SISTERS OF THE EARTH -- WOMEN'S PROSE & POETRY ABOUT NATURE
Her Wildness: WHAT IS UNTAMED IN NATURE AND IN US
One warm October afternoon in 1989 as I sat at my desk working on this book, the earth beneath me and millions of other northern Californians suddenly rumbled, jerked, and shuddered like boxcars coupling, like continents coupling and giving birth to mountains. In that instant the sharp edge of reality cut through the comfortable trance we habitually dwell in. The pounding of our hearts woke us up and the force of an immense power under the thin veneer of our life support systems ripped away our illusions, of safety and control. While there was something terrifying about the violence of that message from the wild heart of earth, there was also something bracing and thrilling in it, something illuminating, a deep remembering of who we really are and where we really live.
Short of a natural disaster, what chance do we have in modern life to make contact with the raw power of nature and the corresponding wildness in ourselves? Some of the writers in this section have won through to a keener, sharper sense of life in encounters with wild creatures or expeditions to wild places. Simply going out-of-doors has helped others shed socially assigned roles and discover an untamed, authentic self. And one author included here focuses on the fact that, as women, we are drawn closer to the wild heart of nature in pregnancy, when we can feel the primal force of life pushing through us.
Judith Minty (born 1937) is concerned with articulating the unity between humans and the natural world from a point of view that honors feminine wisdom and seeks channels of communication. She explains, "I'm convinced that there is something we once knew which has been lost to us in the evolutionary process. Sometimes we get glimpses of it; I'm particularly interested in those moments." Born in Detroit, Michigan, she was educated at Ithaca College (B.S.) and Western Michigan University (M.A.). Her poems reflect a deep grounding in the places that have marked her, particularly the Great Lakes of Michigan and the northern coast of California. She served as poet-in-residence at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, and has taught at several other colleges and universities but considers the North Woods of Michigan her permanent home. She has contributed short stories, articles, and poems to many magazines and anthologies. Her acclaimed Walking with the Bear: Selected and New Poems (2000) gathers work from three previously published volumes of poetry (including Lake Songs and Other Fears (1974), source of the following poem) and three chapbooks.
WHY DO YOU KEEP THOSE CATS?
All winter, those
cats of mine
Awake, their eyes
reflect deeper sleeps.
keep those cats?"
my neighbors ask.
It is not for
winter. It is instead
Gretchen Legler (born 1960) is a sportswoman as well as a teacher, scholar, and writer with an interest in human relationships to place and to the natural world. Having traveled and lived in extreme landscapes and weathers, she has a particular fascination with how people relate to "hostile" places -- cold places, faraway places, places that are hard to reach. Born in Salt Lake City, she learned to fish from her father, a biology professor at the University of Utah, and to hunt and forage for wild foods from her husband (now ex-husband), Craig Borck. She earned a B.A. at Macalester College in Minnesota as well as an M.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota before teaching for six years at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. From August 1997 until January 1998, she lived in Antarctica as part of the National Science Foundation's Artists and Writers fellowship program and is working on a book about the experience, as well as a collection of essays about her first years in Alaska. Her articles, stories, and essays have appeared in a number of publications; the selection that follows is from her book of autobiographical essays, All the Powerful Invisible Things: A Sportswoman's Notebook (1995). Legler now lives close to the land on eighty acres in rural Maine with her partner, Ruth Hill, and teaches English and creative writing at the University of Maine at Farmington.
It is morning. I wake up to a confusion of diffused yellow light sinking down on me through the bright tent dome. I am in a canoe camp Craig and I have made on a cliff at Gabimichigami. We are in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, three days paddle from our car at Sea Gull Lake.
I start to dress. Craig has been up for an hour and has lit the stove. There will have to be breakfast, then dishes, then packing the canoe and paddling the canoe, then hauling the canoe over portages to another camp, then on to another, and then back to the city. I have no desire to leave; no desire to move, to go forward into the day. Reluctantly, I start pulling a blue shirt over my bare body. I start to button it, then stop.
She doesn't want clothes.
She undresses, lets the shirt fall. Her boots are set outside the tent door, laces in the dirt, damp from the water in the air. She ignores them.
She doesn't want shoes.
She wants her feet to be bare.
She does not pretend that she is dressed. She knows she is naked. But she walks outside without any shyness, with the same confidence of movement she would have if she were covered in bluejeans and a red wool jacket and her green hat.
Craig sits by the lake drinking coffee. She walks into the woods, away from him. He turns his head and sees her. She has never done this before. She wonders if he will think she is strange. She wonders if he will follow her, and is glad when he does not. He says nothing.
The sky is gray and the big lake is duller and darker than the sky. In this dull light every color is accentuated, especially her skin. Her skin is white. The whiteness of her skin is like a thick, pale candle with a flame deep inside of it. In this light, the trees radiate greenness. In this light, blue veins glow through her skin.
She grabs the arm of a spruce and it springs back. She reaches for it again and puts it onto her shoulder and rubs it around there. She picks up a long pine needle from the ground and puts one end of it in her mouth. She is chewing on it. She puts her back against the thin bark of a birch tree.
Her shoulders and her hips and her thighs are softer than anything else: softer than pinecones or small chips of greenstone scattered around. She is the softest thing in the forest and the smoothest.
She is walking around trees and bushes and ducking under branches, naked. Some water is falling on her back. Her feet curve around rocks and moss and twigs. Wet leaves stick to her heels. She isn't cold. The air is still and as warm as she is. It is August.
She thinks her body is fine, out here.
She wants to stay in the forest for a longer time.
But Craig calls to me.
"Come here and listen."
I walk to him, past the tent, where I reach in and grab shorts and my blue shirt. He is still sitting by the lake. I smell his coffee. I sit down by him on a rock. I imagine her bare skin against this rock. He says, very softly, "Listen."
I ask, "What for?"
"For nothing," he says. "There is no sound."
With her short-story collections Cowboys Are My Weakness (1992) and Waltzing the Cat (1998), Pam Houston (born 1962) earned a reputation for writing about nature with the voice of a woman who is "physically bold and hopelessly romantic," as one reviewer put it. Marriage and maturity have toned down her addiction to taking physical risks in the outdoors, but her romance with nature continues to be evident in her writing. Raised in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Houston earned a degree from Dennison University in Ohio and worked on a doctorate in creative writing at the University of Utah before moving to California to write and teach. She has drawn on an array of globe-trotting outdoor adventures -- from working as a hunting guide in Alaska to trekking through Bhutan and rafting the Zambezi in Africa -- in writing for such magazines as Mirabella, Mademoiselle, and Oprah, and in producing her volume of essays, A Little More About Me (1999), where "Looking for Abbey's Lion" first appeared. She now spends part of every year teaching at the University of California, Davis, and the rest on her ranch in Colorado.
LOOKING FOR ABBEY'S LION
When I was a senior in college in Ohio, when the farthest west I had been was across the Indiana border one drunken night when a boyfriend and I drove in to my mother's hometown and stole the Lions Club's Welcome to Spiceland, Indiana sign, a good friend introduced me to the works of Edward Abbey. I devoured Desert Solitaire first, then The Journey Home, Down the River, Beyond the Wall, Black Sun, and The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey lived in the heart of wild country I could scarcely imagine as I looked out over those low green midwestern hills. Jagged granite peaks, silver in the twilight, bright orange labyrinths of twisted sandstone, wide rivers of thick muddy water moving through canyon walls five times higher than the tallest hill I could see from my dorm. The fact that Abbey was, like me, from a small town in Pennsylvania seemed rife with significance. If he could claim the west as his latter-day home, perhaps one day I could too.
Of all Abbey's writing that stays in my accessible memory, my favorite passage is one that appears in The Journey Home in an essay titled "Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom." Abbey is doing his usual canyon hike: too long, no water, too close to dark. He's found some mountain lion tracks halfway up the canyon, and since he's never seen a mountain lion, he's decided to follow them. But night comes down on him quickly, and he's forced to give up the search and turn around. As he walks through the gathering darkness toward the mouth of the canyon he hears footsteps behind him, once, twice, three times. They seem to stop when he stops, begin again when he walks on. Fear mounting inside of him, he swivels, suddenly, sharp and fast, and sees the lion, only fifty yards behind him, massive in the twilight and sleek, one paw raised in the air as if in greeting yellow eyes, unblinking and cool. Abbey holds out his own hand, and takes three slow steps toward the cat before he comes to his senses and decides he's not quite ready to shake a mountain lion's paw. The lion watches Abbey descend toward what's left of the light at the bottom of the canyon, unmoving, paw still raised.
The magic of that passage for me is contained in the moment of decision, the tension between Abbey's wanting to embrace that lion as if they were friends who'd met up after many years' separation, and his eventual respect for the lion's wildness, his recognition of the distance that must be maintained between the wild thing and himself, his understanding that wanting to shake the lion's paw must, for the time being, be enough.
I read that essay eleven years ago not knowing, in any exact sense, what a mountain lion looked like, not knowing, for that matter, what a canyon hike was. The one thing I did know, even then, is that I wanted to feel the spark of raw, communicable energy that translated between man and beast in Abbey's story, and that if I could ever stand face to face for even one brief moment with a mountain lion I would learn something invaluable about my life.
I headed west for the first time at the end of my senior year, and from the Missouri border on I kept my eyes trained on the sagebrush-sided highways, on the dense rocky outcroppings, hoping for a glimpse of Abbey's lion. And that first, awe-filled summer, when it seemed I couldn't keep my eyes open wide enough, long enough, to take the big country in, when it seemed I couldn't listen hard enough, breathe fast enough, walk far enough to do the land any kind of justice, I added hike after hike to my new life's list of accomplishments, my eyes always ready for a flash of feline muscle, my ears straining for the soft fall of padded feet. I sighted fresh tracks once, and older ones maybe half a dozen times, but I never rounded the corner in time to see the tip of a tail disappearing, and no yellow eyes ever turned around to follow me back down canyon, no muscley beast ever raised his paw in salute to me.
