Olpela bilong graun

It’s such an odd thing, this discovering that you are the person you wanted to become. Such an odd realization to settle on you as you drive the potholed desert two-lane, forty miles from the nearest person and still feeling slightly crowded. Across the valley is a mountain range. In that broad pale stripe across its face, you have heard, lie buried trilobites. You mean to pry a few from the rock someday. There is no hurry. They have lain there for 560 million years.

You belong: you belong. There’s no other way to put it. And sure, you don’t, not really. Your skin leaks too much water, you burn fossil carbon at an appalling rate just to get here, and when you do you make the animals nervous. I can’t stand in the noon like Raven, not for long. I tried it and turned red within half an hour.

And yet Raven doesn’t belong there either, not really. Sixteen and a half miles walked this past week, stone in boot and hand numb from my walking stick. Sitting in a desolate dry wash I picked up a compelling stone. An earwig, tobacco brown and almost moist looking, flinched at the sudden winter sun. I apologized. I replaced the rock as gently as I could. I suppose I have always been just as embedded in the world.

A long time ago Becky and I looked out at the Painted Desert. I was identifying plants for her. “That’s Ephedra,” I said, pointing at a small leafless shrub. “Mormon tea. It tastes pretty good, and it has some ephedrine in it, which is a good decongestant. It’s the same genus as Ma Huang, but not as potent.” A woman stood close by, listening. She was perhaps 35, alone, sere and thin and denim-clad. She excused herself for intruding, asked me some questions about a few other plants, penstemons and sagebrush. She drove off in a beaten-up 4-Runner, Triassic red, the color of the Chinle Formation. She’d tied a blue bandana through her hair. She was alone and traveling according to whim. Thick Navajo silver hung on her wrists.

“I want to be her when I grow up,” said Becky.

Me too.

Sometimes the land reaches up and claims you, quicksand in the middle of the wash. Sometimes you don’t notice until it’s over your head. The desert becomes porous, and you walk barelegged through the cholla field without bleeding. The rattlesnakes grant passage. And yet as soon as you fail to expect it, they will puncture you.

The well-watered hills in which I live are far more dangerous. One ridge sends an arrow into my heart each time I see it. Six years and I am still struck speechless with remorse. I walked the streets below late at night, the chorus frogs loud against the traffic. I gauged my value by another’s interest.

In winter the sodden soil lets go the rock. It thunders downslope, eats whole neighborhoods. Let the insurance adjusters take their measure. Let the archaeologists disinter them. I am already the person I longed to be. I pry old trilobites from the rocks, exult at unremembered contours thus exposed. It is sufficient. There are some remembered treasures best left buried.

11 thoughts on “Olpela bilong graun

  1. ehj2

    dear chris,

    i love the way your deep knowledge informs and guides your wisdom and your love … and how much light shines through you … so clearly that the rest of us can love more clearly and more deeply, too.


    in the only sense that has any meaning, you are a national treasure … a world treasure. 


    you make us proud to be human when there is good reason to regret our very existence (for what we have done to this beautiful planet); you make us better citizens when there is good reason to wonder if this country even deserves good citizens; you even make us better lovers when there is good reason to fear the masculine (the patriarchy) is actually incapable of love.


    thank you for being here.


    thank you for what you do.



  2. mindspin

    Past beautiful. Nature slips you into poetry.

    Of the ridge — I thought of the medieval story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the castle of the magical Green Knight, where he expects to be beheaded, Gawain accepts a sash from the lady of the castle.  The sash, she tells him, will protect him from death at the hands of the Green Knight, and so it does.  But it is his shame, too, his lapse of courage and honor, for he was to face the Green Knight unaided.  By the end of the tale, back in Arthur’s Court, Gawain wears the sash as a reminder and a remorseful remembrance that helps to make him who he becomes — a truer, braver knight.  That visible hill does its good, like the sash, I think.

  3. spyder

    One of the most powerful aspects of your nature writing for me is how it immediately takes me to these places, many where i have not been for years, and in some cases (painted desert) decades.  Yet i know how it feels, and how it smells, how it is sensed—all from your thoughts and words expressing your experience and wisdom.  Thanks Chris.

    total aside:  i woke up this morning thinking about the wind.  The northwest coast has just had its third hurricane force winter cyclone system of the season.  In the past, days of 80+ mph winds on the coast were rare, now we are beginning to have to count them on toes as well as fingers each year.  I wondered what a few more years will bring: hurricanes to SoCal and Atlantic Coast Europe, typhoons turning north and slamming Alaska, the jet stream touching down in the lower 48 as it has done in Southeast Alaska???? What have we wrought?

  4. butuki

    Damn I love your writing, Chris. If you had books out they’d be next to my other favorites of Barry Lopez and Gretel Ehrlich and Edward Abbey (and recently Robert Michael Pyle… why is it that the Americans seem to be the best nature writers?). It’s not just the lore that you carry, but your insistence on marrying your immersion with a place to your emotional landscape, giving a human experience to dwelling soomewhere. And it is this range of joy, tragedy, anger, sorrow, rapture, perplexity, and so forth that keeps me and others coming back again and again.

    I love that boot-stomping, dusty-jeaned, graying-hair-in-the-wind drawl of your words and outlook. For me, it shows what I love about America.


    I want to be her when I grow up, too!

  5. Deaniac08

    Why the hell is this site nominated for any Koufaxes? It’s like only about a tenth politics, and the rest is all this nature shit. This is not progressivism.

    You have a lot of nerve tpo claim this is a real blog. There are real activists out there that don’t need the competition.

  6. Janeen

    Yeah, Chris, how dare you call this a blog?  I’m going to contact the Society for the Protection of Blogular Purity and report you.  That’ll show ya.

  7. Kim

    “It’s such an odd thing, this discovering that you are the person you wanted to become.”

    I agree.  It sure is nice though, when you know that you’re not half-bad. And difficult when you are happy with where and who you are, but other people are not.  That takes some getting used to.


    I drove through Pinole in January, and thought of you and Becky and Zeke.


    Thanks for writing.  When I manage get around a computer during all this moving craziness, and I look forward to reading your posts.

  8. Xopher

    This reminds me of a song my friend Sarah sings…the refrain is “The land, the land, you cannot own the land…the land owns you.”