Tag Archives: Desert

Sign the petition: Grijalva for Interior Secretary

Four years ago Baja Arizona’s Congressional Representative Raul Grijalva was a contender for the incoming Obama Administration’s first Interior Secretary. He was turned down in favor of Ken Salazar. Scuttlebutt has it that Grijava was rejected because he was tough enough on mineral extraction, especially offshore drilling, that he made Obama’s team uncomfortable. Apparently they feared he would place too high a priority on environmental protection, interfere with the mining and fossil fuel extraction industry, and generally make things hard for companies like BP as they drilled in the Gulf of Mexico.

So Salazar got the nod instead. About 15 months later the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened, a disaster that could have been prevented had Interior aggressively enforced common-sense safety regulations.

In the meantime, those of us in the desert protection world were learning that Obama’s Interior Department was quite likely the worst threat to the California desert any Presidential administration had ever been, as a record number of acres of public land were offered up for effective privatization for renewable energy development. Salazar muzzled agencies within his Department, forbidding staff to criticize or oppose even the most egregiously destructive projects, and so industrial projects went in on the margins of National Parks with NPS staff unable to object. Fish and Wildlife staff wrote biological opinions saying no, the fact that you found a hundred times as many tortoises on the construction site as we expected doesn’t make this project a threat to the species.

And that’s not meant to imply that Interior was biased in favor of renewables on public lands. Salazar’s been a good friend to the oil and gas industries as well.

Salazar is likely to step down for Obama’s second term, and the list of possible successors — David Hayes, architect of the desert solar policy; Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal is a Big Wind cheerleader; former Washington governor Chris Gregoire is a fan of welfare ranching on sensitive wildlife habitat — is bleak.

Raul Grijalva is one of the best friends public lands have ever had in Washington. In any sane society he’d be the front-runner for Interior.

A number of grassroots public lands and anti-fracking advocates agree, and have put together a petition urging the White House to appoint Grijalva Interior Secretary. As the petition says;

The selection of the next Interior Secretary is an important moment to place renewed emphasis on some of the most critical issues of our age – climate change, the protection of endangered species and preservation of water and wild lands. As ranking member and former chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, Rep. Grijalva has been an effective leader on conservation and land management issues. His expertise with Native Americans issues, his strong understanding of border issues, his pragmatic conservation ethic, and his wealth of experience in addressing funding challenges make him an exceptional choice. We urge you to select him as our next Interior Secretary because he embraces the urgency of this mission and practical paths toward real-world solutions.

Sign the petition and spread it around.

The Wilds of California

The wonderfully talented San Diego-area filmmaker Jim Karnik has an ambitious project in mind: an hour-long film that will introduce viewers to Californian biodiversity in all the varying ecosystems the state has to offer, from coastal tidepools to alpine rock and ice. This trailer is amazing.

Jim’s got an Indiegogo site set up, and as soon as I get my December budget figured out I’m kicking something in. Check it out and see if you want to as well.

Best writing prompt ever

My KCET editor Zach and I had a very nice, very cordial meeting in Riverside on Monday with two very friendly people with the PR wing of BrightSource. BrightSource asked for the meeting to address and correct what the they thought were certain deficiencies in my writing about them. Very few of those perceived deficiencies were found in my writing at KCET. Most of them were here.

Most of the meeting was taken up with the BrightSource senior VP in attendance explaining BrightSource’s position on a number of things. He’s a persuasive man, and fascinatingly wonkish. It was a valuable meeting for me if only for that.

Toward the end one of the BrightSource folks asked me if I’d closed this place. I told her the truth: that writing for pay has had to take precedence. Both of them seemed very pleased. The senior VP said something like “hey, we’ll have to put an note in our company newsletter: ‘Chris Clarke has closed down his blog.”

So I’m ramping this back up again, because that’s just the motivation I needed. Thanks, BrightSource!

