Nature Notes

Volume VII No. 1 - July, 1934

The Poetry Of Wizard Island
By Ernest G. Moll, Ranger-Naturalist

Over the rim and down inside the wall of a volcano! That, as we begin the trip to Wizard Island, is the thought that runs most strongly in our minds. Our trail winds over slopes of fragmental material, here and there rounding the base of lava flows. Little by little we grow interested in the structure of this broken mountain over a cross section of which we are passing. We observe how the mountain built itself up by successive outpouring of lava and deposits of ash and rock fragments; we grow increasingly conscious of the tremendous forces of nature which could produce such a result as this, and of the countless years consumed in the process.

A trickle of pebbles from the slope above us makes us aware that at least some of the forces of which we have been thinking are still active. All about us weathering and erosion are at work cutting into the exposed crater wall, crumbling rocks, wearing the slopes away into precipitous valleys, pushing the rim steadily back.

But there is another side to the picture. Our path is shaded by trees, hemlocks, and Shasta red firs, growing tall and graceful. Bent at their bases by the weight of sliding snow, scarred by falling stones, they drive their roots to a firm anchorage among the rocks and hold the mountain back. Everywhere are flowers, from the delicate pyrola to the gay mimulus, netting the volcanic ash with roots remarkably tough, covering with their leaves and blossoms the scars of other days.

We walk briskly, for the trail is wide and the morning air fresh and exhilarating. Below us lies the Lake, more intensely blue as we approach it then it seems from the Rim above. Through the green of hemlock branches we have glimpse after glimpse of that blue water, smooth and glittering with sunlight.

The boat is waiting for us, and in the few minutes required by the boatman to start his engine, we lean over the side and look into the depths below. Hazy distances are there, mysterious shadows. They fascinate us and frighten us. Down there are the caves of Llao, the great rock terraces and caverns where man has never been.

In a minute we are moving, gliding swiftly out from the crater wall into the wide, still Lake. A rainbow flashes in the light spray; the wake streams out in two long rolling waves. We sit quietly or move slowly about, watching the distant cliffs and the sparking water, thinking no thoughts, knowing only that what we now see we shall never forget. And in a breath - it is really nine minutes by the clock - the engine ceases to throb, and the passage is over.

We land on Wizard Island. A moment ago, we were gazing at the polished surface of the Lake and watching the curving roll of the waves set up by the movement of the boat. That surface was inviting to the touch, soft and marvelously smooth. Some of us leaned over the boat's side to dip our fingers in the water. And then we experienced what Browning had in mind when he wrote of the "cool silver shock of a plunge in the pool's living water".

Now we stand on lava. In great sharp-edged blocks it lies all about us, its lower edges washed by stately trees. This world is new to us, and strange. From a water-world of silvery distances and blue depths we have stepped into a world of fire. At first glance it is a world of desolation, or rocks, dull gray and black, piled in long broken ridges, bewildering to the eye. We touch the rocks. They are hard and sharp and harsh. This, we fell, is death - the work of forces that lived only in their own might, caring nothing for the milder and weaker forms of life. And those forces now, as far as we have knowledge of them, are dead or locked in sleep. Dante dreamed it long ago - today we stand surrounded by its shadows, this world of lost souls, and death, and sleep.

Then a shaft of sunlight strikes a rock beside us. We noticed the glitter of feldspars, crystals that grew even as the lava cooled and the fire died out of it. On the same gray surface are strains of a subdued red, color born of iron-bearing minerals as through the centuries they have been gradually broken down by oxidation. On the rock we detect lines of weathering, patterns cut by wind and rain and frost. Slowly it comes to us that this is life, not death - life in terms of pattern, and texture, and color, and then we move to the other side of the rock. A lichen clings there, gold-green, delicate in form as a butterfly's wings, yet of a strength sufficient to wrest its living from the sheer rock. And below the lichen, lifting its fronds from a dark crevice, we find a lace-fern. Life is here, then, as it is everywhere, transforming substances, running its course of infinite change, building its forms of beauty.

We move slowly up the trail. Above our heads rise hemlocks, their gracefully drooping branches swayed gently by a breeze. Here and there grow western white pines, light green beside the darker color of the hemlocks. We notice their long slender cones hanging in clusters from the higher branches. Some old cones lie in the path near our feet. They are light and open in comparison with the stubby, almost closed cones of the whitebark pine which we observed on a few trees beside the lake trail. Someone exclaims over the pattern made by the frond-like boughs of a Shasta Red fir against the blue of the sky. A bird sings, and a coney slips quietly over some rocks just ahead. Life is here in abundance, and shelter and peace. We glance again at the lava to remind ourselves that we are standing on the slopes of a fire-mountain.

Now we are on the cone itself. There are fewer trees. Under our feet is the crunch of cinders. To our right and above us the cinders rise in a long even slope to a line of trees clearly silhouetted against the sky. There, we know, is the rim of the crater, and the trees are the storm-loving white pines. On the Crater wall opposite us rise the pinnacles of The Watchman and Hillman Peak, in the morning light warm with reds and browns above talus slopes flowingly graceful in form and gray in color. Cameras are produced, for most of us wish to carry away a permanent record of these tree-framed views.

Today the colors in Skell Channel are particularly brilliant, the characteristic blues of the deep water shading, where the channel changes into shallows, into turquoise, and purples tinged with bronze. The colors of this area like those of an opal alive with change and fire.

As we swing around the cone, climbing steadily higher, the Lake opens before us in a gradually widening sweep. Llao in its glacial valley is close in on our left, and from there our eyes follow the Rim line past Pumice Point, the Pallisades, Cloudcap, Sentinel, and on to Dutton and Garfield. Some of the cliffs are brilliantly lighted, others are veiled in shadow. Everywhere the lake is blue and silent and mysterious. Here and there wind squalls turn the blue suddenly to silver. "Llao's Fingers" the Indian called the running streaks of white, and we, feeling as they did the mystery of the great deep water in is mountain walls, move on in silence.

Just before it reaches the top of Wizard our trail winds over beds of burnt red and black rock so eloquent of fire that we almost fear to cross them. If, in the tranquil beauty of a moment before we had forgotten that we stood on the slopes of a volcano, these broken cinders are enough to call our thoughts sharply back to that fact, and then in another moment the crater itself opens at our feet! After lunch, we shall explore it - for its sides slope gently down to the broken lava in the bottom and there we shall find saxifrage in bloom, and ferns and clumps of sedges. Halfway down a humming bird hovers over a patch of Davidson's Penstemon. Almost within hand's reach grow numerous plants of the Applegate's Paint Brush, their flame-bright flowers lifted against a background of gray ash and reddish hematite. We remember the lines of a poem about these flowers and quietly, while the wind sings through the white bark pine about our heads, the words take on a new meaning as we murmur them half aloud:

Where flame one wrought its awful symphonies,
Whose theme is death, with darkness woven through,
The lift, in summer silence to the bees,
A fairer beauty than the fire-gods knew.

sketch map of Crater Lake

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