Monthly Archives: June 2009

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Yates County

In my memory the bank was twice my height, sloping, a buff soil as washed-out in color as the condensing vapor on my breath. Tufts of grass fringed the blank soil at top and bottom. The little ridge wore stark skeletons of dormant staghorn sumac as a crown, a crest running the length of its spine. I remember the feeling of frostbite deep in my lungs, shoving my ungloved hands deep into my meager denim pockets.

Warmth was only fifty yards away in my uncle’s house, but I was headed in the opposite direction along the two-rut road his farm machinery had made at the bluff’s base. Inside were cousins, and pie, and convivial chatter among the aunts and uncles who had married into the family, but I was sullen. The outside beckoned and I went.

In later years it would get to be a habit. My father’s family would gather for some holiday, and after I had enjoyed as much togetherness as I could stand I would head out, walk down strange side roads where farm dogs would run out at me, barking furious joy. Roan and scarlet naked branches in winter, or the unnecessary profusion of verdant oak and tulip tree jungles in summer, and I would walk through it until the guilt set in. Sometimes I would follow railroad tracks abandoned so long ago that rust an eighth-inch thick flaked off the rails, silver maples thick as my arm growing between the ties, the right-of-way a tunnel through forest grown back for the sixth or seventh time, an old station suddenly looming out of vaporous green forest. Its brick was eroded, cupped faces lined with mortar. The platform had long since melted into the earth.

But this was before then. A cold west wind came up the hill from Canandaigua Lake. I felt my earlobes going numb.

My uncle’s farm was what is now, perversely, called a working farm. Every dime of profit not needed for the feeding and education of my four cousins went back into the livestock, the equipment, the infrastructure. Lawns and paved walks and the like would have been extravagances. In mud season you parked on the gravel and walked planks to the back porch. They were 2 by 8s, I think, and they bowed dangerously in their middles when more than one person was walking on them, and the soles of your shoes got wet anyway. That day it was safer to walk alongside the ice-slicked planks: the mud had frozen and refrozen, scalloped with contorted footprints of kids and stray cows and my uncle’s workboots. I’d looked in the barn, but the cows were off braving the cold somewhere. I imagined them wincing against the wind.

Instead, I headed down the two-rut at the base of the little bluff. The bluff blocked the wind a bit, which for a few minutes — until the comparison with the wind had seeped from my memory — seemed a relief.

There was a little field between me and the paved road, tilled some time ago and then frozen solid. A car crunched along, breaking sheets of ice in the hollows on the pavement. The woman in the passenger seat stared. I must have been intriguing, reed-thin 16-year-old in shoulder-length hair and jeans patched at the knees until there was no denim left between ankle and ass, flea-market fatigue jacket with buttons missing. And Frye boots, if I recall correctly.

The car’s engine noise died off a quarter-mile down the road. The wind picked up a bit. Something odd flicked back and forth in a clump of teasel: a shed snake skin, tan and translucent, belly scale covers lenses magnifying the teasel stems.

That, as near as I can figure it, was the first time I noticed it happening. Whatever it was I’d been upset about was gone. A shed skin stuck in the weeds and I was rapt. An unexpected joy makes predictable annoyance fade in importance.

I had learned to see one ridge over, learned to negotiate the world outside almost within shouting distance of that little bluff,  The ridge and its surround are the deep meaning of wild to me, as tame as they were. I have been days’ walk from the closest person and thought of that cold afternoon two miles from a comfortable farm town.

The staghorn sumac lurks as deep in me as a Jungian’s Shadow, though not so unhappily.  It speaks to me in dreams. Last year, when all was disintegrating around me, I dreamed of an abandoned house not far away from that bluff, down the hill from the house where I learned to see. The house was a deathtrap, turning into dust, and an elderly neighbor talked to me of some vague shameful and violent event inside the house that had prompted the neglect.

Carloads of people drove by, heading toward a forested lake at the end of the road. They slowed to see the house. “Are they curious,” I asked the neighbor, “about the scandal?” “No,” came the answer. “They’re slowing because the house is for sale for five hundred dollars. The paper ran a story on it.”

