The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


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Do something… but what?

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Sometimes knowing what to do in the face of so much uncertainty, horror, and doubt leaves us feeling powerless. This is at least true for me. Our “calls to action” take us away from home and the animals and plants that inhibit our surroundings. When joining forces elsewhere isn’t possible, there is a tendency to read about and absorb what is happening “out there” and feel miserable. Maybe we throw a few dollars in aid, but there is this overwhelm that doesn’t leave.

To some extent, we are powerless… as individuals, at home, raging at the computer or television. I’ve started to feel like this way of being is depleting my spirit. I know that I personally will not solve problems by doing personal acts of resistance that are disengaged from others (wild others included) or what we are fighting: systemic and organized violence  (not joe neighbor who supports Trump, or your sister-in-law who still uses styrofoam).

But since I am not a great power, what can I do with the power I do have?
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I am not a marcher or letter writer. I’m more likely to go rehab a wild area where OHVs have done damage. Still, rehabbing that one area doesn’t guarantee it wont be destroyed again next Memorial Day weekend. It doesn’t eliminate the culture that says it’s macho to ride your quad over native plants.

So what do I do? What do you do?

I think that is where individual actions can feel fruitless unless you elevate them into more meaningful actions that can and do bear some results. Of course doing a river clean-up once and walking away from that river won’t have much benefit over time … But what about devoting myself to that river and the life it supports, and sticking with it? Even if it means bearing witness to outcomes that break my heart, or it puts me in situations where greater actions are called for.

To me, that is where these feelings of disconnect and uselessness begin to dissolve.

Back to the river…


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It Began Here…

It began here, my desire for this place. The course of its existence ran through me – an energy to move a woman 2,000 miles from the shores of Lake Ontario, the fierce shield of granite and water, to a place of obsidian and sky.

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Eight years ago, standing on the edge of old Route 66, I watched clouds pass across the cobalt. I could not remain in my old life. The hard edges of the city pushed me into these skies so vast. No amount of squinting could help me to discern what’s beyond the tall grasses and deep canyons. But I knew I had to find out.

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Soft definition is what I sought; a place where I could be as lucent as abandoned buildings, yet as full as the chambers of my heart.

To be filled with movement… I desired the poetry of pulse and breath.

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To come here meant I could fly into whatever scene I wanted; to be as mutable and impelling as the clouds drifting through the valley. I craved this story. And, the beautiful thing about story isn’t the story itself, but what you can leave out.

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I choose to erase

the details of

my desire for this place.

Some things need to move through. Across dry creeks and coyote tracks, there are only traces, and a place to pick up and start walking again.


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Lands of Exposure

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Indiana Field, A. Sato

“Therefore, the places in which we have experienced day dreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling-places are relived as day-dreams these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all the time.”
― Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

When I was a young girl, I used to spend many hours sitting on my grandparents’ porch, gazing at the wide field across the road. The field seemed enormous then – and frighteningly as vast as space itself. I remember a distinct sense of loneliness as I looked across that empty space and watched the sun descend. At the same time, just under the loneliness, a sense of hope, of fullness.

It’s been 6 years since I have been back. The old house is now in the possession of another family. Things, as they do when we age, seem smaller, more contained.

The last time I was there we said goodbye to my grandfather and buried him on the edge of yet another field, familiar as home since the bones of many family members rest there, too.

Before returning to the desert, I sat at the edge of that field, among violets and freshly mowed grass, and breathed in the enormity again, the space that made me feel so small against it.

I was born a child of the woods. Open space, more than the darkness of dense pine stands and overgrown creek beds, seemed to contain the elements of childhood fear: exposure, vulnerability, and enormity. In the woods I was never alone. I was surrounded by brother trees and sister animals – deer, feral dogs, squirrels, cows. In their life was a recognition of my own.

But something happened. I grew to love vastness.

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Creosote Hills, A. Sato

Throughout my adult life, my choices have always led me to the assurance of fields, prairies, deserts – perhaps to finally embrace the price of life, complete vulnerability to it.

