Monthly Archives: July 2008

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Dry

This wizened mind will ebb, this desiccated soul will seep
into the land, as water poured upon this land will seep
beneath the grains of sand. An evanescing shine recedes
there on the ground and vanishes, as avid, thirsty air
sears the sere sunwashed soil. The dark and glistening patch contracts,
shrinks to a dot, one last and longing grain of rock still damp
then it too dries, no sign that water ever touched this land
except the fluid carving in the rock, the chasms cut
as one and then another futile storm expends itself,
gouging the land, rending the land, but making no dent
in the land’s unceasing thirst. This emptiness of land
will eat my emptiness. I will suffuse into the earth,
this earth, this desolate expanse of varnished rock and thorn,
this welcoming, familiar disregard, ambivalence
its lovers’ currency. Some distance must be kept.
Wicked cats’ claws adorn these limbs, and their sharp pain at first
is gentleness contrasted with the pain they cause upon
release; barb-studded quills to rend the skin. It is enough
to fall into their grasp. To pull away again is ruin.
I will walk naked out into the waste, will bleed me out
in desolate mad glory, and each drop of me that falls
will seep beneath these grains of sand, an evanescing shine.

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Letters from the desert: Hawkmoths

In September I sat near here for three days watching a cloud of butterflies move through the desert. There were desert swallowtails, millions of them in yellow and black pursuing anything red or orange through the Joshua trees, including the taillight lenses on my pickup. Among the millions were a few hundred Indra swallowtails, sable and indigo and sublime, intent on laying single pale jade eggs on the stems of iodine bush.

There were other butterflies as well, or so they seemed at least, though they flew strongly enough that they might have been beetles, or hummingbirds. There was little of the flutter to their habit: they roared through my camp in aggressive straight lines, hovering only briefly over anything they found of compelling interest. Among the many purposes of their purposeful flight was avoiding me, so I got only a few quick, vague glimpses: not enough detail to identify them with any confidence. I got frustrated. A dramatic denizen of the Joshua tree forest and I couldn’t describe it other than “noisy brown blur” the same shape as the hole in my writing.

Last week I turned on a fluorescent light here in Nipton’s laundromat and turned to face my laptop screen. Within four minutes, among the whine of flies and mosquitoes and the rainfall noise of tiny gray moths, I heard a familiar buzzing noise. Ten of the moths I had struggled to observe were bashing themselves against every white surface in the room, including my shirt.

They were, and are, Hyles lineata, the white-lined hawkmoth. It was a little embarrassing. I knew the hawkmoth well. I just hadn’t expected it in the Mojave outback. It’s a close cousin of the familiar hornworms that plague gardeners, those giant glossy green caterpillars that denude tomato plants.

White-lined hawkmoth larvae will eat tomatoes if they can get them, but out here they’re more likely to do their denuding on evening primrose, sand verbena, four-o-clocks, and a host of other desert forbs, mainly annuals. A wet winter brings a hawkmoth bloom.

This last winter was wet enough. This summer has been wet too. The monsoons have been abundant in this heat. We are actually plagued with mosquitoes here in this dry valley, and the hillsides grow anomalous green fuzz on them, like Penicillium on rotting oranges. It has been a good year for hawkmoths.

For all their aggressive flight and noise, the hawkmoths are about the least obtrusive insects in the neighborhood. They will fly pell mell into your shoulder and then change course, and you may not notice their impact even if you happen to be watching. It is an aggressive softness. They are merely looking for pale datura blooms in the Mojave night, and the general datura whiteness of fluorescent tubes, of moonlit skin, of laptop monitors provide them with frank confusion.

There are hawkmoths in the tropics that drink the tears of birds, of people. I thought of them tonight. I sat out in the dark reading email on my phone, my downturned face illuminated in pale white, and they came, hovered near my face. A soft, moist touch crossed my lips. I flinched, then realized what it was. I turned off the phone and they came, one after another, bearing the faint imagined sweet taste of datura on their mouthparts. First the loud soft buzz of flight announced each one, and then a draft of beaten wing across my face sent shivers to my toes, and then the lightest meeting of lips and my toes curled yet again, and each kissed moth flew off into the Mojave night.

