I stood at the rim of the Grand Canyon, with the wind ruffling the pages of my sketchbook and threatening to remove the hat from my head. I was on the ledge below the Kolb studio, a popular spot for travellers to gather and gaze into the great abyss. The knotted, bending form of a Juniper tree caught my eye, as it stood before me on the ledge. It stood proud in the sun and grew upwards towards the sky, despite the twists and contortions that years of wind and snow and heat had delivered upon it. The tree was resilient, like my grandmother, whose spirit remained young even as her body aged. I attuned my eyes to the subject, and attuned my pencils and ink to a new page of my sketchbook. With so much detail in nature and the lighting constantly shifting, I experienced 'drawing from life' in its pure form, and faced the same artistic and environmental challenges as the explorer-naturalist-artists from days of yore. Plus the additional challenge of interuptions from tourists, to say 'wow, I like your drawing' or 'that's different.' To them, a man with a sketchbook must seem odd, anachronistic, like a pedestrian in an American suburb. (Albeit I saw several other artists, with watercolors and acrylics and things, along the rim of the canyon; and one can pass through many an American suburb and never see a foot-traveller.)
Suddenly, a great black shape glided overhead. A California condor, the giant bird, the American pterodactyl, swooped past us and into the Canyon. And I joined the crowd of gawkers; we rushed to stone wall in front of the edge and leaned over, to peer into the chasm, as far as we safely could. A few hundred feet below us, the condor sat on a rocky ledge. It spread its wings, like a man awakened from a nap, stretching his arms wide and far and greeting the waking world. Then it folded its wings again. And it watched. Unconcerned about the mile-deep chasm right below it. With patience and peace of mind to beat a buddhist monk, the bird surveyed the landscape. This grand bird eats carrion, like its cousin the turkey vulture. But the condor lacks it's cousin's acuity of smell, and so must rely on its eyes to seek food. And so it watched the landscape, around and below. It would take flight again when ready, perhaps in minutes, perhaps in hours. Meanwhile, tourists gathered all around the canyon ledges, and pointed their cameras at the bird, everything from cell phones to telephoto lenses. My own camera displayed a surprisingly good long-distance zoom (which a friend would later use to photograph a bighorn sheep on the distant cliffs.) And we all waited in suspense, for the bird to take flight, to see the huge wingspan put to power. We waited and photographed and waited and photographed. When I finally decided to move on to other sights and sounds, and turned around, the bird took flight. I caught a glimpse of its black form as it vanished into the distance.
The bird displayed a number on its wings for identification, for the scientists who track the giant flyers. After people with guns and lead bullets, pesticides and toxic debris drove condors to the brink of extinction, people now work to bring them back. The condor reintroduction program includes scientists and citizen volunteers, representing a coalition of government and non-government organizations. They are armed with GPS trackers, telescopes, hiking boots, passion, and supreme patience, for watching and tracking the behavior of the great flyers for days on end. The condor we saw is the result of a successful restoration and re-introduction program. Birds were raised in captivity and released to the wild. Once back in their native skies, the birds took flight and adapted, found mates, and raised young. I hope that the success continues, and these great birds continue to amaze us, as they soar over the canyon, and cast their shadows thousands of feet below.
Later, a wise park ranger informed me that my chosen juniper was possibly the most photographed tree in the park. Evidently, this bit of resilient life had struck a chord for countless travellers. It takes spunk and pluck and spirit to survive the canyon; and these trees and condors met the test and went beyond. Through heat and cold, snow and drought, wind and lightning, they thrive.