As I now gaze across another vast terrain – one of thorn and rock – I still seek that fullness, that hope I felt as a girl on my grandparents’ porch. To meet the emptiness feels like surrendering to something more powerful than my hemmed in perception and fears.

No matter where I am, the edge of a verdant field or beneath a burning sun on blackened rock, there is always space – and in this space, possibilities beyond the imaginings of a girl and the regrets of a woman.

I know what it is I seek there… comfort.


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Canyon Meandering: Pondering the Fool’s Journey

“Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.” Brendan Gill

To be foolish…00-the-fool
we throw our shackles of perceived security off.
We follow the singing of a brook or don masks under oaks in their spring foliage.
We may even chase a butterfly over the precipice.

Life is a grand adventure. Yet many try to shrink it to fit a narrow view.

Holding on, we anchor ourselves to false certainty: the true love, the children, the home, the job, possessions that we pile and monitor with the eye of a dragon.

But the uncertainties, those goblins, have a way of ruining everything.

Stay.
Try again.
Try the same thing again.
This time it will work.

They whisper to us through fear and doubt.

My goblins of uncertainty are habitual responses to loss – or, not letting go of loss. Hanging on by its dead roots, I have stayed near the ground. Not moving, not growing, and certainly not chasing the tempting butterfly that might lead elsewhere.

Where? the goblins demand.
What will it be?

And what if there is pain?

****

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I awake again to a midnight moon – a fool’s half-moon – in Pivot Rock Canyon.

There is perhaps nothing more apropos of the Fool’s wanton adventure than being outdoors – particularly alone, and definitely in a deep woods (the wilder the better).

To expect the unexpected is an unspoken mantra. Whether sleet, hail, or lightning strike or the myriad animal attacks a wanderer is warned of, the journey must always entail a bit of tangled vine and claw-print.

Traces of a late night visit leave imprints of Ursus americanus in my dreams and in the soft earth near the creek.

Instead of Bear, I am startled awake again by the clumsy arrival of revelers – unprepared families arriving late, to camp at 7000 ft, t-shirt and shorts, no idea where they are.

It’s 30 degrees here. Spring comes late to the Mogollon Rim.

The smoke from their fire and the shouts between camps sites keep me awake, wishing it had been Bear instead of Bipeds.

Most early spring nights as these, the woods are empty of other people.
Time to laugh it off, despite my annoyance. Time to wander away from the road. Next time, I will pack in to where no others like to go.

At least, no human others.

Between the cracks of ember and beer cans, I remember the mating call of a mountain lion that echoed down from aptly named Wild Cat Spring, just below a still bustling highway at dusk.

WildCat_trail2 (1 of 1)But now it is only the campfire that hisses.

Be prepared for anything, the Fool laughs. Rather, be unprepared. Be surprised.

The Fool is also the joker who reminds us that anything can happen. The joker’s wild! Remain accustomed to glorious catastrophe. Follow the stars, unshaken by the precipice below our feet.

***

The thing is, the view from home is fixed, the known road is comforting.

But the elsewhere. Elsewhere is a game of chance, and with any game there is a loser – a jester sitting in a pig sty, hat askew, wondering how the hell he got there.

Nonetheless, he dusts himself off and back to the journey he goes.

To the wanderer, home can be hell, and nothing more painful than stasis.

Out there are stories.
Stories that make the storms circle and the birds squawk.

Stories for nights in canyons without sleep.

It is time to pick up the bindle and head off for the tantalizing depths of another adventure.


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Guerrilla Budgeting, Desert Dreaming, and Other Life Changes

Colcord Mountain - A. Sato

Colcord Mountain – A. Sato

If happiness is the absence of suffering, then the end of summer here in Phoenix means I am a slap happy fool.

The mornings are now in the high 60s-70 degree range. The birds are back to joyous morning arias. The oleander outside my window is heavy with white blossoms. And, here I am with all of my desert topographic maps spread across the floor, finally feeling like sweaty is no longer my daily adjective.