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Letters from the desert: This life

It all begins to fall away, these days, the longing and the difficulty, the nostalgias for old pain. I drive these desolate roads alone, content, the sky turning unimaginable shades fading to black. My headlights illuminate only a short stretch ahead of me, and I see even less far when someone is near. I switch to the low beams.

It all begins to fall away, and I wonder at the adages about bringing yourself with you wherever you go. It used to be that I would come to with a start around the fire, desert stars by the trillion above me, as if awaking to joyous real life once more, and all the commutes and meetings, all the tedium and trappings of my urban life mere dreamtime.

I am awake now and hope to stay that way.

A spark up ahead in the fringes of my headlights: a cottontail makes a dash across the road, well in advance of my passing.

I am content these days, I am happy, and the loneliness I felt at first on arriving here generally passes as soon as I turn off the telephone. This is the life I craved, mine after only half a century of waiting for someone to hand it to me, mine after I stopped waiting and took it. I am no longer living my dream. This is my life, at last.

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Letters from the desert: My home for the summer

The house I’m living in for the summer is sufficient to my needs, for the most part. It keeps desert dust out of my eyes when I sleep. It provides a bit of privacy from my neighbors and holds up a few strategically positioned water pipes.

Those pipes deliver neither hot nor cold water. The water comes out of the ground here at between 70 and 90 degrees, depending on the weather, and there is no working water heater in the house other than the fires of hell in the immediate vicinity. There was supposed to be a water heater installed on my roof when I got here, but the person who was to do the installation, my neighbor Fred, fell a little behind. He has enough work around here to keep a union crew busy, pruning trees and painting barns and rehabbing the old schoolhouse and such.

He came over about a week after I’d moved in to see if he could get up into the attic, such as it is, to reifnforce the roofbeams so the heater could sit on top of them safely. This was in a week in which the temperature reached 106 degrees by ten am every single day, and kept on going. Fred is in his early seventies. He’s tougher than I am, but I took a look at the space he’d have to work in, thought about having a fellow in his 70s up there doing roof framing with the temperature at 110 outside and probably at least 15 degrees higher in the attic, and I shook my head. I told him the hot water wasn’t enough of a priority for me to make him go up there until it cooled down a bit.

I think that’s scheduled for December. In the meantime, I take tepid-to-cold showers in supremely hard water. I have been losing weight rather dramatically in the heat, but my hair has been gaining it back. I may have a bottle of conditioner built up in there by now.

It’s not surprising the water’s hard: it’s well water in the desert. If I live here for a few years I join a high risk group for kidney stones. Fred says the well up the road taps into an underground lake, 700 feet down. He claims the drill brought up a catfish.

This house is not particularly efficient at keeping desert invertebrates outdoors, as I found out a couple weeks back when I met one of my neighbors on my screen porch. I had the bad manners to step on him in my bare feet. I’d never been stung by a scorpion before. I don’t particularly care to repeat the experience any time soon, but all in all it wasn’t as bad as a typical bee sting. I have since stepped more lightly in the house. This is good, because the scorpion isn’t the only thing roaming my floors: just the pointiest.

There are crickets in abundance, coming un through the missing weatherstripping on the screen door, and they drown themselves in my kitchen sink with some regularity. They hang out in the sink with the roaches, long thin wild-looking cousins of the scurrilous versions found in the city. These desert roaches are inoffensive and rather sleek looking, almost like mantids. The crickets have caused me to change my ways: I had the habit of pouring out my leftover coffee in the sink, and for a couple days running I accidentally doused a black cricket, which stood there after cleaning its antennae and jittering. It occurred to me that after a week I might wake to find the cricket on my bedside table, staring at me with eyes aflame, then running pell mell back to the sink when I got up so it’d be ready for the coffee cart. I dump the coffee more carefully now.

There are some dramatic visitors, like the palo verde root borers that made a sudden appearance two weeks ago, and then just as suddenly went missing again. They are perhaps the nastiest looking insects I have ever seen, four inches long on average and built like construction equipment, olivedrab and black with segmented antennae and ferocious looking mandibles. They look positigvely Devonian, and I was relieved to find out they’re relatively affable neighbors. I felt a scratching on the top of my left foot one night, looked down. A palo verde root borer had climbed up there rather than go around. I feared a sudden movement might compel it to hold on with those mandibles, so I froze. But it just ambled on over Tarsal Pass and down the other side, minding his own business.

