Tag Archives: Taos

Paleontology

[Time to haul this one out of the archives, what with all the targazing I’ve done the last couple days.]

Paleontology

“What is it that sets us apart,” she asked,
“from sunset or sierra?
What is the line between ourselves
and the terrain from which we come?”

He thought he knew, but something in her eyes
transfixed him in a way he knew too well.
Deep and dark and wet they stuck him fast.

In parts of California, long ago,
impressive monsters ambled in the hills:
placid armored sloths two people tall,
cats with teeth as long as boning knives,
dogs the size of bears. Now and again,
a glint of water tempted them, or else
a furry piece of meat held strangely still,
and only after the imprudent pounce
would the tar entomb them.
Now, the graduate students pick their bones.

When the land thus asserts your membership
in the vast assemblage of dust and bark,
of feather, fur and rock in which we live,
it’s best not to struggle overmuch.
The land is patient, yet insistent.
Fighting off the tar will muss your hair.
Paleontologists an era hence
will find your clothes awry. Embarrassing!
Far better just to let oneself be swallowed
in all-consuming pitch, placidly slurped
into the balm of Quaternary ages.

That’s what her eyes felt like, he thought;
a sudden lack of individual
identity: nothing sets us apart
one from the other, nor from the land around.

Taos 3

Coyotes sing just outside my window. I awake. It isn’t a dream. The dogs take off after them, singing joyous outrage. The sheep must be protected. Hazel the little goat has broken her leg somehow, and my host will cart her down to the vet in an hour or so. Last night we fretted whether she would die of shock, but she was alert and hungry at two-thirty in the morning.

They aren’t made of money, but what can you do? You take care of your animals. Better one doesn’t do the math, amortize the vet bill with each hoped-for pint of milk. Farmers know the value of a life better than most anyone, or at least to the greatest degree of accuracy.

The sun is not yet up. At this time of day, at this altitude, the air is pink; pink as the belly of a salmon waiting at the threshhold of its home stream. It takes a pulse of storm, a quickening of fresh water, before that mystery unravels in their guts, propels the swift journey up the mountain.

It took a long time for me to fall asleep.

What was the last eight years but a surrender to myth? What was the last eight years but an attempt to deceive the people I loved most, myself first among them? I planted trees and watched them unfurl leaf after thirsty leaf, watched them overtop my house, only to be uprooted by a mere pulse of storm.

“Love is not enough,” I’d said at times over the last eight years, and when my friends asked me what I meant I had to confess I didn’t know. The sentence felt like a still, dark pool, a letter from the self I had paved over. I tried to send roots down into the rock, into the bedrock beneath the house my wife and I moved into after I said goodbye to Sharon, and as long as the dog both worshipped me and needed me I could persuade myself that it was right.

And then we draped our marriage over him in that rude hole, covered both of them over with broken bits of rock and sterile soil, tamped down a mantle of garden over both of them. The garden didn’t take. When I moved out the weeds had grown head-high, and I had to clear a path when my friend Matthew helped me carry the couch out to the U-Haul truck.

Love we had in abundance. Love is not enough.

Every dog within a mile is barking, a self-sustaining chain reaction propagating outward from the coyotes. I pry my eyes open again, pull the blanket down to my shoulders. A cloud off toward the Rio Chama in the west reflects the sun’s first yellow. She’ll show up in half an hour, haul me down to Santa Fe for a day of doctor’s appointments, a day of fretting over the Jeep’s transmission though I do not know that yet. I swing my legs over the side of the bed.

Who had I fooled? No one save myself. We watched the salmon ten years ago, or eleven; we walked sodden streamside fire-roads under redwoods and looked for spawning coho; we argued over the meanings of words; we walked together silent and content; and then the end. A marriage must be preserved! No matter that the married grow despondent and alone in the midst of love. Who had I fooled? No one save myself, no one save the one who spun the myth himself, caught on the unseen cleft between the right and proper things to do.

All of it hindsight and we spoke frankly of it yesterday, spoke of my missing her and denying it to myself, covering it in drink and cynicism and flirtation, her settling for a life without me as though she had learned a lesson about wanting too much kindness. Her friends joked kindly about her life and what it would be had we stayed together. A tentative diagnosis of a terminal disease is a prospect, a place of sudden perspective: you see your life arrayed in front of you as though you stand on a mountain above it, forked paths and roadblocks limned there plain before your eyes.

