Gray goose feather light floated in through east-facing windows, tickling me awake. I rose from the comfortable nest of my bed and walked onto the back deck of the cabin to watch. Again. The coyotes had come close in the night—their skunky smell still hung in the morning air. Above the vast alkali flat, a waning crescent moon climbed into the star-prickled sky. A pink baby’s bottom glow bulged upward, spreading across the eastern ridgeline in a warm exhalation that snuffed out stars and the last life from that fading sickle of moon. Sun crowned the hills, an amber birthstone spilling brightness across the basin floor, two hundred square miles of bleached cracked skin stretching toward the newborn light that gasped and breathed, wet and blinking over this parched land, wondering what was to be.
Many sunrises greeted me in my four weeks as an artist-in-residence at Playa, perched on the edge of Summer Lake Basin. For most of my life I’ve been curled in the womb of the Willamette Valley foothills, bathed in fog and rain and fifty shades of green, a place that has left me forever wet and mossy behind the ears. Yet I’m comfortable in the dry reaches of sagebrush and juniper. I’ve been visiting Summer Lake for nearly four decades, first as a hunter, then as a birder, and finally as a teacher. Last summer marked two decades of herpetology class field trips to Paisley Caves on the southeast side of the basin, site of at least 15,000 years of human occupation.
My years in the Great Basin are carved into my soul. But in all that time I’m not sure I really internalized the space until those four weeks this fall with nothing more pressing than to watch sunrises with newborn eyes, pen in hand. An appreciation for spaciousness began to take hold. I’ve always loved the word but rarely taken time to understand it. Spaciousness. Whispered on a long exhalation, it is the sound of hissing rain and soft drops falling on autumn leaves. Spaciousness has resonance. It is a mantram for meditation.
Space opened up everywhere. Spectacular sunrises were accompanied by strong coffee and noodling in my journal, staring across a narrow band of obsidian water that might be cracked by a swimming Mallard or muskrat. Beyond the pond, the bright alkali reached for six miles, ending in a russet ridge penciled with dark rimrock. Earth gave way to a sky larger than my heart could hold. One morning a soft rush of air announced a Great Horned Owl flapping in to roost in the willow above my deck. She looked down. The depth of her eyes seemed limitless.
Summer strolled into autumn. More space opened. The sun began to tire, drooping lower in the sky. Those fall photons had to negotiate their way through more of the atmosphere, where they encountered all manner of obstructions: dust, pollen, pollution, perhaps some wayward coyote hair riding a monstrous updraft into the stratosphere. Lengthening shadows became more pronounced, and microshadows formed from leaves and branches moved in small breezes sifting in from the south, becoming a kaleidoscopic scattering of contrast. Each morning the sun arrived a little later and moved a little further south. The cottonwoods and aspen began to miss him, their green chlorophylls fading into yellow carotenoids. We would all be lonely together.
Emotions cracked under the drying sun, opening in unpredictable ways. There was the bliss of unfettered, uninterrupted creative time and the company of fellow residents with whom I laughed and talked and drank wine and watched movies. Joy became grief when a morning text arrived that my wife’s mother had died. Later, an email announced that Amy Frohnmayer’s beautiful but abbreviated life was over. The playa was emotionally volatile as well. In the small space of an hour the basin floor could change from serene to bright, bright to stormy, stormy to dark. The storm would pass, and sunlight bent through broken clouds, lighting up five miles of blowing dust, a wild palomino mare’s tail chased by cloud shadow. In the evening, Winter Ridge etched a line of shadow along the length of the playa, becoming a dark stain crawling eastward over the whitewash. The margin between shadow and sunlit alkali is called The Line. Adventurous people chase it on foot across the flat. I understood their compulsion. But on this trip I was content to spend the dying day sitting, awash in pastels bleeding across the open sky.
There were spacious people here, folks of vastly different temperament and artistry who decided early on to become a fully functioning tribe: Liv Lombardi, Liz Menard, Rebe Huntman, Jaye Schlesinger, Ellen Sollod, Carolyn Swift, Barbara Rockman, Jennifer Boyden, and Honorine and Mark Tepfer. I’ve linked each of their names to their websites so that you can know them, too. They were my ad hoc family with whom I ate, drank, walked, talked, and watched movies. Director Deborah Ford and manager Courtney Oertel masterfully carved out room for each of us and our unique creative paths. I became intensely grateful for this new circle in my life.
The auditory space spread was palpable, punctuated by an occasional truck rushing down Highway 31 or quiet conversation among my fellow residents drifting in like the smell of baking bread. For birds, the breeding season had passed, and their calls became well-spaced furniture in an uncluttered room. A particularly garrulous Common Raven often rowed across the playa with rapid-fire croaking. American Coots grunted and Song Sparrows cheeped. Fall flocks of Brewer’s Blackbirds clicked as they flew over the yard. Male Redwing Blackbirds seemed duped by a photoperiod that resembled spring. Their territorial gurglechurr rose from cattails to my left, as though there was something meaningful left to defend. There’s always someone who doesn’t get it.
What was a Willamette Valley kid to do with all that room to move? Why I stole it, of course. There was plenty to go around. Besides, in the end I had to transduce the external space into something internal and portable. Without this portability, my experience would have been beautiful and valuable in the moment but completely transient.
I returned to my rural childhood, when I was too young to drive and biked everywhere. Occasionally I found my way to a service station, where I could take advantage of the compressed air hose. This was marvelously more efficient than a hand pump, but I wasn’t used to the speedy delivery of air, and my tires always ended up over-inflated. So I would press my fingernail into the top of the valve stem, depressing the little doodad inside to let off excess pressure. At Playa I expanded, then pressed inward. Excess pressure hissed into the vastness. Decompression. Room to wiggle. And in this short time, nestled within a vast space, my life grew. For a moment I became limitless and enough.