The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


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Do something… but what?

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Sometimes knowing what to do in the face of so much uncertainty, horror, and doubt leaves us feeling powerless. This is at least true for me. Our “calls to action” take us away from home and the animals and plants that inhibit our surroundings. When joining forces elsewhere isn’t possible, there is a tendency to read about and absorb what is happening “out there” and feel miserable. Maybe we throw a few dollars in aid, but there is this overwhelm that doesn’t leave.

To some extent, we are powerless… as individuals, at home, raging at the computer or television. I’ve started to feel like this way of being is depleting my spirit. I know that I personally will not solve problems by doing personal acts of resistance that are disengaged from others (wild others included) or what we are fighting: systemic and organized violence  (not joe neighbor who supports Trump, or your sister-in-law who still uses styrofoam).

But since I am not a great power, what can I do with the power I do have?
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I am not a marcher or letter writer. I’m more likely to go rehab a wild area where OHVs have done damage. Still, rehabbing that one area doesn’t guarantee it wont be destroyed again next Memorial Day weekend. It doesn’t eliminate the culture that says it’s macho to ride your quad over native plants.

So what do I do? What do you do?

I think that is where individual actions can feel fruitless unless you elevate them into more meaningful actions that can and do bear some results. Of course doing a river clean-up once and walking away from that river won’t have much benefit over time … But what about devoting myself to that river and the life it supports, and sticking with it? Even if it means bearing witness to outcomes that break my heart, or it puts me in situations where greater actions are called for.

To me, that is where these feelings of disconnect and uselessness begin to dissolve.

Back to the river…


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Canyon Meandering: Pondering the Fool’s Journey

“Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the idea that life is serious.” Brendan Gill

To be foolish…00-the-fool
we throw our shackles of perceived security off.
We follow the singing of a brook or don masks under oaks in their spring foliage.
We may even chase a butterfly over the precipice.

Life is a grand adventure. Yet many try to shrink it to fit a narrow view.

Holding on, we anchor ourselves to false certainty: the true love, the children, the home, the job, possessions that we pile and monitor with the eye of a dragon.

But the uncertainties, those goblins, have a way of ruining everything.

Stay.
Try again.
Try the same thing again.
This time it will work.

They whisper to us through fear and doubt.

My goblins of uncertainty are habitual responses to loss – or, not letting go of loss. Hanging on by its dead roots, I have stayed near the ground. Not moving, not growing, and certainly not chasing the tempting butterfly that might lead elsewhere.

Where? the goblins demand.
What will it be?

And what if there is pain?

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I awake again to a midnight moon – a fool’s half-moon – in Pivot Rock Canyon.

There is perhaps nothing more apropos of the Fool’s wanton adventure than being outdoors – particularly alone, and definitely in a deep woods (the wilder the better).

To expect the unexpected is an unspoken mantra. Whether sleet, hail, or lightning strike or the myriad animal attacks a wanderer is warned of, the journey must always entail a bit of tangled vine and claw-print.

Traces of a late night visit leave imprints of Ursus americanus in my dreams and in the soft earth near the creek.

Instead of Bear, I am startled awake again by the clumsy arrival of revelers – unprepared families arriving late, to camp at 7000 ft, t-shirt and shorts, no idea where they are.

It’s 30 degrees here. Spring comes late to the Mogollon Rim.

The smoke from their fire and the shouts between camps sites keep me awake, wishing it had been Bear instead of Bipeds.

Most early spring nights as these, the woods are empty of other people.
Time to laugh it off, despite my annoyance. Time to wander away from the road. Next time, I will pack in to where no others like to go.

At least, no human others.

Between the cracks of ember and beer cans, I remember the mating call of a mountain lion that echoed down from aptly named Wild Cat Spring, just below a still bustling highway at dusk.

WildCat_trail2 (1 of 1)But now it is only the campfire that hisses.

Be prepared for anything, the Fool laughs. Rather, be unprepared. Be surprised.

The Fool is also the joker who reminds us that anything can happen. The joker’s wild! Remain accustomed to glorious catastrophe. Follow the stars, unshaken by the precipice below our feet.

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The thing is, the view from home is fixed, the known road is comforting.

But the elsewhere. Elsewhere is a game of chance, and with any game there is a loser – a jester sitting in a pig sty, hat askew, wondering how the hell he got there.

Nonetheless, he dusts himself off and back to the journey he goes.

To the wanderer, home can be hell, and nothing more painful than stasis.

Out there are stories.
Stories that make the storms circle and the birds squawk.

Stories for nights in canyons without sleep.

It is time to pick up the bindle and head off for the tantalizing depths of another adventure.


