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Friday, June 5, 2020

We Are Home Again. But We Were Always Home

We Came Home to Apple Blossoms

It seems much longer than a week since we left the little Arizona ghost town where we spent the winter and, as it turned out, spring. Five days on the road (by the calendar) felt about a month long. In light of what was happening in cities across the country, we abandoned the plan to travel I-80 and instead took old U.S. highways, mostly through farm towns, back to Michigan through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana, and we arrived at our old northern Michigan farmhouse after sunset last Sunday evening. 

Only six days ago? Is that possible? Those six days feel as if they have been a second long month, maybe two months. -- Now my sister tells me today is Friday, not Saturday. It was only five days ago. Even harder to believe....

As we initially prepared to leave Cochise County, Arizona, crossing the country in the time of coronavirus had been our most serious concern, and that never went away. (With restaurants closed, we made the trip on granola bars, trail mix, dried fruits, apples, and string cheese, with a couple treats of chicken from gas stations and one day a bag of fast food cheeseburgers obtained via the drive-through lane.) But we waited until after Memorial Day to leave, with Wednesday the designated departure day after a Tuesday of laundry and packing the car and cleaning up the cabin, and then the murder of George Floyd occurred on the evening of Memorial Day, which was already the strangest and most surreal Memorial Day in living memory, due to coronavirus….

Important demonstrations. Legitimate protests. There were also, in and near some of the crowds of protesters, opportunistic looters and even outsiders who came into Minneapolis or New York or Chicago bent on destruction. There were bursts of violence from more than one source, and while it was sometimes hard to know what was happening, it certainly seemed that the country, already as politically divided as it has been short of the Civil War and already strained by imposed isolation and shuttered businesses in an attempt to prevent the spread of a global pandemic, was now falling apart altogether. No, not falling -- imploding. 

So while the Artist was at the wheel, as busy as I was consulting the road atlas, I was just as often busy on my phone, looking for news or texting with family, especially family in St. Paul and Minneapolis, and when it was my turn to drive he kept trying to find a clear radio station with news. Had we been here before? In 1964? 1967? 1968? 

Then our little car began to run badly. It is still running badly, but it got us home, limping across the prairies and up along the Lake Michigan shore. Just one more thing to worry about.

So, a stressful trip? But friends, we had it easy! Eating gas station chicken in a parking lot somewhere on the Great Plains, we recalled American history and the days when Black Americans had to travel with the Green Book in order to plan their routes to be assured of finding meals and lodging at all. “And there was no food in gas stations back then,” the Artist remarked. As for staying in motels along the way, we are sometimes challenged to find one that will accept our dog (with or without an exorbitant added fee), but we are never turned away. No, we have it easy there, too. 

(In case you’re wondering, motel clerks were usually masked and gloved, but almost no one else was, in motels or at gas stations, once we left New Mexico behind.)

And we are not homeless. We don’t have to live in our car or in a motel. (One motel where we stayed seemed all the home many people there had.) Our mild ordeal was only five days long, and we are home now.

Friends congratulate our safe return -- by e-mail and text and phone, of course, not in person. Because even alongside demonstrations and protests and political commentary and speeches and outbursts there is still coronavirus, and so we must self-quarantine, which means we remain dependent on others to collect our mail and pick up groceries for us. But we have it easy in that respect, too, with more volunteers than necessary offering to help us. And the weather is lovely, perfect for working outdoors, always my solace in times of stress.

Yes, we are tired. Stress, lots of it. Utter exhaustion. But I know we are not the only ones feeling it because it has to do with much more than five days on the road.

While few people were crossing the country by car last week (on larger highways, trucks seemed to outnumber cars by at least an 8:1 ratio, but traffic was still light), all across the land a relentless tidal wave of news and the weight of our country’s entire history bore down on us all. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” 

“I’m tired of the hate,” one Facebook commenter wrote. I believe, from other things she said, that she referred to hate she feels is directed toward the occupant of the White House, not to hate coming from the White House, which is what disturbs me the most. If only we had a calm, encouraging captain at the wheel of state! But we don't, and what we have there is exhausting, too. The current president, when asked difficult questions, calls the press “enemies of the people” and – well, let’s not review all the name-calling and finger-pointing from the White House. Let’s just remember that it is part of the job of the press to ask difficult questions, and it is the job of the president to deal with that, whether he likes the questions or not. 

