As we set up camp and ate dinner under the giant twisted cottonwood trees, we breathed in the clean desert air and drank in the beauty of the surrounding cliffs in the evening sun. It was deeply satisfying. We saw only one other vehicle that evening. From where we were camped we could just hear the faint running of water from the San Rafael River.
After dinner we went down to the river with the Muses (our daughters, Eliza, Kjersten, and Lucy). Its waters were still muddy from a rainstorm a day or two earlier and the kids remarked that it looked like chocolate milk. They spent an hour or so wading in the lukewarm water, slipping over rocks and squelching the rich mud between their toes while Mary and I reminisced on our many trips down here while we were dating.
Back at the campsite we sat and talked and sang as the sun slipped lower and the evening sky began its colorful pilgrimage toward the moon and stars. We sat facing Bottleneck peak. As dusk turned into a rich luminescent darkness I pulled out the mandolin and sang Utah Slim’s song Sister San Rafael. It was a moment I’d like to have packaged and put away to pull out years from now and breathe in its beauty and stillness.
The front cover of Shiver into Spark is a painting of Bottleneck peak by Mary’s brother, Andrew. The album is about transitions, about the places in our lives and the universe where inexplicably, something old ends, and something new begins. It’s about things stripped down to their essence. Over the years the San Rafael Swell is a place we have returned to over and over to come back to that place in ourselves. As I sat in the moonlight I recalled Gerard Manly Hopkins poem...
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
...and I realized what it was that called me back to the San Rafael Swell year after year. It is the chance to pull off the chains of living in the city, to drop the pretenses of the petty concerns that occupy me, to let my soul sink deep into the soil and the rocks, my sense of time slow to the rhythm of the seasons and the movement of the sun and stars. I gazed up into a sky free from light pollution, and looked out into the universe, drinking in the vision of vastness and the beauty.
I recalled a conversation I had with an astronomer a couple of years ago. He told me he was often asked what the most marvelous thing he had seen in the skies was. He told me his answer was that in all his stargazing, he had never seen something so beautiful, so fragile, and so glorious as this planet of ours. He told me that all of his searching and studies had driven home to him just what a gift we had in the planet that birthed us.
I recalled another friend telling me he thought that we humans would only change our relationship to the land once we discovered a sense of “sacredness” for our earth. I thought again of some of my favorite lines in Slim’s song. “This life is your temple… We have no sense of beauty, much less gratitude for grace which keeps this warm blooded planet alive in endless space… This here and now is all we’ve got and my sister’s not for sale.”
It troubled me that I couldn’t remember all the words to the Hopkins poem. I pulled out my smartphone to look it up and saw it had no signal. I smiled, laughed at myself, then settled back to gaze out at the universe in wonder.
Otter Creek will be hosting an intimate CD release party for their album Shiver Into Spark at the campground near the old bridge on the Buckhorn Draw road on September 29, 2012. If you would like to join us you can RSVP and get all the details by joining our event on Facebook or contacting us directly.