There are plans on the horizon to trek across some formidable volcanic landscapes, to befriend a few places unknown. I look forward to getting into solo backpacking and hiking again – both a tinge unnerving and blissfully unblemished by “company”.

Somewhere out there - A. Sato

Somewhere out there – A. Sato

I’ll admit to being a curmudgeon. I find it harder these days to find consistent company I enjoy when I am outdoors – and forget about hiking groups. Of course, being alone comes with its risks – a twisted ankle, a wacko on the trail, being dragged off by the Mogollon Monster (now, that would be a story). Still, I have made it this far, and there are precautions I always take.IMG_4698

But, when I am alone I notice things – things I might not notice otherwise. I am more aware, more alive in my senses.

I’ve learned to be content with my isolation, so that when I can share my time with others, it feels right, not forced.

I look forward to sharing some of these magical observations this winter.DSC_0192

Along with planning upcoming desert adventures, I have revived my voluntary simplicity group here in the Valley of the Sun. I’ve done this for a few reasons – first, I like idea-sharing, especially when it comes to cheap/free resources – and second, I need to be motivated on order to make next spring’s plans come to fruition.

Really, next spring is a carry-over from last spring’s dead-in-the-water plan to get out of Phoenix by way of some type of off-grid or nomadic lifestyle. This entails quite a bit of planning and the purchase of a truck. Ideally, I would like to find a group of other off-grid, low impact types to form a resource-sharing community of sorts.

Knowing others who share my approach to living is important. And, I recognize this and grapple with being a contrary isolationist (see above) versus someone who longs for a community and family.

I also have accepted that I need some initial seed money.

I mean, I could go live in a cave somewhere (and, I could – see below), but that wouldn’t allow me to participate in a land purchase, buy building materials, take care of my furry companions who count on me for food, vet care, etc., and gather together the resources to get out of here and reestablish elsewhere.

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Despite being fascinated with those who choose a cash-free existence, I also acknowledge that supreme sacrifice as being counterproductive to my objectives and responsibilities. I recognize some cash flow is necessary and also will help get me to the point of greater self-sufficiency.

So, I need to look at this time in Phoenix as an incubation period.

My options are to go back to corporate marketing (stabs self in neck) or I could split time between maintaining my freelancing workload and adding PT nonprofit hours.

The quandary I have been pondering is how to do what I would like to do as cheaply as possible while continuing to freelance and wander around (what I love).

I have lived on $12-15K before and without trying all that hard (I am my Depression era grandparents’ granddaughter, for sure).

Looking at my low impact life plans, I can see where my $ is going:

* Higher cost of living in a downtown urban center
* Convenience foods/specialty foods
* Entertainment/eating out
* Healthcare/insurance for self, cat, and dog
* Car maintenance and gas (no car payment, but an old car needs lots of TLC)

Given there is room for cost reduction in each of these, I’m hoping to get a solid group of low impact-minded individuals together to share those important ideas and resources, and perhaps even do a little bit of bartering.

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Imagination is free – a child’s offering to the forest fey

All of this is to say, The Wild Muse will be a place where I will share my experiences going as low impact, off-grid, and feral-girl as possible, along with stories of my usual shenanigans in the wild.

If you are interested in tagging along for the ride, follow my blog or bookmark for future tales of joy and foibles.


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One Morning, A Stranger at Home

Sierra Estrella View - A. Sato

Not Yet There – A. Sato

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.

South Mountains - A. Sato

Ocotillo – A. Sato

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?

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Cloud Hill – A. Sato

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?

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Search Light – A. Sato

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.

Cholla Morning - A. Sato

Cholla Morning – A. Sato

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.


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What Claims are Made – Observations in the Pinaleño Mountains

IMG_1410An excerpt

Up ahead is a small path that winds through a secret canyon. There I see the morning open up to sky. A cliff drops to the world below, some 2,000 feet to the belly of Sulfur Springs Valley. Plunging mercilessly, the creek follows stone, pulled by the heavy hand of the mountain’s descent. Water has cut through this lonely gorge for centuries, but my eyes are new here.