When you are president – pretend for a moment that you are -- and you are the one in the Oval Office, the buck stops with you. You don’t shift blame by pointing the finger in every other direction. The buck stops with you. That is the job.

But yes, we all get tired! Overwhelmed! And we are tired of feeling angry and defensive and misunderstood or ignored and insulted. Tired of feeling outraged. The never-ending onslaught of news and the cacophony of Facebook posts is sometimes just too much. There is an exhaustion of spirit, discouragement brought on by repeated failures of a country we love. 

Reminder: There’s nothing wrong with turning off the news for 24 hours. Take a break when you feel overwhelmed. No law requires any American to watch and/or listen. And surely, even acknowledging the addictiveness of scrolling through Facebook posts, you have absolutely zero responsibility to follow that on an hourly or even a daily basis. Or at all!

I received a text the other day from one of my sisters that former President Barack Obama was going to be speaking on MSNBC, so because we don’t have television here at home in Michigan (gave it up years ago), I used my phone to make a hotspot and got online and watched and listened, and it did me a world of good! You can watch it on YouTube (or other places, too, if you missed it last night.) President Obama is an encourager, not a blamer or a punisher. He is calm. And he is optimistic! Good heavens! No one can accuse him of being a Pollyanna -- he gives reasons for his optimism, and as I listened I began to smile, and I thought again, yes, we can. We can be better. I really needed his encouraging, inspiring words.

Because here’s something else that occurred to me yesterday. I’d just read an essay from 2016 by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, a black woman, answering a white male friend’s question about what constitutes white privilege. And then I read comments elsewhere (not on that post) from people who are tired of the news and/or fearful and/or certain there is no hope for the country or the world. And two ideas – the question of what constitutes white privilege and the idea of giving up hope – came together in my mind, and I realized that giving up and retreating to one’s own little world is the supreme white privilege. Not everyone can do that. 

Let me be clear. I’m not saying anyone needs to be out on the barricades every day -- or even at all. You don’t have to join a public demonstration. There are countless ways to make a difference.

And who doesn't need a break now and then?

So when you feel the need, turn off the radio or television or whatever device connects you to the news. Take a break. Eat ice cream. Take a walk. Soak in the tub. Whatever helps you relax.

But don’t give up hope, and don’t stop looking for whatever small ways you can find to contribute to fulfilling hope’s promise. Because we cannot afford the luxury of some self-indulgent, extended period of mourning. There is too much that needs to be done.

It is not saintly to be hopeful or to try to make a difference. It’s human – at least, it’s the better nature we need to summon up in ourselves if we are to deserve at all the gift of life on this planet. Because this is our home, this earth. For Americans, this country. Our home. We are many different peoples, with many different ways of looking at the world, but we must share our home if it is to survive.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

“Have You No Sense of Decency?”

The question that came to my mind at 3 a.m., words so memorably uttered by attorney Joseph Welch in 1954, when the infamous McCarthy hearings, a.k.a. witch hunt, had gone on already for far too long. If you’re too young to remember it (and I was too young at the time to pay attention), what happened was that Senator McCarthy’s demagoguery had until that moment run virtually unchecked, as he whipped the country into a state of hysteria over suspected “internal enemies.” In the course of those Senate hearings, McCarthy destroyed reputations and sometimes lives. He must have felt all-powerful and thought nothing could stop him. Then one lawyer uttered the fateful words:

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness.  
  I beg your pardon. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. 
  You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

To read the long exchange between McCarthy and Welch, from which these lines are excerpted and which I recommend you read in full, find it hereNow look at our country today in May 2020, through the lens of 1954

I want to ask all Americans who continue to support the man in the White House, a man who has demonstrated every day since his campaign that he has no sense of decency and who becomes only worse every day, in these difficult, difficult times when we need real leadership:

“Have you no sense of decency? Have you no conscience? Would you sacrifice your country to allow this national shame to continue?”

