Merlins and Holy Ground
Dark Trail earned its name for the tree canopy that shades and darkens its travelers. Gambel oaks. Mountain maples. Box Elders. Orange lichen clothes their trunks as they arc over the path. I ride a round-trip seven. The higher I go, the prettier the canyon, campsites yielding to firs and aspen groves and snow pockets still in June. On Independence Day I launched from a mogul and landed on my back. A kind fellow cyclist sped off and called 911 and came back, and an ambulance carried me away. Four ribs broken and a bleeding lung. Now I call Dark Trail by another name: Rib Breaker.
A branch thwacked and I braked a hard what the hell? and a raptor flew low over my helmet under the archway down the trail clutching some rodent whose guts dangled and dripped blood still. I could seek him a hundred years and never find him, but I found him then without looking. Or he found me, when I was there and ready. Feathers blue-grey, blue-black head, white throat, wide-fanned tail white-banded, short sharp black knife beak. A Merlin. I had never seen a Merlin. Kestrels, yes, and Red-taileds and Swainson’s and Cooper’s and Sharp-shinneds. But I didn’t know the Merlin, far south of its regular range, a Merlin who wasn’t supposed to be there but was there when I was there and I saw how a Merlin looks and how a Merlin works.
Lightning streak, yellow-touch-of-red. The little Western Tanager twitched her head all around, eyeing me, and she opened her tiny beak and sang me the sweetest pretty song and looked at me a moment more and quipped a tweet and flew off. Lemon-cream-scarlet brushstroke in the gambel’s deep green. I know that little bird came to me and sang to me and tweeted her cheerful see you later to me. I know it. Sometimes I wish I were a songbird, even when Merlins perch and prey.
Screaming down the winding foot-wide path, and there she was, a tarantula easing along the trail. Twenty miles per hour to zero in ten feet. I knew: if I didn’t help her off the trail the cyclists behind me would grind her into the dust. What a strange creature, I thought: fat hairy body and eight hairy arcing jointed legs rising and falling in slowest motion. A beautiful creature, perfectly designed, expertly eliminating her part of the planet’s eight-hundred million annual tons of bugs.
I named a spider once. I was lonely and living alone, and she appeared spindly-legged in a ceiling corner. I named her Clementine, and I talked to her every morning until the day I moved away. She was my friend, for she never judged me or chewed me out or showed her disappointment. She suspended always on her silk, steady and consistent and there.
Around a hill and there she was, a mother mule deer and her spotted suckling fawn. The little one didn’t notice me for all her focused slurping, but mama tensed and stared, ready to bound. I hoped she would stay, so I talked to her quietly: What a beautiful spotted fawn. You are taking such good care of her. And you are beautiful too, your softest of browns. I won’t hurt you. I’m sorry to disturb. I’ll wait. She stared at me and, as the fawn punched and sucked her mama’s belly, I knew I stood on holy ground, remove-your-sandals ground, where the bush burns without burning and the lions don’t tear your guts out, where He himself whispers through the green, I am in the mother deer, and in her fawn. I am in the warm sweet milk. And I am in the love between. I was in the fan-tailed Merlin, in the brilliant tiny Tanager, in the hairy spider, who came to you from me. And I am in you, too. I stood quiet and as motionless as I knew how, moving only my mind in prayer.
Roger Evans Baker is a municipal attorney, homebody poet and essayist, and amateur naturalist. Roger is the author of Rabbit Lane: Memoir of a Country Road and A Time and A Season. Rabbit Lane tells the true life story of an obscure farm road and its power to transform the human spirit. A Time and A Season gathers Roger’s poems from 2015-2020, together with the stories of their births. The books are available in print and for Kindle at Amazon. See Rabbit Lane reviewed in Words and Pictures.