I know some people are bothered by bugs, and honestly I’m often one of them, but this is the first time in more than two decades I’ve lived without pets, and so far the invertebrate housemates have, with that one exception, been unintrusive. They’re actually fairly good company, though I suppose if as a newly single person I decide to have what one might delicately call a social life, some random acts of insecticide migfht become necessary.

But I think the spiders have gotten to me.

I like spiders. My last house was kind of a spider refuge. And I have some big, furry spider neighbors and housemates here, reclusive (though not recluses, thankfully) and shy, some of them rather large. The one I saw tonight was perhaps the largest non-tarantula spider I’ve ever seen, stout and round and looking as though it was wearing a berserker fur. It ran almost panicked-seeming across the kitchen floor as I walked in there tonight, cornered itself by the shelves, and I peered at it to get a better look. It was wearing something very much like a fur coat, all right, a bit asymmetrical and odd-hanging, and then I realized that the big spider was wearing a cloak of hundreds of babies. I moved back a bit and the momma spider raced out of the kitchen, around the corner into my bedroom and under my bed.

It’s still there.

I may go camping for a while.

Letters from the desert: Evenings here

The hour or so before sunset is when I love this country most.

At noon, at four, the sun is deadly. Daunting. Detail on the land is lost behind relentless glare, and every speck of dust in the air catches the sunlight, further dazzles your already too-bedazzled eyes. Noon’s beauty is the beauty of endurance, the beauty of a spot of partial shade and blood-warm water from the old juice bottle you’ve carried in your pack.

But around six the heat ebbs imperceptibly, sliding slowly down from 106 degrees to a sane and comfortable 99, and something almost akin to a breeze catches you off guard. It rifles the hairs on your arms, the back of your neck. The light has changed. The sky still burns, but not quite so blindingly. The shadows of the creosote might stretch halfway across the road before you notice the change, again.

It is as though the passage of the hours has washed the air.  The mountains all around you seem better-defined, more present and three-dimensional. Slanting sun casts slanted shadows. Shadows limn the hills. A bit of shade in the canyons and the mountains reveal themselves more thoroughly.

Ravens head homeward for the evening, two by two.

After a time the light changes color. White and gray clouds blush. Brown mountains bleed. A dozen miles off, or twenty or fifty, and the farther away the range the more solid the color it becomes. Last night I sat for a while beneath the west face of the Providence Mountains by Kelso, lost for the hundredth time in the infinite fractal wonder of the range’s limestone. I ran an errand last week, a quick trip to the closest ATM, in Henderson, fifty miles one way, and coming back an hour before sunset into the north end of the Ivanpah Valley I saw the Providence Mountains from seventy miles north. Their outline was as crisp as it was from Kelso, but distance had transformed the range to a solid ruddy gray. Find yourself a spot with a view of a few consecutive ranges and you may have trouble counting them. They fade stepwise and imperceptibly into the sky beyond.

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Coyote Crossing

Today I pulled a dead coyote pup off of the road.
He’d evidently lain out in the sun a little while,
but death and desert sun had not erased the sweet sly guile
there on his face, mute eyes with arid dignity unbowed
despite a cloak of flies. Across the road, funereal,
their hard-learned reticence sun-dulled, torpid, slow to react,
two golden eagles stared, accessories after the fact,
each one atop a Joshua tree, intent on bearing pall.
They did not want me there, preferred to dine without affront
there on the open road, the fast trucks their camerieri.
I feared for them. It seemed to me that diners so unwary
would likely end as prizes in the next scavenger’s hunt.

They stirred, disturbed, as I resolved to keep them off the menu.
Clearly, the thing to do was to adjust this dinner’s venue.

