The mysteries of the everyday

A writer and her family court the unknown.

 

At first, we mistake the bronze balloons for bags tangled around low-hanging branches on Coyote Creek. Our 7-year-old daughter leans out of her kayak. “Trash,” she concludes.            

I lift a branch holding one of the oblong sacs. It snaps, and the thing plops into the water. Maia scoops it into her bug net.  It’s not trash: We stare at a mysterious translucent thing with star-like patterns embedded in its membrane. In 14 years in Oregon, I’ve never seen anything like it. 

I pull out my smartphone. My caption on Facebook: “What IS this?”

 

Bryozoan colony.
Lisa Miller

My husband moved here from New York 15 years ago; I came from California. We’re not unusual: In 2014, according to United Van Lines, more Americans moved to Oregon than to any other state.

Jonathan and I bonded over our shared fascination with the Cooper’s hawks that shrieked through the forest between his apartment and my bungalow. We were happiest outside, shivering or sweating, soaked with rain or river water. 

At Darlingtonia State Natural Site, we paced wooden walkways between tall yellow-leafed masses of Darlingtonia californica. “Cobra lilies,” I read. “Insects fly into the plant’s hood and slide down the stalks. The plant digests them. Yikes.” 

We married among Douglas-firs, then added a child to our exploration team. We braved coastal windstorms to study the sea stack called Face Rock. I read the Coquille Tribe’s legend aloud.

Maia frowned. “How could a sea god turn the princess and her raccoons to stone?”

“It’s a legend,” I said. “Not true.” Though I wondered, given the rock’s resemblance to the upturned, imploring face of a woman.

“What are these?” Among sea stacks, Jonathan examined dozens of finned aquamarine discs. “By-the-wind sailors,” I read in my guidebook. “They float on the ocean. Wind blows them onto beaches.”- 

We rejoiced in the knowledge that individuals are either right-finned or left-finned and chanted their Latin name: “Velella velella, you’re a hell of a fella.”

But then we grew bored.  “We’ve lived here a decade,” we told friends.

“So move your couch,” one advised. “Take a vacation.”

Instead, we sold our couch, packed our belongings, and moved to Costa Rica. 

 

Velella velella.
Notafly/Wikimedia Commons

In Costa Rica, nature isn’t subtle. Iguanas and monkeys festoon branches; wonders declare themselves outright. We snorkeled with octopus and stingrays. I saw a tapir. Maia found leaf-cutter ants, the parade of tiny bodies brandished leaf fragments aloft like flags. We didn’t miss Oregon. 

Outside Maia’s new kindergarten, students and parents pointed into the trees at a long hairy creature. “What is it?” I asked the teacher.

Oso hormiguero,” she replied. “An anteater.” 

Along with monkeys howling at dawn and the blue undulation of morpho butterflies, we made mundane discoveries: How to make money, where to live. We missed our family and friends.

“I miss oak savannahs,” Jonathan said, navigating our rickety jeep down a jungle-bordered dirt road.

“I miss the seasons,” I said.  “I even miss the rain.”

On a beachside boardwalk, we navigated snowcone carts, bicycles, kids selling puppies. We stepped across a bridge and discovered an open-air restaurant covered in Oregon Ducks flags.

“What is this?” I studied the tourists and Ticos.

The expat owner hailed from Eugene. We sat under green-and-yellow flags and looked at each other over fish tacos. 

“It’s time,” we agreed, “to return to Oregon.”

 

Amanita muscaria.
Dawn and Jim Langiewicz/Flickr
           

Once again, our Honda is stuffed with camping gear.

In the Wallowa Mountains, we -marvel at tiny pink wildflowers.-

On a coastal hike, we find Amanita muscaria, -hallucinogenic red mushrooms with white spots. Our consciousness feels altered enough by the sight of the rough-skinned newts below them.

“Newts,” I read, “smell their way back to their birth-river at mating time.  Males grow rough patches on their feet to embrace females. They rub their snouts together.”

I rub my nose along Jonathan’s. Maia giggles and scampers toward the beach.

Another day, at a river confluence, a sliver flash leaps upward. “What is that?” she yelps.

The migrating salmon hurl themselves up boulders, heading for their hatching ground, using the earth’s magnetic field like a map.

We visit the carnivorous plants at the Darlingtonia site. Maia wanders the path between thousands of fork-tongued stalks. Suddenly, a man runs over.

“Bear!” he pants. “Ran across the highway … headed this way.”

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Oregon surprises. Mystery and discovery sharpen our minds, engage our senses, confirm that wonder still exists.

 

Darlingtonia californica.
Noah Elhardt/Wikimedia Commons

At Coyote Creek, we cut open the bronze sac and find gelatinous goo.  No one responds to my Facebook query. Later, I meet a biologist from Philadelphia. “Bryozoan colony,” he says. “Moss animals. Those star-shaped things on the outside? Zooids — individual creatures. What’re they doing on the creek?”

“No idea.” 

We grin at each other, thrilled by what we don’t know about our adopted homeland. 

So much to discover, still.

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir Wild Within: How Rescuing Owls Inspired a Family (Lyons, 2014).