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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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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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.


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Returning Home

ImageI confess: when I am not out finding some new uninhabited place to become entangled, wide-eyed, and inspired, I am often at home… CLEANING. Yes, I just used the dreaded “c” word for which many woods-women like me try to avoid. But I do like to clean. Being a fine balance between nest-er and nomad, I find the ritual component of sweeping an old broom across the kitchen, wiping away layers of Sonoran desert sand and dust from the dressers, and folding freshly washed towels strangely satisfying.

I have often grappled with these disparate feelings — the urge to run unabashedly unorganized, hair and limbs akimbo, and my drive to be neat and orderly.  As much as I dislike packing all of my camping gear and checking things off a list, I get a good deal of contentment from putting it all back in place after dragging in, achy and full of grand adventures tracking wildlife or trying out a new trail.  Much like my time spent boondocking hither and yonder; there is a regaining of creative energy I experience while in the throes of my annual spring purge. I paint new colors over scuffed, white walls, combine vintage linens with French lace, bring out seasonal items that call to mind metaphor, symbolism, and the rituals of the ever-changing earth. I surround myself with the breeze of new March warmth coming through the screens and filling my nostrils with blooming orange blossoms. Indeed, this is a creative moment, a powerful opportunity to honor space, place, home, and even journeys to our favorite wildlands, as it is always in coming home that our journey most deeply resonates.

Cleaning is a nurturing act for others, but has deeper roots in self-love. Cleaning perhaps takes its most ardent form when in the cleaning, transforming, and healing of body, of self. A lot can be said of a person’s self-worth and awareness simply by the capacity for pleasure (or disdain) felt when tending to the changing of bed linens, the scrubbing of the bath, the gentle hand washing of delicate garments, and the details added to enhance the experience (soft lights, natural scents, herbal soaps). Whether one chooses this path of loving care or opts for harsh cleaners, deodorants, tweezers, and antiseptic sprays, much can be conveyed in our simple, daily chores. Again, where there is an opportunity for silent, aware, loving nurturing, there is ritual and a chance to return to our most beloved, natural selves.

Often while in the wild you will find me with a very clean camp, a tidy tent, and everything in its place. There are some valuable reasons why one should keep a clean camp – avoiding other critters interested in a free meal, for starters – and to practice Leave No Trace principles, ensuring minimal impact on the land. For me, it is more. I find home wherever I am. In my tent, I often have a few photos of loved ones, a focal point of meditation or symbolism, such as a piece of obsidian, my journals, and a good reading light. Home is where I am at the time. Home becomes the Gila Wilderness for the night, while camped next to an elk-worthy meadow. Home is Wet Beaver Creek and the cool plunge on a hot summer day, hammock in tow. Home is the back of my jeep while traveling through the Painted Desert, chasing the last crow to be lit by the purple and final light of the sun. Home is where I am from, yes. Home is where I happen to be right now.

Neatness may seem like a matter of inconsequence without further inspection. But the care and love we feel when tending to the ground beneath our feet, our surroundings, the objects and collections, and our own earthly body just may be an accurate gauge as to how we treat the earth, the wild home of other animals, of other cultures, of the unknown. In this knowledge and awareness, being home is always one’s state of being. And as Dorothy says, “There’s no place like it!”