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absences 4 absence and light Exhausted from driving and from lingering grief, I šnally reach the Klamath marshes, where my enthusiasms slacken. My emotional state leaves me comical and obvious, miserable in the steady rain. I am drained: apt to absorb, and apt to project. I imagine the moon in my humid mouth: a coolness , an acrid sting, while the rain mingles sand with silt, while islands the size of my body are easily built and ruined. The heron is poised, at my approach, to arduously lift his wings. But he hesitates, for reasons beyond me, to consider. Like me, I imagine, he loved his mother’s body, but it was taken from him too soon. At šrst he cried, or at least he opened his bill in a pitiful expression, but of course he wasn’t fed. Still, he’s a heron, with instinct: he began to stab. At šrst he was inexact , but he slumped until his posture was right, until his life opened onto an alluvial plain. Now he walks so slowly that his shadow outdoes him. He cocks; he lunges; he’s comical, enthused. His neck trembles as he swallows his food. He lifts automatically, he narrates my suffering, and he stretches, awkward, in a luxurious sky. a b s e n c e s m e d i t a t i o n : one Mt. Shasta is truant today, hidden without guile by clouds. It’s early November, and Lower Klamath Lake is rich in autumn textures. As I drive the refuge roads, the ducks murmuring in the marsh are so numerous that their combined voices remind me of swarming insects, a sound rife with high chaos. The sky is piled with a complex of grays, sporadic horizontal fronts, and vertical shafts of rain. The ground is seasoned with mature yellows and oranges from the grasses, the cattails, the bulrushes. In some of the šelds, golds are broken by hummocks, dark umber, where rolled hay has been left to decompose. Patches of water open and close, sometimes silver, sometimes slate, always embellished with the exquisite bodies of birds. 6 absence and light The Klamath marshes mark the con¦uence of the Pacišc and the Mountain Flyways near the Oregon/California border. They consist mainly of three shallow lakes: the Upper Klamath, the Lower Klamath, and Tule. Each spring and fall great numbers of waterfowl stage here on their migrations north and south. On this November day over a million birds might inhabit the lakes, the reeds, and the surrounding šelds. The Klamath Basin hosted, in the Pleistocene, a pluvial sea of a thousand square miles. Even in historical times, when European settlers arrived in the late 1800s, the remnants of that sea extended over most of the area, covering some 185,000 acres. Now less than 25 percent of the historical wetlands remains, as most of the marsh was drained and converted, with government subsidies, to agricultural lands. So everywhere absence infuses the terrain. Once, supplies arriving from Yreka, California, were loaded at Laird’s Landing onto a ¦atboat that brought them north to the town of Klamath Falls. Now the landing is a remote and stony šeld, where the dry facts mingle with the past. And there is, as always, a tinge of irony in the landscape: nearby are barley šelds, planted using subsidies provided by the same government that encouraged the original “reclamation” of the swamps. The grain is left standing in the šelds exclusively for the birds. I’m learning that absent landscapes more than embroider the actual— they inform the actual with a complexity amounting to total mystery. Only from the unknown and the lost can known forms arise for our discovery . But for all the triumph and wonder present in the Klamath Basin , the advent of the landscape in contemporary consciousness has a tragic character as well. If I’m stunned by the autumn arrival of a million birds, how am I to imagine the spectacle of six million waterfowl arriving only a hundred years ago? The settlers told of deafening roars, of ¦ocks that blotted out the sun. a b s e n c e s When a biblical sense of a fall from grace informs our understanding of the land, absent landscapes become paradisiacal. The age of innocence has inevitably passed. Today no part of the earth is untouched by our cultural intervention, whether direct or indirect. Only in the absent landscape is the natural order...


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MARC Record
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