Swimming Holes & Lost Creeks

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West Clear Creek, A. Sato

As the temperatures climb here in the desert, I’ve had a strong urge to hit the creeks and rivers of the Central Region. Water in the desert can be hard to find, but I can rely on the Verde, Salt, and creeks like Cave Creek and Seven Springs, as well as Rose, Reynolds, and West Clear Creeks for a quick splash.

One of my favorite river spots to lull away the hours (or hike the surrounding Mazatzals) is Sheep Bridge. Sheep Bridge spans the Verde River, east of Perry Mesa, off of Bloody Basin Road. The ride down to the river is amazing, albeit rough, and you get a good sense of the enormity of the Mazatzal Wilderness and the expanse of the surrounding mesas.

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Sheep Bridge, A. Sato

 

On hot weekends, I can expect to see revelers heading in with their beat-up trucks and running circles with their OHVs. I want to scream at them about their behavior, but I remember what it is like to be poor and need an excuse to blow off steam. Unfortunately, in this case, it usually comes at the expense of the surrounding vegetation and wildlife.

I grew up poor and without a/c, so summers were always spent at our favorite swimming hole, much like those who enjoy the Verde. Our cherished spot when I was a kid was Salt Creek. My brothers and I would head down to the creek to catch crawdads (crayfish to polite folk), then jump into the cool depths using an old rope swing. I think the deepest hole was about 5 1/2 feet, just enough to cover your torso as you watched the leaves, branches, and occasional water moccasin float by.

The Salt Creek swimming hole was directly below an old highway, so we’d also explore the concrete barriers and blocks underneath, where drifters would camp and  would-be satanists gathered to spray-paint goat heads and pentagrams gaudily on the walls. There was actually a scare in the summer of 1984, that these ridiculous, misguided youth were killing both cats and blonde children. Hey, it was a small town and the best thing we had going for us was the rare stories of the grotesque and bizarre (like the great pyramid of Lawrence County).

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Salt Creek, Indiana

Other days, and when we’d have the gas money, we’d rumble down a country lane to get to Hardin Ridge (on Lake Monroe) with Big Red pops and various candy in tow. Lake Monroe is a reservoir just northwest of Needmore, my home town (apropos name for its poor residents). I learned to swim at the lake, after coming close to drowning a few times. Once, when I was a less than experienced swimmer, I swam across a cove to a small inlet. It was cold and at night, so I was terrified, but I made it. Funny thing, none of my peers or siblings dared me; I dared myself.

I remember one summer, when it was unseasonable hot and we were all too young to drive, we jumped into the cow pond on the forested land behind our house. It was a substantial pond, really, with stocked fish, but the local cattle decided that the pond was their bathtub, so we were forced to share. I was afraid of leaches, and sure enough, they were in there. That was the year my friends and I started to develop boobs. That whole event changed the dynamic of friendships entirely.

First, you could no longer be friends with the boys unless you tried really hard to prove yourself. This, I did. I joined their flag football games and caught frogs with the best of them. Second, comparison ran rampant among my girls. The girl with the biggest boobs was ostracized, as well as the flat-chested. Humans distrust any abnormality and gravitate toward what appears normal, safe. No wonder so we consider people to act in a herd-like manner, and why hate crimes, prejudice, and general ignorance run rampant. This, of course, is aside from the ingrained misogyny of our culture.

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Friendships and boys were divided, but the creeks remained. In the fall, there was a particular spot I’d like to run to when my home life was chaotic. I’d sit on the banks and watch the festively colored leaves be carried off by the water until I no longer felt anxious, only mesmerized by a much greater power than people.

These lessons stayed with me.

It’s getting too hot to camp in the Sonoran now, so I plot my stay along the Black River. My dogs will be happy to splash around, and that longing to give my cares to the water is wholly felt. The great stone spirits stand guard and the prisms of light reflect back into the sun, off of water, the Old God, the life force of everything animated. I can already feel it taking me away.

 

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Familiar Landscapes

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“We are a landscape of all we have seen.”
– Isamu Noguchi

There are particular landscapes that stand out in the recesses of memory. Driving down the I17 for the first time and seeing the Sonoran desert come into view…the saguaros, the palo verdes, and brittlebush, and realizing I would live there some day. The wide fields and hollows of soybeans, horses, and oaks are the places of my youth. The steep granite cliffs lining river gorges and pine bring to mind my days in the north woods. And now, I walk among volcanic rock, crumbling welded tuff and ash, a blaze of sunlight lining the cliffs at first light.

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Place is the indicator of safety, and that familiarity of place soothes the fearful animal.

I’ve always felt the flora and geology to be family, places I could gather and listen to ancient stories about how to live in a manner this culture contradicts. To this day, I take my knowledge from the elder trees and the mentor species. There is never a moment I feel isolated from being a part of, because I am so intricately a part of them.

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Friends, too, share this passion for landscape. Their backyards consist not just of green grass to mow or a small garden plot to tend but the unruly weeds and beetles. Many have the privilege of living in a wilder terrain where they can hike at will and never see the same path. Fellow explorers spend their time wandering the Southwest, uncovering their unknown history, writing up bones of forgotten days.