My parents were Republicans. My mother and I voted for John Kasich in the primary of 2016. (I should note that my father had been dead for several years and thus voted for no one.) No, I am not a registered Republican, but I wanted to vote against the man who won the nomination, in hopes he could be stopped before the race began. I could have lived with a President Kasich. What we have now is intolerable.

If the Republican Party is not to become one of the sorriest footnotes in American history, it is time for party members, especially those in the Senate, to get their act together and to renounce this man as candidate for re-election, to show the country that they have not utterly sold their souls for what can only be short-term political gain.

Monday, June 1, 2020

I Am in Mourning For Our Country

In Minneapolis, many bookstores were already closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now more have been damaged in rioting following demonstrations over the brutal murder of George Floyd, but you will not find self-pity in the words of these booksellers. As one of them acknowledged, property damage is the "least tragic" aspect of the story. So while I feel sympathy for bookstore owners and employees, most of my sympathy has to go to the murdered man's family -- and to our country at large.

Since March, we have been reeling under a global pandemic that reached our shores. One hundred thousand Americans died of coronavirus. Businesses across the country closed, and people lost their jobs. High school and college graduates had no graduation ceremonies, and children's birthdays had to be celebrated with drive-by parades of friends waving from their cars. That alone has been difficult. A long haul. Unprecedented, to use a word that has never been used so many times in so short a period in my lifetime.

The absence of meaningful national leadership has been appalling and tragic, but unsurprising. Who could have expected anything different or better, given the last three and a half years? Queen Elizabeth, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and past presidents George Bush and Barack Obama stepped forward with calm words of comfort and encouragement. We could have used comfort and encouragement on a daily basis, but we did not get it.

Then came the murder of yet another black man by a police officer, murder committed by someone pledged to protect citizens, murder captured on video for all the world to see. Rage is understandable. Don't you feel it, too? "Violence doesn't solve anything," many people say -- but tell me, what has? Peaceful demonstrations? Cases of brutality and murder brought to the courts? More extensive police training? Body cameras? 

[Update: Here is what we got from the White House today, since this post first went up.] 
[Update 6/2: Houston police chief weighs in.]

I am in mourning for this country. 

I understand the rage. I understand the impulse to destruction, even knowing it "won't solve anything." When nothing reasonable has worked, what is left?

And yet -- from so many credible reports, much of the destruction was not caused by demonstrators from the Twin Cities but by outsiders who came in for the sole purpose of, it would seem, discrediting legitimate protest. What could be more reprehensible? I do not understand that.

And I do not understand disrespect taken to the extreme of causing death. I don't understand how it is allowed to go on and on. I don't understand why so many white Americans fail to get the message of "Black Lives Matter," misinterpreting it by inserting an "only" that was never there. Black lives matter, too. How can anyone not see? I don't understand the lack of understanding.

Another thing I don't understand -- and some of you may disagree with me on this -- is why the launch of a rocket into space is supposed to fill us with hope for the future of our country. "The heavens are opening"? Great! So now we can go mess the heavens up, too? While the mess here on earth worsens? How is that supposed to make anyone feel good?

I am in mourning for this country. My country. Your country. Our country.

But mourning by itself solves nothing. It is a luxury we cannot afford.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

How Green Is My Desert

Flowering shrub is bird-of-paradise

The Artist and I have never stayed in southern Arizona this late into the spring before, never seen the desert so green, and every day the change from bare, dead-looking winter trees and shrubs becoming vibrant with leaves and blossoms astonishes us anew. “Are there many deciduous trees where you are?” my son asked me on the phone this morning. Oh, goodness, yes! The mesquite is often more of a large shrub than a tree, but it is ubiquitous, and it is deciduous, and some individuals reach tree size and can have beautiful shapes, and right now all are leafed out, providing shade for cattle and hiding places for birds to build nests. But mesquite is only the beginning. In the photograph just below, looking past the bird-of-paradise and down into the wash, there are at least four more large, green, deciduous plants, three of them trees. At the far right top (back corner) is a walnut tree. 