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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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Transition Zones

Deer at night, Jocelyn Lee

Deer at night, Jocelyn Lee

At 1 a.m., the forest is silent except for a nighthawk calling out to an unknown recipient. I turn on my lamp and listen to my dog’s sleeping breath. A captured bark beetle tries to escape my tent, so I unzip the front mesh. I crawl out with him. There are a few visible stars laced between clouds and the coniferous forest canopy. I crouch down and listen for movement. In the distance, a branch cracks. Even though I am unafraid of the dark, the hairs on my arms and the back of my neck rise. It’s a visceral response for our kind, with such poor night skills and carnivore wisdom.

In the morning, we find mountain lion tracks in fresh mud. The monsoon rains have rolled in across the limestone, across the sandstone escarpment, and through the canyons thick with pine. It is hard to distinguish forest floor from gorge. Alongside these prints are several small hooves, the presence of deer gathered near the mouth of the spring. I listen closely, but it is now morning and I am left with only evidence. The lion is long gone. She won’t stay close to the road, with its morning rush of ATVs and trucks loaded with anxious boys and their guns. The deer girls are scattered across the hills, perhaps missing a fella or fawn. I’ll have to be content with my journal and notes, and imagination.

The following night unfolds in a similar orchestra. The mountains create an illusion of silence, of stilled activity. My city ears haven’t adjusted to their music. I strain to hear the slightest conversation between cicadas – or the complaints of skunks meandering through our make-shift comforts. At 1 a.m., that magic hour, a single coyote opens the night with her bloodied ballad for the crescent moon, for her mates – just one coyote singing solo, waiting for response. I can finally sleep.

The next morning, we find more tracks and, beside the picnic table, a  dead junco – in perfect form, as if it had been gently placed on the ground by some benevolent force – small mercies for tender prey.

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It’s 10 p.m. in Phoenix. The towers lean over the backyard as I wait for my dog to pee. The July storms tease with their dust clouds. I say a silent prayer for the storms to finally move through. Next door, in an empty lot, a group of homeless men light a fire in an abandoned porch. Cops circle. Helicopters take critical cases to the hospital on Thomas. No matter what I do with white noise, drugs, deep sleep, meditation, the noise never ceases. I strain to find the silence between adagios. I wait for the rain to drive back the life; to quell whatever bravado lives beneath the desperate walls and hungry bellies.

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I met a guy who swore he’d seen a wolf in the Prescott National Forest. I knew what he’d likely seen was a large coyote. He showed me a picture of a coyote. Instead of telling him the truth, I just nodded and asked him what he thought of it. Naturally, it changed my life, he said, emphasizing naturally.

Another friend claimed her spirit is that of a fox. She has collage of photos of various foxes above her bed: kit fox, red fox, grey fox, and an odd interloper of an Arctic fox, her cool white fur moving invisible with the Ontario snow.

Above my desk, I, too, have an image of a fox. A desert kit fox I saw while gazing at the spirals and dancing bighorns etched onto rock panels a few thousand years ago. The fox appeared as I was about to embark on a long drive across the Colorado desert of Southern California. It was already 95 degrees at 9 a.m.. The air snapped with its own fury.

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On the Mogollon Rim, the surrounding mountains appear as a tintype, a patina. The view of ridges and monsoon clouds frame everything in a dripping emerald and smoke-grey. I walk with my dog out to the edge and find a burnt tree stump to sit on. The landscape has been singed – recently, perhaps a few years ago. Fire rings polka-dot the grasses. Crushed, faded Bud Light cans form an odd little narrative to the pilgrims who come here to escape the heat, caring little for the place itself, or the thousand year old stone flakes marking other arrivals and departures.

These days my mind is equally singed –  scarred with too many worries about paying bills and finding a home. It makes no sense to consider these things here. Fatalism settles into my bones. Two years of chronic worry about the why of things, but I am no closer to knowing. Two years of death, loss, situations that burned everything down to bare sinew and nerve. Being here, I ask myself if I am willing. Will I set more years to blaze? Years that will be no more meaningful than a bird falling sudden on the soft dirt floor.

Over the side of the escarpment, a crow is being chased by a stormtroupe of swallows. His protests meet the distant thunder.


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Temporary Shelters

Memories make us. They are our stories. They make real out of shadow.

Memory is not static, however, nor is it benevolent. It is both our greatest ally and our most nefarious foe. Memory deludes moment. It demands adherence, obedience… it demands answers as to why any thing, any human dare challenge its peaceful dreaming. It makes you believe it is alert, watching, ready to leap into life – but it falters – careens cars, emits screams, threatens.