The west captured my soul and imagination like nothing before in my life. I cut my ties to the east and moved west permanently, my jobs cycling through the seasons, changing always in the direction of less and less pay per hour, and more and more hours outside. From a bartender to a bus driver to a highway flagger to a park ranger paid only as a volunteer, I finally settled into a career as a river and wilderness guide, my hours outside outnumbering those inside by almost four to one.
In eleven years of hiking, boating, guiding, and exploring I've come face to face with nearly every North American game species. I've watched a female black bear and her cubs gorge themselves on huckleberries, heard a big bull elk bugling not ten feet from my ear. I've had a timber wolf walk right through my campsite as if he intended to join me for dinner, and I've had an abandoned mule deer fawn come and eat grass out of my hand. I've walked through thick pine trees right into the knees of a confused cow moose, opened my eyes in the middle of the night to the inquisitive sniffing of a porcupine, watched a group of bighorn lambs play a very complicated game of King of the Hill on a craggy peak not twenty yards away. I've seen the hot puffy breath of a bison break the clarity of a frozen Yellowstone morning, and the first white fur of winter appear on the considerable feet of a snowshoe hare. I've followed a single coyote for miles across slickrock in hazy moonlight, and walked among a herd of pronghorn in the still heat of a high desert day. I've watched lynx, bobcat, ptarmigan, rattlesnake, golden eagles, whitetails, javelinas, hawks, and stumbled across more big male grizzly bears than anyone person ought to be allowed and still be around to tell about it. But I've still never come face to face with Abbey's lion.
It is clear to me, only now, that I came to live in the west not because I would see a mountain lion, but because I might see one. (If what I really wanted was to see a mountain lion I could have lived down the street from the Bronx Zoo.) And though I couldn't have imagined it from my dorm room in Ohio, the mountain lion has taught me his lesson not through a face-to- face encounter but through his elusiveness and intangibility. The mountain lion's lesson for me has been one of patience; even more correctly, it has been a lesson in the value of uncaptured dreams. For much as I have loved the heart-stopping surprise of my encounters with bear, with wolf, with coyote, they cannot match the power and purity of my unrequited desire to see Abbey's lion. A dream unrealized, the lion has taught me, is the essential food of the soul.
And I have imagined him, so many times, the way he will stand, his fur, shades of dusky gold in the late-afternoon sunlight, his eyes suggesting a game I'll most likely not play. He is with me always, this lion of my imagination. He will keep my eyes wide open as I'm walking through the canyons. He will keep my love of and wonder at the landscape that surrounds me ever rare, ever young.
Roberta Hill Whiteman (born 1947), a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, is a poet, fiction writer, and scholar. Respect for and identity with nature is an underlying theme in her poetry, which has been published in two collections and in many magazines and anthologies. Born in Wisconsin, she received a B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, an M.F.A. from the University of Montana, and a Ph.D. in American studies from the University of Montana. In her doctoral dissertation and a forthcoming biography, she documents the life of her grandmother, Dr. Lillie Rosa Minoka-Hill, the second Native American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. Whiteman is an associate professor of English and American Indian studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the mother of three children. The following is from her first book of poetry, Star Quilt (1984).
We learn too late
the useless way light leaves
Gretel Ehrlich (born 1946) has brought a poet's use of language and a Buddhist sensibility to a diverse body of work that explores landscapes both inner and outer. Best known for her essays on ranch life in Wyoming, she started her writing career by publishing poetry and since then has spanned genres and continents. She was born and raised in Santa Barbara, went east to Bennington College, and attended film school at the University of California, Los Angeles. She first visited Wyoming in 1976 to film a PBS documentary on sheepherding. When her partner on the project and in love died, she stayed in Wyoming, "paralyzed by grief, unable to leave the harsh, arid landscape I was beginning to love." Her first book of essays, The Solace of Open Spaces (1985), grew out of journal entries made as she was learning to herd cattle and sheep. She eventually married a rancher and bought a neglected ranch with him, but the marriage was unraveling when she was struck by lightning in 1991 and returned to California to recover. Since then she has written a children's book, travel books about climbing sacred Buddhist mountains in China and Tibet and exploring Greenland, a memoir about the experience of being struck by lightning, and a biography of John Muir, as well as providing text for several photographic books on outdoor themes. The following essay is from her 1991 collection Islands, the Universe, Home.
THE SOURCE OF A RIVER
It's morning in the Absaroka Mountains. The word absaroka means "raven" in the Crow language, though I've seen no ravens in three days. Last night I slept with my head butted against an Engelmann's spruce, and when I woke, it was a many-armed goddess swinging around and around. The trunk is bigger than an elephant's leg. I stick my nose against it. Tiny opals of sap stick to my cheeks where the bark breaks up, textured: red and gray, coarse and smooth, wet and flaked.
I'm looking for the source of the Yellowstone River, and as we make the day-long ascent from a valley, I think about walking and wilderness. We use the word "wilderness," but perhaps we mean wildness. Isn't that why I've come here, to seek the wildness in myself and, in so doing, come on the wildness everywhere, because after all, I'm part of nature too.
Following the coastline of the lake, I watch how wind picks up water in dark blasts and drops it again. Ducks glide in V's away from me, out onto the fractured, darkening mirror. I stop. A hatch of mayflies powders the air, and the archaic, straight-winged dragonflies hang blunt-nosed above me. A friend talks about aquatic bugs: water beetles, spinners, assassin bugs, and one that hatches, mates, and dies in a total life span of two hours. At the end of the meadow, the lake drains into a fast-moving creek. I quicken my pace and trudge upward. Walking is almost an ambulation of mind. The human armor of bones rattles, fat rolls, and inside this durable, fleshy prison of mine, I make a beeline toward otherness, lightness, or like a moth, toward flame.
Somewhere along the trail I laugh out loud. How shell-like the body seems suddenly -- not fleshy at all, but inhuman and hard. And farther up, I step out of my skin though I'm still held fast by something, but what? I don't know.
How foolish the preparations for wilderness trips seem now. We pore over maps, chart our expeditions. We "gear up" at trail heads with pitons and crampons, horsepacks and backpacks, fly rods and cameras, forgetting the meaning of simply going, the mechanics of disburdenment. I look up from these thoughts: a blue heron rises from a gravel bar and glides behind a gray screen of dead trees, appears in an opening where an avalanche downed pines, and lands again on water.
I stop to eat lunch. Emerson wrote: "The Gautama said that the first men ate the earth and found it sweet." I eat bologna and cheese and think about eating dirt. At this moment the mouth frames wonder, its width stands for the generous palate of consciousness. I cleanse my taste buds with miner's lettuce and stream water and try to imagine what kinds of sweetness the earth provides: the taste of glacial flour or the mineral taste of basalt, the fresh and foul bouquets of rivers, the desiccated, stinging flavor of a snowflake.
As I begin to walk again, it occurs to me that this notion of eating the earth is not about gluttony but about unconditional love, an acceptance of whatever taste comes across my tongue: flesh, wine, the unremarkable flavor of dirt. To find wildness, I must first offer myself up, accept all that comes before me: a bullfrog breathing hard on a rock; moose tracks under elk scats; a cloud that looks like a clothespin; a seep of water from a high cirque, black on brown rock, draining down from the brain of the world.
At treeline, bird song stops. I'm lifted into a movement of music with no particular notes, only windsounds becoming watersounds, becoming windsounds. Above, a cornice crowns a ridge and melts into a teal and turquoise lake, which, like a bladder, leaks its alchemical potions.
On top of Marston Pass I'm in a ruck of steep valleys and gray, treeless peaks. The alpine carpet, studded with red paintbrush and alpine buttercups, gives way to rock. Now, all the way across a valley, I see where water oozes from moss and mud how, at its source, it quickly becomes a river.
Emerson also said: "Every natural fact is an emanation, and that from which it emanates is an emanation also, and from every emanation is a new emanation." The ooze, the source of a great river, is now a white chute tumbling over brown bellies of conglomerate rock. Wind throws sheets of water to another part of the mountainside; soft earth gives way under my feet, clouds spill upward and spit rain. Isn't everything redolent with loss, with momentary radiance, a coming to different ground? Stone basins catch the waterfall, spill it again; thoughts and desires strung together are laddered down.
I see where meltwater is split by rock -- half going west to the Pacific, the other going east to the Atlantic -- for this is the Continental Divide. Down the other side, the air I gulp feels softer. Ice bridges the creek, then, when night comes but before the full moon, falling stars have the same look as water falling against the rock of night.
To rise above treeline is to go above thought, and after, the descent back into bird song, bog orchids, willows, and firs is to sink into the preliterate parts of ourselves. It is to forget discontent, undisciplined needs. Here, the world is only space, raw loneliness, green valleys hung vertically. Losing myself to it -- if I can -- I do not fall ... or if I do, I'm only another cataract of water.
Wildness has no conditions, no sure routes, no peaks or goals, no source that is not instantly becoming something more than itself, then letting go of that, always becoming. It cannot be stripped to its complexity by CAT scan or telescope. Rather, it is a many-pointed truth, almost a bluntness, a sudden essence like the wild strawberries strung on scarlet runners under my feet. For half a mile, on hands and knees, I eat and eat. Wildness is source and fruition at once, as if this river circled round, mouth eating tail and tail eating source.
Now I am camped among trees again. Four yearling moose, their chestnut coats shiny from a summer's diet of willow shoots, tramp past my bedroll and drink from a spring that issues sulfurous water. The ooze, the white chute, the narrow stream -- now almost a river -- joins this small spring and slows into skinny oxbows and deep pools before breaking again on rock, down a stepladder of sequined riffles.
To trace the history of a river or a raindrop, as John Muir would have done, is also to trace the history of the soul, the history of the mind descending and arising in the body. In both, we constantly seek and stumble on divinity, which, like the cornice feeding the lake, and the spring becoming a waterfall, feeds, spills, falls, and feeds itself over and over again.
