earth, fire, water, wind
A path from the chairlift leads up to the Summit House Restaurant where inside it smells like wet carpet, old wood, and French fries. In the other direction, Mount Rainier rises up, impressively high and impossibly close, filling the frame of vision with a full coat of ice that turns pink and blue as the sun crosses over.
In the distance are lesser mountains still snowcapped, and beyond them, row upon row of foothills bluish with haze. And then, if we could see it, the coast.
This is the Earth.
I stomp down on the ground with my ski boots, as if to ensure that it is present, substantial. I like to feel the hardness beneath my feet, with the land below and the sky above.
I watch the changes in terrain from airplanes flying at altitude: the checkerboard of fields, punctuated by round circles of indistinct colors, and then dry brown hills, and snowy plains with outcroppings of tiny towns and miniscule cities. And sometimes, through the plane window at sunset, I can see the soft curve of the horizon.
When the plane banks, the land disappears. Out the airplane window are only clouds and sky, the setting sun spiraling into my eyes. The earth is on the side now, not below me --a disruption of where things should be. And yet, the g-forces hold me still against my seat, simulating stability. Eventually, the aircraft rights itself and the earth is where it should be, right down there underneath, several miles below my feet.
We see images of our planet from space that don’t really make sense. This earth becomes just a colorful ball with barely recognizable continents and seas. And from further out, it becomes just one ball among many. We cease to recognize our Earth.
You can let parts of the earth slide through your fingers. You bring its soil home with you, in a paper cup or on the feet of your dog or in the treads of your shoes. You can sweep it out, but some of it lingers inside the stiff fibers of the broom, and lightly on the tops of the coffee table and the upright piano. A long time later should the roof fall it, the earth will take over, pushing up dandelions and grasses, then Morning Glory vines and kudzu, bringing the topsoil with it like a blanket to repair the damage in its own way.
Where the land ends and the sea begins, there is a owning of space, and a sharing of it, until the water moves in to cover the beaches or out to tomorrow on a wave or two to shelter the fishes. The shoreline stays here to support our legs and arms, our crops, our structures.
When the land is inundated with rainwater or snow runoff, the earth may slide onto the Pacific Coast Highway, damaging houses and security. Or the rising water eliminates the dog beach on Lake Michigan. Or opens up a sinkhole in a residential neighborhood, into which drop parked cars and children’s toys. In Japan, the earth wobbles from an earthquake, overturning beer glasses and shaking telephone poles, their wires writhing like snakes in alarm.
The world is more precarious than it sometimes seems. Perhaps it is better just to fall asleep in the tall grass as the bugs, air and earth debris gradually cover us over.
When should we take cover? In the heat of summer, in the Methow Valley, when a small spark from a tractor engine or a bolt of lightning ignites the low-lying, superheated grasses in a culvert, flames can rage up the side of a hill, and then up a mountain to become a conflagration. Fire shoots across the horizon like gunfire in slow-motion, illuminating the sky from the tops of ridges; it jumps the river, coughing up cinders that blush red from heat. The flames become so hot that the trees and grasses and sage have no chance. The fire takes a house, then another. And it becomes so red at its core that it turns vermillion, then blue. The smoke darkens the destruction.
A fixed-wing airplane will fly low along the foothill above the houses, dropping bright red fire retardant. It has little effect. The fire will burn for weeks. Or until October and its winter weather.
But fire is not in the dry river valley yet this year. It is still spring. Dry and warm. The fire will come.
I have seen, along the side of the river, places where only blackened tree skeletons remain, relics of another fire, the nakedness of their branches an embarrassment, as they point weakly toward the sky, until the day during a winter storm, when they will fall over.
Perhaps we should take cover from the fire that is anger, ignited in the belly of a beast. Small at first: a yellow blister that begins to spread, moving past the heart to the head to become molten. It can blindside us, furiously licking the interstices in the brain,
extinguishing reason and hope to become just a gush of boiling blood. A volcano of the mind.
When I am angry, my mind turns red then vermillion then blue. I spit out cinders that burn my skin. And then for lack of fuel or oxygen, the anger flattens into a blanket of ash and exhaustion.
And then there is the soothing warmth of fire: the fire on the hearth, the hypnotic spell cast by lips of flame. And the reassuring sun: its ball of fiery plasma and gas is so far away that by the time its heat enters my backyard, it is gentle enough to warm the tips of my fingers, the back of a songbird, the petal of a rhododendron.
And so we tiptoe along the line of contradictions, experience the shifting balance of the elements, are bewildered by extremes. And we wonder, when is it that we must take cover.
Islanders are water people. They love the seas and lakes and what they bring: fish, cool breezes, rain, sunrises and sunsets.
As an island child, I loved going out in the boat in the early evenings wearing my pint-sized orange canvas life preserver that smelled slightly of fish. I would plant my feet on the bottom of the boat, feeling the bits of dried green seaweed and seashell fragments and row out 100 feet from the shore. I’d ship the oars and peer over the side to watch what might happen in the water below.
