Red Fire Days: Autumn in Pivot Rock Canyon

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As an October baby, I have always loved autumn.  Growing up in Southern Indiana, with its poplar, redbud, walnut, and dogwood tree-covered hills, I naturally seek out places in Arizona similarly rich with plant diversity, and especially this time of year.

For those of us living in the desert, it’s necessary to adjust the senses for less garish autumnal finery. Those gilded colors I came to expect in October are hidden in washes and dry creek beds… with the remnant deaths of monsoon wildflowers, strewn against sand and cobble. The drift of fallen sunflowers and wine-hued amaranth fills the roadside ditches. And, the unexpected glance out toward the Estrella Mountains, where the wide Gila flood plains curve under the trunks of gold-trimmed Cottonwoods, conjures up nostalgia.

But, yesterday I needed the symbolic autumn of my youth, the overt heralding of change. Yesterday, I needed canyons.

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So, a friend and I set out to explore one of myriad canyons of the Mogollon Rim, a massive escarpment of limestone and sandstone that defines the southernmost edge of the Colorado Plateau. This is an area rife with deep canyons that spider out and create enormous gorges. The views are so easily lost to bewilderment. With its maze of ponderosa pine and rock, the imagination ponders how easy it would be to descend into one of those unnamed canyons and never be found again.

Our hike, however, led us to one canyon in particular… small in scope and challenge, Pivot Rock Canyon was the perfect choice.

Not really in the mood for thrills and chills, I sought a hike that would allow time for contemplating, tree-gazing, adorning the hair in yellowing oak and scarlet wild geranium leaves and burnt orange fern tendrils. The pace of this hike: easy-going… I’d find its description online, “…good for kids and dogs.” It is a daydreamer’s place, a small, wet capillary in the pulse of an otherwise dry pine body.

Starting out on an old jeep trail, we meandered through a natural park… there, some of the oaks and walnuts had begun to change their hues and a few hallowed aspens danced in pale yellow. The ground was wet from the evening’s rainstorm… the air smelled of fungi, decaying leaves, pine resin… and it was HEAVENLY.

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With my eyes fixed on the canopy above, I could have remained – lost for hours, just lying on a blanket spread on the musty, rich earth, breathing in the leaf-rot as if it could be the finest, most sensory-stimulating perfume.

Felled trees arched trunks and broken branches, downward… everything moved in the direction of slope and cliff, boulder and ridge. I, too, felt as though I had succumbed to the fall. A fall.

It is true. I had taken a rather hard fall recently, one that shook the roots and left me feeling like the only direction would be down with the drift, the torrent of summer storms, bashed and bruised – as any living thing – an instrument of greater change.

In autumn, the earth wears its mask of jewels. The harvest is a time of celebration, but only because we know what is around the forest bend – the dark nights that are closed to growth, the severe “Do not disturb,” the fin of the final reel. It doesn’t matter what yesterday’s intention was. It matters not what was felt. Now is the time we near ourselves to the ticking of choice. Accept or not. That is the inevitability of ends.

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Looking out across a meadow park, my friend and I come upon a stand of massive oaks and the last of the season’s mullein. The quickening wind moves between thoughts and occasional words. It’s important to hike with those whose need for silence matches your own.

At the end of the canyon, the remnants of an old concrete cistern attest to a once active spring. Above us, the faint hum of motorists along Highway 87 snake their way between destinations. This was not to be a long journey. The canyon, though tangled and wild, ends abruptly after a few miles, joining up with its sister canyons along the splintered map of the plateau’s vast rise.

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Canyons have a way of leading us along one adventure, only to dash our hopes with a sudden wall of tumbled rocks, then forcing us along on a different course. The dictates of its severe angles, weather patterns, movement of water…  There is a beginning and end. There are lost trails, twisted ankles, water too deep to avoid.

But, this journey was forgiving and I made peace with the hopeful wishes of being human, of falling against those hard edges and angles I was not prepared to meet. I breathed it all in. I took a last look at the shivering leaves, still beautiful beneath the afternoon sun.

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.

The Fields

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* The Fields first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Plant Healer Magazine

“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 bbeaversbluff3oil 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.

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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 tPicture 270he 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.

