Today I spent much of the day at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of the Florida panhandle. In the week after Christmas 2006, my partner and I drove south into the Refuge, pulled our bicycles off the rack, and peddled along grassy, sandy dike trails in 70F sunshine. We are enthusiastic amateur birders, prepared with binoculars, a bird book, water, and snacks. Our recent birding by bicycle trip in this area had been outstanding; good weather, breezes, and a long list of birds. We had seen several rather special birds which don't always winter in the area, along with a particularly long list of more regular visitors. Today we saw fewer birds. Our timing was off; we rode in the middle of the day, and with no picnic lunch, we were ready to bail out before 4:00pm, thereby missing the early and late peaks for bird activity. We certainly enjoyed fine views of many birds, but the list of bird varieties was shorter and less interesting than on our previous trip.
Nonetheless we still had our special wild place epiphany on this trip. When we stopped at about 1:00pm for a snack of spiced Christmas nuts and fruit, washed down with plastic flavored water, we did not see too much bird life. However as we surveyed the adjacent pond more carefully, we were startled and mesmerized by quite another sighting. A handsome, soaking wet bobcat was walking carefully and quietly across the shallow pond! The cat was not quickly crossing the water to reach dry land. Instead it was working the pond more carefully, perhaps hoping to surprise a careless duck or wading bird, walking slowly and looking from side to side for opportunities. After a long diagonal crossing, which we watched almost breathlessly, the handsome but bedraggled wet wild cat slipped silently between clumps of reed and palmetto on the far side.
Back home that evening, we enjoyed a fine dinner and started on our second glasses of wine. On the radio we recognized the opening bars of the "Lark Ascending" by Rafe Von Williams, an irresistibly appealing piece, at least after a glass of wine... I moved into the living room and turned up the sound.
My mind turned to another favorite wild place, across the continent in Washington State, Steamboat Rock, where Meadowlarks, Horned Larks, and a fine variety of birds reside and strut their stuff come springtime. The music took me right to that excellent spot, and although I have only visited this place 2 or 3 times, this place was calling to me; I wanted to be there. It is a place that feeds my soul, provides an incredible sense of the world, and gives me a warm sense of well being even when the wind is cool.
On the top of Steamboat Rock, you are on an island; the rock is a mesa two hundred feet above its immediate surrounding plateau not far from the Columbia River. The two main sections of the primarily flat grassy rock are divided by height, and somewhat broken up by modest canyons and low basalt cliffs. Scrubby flowering trees scrabble for moisture wherever there is a little shade or place to hold rain water. On one low table of the rock, a small collection of pine trees provide a different habitat. Everywhere there are views, and everywhere you are exposed to the wind, the sun, and the rain. Big, billowing cumulus clouds pass overhead, and their shadows can be tracked across the exposed meadowland and the dessert scrub of the plateau below.
Steamboat Rock is a sacred place, as is the coastal wetland of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. It is sacred because it is necessary. It is necessary because we need it to feel whole, because the animals and the birds need it to survive, and because the earth needs these places to function.
Sandra J. Stowell, July, 2017