Perhaps this is why, after a year of sickness and disease, of forced quarantines that brought to the surfaces all of our discontents, I crave the sea: not so much to enter it as might a person wishing for oblivion or release, but to float upon it and feel the small steady movement—up then down, up then down. I want to examine the window of the sea’s surface, break it gently with my fingertips, and then look beneath at the rocks of white and grey and black, the strands of seaweed and kelp moving sightly back and forth and the tiny sea creatures that skitter among them.
Islanders understand that water is unknowable.
You can listen to it, of course: the regular shush of waves on the beach, the sound intensifying when the wake from passing ferries or large ships move onto the shore. You
can hear water coming down as rain, nattering among the spring leaves overhead, rattling insistently along on the tin roof, and sometimes striking against the skylight or a window. Knocking, knocking as if on a door, something wanting to get in.
But sometimes, when it rains, you cannot hear it at all. Instead you feel it, delicate spray that wets your face, heavy mist that saturates your thin jacket. A muddy splash from a puddle, soaking through your shoes. You can touch the stream of water from a faucet, running over your fingers, onto your hand, down your arm to wet your sleeve.
And when you enter the lake or the sea, it sloshes against your skin, slaps you if you land too hard on its surface. You can feel its coolness in a neighbor’s swimming pool or its warmth in a bath or in the turquoise bay off the islands in the Bahamas. Or it can be cold, glacial runoff in mountain rivers that numbs your skin, or that achingly, deathly cold of winter seas.
And you sometimes you can see it. It seems to fit neatly between things: riverbanks, for instance, or the concrete slope of irrigation ditches. If flows in pipes—PVC, copper or galvanized—sometimes carrying with it silt or lead, or small drowned mice. And water moves down our throats from glasses or bottles, as clear, anonymous liquid or as a fine single malt whisky.
Water vexes us, moving under windows or door frames in a wind-blown heavy rain, seeping through plaster walls in the basement to collect in puddles on the floor. For even when we put it in jars and buckets and irrigation canals, it yearns to wander, to leak in this direction or that, seeking escape. Or it evaporates, joins the air, transforms into clouds, to form balloons of humidity. Will it remain as water vapor, or will it to return to flood, saturate the hillsides, and drown us?
Water is difficult to capture even in a photograph. I take a picture of the bay, but the water is veiled by what is reflected on it: the low-lying hills that ring the shoreline, the beach houses, the rough fringe of a skyline of Douglas fir, or darkening clouds.
Or the surface is stippled with debris, pollen, cut grass, a plastic bottle, a buoy, wind riffles.
Water can put out fire. It can adjust cities, towns and riverbeds. It captures color and light
and takes on the forms of the spaces it inhabits before it breaks loose. Water shapeshifts. We can catch it but cannot hold it.
It happens when variations in temperature cause the air to expand or contract, rise or fall, shift positions, sometimes gently, as in a breeze, sometimes more forcefully, as a push/pull of atmosphere, causing turbulence.
We cannot see it. We know it by what it does. How it blows over us, adjusts what is loose, like hair and breath, displaces an eyelash or a silk scarf or the hood of a jacket. We see it fiddling with the tips of national flags. Strong winds loosen the tethers of boats, casting them adrift.
Wind is visible in the things it picks up: sea spray lifted off the top of an ocean wave, sand blowing in from the Gobi Desert, carrying its gathered grit into cities, the engines of cars and the lungs of the living. Wind knocks about the branches of trees. And when it strengthens, it can carry cows and parts of barns into the maelstrom of its own whirling dervish.
It can drive snow from one locale to another, making everything white. It is an architect of change: reshaping the snowpack as well as the dune, ripping up the surface of a lake, sending the sea into homes along the shoreline.
The wind makes things sound that would otherwise be silent: the deep roar of the tree canopy in a squall, a tin can flipping about along a two-lane highway after a truck passes. The wind invades the hollows of buildings to make them howl or moan or keen. It slams doors in distant rooms and knocks abandoned metal tools against walls of old barns in eerie rhythms. We think it might be a phantom, a spirit, a presence. When it blows hard enough, it resonates so loudly in our ears that cannot hear other human voices when they speak. Or scream.
When we pay attention, the wind can teach us lessons: how to play musical instruments like clarinets or oboes. How to modulate our vocal cords with moving air so that we can whisper secrets to our children or our best friends. So that we can sing.
We can learn how, when birds look motionless and stationary in the sky, they are actually held aloft by something we can’t see. They float. And then they tilt their wings into folds of space between the gusts to return to the pond.
Some winds are so remarkable that we give them names: Santa Ana in California, Mistral in France, the Chinook in Canada.
Although the gusts seem angry at times, they know no emotion; they follow their own invisible maps that reveal places to go, when to start and when to stop. We realize that a strong wind could just move us aside, as easily as a feather. We try, but mostly fail, to read the signs.
Wind covers footprints.
What was your inspiration for this piece?
My Bainbridge Island Writing Group used water as a writing prompt one week during the Pandemic.
Tell us about the creation process including any obstacles overcome or surprises.
My goal in writing is to describe what I observe without becoming hackneyed or cliche.
My challenge was making the piece, with these four elements, fit together.
Darsie's family members have lived on Bainbridge--off and on--for generations. She moved here to retire after teaching writing studies at DePaul University in Chicago.