Birth Day – a new poem

 Birth Day

The story is sketchy at best.
Owls gathered and the bark shed itself from the oak
As tears pooled into torrents of lodestars.
Tornadoes collided and the princes fell from their towers
Holding the gold of dragons and peasants.
I heard the bells rang thrice and the priests,
Against their rosaries, called, “Lord, bring us.”
I needed no milk. I took to scarabs, those chocolate clocks.
I rode the Cyclops, my brave heart, and called canyons
With the beating thrill of thunder.
The tails of foxes bent into ?s.
The skunks danced and raided –
         My good kin.
The subtle mercy – I cared less for it –
Demanded fiction in the burning of skin.
“Kill her,” someone whispered.
Nails bent. A witch walked on water.
Even now, I court Medusa’s daughter –
The maker, the ender.
Someone released the Necromancer.
A writer flew from the hand of a muse.

Poems spoke my purpose.
Poems re-created the real of another’s imaginings –
That was the key to my survival
And to grow my own vine to magic –
      Likewise, to misery.

Abandon - A. Sato
Abandon – A. Sato

Reaching Nirvana in a Juniper Tree: The natural, healing pleasure of trees

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“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
― John Muir

“To dwellers in a wood, almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature.”
― Thomas Hardy, Under the Greenwood Tree

Every now and then I must be reminded of my need to climb.  When I say climb, I am not referring to fancy gear and indoor urban gyms with toned bodies and challenge courses. I am not even speaking of the extreme sports element, getting to the top of some massive granite peak or navigating icy slopes in blizzard conditions. When I say climb, I mean the tree in one’s backyard – the nearest limb and UP into the canopy where the intersection of reality and dream waits. I mean the treehouse climb of youth and the rock-hopping, creek-lingering climbs of local nature preserves, forests, and – ideally – home.

Down in the low Sonoran Desert, one could seriously be injured on the spines of many of the native trees. Although, I have been known to take my chances with a Palo Verde or Acacia when I needed to get to a high point. So when I get the opportunity to ascend Perry Mesa and the Mogollon Rim, where the lovely escarpment kisses the blue beyond them, I am the first to bound out of the car and find a Juniper. I have written poems to Alligator Junipers I have known as temporary shelters, dreaming places, relatives. I know both their perfume and the intricacies of their plated patterns intimately.

child-climbing-treeI am unsure when my love for climbing started. No one in my family seemed too interested in knowing the tops of trees, but my unabashed curiosity and gift of living in the country opened the door to enchantment. My friend Kiva Rose Hardin told me that she often sees Gray Foxes up in Junipers near her wild New Mexican home.  I have yet to be so lucky to witness this, but have more than once felt the urge to recline in a late-afternoon soporific repose on the limb of a strong Juniper. I believe that Fox spirit is my own. My foxfire and forest roots tend to light up with verdant curiosity and adventure every time I am met with a new and wondrous tree friend.

Climbing for me is less about personal accomplishment or challenge than it is about connection. Being a tree-loving, earth-kissing pagan, I cannot think of a more divine act than to sit in the crook of a branch and sing, write, daydream or simply observe the creatures above and below. With each pull of the wrist and leg, the body hoists up into heights that could – if missteps occurred – cause serious injury. Climbing requires precision, pace, and more importantly, intuition. Climbing unravels the need for hurry. It requires one’s utmost attention.

Oftentimes, I am drawn to the sky when I feel heavy-hearted, dampened in spirit, with the weight of some problem pressing down upon me. The healing aspect of climbing perhaps is rooted in the physics of rejecting the mortal earth-bound gravity. It is symbolic upward growth. It becomes the Peregrine’s view, the world spread out in a vast yet consumable measure. I get this feeling when I am in a plane – a biped’s false sense of aerial mastery. Is this what the raptors feel? I watch my cat consumed by finding the highest spot from which to pounce. For thousands of years, mountains and other high points served as lookouts or defense refuges against danger.

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Hypervigilance is a disease I carry from childhood. The condition of constant anxiety is one that plagues many of us. The symptoms of such are insomnia, digestive problems, low energy, difficulty making decisions, skin sensitivities, immune system collapse, exhaustion, and the list goes on. Fortunately, nature-based therapies in treating PTSD, addiction, and general mental health issues are becoming more accepted and integrated into traditional treatment options. I have always found the woods to be a powerful source of healing and protection. I marvel over people’s fear of sleeping outside alone. What about bears, mountain lions, rabies,” they ask. “What of people,” I respond. I have yet to feel the threat to my life in the forest or desert as I have in the comfortable walls of suburban homes and concrete, urban corridors.