Lorraine Anderson (born 1952), editor of Sisters of the Earth, is a freelance editor, writer, and teacher whose work focuses on encouraging a reciprocal relationship with nature. Born in San Jose, California, she spent her first decade on her family's small free-range chicken farm in the Santa Clara Valley, at a time when the area was still covered with blossoming orchards in the springtime and known as "The Valley of Hearts Delight," before suburban sprawl, freeways, and tilt-up concrete buildings turned the place into "Silicon Valley." During her high school years in Incline Village, Nevada, at Lake Tahoe, she hiked and camped frequently with her family in the Sierra Nevada. She graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Utah, completed the Stanford Publishing Course, and earned an M.A. in creation spirituality from Naropa University. She served as lead editor of the college textbook Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture (1998) and collaborated with Thomas Edwards On the anthology At Home on This Earth: Two Centuries of U.S. Women's Nature Writing (2002). The following essay was first published in the anthology The Soul Unearthed (edited by Cass Adams, 1996). Her essays have also appeared in Terra Nova and Orion.
WILDERNESS IN THE BLOOD
Our blood is a remnant of the great salty ocean in us. It flows with the tides, subject to the moon's pull.
My blood comes unexpectedly while I'm on my vision quest in the Sierra Nevada; I am not prepared. The September air is soft against my skin as I squat naked, soft as I watch the dark stream trickle from between my thighs, soft as my blood splatters and runs on the lichen-covered slab of granite that serves as my altar. The day is bright with the thin rays of autumn sun. But I see the rains coming soon, washing all trace of my blood into the earth; I see the snow lying on the land; I see the snowmelt and the tiny plants springing from the pungent earth, nourished by my blood. I see the circle close.
Our bodies are the earth of us. They follow the laws of everything else in nature: birth, growth, decline, death, decay. Blood courses through the rivers in our bodies, irrigating our lands.
In my sacred circle of stones, on my granite slab, quiet and inward in the mountains, I see how our culture teaches us to ignore all evidence of our connection to the wild. We are taught to catch our blood with neat white pads, bleached with deadly dioxin; we are taught to flush our blood down white enamel toilets. We are not taught how to complete the circuit, from earth to blood, blood to earth. This knowledge is kept from us, this knowledge of how securely we are woven into the web. This is the knowledge that is forbidden in our culture and so we live lives of mistaken identity.
A wild rhythm pulses in our blood. A wild river pulses in our blood.
I know a woman who gathers her blood on cloth pads, soaks them in a bucket of water, uses the enriched water to nourish her garden. What an appropriate gesture to honor the truth of our lives. Back from my vision quest, I often let expediency rule my life, instead of beauty, or appropriateness, or truth, or wilderness. But I know now, and I don't have to go to the mountains to remember, because my blood in the wilderness woke me to the wilderness in my blood.
A prolific journal keeper, Meridel Le Sueur (1900-1996) began very early in her life to consider herself a scribe for the oppressed and exploited-farm laborers, factory workers, native peoples, women, the earth. Born in Murray, Iowa, she was influenced by the open landscape, the strong women of her family, prairie populism, and the socialist politics of her lawyer stepfather. After dropping out of high school, living in a New York anarchist commune with Emma Goldman, and acting in such early movies as The Last of the Mohicans and The Perils of Pauline, she married a labor organizer and bore two daughters. She began to publish short stories in the late twenties. She also wrote essays and articles for left-wing periodicals and was informally blacklisted during the McCarthy era, at which point she turned to writing children's stories about American cultural heroes such as Johnny Appleseed and Abraham Lincoln. Later work, including collections of poetry and short stories as well as a novel, is marked by a luminous earth-based spirituality. In all, she produced nineteen books and more than 125 volumes of her journal, as yet unpublished. Her early and perhaps finest short story, "Annunciation," was written as notes to her own unborn child throughout 1927 and first published in 1935 before being collected in Salute to Spring (1940). It links the body of woman with the body of earth and celebrates the sacredness of fertility, themes that were to run throughout her work.
Ever since I have known I was going to have a child I have kept writing things down on these little scraps of paper. There is something I want to say, something I want to make clear for myself and others. One lives all one's life in a sort of way, one is alive and that is about all that there is to say about it. Then something happens.
There is the pear tree I can see in the afternoons as I sit on this porch writing these notes. It stands for something. It has had something to do with what has happened to me. I sit here all afternoon in the autumn sun and then I begin to write something on this yellow paper; something seems to be going on like a buzzing, a flying and circling within me, and then I want to write it down in some way. I have never felt this way before, except when I was a girl and was first in love and wanted then to set things down on paper so that they would not be lost. It is something perhaps like a farmer who hears the swarming of a host of bees and goes out to catch them so that he will have honey. If he does not go out right away, they will go, and he will hear the buzzing growing more distant in the afternoon.
My sweater pocket is full of scraps of paper on which I have written. I sit here many afternoons while Karl is out looking for work, writing on pieces of paper, unfolding, reading what I have already written.
We have been here two weeks at Mrs. Mason's boarding house. The leaves are falling and there is a golden haze over everything. This is the fourth month for me and it is fall. A rich powerful haze comes down from the mountains over the city. In the afternoon I go out for a walk. There is a park just two blocks from here. Old men and tramps lie on the grass all day. It is hard to get work. Many people besides Karl are out of work. People are hungry just as I am hungry. People are ready to flower and they cannot. In the evenings we go there with a sack of old fruit we can get at the stand across the way quite cheap, bunches of grapes and old pears. At noon there is a hush in the air and at evening there are stirrings of wind coming from the sky, blowing in the fallen leaves, or perhaps there is a light rain, falling quickly on the walk. Early in the mornings the sun comes up hot in the sky and shines all day through the mist. It is strange, I notice all these things, the sun, the rain falling, the blowing of the wind. It is as if they had a meaning for me as the pear tree has come to have.
In front of Mrs. Mason's house there is a large magnolia tree with its blossoms yellow, hanging over the steps almost within reach. Its giant leaves are motionless and shining in the heat, occasionally as I am going down the steps towards the park one falls heavily on the walk.
This house is an old wooden one, that once was quite a mansion I imagine. There are glass chandeliers in the hall and fancy tile in the bathrooms. It was owned by the rich once and now the dispossessed live in it with the rats. We have a room three flights up. You go into the dark hallway and up the stairs. Broken settees and couches sit in the halls. About one o'clock the girls come downstairs to get their mail and sit on the front porch. The blinds go up in the old wooden house across the street. It is always quite hot at noon.
Next to our room lies a sick woman in what is really a kind of closet with no windows. As you pass you see her face on the pillow and a nauseating odor of sickness comes out the door. I haven't asked her what is the matter with her but everyone knows she is waiting for death. Somehow it is not easy to speak to her. No one comes to see her. She has been a housemaid all her life tending other people's children; now no one comes to see her. She gets up sometimes and drinks a little from the bottle of milk that is always sitting by her bed covered with flies.
Mrs. Mason, the landlady, is letting us stay although we have only paid a week's rent and have been here over a week without paying. But it is a bad season and we may be able to pay later. It is better perhaps for her than having an empty room. But I hate to go out and have to pass her door and I am always fearful of meeting her on the stairs. I go down as quietly as I can but it isn't easy, for the stairs creak frightfully.
The room we have on the top floor is a back room, opening out onto an old porch which seems to be actually tied to the wall of the house with bits of wire and rope. The floor of it slants downward to a rickety railing. There is a box perched on the railing that has geraniums in it. They are large, tough California geraniums. I guess nothing can kill them. I water them since I have been here and a terribly red flower has come. It is on this porch I am sitting. Just over the banisters stand the top branches of a pear tree.
Many afternoons I sit here. It has become a kind of alive place to me. The room is dark behind me, with only the huge walnut tree scraping against the one window over the kitchenette. If I go to the railing and look down I can see far below the backyard which has been made into a garden with two fruit trees and I can see where a path has gone in the summer between a small bed of flowers, now only dead stalks. The ground is bare under the walnut tree where little sun penetrates. There is a dog kennel by the round trunk but there doesn't ever seem to be a dog. An old wicker chair sits outdoors in rain or shine. A woman in an old wrapper comes out and sits there almost every afternoon. I don't know who she is, for I don't know anybody in this house, having to sneak downstairs as I do.
Karl says I am foolish to be afraid of the landlady. He comes home drunk and makes a lot of noise. He says she's lucky in these times to have anybody in her house, but I notice in the mornings he goes down the stairs quietly and often goes out the back way.
I'm alone all day so I sit on this rickety porch. Straight out from the rail so that I can almost touch it is the radiating frail top of the pear tree that has opened a door for me. If the pears were still hanging on it each would be alone and separate with a kind of bloom upon it. Such a bloom is upon me at this moment. Is it possible that everyone, Mrs. Mason who runs this boarding house, the woman next door, the girls downstairs, all in this dead wooden house have hung at one time, each separate in a mist and bloom upon some invisible tree? I wonder if it is so.
I am in luck to have this high porch to sit on and this tree swaying before me through the long afternoons and the long nights. Before we came here, after the show broke up in S.F. we were in an old hotel, a foul smelling place with a dirty chambermaid and an old cat in the halls, and night and day we could hear the radio going in the office. We had a room with a window looking across a narrow way into another room where a lean man stood in the mornings looking across, shaving his evil face. By leaning out and looking up I could see straight up the sides of the tall building and above the smoky sky.
Most of the time I was sick from the bad food we ate. Karl and I walked the streets looking for work. Sometimes I was too sick to go. Karl would come in and there would be no money at all. He would go out again to perhaps borrow something. I know many times he begged although we never spoke of it, but I could tell by the way he looked when he came back with a begged quarter. He went in with a man selling Mexican beans but he didn't make much. I lay on the bed bad days feeling sick and hungry, sick too with the stale odor of the foul walls. I would lie there a long time listening to the clang of the city outside. I would feel thick with this child. For some reason I remember that I would sing to myself and often become happy as if mesmerized there in the foul room. It must have been because of this child. Karl would come back perhaps with a little money and we would go out to a dairy lunch and there have food I could not relish. The first alleyway I must give it up with the people all looking at me.
Karl would be angry. He would walk on down the street so people wouldn't think he was with me. Once we walked until evening down by the docks. "Why don't you take something?" he kept saying. "Then you wouldn't throw up your food like that. Get rid of it. That's what everybody does nowadays. This isn't the time to have a child. Everything is rotten. We must change it." He kept on saying, "Get rid of it. Take something why don't you?" And he got angry when I didn't say anything but just walked along beside him. He shouted so loud at me that some stevedores loading a boat for L.A. laughed at us and began kidding us, thinking perhaps we were lovers having a quarrel.