The fleeting idea of permanence

I wrote an essay about a dozen years ago that is now obsolete, a hopeful piece about eternity in a marriage that has since ended. There is a line in it:

The year that Becky and I were married, we drove south to an un-named valley near Blythe, a small river town in the middle of the Colorado Desert, California’s subsection of the Sonoran Desert. There we camped for the night in a grove of Olneya tesota.

This week the US Department of Energy announced it would offer more than two billion dollars of your money, and mine, to help turn that “un-named valley” into an industrial wasteland.

I am getting roundly sick of this.

I have come to terms reasonably well with the end of the marriage, am in love anew and making a life I like better than the old one, working to avoid all my old mistakes. But careful curation of happy memory is part of how a person moves on from what was. There was a time when an old man could wander out into the desert, find an old familiar spot and recall wistfully his making love with his new bride there a half century before, noting the trees’ growth and the rocks’ increased age. And now I wonder will the wash still be there? The rocks? Those ancient, “essentially non-biodegradable” trees? When I wrote this in 2000, they stood for permanence.

Palen Range

Ironwood

The dark wood is cool in my hand, and smooth. It sheds sawdust to my old grafting knife, a slow, reluctant yielding of deep brown flecks like ground cinnamon, powdered chocolate. I put a moistened fingertip to the pile of dust on my knee, then to my tongue, and am surprised despite myself when I taste nothing but cellulose.

Just as well. There isn’t enough of this tree for people to start eating its wood. Restricted in range to the increasingly impacted Sonoran Desert, the desert ironwood (Olneya tesota) is faced with threats ranging from harvesting for “mesquite” charcoal to suburban sprawl to exotic plants spread by cattle grazing. And as goes the desert ironwood, so goes the desert: the tree is the shelter under which the rest of the desert lives.

I harvested this piece of ironwood in what I thought was as benign a fashion as possible: I found it, and a couple others, sticking out of the gravel in a dry wash. Something, it seemed — a desert windstorm, a flash flood, a band of stick-fetching coyotes — had carried them from a copse of trees a hundred feet away. They looked like they’d lain in the sun for years, wearing a gray patina that only year-round UV can provide. A few passes of the knife over this piece, though, and gray gave way to reveal this deep, confectionery brown. A few strokes with the coarse section of a four-way file, and the wood looks nearly polished.

I’m not the first person ever to pick up a piece of desert ironwood with art in mind. The Seri people along the Gulf Coast in Sonora, Mexico, among the last hunter-gatherers on the North American continent, list ironwood carving among their contributions to world culture. You’ve probably seen their work, or its imitators: deep, dark fluid sculptures of sharks, sea turtles, birds and desert animals. The best carvings, made by artists with a hunter-gatherer’s familiarity with nature, seem about to come alive. Frogs crouch in a pose they strike when under threat by something big. Sea turtles seem to bear exaggeratedly large forepaws, until you learn that, like husky puppies, baby sea turtles have to grow into their feet. Sharks are, I think, the pinnacle of Seri art: carved as the natural curves of the wood suggest, they are fluidity embodied. You expect them to flick a tail and disappear from the display case.

Other Sonorans have adopted the art form as a means of generating tourist revenue. The differences aren’t hard to spot. Where the Seri opt for spareness of form and smooth line, their Mexican neighbors turn out angular pieces with gouged-out hatch marks. The Seri rarely carve fish other than sharks, and almost never portray subjects other than local animals. Sonorans, on the other hand, will offer carvings of everything from stereotypical siestans leaning on saguaros to stunningly detailed representations of local beer bottles. The Mexicans’ powered machine shops turn out sculptures at a far faster rate than the Seri’s human-powered hand tools. More to the point, the Seri, with an ecological ethos not uncommon among hunter-gatherers, carve only wood from downed or dead trees. The Mexican machine shops, with their higher capacity, have spurred a demand for cutting green trees. The US and Mexican governments have taken some steps to restrict trade in non-Seri carvings.