There were things that had once been possessions in the house, a hundred pieces of garbage for every treasure, brass fixtures attached to rotting wood and old, delaminating mirrors atop Stickley dressers, Arts and Crafts settles with the original upholstery irretrievably mouse-soiled. A pervasive smell inside that a pack of territorial Rottweilers would only have improved. Bronze switchplates with the two-pole push-buttons long since broken. A Wedgewood stove dismantled in the kitchen. Half the kitchen floor a skylight for the dirt-floored basement.

I wondered whether the local fire department might burn it down for practice, whether I could live long enough in a tent or trailer — two winters? Three? — to build a small cabin back in the trees, to let twenty acres of woods come back a bit and plant the apple orchard. I wondered whether, if I took out the treacherous and rotting floorboards one by one, pulled out the crumbling and moldy plaster beneath the 70-year-old wallpaper stained with things at whose origins I cared not guess, there might be intact frame, joists not entirely riddled by termites. I thought of calling my cousin Tim, who lives a few miles away and who — what with his busy career and teenaged son — would certainly have nothing better to do than help me rehab a two-story farmhouse for free.

Across the road a driveway led fifty yards downhill to an old clapboard farmhouse. There were musicians on the porch. The fiddle player turned to look at me, took her instrument out from beneath her chin, stared at me frank and curious through lepidopteran eyelashes.

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Carnival of the Arid back online!

Okay, I messed up. The job search and various other real-life exigencies ate up my time last month and we skipped a CotA. The few of you who submitted a piece without my reminders: sorry for the delay.

But let’s get back on that feral burro! Call last month a sabbatical.

The canonical description of Carnival of the Arid:

Submissions should have something to do with a desert somewhere in the world. (If you’re not sure whether your work is desert-related, check out this definition at Wikipedia, and if you’re still not sure, send it in anyway.) Submissions can be scientific in nature, or history, or travelog. Images are welcome, photographic or otherwise. Discussions of culture and politics are welcome if they’re desert-related. The one restriction, other than geographical, is that — at least when I’m compiling it — paeans to destroying the desert probably won’t make it. (Developers and ORVers take note.) Paeans to preserving or protecting the desert are fine, as are alerts of current pressing issues.

Deadline — since I’m announcing this belatedly — Is July 1, and CotA will run on July 2.

If you’d like to check out previous editions, here are #4, #3, #2, and the inaugural edition.

So spread the word. Submissions can be linked here in comments or emailed to me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
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. If you know of someone whose work might qualify, let them know, or let me know, or both. Retweet and email and link from Facebook and send telegrams. Thanks!

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Preserving Bowwowdiversity

It just figures.

Not two days after I post the following on my Twitter feed:

I am incomplete without a dog. And I don’t think I want to ever have a dog again.

… I find my next dog.

Or at least her breed.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure, looking at some of the photos here, that my last dog wasn’t of this breed, at least in part.

There are detractors who say that American Indian Dogs are extinct, and that these lovely critters are “recreations” of the line, mixes of various wolfy-spitzy-looking breeds. Then again, there are plenty of people who act as if the original breeders of American Indian Dogs are also extinct. The man behind SongDog kennels, Kim La Flamme, says he began his work to save the breed by finding relict populations of the dogs living with First Nations people from Canada to southern Mexico, and breeding them. He says there are 800 of the dogs now in existence. He insists on interviews with prospective adopters, on spaying/neutering, and that the dogs he adopts out be returned to him if the placement doesn’t work out. Perhaps I’m naive, but I find all that reassuring.

Besides, just look at the ears.

In thinking about this, I do come up against the ethical ramifications of buying a pup from a breeder. Not that I don’t think it’s possible to be an ethical breeder: I do. It’s just that there are so many dogs in shelters needing help. But if LaFlamme is doing what he says he’s doing — saving a line from extinction that bears immense importance to the dog genome, a more-or-less ancestral line of dog without the inbred-to-hell-and-back nature of most current breeds, then that’s something I could feel good about taking part in. Plus, if I’m living with a cat, getting a young puppy would be a plus.

I don’t need to decide anytime soon: I won’t be getting any dog before I nail down more income and a more dog-friendly place to live. But I’ll be looking into these guys. Their temperament and size and general overall doggestalt just feel right to me.

