It’s summer, early in the day. The sun is still low in the sky but lots of light comes through the trees. Sparkle time, I call it, if there is dew mixed in the greenery. The birds’ songs and chirping sparkle no matter what. Birds, indeed, plenty and varied, they are nature’s sprites. My favorite are the quail, pecking about in the dry grasses, their little chicks in tow, their top knots bobbing even when they stand still. I see the quail family regularly on my morning walks. When they hear my footsteps, the patriarch leaps from his lookout perch, usually a big boulder, to lead their dash into the blackberry bushes and poppies.
The berry bushes have been here a long time, half a century at least. Maybe they started from seeds that sprouted from quail droppings of long ago, maybe from the ancestors of these very birds. That boulder from which the male dominates his flock has been here for a long time, too. The massive chunk of basalt came with the territory. It has smaller cousin rocks all over this Montecito Ridge. They are everywhere, cropping out from the hard, clay soil. They are the fractured surface remains of a lava formation that is several thousand feet deep. It formed some 2.5 million years ago, when super hot magma flowed up from deep in the earth through uncountable vents across the Sonoma region. The flows went on for close to a million years, vents opening and closing, new vents breaking through.
That big boulder of basalt, then, where the quail perch as regal guardians of the day, has been in this very place since the earliest of the Homo genus was beginning to show up – Homo habilis, the first tool user. Modern humans were but a budding species only 400,000 years ago. This ridge was not the home of early humans, of course. But that quail perch, it was born here, and it has a place in the natural history of the region. It has been a harbor for life.
Rock is inert, having no experience to match its age, but life all about this boulder has, in contrast, persisted with great drama. Poppies open and close here daily with the shining sun. In the rippling heat waves, blue belly lizards do pushups, then give chase in male competition. Scorpions, lying in wait at night, capture the passing spider, mouse or reptile with claw-like pedipalps. Such catches contain the only water scorpions consume. And if need be, scorpions can wait months for a next meal. The early peoples of the area, the Pomo and the Miyakmahs, lived here for 12,000 years collecting acorns to eat, hunting deer, having babies. Life has been here a long time, each life leaving something, changing something, having a mark on the future.
I don’t usually see all these facts and processes that have happened here. But today, I paused, and I began to notice the particulars of time, as if stacked up, layers in an archeology dig. Today’s particulars I share with the quail.
As a young woman, I visited the oldest known wooden structure in the world, Hōryū-ji Temple in Japan. This man-made feature is not as old as the quail perch, but it has been a busy place since it was built in the year 607. For hundreds of years, people have come to the Horyu-ji Temple to study, to live monastically, to meditate, to feed the residents, to be a part of the commitment to understanding truth. The wooden beams and floors have an aura of having borne witness to ages of human drama. If walls could speak, right? Of course, walls don’t talk. They don’t know what is going on about them. But they do stay put. The ancient temple marks a space where thousands of personal stories have been lived out over 14 centuries.
As for the favored basalt perch, it has been in place for millions of years of biological activity – seedlings, hatchlings, fawns and larvae. Oh, if the boulder could talk! This one would have some perspective on the forces of nature. It has been a steady feature around which changes happen: endless chains of soil microbial life, slogs of seasonal cycles, sudden meteorological events such as quakes and volcanic explosions.
And there are the wild adventures of the native inhabitants, a story book of life. Rattlesnakes, lying in wait for prey, know something will come along for them to sink their fangs into, unless, of course, they are snatched up first by the coyote or a large king snake. Foxes and cougars, active hunters, stalk their prey. They depend on their aggression and their patience to make a kill. Circling overhead are vultures and hawks, their senses keen. They search, one for the quiet carcass, one for the fleet-footed. Hummingbirds, masters of high metabolism, do not eat flesh, relishing, instead, the nectar of flowers such as the tiny pink lanterns of manzanita, and gulping down tiny insects during mid-flight. The blues of the ceanothus hide away the birds’ tiny nests, sticky with spiderwebs. Here, too, are anise swallowtails, flying on heavy wings, seeking out their favored wild carrot and parsley. Nothing is still or isolated. Even poppies share the soil with oat grass. And every evening, deer bed down, trying to be invisible. Small groups are safer.
On this day, I see the twinkling sunlight. I imagine its rays having colored every day of this ridge for eons past, glinting off of leaves, glowing through fog, casting long shadows at end of day. I imagine the rocks having been a part of the earth’s surface, pushed and buckled and broken by the force of nature. Cute quail come and go, generation by generation, and a new crop of berries is enjoyed by wildlife each year. The big basalt rock is worn down with each deep freeze. It breaks when tree roots pry at it, and it settles differently with each earthquake. But some things stay the same, too.
In this morning’s sunshine, all of that is here, visible. Nothing here would be as it is without everything that has gone before. Everything that has ever happened here is still here, and always will be, until the planet is once again star dust. Then, all of this will always have been. Oblivion collapses time, obliterates the record, but not the simple truth of what has been.
Here, along this path I walk, insects, birds, reptiles, share a spot in time and space. Today, which of them will escape the overhead hawk? Which vole’s burrow will foster a sprouting acorn? For these particular creatures and plants, and for the simple, silent matter of an inert bolder, this is their morning, a particular morning, a point of impact, where causes meet effects. They will mark this ridge with their movement, their responses, with their volition or instinct, and with their stillness. This is their time.