I’ve been carving this piece of wood for several months. You wouldn’t know that to look at it. It’s hardly an intricate form; a rectangle, with a bend in the middle, which I labor to make symmetrical. I imagine polishing its final, perfected geometry with double-ought steel wool, fixing a barrette clasp, giving it to Becky to wear in her hair. The colors of wood and hair would complement one another well, differing shades of dark brown. For the hundredth time I consider carving a bas-relief on the surface, a raven or coyote, something appropriate to the provenance of the medium. Perhaps the leaves of the desert ironwood itself, plain compound leguminous leaves like those that littered the wash from whose gravel this wood protruded, driftwood miles from the nearest sea. It’s hard to say. There is something in the heft of the wood, the soapstone texture, that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, and yet my inclination is to scour the slightest ridge away, to make a mirror of this dark piece of old dead tree.

The eponymous “bean trees” of Barbara Kingsolver’s Tucson novel were wisteria, thirsty exotic plants brought in from the Far East by way of England and the East Coast, growing in a well-watered downtown garden behind a tire repair shop. The wisteria would wither, with most of its human neighbors in Tucson, if not for the constant pumping of millennia-old water from aquifers under the city.

But climb the adobe wall that fictitious vine encumbered. Cross the street. Pass the Sonic drive-ins and Waffle Shops and motels and the metastasizing spread of stylish homes of ringing urban Tucson, get out into the unadulterated, stinking hot slopes of the Sonoran Desert, where the rattlesnakes and tarantulas play; there, you’ll find bean trees of another sort. Native to the place, they do just fine without any help from us or pumped Pleistocene aquifers or the Central Arizona Project. Four species of palo verde, acacias with sharp claws that snag hikers’ clothing like rabid Velcro, knee-high desert senna with its complement of buzzing pollinators, the notorious and fashionable mesquites, and the desert ironwood, beans all, make up much of the perennial plant cover of the Sonoran Desert. Column cacti may have better PR, but if it wasn’t for the bean trees, there’d be damn few saguaros to grace kitschy postcards and travel magazines. The desert ironwood and its cousins are the ecological foundation of the Sonoran Desert. Remove them and the rest of the plants and animals in the desert would likely vanish as well.

If you’re a plant that wants to survive in the desert, it’s a good idea to sink your roots under a desert ironwood, or one of its cousins. Shade is one reason: as sparse as a bean tree’s leaves generally are, they’re better than nothing at all. Then there’s the heat and the humidity: even droughty desert legumes exhale a little bit of water through their leaves, and their loss is your gain. Higher relative humidity due to the bean tree means you’ll transpire less water yourself. There’s the simple fact of shelter: germinate under a bean tree and it’s less likely that browsing animals will find you and eat you. Leguminous thorns also help protect young plants. Nitrogen from shed leaves is augmented by that excreted by birds and other small animals who come for shade, shelter, or nutritious bean seeds. The shade beneath the trees is optimal habitat for cacti. Each majestic saguaro, each venerable multi-stemmed organ pipe, each white-bearded senita you see on your travels to the desert quite likely got its start beneath one of the region’s legumes. Remove the trees, as happens when a subdivision goes in or wood is cut for the burgeoning gourmet “mesquite” charcoal industry or the bosque burns after an invasion of exotic buffelgrass ups the fuel load, and you close down the nurseries from which new generations of column cacti are fledged. With this in mind, Bill Clinton — in one of his final acts in office — established a bit less than 130,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert as the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

Desert ironwood trees tend toward far longer lives than do mesquites or palos verdes. One live tree near Tucson has been carbon-dated at 1200 years old: 300 years is a fairly probable average life expectancy. Even after dying, the tree can provide an oasis of shade in the desert for an immense stretch of time. The wood is, in the words of A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert (Stephen J. Phillips and Patricia Wentworth Comus, eds., Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum & UC Press, 2000) “rich in toxic chemicals and essentially non-biodegradable.” Once ironwood dies, nothing eats it, though I’ve seen termites making stalwart attempts. Firewood-sized chunks found in desert washes have been determined to be 1600 years old. A standing snag may, after its death, provide valuable habitat for a thousand years.