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Memory is a doe on a summer day, behind twigs, camouflaged. And how we want to believe it is only there, sleeping… not ready, waiting for danger.

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When a loss occurs, memory stumbles.  The doe leaps. You can call after her, but she has no allegiance. She has only the dream and the dream’s urge for preservation.

Behind the dream, flames rise. Fire and impending loss – the arc of disappearance, the knucklebone exposure of stone.

I am a small animal. I become animal as the flames climb my mountain home. I claw and scratch against the man I love. I watch love perish. I watch everything perish. I try to hold. I try.

How quickly stone loses its embodying life, endures the burn. It holds on to nothing.

Stone releases, not because it chooses to release, but because it has no choice. It simply Is. It Is – it has no choice but to acquiesce. I have no choice but to watch the memory deer flee from the stone, the root, from me.

How do we speak here? I walk beneath the full moon and the field shines. The exposure is ghostly yet beautiful. There are no answers to our larger, human questions. But is it not beautiful?

How do we feel now? In restless sleep, in animal tongue and waning moon. I have lost my dreams. I no longer dream. I am the fresh air, the whisper.

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Years will go by and the wild will return to stone. Life returns. New stories will be told – of wild canyon, of love growing between animals: anew, ablaze,

rising from dry bed and ash, calling itself home.


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Following Deer

“to the seeds,
to the beginnings; to one clear word for which
there is no disguise and no alternative.”
~Brackenbury

I have grown accustomed to mourning and rejoicing in tandem. It seems throughout my life some of the most profoundly joyful moments, good news, and inconspicuous but thrilling arrivals have found their way to me in the footsteps of sadness, change, and difficult times. If there is a lesson in this trend, I am still learning, growing with every new turn and opportunity to respond and adapt.

Just as I was accepting a job offer and entirely new course in life – including a major residential move – a friend lapsed into serious condition, then left this old, dusty world just a day beyond my acceptance of this new path. I was watching deer move delicately across a green meadow, the new morning sweet and endless, as my friend struggled for breath and held the hands of friends and family too numerous to name. Just as I stumbled up a mountain path, where a small doe stood sniffing the air, my family – back in Indiana – dealt with struggles of their own, how to honor an aging loved one’s wishes while serious health issues pressed against good conscience. And all the while my own conflicts provided sullen backdrops against the abundant beauty around me.

 Is it right to be happy when others are not?

How do we fully live while grieving for those who are dying or have gone on?

I grapple with my need to move quickly in the midst of so much emotion. By nature, I am a mover. To remain still, coming from my history and character, welcomes potential peril. I move on, even when my heart is broken and everyone around me lingers, catatonic in hurt. I move with the clouds. I say goodbye as the wind pushes memory and time over ridges, against the horizon. I carry stories. I speak them, and speak through them. I move, too, in the gray space, as everyone naturally moves away from our grasp. Friends, lovers and family circle the wheel, just as I. 

There’s ache in my heart for the many losses faced over the years, for the pains and sicknesses that have plagued those I love, and for the reality that, yes, our limited, linear life becomes ever more apparent as loved ones fly off into hereafter. Childhood, for those fortunate enough to be awarded this innocent time, is short. For many, childhood is merely a time to fight for survival. Fair or unfair, the wheel turns. We mourn. We move on.

As I reflect upon my time in Colorado and the deer that greeted me on my morning walks, I am reminded of a moment of holiness and complexity in my twenties. Holy is a word I choose intentionally. I was facing a devastating loss, dealing with the inevitable end to an ugly situation. I was very alone – not in the physical sense – but the dejected sense of being alone, when surrounded by people who could not or would not understand or acknowledge who I am or the obvious circumstances around us. I was about to walk into a hotel, when I saw a couple of young does rush across the busy county road. The first made it in a daring leap between automobiles. The second was not so lucky. Just as she made it into the first lane, a truck hit her hind legs… and without the slightest pause, continued to drive away. The doe stumbled twice but managed to cross into the National Forest land just beyond.

Without thinking, I left my stunned companion and darted across the road and scrambled under the barbed wire fence. Looking back, my companion simply walked into the hotel and closed the door – a final impasse. I keenly remember an urge to find the doe. I knew she must be in bad shape, if even alive, and I couldn’t stop my legs from moving into the thick green tangle of late summer foliage. I must have walked for an hour before reluctantly turning around to head back. That’s when I saw her. She was on her side, just beyond a thick stand of trees, lying on ferns. I neared and met her eyes. I could tell she was dying. I leaned down and placed a hand on her side as she took her last few breaths.