All of it past tense save the deep friendship, the thirsty friendship; me happy with my lover in Los Angeles, her roiled in family and heartache a generation old. I am the friend who wants nothing from her save a friend who wants nothing from me. I am the beat of crows’ wings that echo off the stucco and straw bale of her home here.

That is, at last, sufficient.

We are, at last, at the headwaters, each of us still tasting our storms’ pulses.

Last night the day wound and rewound through my head, a decade’s worth of conversation distilled, images and regrets, and as I heard the back door open and Erin went out to check on little Hazel at two-thirty the image came that eased me finally into sleep. My head laid innocent in Sharon’s lap, the breeze played over us. The scent of water was in the air. A chorus of sheep-thieves sang out on the mesa toward the Rio Chama. Their song was tenuous and distant. It faded into silence just as it reached us.

Taos 2

The rough wood deck feels good against my thighs, sun-warmed in afternoon. A yellow leaf from a cottonwood lands on my knee. I let it stay. My old workboots look good against the duff. There’s motion across the toe of the left one: an elongated dark beetle with two diagonal orange stripes. A box elder bug, fitting as there are three tall box elders just down the hill.

Sweet piñon smoke has followed me all day. Two days ago in a parking lot in Española a muscle car pulled up, stopped in front of me, and a dark-tinted passenger window rolled down. A sullen-looking teenaged girl sized me up. “You wanna buy some piñones?”

The owners of the house are cordial. I’d walked across their front yard and startled them. “Can we help you?” I explained that I was there with my friend, on whom their tenant – a practitioner of Chinese medicine – was working in the small studio around the back. They invited me in for soup, all smiles. But the scent of piñon smoke and the 7,000-foot altitude blue sky and the happy dog in the yard had conspired to get me out of the studio in the first place, and I demurred gratefully.

The happy dog is boisterous, a mix of golden lab and something else short-haired. He has a dead starling, still fluffy and clean-spotted, which he tosses gleefully into the air again and again. He looks happiest, eyes sparkling and jaw slack in a wide grin, when the bird is at the apex of each arc, before it succumbs to dead weight and falls undignified to the ground.  I imagine him hoping the bird will fly away.

I try to pick up the bird and he runs away with it, teasing.

Is it the sidelong canine regard, welcome after two years of drought? Spending time with my friend for the first time in a decade? Some unknown geographic chord with my heart’s harmonic? Whatever the reason, I feel here—sitting in cool sun waiting for Sharon to get her chi combed and repacked—more at peace, content, more like myself than I have in years.

The owners come outside, set to work getting their garden ready for winter. There are tomato vines to be uprooted and piled on the compost, leaves to be raked, cool-season crops to sow. The man sees I’ve been adopted by the dog and approaches us smiling. He’s older, perhaps 70, of East Indian descent and formidably distinguished even in overalls.

“Did you see the dog has a staple in his leg?”

I don’t understand the question for a moment. “Oh. I saw the cut. Is he supposed to have a staple there? Did the vet put it in?”

“Yes, and it was supposed to fall out some time ago, but it hasn’t. Every time I try to take it out he bites me. If you can try to get it…”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Be careful!”

“I will. He’s a good boy.”

The man smiles. “He’s completely useless.”

A Steller’s jay lands on the roof of the casita behind me. It scolds me. The dog runs across the yard toward me, starling in his soft mouth. He drops the bird at my feet. I put my left arm over his spine, hug his chest to mine. We spend a moment together admiring the afternoon light beneath the box elders.

As I start to think about casually examining the dog’s leg, the man shows up with a pair of channel-lock pliers. The dog sees them. He tries to squirm out from under my arm, but I pull him closer to me and murmur into his ear, my face buried in his ruff. The old man moves quickly; the dog flinches just a little. “Got it!” says the man, holding the pliers up, a thin wire clamped in their jaws. I let go of the dog. He examines his leg, then covers my face in kisses.

Buddy

Taos 1

There were two trees here, once; twin and slender boles straining together toward the light, leaves feeding on sun and their branches broadening. Each bole bore a canopy of heart-shaped leaves brilliant yellow in October. Each canopy turned a hollow face toward the other, knitted and entwined twig fingers with the other at the margins, the seam imperceptible, two trees striving to become one.