Some time later, I don't know how long it was, for I hadn't any time except the nine months I was counting off, but one evening Karl sold enough Mexican jumping beans at a carnival to pay our fare, so we got on a river boat and went up the river to a delta town. There might be a better chance of a job. On this boat you can sit up all night if you have no money to buy a berth. We walked all evening along the deck and then when it got cold we went into the saloon because we had pawned our coats. Already at that time I had got the habit of carrying slips of paper around with me and writing on them, as I am doing now. I had a feeling then that something was happening to me of some kind of loveliness I would want to preserve in some way. Perhaps that was it. At any rate I was writing things down. Perhaps it had something to do with Karl wanting me all the time to take something. "Everybody does it," he kept telling me. "It's nothing, then it's all over." I stopped talking to him much. Everything I said only made him angry. So writing was a kind of conversation I carried on with myself and with the child.
Well, on the river boat that night after we had gone into the saloon to get out of the cold, Karl went to sleep right away in a chair. But I couldn't sleep. I sat watching him. The only sound was the churning of the paddle wheel and the lap of the water. I had on then this sweater and the notes I wrote are still in the breast pocket. I would look up from writing and see Karl sleeping like a young boy.
''Tonight, the world into which you are coming" -- then I was speaking to the invisible child -- "is very strange and beautiful. That is, the natural world is beautiful. I don't know what you will think of man, but the dark glisten of vegetation and the blowing of the fertile land wind and the delicate strong step of the sea wind, these things are familiar to me and will be familiar to you. I hope you will be like these things. I hope you will glisten with the glisten of ancient life, the same beauty that is in a leaf or a wild rabbit, wild sweet beauty of limb and eye. I am going on a boat between dark shores, and the river and the sky are so quiet that I can hear the scurryings of tiny animals on the shores and their little breathings seem to be all around. I think of them, wild, carrying their young now, crouched in the dark underbrush with the fruit-scented land wind in their delicate nostrils, and they are looking out at the moon and the fast clouds. Silent, alive, they sit in the dark shadow of the greedy world. There is something wild about us too, something tender and wild about my having you as a child, about your crouching so secretly here. There is something very tender and wild about it. We, too, are at the mercy of many hunters. On this boat I act like the other human beings, for I do not show that I have you, but really I know we are as helpless, as wild, as at bay as some tender wild animals who might be on the ship.
"I put my hand where you lie so silently. I hope you will come glistening with life power, with it shining upon you as upon the feathers of birds. I hope you will be a warrior and fierce for change, so all can live."
Karl woke at dawn and was angry with me for sitting there looking at him. Just to look at me makes him angry now. He took me out and made me walk along the deck although it was hardly light yet. I gave him the "willies" he said, looking at him like that. We walked round and round the decks and he kept talking to me in a low voice, trying to persuade me. It was hard for me to listen. My teeth were chattering with cold, but anyway I found it hard to listen to anyone talking, especially Karl. I remember I kept thinking to myself that a child should be made by machinery now, then there would be no fuss. I kept thinking of all the places I had been with this new child, traveling with the show from Tia Juana to S.F. In trains, over mountains, through deserts, in hotels and rooming houses, and myself in a trance of wonder. There wasn't a person I could have told it to, that I was going to have a child. I didn't want to be pitied. Night after night we played in the tent and the faces were all dust to me, but traveling, through the window the many vistas of the earth meant something -- the bony skeleton of the mountains, like the skeleton of the world jutting through its flowery flesh. My child too would be made of bone. There were the fields of summer, the orchards fruiting, the berry fields and the pickers stooping, the oranges and the grapes. Then the city again in September and the many streets I walk looking for work, stopping secretly in doorways to feel beneath my coat.
It is better in this small town with the windy fall days and the sudden rain falling out of a sunny sky. I can't look for work anymore. Karl gets a little work washing dishes at a wienie place. I sit here on the porch as if in a deep sleep waiting for this unknown child. I keep hearing this far flight of strange birds going on in the mysterious air about me. This time has come without warning. How can it be explained? Everything is dead and closed, the world a stone, and then suddenly everything comes alive as it has for me, like an anemone on a rock, opening itself, disclosing itself, and the very stones themselves break open like bread. It has all got something to do with the pear tree too. It has come about some way as I have sat here with this child so many afternoons, with the pear tree murmuring in the air.
The pears are all gone from the tree but I imagine them hanging there, ripe curves within the many scimitar leaves, and within them many pears of the coming season. I feel like a pear. I hang secret within the curling leaves, just as the pear would be hanging on its tree. It seems possible to me that perhaps all people at some time feel this, round and full. You can tell by looking at most people that the world remains a stone to them and a closed door. I'm afraid it will become like that to me again. Perhaps after this child is born, then everything will harden and become small and mean again as it was before. Perhaps I would even have a hard time remembering this time at all and it wouldn't seem wonderful. That is why I would like to write it down.
How can it be explained? Suddenly many movements are going on within me, many things are happening, there is an almost unbearable sense of sprouting, of bursting encasements, of moving kernels, expanding flesh. Perhaps it is such an activity that makes a field come alive with millions of sprouting shoots of corn or wheat. Perhaps it is something like that that makes a new world.
I have been sitting here and it seems as if the wooden houses around me had become husks that suddenly as I watched began to swarm with livening seed. The house across becomes a fermenting seed alive with its own movements. Everything seems to be moving along a curve of creation. The alley below and all the houses are to me like an orchard abloom, shaking and trembling, moving outward with shouting. The people coming and going seem to hang on the tree of life, each blossoming from himself. I am standing here looking at the blind windows of the house next door and suddenly the walls fall away, the doors open, and within I see a young girl making a bed from which she had just risen having dreamed of a young man who became her lover ... she stands before her looking-glass in love with herself.
I see in another room a young man sleeping, his bare arm thrown over his head. I see a woman lying on a bed after her husband has left her. There is a child looking at me. An old woman sits rocking. A boy leans over a table reading a book. A woman who has been nursing a child comes out and hangs clothes on the line, her dress in front wet with milk. A young woman comes to an open door looking up and down the street waiting for her young husband. I get up early to see this young woman come to the door in a pink wrapper and wave to her husband. They have only been married a short time, she stands waving until he is out of sight and even then she stands smiling to herself, her hand upraised.
Why should I be excited? Why should I feel this excitement, seeing a woman waving to her young husband, or a woman who has been nursing a child, or a young man sleeping? Yet I am excited. The many houses have become like an orchard blooming soundlessly. The many people have become like fruits to me, the young girl in the room alone before her mirror, the young man sleeping, the mother, all are shaking with their inward blossoming, shaken by the windy blooming, moving along a future curve.
I do not want it all to go away from me. Now many doors are opening and shutting, light is falling upon darkness, closed places are opening, still things are now moving. But there will come a time when the doors will close again, the shouting will be gone, the sprouting and the movement and the wonderous opening out of everything will be gone. I will be only myself. I will come to look like the women in this house. I try to write it down on little slips of paper, trying to preserve this time for myself so that afterwards when everything is the same again I can remember what all must have.
This is the spring there should be in the world, so I say to myself, "Lie in the sun with the child in your flesh shining like a jewel. Dream and sing, pagan, wise in your vitals. Stand still like a fat budding tree, like a stalk of corn athrob and aglisten in the heat. Lie like a mare panting with the dancing feet of colts against her sides. Sleep at night as the spring earth. Walk heavily as a wheat stalk at its full time bending towards the earth waiting for the reaper. Let your life swell downward so you become like a vase, a vessel. Let the unknown child knock and knock against you and rise like a dolphin within."
I look at myself in the mirror. My legs and head hardly make a difference, just a stem my legs. My hips are full and tight in back as if bracing themselves. I look like a pale and shining pomegranate, hard and tight, and my skin shines like crystal with the veins showing beneath blue and distended. Children are playing outside and girls are walking with young men along the walk. All that seems over for me. I am a pomegranate hanging from an invisible tree with the juice and movement of seed within my hard skin. I dress slowly. I hate the smell of clothes. I want to leave them off and just hang in the sun ripening ... ripening.
It is hard to write it down so that it will mean anything. I've never heard anything about how a woman feels who is going to have a child, or about how a pear tree feels bearing its fruit. I would like to read these things many years from now, when I am barren and no longer trembling like this, when I get like the women in this house, or like the woman in the closed room, I can hear her breathing through the afternoon.
When Karl has no money he does not come back at night. I go out on the street walking to forget how hungry I am. This is an old town and along the streets are many old strong trees. Night leaves hang from them ready to fall, dark and swollen with their coming death. Trees, dark, separate, heavy with their down-hanging leaves, cool surfaces hanging on the dark. I put my hand among the leaf sheaves. They strike with a cool surface, their glossy surfaces surprising me in the dark. I feel like a tree swirling upwards too, muscular sap alive, with rich surfaces hanging from me, flaring outward rocket-like and falling to my roots, a rich strong power in me to break through into a new life. And dark in me as I walk the streets of this decayed town are the buds of my child. I walk alone under the dark flaring trees. There are many houses with the lights shining out but you and I walk on the skirts of the lawns amidst the downpouring darkness. Houses are not for us. For us many kinds of hunger, for us a deep rebellion.
Trees come from a far seed walking the wind, my child too from a far seed blowing from last year's rich and revolutionary dead. My child budding secretly from far walking seed, budding secretly and dangerously in the night.
The woman has come out and sits in the rocker, reading, her fat legs crossed. She scratches herself, cleans her nails, picks her teeth. Across the alley lying flat on the ground is a garage. People are driving in and out. But up here it is very quiet and the movement of the pear tree is the only movement and I seem to hear its delicate sound of living as it moves upon itself silently, and outward and upward.
