My brother Doug, my youngest sister Donna, and I set forth from the end of the dirt road where we parked our car facing the snow-and-cloud-shrouded cones of the Oregon Cascades. Along the wind-swept mesa we walked single-file past sage and juniper and sparsely-scattered sprays of tiny white sand lilies. The trail dropped down into a steep-sided canyon. We could hear water tumbling out of a spring at the bottom. Desiccated carcasses of elk done in by a very harsh winter lay near the trail. The long, flat rim of the far side of the canyon was a thirty-foot wall of volcanic basalt, a looming rampart of hexagonal columns. We walked down, down, down, past horizontal layers of lava and ash. The trail bottomed out at Alder Spring, where a subterranean flow bubbled into a bog of eponymous trees and flowed into Whychus Creek. We took off our shoes and put on waterproof sandals to cross the cold, shallow ford. On the other side, on a grassy meadow, we dried our feet and put our boots back on.
Along the creek we walked for another three miles, in cool air pierced by bright, warming sunshine. The geology of the Columbia Basin was writ large on the lined record-book of the canyon wall, with each texture of volcanic ejecta laid in crisply-defined strata. We walked onto a layer of pale volcanic ash studded with little black beads of obsidian. We clambered over boulders, through patches of horsetail, up and over palisades next to the creek, until we got to the roaring water of its confluence with the Middle Deschutes River. There we basked in the sun on a big boulder, warmed of heart to be together in such a gorgeous spot.
Being cool has many meanings. Physical, measurable temperature, of course. But in American vernacular English, it has a cluster of other connotations. Being cool means not getting heated up about stuff. Maintaining your composure when others don't. Being cool means knowing what is cool. Staying attuned to cultural trends, and what the trends have left behind. Measuring the temperature of those of the sex to whom one is attracted, and playing this knowledge artfully. Knowing how to connect with people and influence them, without getting up in their faces.
I aspire to one particular kind of coolness called wisdom.
Magma, the quick, hot blood of the inner Earth, rises from the roaring furnace of the planet's core and convects up to its crust, moving continents and occasionally bursting through to the air as it did all over the Pacific Northwest, forcing up volcanoes and spreading out of them onto the plains. The form the magma takes depends on the length of time that it cools. Instantaneous cooling forms glassy obsidian and powdery ash. Longer cooling forms beautiful columns of dense, dark basalt. Even longer cooling, underground, forms big crystals of quartz and other minerals.
The longer magma cools, the larger and more elaborate the crystals that can form in it.
The longer I mindfully contemplate, the more crystalline the wisdom that can form from it.
I want the coolness that comes from staring at what I call a juniper tree until it stops fitting my definitions and begins to reveal itself to me on its own terms. I want the coolness that comes from taking time to stare at a little desert flower crystallizing into existence out of volcanic sand. I want the kind of coolness that comes from taking the time to appreciate my cool siblings and my cool 88-year-old Dad here in Oregon. Letting them be who they are, as they are, and not just as I might categorize them based on our family history.
So in this coolness may I take my humble place in the geologic and human record.
And so may you take yours.