And it feels good to be looking forward in this regard, rather than longingly backward.

 

Expanding my stranglehold on desert-related new media empires

The estimable Larry Hogue has taken leave of his communications consultant job at the Desert Protective Council, and the DPC has asked me to take his place. Not that I could replace him. But I’ll do my best.

The gig, a part-time consulting deal, will involve posting items at DesertBlog, editing and publishing the DPC’s newsletter El Paisano and various Educational Bulletins, maintaining the DPC’s twitter feed at @DesertBlog, and a few other tasks. I’m looking forward to digging in over some long-term strategic items, too.

I hope you’ll wander by and check it all out.

In the meantime, this is a great excuse to point out that most of you probably don’t have a copy of Larry’s book All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys In A Desert Landscape. My review is readable here. It should be required reading for Western Enviros.

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A year ago

Starflower was beginning to bloom near the beaver marsh. The remains of lady’s slipper blossoms rustled against their pedicels, fluttering as yet another rainstorm approached.

We came together and the skies opened up. My hand took hers and roads washed out, the river overtopping its banks. It might have been sublime were I less of a disappointment, were she less a storm herself. Hopeless on the fifth morning, I dressed. “I’m going for a walk,” I said and went outside, the cloud of biting flies a relief after the leaden atmosphere inside the little house.

Yellow violets beside the dirt road. Timothy stem swaying under its burden of white admirals.

One misstep upon another. Passion blunted.  Scar upon scar. Who is this stranger in the house with me? We each of us wondered and the walls closed in.

I went for a walk.

Hemlock and white oak, sugar maple and silver maple. A decade since I’d been in the northeast. My bootsoles took the landscape with them. A week left before my plane, and I wondered whether I should ask her for a ride to the city this afternoon, get a motel room there for the duration. Blue eyed grass on the bank above the river.

On the bank above the river I stood a while and watched the river flow. Smooth granite cobbles shone in the dappled forest light.

A mirage, I thought, and began to laugh. Here, in the wettest place I’ve been in twenty years, trails that pull the boots from your feet, passionless beds still soaked through with sweat, roads washing down off the mountain into the lake, this place full-drowned in sorry, stultifying wet: a mirage nonetheless. I’d seen it on the horizon for months, tempting and cool. I would lay me down along this water side, I’d thought.

I’ve fooled myself, I thought. This isn’t working.

There was a little bridge where the dirt road crossed the river and I stopped there. River too shallow to drown myself, bridge too low to permit effective hurling of myself therefrom, I sat on the abutment. I closed my eyes. The river sang accompaniment to the mosquitoes’ doppler whine, and off to the south and west came a low drumming from the clouds. I breathed deep, ponytail held across my nostrils to bar entry to mosquitoes.

I had forgotten it, the smell of decades’ forest duff and rain and soil, the smell of air saturated with wet and a shirt soaked through moments after showering.

Something landed on the bridge of my nose. I opened my eyes: the world had turned stained glass. It was a dragonfly, green-winged,  a chitinous pair of tinted spectacles.

A male red-winged blackbird sang mating season songs from the beaver marsh cattails. Sparrows fluttered in the high-bush blueberries.

The notion presented itself: I could just stay here, peaceful serene, happy to be back home in the moist forest until the mosquitoes drained me and the rain sloughed away what remained. She would come looking, and she would find me and accuse me of drama.

A mirage, I thought. This isn’t going to work. I will submerge myself to make it work, and it will not work with me submerged. I cannot make her happy if I think myself insane, and sane I make her desperately unhappy. This isn’t going to work.

And then it came, the perfect moment before the storm, a cold front to drop the temperature ten degrees and cool the sweat, the mosquitoes seeking shelter in the trees, a handful of minutes before the drops started to fall in earnest, and I wanted nothing else but to be there. All of it lost, my past now buried and three thousand miles away, the future I had thought there for myself shown up hollow, immediate past and future wracked with awkward wrangling, all that was left the immediate present, now.

It finds me wherever I am, this wild peace. It grants me solace where there is no solace, allows me to remember who I am.

I remembered who I was.

Some days later I got on the plane.