The leaves twirl and twirl all over the tree, the delicately curving tinkling leaves. They twirl and twirl on the tree and the tree moves far inward upon its stem, moves in an invisible wind, gently swaying. Far below straight down the vertical stem like a stream, black and strong into the ground, runs the trunk; and invisible, spiraling downward and outward in powerful radiation, lie the roots. I can see it spiraling upwards from below, its stem straight, and from it, spiraling the branches season by season, and from the spiraling branches moving out in quick motion, the forked stems, and from the stems twirling fragilely the tinier stems holding outward until they fall, the half curled pear leaves.
Far below lies the yard, lying flat and black beneath the body of the upshooting tree, for the pear tree from above looks as if it had been shot instantaneously from the ground, shot upward like a rocket to break in showers of leaves and fruits twirling and falling. Its movement looks quick, sudden and rocketing. My child when grown can be looked at in this way as if it suddenly existed ... but I know the slow time of making. The pear tree knows. Far inside the vertical stem there must be a movement, a river of sap rising from below and radiating outward in many directions clear to the tips of the leaves. The leaves are the lips of the tree speaking in the wind or they move like many tongues. The fruit of the tree you can see has been a round speech, speaking in full tongue on the tree, hanging in ripe body, the fat curves hung within the small curves of the leaves. I imagine them there. The tree has shot up like a rocket, then stops in midair and its leaves flow out gently and its fruit curves roundly and gently in a long slow curve. All is gentle on the pear tree after its strong upward shooting movement.
I sit here all the afternoon as if in its branches, midst the gentle and curving body of the tree. I have looked at it until it has become more familiar to me than Karl. It seems a strange thing that a tree might come to mean more to one than one's husband. It seems a shameful thing even. I am ashamed to think of it but it is so. I have sat here in the pale sun and the tree has spoken to me with its many tongued leaves, speaking through the afternoon of how to round a fruit. And I listen through the slow hours. I listen to the whisperings of the pear tree, speaking to me, speaking to me. How can I describe what is said by a pear tree? Karl did not speak to me so. No one spoke to me in any good speech.
There is a woman coming up the stairs, slowly. I can hear her breathing. I can hear her behind me at the screen door.
She came out and spoke to me. I know why she was looking at me so closely. "I hear you're going to have a child," she said: "It's too bad." She is the same color as the dead leaves in the park. Was she once alive too?
I am writing on a piece of wrapping paper now. It is about ten o'clock. Karl didn't come home and I had no supper. I walked through the streets with their heavy, heavy trees bending over the walks and the lights shining from the houses and over the river the mist rising.
Before I came into this room I went out and saw the pear tree standing motionless, its leaves curled in the dark, its radiating body falling darkly, like a stream far below into the earth.
Maria Melendez (born 1974) incorporates environmental elements in her work as a poet and teacher while at the same time seeking to challenge the conventions of nature writing. Born in Tucson, Arizona, she earned a B.A. at Colorado State University and an M.A. in creative writing at the University of California, Davis. She served as writer-in-residence at the UC Davis Arboretum for three years, teaching multicultural environmental writing classes. She is active in community arts through the university's Putah-Cache Bioregion Project, is a poet in the schools; and is working on a novel about living whole in a poisonous world. Her work is introduced by Gary Snyder in Mark My Words: Five Emerging Poets (2001). "A Different Sympathy" is from her chap book entitled Base Pairs (2001). The poem grew out of the experience of nursing her first child (she now has two), while living in a one-room cabin beside the rising waters of Ditch Creek, at the Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
A DIFFERENT SYMPATHY
If the cord snared
and if, on a slow walk,
you saw the
river's bulging edge,
Martha Reben (1922-1964) spent most of her life in the Adirondack wilderness after going there to seek a cure for an advanced case of tuberculosis diagnosed when she was sixteen. Born Martha Rebentisch in Manhattan, she spent three bedridden years and endured three operations at Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, a popular resort for those afflicted with TB, before answering an ad placed by a woodsman who advocated the outdoors as a cure. Fred Rice took her twelve miles into the woods to the shore of Weller Pond to camp, and taught her to hunt (though she soon gave this up, having "no heart for killing"), fish, and find her way through the woods with a compass. Martha spent many subsequent summer seasons alone there and returned to a small cabin on the outskirts of the village each winter. Ten years later, the doctors pronounced her free of TB. "The wilderness did more than heal my lungs. ... It taught me fortitude and self-reliance, and with its tranquility it bestowed upon me something which would sustain me as long as I lived: a sense of the freshness and the wonder which life in natural surroundings daily brings and a joy in the freedom and beauty and peace that exist in a world apart from human beings," she wrote in the first of three books about her experiences, The Healing Woods (1952). Her second book, The Way of the Wilderness (1955), shares insights gleaned about livelihood, freedom, and human relationships as she worked out in practical terms her determination to spend her life in the woods; A Sharing of Joy (1963), source of the following excerpt, culls the best wildlife stories from the first two books.
I sat alone before my campfire one evening, watching as the sunset colors deepened to purple, the sky slowly darkened, and the stars came out. A deep peace lay over the woods and waters.
Gradually the wilderness around me merged into the blue of night. There was no sound save the crackle of my fire as the flames blazed around the birch and cedar logs.
The moon came up behind the black trees to the east, and the wilderness stood forth, vast, mysterious, still. All at once the silence and the solitude were touched by wild music, thin as air, the faraway gabbling of geese flying at night.
Presently I caught sight of them as they streamed across the face of the moon, the high, excited clamor of their voices tingling through the night, and suddenly I saw, in one of those rare moments of insight, what it means to be wild and free. As they went over me, I was there with them, passing over the moonlit countryside, glorying with them in their strong-hearted journeying, exulting in its joy and splendor.
The haunting voices grew fainter and faded in distance, but I sat on, stirred by a memory of something beautiful and ancient and now lost -- a forgotten freedom we must all once have shared with other wild things, which only they and the wilderness can still recall to us, so that life becomes again, for a time, the wonderful, sometimes frightening, but fiercely joyous adventure it was intended to be.
Sue Hubbell (born 1935) writes about country living and the small creatures of this earth with a style that combines a willingness to be amazed and a mild tongue-in-cheek humor with a librarian's patient pursuit of facts. She was a beekeeper in the Ozarks of southern Missouri for twenty-five years, and her first book of nature writing, A Country Year (1986), source of the following selection, emerged as she lived the questions that her tenure there posed. Subsequent books have explored the lives of bees and bugs and other invertebrates, gathered a series of travel essays, and taken a long view of genetic engineering. Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Hubbell attended Swarthmore College and the University of Michigan before earning degrees from the University of Southern California and Drexel Institute. She worked as a librarian until she and her husband bought the 105-acre hilltop farm that launched her writing career. When he left, she struggled to run their beekeeping and honey business alone because it allowed her to stay in touch with the wild things and wild places she loved. She eventually married again and divided her time for a while between Missouri and her husband's home in Washington, D.C., before the two bought a house on the coast of Maine. Hubbell's brother, Bil Gilbert, is also a writer on the natural world; her cousin Asher, referred to in the following selection, is the world's foremost authority on ear mites in moths; and her daughter- in-law, Liddy, has illustrated some of her later books.
Hoohoo-hoohoo ... hoohoo-hoohooaww. My neighbor across the river is doing his barred owl imitation in hopes of rousing a turkey from the roost. It is turkey-hunting season, and at dawn the hunters are trying to outwit wild turkeys and I listen to them as I drink my coffee under the oak trees.
Hoohoo-hoohoo ... hoohoo-hoohooawww.
GahgahGAHgah replies an imitation turkey from another direction. I know that neighbor, too. Yesterday he showed me the hand-held wooden box with which he made the noise that is supposed to sound like a turkey cock gobbling. It doesn't. After the turkey cocks are down from their roosts, the hunters, by imitating hen turkeys, try to call them close enough to shoot them. The barred owl across the river once showed me his turkey caller. He held it in his mouth and made a soft clucking noise with it.
"Now this is the really sexy one," he said, arching one eyebrow, "putput . . . putterputput. "
It is past dawn now, and I imagine both men are exasperated. I have not heard one real turkey yet this morning. The hunting season is set by the calendar but the turkeys breed by the weather, and the spring has been so wet and cold that their mating has been delayed this year. In the last few mornings I have started hearing turkeys gobbling occasionally, and it will be another week or two before a wise and wary turkey cock could be fooled by a man with a caller.
There are other birds out there this morning. The indigo buntings, who will be the first birds to sing in the dawn later on, have not yet returned to the Ozarks, but I can hear cardinals and Carolina chickadees. They wintered here, but today their songs are of springtime. There are chipping sparrows above me in the oak trees and field sparrows nearby. There are warblers, too; some of their songs are familiar, and others, those of the migrators are not. I hear one of the most beautiful of birdsongs, that of the white-throated sparrow. He is supposed to sing "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody." This is the cadence, to be sure, but it gives no hint of the lyrical clarity and sweetness of the descending notes of his song.
I slept outdoors last night because I could not bear to go in. The cabin, which only last winter seemed cozy and inviting, has begun to seem stuffy and limiting, so I spread a piece of plastic on the ground to keep off the damp, put my sleeping bag on it and dropped off to sleep watching the stars. Tazzie likes to be near me, and with me on the ground she could press right up to my back. But Andy is a conservative dog who worries a lot, and he thought it was unsound to sleep outside where there might be snakes and beetles. He whined uneasily as I settled in, and once during the night he woke me up, nuzzling me and whimpering, begging to be allowed to go inside to his rug. I think he may be more domesticated than I am. I wonder if I am becoming feral. Wild things and wild places pull me more strongly than they did a few years ago, and domesticity, dusting and cookery interest me not at all.
Sometimes I wonder where we older women fit into the social scheme of things once nest building has lost its charm. A generation ago Margaret Mead, who had a good enough personal answer to this question, wondered the same thing, and pointed out that in other times and other cultures we have had a role.
There are so many of us that it is tempting to think of us as a class. We are past our reproductive years. Men don't want us; they prefer younger women. It makes good biological sense for males to be attracted to females who are at an earlier point in their breeding years and who still want to build nests, and if that leaves us no longer able to lose ourselves in the pleasures and closeness of pairing, well, we have gained our Selves. We have another valuable thing, too. We have Time, or at least the awareness of it. We have lived long enough and seen enough to understand in a more than intellectual way that we will die, and so we have learned to live as though we are mortal, making our decisions with care and thought because we will not be able to make them again. Time for us will have an end; it is precious, and we have learned its value.
