Christmas in the North Maricopa Mountains

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Margie’s Cove, A.Sato

Without family, the only thing I can hold to on Christmas is the fact that there’s nothing to hold on to. Christmas is like the idea of finding our family waiting on the banister, caked with fresh snowflakes, declaring a love for all mankind while being embraced in kisses. It’s fantasy; the wonderful life.

My thoughts return to Christmas past, where I would spend time with my grandparents. One of the best possibilities of those trips was when I could sleep under the tree at night. Looking up through those faux branches into the sparkling glow made me feel at home, precisely because it mimicked the woods and the stars.

This Christmas, I had that opportunity, except here in my beloved home, the Sonoran Desert.

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After doing some merrymaking over breakfast with friends, my friend Ellen and I packed off to the North Maricopa Mountains for some desert camping. We rambled through a short, sandy trail to Margie’s Cove, a primitive campground on BLM land, adjacent to protected wilderness and the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

This was an area severely grazed over the past few hundred years, but has been slowly returning to its former ecological glory through the efforts of closure and tightened recreational restrictions. The Monument itself contains the Maricopa Mountain ranges (north and south of the I-8), Table Top Mountains, Booth and White Hills, and the Sand Tanks.

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Rife with historical and prehistoric trails and archaeological sites, there’s reason that these places, while quiet, contain thousands of years of stories. You can feel the words under the basalt and strewn across desert pavement, so much so that they sing to life any who care to listen.

Owls lift off from a place
I cannot see. Their long silence
is riddled with the same silence.

In the desert, listening is critical. The slightest wind contains more insight than your GPS. The faint trail of a forgotten sidewinder has more to show you than your cell.

As we set up camp, the clouds formed across the neighboring ridges, looking ominous. It is winter, after all, so we were prepared for both some rain and chilly nights, and the occasional snow (like we saw in 2015). When everything was secured, I set off cross country to look for bones. Like anything, looking intently for what you want results in no luck.

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Giant chunks of quartz riddled the desert pavement, looking quite out of the ordinary against the patination. Wilderness boundary signs have been  glazed over after a few Sonoran summers – its words barely visible. The quality of quiet shifts from a treacherous gasp of unrelentingly survival to a creosote cold, with humidity setting off any scent.

Later that evening, the campfire was welcome as we quickly ate dinner. Winter nights in the desert make me want to hibernate and wake to the stillness of the stars from under the confines of my sleeping bag and wool blankets.

Next morning, I set out on the trail  with the moon to guide me. The air on my face was freezing to the touch, and my nose, permanently frosty. I had hoped to see an owl or maybe a grumpy coyote, or the mountain lion who comes down from his rocks to sip water at the wildlife cache. No sound. No movement. Just my walking motion and my short exhalations.

Walking is reverie, and I, a somnambulist walking in the desert, under moonlight, in winter.

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Late morning, we set out on the sandy back roads looking for historic trails. The north country on the boundary of the Monument has rebounded and was especially lush. Sonoran Desert at its finest, said my friend, and she was right. Every few feet, we stopped to gaze at the beauty and the sun creeping over the horizon.

Another friend says, “Sit still and look. This is everything you need right here.” I believe him.

Water has quenched the desert, and everything seemed alive and happy to be so.

 

 

Impressions of place: potsherds, one busted, displaced river cobble, many hawks, rusted out windmill, Sheep Mountain (how I longed to see the bighorns), boulder climbing, desert pavement napping, scurries of owls, coyote misfits, deep wash after wash, bajada poetry, walking for miles.

If I could only stay another few nights here…But each night could easily blend into another. The desert is without time, and my time is unfortunate. I am the longing sleeper who must pack up and be fit for the other world I inhabit.

I chase it at night when others slumber.
That which saves dwells where death inhabits.

In the moments of childhood, I would stare out through the faux Christmas tree and wonder where I will end up, what life will become. I have the same childhood curiosity, and no more information as to what comes next as I did then. Here is now. Timeless.

Nothing speaks this truth more than the desert.

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Shooting Stars in the Sierra Ancha

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I recently returned from an overnight trip to the Sierra Ancha. This is a range that is close to my heart, because it was one I visited briefly during my first trip to Arizona after being gone for nearly 15 years.