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Many times in wild places I find myself staring at books to locate the botanical name of an unknown plant or identify a set of tracks, but on this morning I put the books away and set out for wonder. Wonder is of course the root of knowledge, but how often do we pause at wonder alone? Do we move so quickly from a state of awe to information that we miss something, a primal yearning and appreciation for that, which, unspoken by man, undocumented by the hand of scientist or layperson, slips our grasp of respect?

Wonder… is it missing?Pinaleno Pine

Wading through waist-high sorrels and ferns, I crept deeper into the places where morning had not reached its hand. I imagined fairies dipping down to drink from a curled leaf. It seems possible here, where the verdant life of the forest has not yet been dimmed. And why not think of fairies?

The dripdripdrip of new rain on cold stone created a soundscape and I was mesmerized again by the passive yet strong pull of forces moving us, the trees, the water, the stones to the last leap of sky.

The Pinaleño Mountains, the Grahams, Mount Graham, or Dzil Nchaa Si An (Big Seated Mountain, Western Apache), is a remote “Sky Island” in Southeastern Arizona, offering more than 7,000 feet of vertical relief – a true wonder among Sonoran/Chihuahuan desert low lands. This range has many names, many claims, even in modernity. Pinaleño, meaning many deer, seems an appropriate name – the area is rich with mule deer and white-tailed deer, suitably designed for the steep ridges and cliffs, angles no biped can maneuver with such grace.

This September, however, no deer were to be found in the obvious landscape of sight. The once lively meadows of fawns, does, and the occasional aloof buck were even bereft of the usual scat pellets I might expect on such an inviting landscape of open parks with brooks lapping against the wild blue bells and yarrow. The Pinaleños are a dreamy place, to be sure, a place where all are drawn by watersong and starry views.

***

As the silence was broken by an ATV, I realized why the deer were in hiding. A bow hunter and his monster of mud and plastic came through the forest. He stopped long enough to shout a question at me, lamenting that he hadn’t seen a single deer all morning, as his ATV engine pierced the air and echoed down through the gorges. Deer are wiser than we credit them. Their behaviors often change with the seasons, with our malevolence, with the pressing weight of sound and intent.

The Pinaleño Mountains have had their share of embittered discussions. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the Vatican – among other astronomers and financial backers – decided to help fund the University of Arizona/Mount Graham International Observatory.   Mount Graham, with its low humidity and light pollution, was deemed ideal for such an observatory, and the efforts to build were pushed ferociously into motion.

Bluebell KnollAmong these peaks, in the conifer and spruce-fir forests, the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel resides – a species only found on this range and surely impacted by the controversial observatory and the continued mixed use and management practices of a federal forest.

Opposition to developing an observatory should have held some weight since the Pinaleños were, in fact, nominated by the United States Forest Service for designation as a Traditional Cultural Property and considered sacred to many, especially to the Western Apache tribes. As the battle raged, involving the leaders of most of the Indian Nations in the United States and Europe, indigenous rights groups, environmentalists, biologists, and anthropologists, the mountain’s chief harbinger of impact, the Mount Graham red squirrel became the fight’s pinnacle mascot.

Ironically, some of these Mount Graham red squirrels are now being housed at the Phoenix Zoo, kept in a controlled climate exhibit designed to mimic their former Montane forest home. The imperiled squirrels are apparently a part of a conservation program, where, if successful, they will be released “… back into the wild…”

A wild of our imagination, I fear.

Treasure Park MeadowAnd, how can the red squirrel ever win? How can the fight for Dzil Nchaa Si An and other sacred mountains ever be recognized? Among cell towers, telescopes, developed campgrounds along the Swift Trail, the ongoing efforts of wildfire and wildlife “management”, and the continued paving of roadways leading to Mount Graham’s recreational offerings… it’s all too clear.

Whatever Spirit of Wildness kept safe the dense population of black bears, the important prehistoric shrines and stories of ancestors, and the troops of that elusive red squirrel may not be powerful enough to hold back the inevitable future, a future that seems to have forgotten its equally sacrosanct call to wonder, to the sacred, to what is most precious on earth.