Yes, there are many of us, but we are all so different that I am uncomfortable with a sociobiological analysis, and I suspect that, as with Margaret Mead, the solution is a personal and individual one. Because our culture has assigned us no real role, we can make up our own. It is a good time to be a grown-up woman with individuality, strength and crotchets. We are wonderfully free. We live long. Our children are the independent adults we helped them to become, and though they may still want our love they do not need our care. Social rules are so flexible today that nothing we do is shocking. There are no political barriers to us anymore. Provided we stay healthy and can support ourselves, we can do anything, have anything and spend our talents any way that we please.
Hoohoo-hoohoo . .. hoohoo-hooaww.
The sun is up now, and it is too late for a barred owl. I know that man across the river, and I know he must be getting cross. He is probably sitting on a damp log, his feet and legs cold and cramped from keeping still. I also know the other hunter, the one with the wooden turkey caller. This week what both men want is a dead turkey.
I want a turkey too, but I want mine alive, and in a week I'll have my wish, hearing them gobbling at dawn. I want more, however. I want indigo buntings singing their couplets when I wake in the morning. I want to read Joseph and His Brothers again. I want oak leaves and dogwood blossoms and fireflies. I want to know how the land lies up Coon Hollow. I want Asher to find out what happens to moth-ear mites in the winter. I want to show Liddy and Brian the big rocks down in the creek hollow. I want to know much more about grand-daddy-longlegs. I want to write a novel. I want to go swimming naked in the hot sun down at the river.
That is why I have stopped sleeping inside. A house is too small, too confining. I want the whole world, and the stars too.
Rebecca Gonzales (born 1946) has been influenced as a poet by the rhythm of cicadas and the desert distances. Born in Laredo, Texas, she earned a B.S. from Texas A&I University and is the divorced mother of two daughters. She has lived since 1970 in Groves, Texas, near the Gulf Coast, east of Houston. "The Safety Behind Me" is from her one published collection, Slow Work to the Rhythm of Cicadas (1985).
THE SAFETY BEHIND ME
Last night the
house was too safe;
Later, I couldn't
In my robe and
The houses closed
But I wanted to be
for the thump of
fear in a marsh rabbit,
Although Kathleen Norris (born 1947) has come to be known mostly for her readable and deeply personal musings on religious life and faith, she never loses touch with, as one reviewer has put it, "the timeless and nondenominational gospel of sun, birds, a bee at a flower, a baby at a breast." Born in Washington, D.C., Norris spent most of her childhood summers at the house her grandparents built in 1923 in Lemmon, South Dakota. After high school in Honolulu and college at Bennington in Vermont, she worked in New York City as assistant to the director of the Academy of American Poets and saw her first book of poetry published, a period chronicled in her memoir, The Virgin of Bennington (2001). She then made the countercultural choice to move with her husband to her grandparents' house in Lemmon after their deaths. Living on the Great Plains, in "what the rest of the world considers a barren waste, "where "distractions are at a minimum and time seems to stand still," she found her way back to the Presbyterian church her grandmother belonged to and developed an interest in monasticism, becoming an associate of a Benedictine monastery in North Dakota. She continued to write poetry, seven volumes so far, along with books of prose grounded in nature and spirit. Her first prose work, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (1993), source of the selection reprinted here, communicates above all the way the feel of a landscape can invite a particular kind of consciousness.
IN THE OPEN
There are an estimated 5,000 antelope in Perkins County, South Dakota, and about 3,900 people. Antelope are like grace notes on the land: small and quick and bold. When threatened they take the high ground. They confounded Meriwether Lewis when he and William Clark first encountered them near the White River in September of 1804:
We found the Antelope extreemly shye and watchfull ... I got within about 200 paces of them when they smelt me and fled; I gained the top of the eminence on which they stood, as soon as possible from whence I had an extensive view of the country the antilopes which had disappeared in a steep reveene now appeared at a distance of about three miles on the side of a ridge -- so soon had these antelopes gained the distance I doubted at ferst that they were the same I had just surprised, but my doubts soon vanished when I beheld the rapidity of their flight ... it appeared reather the rappid flight of birds.
Seeing antelope bound across a field quickens my heart; I long to go with them. It's like the feeling I used to have when I was a kid playing outdoors, that I never wanted to go in, that I could stay outside and somehow become part of that world; grass, wind and trees, day and night itself.
I get that feeling now when I'm in the open, walking in the country around my prairie town. The land, the 360 degrees of unobstructed horizon, invites you to keep on walking. The light is continually changing: shadows of cloud move fast on the land, coloring it slate blue. A sudden break in the cloud cover turns a butte chalk white; a cloudburst in the distance unleashes sheets of rain, and you study it carefully for the telltale white sheen that means hail. A person could stand and watch this changing land and sky forever.
Even on very cold days (and my gauge for that is an informal one: if my eyebrows start to ache, it's below zero), coming back into a house feels all wrong. It is hard to turn back to the human world of ceiling and walls and forced air heating.
I know the shock of hitting paved road after riding grass-track roads and walking in the country all day. The rhythm of the tires on the two-lane blacktop says to me: civilization, town, other people, and I don't want that. As when I was a child, I want to remain in the open, becoming something other than human under the sky.
Maybe it's our sky that makes us crazy. We can see the weather coming, and we like it that way. Being truly of the Plains, however, means something more. It's the old North Dakota farmer asked by a sociologist why he hasn't planted trees around his farmhouse. No shelterbelt, not even a shade tree with a swing for his children. "Don't like trees," he said, "they hem you in."
Edna Brush Perkins (1880-1930) was the unlikely author of one of the earliest accounts of exploring California's Death Valley. She lived all her life in Cleveland, where she was born the first of three children of the inventor of arc lighting, Charles F. Brush, and raised in a three-story seventeen-room mansion, the first home in Cleveland to have electricity, generated by a large windmill behind the building. Active in community service and in support of women's suffrage, she married an epidemiologist and had four sons. But when she was forty-one, she and her friend Charlotte Jordan heard the call of the wild and determinedly set out to respond, as recounted in the following excerpt from her book The White Heart of Mojave: An Adventure with the Outdoors of the Desert (1922). By turns hilarious and reverent, the book is a testament to the power of earth's wild and lonely places to wake us up from the trance induced by living within four walls. In an era when traveling on the desert for pleasure was "so novel an idea that everybody thought us insane," the women set out by auto from Los Angeles to Death Valley but stopped short of their goal when the road turned into "two ruts among the sagebrush. " Undaunted, they returned nine months later, engaged a local guide, and finally arrived in Death Valley by wagon. They spent from January until April there, concluding that "a lifetime is not enough to listen to the songs of the desolate places." Perkins and Jordan later traveled by camel across Algeria, as described in Perkins's A Red Carpet on the Sahara (1925).
THE FEEL OF THE OUTDOORS
Beyond the walls and solid roofs of houses is the outdoors. It is always on the doorstep. The sky, serene, or piled with white, slow-moving clouds, or full of wind and purple storm, is always overhead. But walls have an engrossing quality. If there are many of them they assert themselves and domineer. They insist on the unique importance of the contents of walls and would have you believe that the spaces above them, the slow procession of the seasons and the alternations of sunshine and rain, are accessories, pleasant or unpleasant, of walls, -- indeed that they were made, and a bungling job, too, and to be disregarded as a bungling job should be, solely that walls might exist.
Perhaps your lawyer or your dentist has his office on the nineteenth floor of a modern skyscraper. While you wait for his ministrations you look out of his big window. Below you the roofs of the city spread for miles to blue hills or the bright sea. The smoke of tall chimneys rolls into the sky that fills all the space between you and the horizon and the sun; the smoke of hustling prosperity fans out, and floats, and mixes with the clouds, and becomes at last part of a majestic movement of something other than either smoke or clouds. Suddenly the roofs that covered only tables and chairs and power machines cover romance, a million romances rise and mingle like the smoke of the tall chimneys. They mix with the romance of the clouds and the hills. You are happy. Nothing is changed around you, but you are happy. You only know that the sun did it, and those far-off hills. When the man you are waiting for comes in you congratulate him on his fine view. Then the jealous walls assert themselves again; they want you to forget as soon as possible.
But you never quite forget. You visit the woods or the mountains or the sea in your vacation. You loaf along trout streams, or in red autumn woods with a gun in your hands for an excuse, or chase golf balls over green hills, or sail on the bay and get becalmed and do not care. For the pleasure of living outdoors you are willing to have your eyes smart from the smoke of the camp fire, and to be wet and cold, and to fight mosquitoes and flies. You like the feel of it, and you wait for that sudden sense of romance everywhere which is the touch of something big and simple and beautiful. It is always beyond the walls, that something, but most of us have been bullied by them so much that we have to go far away to find it; then we can bring it home and remember.
Charlotte and I knew the outdoors a little. Though we were middle-aged, mothers of families and deeply involved in the historic struggle for the vote, we sometimes looked at the sky. In our remote youth we had had a few brief experiences of the mountains and the woods; I had some not altogether contemptible peaks to my credit and she had canoed in the Canadian wilds, so when we decided that a vacation was due us we chose the outdoors. Our labors had been arduous, divided as they were between the clamorings of the young and our militant mission to free the world; we were thoroughly habituated to walls and set a high value on their contents. It was our habit to tell large and assorted audiences that freedom consists in casting a ballot at regular intervals and taking your rightful place in a great democracy; nor did it seem anomalous, as perhaps it should have, that our chiefest desire was to escape from every manifestation of democracy in the solitariness of some wild and lonely place far from city halls, smokestacks, national organizations, and streets of little houses all alike. For some time the desire had been cutting through our work with an edge of restlessness. We called it "Need for a Vacation," not knowing that every desire to withdraw from the crowd is a personal assertion and a protest against the struggle and worry, the bluff and banality and everlasting tail-chasing which goes on inside the walls of the stateliest statehouse and the two-room suite with bath. Our real craving was not for a play hour, but for the wild and lonely place and a different kind of freedom from that about which we had been preaching.
