The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


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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

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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.


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Recognition

Each morning I am greeted by a family of cactus wrens that have taken up residence in the cholla near one of my garden beds. The fledglings have a particular interest in the herb bed because the drip line provides a sort of sprinkler system. I can imagine their delight on a day of intense heat to have the chance to cool off under the basil, where steady drops of water splash down. This particular side of the house is what I refer to as the Zen Garden as it is one of the few truly shady places in the xeriscaped yard. It’s common to find the neighborhood cats here, lounging on one of my recently planted beds of beets and greens (ahem!), also enjoying the fledglings. I suspect with a nefarious agenda in mind.

Spending time outside in the city affords few opportunities to catch sight of some of the larger wildlife I was used to seeing back East. I remember, while working for a nonprofit in Toronto, a part of the summer morning chores, just before unlocking the office, was to grab an old ladder and walk back to the parking lot, where masked rascals awaited rescuing. Our neighbor, a sports bar, used open garbage bins that invited nearly every raccoon in the nearby ravine for a tasty, free meal. Unfortunately, getting into the bin was a heck of a lot easier than getting out. And, during the summer months, when temps reached into the high 90s, this was a dangerous place to be stuck. Inevitably, upon making my way to the bins, there would be a few young raccoons waiting for me, paws upward, ready to cling to the lower rung, climb, plop, and scamper back to their ravine home.

Other occasions would allow me to come uncomfortably close to skunks, rats and the usual park-dwelling coyotes. (Oddly, I saw more coyotes while living in Toronto than I have in the desert.)

Since moving to Phoenix, my senses have had to become honed to tune in to less obvious species and the stories they have to share– the funny daredevils, the Gila woodpeckers, and how they enjoy a sip from the hummingbird feeders, despite the awkwardness of perching. The pugilistic thrashers and how they hop from self-designed hole to self-designed hole, looking for tasty bugs. The bats that seem less ominous against the desert skyline than in the crevices of bridges. Even the lizards that used to startle me have made their way into my morning observation and have me questioning whether I need to get rid of all the dreaded Bermuda grass, which provides them with shade and protection.

These companions of mine, whose lives are shorter and perhaps more precarious in comparison, are full of being. I am unsure if I need to worry about what life, theirs or mine, means as much as witnessing it each morning, honestly and without judgment. With a pure heart, they go about their day; I go about mine.