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Monday, February 1, 2016

The West Continues to Tug at My Sleeve

Arizona neighbors

I have two books to share today, but first I’ll be taking a brief memory trip. By this time last winter, David and Sarah and I were in the high desert of southeast Arizona, bedding down in a small cabin in a ghost town, with mountains on all sides, and as I told David the other day, I think about it more than he would ever guess.

“What do you miss most about it?” he asked curiously. He never fell in love with the area the way I did. 

That kind of question, though, is almost impossible to answer! It’s like asking what you love most about someone you love: features and qualities of a person or place are not discrete building blocks, not elements at all. Everything goes together. But it seemed a worthwhile question to try to answer, so I thought a while and then said, “Maybe the light. The way the sun shone almost every day and the cabin was so bright and full of light.” 

Michigan winter

Continually overcast winter skies in Michigan are much harder to bear than snow and cold, although with the beginning of February our days are already significantly longer, and, I say happily (on a good morning), “Spring is only two months away!” Here at home, our beloved old farmhouse is divided into small rooms in the way people built in the old days in northern Michigan. Also, the gracious, windowed front porch, where we spend so many evenings in other seasons but which is unheated in winter, forms an insulating barrier along the front of the house, as does the woodshed in back, meaning that our central room, the one where we do most of our winter living, has no exterior walls and is thus protected from cold winter winds. Evening coziness is the room’s strong suit. During the day, however, it is almost as dark as tiny-windowed Basque stone farmhouse in the Pyrenees.

Contrast that with --

Dos Cabezas sunrise

Light comes in!
The ghost town cabin in the high desert was basically one large room, with uninsulated plywood walls and lots of windows. I was up every morning before or as the sun’s first light broke over the mountains to the east, and as the morning progressed I moved between my writing table and the cabin windows, with pleasure and satisfaction at the routine, first lost in working and then called to adjust, once more, the slant of the blinds. The idea was to close them against the night cold of the desert when darkness fell in the evening, open them slightly for the first morning light, open fully once the sun’s warmth became available, and then, later, angle them half-closed again to keep the cabin air from becoming uncomfortably hot. The regularity of light and darkness governed the hours of the days and nights.

I could go on at this point and start listing other things I miss, but my main point at present is only that the desert and mountains carved a place for themselves in my heart, so now I read books set in the West with greater interest and feel a personal sympathy that landscape and culture did not call forth for me before our time there.

One heart-rending book I finished reading last week was Dead in Their Tracks: Crossing America’s Desert Borderlands in the New Era, by John Annerino, and I wish I’d known about this book when Trinity was choosing to read on the subject of migrant workers from Mexico. The author’s research went further into the dangerous experience of border crossing than anything else I know or can imagine. At one time he and the four Mexican immigrant workers he was accompanying on their desperate bid to find work were out of water and facing death. His book, in fact, documents as many as possible of the lives that have been lost over the years in this dangerous crossing.

Art at border crossing
Annerino pursued his story mostly in northern Sonora, Mexico, and southwest Arizona, U.S. My little cow town in southeast Arizona, Willcox, was mentioned only two or three times in passing, Dos Cabezas (the ghost town) not at all. The low “killing fields” desert of saguaro is not the high desert of cows. Still, my single experience of being overcome by sun and heat in the Dragoon Mountains -- the part of the hiking story that I left out of my online account -- gave me some small sense of what those crossing the desert must encounter.

(One question: everyone stresses water, but no one, in either movies or books about la frontera, seems to mention electrolytes. I had plenty of water on my hike with a friend in the mountains – water, food, sunshade, sunblock – but it took me many months later, in conversation with someone who has spent years in Africa, to realize that as perspiration and breathing wicked moisture from my body, I was also losing salt and that water alone was doing nothing to replace the salt. I think, in fact, that the more water I drank, the faster I was washing out and depleting my electrolytes, because gulp as I might, I kept having spells of dizziness when my entire field of vision became nothing but buzzing light, and I had to sit down to keep from falling. Not many times in my life have I felt life’s fragility so keenly. So what about salt tablets? Does anyone carry them in the desert? If not, how do they manage without them? If so, why are they never mentioned?)

My head is spinning, my body is convulsing with chills and nausea, and the ground is heaving at me in dizzying waves of sand and rock when Marcelino first sees Interstate 8: “Mira! La carretera!” (Look! The highway!)
Some would fault -- have, I’m sure, faulted -- Annerino for lack of journalistic objectivity, but I have no criticism of his book on that count. Here is a writer who walked way more than “a mile” in the shoes of his subjects – and walked with them for miles, too. Is an objective account of such an experience possible? Where is another journalist who has had the guts even to undertake such an experience, let alone attempt to write about it dispassionately? Besides, any reader is free to dismiss or skim over the writer’s pleadings on behalf his subjects, and still the bare, unadorned, hard facts remain, facts that must give rise to urgent questions demanding answers.

If you are an American, whatever your views on immigration and border control, you should read this book.

My only disappointment with this book was technical, in that the copyediting left a lot to be desired. For that I do not fault the author, however, but the publisher, the University of Arizona Press. The editing buck always stops with the publisher, as I see it. So what gives here? I expect any book from a university press to have regularity of pronouns and agreement between nouns and verbs. I do not expect to find infelicitous, badly chosen adjectives or confusing syntax. When my inner editor has to work as hard as it did with this book, more than one someone has seriously fallen down on the job.

