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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Mystery! Just Where Is That “Cat-Who” Country?

What's going on out there?
We met a few of the high desert ghost town neighbors the other morning for coffee, cinnamon rolls, and homemade biscotti when one of them at the other end of the table from me leaned forward to ask, “You know the ‘cat-who’ books?” I nodded. I have a bookstore, after all, and I started out selling only used books (though I have carried a pretty good selection of new titles for some time now), and the ‘cat-who’ books are murder mysteries. I always say that if you had a store of used books and sold only history and mystery, you’d have nonfiction and fiction covered for the majority of your customers. It would be a good name for a used book business, too: History and Mystery. 

So, yes, of course. Though at that very moment the author’s name didn’t leap to my mind, naturally I was familiar with the series, having always one or two of the books in my shop at any given time. And my mother had read all of them. But had I ever read one myself? That’s what stopped me in my tracks when the questioner informed me that the stories were set in my Michigan backyard. Really? “Out in Seattle, they call where you live ‘cat-who’ country.” Really? “Are you kidding me?” No, he wasn't.

This is not Michigan, any part of it

Later that same day we stopped at the Friendly Bookstore in Willcox, one of our regular stops, and I went directly to the mystery shelves, where there were two paperback books by Lilian Jackson Braun. I selected the slimmer of the volumes and went home with The Cat Who Sniffed Glue, determined to find out if Traverse City — “or, really, Northport,” the Arizona neighbor had said — were indeed the setting for the stories.

I won’t beat around the bush or lead you on. As far as I’m concerned Pickax is not Traverse City, and it isn’t Northport, either. It has features of many different Michigan towns, but it is definitely U.P., that is, the Upper Peninsula. Your clue, sleuthers, is the phrase “Down Below.” 

No one in the Lower Peninsula uses that phrase to indicate they’ve been traveling south, because the Lower Peninsula is “Down Below.” It’s below the Mackinac Bridge, the Mighty Mac, the bridge that spans the Straits of Mackinac and joins the two peninsulas. (And Mackinac is pronounced Mackinaw, by the way, even when there’s a ‘c’ rather than a ‘w’ on the end of the word.) On that much I brook no dispute. 

Perhaps, however, another word of explanation is in order for those unfamiliar with Michigan. The neighbor here in southeast Arizona who brought up “cat-who” also loaned us a couple of books set in southern Michigan, and that’s yet another distinction. Northport and Traverse City are in the Lower Peninsula, but they are not “southern” Michigan. To everyone but Yoopers, they qualify as “Up North.” Are we clear now?

As to which is the “big lake” in the Braun books, we could argue it different ways. Where I live, in Leelanau County (i.e., “Down Below”), the “Big Lake” is Lake Michigan, but the Upper Peninsula has Lake Michigan to its south and Lake Superior to its north, so where is Pickax? At one point in the story, someone mentions that Pickax is the “only harbor of refuge” on that side of the lake, but are we to take the statement literally? Is it possible there is only one harbor of refuge on Lake Michigan’s north shore, or only one on Lake Superior’s south shore? That seems unlikely, though of course there are long stretches, especially on Lake Superior, where a sailor is far from a harbor of refuge. And now, checking further, I see that there is not a single federal harbor of refuge in the U.P., and even Northport and Leland, harbors of refuge in Leelanau County, are not federal harbors of refuge. But perhaps this is muddying the waters too much.

Out West -- horses and cows
Anyway, another element that confounds literalism has to do with restaurants. — But wait, let me back up a bit. 

All the mining history in the book points to the Keweenaw (confusingly pronounced KEE-wuh-naw) Peninsula, that rocky, jutting antenna projecting in a graceful curve from U.P. into cold Lake Superior. The number of mansions strengthens the case for the Keweenaw, too, since the kind of fortune brought by mining allowed for mansion-building. So, too, there was an ethnic diversity in the history of the U.P. that would go some way toward explaining the number of interesting restaurants available to characters in the cat-who story, restaurants that would seem wildly out of place in most parts of the U.P. (though perfectly reasonable in the Traverse City region). I mean, come on! No one mentions a single Cornish pasty in the whole book! There are also a lot more farmhouses and barns than I associate with the Upper Peninsula. So where does that leave us?

