I remember a morning about twelve years ago. I was hiking at Garland Ranch and it was around 7:30a.m up on the Mesa. I hiked Garland early in the morning because it was the best time to spot Mountain Lions (I never did), and while the lower trails could be busy with joggers the upper trails were usually empty of people. It usually took me about forty minutes to reach the Mesa from the parking lot; while it was just under a mile and a half the hike involved a steady, and in some parts – steep climb. My route took me across the flood plain, into the oak and buckeye forest, and across a mid-section of the park that was a central highway for the big cats. As I used to hike Garland once a week I was able to note patterns of movement of Mountain Lions within the park and this mid-section was my personal barometer. This morning showed no recent cat activity and I made my way to the Mesa.
The Mesa sits at about 1000 feet above the Carmel River below. Once it was to become a subdivision of nice homes but fate and water rights left it to be donated to the county. There is a pond that was once intended for cattle and now provides water for wildlife. It is fed by a well, which is about 100 meters up the hill, and the Park pipes the water down using gravity. The pond is home to a couple of large Bullfrogs, a mating pair of turtles, and water-borne insects. In the fall, migrating water fowl feed on the baby frogs. The pond is a great source of information about animal activity as they many creatures who come to drink will leave their footprints in the mud. Raccoons, Coyotes, Opossum, Skunks, White Tail Deer and Turkey tracks can be found on the shore of the pond. I look for the Mountain Lions and Bobcats. The Mesa is my last stop before dropping into Garza’s Canyon, so I took my time that morning.
As I came around the curving trail that feeds onto the Mesa I was met by a dazzling scene. The dew caught in the grass and trees made the Mesa sparkle in the bright morning sun. It looked like a thousand diamonds had been sprinkled across the Mesa’s meadow. I paused to take in the view. Next I circled the pond to see what secrets it might reveal that morning and aside from panicking the Bullfrog I found nothing more than deer tracks. As I made my way back to the trail I saw the most interesting and amazing thing. Between me and the trail there was a bush. A small Western Meadowlark had perched itself on an outcropping branch. The Meadowlark was signing away and I stopped to watch it as it put on a show. The bird would pluck at the branch to pull it towards him and then let it go. This caused the dew-drops to spring from the leaves and the result was that the Meadowlark got a shower. I watched the bird shower, popping the branch back and then puffing up its bright yellow feathers, and then chirping out what I realized was a rhythmic cadence. Once it had finished “showering” the Meadowlark hopped up to the highest branch (about chest high) and began to sing and flap its wings in a pattern that served no other purpose than as a rhythmic dance.
There on that bush, facing the sun above a dew-sparkling spider web, that Meadowlark sang a greeting to the morning sun. The bird was doing a joyful dance, possibly a ritual or worship to the sun, and I was there to witness it. It may have been an instinctual thing caused by thousands of years of evolution. Maybe it is just something Meadowlarks do. Yet I was aware that the bird was happy, and that this dance was out of pure joy.
The scientist in me says that this is nothing more than anthropomorphism, and that bird was just cleaning itself. I admit that my observation of this type of bird is limited, and yet the bird was alone. Since this was early October the mating season had long passed this bird by, so his song and dance had no purpose to attract a mate. I know that animals do not think and feel as humans do, but I also know that they do think and feel. That Meadowlark was seeing the beautiful Mesa the same way I was seeing it on that spectacular morning. He was thanking his maker for it too. In the years since that morning I have never seen any other animal perform like that Meadowlark, so the event may have been a one-of-a-kind, but somehow I doubt it.
I don’t mean to imply that there is a spiritual aspect to nature. The meadowlark may have just been happy to see the sun, but there was an element of joy in his act. I have seen birds hunt, forage, and flee and this was entirely different. The meadowlark was responding to an aesthetic and not to a concrete reality. It was a beautiful sun-lit morning and it chose to dance and sing. That vision has always stuck with me, and whenever I hike I hope to catch another glimpse of this kind of behavior. I suspect that one day I will experience this again. I suspect that this kind of thing goes on in secret in meadows and forests all over the world every day.