I’ll zero in on one very specific criticism, too. With any obscure technical jargon or regional idiom, i.e., in this book, “cutting sign” -- a phrase that appears as early as the introduction and repeatedly through the book, sometimes as frequently as two or three times on a single page -- I expect the first instance to be accompanied by a definition for the uninitiated reader. In context, we gradually figure out that “cutting sign” has something to do with tracking, but is it different from tracking or just another way of saying the same thing? If different, in what way? Informing and being mysterious are mutually incompatible goals.

Still, read the book. Read the book. Read the book! Too many people with strongly held and very loud opinions about the border know nothing of its reality in the lives of desperate men, women, and children.

From the borderland, my reading next took me northward to Nevada. Sweet Promised Land, by Robert Laxalt, first published in 1957, is now considered a classic of the American West. Where Dead in Their Tracks informs readers about the present and challenges them to envision a better future, Sweet Promised Land looks backward to the rough frontier days of Nevada in the early 20th century, open range, cattlemen vs. sheepmen, towns not yet come into their own, and immigrants who came primarily to make money, perhaps also to learn English, with always the dream of returning home to their native European villages as self-made American success stories.

Such is the time and setting of Sweet Promised Land, but that description tells you nothing of the reading experience. Part memoir, part biography, with much necessary history woven in, it is a book that rises above genre, but not with fireworks or the least pretension. A small book, only 158 pages, it begins modestly and proceeds quietly. You take it up with mild curiosity and find yourself drawn into another world – another life, that is, stretching between two very different worlds – and you are reluctant to have it far from your hand when you stop to do something else for a while.

“My father was a sheepherder, and his home was the hills.”
How does that simple sentence cast such an immediate spell? It reminds me of Isaak Dinesen’s “Once I had a farm in Africa” and also puts me in mind of the story of a nonbeliever who demanded of Hillel that he explain the Torah to him while he was standing on one foot. Hillel's response? “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary.” In a very real sense, the life of the author’s sheepherding father in America, Basque origins in the Pyrenees, the long-delayed visit home to aged family back in that mountain range between France and Spain, and the realization of father and son that Nevada, not the Basque country, was now their own family home – all is contained, in seed form, in the book’s perfect opening sentence.

First the son tells of his own childhood and the relationship of his largely absent father to the family. While their mother managed family businesses in town, the father was in the mountains most of the time in his sheep camp, not a fixed abode but one that shifted as the sheep were moved to new grazing. All the Basque sheepherders talked of going back to France “next year” to visit families, but very few ever made the trip. But with Laxalt’s aging sisters back in the old country longing to see him again, Robert and his brothers conspire to arrange for their father to take, at last, the long-delayed trip.

And with that we leave the modern world behind altogether. In the Basque villages, following two world wars, nothing in the way of life had changed since Dominique had left:
...There was a little boy in a beret and short trousers, and under his arm a loaf of bread that seemed as long as he was. There was a crude, wooden cart pulled by two oxen, whose nodding heads kept rhythm with the gay fringes on their horns. There was a girl in a scarf and bright peasant dress....
Men still wore wooden shoes to work outdoors, and women still cooked in huge iron pots hung in fireplaces. Nothing had changed -- except the man returning to the country and everyone he had left behind almost half a century before. Years that left stone buildings exactly as they were had left their mark on human beings. Dominique would see a familiar face and think he recognized an old friend, only to learn that the friend was dead, and this was the friend’s son.

My inner editor lay back, mental pencil hand idle, while I lost myself in Sweet Promised Land. The effect of beautiful prose is to carry a reader effortlessly forward, its only drawback that the end comes too soon!

Besides nonfiction categorization and Western subject matter, the third commonality of these two books, and the most important, is the American immigrant experience. In both stories we as readers encounter the hopes of immigrants and the new land’s promise of a better life, if the newcomers only have the determination to work very, very hard to conquer poverty, overcome prejudice, and win a place for themselves in the sweet promised land.

Determination, willingness to work, and, it must be added, the good fortune to see their adventure through. One of Dominique’s fellow immigrants was not lucky. Many of those whose stories Annerino tells are not.

Poverty in Agua Prieta

And I want to dedicate today's post to my dear friend Helen. She will understand why.


BB-Idaho said...

"So, what about salt tablets?" sort of piqued my interest as an old retired chemist. The mammalian
electrolytic balance is for the most part
self adjusting: one of those very complex feedback loop enzyme directed biochemical processes our brain directs without our conscious awareness. Salt tablets are a longtime solution, but not
without their own problems. Too much sudden salt, for example. It makes one very thirsty so they need even more water and the kidneys go into overtime. If they cannot keep up, too much water remains in the body, blood pressure sky rockets, etc. (some recommend licking the evaporated "sweat salt" from the forearms, believe it or not!) So lately, profuse sweaters like endurance athletes opt for the liquids like gator-aide, which like the hospital saline drip, are isotonic. Like the blood stream, about 9 g/l. Another factor is that there are other essential electrolytes that are lost in dehydration which more modern tablets/solutions address Ref
Good question; perked me up. Next time I may get into the
chemistry of gargling with salt water for sore throat. :)

P. J. Grath said...

BB, long time, no see! I have missed you!

Yeah, I figured those commercial drinks would have good stuff that plain water lacks, but I am somewhat resistant to them, from a political point of view. Have since read that fresh lemon juice helps. Maybe squeezing a lemon into a gallon of water? Or maybe I should have been licking my arm throughout the hike? I think if my body had been self-regulating for the problem, it would not have occurred -- certainly not repeatedly. I was actually very frightened but lacked the energy for out-and-out panic, which I also wanted to avoid so my friend would not panic, also. The only roughly equivalent experience I can recall in my life was being given anesthetic before my son was born. As I was going under, I thought, I could die, and I wouldn't be able to call for help.

I look forward to your lesson on salt water gargling chemistry. Be well!