This knowledge, gained after I collected the few pieces of wood now sitting on my writing desk, does not exactly fill me with an uncomplicated sense of joy in acquisition.

The year that Becky and I were married, we drove south to an un-named valley near Blythe, a small river town in the middle of the Colorado Desert, California’s subsection of the Sonoran Desert. There we camped for the night in a grove of Olneya tesota.

The valley was bleak indeed. It was October, far from the hottest part of the year, and yet we saw little in the way of vertebrate life during the day. A house sparrow that had probably strayed from the alfalfa fields flitted briefly into the ironwood canopy, then returned eastward. Other than that, I don’t recall seeing so much as a lizard. Not a creature stirred the desiccated husks of summer annuals, the pallid leaves of desert ironwood and palo verde. All was silent. This was driven home when, eyes on the desert pavement at my feet, I absently muttered something to Becky. She replied with a tone of amusement. I looked up to see we were at least two hundred yards apart, yet we could hear each other’s normal speaking voices perfectly.

That afternoon I found a comfortable-looking spot in the wash, shaded by a bit of ironwood, and laid down for a nap, shifting my back to gouge out a depression in the gravel. I opened my eyes for a moment, saw nothing but a few ironwood leaves silhouetted against an impossibly blue sky, then dozed. Not a few minutes later, something soft brushed my cheek, and I started awake. Eyes the color of polished ironwood gleamed: Becky had kissed me. The image of my wife’s face, bean tree leaves behind her, deep blue firmament framing all, would prove to haunt me through months of desultory wood carving.

Things picked up a bit when the sun went down. A wind came up from the south, bearing the slightest odor of the Sea of Cortez. Zeke, our dog, noticed a desert packrat or two whose stick homes we had missed among the fallen trees. Far-off coyote song punctured the twilight, the local great horned owl providing a bass line. After dark, the valley was palpably alive.

I sat by a fire. We were far remote, there was an abundance of dead wood in the wash, and I wanted a fire, so the first two clauses in this sentence seemed sufficient justification. Ironwood burns hot. A pile of fuel the size of a regulation softball, and we couldn’t get closer than ten feet to the blaze. With wood like that, you don’t need much fire. The next morning, half the small pile of scraps I’d collected lay unburned next to the coals. I grabbed a few and put them in the truck. They’ve sat near my computer since then.

I pick up one of the larger pieces now, a rough, splintery crescent a foot long, four or five inches wide at its thickest. It looks weathered, old, rotten, yet it weighs at least three pounds. I heft the wood in my hand. I can’t be sure this stick is a millennium-and-a-half old, but I can’t rule it out, either. When did this piece of wood die? When did its tree release it into the desert soil, there to bleach and suffer futile attacks by termites? 1500 years ago the Anasazi were just learning how to add roofs to their adobe houses. Augustine was writing his Confessions. The Roman Empire had collapsed within living memory. And this stick, perhaps, or one just like it in the same valley, was already turning gray on that alluvial pediment west of Blythe. “Essentially non-biodegradable,” these few pieces of dead tree straddle the line between biology and geology. A tree grew them, but they may as well be rocks for all the effect that the centuries have on them. “Driftwood,” hell: it’s just as likely that I found these pieces where they fell, and the ironwood grove drifted away from them over the intervening millennium. The immense antiquity of this firewood makes my collection of it seem, in retrospect, abhorrent, like the actions of the guy who cut down the world’s oldest bristlecone pine to count the rings.