Our choice of the wild and lonely place was circumscribed by the fact that we had been offered the use of an automobile from Los Angeles. The automobile was a much appreciated gift, but we regretted that Los Angeles had to be the starting point because southern California is the blissful goal of the tired east and the tired east was what we needed to escape from. We left home without plans -- too many plans in vacation are millstones hung around your neck -- -sure only that such places as Santa Barbara, Redlands, Riverside, and San Diego would be for us nothing more than points on the way to somewhere else. An atlas showed a great empty space just east of the Sierra Nevada Range and the San Bernardino Mountains vaguely designated as the Mojave Desert. It was surprising to find the greater part of southern California, the much-advertised home of the biggest fruit and flowers in the world, included in it. A few criss-cross lines indicated mountains; north of the Santa Fe Railroad, which crosses the Mojave on the way to the coast, the words Death Valley were printed between two groups of them; in the south a big white space similarly surrounded was the Imperial Valley; the names of a few towns sprangled out from the railroad -- nothing else. Was the desert just a white space like that? The word had a mixed connotation, it suggested monotony, sterility, death -- and also big open spaces, gold and blue sunsets, and fascination. We recollected that some author had written about the "terrible fascination" of the desert. The white blank on the map looked very wild and lonely. We went to Los Angeles on the Santa Fe in order to see what it might contain.
We looked at it. After leaving the high plateau of northern Arizona the railroad crosses the Colorado River and enters the lowlands of the Mojave Desert. That is the first glimpse the tourist has of California, but he hardly realizes that it is California, for it is so different from the pictures on the time-tables and hotel folders. At Needles he usually pulls down the window shades against the too-hot sun and forgets the dust and heat in the pages of the last best seller, or else he goes out on the California Limited which spares its passengers the dusty horrors of the desert by crossing the Mojave at night. His California, and ours when we left Chicago, consists of the charming bungalows with date palms in their dooryards and yellow roses climbing their porches, the square orange groves all brushed and combed for dress parade, the picturesque missions, and the white towns with streets shaded by feathery pepper trees west of the backbone of the Sierras, not the hundreds of miles of desolation east of them. Hour after hour we pounded through it in a hot monotony of yellow dust. Hour after hour great sweeps of blue-green brush led off to mountains blue and red against the sky. We passed black lava beds, and strange shining flats of baked clay, and clifflike rocks. It was very vast. The railroad seemed a tiny thread of life through an endless solitude. The train stopped at forlorn stations consisting of a few buildings stark on the coarse, gravelly sand. Sometimes a gang of swarthy Mexicans stopped work on the track to watch us go by, sometimes a house stood alone in the brush, sometimes a lonely automobile crawled along the highway beside the railroad. It was empty and vast, and over it all the sun poured a white flood.
In spite of the dust and glare a fascinated curiosity kept us looking out of the dirty windows all day. Occasionally dim wagon tracks led toward the mountains, some of which were high and set on wide, solid foundations. They were immovable, old, old mountains. Shadows cut sharply into the smooth brightness of their sides. Their colors changed and the sand ran between them like beckoning roads. "Come," it seemed to say, "and find what is hidden here." Once we saw a man with three burros loaded with cooking utensils and bedding. He was traveling across country through the sagebrush. Where could he be going?
Unconsciously I asked the question aloud and Charlotte answered:
"He is a prospector looking for a gold mine. Don't you see his pick on the second mule?"
"Please say burro," I pleaded. "It gives a better atmosphere. Besides it is not a mule, it's an ass."
"Those are the Old Dad Mountains over there, those big rosy ones. That's where he is going, up the long path of sand. He will camp there. Perhaps he is not a prospector, he may have a mine already."
"Of course he has one," I assented. "All the prospectors are dead. They died of thirst in Death Valley."
"My prospector did not. He is going to his mine. He tries to work it himself but it does not pay very well because he can't get enough out, and he can't sell it because too many booms have failed, and nobody will invest. So he goes up and down in the sun and has a good time."
Perhaps you could have a good time going up and down in the sun through those empty spaces that stretched so endlessly on either side of the track. I wondered if we might not go to the Imperial Valley and see that strange thing, the new Salton Sea, a lake in the desert; but Charlotte objected because that part of the white blank was partially under irrigation, too near the coast, and would be too civilized and full of ranches. I doubted much if the tired east went there for I thought that it was the desert like this, only hotter, worse. She declared that the tired east went everywhere that it could get to. Evidently it could not reach Mojave, for certainly it was not rushing around in automobiles trying to be happy, nor pouring the savings for its short holiday into the money bags of conscienceless hotel companies. Mojave was indeed a blank, a wild and lonely place.
"I think" Charlotte remarked after a time, "that we will go to Death Valley."
"Because I am tired of looking at the Twenty Mule Team Borax boxes and wondering what kind of place they came from that could have a name like that."
I thought it was not a sufficient reason for me to risk my life.
"I think," she said, "that it is the wildest and loneliest place of all. Nobody goes there except your prospectors, and you say they are all dead. Think of the gold and jewels they did not find lying around everywhere. Think of the hotness and brightness. It must be an awful, lonesome, sparkling place."
It must be! Those reasons appealed to me, but the idea was a bit upsetting considering that we had started for a happy-go- lucky vacation, a little like playing with a kitten and having it turn into a tiger. Mojave was like a tiger, terrible and fascinating. From the windows of the Santa Fe train it was a savage, ruthless-looking country, naked in the sun. It repelled us and held us, we could not keep our eyes off it. They ached from straining to pierce the distances where the beckoning roads were lost in brightness. Mountains and valleys full of outdoors, nothing but outdoors! What was the feel of being alone in the sagebrush? How free the sweep of the wind must be, how hot the sun, how immense the deep night sky!
Thus the wild and lonely place was selected. A strange outdoors for a holiday truly, and we had an adventure with it.
Ella Higginson (c. 1860-1941) was a popular lyricist in her day as well as an author of fiction and poetry. More than fifty composers set her words to music, and the early twentieth century's greatest singers -- including the likes of Caruso -- performed them. Born in Kansas, she was raised in southern Oregon, and after her marriage to a pharmacist spent most of the rest of her life in Bellingham, Washington. She wrote the novel Mariella, of Out-West (1902), numerous award-winning short stories, and six collections of verse, including When the Birds Go North Again (1902), source of the poem reprinted here. Her poem "Four-Leaf Clover" is still taught to young people in the 4-H Club.
IN A VALLEY OF PEACE
This long, green
valley sloping to the sun,
The writer Ellen Meloy, a passionate devotee of the southern Utah desert she calls home, describes herself as a woman with "an innately feral nature and an extraordinary obsession to experience weather." She grew up a fifth-generation Californian and for more than twenty-five years has wandered and lived in the southwestern outback on "a mission to deconstruct the congenital stodginess of nature writing," a mission she has carried out thus far in three books and in essays that have appeared in a number of journals. Picking up where Edward Abbey left off, she skewers the alienation from nature of the postmodern lifestyle and speaks for the "wild preservatives" among us while drawing a "deep map" of place in Raven's Exile (1994), The Last Cheater's Waltz (1999), and The Anthropology of Turquoise (2002). Utah's canyon-bound rivers figure prominently in her life and her writing: her husband, Mark, is a river ranger for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and Ellen often accompanies him on river trips or does solo trips of her awn, as described in the following excerpt from a chapter in The Anthropology of Turquoise. "I try to write about the ground or river-beneath my feet," she says. "Along the river are strewn stories that make me who I am, that tell me what binds my life together, what to value and what to lay aside."
THE ANGRY LUNCH CAFE
The raft slid across a sleek khaki mirror. The stillness and the dazzle of sun on the river occupied all my attention. Above the green banks the red canyon walls rose in listless splendor. If anything moved, it was me, working the oars to make my way downstream. Without this muscle, the indolent current would barely carry the boat. The depth of the stillness was disconcerting. If there was a horizon, I would have scanned it. But the canyon walled off the distance and the future. Summer held the day inside thick glass.
For this last night on the river I chose a camp for its beach and shade, a wide band of sand lined with tamarisk and willows. The beach was so broad I had to knot a throw-rope to double the length of the bowline and reach a secure tie-up in the trees. A cougar had taken a drink at the river, leaving fresh tracks in the damp sand at water's edge. Downstream from camp the canyon framed a long stretch of water, an unusual straightness in a serpentine river that mostly meandered and bent and quickly hid itself in folds of sheer-faced rock.
The heat and the inertia were so fierce that I too succumbed to the stillness and sat unmoving in the shade of the trees. Several dozen cicadas lined themselves up on slender boughs as if their feet were stitched to the bark. The leaves began to tremble. The cicadas ratcheted up their buzz to a pulsating crescendo. I closed my eyes and pulled the world down to sound, only sound, as if by listening to these vibrations I was listening to the thick, sultry air itself.
What gauges their song, I wondered. Does heat throw it into a higher-pitched drone? Do cool temperatures end the opera? Cicadas are plant eaters, relatives of leafhoppers, scales, and aphids. Cicadas "sweat" through pores but don't know how to jump. When they molt, they leave behind empty carapaces of skin that crackle into pieces when you touch them. Only the males sing, and they do so by thrumming the sound organs in their abdomen. Theirs is the music of deep, deep summer.
Time passed -- who knows how much time -- the light shifted and something pressed the stillness, moved it aside to make room for a different weight. As if a switch had been thrown, the cicadas stopped all at once, no laggers, no random afterbuzz. I tried to note what stopped their frenzied song -- the time of day, the temperature of the air, a collective exhaustion? Perhaps the cicadas shut down so the crickets could begin, a kind of accommodating bug politeness. I waited for the crickets, for the change from the elongated cicada buzz to rubbed-leg chirps and trills.
No music came, only a low rumble. A roiling mushroom of monsoon clouds had slipped in unnoticed. The color of the air changed from languid gold to an edgy metallic brass. If the thunderstorm broke, I thought, it would stay downriver. Over my head all was clear skies.
The cicadas and crickets abandoned ship, and I underestimated the speed of the storm. Far downriver a veil of rain dropped into the canyon, a thin curtain that layered the canyon walls into silhouettes of watercolor on silk, each wall fainter than the one in front of it.