Nogal in leaf and bloom

The walnut tree’s leafy crown dances in the afternoon wind, and suckers sprout at the base. For five years I’ve been wondering what kind of tree this was, and how I see another farther back behind the neighbor’s fence, and down the road just past another neighbor’s house I’ve spotted a whole row. I don’t know if this is the Arizona or the Texas walnut, but either one goes by the Spanish name nogal, the plural of which is nogales. It’s walnuts that give the name to that Mexican border town, and I am happy to know this beautiful neighbor tree by name at last.

In the center background (and not sharply in focus) of green things growing along the wash is a netleaf hackberry tree, a tree I've written about before. In winter there have always been enough dried berries and dead leaves on the hackberry that I have been able to identify it almost from the beginning of my desert stays, but it looks very different now, clothed in green. 

Center left of that composite shot but not all the way to the left, the light green tree you see is desert willow, another newly learned-by-name tree to me and one that charms me in every way. Since learning it, I’ve found myself photographing the desert willow at different times of day. It is not, you should understand, a true willow. It is a different genus and member of a completely different botanical family from the willows along the no-name creek just north of my Michigan farmhouse. 

Flowers on the desert willow below the cabin have not yet opened, but when we went for a little ride down Chiricahua way, I was happy to spot a desert willow in bloom. 

Does that flower remind you of a catalpa blossom? Both trees belong to the Bignonia family, the desert willow’s flowers smaller and more colorful but very like those of catalpa trees back in Leelanau County, Michigan.

We have never seen the wash flowing with water, a phenomenon that arrives only with the summer monsoons, each flood lasting only a few hours. Over closer to the Chiricahua Mountains, though, where streams flow for much of the year, water-loving sycamores are found. Some are of magnificent size, although during the winter, when they look like ghost trees, it’s hard to believe they are alive. 

Arizona sycamore in winter 
Now look at the difference! It seems nothing short of miraculous. 

Arizona sycamore mid-May

Oaks are deciduous, also, but in this climate they hold onto their leaves through the winter and bring forth new leaves in the spring, at the same time that they begin to drop the old, gradually, with never a bare season to them. Oak trees near streams and in mountain canyons are peaceful places to rest the eyes all year-round.

Cochise County and I have been getting acquainted since January of 2015, but my desert is still full of surprises. Of course, what surprises me is familiar to those who have lived here all their lives. How can I call the desert “mine” at all? 

It’s true I’m a newcomer, but I do love it, more deeply each year, and this year – this strange spring of the COVID-19 pandemic, with stay-at-home orders in Arizona from mid-March until the end of April, being here in a whole new and unexpected way, I feel I have paid a few odd dues and earned at least a beginner’s merit badge in Arizona living. 

Our resident roadrunner has accepted us unconditionally. Bless his little heart!

Monday, May 18, 2020

Little Things Add Up, in Nature and in Society

In mid-May in southern Arizona, to stand under a blooming mesquite tree or pause near a low-growing mesquite shrub is to become aware of a low hum emanating from the blossoms. The calmer the day and hour, the louder the hum. This is harvest season for small pollinators, and they are hard at work.

The other day, somewhere along the line, a bee got into our car, and, thinking at first glance that a large spider had hitched a ride on my bare leg, I hastily brushed at it with my hand. Not far enough away, though, as became evident when I felt the sting on the underside of my thigh. Moving quickly, I saw a struggling bee on the seat beside me and realized that the insect had had just enough wiggle room under my leg to deliver just enough sting to cause me to move before smothering it completely. The sting burned for a few minutes before it subsided quickly to a small, raised red spot not much bigger than what a mosquito bite would have delivered. No great harm done to me. But I’d inadvertently caused the little bee mortal injury. 

How often do we think about how we and other mammals and birds are largely dependent on the work of these much smaller creatures? Pollination of fruits and vegetables, if we had to do it all by hand, would barely keep us alive. Large grazing mammals feed on grasses and other plants that reproduce by seed, that seed requiring antecedent pollination of flowers sometimes so small and insignificant we rarely notice them at all. (Grass flowers? Yes.) Many species of bird rely on seed and berry diets, a berry being nothing more to nature than the covering of a seed or seeds, and even the insects and other invertebrates that carnivorous birds feed upon feed first on plants. Without bees, wasps, flies, and all the other myriad pollinators and their unpaid labor, earth’s menu would be very short for the rest of us, not to say nasty and brutish. 

