“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“Home is a name, a word, it is a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to, in the strongest conjuration.” – Charles Dickens
“We comfort ourselves by reliving memories of protection. Something closed must retain our memories, while leaving them their original value as images. Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home and, by recalling these memories, we add to our store of dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.” – Gaston Bachelard
Home casts its spell over us long before we realize the gravity of its enchantment. The walls become the blanket between our body and the enormity of the universe. The windows bring in the sun’s warmth and the stars reflect their mirrored points in all directions. We mark the voyages we will take by the courses of our return, the ways we navigate back to home, again and again.
We rise from the same bed every morning, responding to the call of a new day or the single threatening pulse of the alarm. We are performing a ritual when we wake, make our coffee, brush our teeth. We skim the news headlines of the outside world, updates from friends in other continents. We wrap ourselves in our nest of charms and try to escape people whose lives are rife with tragedy. Wars, famines, regimes, brutality… these are the terrible fates of those far from our home.
But what is home exactly, if it is not the static entity composed of brick and mortar?
For every one of us, the definition of home changes. Home has changed for me several times over the years. No longer are we remaining in one home for several generations (or even a decade now), but rather choosing the mobile life of modern nomads, seeking better paying jobs, greener pastures. Perhaps that is why we long for a concept or a story of home, rather than rely upon our grandparents’ concept of place? Perhaps, too, that is why we cherish our symbolic homes of memory, heart, spirit, daily rituals that are veiled in consumption and desire, from that morning Starbucks coffee to the Lake Tahoe family vacation.
Home, therefore, must come alive throughout our day, in the acts that create comforts no longer found on the family farm or in our father’s home.
Home as Memory
“Home is in my longing…” “It was the home of my father, where he grew orchids…” “We built this home when we were married, almost 70 years ago…”
Today is my grandmother’s 92nd birthday. I spoke to her while driving down from my two-day sojourn to the craggy, rugged canyons of the Dripping Springs Mountains, where the last of the Arizona monsoon rains poured through granite and limestone. This is a place where I once followed mountain lion tracks into the chaparral forest of scrub oak and manzanita, searching for that wildness that needs me, that I perceive to need me.
I am never ready to leave these places, these forests of imagination – landscapes that hold more of my devotion than calculated homes in the arms of lovers or friends. Here is a longing of the sailor setting off to sea. Here I am uprooted yet devoted.
What is home?
My grandmother’s voice on the end of the line spoke of an angelic recollection of her 70-year marriage, never quite ready to depart. She spoke of memories of grandchildren dancing with fireflies near the garden, the rough hands of the man she loved for years – those spaces that nothing now can fill.
We whisper apologies to the now, knowing we – in our angels’ arms – can never begin to be present. Everything builds upon itself, after all, stone by stone.
To the paramour of memory, home resides in the photographic stills of brothers and sisters, the grainy film traditions of Christmas trees or holiday exchanges, memorabilia of births and deaths. These conceptual homes drift in and over us. They are never permanent and never quite the same. Memory, it is said, works in pleasant states. We remember with greater clarity those moments of joy than those of pain or ache.
Our brains, in essence, carry the nostalgic home of our past into the future, residing with us as identity, an unfulfilled longing to re-create but to never grasp totally.
Home as Mirror
Home as an object – We are expressed in the things we adore, in the things we adorn. Favorite antiques, a trunk containing our grandmother’s wedding dress, our kitchen table where we share our bread and wine. Objects of desire. Objects that reflect our layered years. From the first snipped locks of a child’s hair, to tea pots, to grain piled high in a barn loft, these things contain a bit of soul. The orchards in July – can you smell them now?
I remember my face pressed against the cold concrete blocks of the root cellar, where jars of tomatoes, green beans, new potatoes, and pickles lined the interior wall – cobwebbed walls that smelled of home, the secret place of my hiding, the fearless place of darkness.
We spend our lives looking for these places reflected in the outreaches of another’s world, in cobble-stoned streets of tourist towns, in the slight hope of recognition. And, when we find them – the traces of familiarity looking back at us, we hold tight to the closing space.
It is the nearness of home we seek.