The trees aged. They grew. Their trunks gained girth, began to press themselves each against the other, a mutual grafting. Each trunk flattened where the other touched it. Rough bark melted between them, turned to soil. Each season brought a new enfolding, trunk growing curved and folding inward against trunk until a common skin of rough gray bark enclosed them both to head height, then twice as high.

One day just one of the trunks still stood, the wrack of a blinding storm all around it. A broad scar ran half its height, smooth and vulnerable cambium exposed above a desolation of splintered heartwood. Where once a full canopy of golden leaves caught breezes there was a shell, branches once sheltered exposed to the elements.

In time the asymmetry the loss had wrenched from the surviving tree conferred on it a rough beauty, an austere beauty, a feeling of resolution and survival. Bark once sundered grew back, curled over the edges of the still-splintered wound, furrowed itself out of the smooth flat face where the tree’s mate had once held it close.

Winds rolling down off the mountain raked the old cottonwood, ruffled bright blue feathers on the backs of jays. A decade’s pulses of leaves growing green, then yellow, then a yellow carpet on the soil; a decade of the sun sinking lower each autumn day toward the river gorge off to the south then rising toward the mountain in spring of deepening red sunsets and the slow upward trickle of aquifer into its roots; the tree lived. Once the worst of the damage healed, the tree could even be described as thriving. And yet its twin still shaped it after a decade’s absence, still defined the survivor’s form in ways both subtle and profound.

Cargo Cult logic

“You know,” I said to my old friend, “I’ve been thinking.” She was in a better mood than the last time we’d talked. The news had sunk in, I guess, for bad and good, and she was chuckling again, and we were chatting more or less happily. Eight years of our not talking, until I wrote her in February, and after a brief flurry of catching up it was as if nothing had changed. Except for our old ardor having died out. And her being married with a kid and goats and horses in New Mexico. And me getting the divorce she’d quietly hoped for for years despite her best self squelching the feeling. And her beloved friend Zeke having died. Aside from that. The same.

“I could write an article about you. And we’ve already done the not-talking.”

“That could work, huh?” She chuckled again. “Make it really self-serving, too.”

“It worked before, right?”

“Couldn’t hurt.”

It’s one of those typical conundra writers face, dissected endlessly in workshops and late-night discussions and online fora. The duty to preserve the privacy of the people in the writer’s life conflicts with the need to write about life as the writer lives it. Most of us find a balance that works. Most of us have old stories that fell off the balance beam. Twelve years ago when Sharon was first writing for the magazine I edited she submitted a story on the surprising prevalence of breast cancer in two disparate neighborhoods in the Bay Area, one quite affluent, the other poor. A friend of hers had been diagnosed with breast cancer that year. Sharon mentioned the friend’s story, providing no identifying details but relating her friend’s soul-searching about how she might have brought the cancer on herself. Excess negativity? Living an impure life?

The next paragraph gently debunked the ineffable causes and talked about pollutants, diet, genetics; the state of the science as she was known in 1996.

Sharon’s friend was outraged and hasn’t spoken to her since. She and I spent a lot of time going over the details, that next month, talking about privacy and propriety and boundaries and ethics. Each friendship has a mythology and that loss of her friendship became a central metaphor in ours, a partnership between writers that was at once crucial-feeling and inappropriately personal.

When she called me in tears two weeks ago from the clinic, the results of her biopsy in hand, each of us thought of her friend and the odd not-exactly-irony of the turn of events. Neither of us said anything. The possibility of metastasis was all the meta we needed for the moment.

But a few days later she was more upbeat, having come partway to terms with the prospect of surgery and chemo, and was resolved, among other things, to see her son reach adulthood, and she was chuckling and wry, in between yelling to her son to stay where she could see him in the park. She mentioned that old article.

“I know she made a full recovery,” she said. “She’s working and really doing well. Still hasn’t talked to me, but she got well.”

“You know,” I said to my old friend, “I’ve been thinking. I could write an article about you. And we’ve already done the not-talking.”

“That could work, huh?” She chuckled again. “Make it really self-serving, too.”