Bees are small. Seeds are small. We don’t generally look at grazing cattle and thank bees for doing their part to produce beef. I’m thinking about bees and cattle now because I am living in their midst.

And in these stay-at-home days of COVID-19, I’ve had time to see and think about things I’ve never noticed or don’t often think about. One of my small new observations is how often birds clean their beaks. A bird will stand on a twig (flying to it after a stop at the suet feeder snack bar) and lean forward to swipe its beak to and fro against the twig in front of it. It looks like a bird sharpening its beak as one would sharpen a knife, but most ornithologists think cleaning is the primary purpose of the behavior. The curved-bill thrasher was the first bird I noticed doing this, but then I saw others doing the same, and now all the time I see birds cleaning their beaks. A small observation, but how can I have missed it all these years, when they are doing it continually?

Mesquite flowers, now. Often these long, caterpillar-like catkins hang in clusters, and the other day I noticed for the first time – really looking at the plant -- that within a given cluster, the flowers blossom sequentially rather than all at once. I imagine the seeds will ripen the same way, much as happens with clusters of blackberries or other bramble fruit, berries within each cluster ripening in turn rather than at the same time. My observation is small and, when I think about it, unsurprising. So what? Still, I wonder what advantage the plant gains. A longer season for the seeds to be disseminated abroad? That would make sense. 

Big change of topic --

The murder of a single human being is never a small thing. Whenever it happens, it is tragic. In the United States, one of our national tragedies is the frequency with which black men are murdered while simply going about their daily lives, and a second tragedy is that those victims’ murderers are rarely punished. On and on it goes, and the hearts of black parents who fear and grieve in advance are, sadly, not unreasonable in their fear and grief. Here, then, is yet a third tragedy, that of decent, law-abiding parents who must raise their children in fear in their own country. Over a century after slavery was ended and long after Jim Crow laws have supposedly been put behind us, how is it that we can live with this continued national shame, with an America offering such very different experiences to its citizens, based on nothing but the color of their skin?

As I say, this is a big thing. Nothing little about it. 

What I see as little are some of the things white people can do, each of us, one at a time, to try to bring about change, to work toward bending that oh-so-recalcitrant arc of justice. Lists of books are put forward to raise awareness of white privilege, and I don’t want to minimize the importance of raising that awareness, but a question I raised recently with Facebook friends is, once awareness has been raised, what can one go on to do to bring about change?

Of the various comments and responses, perhaps the most helpful I received, because it contained a lengthy list of calls to action, was this from my stepdaughter, 75 Things White People Can Do For Social JusticeIt’s hard to imagine anyone, black or white, who could check off every item on the list and say at the end, “Yeah, I did all that,” but still I found the list itself helpful, even encouraging. It’s not saying that we all have to rush out and do everything at once but that there are many ways to contribute. I was encouraged to see that while I hadn’t done a lot of big things, I have done several little things, and I see more on the list that I can do in future. 

Because what’s the point of playing the “Ain’t-It-Awful” game? The point is to make the world better, one little thing at a time. Maybe one little thing every day – for instance, one letter or telephone call or e-mail every day. 

For today, my one little thing is sharing a book list on a new separate page of this blog. As I wrote there, I welcome additions and suggestions. The page will be a work in progress. We all need to claim our power to make change. Thank you for reading today.

Friday, May 15, 2020

We Are All on a Rollercoaster

This  has nothing to do with my subject, but she always calms me down.

How are you feeling? Where are you, emotionally? Contented? Restless? Anxious? Got cabin fever, or are you grateful for unstructured time -- or both in turns? Angry at fate and fearful of what’s coming? Counting your blessings? Downright depressed? Maybe confused about what you’re feeling?

A friend said she woke up a couple days ago and felt calm, and that worried her: Had she lost her mind? Had her brain ceased to function? Where was her usual, reasonable, familiar pandemic anxiety?