But there is something in the desert ironwood that seems to ask for more than simple Euclidean geometry, which naggingly reminds me that issues are never as straightforward as ideology would insist. Who would criticize the Seri for turning ironwood detritus into grocery money? Ironwood supported human beings long before the first Seri carver ever saw a chisel. Leached of a mild toxin, ironwood seeds were used for centuries as food by the Seri, the Tohono O’odham, and other Sonoran Desert people. Warriors and hunters used ironwood bark tea as a ceremonial purgative. When an O’odham couple married, elders gave them an ironwood branch to hold between them, so that the wood’s durability would infuse itself into the marriage. Though we’ve done it some wrong the past few decades, this is a tree whose memory is long, and it was deeply involved in human lives long before the invention of the four-way file and the chain steakhouse.

I look again at the piece I’ve been carving. I won’t be collecting any more, and I certainly won’t insist on a fire when I’m camping in ironwood country, but giving this piece to my wife seems, somehow, appropriate, a way to infuse this marriage with the permanence ironwood engenders. A bit of dark wood, and the knowledge that more grows, protected, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.

Exfoliation

ruins

It rained in the Mojave this week. Driving up onto Cima Dome on Friday was driving into a wall of electified sleet. Immense bolts of blue lightning snaked horizontally for miles just above the surface of the Dome. I fretted about fire until I got under the storm. The windshield filled up with melting hail. The Dome was sodden.

Home.

Home.

I filled the pickup with four-fifths of my books, at least those I hadn’t given away in the previous month, and coaxed that overloaded truck over the mountains and into the desert. 420 miles of heavy wind and awkward center of gravity, an ungainly migration, and it had daunted me Thursday morning as I carried the boxes. Flinging yourself into the abyss is a scary thing to anticipate. I needn’t have fretted. Rolling down the east slope of the Tehachapi Mountains I felt it leave, this stale and cloying sadness I have carried in me the last months. It evanesced, blew off toward Harper Lake in shattered wisps under Mojave’s constant wind, and I was free.

Home.

A notable change, this change. The human lifespan being what it is, the number of times you can leave a place you’ve lived for a generation is somewhat limited. This will be my second time. I suspect that if I live in any other place for a generation, I’ll leave it with my bootsoles pointed at the horizon.

Right now I’ve got my gaze pointed that way.

I’ve got a place to stay starting in July, in Nipton, in a small house 400 feet from a mainline train track, and only 16 miles from Joshua trees. I’ve got a post office box in Cima, CA, 92323 — something I’ve long desired — and you can send me a letter there at PO Box 43. I’ve got a storage locker in Barstow with four-fifths of my books in it. I’ve got a 14-foot truck reserved to haul the rest of my belongings down there on June 1.

Which means my last full day in Pinole, and quite possibly my last day living in the Bay Area, will be May 31, 2008.

This will be five years, almost to the day, since I started Creek Running North. I find the logic irrefutable.

Creek Running North is shutting down.

I’m a firm believer in the merit of a finite lifespan for projects artistic and otherwise, and my intent in starting Creek Running North was to describe the world around this creek down the hill from where I sit typing this, and I may never see it again after this week. I ranged crazily afield, but the creek was my pole star: For five years I always found my way back to it.

Obviously, I can’t do that anymore.

I’ll still maintain a website here, and it will still have some of my writing on it, and after July some of that writing, from time to time, will be quite new. I expect to spend almost all my writing hours working on potential print, but there will likely be observations and passing thoughts and photos and such that fit nowhere but on a site like this. Many of you have invested in the work I’m doing this summer, and in any event the site represents a little income I can’t walk away from too blithely. It won’t be a blog in the sense of having a blogroll and linking to slagfests and playing the circular-argument status game. It will be a place for the writing, for occasional photos, for environmental politics in appropriate measure, maybe a podcast or two. Lots of ambient sound out there in the desert, you know?

But not until July at the earliest. And it won’t be called Creek Running North.* Because Creek Running North is shutting down.