We look for a spouse who holds within him the odor of crushed rosemary, the scented walls and tumbling paths. We want to find mirrored places: the way a new house reminds us, if only in angles and arches, of who we once were years ago.
Home as Spirit
“A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home… for new metaphors for life. It leads home.” – Hermann Hesse
My life has been composed of symphonic wandering – a music of movement. For those of us called to the road, home is a most curious and confusing of concepts. We are nomads, fixed only to our own soles. Many misunderstand us. Even more accuse us of not being drawn to place, committed and devoted to one single plot of land. I would argue otherwise.
In wandering, one may come closer to Self, just as the home can mirror Self. On foot, we may feel even closer to the truth of existence. As strangers, we hold no allegiance to one place, but we are also untethered to stogy, logged opinions and facts. We may walk through the woods and see familiar faces: lupine, dayflower, aster, grey fox, white-tailed deer, bobcat.
Likewise, the strangers among the streets of Denver, Chicago, Portland find their rituals in an old map, a street that beckons, conversation dancing over the heads of commuters on trains. Home is on one’s back, in a deep purse, or simply sheltered in the heart of the adventurous.
There is an underlying spirit to being fully aware in the world.
Ascetics live with very little in order to remove the common desires and cumbersome load of things. People remove the soporific weight of drugs, alcohol, tv, mindlessness in order to go deeper into themselves, into the naked, exposed, yet spirited real. Pagans and mystics, earth lovers and roaming dreamers cannot contain the world within –
It tumbles down into our lives, filling us no matter where we lay our bodies down at night.
Home is spirit, a spiraling sense of wonder within our truest nature.
We are a nation that seeks its rituals and habits, yet has lost the magic of places that claim us, places we give ourselves to and commit to for our lifetimes. But, home is in our common existence and our daily yearnings. It is not forever and never so grounded it cannot go for a walk or daydream.
Perhaps this is the mistake we make – looking for those familiar hills of our youth, as if we can picture them so completely, we might return – just one last time. Home is…
“The morning air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on, picking flowers and making a bouquet… From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
“Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.”
― Willa Cather
It’s early morning. The sun has not yet ascended. I am in the field – a field of my own imagination and freedom. The night has meaning that I am not obliged to compose. The night is a terrible myth only the healing fields can erase. My siblings are asleep. My mother is nowhere. I don’t know her and she left years ago. My father is at work. I am only 16, but I know how to run a house. I know how to evade misery and I know how to dream.
The horses in the field are aware of my escape. They are sleepy with my visions. I come here to talk to them, to tell them how a girl will one day live in France. I am a wanderer, but I am always married to these woods, to the pond, to the strange flight of swallows and the pervasive faces of Black-Eyed Susans that lean in and surround my victim heart. They tell me I can bend in this. They tell me that the harshness of being alive will scatter my song into fields I can never dream of knowing. The Queen Anne’s lace agrees. She knows I look west – how can I not? The setting sun means that this day is over, and I wanted only just to get through the day then. I wanted the pull of tides and the warmth of the dry earth to tell me that it will be over… soon.
At night the sound of bullfrogs in unison keep me company – the earth’s drums. Fireflies light their way through paths of dogwood, sassafras, and walnut trees. Black walnuts, I will learn, are bitter but make wonderful stain for the bodies of guns and the hair of bold girls who hate their golden locks. All autumn I will watch the men of my family boil up the walnuts over an open fire, then use the stain on their muzzleloaders. It’s deer season. The trees are in full fall plumage and the odor of fireplaces and errant embers blankets the terrain. The fields are aglow with gold and bronze –between the black dots of cattle, the wheat and grasses burn across the landscape and rise into the outline of crows and trees, the somber shades of a darkening season.
The family, the home, doesn’t control everything that happens in childhood. I, being the oldest of so many children, never felt contained by the rooms and routines of the domestic life. I felt alone among my childhood walls. In the fields, I was with the world. The sun’s gracious warmth and the nocturnal ballads of screech owls and cicadas filled my young life with a social song of otherworldly friendship – of love that would not come with high price and cold reality.