And it came to me, reading her messages, that we are all on a rollercoaster, every single one of us, but we are all at different points in the looping path on any given day or even at any given moment, so while no emotion any of us feels is inappropriate, we can sometimes be impatient with each other’s expressions. But the feelings themselves are perfectly (can I use this word?) normal. Given the times. All of them.

Gratitude feels good. Anger doesn’t. Sometimes we can shift gears to get from a bad feeling to a good one, and other times we just have to ride out a sickening stretch until we get to a smoother, easier section. Despair at night, joy in the morning – or the other way around, depending on your temperament. Fear, even terror. A blue funk. The sunshiny flash of unexpected happiness, the glow of contentment, or the sweet respite of calm – unless the calm brings worries of its own, as it did for my friend. 

“I’m just tired of it.”

“I want it to be over.” 

Me, too. I’d love to return to that old expectant (false but happy) sense of security I had in early winter 2019 when looking ahead to summer 2020, lining up Thursday Evening Author guests for bookstore soirées in the Artist’s gallery! Those days of planning now seem like some kind of long-ago lost innocence.

My philosophy of life in a nutshell, which is about all of anyone’s philosophy that most people want to hear, is simple: Everything is a double-edged sword. Or, as Joni Mitchell so memorably expressed in her song “Both Sides Now,” there is an upside and downside to everything. In her lyrics, the singer looks back to her past positive impressions, compares them with present cynicism, and concludes that she doesn’t “really know” clouds, love, or life “at all.” But listen to the song. What she can’t help believing in are her “illusions,” that is, the joy and magic that she isn’t feeling in the present moment. 

Can we believe in something when we’re not feeling it, or do our feelings overpower us and create our beliefs? More specifically, can we continue to believe in hope when we're feeling hopeless?


I started writing these thoughts and had to set them aside for a couple of days. Was I depressed or just irritable and blue? 

Depression is a family curse, so I am familiar with it, but in my experience true depression is like interior weather (not situational or caused by something in the outside world), and there’s a horrible physical component to it. I describe it as being encased in a suit of dread. Imagine it as a rigid suit of armor that you’re locked inside. So, no, I wasn’t there, thank heaven! But neither was I enveloped by contentment or anything positive. I went for a walk and dragged myself along, hardly enjoying my surroundings or a pleasantly cool desert morning.

Quite frankly, while I have a lot of happy moments or even hours, positive moods can seem pretty fragile these days. Easily dispelled. Personal contentment can evaporate in an instant with a single blast of bad news, of which there is no shortage. Which brings me back to my rollercoaster theme and its limitations. 

When you go to an amusement park and ride a rollercoaster – when one rides, I should say, because I have never been on a rollercoaster in my life – my understanding is that (1) you know approximately how long the ride will be, (2) that you'll be safe, and (3) that the car will eventually stop and you’ll be able to get out right where you started. Well, right now, these days, on the coronavirus rollercoaster, we have none of these assurances. All we have is uncertainty.

Is it any wonder our emotions are all over the map? It's easy to say we should "live in the moment" and admit our powerlessness, not so easy to maintain that attitude throughout each passing day. 

I try to make most of my posts here upbeat, to brighten readers' days, and I'm certainly not trying to bring anyone down today with reminders of what you already know, that these are damn difficult times. I just thought it might help, if you're feeling blue, to know that you're not alone in that, either. It's okay to feel bad. We all have our private storm clouds.

But if you're not feeling great this morning, I hope you will feel better this afternoon or tomorrow. As for me, I think I've got my "second wind" and can pick up my feet and go on until the next storm hits -- wherever the hell it is we're going!

Into the unknown!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Lake Dunes in the Desert

View across playa toward Dragoon Mountains from Hwy 186

Playa is Spanish for beach and also the term geologists use for dry lakes, such as the Willcox Playa, called Lake Cochise when referred to in its Pleistocene incarnation.  But the playa in Cochise County is not always dry. In fact, owing to a wet summer and fall, this past winter the so-called “dry lake” held more water than we ever saw in it before — bearing in mind, of course, that our personal memories here are only five years long. Right from the start, though, even bone dry, the playa exerted a fascination for us, as vast empty spaces tend to do. 