This isn’t, however, the last CRN post. I have one more left, a good closer, on a topic that’s long been an undercurrent here and whose subject really deserves a bit of notice.

That final CRN post will be up before the end of May.

This morning I woke up in the Central Valley, got in the truck and intended to head for home. Pulling to the mouth of the motel parking lot, though, about to turn onto Route 46, I realized I didn’t know where home was. I sat there, turn signal indicating a left, waiting for the traffic to clear, and I looked rightward. Down that way lay the Carrizo Plain, the Coast Ranges, the Salinas River and the coast. I had a talk with myself sitting there.

It’s longer, I said.
I sneered at me in response. So? It’s not like anyone’s waiting for you up North.
But I have work to do. Packing and such.
And you’ll get that done today?
No. But still,
Still nothing. When’s the last time you were in Paso Robles? Was Reagan still president? When are you gonna be this way again?
But the gasoline. 4.10 a gallon here, and this was cheap for the neighborhood.
So do the math. It’s what, an extra ten bucks to go this way?
I’m already in the left turn lane.
You’re such an idiot. No one’s behind you.

I waved the sirenian me away impatiently. Places to go. Things to do. The traffic cleared, and I pulled out into the road, and I turned right anyway, went toward the coast.  I just figured it was time to start setting an example.

* And I have no ideas for names whatsoever.

Some Observations on Xantusia vigilis

I

The quartz-pebbled path blinds.
Cicada song in waves
rises shimmering hot.
Joshua limb is down.
In the sparse shade beneath,
tiny eyes watch, placid.

II

Lift the Joshua trunk.
It is light as balsa.
Termitary crumbles;
dust frass wafts, aimless.
Suddenly sunlit, they
make for the shade, panting.

III

They breed in the late spring.
They bear their offspring live,
One to three in each brood,
August through October.
Though they’re called “night lizards”
They’re active in daylight.

IV

Janós Xantús exults.
Baird funds more collecting!
He must leave the desert,
Meet the Fort Tejon stage.
His glad boots break blackbrush.
Tiny eyes pale in fear.

V

What is this small dead bird
impaled on yucca leaf?
Shrike-struck, wizened, sun-dried,
left there for months, it falls.
Pale fly alights, too close:
Night lizard is hungry.

VI

Mojave night is cold, now,
Pleiades rise at dusk,
And the hard-gained morning
is stingy with its warmth.
Hand-sized rock faces east;
Luxuriate on it.

Crow’s foot VII

The sky is rent. The sun comes through it, seething. Dry wind scours me from the insides out. A tempest, a dust-devil of a life, and my eyes are closed against the stinging of it. I raise my hand partway without intending to. I raise my hand partway against the wind.

It takes my clothes, my hair, my skin. All these excrescenses I was, these trappings, a flexible and sensitive armor against a sullen world, now stripped away. Calcium is left behind, and potassium, and eyes still strangely and illogically moist.

Where cities suppurate across the Mojave desert ravens clump in massive and delinquent flocks, but away from our debris and waste they fly in pairs. Find one in flight, and wait: another will be close. Sometimes they are close enough to ride each other’s bow waves. Sometimes one is a minute behind, and calling to its mate: a raucous rasp.

Rarely a raven flies alone, and then always singing loneliness in its rock tumbler voice, a song to rend the skies, a call left generally unanswered. One came to me last night in sleep, massive and melancholy, and lit on a smooth and pocked Joshua branch.

Liveoak leaves under my bare feet today, humus so deep beneath them that I sank into the earth. Two ravens tumbled in flight above me and brought the dream full back. Raven lit alone on the Joshua tree and preened, I thought, grasped tailfeathers in talons, brought them to his beak. He wore an odd intensity, an odd intent, and pulled out the feather with a pained crow howl.

Raven feather floated prettily to the desert’s floor.

Another feather grasped, hand to mouth, and plucked. Another cry of pain; another blue-black blade made lazy downward arcs.

He stared holes in me, gauging my reaction.

