The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


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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.


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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.

 

 

 


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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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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.


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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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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.