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When I walk a new landscape, I prefer to walk it alone. Like meeting a new friend, I must respect this space and listen intently. The phainopepla reminds me to honor the new day. A quick “qui-qui” shout from a familiar friend, the thrasher, tells me to watch my footing. It’s nearing spring, and after heavy rains the wildflowers abound – the most obvious call to renew, readjust, and most importantly, stop being so serious.

The most meaningful lesson is that the earth is not here to provide lessons, or to owe me a thing. It is not an object of worship, a peak to “bag”, my mother, or my playground.

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While I may glean from place deep lessons and gifts, it is my duty to know my place as an animal among animals, and to live life as not to disrupt this reality. I am called to be a fierce daughter of one loyalty. It is to the saguaro I bow, the lion, the rock, the soil. I am called to be a protector of place, when called, but not the instigator of outcome.

To know one’s place in the most meaningful sense is to be humble. My nameless journey, I am here to serve.

 

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Refuge

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In the woods of my youth, I would tell my dreams to whomever would hear them, usually the swayback mare or the barn swallows who built their nests high in the corn crib. As a child of the country, the forests were my refuge. In the woods I was someone, the narrator of my own life, the one I meant to have.

On summer days I would spend hours looking for insects, reptiles, and amphibians. I was obsessed with their seeming insignificance or disdain felt by most humans. For me, they became worlds beyond worlds, an unseen realm of dreamers keeping track of the earth’s secrets. They saw things most mammals cannot see. They recorded the events of much more complex creatures with their own simple arithmetic of rhythmic chirps and bellows.

In these times, I seek out this refuge, but where do I find it? Gone is my Indiana home of wildflowers and forests skirting the edges of farms. In a desert city, there are few places to hide from the chaotic world. A friend of mine used to refer to the human world as the “meat world” and nature as the “fur world”. The fur world is much more than that. It is the place of plants and stone and soil. It is the water world, and the decomposed humus that reminds us of our death.

One of my favorite places in the woods was a natural sinkhole. I would sit there among the saplings and undergrowth, imagining it to be a cocoon, a sacred bowl that contained protective powers where I would feel safe, where I would speak to God.

For so long, I have been without refuge. What I found was false sanctuary in a bottle, running, un-remembering. In this limbo, I am learning to return to the lessons of insects. What appears to be insignificant can sometimes save. I cultivate a refuge among ant hills and alleyways where coyotes run.

And in my cityscape, I listen to the wild beneath.

 

 

 

The Severing of Limbs, Not Roots

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Winter Trees, A. Sato

Her silence and wild
falling is a compass
of hunger and memory.
Jennifer Sweeney,
The Snow Leopard Mother

Recently, my grandmother of 94 found herself in a situation many older people find themselves in, and that is whether or not to sell the family home.

Home is not just a place in the suburbs where one might insist on features such as a pool or a bigger garage. Home for her is the trials of young marriage, of saving every penny, of building one’s home – not by contractor but by hand.

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Ghost in the Forest, Thomas Dodd

In this way, identity is not something we are given, but something earned. We are bruised into Self and sustain so many tumbles and twists before our personhood is built into recognition.

To think of Self in this way, we are always tumbling and rebuilding with the raw materials of experience.

During my 20s and 30s, there were a few consistent materials of Self that I made use of: alcohol, chaos, and movement.

Removing these qualities has been less like  wrecking ball demolition and more like decay. One brick crumbles, then another…but it has been a slow process of abandonment.

Standing now, I am heavy. No longer defined by these things, but still so filled with their ghosts and swallow nests, ribbon and rotting wood.

“To know who you are, you have to have a place to
come from.”
Carson McCullers,
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

Giving up that which once sustained me was essential to survival. It allowed me to grieve the Self that survived hurricane and tornado. There were roads and windstorms. I chased and chased my house, the places that could only reside under the skin.

At 42, I find myself lost in an in-between state, just as my grandmother. A narrowing of definition, the container that once held me has changed. In its place, something else.

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Stone & Water, A. Sato

When I speak to her, Ada Lenora, she tells me her room at the nursing home makes a reasonable home, yet lonely all the same. Photos of my grandfather line the walls and her comfy chair, which accompanied her to the facility, sits like a token in the corner.

We drag our homes alongside us sometimes, unwilling to abandon, unwilling to rebuild. Despite the crumbling walls and fallen beams, it is possible to only see its former beauty.

We are limited by our containers. These homes that collapse make – at best – facsimile selves. I would rather bear the spirit of a tree, dipping my roots in water…quenching the thirst of Self with memory.

Life can ax my limbs but my roots remain.

My last conversation with my grandmother ended with her telling me (as she has told me before) how much she misses my grandfather and how she often expects him to walk in and lean down and give her a kiss as he would do when coming in from the garden.

When I think of my time in Indiana, I think about the trees of my youth: dogwood, tulip, walnut, cherry – their stories contained in leaves, bark, chlorophyll under the nourishing sun. Many of these trees no longer stand.

The last time I was home I sat on the stump of the former cherry tree, planted by my grandfather many years ago. I dug my toes into the loose soil. There under the earth, I hit knuckle-bone of root and breathed in the green humus of life.