The next one had blood on the quill. It dropped like a stone. He panted hard, eyes wide.

One could make light and pretty trivialities from feathers such as these, fake platitudes to hang on terra cotta walls. Another loss, another step toward flightlessness by hellish increment, and they shine such a stunning blue there on the bright hard soil next to the blackbrush. Black leathery crow’s feet and searing, iterative pain and loss, and I gasped remembering it, loud enough that birds took flight.

Teutonia

Asleep for some hours this afternoon I dreamed it, so vivid. I might have poured sand from my shoes on waking. I’d just assured a friend I was sleeping well and then slept not at all, stumbled through a morning’s work getting a bare minimum done, and then at last gave up. Night running, the need of privacy while others sleep, a damned unwillingness to see the shrubs in bloom outside for one last time: I slept this afternoon instead.

There is a flaw within the rock and an unlikely canyon rides it. It splits the narrow peak from south to north. The rock is quartz monzonite, and light in color except where the lichen blackens it, where the desert varnish rusts it. This little cleft, perhaps four meters deep at most, a shallow gouge in the hot desert, nonetheless holds water. I have seen it flowing just beneath the surface. I have come upon a fresh footprint, a sheep’s split hoof impression in the sand, and watched it slowly fill with water. I first walked here with a friend I have not seen in years, and we talked as we clambered over little falls still damp at their cupped lips. There are ferns in the Mojave. She found them in a sun-seared fissure, roots sunk into a droughty clump of moss, and asked what they were. Oddly, I knew: Pellaea, cliff-brake or coffee-fern, and I meant to key it out to species but I never did. The hottest desert in the country, but snow does fall, and rain, and the little mountain gathers it, and that part of the wet that lands to the north of the summit trickles down through dry months.

I was there today, alone, the dark vault wheeling overhead. The sand was comfortable, the coyotes astonishingly close.

Our scarcities define us. A friendship felt most keenly in its absence, time spent at home most treasured when that time runs short. The desert’s names denote desolation or refuge, but more of them the latter. Pahrump, Tonopah, Ivanpah, Mopah, Hualapai, Supai, a constellation of names clustered around a native root word for water. Water is the center of the desert. It is the desert’s organizing principle. A seasonal spring dried up, and songbirds left, to come back when the spring flowed new, and people took the bird songs as their map, their calendar.

A scarcity of joy in a waste of sadness, and though I drink it greedily the joy endures. No slammed doors in the desert to raise my hackles, no importances unsaid nor trifles endlessly dissected. The dark vault wheels overhead, Canis dutifully following his master toward the west.

Last night I told someone I sleep six hours in the city, three less than in the desert. I longed for that arid rest. Today the desert sent it, coyotes song and conversations with the upturned darkling beetle, and then a dream of sleep.

Epilobium

“Tell me one true thing,” she said.

Up above was sky, and breezes. Up above was light cascading off the sun. It ricocheted down to them, absorbed in dank and smooth red walls. He thought for a while, silent.

A canyon wren sang, a languid glissade of notes upturned at the ends. 

“You see? You can’t do it.” She sighed, her boot heels kicking up sand behind them as she walked. “The wren can, you can’t. It’s sad.”

“I was thinking.” Said to the back of her head as they hiked.

“Not falsifiable, thus unverifiable. Only possibly true at best. Try again.”

He smirked. “We’re a mile into a slot canyon and we can’t climb out the way we came.”

She turned to face him, her brown eyes mantled, her eyelids pretending at severity.

“I ask for truth and you offer me mere fact.”

“You’re playing games,” he said. “It’s the single most important truth there is. Two miles from the truck, and it might as well be twenty. Once we slid down the chute we were committed. No way out except to go through it. No way to know if we’ll get cliffed out before the end.”

“Cheap metaphor isn’t truth either.”

