How often do we look but not see, sniff but not smell, listen but not hear? Who have we become when we’ve learned to touch without feeling?
Sometimes when my vision blurs and I fail at these fundamental tenets of living there’s a Hawaiian word I ponder: kipukas. Literally, it means “openings,” and it came to be in the native Hawaiian tongue in order to describe the unique geological and ecological phenomenon that occurs when lava surrounds a portion of land, in effect cutting it off from the greater surrounding ecosystem. Kipukas are undisturbed islands where native vegetation and animals are protected from invasive species and the forces that have ravaged much of a surrounding landscape.
They’re windows into what the land was before outside pressures mounted.
We are, like the land, inundated by outside pressures. Childhood naivete and curiosity are eroded by life experiences. An ability to trust is undermined by a sense of betrayal. An inherent ability to heal is hindered by a drive to overcome and move forward. Our proclivity for sight is clouded by a drive to achieve that prompts us to look without seeing. That goes for looking inward as well as at one’s surroundings.
As with the kipukas inherent to the lava flows on Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, as well as on Idaho’s Snake River Plain, there are untarnished openings inside us, and we would do well to remember they’re there.
Following two days on the river in the spring of 2008, I drove with a friend across Southern Idaho’s Camas Prairie. It’s a rolling expanse of sagebrush bordered by the snow-capped Soldier Mountains to the north and the Bennett Hills to the south. It’s a place named for camas roots, which bear beautiful blue blossoms called camas lilies in the spring. The roots from camas lilies were harvested historically by Shoshone-Bannock Indians using digging sticks called tookas. The roots are said to taste like sweet potatoes.
I’ve driven across the Camas Prairie dozens of times, perhaps dozens of dozens of times. I’ve seen its rolling sagebrush desert through the beams of my headlights, during sunrises and sunsets, and in four seasons of varying light. I’ve viewed it with skis on my feet, with a whitewater kayak wrapped around my waist, from the seat of a car, and with hiking boots on my feet. The salient fact is that when compared with many of the West’s jaw-dropping vistas it’s not inspiring country. It is, after all, mere desert: an expanse of sagebrush, grass and decrepit old homes and ranches crumbling with the passing of the high desert seasons and the ailing agrarian economies that prompted Europeans to move there in the first place.
That spring weekend in 2008 things were different. Perhaps my vision was attuned to the subtle nuances of light and shadow, maybe the timing was right—maybe both—but that hour-long drive across the Camas Prairie was among the most beautiful I’ve experienced.
It was a long spring in the Northern Rockies, and the prairie had only just begun to bloom: arrowleaf balsamroot smearing the hills with yellow while cornices of snow clung to north-facing ridges, mirror-still pools of water lined with purple splotches of blooming lupine, antelope browsing on abundant green forage. The seasons were mixing on the Camas Prairie, and signs of life combined with winter’s remnants.
My companion, a life-long Idaho resident, was working on his undergraduate coursework and was compelled to share his newfound fascination with the stories the landscape tells. Having just completed a geology course, he talked about how the land is more than rocks, trees and animals. It’s the product of millions of years of interrelating forces. It’s all the things that came before, he said, over millions of years. So much more than a beautiful view, a view that many people don’t even see.
It’s like a story, I replied. Even the people who see it are often not aware of the story it tells.
The sky dangled huge anvil-shaped thunderheads, the late-day sun peeking from between mottled puffs of drifting cumulus clouds and casting long shadows across the prairie. Everywhere there were images worth capturing, and I worked hard not to stop. Not all of life needs to be photographed, after all. Sometimes living is enough. Sometimes.
Speeding by a pool of water I noticed a barb-wire fence strung between crooked posts that protruded from the water and cast perfect reflections. A few minutes later I squatted at the edge of the pool looking through a lens and waiting for a red-winged blackird that fluttered nearby to land on top of one of the posts. I probed the pool, shifting left and right to bracket the scene at first with the fence posts, then with a nearby willow, then with the smooth curve of the hills in the background. As I did little rings appeared in the pool, and I pondered how the drops created perfect concentric forms that mingled with one another to create an impossible pattern that erased the reflection that had, moments before, been my quarry. As the rain intensified the rings grew both in number and intensity, thousands of perfect circles interacting with one another to rearrange the texture of the pool.
It was one of those moments, an opening both of myself and by Mother Nature that revealed sights, smells and feelings easily taken for granted. We are so much more like the land than we usually consider. We’re drops of water of the same pond, concentric forms interacting to create a unique intellectual and emotional design that rearranges reflections reflected on before.
And like the land we are stories that have been shaped by the events of our lives. Just as life affords kipukas through which to view things untarnished and beautiful, there are kipukas inside us. They’re windows that afford views into the stories of who we are.
© Greg Stahl