Our first year, on every trip to town, we would gaze out over that apparent void and speculate on its prehistory, straining our eyes to determine if we were seeing water or a mirage over on the far shore. The playa seemed so near and yet very far away -- and, always, utterly mysterious. 

Public access off Kansas Settlement Road
Now we learn that the section of the Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County (the northern end of the valley is in Graham County, its southern reaches in Mexico) has two drainage basins, Willcox in the north and Whitewater in the south, and that the heart of the Willcox drainage is the playa. Furthermore, the Willcox is a closed system, an endorheic basin, which means that water draining from the mountains down to the playa does not join ever-larger streams and rivers and make its way the ocean. Water may (and often does) evaporate or soak into the ground before ever reaching the playa, but it isn’t going anywhere else, and this kind of “unintegrated interior drainage” (Gilluly, Waters & Woodford, 1959) is typical of deserts.

View from 191 overpass, looking across corner of playa toward Willcox

Just as today’s Lake Michigan was once the much larger Lake Nipissing, what is now a playa was also once much more. An Arizona Heritage Waters website, hosted by Northern Arizona University, puts it like this: 

About 15,000 years ago in Willcox Playa, Lake Cochise reached a maximum depth of 46 feet and covered 140 square miles, maintained by the relatively cool, moist Pleistocene climate. Currently, with a mean annual rainfall of 18.5 inches per year and a mean annual temperature of 90, the modern playa can support only shallow, ephemeral ponds that form after heavy rains or snows. The most recent high lake level occurred about 9,000 years ago.
For more, see here

“It’s temporary!” Cher’s character screams at her father, when he objects that the “engagement” ring she shows him is a pinky ring. “Everything is temporary!” he memorably retorts. Ah, yes. Even mountains fail to pass the test of eternity. Ephemerality, as concept and reality, is an essential component of time, without which the world would be frozen and static.

We will not always be here. We are barely insects caught and stopped all too soon by the windshield of time, but my mantra is “We’re here now!” and so, while here, I am endlessly (note the contradiction) fascinated by what my Michigan eyes see as dunes on the Dos Cabezas Mountains side of Highway 186, miles from the extant playa in the opposite direction. 

This area reminds me of Lake Michigan sand dunes. Even the vegetation along the road looks somewhat similar — with alkalai sacaton here in place of Michigan’s marram grass — but mountainward, or “inland,” as I can’t help thinking of the land even farther from the playa, the look of the land and its vegetation is nothing like the Great Lakes region of the northern Midwest.

Farther inland and into what appear as dunes, mesquite dominates, as it does on the rangeland around Dos Cabezas. In both places occasional mesquite trees reach impressive size and stand out from their shrubbier fellows. The commonest cactus in Cochise County, cholla, is ubiquitous here, too, with foot-high cholla common and taller individuals commanding recognition. 

So it really has very little in common with the Great Lakes; however, these “duney bits,” as I can’t help calling them, continue to fascinate my mind, pulling me to them like some prehistoric, displaced mirage.

Sarah likes it, too. Of course, she likes to be wherever we are.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Take the Time, While It's Yours to Take

In the early evening, the cows pass by.

Halfway through a nonfiction book that shall here remain unnamed, I set it aside for the fiftieth but perhaps last time. The author was annoying me. He imagines an ideal world if everyone would only live as he is trying to live, but he doesn’t see that the only reason he is able to try to live that way is because only a handful of other people are doing it. Population density, I think with impatience. He ignores it utterly

My bookshelves, however, are full to overflowing. Maybe a novel? There is one about Custer, but I have no desire to read about Custer, novel or otherwise, and don’t care if his wife’s family did have a summer cottage in Leelanau County, Michigan (in Omena, to be precise). There must be something else….

Here is a book about wilderness with a promising introduction, in which the book’s author tells in quick outline the story of artist-poet-adventurer Edward Ruess, a well-known story but new and fascinating to me. So I pack The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Distance, by Bruce Berger, along with sandwiches and apples and cold water on a Sunday drive to the Dragoon Mountains, and in our camp chairs at a site near the mountains that we luckily find unoccupied, I read a page or two to the Artist. 