Boots on sand, boots on smooth gravel. Dark stains on the rock, ten centuries of groundwater seeped slowly in to quietly sublime, leave darkening salts upon the rock, the surface slowly penetrated grain by grain into the depths. They found themselves again in silence, walked deeper into the earth in silence, had only the rhythmic crunch of boot soles to break the silence, tracing bend after sinuous bend as the walls converged, until one rounded bend revealed a flood-carved alcove. A shaft of yellow light illuminated it.

She shivered, walked into the light, sat on the sand. She pulled an apple from her pack.

“You may regret not having that later,” he said. She sniffed. “I regret not having it now.” She took a bite, and then another, and offered him the remainder.

“Not really hungry. You go ahead.”

“Come on, come on. Eat. You know: ‘The woman tempted me.’”

“I’m fine. You finish it.” She looked at him long and pointedly, shook her head a little. The light kept moving, slanting up away from the canyon floor. A gloriole of sun around her hair, he thought. She arched her back against the rock and shivered. “You’re cold,” he said. It wasn’t a question.

“Not exactly,” she said.

“Why so opaque?”

“What do you mean?”

He shook his head.

In a few minutes the light had left her. He stood. “No way out except to go through it.” He walked to her, offered his hand to help her rise. She pulled herself up unaided.

Another hour walking, then two, skating over soft sloping sand and clambering up impossibly teetering slabs of sandstone fallen from the walls, tree trunk wrack and sheer falls to hang from with fingertips, trusting that the sand six feet below their boots was dry and sound. The fear rose in him. She seemed surprised. “You’re the one who keeps bringing us down here.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We spend all our time together in these depths. I’d be up top right now if not for you.”

“You can’t be serious. You’re the one that drove us here.”

Her voice grew an edge of exasperation. “Because this is where you need to be.”

He was bewildered. “I didn’t want to come down here.”

“And yet here we are.”

The air grew abruptly dark and he tasted moisture. He looked up. Past walls that seemed almost to touch above their heads, dark clouds passed low and menacing. He saw a flash of lightning, then another, and a low rumbling came, whether from up-canyon or down or above he could not tell. A gust swirled around their ankles, a few wind-blown leaves racing past them on their way toward the canyon’s mouth.

“I think…” he said.

“I think you need the flood to come,” she said. “Each time our conversation veers toward truth, then down it comes.”

“This is crazy.”

“Yes, it is. Here you are in the desert’s heart, your womb, your refuge, and you see nothing but the storm.”

“You’re wrong. You’re wrong! I see the desert varnish in draped waves across the walls, the polished quartz and carnelian on the floor. I watch the adiantum fern make green crowns for moss-bearded seeps, the cholla stems lodged ten feet above our heads by past floods. I see the black-chinned hummingbirds drinking from scarlet blossoms of Zauschneria.”

“It’s Epilobium now.”

“You’re sorry you came.”

“If this is what it takes…”

“You’re disappointed in me.”

“I lost the capacity for disappointment in you a while ago.”

“Oh.”

They said nothing for a time. They walked.

Blood-warm water came in a sudden wave from up-canyon. It stung as it surged past their ankles.

Her shoulders slumped. “Are you satisfied?”

“I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“I know you weren’t.”

He felt the walls press closer. A dozen floods a day across this plateau, a thousand years, ten thousand, and pain as soft as water carves slick, impenetrable channels in the rock. Two hundred lifetimes of disasters wear pathways smooth to the touch. Whole boulders tumble in the flood, pine snags and skeletons of sheep, their ravage one mere tooth on long time’s rasp. He sat once by a pretty little snowmelt stream and listened, rocks the size of barrels crushing one another in its flow. Downstream the water ran red with boulder sand.

“Tell me one true thing,” she said. The flood reached their knees, their thighs. “Just one.”

“You loved me once.”

“I loved you once.”

“That’s one true thing.”

“It used to be.”

“You’re here with me now.”

“I am?” she asked, and then the wall of ruddy water took him.