended with short tips that are hooked like a fish's tooth. The Melissa Blue is the most sought after winged insect in Valencia 's meadows and landscaped curbsides. It is not as prevalent here as the Bluebonnet is in Texas or the Cormorant is in coastal Great Britain , but the Melissa Blue can be seen now and then in its favorite patches of alfalfa, crazyweed and wild licorice. Its wings are three times lighter than a Kleenex and hinge to a sinuous muscle like the cilia of a paramecium. The wingspan of the Golden Pygmy of Great Britain is only a fifth of an inch. The Melissa Blue is equally delicate and flies through the fields as undaunted by the wind as are the terns at Tower Hill.

I've wondered since then if there is a human being who can withstand nature without the aid of his own inventions, or if it would be possible for any human being to survive beyond the natural forces of nature. After all, nature did not create my car and the "wind" I produce with it. It makes me wonder why some of human kind supposes that we are exempt from nature, that it is nature's ultimate cruelty that we should someday die and decay into the same dirt that supports the begonia, the bee, the Melissa Blue and the cattails along Dakota Creek. Will our immortality be more substantive than the foreverness of a protozoan, a bee or a butterfly? Is it possible that our lot in life was decided by nature long before the universe exploded and God was born? Have we all paid for our intelligence with our nakedness and vulnerability? Is our only lot in life to turn the wheel in our cages, our cities, our houses? And if we cannot withstand the power of nature and our place within it, I wonder if we can understand our purpose for sitting on our hands upon a dune, making wings.

There's an element of freedom that comes in the sky while flying. Man will never know that since he will never fly without the aid of his devices or machines. Perhaps the hang-gliders around Tower Hill know this better than I. Perhaps those who push themselves from a bridge or a precipice like the one at Mare's Point are the only ones who know what the birds and the butterflies know. Gravity and balance will always appeal to our irrational senses, to the artistic voice that wants to be the art instead of the artist. These are the victims and the thrill seekers and the stunt makers looking for ways to defy physics and logic. But sometimes while sitting on my hands upon a dune, watching the birds resting in the air, I want to rest with them. I want to know the hovering angel that comes to my library just as Wagner had known the quarter rest, the half rest and the whole rest between the oboe and the bass. His artistry allowed us to stop living and to rest until the silent beat passed and the score continued.

There's a different element of freedom that the purists believed in, an element of freedom reserved for the earthbound, for mankind. John Wesley Powell passed on this freedom and knowledge to Robert Muir who then passed it on to Rachel Carson who passed it on to an entire generation. They are the ones who come here to Valencia or to Christmas Island, or Skagway Alaska, Madeira Brazil, Pooh Corner or the Land of Oz. Real or unreal, there's a precipice someplace where people go to rest endowed with an element of freedom that we see in nature, that is nature. This is where the orchestra rests and that compelling madness of gravity and balance urges a few of us to fall.