He was so small. He would have fit within an eagle’s fist
and draughts of slow, dark wings could then have carried him aloft.
His face heartbreakingly familiar, clever and soft.
A plastic bag over my hand, I took him by the wrist.
I knew his paw so well, delicacy of nail and pad
with cracking calluses, resilient and deft, sweet down
disguised as fur, a silver-frosted white fading to brown
to cover it. It was that very paw that once had had
my own paws pace beside it and its kin, familiars,
until their path diverged from mine so irrevocably
cleft by the sickle-blade, that old familiar’s flesh set free
and mine adrift, stumbling in search of unnameable cures. 

I’ve heard the tales of travelers who perish in the wastes
mouths choked with alkali the vultures hesitate to taste.

I understand them now. I have been aridly seduced
while walking in these dead dry desert hills, by fortune cursed,
dragging my feet. Each new rise crested scrapes the swelling thirst,
each hundred yards another coil of rope to fix the noose,
and then another rise gives way beneath your plodding feet.
There, down below, a shimmering. Water! A broad blue lake
and deep, too, from the look of it, enough in there to slake
a thousand more like you without a chance that you’d deplete
or sully its abundance. Just an hour’s march beyond
and at that hour’s end you’ve seen no dwindling of your lack.
But it’s right there! Not far! No sense by now to turning back
and soon! And soon! You’ll drink it dry, that ever-shrinking pond.

I know that lakebed well. The thirsty avidly explore
and walk on blithely past the ragged bones that rim the shore.

My mouth thus alkaline I took Coyote’s paw and pulled.
His shoulders came, his head, and then a sickening delay;
and then the rest of him, mostly. A reek of flesh, decay
of sweet and guileful promise thwarted. Grieving, miserable,
I got him off the road. The seething sun relentless fumed.
Tall towers of dust spun crazily down in the valley heat.
Two hundred yards above on thermals, gained in single beats
of wing, two eagles waited for their dinner to resume.
I laid him in the granite dust under some creosote
to shade the eagles’ heads, unceremoniously kicked
a clotted pair of legbones off to where they could be picked
and cleaned at leisure, took one last sad look at poor Cayoat.

Familiar, this familiar; a synecdoche of loss
in me, and in this land, along wide roads we all must cross.

This was humiliation, a bold promise unfulfilled
brought so prematurely and so permanently low.
By rights the desert’s dauphin, scepter that wild golden glow
there in his eyes so prematurely, permanently stilled.
His smile a rictus, teeth that should have laughed now caked in dirt,
his figure meant for sleekness covered now in fetid flies.
He would have been a god here; he lay broken, compromised,
dissolving in the desert heat, insensible, inert.
And I was much the same, except the part about the god,
smelling a trifle better and still moving for the nonce,
mouth torn by alkali, my body wracked and whole at once,
a trail of salt still lingering on the hopeful path I’d trod.

Unlike me, though, he would cross yet another road today
to the far-distant side where all that’s fleshly falls away.

A hundred feet above, his wheeling vehicles descended,
solemn, near-ponderous, yet graceful verging on sublime,
the flying ferrymen to whom we all should come in time
were we to have Coyote luck when our prowling is ended.
I left before they landed. I had interfered enough,
but driving slow away I saw it clear, in my mind’s eye
the final fluttering of feather fallen from the sky;
the flash of beak and talon as they rend his mortal stuff,
and then ascension — feasting and assumption, flesh transforms
to flesh, to air, to flight, to light — to move in strong dark wings
beyond this alkaline and fleshly vale of fatal things
into Coyote sky, Coyote wind, Coyote storms.

And left to me, a task: embalm in pallid rhyme and meter
his crossing, swathed in patter as a cushion for the reader.

It is some consolation that my sojourn here is short.
That last humiliation so devoutly to be wished
still pending, and each moment now might be the one I’m fished
choke-gasping from that illusory lakebed, laid athwart
the plane of life and shaved down thin, each peeled layer sublimed
into this desert air. It is solace that the flame
in each heart won’t burn endless, that each faltering, fragile frame
will in mirage be mired, be in briny crystals rimed,
and soon enough. No use to seethe with envy of that beast
I pulled off of the roadside to be eagle sky-interred;
to each of us in turn will come some avatar of bird
to see each of us from this too, too solid flesh released.

The wheel of time turns swift and each of us to dust will grind;
the Raptor comes for all, and no one will be left behind.