“As a homeless teenager, I spent many nights in city parks, climbing up into welcoming branches and sleeping with my legs and arms wrapped around the comforting body of a living tree. I told my secrets to their leaves,  and listening to them whisper back with every small breeze.”

Becoming the Enchanted Healer, Kiva Rose Hardin

Different trees offer different medicine. For myself, certain trees have particular meanings based on my encounters with and observations of them. These are my own myths, of course, and I am not making an academic case or factual report of them… these are simply the healing stories I have created.

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Ironwood trees are important teachers for me in that they are one of the most durable, rugged (visibly so, too) low desert dwellers, but they are also quite sensitive to frost. In fact, they are only found in the Sonoran Desert and are one of the longest-lived plants here. I have spent many mornings sitting beneath an Ironwood tree with my coffee and notebook. Ironwoods remind me to take it easy on myself. Even the most seemingly strong among us can be vulnerable to something. Ironwood asks me to find my Achilles heal, that thing that does have the power to destroy me if not addressed. The branches of Ironwood pull in and around its base and trunk, creating a natural defense against predators and a shelter for small mammals and reptiles seeking safety against other animals and the sun. It is good medicine for times when one needs to become introspective, or contain energy for one’s own healing and creativity. Despite its ability to defend, it does not make a good home for birds seeking nesting limbs. Symbolically, I look at this tree as a protector but one that advocates for self-sufficiency, resilience, and transition.

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While Junipers are common throughout the West and Southwest, Alligator Juniper is the subspecies I choose. I once walked among the largest recorded specimens of Alligator Junipers just outside of Skull Valley, AZ. When I think of this tree, I am reminded of my favorite places and those big, vast, and unforgettable views along the transition zones between high Sonoran country and the Mogollon Rim, the plateaus and sky islands. Perched on slopes and cliffs, I become a weightless wood nymph, a raptor. I feel unfettered and free to feel and think and be whatever I want in that moment. Alligator Juniper is a noble and strong father. I often feel safest when camped beneath its armored trunk and limbs, to gaze through at the night sky, perfumed of course by the tiny cones mistakenly called berries. Alligator Juniper medicine is that of home. It is not particularly unique or revered in the way some statuesque trees might be, but it is good shelter: strong, reliable, and unmistakably borne of the West. Its scent I equate with a release from heat, an opportunity to sit among branches without fear of thorn or fall. Its promise is that of familiarity and release.

mesquiteOf course I cannot fail to mention the archetypal Sonoran Desert tree, the Mesquite. Mesquite has been one of my strongest gardening allies. Mesquite not only provides a serious nitrogen fix for the plants beneath, it also offers a delicious food source: the Mesquite bean pods that can be ground into nutritious gluten-free flour. I love the taste – it reminds me of caramel corn. Mesquite limbs are among the most elegant – the tree itself seems to waltz as a silent dance with the dignity of food source, heat, and shelter.  Mesquite is a hard wood that grows very slowly, so patience and perseverance are key traits to incorporate into my own journey. Its wood burns hot and thoroughly, a consideration for those who tend to lean toward Type A burnout. It heralds the importance of nurturing oneself and others.  I once read a Yaqui Indian story about the Mesquite speaking to a young girl about the coming industrial culture. Mesquite denotes survival and tradition through dedication. It asks, what are you willing to sacrifice?

I was raised by the song
Of the murmuring grove
And loving I learned
Among Flowers.

―Friedrich Holderlin

When I was a teenager, I spent every moment beneath the Tulip Poplars and Oaks around our rural farmhouse. I remember a few occasions when in a state of absolute despair, I went out and sat on the cool stone beneath the flowering Tulip that reigned over our front yard and sheltered the mailbox. There I waited for letters, hope, and an opportunity to leave Indiana. The tree itself seemed to watch over and embrace this young girl’s grief in the human world, offering some protection among stories, lore, and myth. Now I find myself seeking the company of trees out of joy rather than desperation. It is in them and through them, I breathe, I live. If there were an incantation of love to be written, a marriage bond, a birth, it would be among trees I would choose to welcome such changes.

Now, as I ready myself for another weekend adventure into the deep canyons of the Southwest, I know where I will be found, where I belong. I am the girl of the grove and the winter longing of another spring. There is always home and hope among branches.