During the summer months, I would climb over limestone boulders to swim in abandoned quarries filled with years of rain. There was a danger in those stones I knew in every step – the boys who would circle around us girls, staring at our breasts, groping for pleasure in the moonlight of expectation and longing. A fox sprite, I would scramble across each boulder, half-clothed, ignoring the admonitions of danger – the very real causalities of abandoned places where several wanton youth perished or injured themselves with a false step or an ill calculated dive. Still, I would not fear stone as I would fear the circling of humans, the risk of love.
Summers were spent on horseback, exploring the woods that surrounded the 40 acres of farmland I grew up within. My friends and I would spend hours lounging on the mossy earth, making pinwheels from the flowers of the giant tulip trees that lined the yard. Abandoned houses stood exposed in their brick and stone secrets where we found incredible gifts of the past: old school books, clothes, rotting trunks, fabric, discarded chairs…. Climbing the rotten steps and inching our way between holes in floorboards, we asked the Ouija board about our future. Would there be love? Would there be children? Even in asking, I knew I did not belong to the stories of these girls, my then friends. I knew the woods spoke to me of something else – and named me what I could not name myself.
Like a bell jar over these scenes, I uncover the sensory memory – this place belongs to me just as I remain there. I have trouble remembering the names of schools, teachers, and old friends. I cannot tell you one fond memory of high school, but I can walk you through every branch, every cornfield, and every sinkhole with its murky mystery with impeccable clarity – the use of every sense, the body-knowledge of a wolf.
As a child, I waited in fields for some salvation from the human world. As a child, I thought little of erroneous pop culture myths and urban pressures. I knew only these fields that carried a song across veins of stream beds. I collected arrowheads among clay and sandstone alcoves, high above rivers. There were ancient others who understood the seasons and gave voice to the living world. I longed to know these people. I dreamed they would come and find me, waiting there among the eroding banks.
There is something innately spiritual and mythical about land and water, plant and sky. The earth asks us to both dig deep into our roots and find peace but also to explore the limits of life on the surface – to know that life is harsh and lovely, unfair yet fully present. There is very little within me that did not directly grow from the pleasure of place. As the fog of violence entered in, I managed to remain truly connected to hope. Survival was all around me. The young of other species were not spared. They adapted or died. I took this lesson in and held on, used my wits, and stayed rooted in the brutal beauty of life.
I was a girl of fields. I was a girl forced to become a woman too soon. Yet I remember being in those apple orchards with the bees looming between my footsteps. I remember picking rhubarb for cobblers; hiding between grapevines to jump out and scare my brother… these were the memories that formed my identity.
If my writing has some greater purpose or some message to share, I want it to be with the desperate child who has no wild ally, the lost one who has no land to adore. This is one who – unless artificially protected – will not adapt and therefore stands a greater chance of passing the violent lineage on through commerce, procreation, and self-abasement. This is the dominance of a hopeless world of acquisition and subterfuge. This is the one who comes to a visual feast of delight with no eyes.
The last time I visited the hillsides and fields of Southern Indiana, I spent some time at the grave sites of my ancestors. The church cemetery, I couldn’t even begin to show you where it is on a map. I only know how to get there by the blood pulse of who I am, instinct. This is a resting place of farm families and Depression era babies, of Welsh and French miners. The place is thick with ferns and Virginia pines. Everything is tinged with moisture and I am still in love with the smell of damp earth, something my Southwestern home has never been able to provide.
Across from the cemetery, there is a field that has been used by farmers for several generations. Not one building has stood on that soil. I have my sleeping bag and a telescope. Under the barbed wire I slip and find a good place to bed down for the night. Already, the cold has settled in and the cicadas have descended. Grasshoppers share the warmth of my bag – the sky above: blackness and stars. Who can say what home truly is, what defines the domestic? Is it the family, children? Is it a house we work hard to buy? Or a lover to bring us into our own senses through touch and giving?
In these fields I was alone, but I was home. I did not care to run or spoil the moment with worries about my life. It did not occur to me to want to be protected, or in dreams of France or some other country. I nestled into my bag – where the girl met the hold of the earth – and slept like someone who has found genuine belonging.