The onyx hour of those forgotten
gods of the earth who haunt the fire.
It’s 6:55 a.m. and the first light of morning appears above the familiar hills and peaks of the South Mountains in Phoenix, Arizona. I have hiked into the western edge of the San Juan Valley, currently closed off to bike and car travel and thus creating a secret spot, an oasis of quiet for now. Many wild species have taken advantage of this unusual pause in humanity. Javelina run across the pavement, shitting on roads and under ramadas. Coyotes yawn, unmotivated, along rock walls.
My presence is neither startling nor appreciated. Wary gazes and increased movement attest to this.
From a granite boulder, I watch the light fall across a cluster of cholla and brittlebush whose blue-gray leaves are the color of calm to me, if color could be assigned to a state of mind. Six coyotes take their places along the opposite ridge, watching me as I watch them. Together we listen to the old morning song of a grandfather Great Horned… all owls seeming ancient, a forgotten species of gnarled bone and pale-faced time.
Looking at the Sierra Estrellas, I consider my place here, or rather my lack of place. As the city swells itself into a greater beast, highways dig their tracks where stands of mesquite and creosote fall. We make way for more neighborhoods to plop their massive girth atop old habitat. The mountains, oh the mountains, wait patiently for human time to tumble, our animal selves to collapse and with it, all of our concepts and ideas.
Is this the mountains’ dream, or is it just the dream of a tired misanthrope?
Coming here, I am a stranger. By saying home, do I make it so? Many people would say yes, but I have my doubts.
I grew up among tulip trees and farms, verdant hills of hay and soybean, ponds and cattle. I slept beneath the field’s wide skies and woke with dew on my sleeping bag. I rested with the song of whippoorwill and cricket. I never had to long for the smell of rain, the touch of moisture. I spoke to deer. I sang to yarrow. I wandered the woods, consumed with its treasures.
Given that watery upbringing, it might strike you as odd that I am now not only infatuated with the Sonoran desert, I am distinctly and inseparably tied to this arid place.
The rain I follow in small hollows of granite, fleshed into pockets against long washes, is water enough. These tinajas, now known to me as intimately as the smooth flesh of deer—the food of my people, the bane of every Midwestern driver. I rest here, against the cool stone, as the heat of the morning warms my skin.
The desert and I had an awkward introduction.
I rambled with the shopping cart wheels and asphalt of my first desert home, where my family spent a short year bargaining with the devils of pipelines and job-promise. My Las Vegas childhood… holding the prize of stuffed toys tight while the adults swam in their longed for loot and oppression.
When I think back on this time, I remember metal screen doors and blinding aqua pools with too much chlorine and chipping paint. Is this also my origin? Or can I claim a desert that has no history for me?
I have friends who can trace their ancestry here for centuries—before the settlers, before the promise and betrayal.
I look out upon these foothills as the city spreads, filling everything with its plastic and concrete. Can I make peace with my body here—like the manicured palms, the asphalt, the ever-encroaching unrest that stitches the hymns of us together?
Animals of great distance—how I love their propensity for movement. We, too, are a moving species and our stories of creation, in turn, create us—give us place to our wandering, order to chaos. We may fall from the sky or sprout from the ground or be born in the image of… but in the end we are animals of movement.
No matter how much our minds long to connect us to place, we have—at some point in time—been the wanderer, the interloper, the dreaded other.
Many wanderers and scientists, story tellers and poets tread lightly on the topic of home. Untethered and centuries away from place, there remains an ache to find home, and so the sweeping topography of earth becomes that destination.
The problem therein is the problem of the wandering animal—the humanity that propels us across the next geographic barrier, the next country, the new.
When I was a girl, my family was too poor to own anything, but the countryside itself was ours, a place of unbridled adventure—a challenge to not be caught between one man’s field and the next. We swam in ponds owned by farmers, slept in the shadows of stone quarries, ventured beyond the boundaries of national forests, and walked the deer paths of unintentional wildlife preserves.
Places we call ours, places we call theirs. Among other animals, these fables matter little.
When I was a girl, I longed to be a woman of movement. I wanted to continue to climb over fences, to follow the call of the spellbound hawk, the night-silent owl, the mouse who made his bed wherever he desired.
My mythology is not to be replicated here. I have no claims to make, no flags to plant. Being in the desert is the closest I have come to feeling at home. A child of coal mines and forgotten lineage, I can only hope to know the stories, my place among these stones.