But later, back at the cabin, I get into the book’s main text, and the first section is about one wilderness expedition after another made with large groups of friends involving complicated strategies about how many cars to take, where to leave them, how to choose each night’s campsite and each person’s tiny plot within the site -- and I grow impatient. The introduction was all about one man who went out to meet the wilderness alone. I feel like a bait-and-switch victim and set this book aside, also.

But Fate has blessed me, because in the packet of mail sent on to us from Northport by a good friend, there was within that large envelope another large envelope, and it contained – oh, joy! Bound galleys! The first volume of the Copper Canyon Press “Legacy Project” of Jim Harrison’s poetry, Collected Ghazals

Images, not argument. Experience, but also fantasies and daydreams. No chronological or logical arrangement. Couplets, most often six to a page, sometimes related but more often not. 

Surreal jump cuts. This. Then that. Now something else. Each couplet presenting an image complete and perfect in itself --

A pure plump dove sits on the wire as if two wings emerged 
from a russet pear, head tucked into the sleeping fruit.

But to slice a couplet from its ghazal home, separating it from couplets before and after, is to render it false, because directly following the dove pear of peace we are slapped with --

Your new romance is full of nails hidden from the saw’s teeth 
a board under which a coral snake waits for a child’s hand

It takes my breath away. No act of violence, but the readiness of it, the inevitability of blood and death. Nor is that, however, where the poem ends on that particular page – but I leave that for you to discover. 

Here are words on paper that carry me aloft on wings, float me on water’s surface like air sacs, and drag me through knife-edged grass and mud. Here are lines that toss and slap and lull and discard but never make me feel manipulated. The poet is not trying to be other than who and what he is, and he doesn’t care what I think of what he has to say. Each page is a dose of strong medicine. Swallow it down or spit it out – it’s all the same to the poet. And I am right there with him in city, on the farm, in the wilderness. This. Then that. Now something else. Here. There. 

When I lay this book aside – temporarily -- it is not with impatience or disappointment or boredom but only with a glutton’s desire not to have “more” be too soon consumed, even as I know (oh, joyful thought!) that I can feast again and again without the pantry ever being any less full. Glutton, miser, spendthrift, sybarite – with this precious slim volume, I can be all at once, every time I take it in hand. 

Then they go on their way.

Now I conduct an experiment: pick up again the Berger and open to an entirely new section, almost 200 pages in, and see how it reads after Harrison’s ghazals. My mind takes two sentences and pulls them from the page, making of them a couple of two long lines:

Is this the record of two animals that passed at separate times, sharing the canyon’s life blood? 
Or is this evidence of mortal chase, a frozen moment before deer’s narrow survival or lion’s successful kill? 
[from the essay “Cold Pastoral," lines rearranged]

And instead of hurrying on to the bottom of the page, I read these lines over and over and take in the entire scene they evoke, until it is spread out before me and surrounding me, all at once.

Some essay collections make a continuous argument from first to last and need to be read in order, as one reads a novel or a philosophical or historical treatise, but I don’t think The Telling Distance is that kind of collection. I’m not going to read it that way, anyway.  “Make every sentence count” is a piece of advice often given to aspiring writers. How long did any written sentence take to form in a writer’s mind before it was committed to a page -- and then, not deleted or erased or written over, but maybe it was -- or maybe it came back in some new form or was replaced by something entirely different. This sentence, these lines, as deserving of careful contemplation as the sleepy, lethargic bees that spent the night in the white bowl of a prickly poppy flower.

When have we ever had as much discretionary time at our disposal as in these days in the time of coronavirus? At last, there is time to pay attention to the world. To the nuances of a loved one’s face, to the unfolding of green leaves and the opening of flowers, to the habits of birds that were always there, perhaps unnoticed, to the way a line of poetry or prose unfurls and then the one after it does the same so very differently.

And if you've read this entire post, thank you for spending the time with me. I appreciate company here in life's slow lane, still out in the Arizona ghost town, far from my northern Michigan bookstore. Although, truth be told, northern Michigan has plenty of slow lanes, and I have always sought them out.

We hope they will visit again soon.