As my friend Ellen likes to say, this place is special, sacred. You can feel it when you are here. Something of the ethereal is close to the skin. No wonder there are many sightings of monsters and ghosts, of messages on the wind and in strange dreams beneath glowing stars.

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We arrived in late morning, so I decided to hike down Rose Creek. Little did I expect, I encountered a small female bear. I was as stunned as she was. I have a certain level of fear about bears; they seem so unpredictable. Their demeanor can quickly change from aloof to threatening, and within seconds.

The bear looked at me, then Lily, my 13 pound dog. I realized that the only way out was to back up since we were surrounded by thick, thorny berry bushes. Lifting Lily high, we eased away, watching the coal black eyes look back at us. Thankfully, we escaped safely through the berry corridor.

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Roaming the back roads is always a part of any adventure that I consider an adventure, and Ellen and I set off for Buzzard Roost Canyon the next day. Rocking through the boulders and slopes, and down, down, down into the mouth of the canyon, we went far away from any human activity. Spotting perfect primitive camp sites and canyon songbirds lifting off of the schist and gneiss, what else is there but this?

 

Lying awake at midnight in my tent, listening to the soft steps of skunks along the creek, I am here. The immensity of the night sky overwhelms me. I wish for one star to fall. Minutes later, the blaze and the descent.

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Water in the desert is precious, and to find a flowing creek in the Sonoran is a magical thing. After miles of climbing and bumping down forest roads, we were delighted to find Spring Creek by way of Jerky Butte.

Even a shallow swimming hole can relieve a tired, hot traveler. I am a longtime traveler.

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Waking up at sunrise, I hiked along a new road that leads to a development that’s in an in-holding of the national forest. The illuminated cliffs of the Sierra Ancha Mountains caught first light. Being in deep canyons feels like I am returning to the quiet, still place where my true self emerges. The light shines on these places, but it occurs one hour at a time.

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If you pay close attention on any walk, you will notice things. Small things that can make you wonder why you ever thought you were alone.

 


Fall is my favorite season, which feels like a mere two weeks in AZ. I do love the winter months here, but sometimes I miss those real two-three months of serious autumn that I experienced in Indiana. The kind that reminds me of the fall foliage of my birthplace, the sound of the wood stove’s cracks-and-pops, feeling chilly enough to put on an extra big flannel shirt when the sun sets, and that deep, pungent odor of decay.

I savor it when I am in the mountains.

 

As with any range, a person can spend an entire lifetime exploring and never fully get a complete picture of all of its secrets. And, isn’t that the point, really, to know that a place is composed of so much enchantment it is impossible to contain?

When the disciples asked Jesus when the new world will come, he replied, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.” There is no outside heaven or planetary escape of tech fantasy. This is it. This is the kingdom.

I hope to continue to recognize it for years to come.

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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.

 

 

 

Meditations on Water

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The trees reflected in the river – they are unconscious
of a spiritual world so near to them. So are we.

– Nathaniel Hawthorne

I seek out herons each morning, particularly the small green heron that graced the park over the summer. A neighbor saw a male arrive a few weeks ago and witnessed the most beautiful dance between the two herons, a mating ritual. Since then, we have not seen them.

As I sit beside the water’s edge, I imagine those two lovers busily building a nest on the Salt River, a river that used to run wild.

While I was looking closely for birds, I noticed the surface of the water and all of the life embodied in it, from the algae to the variety of insects that skipped over its surface. An iridescent dragonfly rested briefly on drift wood. A snapping turtle poked his head through the clear surface, creating small circles on the once still water – element meeting element.

The solitude of ponds, the ferocity of desert rivers in a monsoon, the arroyo holding deep pools of forgotten rain. These are the sacred moments, the natural movement of water. Water is not simply among us, it is us.

Except, we don’t see it that way. We turn to witness the degradation of dams and artificial pools meant to control, tame, and harness. How have we become so lost that we deny this essential God? Thinking we rule over it because we have the periodic table, we have its power.

We believe that we lord over all things, but the day will come when the tides change, as certain and abrupt as water.

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Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.

– Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

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Estuaries are a happy land, rich in the continent itself, stirred by the forces of nature like the soup of a French chef; the home of myriad forms of life from bacteria and protozoans to grasses and mammals; the nursery, resting place, and refuge of
countless things.

– Stanely A. Cain

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A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving,
living part of the very earth itself.

– Laura Gilpin

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To trace the history of a river, or a raindrop, as John Muir would have done, is also
to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body.

In both we constantly seek and stumble on divinity, which, like the cornice feeding
the lake and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself
over and over again.

– Gretel Ehrlich, Sisters of the Earth

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Our bodies are molded rivers.

– Novalis

Rabbit

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Sonoran Desert Sunrise – A. Sato

The desert keeps her secrets.

I am back, pre-dawn, scrambling up a hot jumble of granite boulders. Burning my hands, then knees, all to investigate scat, what appears to be a busted lamp someone discarded, a broken mano, a dead ground squirrel.

At 8am, it is already 98 degrees with high humidity, but I come here for the silence and solitude, like they can somehow relieve the heat. At least I will enjoy the quiet. A few minutes pass in this surreal repose until a hiker comes my way. Shit. There is still noise from the road, the distant hum of highways.

The hiker warns me that there is an old guy and some younger women having sex down below the boulders, in the parking lot. We give each other a knowing nod of what’s going on.

This sanctuary, it seems, keeps secrets. The heat drives out most people, but oh…there are the solitude seekers who come in all forms, some to praise the miserable indifference of a July morning among baked rock, and others to find a place to hide their lives from view.

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Watched I – A. Sato

Whatever the situation, I am disturbed, and angry, and ultimately sad. Why here? Why this morning of all mornings? The hiker assured me that he phoned the police and took photos of the guy’s license plate. None of this will change much, but I appreciate his concern.

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear – the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break….I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”

I pray his sentiment was right when he also longed for man to be an illusion and rock, and I would add all other forms of life, to be the only thing that is real.

The only thing that lasts.

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Cradled – A. Sato

The desert keeps her secrets. But after the rain it is easier to understand her – hedgehogs burst their tiny strawberry blooms. A gray fox meanders the wash where dragonflies dance above muddy tinajas.

Nothing is subtle after the rain.

I follow the delicate tracks of javelinas while fighting off mosquitoes that make a feast of this convenient, warm-blooded host. Scanning the ground, I find a bit of rabbit fur caught in cholla spines. I imagine some plump coyote, lounging somewhere nearby, smiling his sanguine smile with full belly.

Making my way to a clear patch among the cholla, I wait for the welcomed sort of morning traffic: a troop of chatty Gambel’s quail scatter from beneath an ironwood. A mockingbird sings his patchwork morning song. Behind a small clump of brittlebush, two long ears rise. I wonder if it was his friend who became coyote’s supper. Carefully, the rabbit emerges, sniffing the air.

I have a fondness for rabbits. Their fear is understandable and relatable. Our vulnerability to life is sometimes less palpable, but nonetheless just as real.

Coyote deserves our understanding, too. Feed or be someone’s food…eventually. Too often we want to align with rabbit, all of our fears protecting us from responsibility. Sometimes we want to align with coyote, never allowing gentleness to expose us to the inevitable.

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Flesh – A. Sato

The truth is that both coyote and rabbit embody life, all that life entails, all that is necessary.

The sun burns my neck and distorts my view of the world. Or maybe this is exactly how it should appear. Rabbit makes his way back to his den, belly full from the morning’s good measure of work.

As I reach the parking lot, there is no trace of the man or his Mercedes, or the young woman. The distant traffic continues to hum.

Sonoran Desert National Monument Essay/VRAI’s Public Lands Feature

I am excited to share my essay on the Sonoran Desert National Monument as a part of a feature covering our public lands for VRAI Magazine’s Travel Issue.

Please share the link, if you would be so kind.

And don’t forget to submit your comments and speak out to protect National Monuments under threat, including the Sonoran Desert National Monument, Bears Ears, Grand Canyon – Parashant, and so many others.

 

 

 

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.

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.

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.

One Morning, A Stranger at Home

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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.

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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.

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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.