Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Bonding with the Land

This is from my editorial published in Earth Quarterly #2, Sept. 1998. Jacques asked about "memory bubbles." Here’s one:

A month ago, Laura, Neil and I were taking one of our favorite drives, between Nutt and Hillsboro, at the southern end of the Black Range. For sustainability and lifestyle reasons, we do a lot less driving than we used to, so there’s always a thrill and a feeling of expansiveness whenever we do hit the road. As we were driving along, I felt connected to the entire area, because I have made this drive so many times, during every season of the year, over a period of thirty years.

It was the prickly poppies that did it. Seeing those poppies triggered feelings that took me right back to 25 years ago, when I first made their acquaintance. It caused me to wonder: Feelings? Is the essence of life really something so evanescent as feelings? From the point of view of the beholder, it probably is. We will all agree (except for the most hardened mystics) that there is very much an objective reality, very hard and almost unbearably real. But as living creatures, what is really important to us is our subjective reactions to external events. Those prickly poppies are my friends. They give continuity to my life. They connect me to a vanished time, and they also remind me that they’ll still be there long after I’m gone.

When my wife of that era, Judy, and I moved to our first homestead in the Missouri Ozarks in 1970, I worked very hard at reprogramming my mind — calculus, differential equations, "university intellectual knowledge" of all kinds went out; trees, forest, garden, wind, snow, rain, silence (lots of silence), went in. That first year, we lived on $500 (in 1970 dollars). We didn’t have clocks. We hunted and fished, raised goats and rabbits for slaughter, had a big garden. We read the Euell Gibbons books and learned to forage for wild foods and herbs. We took long walks in the woods. We read dozens of books from the local library and expanded our minds. It was a fascinating lifestyle experiment. At an age when most of my contemporaries were locking themselves into their careers, I was burning my bridges as fast as I could. (I had already had a career, albeit a very short one.)

When we moved back to our beloved New Mexico desert in 1973, my perceptions had changed. Before, when looking at the desert vegetation, I knew a few of the more obvious plants, like mesquite and creosote bush, but the rest of the plants were essentially a formless background mass. After I returned, every plant stood out in vivid detail. Such a zap it was to have literally every blade of grass saying (figuratively, of course), "Here I am!"

We climbed the highest hill next to our land and I felt frustrated. Surrounding me in a 360° arc was a bewildering jumble of hills, mountains, valleys and plains extending clear to the horizon. Many mountains were already familiar to me — the Organs, the Robledoes, the Doña Anas, the Black Range. But so many were strangers, and I wanted to know them all personally. How could I even begin?

We began by buying all the topographic maps for the surrounding area, and learning the names of all the mountains that have names. The mountains that didn’t have names, we named ourselves — Pyramid Peak, Lonely Mountain, Grape Mountain (because we once ate grapes at the top of it). We hiked all the country for miles around, from the joy of being back in the desert, and from sheer youthful exuberance (we were in our 20s at the time, and unemployed, with lots of energy to burn). We would climb every mountain we could, and from each new vantage point, we would see our familiar territory from a new angle, plus there would always be new mountains to learn. Before long, we had learned every mountain in our area. We became "trackers of mountains." Some people learn every nuance of animal tracks, but our specialty was mountains. In our travels we learned every mountain range to Tucson and beyond to the west, to Santa Fe to the north, and to the Great Plains to the east. (To the south was Mexico, and we never ventured any farther than Ciudad Juarez.)

We also made it a project to learn all the plants — trees, shrubs, herbs, cactus, wildflowers. This is when I made my first acquaintance with the prickly poppies in 1973. Driving along the higher elevation grassland areas on a cool, moist, cloudy day towards the end of rainy season, we saw hundreds of tall plants, covered with vivid white flowers, growing on the shoulder of the highway. A quick scan through our plant books revealed them to be prickly poppies, and I have associated them with that magical drive ever since.

I want to say more in the future about developing a personal relationship, a private mythology, with the surrounding landscape. Every nook and cranny has a story to tell, and we can become part of that story.


Anonymous Jacques Conejo said...

Seems a "memory bubble" from a kinder, gentler time in America. Not that we were a kinder and gentler empire. Certainly not from the perspective of those we were helping towards "Democracy" in the 70's.
From the day Columbus anchored off the shore of Hispaniola, until now, we've never been kind or gentle.

BUT, at that time it was easier to have some sort of faith in a changeable future.

In the 70's it still seemed possible that we might create a culture in harmony with something more essential than dominance and profit.

Gosh, it was nice to be able to have those days. I admire you and yours for having made such full commitments to understanding and engaging those moments, in those times...

Here's to "Memory Bubbles" !!!

Thanks for sharing one from that better time...


7:56 AM  

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