There was something in the acknowledgment of that final moment of life that was comforting. Sad, yes, but… the truth of being fully there, present and with this transition, soothed my mind. And, something tells me my being there soothed her also.

It is what it is…

Deer vision is unlike our own. They see in the context of movement. What doesn’t move isn’t there or isn’t framed in their visual landscape. Every movement is new. Every motion is a beginning. There’s no need to worry about things that are not felt and perceived. Life and death happen at the most basic visceral level of movement in moment.

From the accounts of my friend’s last moments on earth, he was surrounded by dozens of friends and family. My own family struggles with tough decisions, but they are together – witnessing, acknowledging each other’s feelings. Grief and sadness stand near our moments of happiness – inches away, at times. But these are all feelings that come and go, enter and leave. What remains are those moments of simply seeing each other – real in the music of being real – moving delicately off into fields, through the landscapes of dying and being born. We comfort and celebrate by being witness to the movement of each other – and again, by moving into those new spring meadows.


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Lessons in Awareness

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I was about to write this particular blog post for a separate, intermittent poetry journal to keep it from going completely dormant. I thought, because this post is about INTUITION and the SENSES and how I have come to a deeper awareness of both when in the wild, these topics would somehow seem too esoteric, too emotional, and God forbid, too poetic for an environmental blog. I thought there must be some figurative border wall between writing passionately and writing logically.

But I stopped myself from indulging this undue separation of wild lands and wild feeling. After all, isn’t it that we are drawn to the wild because it sings to us and coaxes us out, so we can enjoy its peace, its healing, its sensory gifts?
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I have had several dreams recently of a fox. Usually, the fox in question is running through trees, alongside my car, or in thick brush. When I notice him; I wake up…

This past Saturday night was spent winter camping in the Sierra Ancha’s, a range just northeast of Phoenix, above the Tonto Basin. Winter camping in Arizona isn’t quite as intense an experience as in areas with lots of snow and threat of avalanche, but certainly a winter camper in the mountains here will meet nights of below freezing temps and winds, snow hugging north-facing slopes, and an icy dampness across the earth. I knew the experience of camping in the Ancha’s would be uncomfortable and in that discomfort, I dreamed of connecting more, sensing more, and physically challenging myself to make adjustments or adapt.

Our arrival on Saturday morning was pleasant. The thermometer read mid-50s and sunshine poured through winter branches and warmed rocks. Few people were on trails or forest roads. So, into the perimeter of the Sierra Ancha Wilderness we went – a friend and I – seeking solitude in the hidden joys of the low season. As we hiked up to a waterfall — just a ridge away from where Edward Abbey spent time in a fire lookout during the late 60s — the air filled our lungs and nostrils with the metallic scent of snow.  And, yes, snow has a scent. I never thought of this before, but it does: a mixture of soil and decomposed rock (minerals). This was the first lesson in sensory perception.

Making our way back to camp, the puddles and creeks bore the impression of the impending night and subsequent coldness ahead of us. Ice crystals clung to the banks and fractured layers of ice topped Rose Creek. With our fire lit and our bellies full, we watched the western light diminish above us, as we prepared for the night and took an extra sweep across the site to ensure no crumbs or bits of food remained.

Deep under the covers, I listened; first, to the sound of running water, and then to the careful steps of small hooves passing near the tents. Reading and journaling, I noticed the chill of the air on my exposed face and fingers. My breath fogged my glasses. Condensation dampened my wool blanket, above another blanket and my winter grade bag. How infrequent it is that I should feel this cold. A night unprepared in the woods leaves an indelible impression. ( I never camp without back up blankets and layers this time of year. ) Some time later, I would crawl out and seek gloves and a hat… and much later, another pair of socks.

As I dreamed beneath the pines, the forest remained alive, vigilant, and pulsing. Some animals roamed and rooted; some animals were sleeping also. The creek fell to a quiet murmur as the night passed.
 
Around 6am, I awoke to the proud yaps and eventual serenade of a coyote above the ridge. Within seconds of his finale, the sun broke the darkness. Did he sense the coming break of dawn? Peering out into the morning, I noticed fox tracks near my tent and I recollected the sounds of the night. Deer was identified, as was the bravado of coyote. But fox… no sounds, no sighting. Clever fox, slipping between day and night, never loses awareness, yet eludes us in our lack thereof.

A night of winter camping brings me into myself, tingles my skin, and perks up my ears. Fox sense can be described as the ability to discernibly perceive, to see but not be seen. Fox teaches the importance of blending in and remaining aware. I can think of no greater lesson in perception and adaptability. I humbly give thanks to both teachers: Winter Season and Fox.