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.