In a blink the layers vanished. The downriver view turned black and blank. In a split second the wind arrived, pushing ahead of it a whirling skirt of sand and debris and turning the willows from green to silver, their leaves bared to their undersides. Caught in the canyon's straightaway, the wind accelerated upstream, like the river made into air and turned inside out. A solid mass of rain roared upstream so quickly I barely had time to grab a rain jacket and clear the camp table, flip it over, and weigh it down with stones. I dove into a small grotto under the tarmarisk only seconds before the storm hit the sandbar with a hurricane of rain then hail.
The river churned into waves and whitecaps. The raft blew upriver to the taut end of its long tether. Would it slam up against a snag and puncture? Were the oars secure? Was there enough weight in the boat to keep it from flipping? Would the knots hold? Why wasn't I spending my life as a philosopher-matron, a nurse, a trucker-poet, a soap opera diva? The world's expert in metaphors of light in The Alexandria Quartet? The cultural attache to the U.S. embassy in Rome? Would a career diplomat hover under spindly riparian trees with sand in her underwear, placing her faith in knots?
Heavy torrents of hail erased the upside-down table, sandbar, and boat, obliterating the view between shelter and shore. Hailstones crashed through the ferny boughs of the tamarisk, and I wished I had a helmet. In a hailstorm in Montana I had once seen a man run to his car with a cooler over his head, saving himself from a concussion. All that lay between the ice balls and my thin-boned skull was Tamarix spp. and a flimsy hood.
The wild weather wanted a climax, some dark, uncertain disaster, and I feared it because in all my years of summer monsoons on the river I had seen few storms of such violence. The saving grace, I told myself as I shivered under the dripping tree, is that the end will come soon, narrowing the time for destruction. These cloudbursts were extremely local, dropping buckets in one drainage while not a single drop fell a few miles away. They were not broadly cast fronts with hours of power. And as swiftly as it had moved up the canyon to my camp, the storm revealed its size. Its downstream edge paled: the light behind the angry cloud. I would not be blasted much longer.
The retreating clouds bore the color of the red sandstone on their undersides. Behind the storm came an exaltation of freshness, a sudden aromatic blooming of wet sand and musky tamarisk, the deep sweetness of roots swelling, and a river that flowed and broke its mirror of oppressive heat. Hailstones pooled in the rounded toes of the cougar tracks. The raft tether relaxed.
Down-canyon, the cliffs that embraced the river glistened with the wet. Suddenly, there was a cutting of veins, a release of desert blood: waterfalls, clay-red waterfalls cascading down lavender and crimson sandstone to the talus below. These pouroffs usually held nothing but the silky polish of the water that carved them. Now they held plunging, vertical streams, at least four waterfalls on the canyon face across the river and another behind me that I could hear but not see. The water tumbled over the high walls, filled the canyon with its rushing, then slowly subsided. The streams narrowed to trickles, then disappeared.
Uncertain if I wanted to risk another cloudburst and a night without shelter, I set up the tent as backup and spread bed and tarp beyond its door so I could sleep outside, next to cat tracks still full of ice. The cicadas buzzed again, then politely handed the night over to the crickets.
That night I had the Vine Dream, one of three similar dreams -- Vine, Dirt, Moss -- that were at first amusing, then began to reoccur with a peculiar frequency. In the Vine Dream my hair is hair plus vines that are so thick and heavy they make my neck sore. I spend the dream breaking them off at the scalp with an audible snap. The dream is tactile and noisy and slightly painful. The Dirt Dream gags me with a claylike soil in my mouth, tongue and lips, and I spend the dream scooping dirt out of my mouth with my finger. The Moss Dream is like the Vine Dream. I scrape and shave a kelly-green moss off my skin. Instead of a smooth tuff, the moss grows like even-bristled turf-- short, tough, and hairbrush straight.
I spend a great deal of my sleeping life trying not to become a plant. It isn't funny anymore.
Julia Butterfly Hill (born 1974) made her home in an ancient redwood tree in northern California for two years and captured the world's attention with the message of love and respect for all Creation that she broadcast from there. The daughter of an itinerant preacher, she grew up living in a camping trailer, and after high school in Arkansas, a car accident made her resolve to follow a spiritual path. She visited the California redwoods on a lark but ended up feeling an "urgent call" to involve herself in the struggle to defend them against clear cutting. When she joined the tree-sitting campaign organized by Earth First! she chose Butterfly as her "forest name," for the creature that had landed on her finger and stayed with her for hours while she hiked as a six-year-old in the mountains of Pennsylvania. On December 10, 1997, she climbed a skinny rope up into the tree named Luna, and she didn't descend until December 18, 1999. During those 738 days, she lived on a six-by-eight-foot platform 180 feet above the ground, 20 feet below Luna's crown. When she finally came down, she had negotiated a legal agreement with Pacific Lumber, owner of the tree, to preserve Luna and a twenty-foot buffer zone in perpetuity. In the excerpt from the chapter entitled "The Storm" in The Legacy of Luna (2000) reprinted here, she describes how she developed a remarkable rapport with Luna as she weathered one of the ferocious El Nino storms of winter 1997. Hill's work has continued as she takes the message of protecting and restoring the Earth around the world with her Circle of Life Foundation (www.circleofiifefoundation.org).
The moment the storm hit, I couldn't have climbed down if I had wanted to. To climb you have to be able to move, and my hands were frozen. Massive amounts of rain, sleet, and hail mixed together, and the winds blew so hard I might have been ripped off a branch.
The storm was every bit as strong as they said it would be. Actually, up here, it was even stronger. When a gust would come through, it would flip the platform up into the air, bucking me all over the place.
"Boy! Whoaaah! Ooh! Whoa!"
The gust rolled me all the way up to the hammock. Only the rope that cuts an angle underneath it prevented me from slipping through the gap in the platform.
"I'm really ready for this storm to chill out. I'm duly impressed," I decided. ''I've bowed and cowered once again before the great almighty gods of wind and rain and storm. I've paid my respects -- and my dues -- and I'd appreciate it if they got the heck out of here."
My thoughts seemed to anger the storm spirits.
"Whoa! Whoa!" I cried, as the raging wind flung my platform, straining the ropes that attached it.
"This is getting really intense! Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Okay, never mind, I take it back. Whoaaah!"
The biggest gust threw me close to three feet. I grabbed onto the branch of Luna that comes through the middle of the platform, and I prayed.
"I want to be strong for you, Luna. I want to be strong for the forest. I don't want to die, because I want to help make a difference. I want to be strong for the movement, but I can't even be strong for myself."
It seemed like it took all my will to stay alive. I was trying to hold onto life so hard that my teeth were clenched, my jaws were clenched, my muscles were clenched, my fists were clenched, everything in my body was clenched completely and totally tight.
I knew I was going to die.
The wind howled. It sounded like wild banshees, rrahhh, while the tarps added to the crazy cacophony of noise, flap, flap, flap, bap, bap, flap, bap! Had I remained tensed for the sixteen hours that the storm raged, I would have snapped. Instead, I grabbed on to Luna, hugging the branch that comes up through the platform, and prayed to her.
"I don't know what's happening here. I don't want to go down, because I made a pact with you. But I can't be strong now. I'm frightened out of my mind, Luna, I'm losing it. I'm going crazy!"
Maybe I was, maybe I wasn't, but in that moment I hear the voice of Luna speak to me.
"Julia, think of the trees in the storm."
And as I started to picture the trees in the storm, the answer began to dawn on me.
"The trees in the storm don't try to stand up straight and tall and erect. They allow themselves to bend and be blown with the wind. They understand the power of letting go," continued the voice. "Those trees and those branches that try too hard to stand up strong and straight are the ones that break. Now is not the time for you to be strong, Julia, or you, too, will break. Learn the power of the trees. Let it flow. Let it go. That is the way you are going to make it through this storm. And that is the way to make it through the storms of life."
I suddenly understood. So as I was getting chunked all over by the wind, tossed left and right, I just let it go. I let my muscles go. I let my jaw unlock. I let the wind blow and the craziness flow. I bent and flailed with it, just like the trees, which flail in the wind. I howled. I laughed. I whooped and cried and screamed and raged. I hollered and I jibbered and I jabbered. Whatever came through me, I just let it go.
"When my time comes, I'm going to die grinning," I yelled.
Everything around me was being ripped apart. My sanity felt like it was slipping through my fingers like a runaway rope. And I gave in.
"Fine. Take it. Take my life. Take my sanity. Take it all."
Once the storm ended, I realized that by letting go of all attachments, including my attachment to self, people no longer had any power over me. They could take my life if they felt the need, but I was no longer going to live my life out of fear, the way too many people do, jolted by our disconnected society. I was going to live my life guided from the higher source, the Creation source.
I couldn't have realized any of this without having been broken emotionally and spiritually and mentally and physically. I had to be pummeled by humankind. I had to be pummeled by Mother Nature. I had to be broken until I saw no hope, until I went crazy, until I finally let go. Only then could I be rebuilt; only then could I be filled back up with who I am meant to be. Only then could I become my higher self.
That's the message of the butterfly. I had come through darkness and storms and had been transformed. I was living proof of the power of metamorphosis.
Clarice Short (1910-1977) said of herself, "I have lived two lives -- that of the farmer and rancher and that of the scholar. The poetry is a product of both." She was born in Ellinwood, Kansas, raised on the family farm in the Arkansas Ozarks, and later involved herself in the operation of her family's ranch in the desert near Taos, New Mexico. With a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Kansas and a Ph.D. from Cornell University, she spent thirty years teaching English at the University of Utah. On her retirement, the Salt Lake Tribune called her "a Victorian who was also a crack marksman, fly fisherman, and elk hunter." She contributed many articles and poems to journals, but The Old One and the Wind (1973), from which the title poem is reprinted here, was the only volume of poetry published during her lifetime and seems to touch on what was closest to her life and heart. A collection of her poems and diaries published posthumously, The Owl on the Aerial (1991), calls her "a woman of the land and its creatures."
THE OLD ONE AND THE WIND
She loves the
A cluster of
cottonwood trees in the swale
To her in her tall
house in the tame town, the wind