I guess I could just do an online search and find the answer to my question instantly, but where’s the fun in that? After all, I could have skipped directly to the final chapter of the book to learn the identity of the murderer, too, and not read the story at all, but why? Isn’t it more fun to enter into a story and search for clues? The journey, not the destination….

If you know Michigan and if you’ve read Lilian Jackson Braun’s books, where do you think the stories are set?

One thing is certain. As I was reading The Cat Who Sniffed Glue, my mother was not far from my thoughts but always there, just across the room, smiling at me. Here I was, reading another book I knew she had read and enjoyed. And I was reading it right after reading another book, one sent to me by my sister, a book she had bought and given to my father — so that in reading that book I was constantly reminded of “the Colonel.” Reading is so much more than escape, so much more even than education. A solitary activity, yet it unites us with other human beings, even those who have passed on.

As for my Western images today, several of them represent what is for me a cow country mystery: Can horses round up cows on their own, without cowboys or cowgirls, and take the herd back to the ranch at the end of the day? If not, what was going on in these scenes we witnessed out near the Willcox Playa on Saturday afternoon?


Horses at work?

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Reading in Place



The roadrunner has a rather drab dress of indiscriminate pattern. The feathers are dark brown laced with white, and the tail has a greenish tinge. His wings are stubby, their principal function being to increase the speed of his running should he be in a hurry. His eyes are encircled with rings of an orange color. When he pauses to look at you, he opens his mouth, the crest atop his head rises; the impression is left that the sight of you has brought upon him a condition of great astonishment and shock. Then, recovering quickly from his near collapse, he will go jauntily on his way. -  
- Herbert V. Young, Water By the Inch: Adventures of a Pioneer Family on an Arizona Homestead

Despite several excellent books begun and not yet begun, recommended and picked up on impulse, it is books having to do with the Southwest that take priority right now. I vowed to get back to The Frontier in American History, waiting for me on the little table between our two reading chairs (finally finished that book, begun many weeks before in 2018, two weeks into 2019), and then was seduced at the library by Water By the Inch, with its memories of the desert around Phoenix before urban and suburban development, tales of moving cattle on horseback, digging and falling down wells, close calls with rattlesnakes, and a happy family with five children living in a two-room shanty without running water. Before that there was Voice of the Borderlands, poetry sometimes sweet, sometimes harsh, but always evocative, vignettes narrating the lives of cowboys and horses, rodeos, cattle drives, drug runners, desert deaths, and the dying of old ways. My gratitude for the sun’s warmth I found contained in the Mexican description of “el sobre de los pobres,” the overcoat of the poor,, and I alternated my reading of Drum Hadley’s soul-searing poetic narratives with a novel by Phyllis de la Garza, Railroad Avenue, set on the familiar streets of Willcox, long before those streets were paved. One of the winter’s first temptations, however, had come with My Heart Lies South, irresistible to me not only for its Mexican setting but also for the author’s signature on the inside front cover, along with an indication that one of the book’s previous owners had been Helen Riggs, from an important ranching family down Chiricahua way. You’ll see that book listed in my 2018 Books Read list.


And now, continuing my latest Arizona desert reading, I am deeply grateful to have discovered the nature writing — and much more — of Ken Lamberton. 

I look to the stars for confirmation that I’m not stuck in one place. From one hour to the next I can tell by marking the counterclockwise motion of Ursa Major that the earth moves beneath my feet. I’m spinning with it at 700 miles an hour. From season to season I can feel the earth coursing against a backdrop of constellations, summer’s Scorpio and winter’s Orion. I’m circling the sun at 66,000 miles an hour, a million and a half miles a day. I am not in prison; I am a traveler. I am a galactic tourist, visiting the sun and moon and gas giants. I watch the universe pass by from the window of this fenced plot of ground. I should have motion sickness.  
- Ken Lamberton, Time of Grace: Thoughts on Nature, Family, and the Politics of Crime and Punishment (2007)

In fact, Ken Lamberton was in prison, serving a 12-year sentence as a convicted sex criminal. In his late twenties, a veteran five-year teacher and married father of two (with a third on the way), he had fallen for one of his eighth-grade students and run away with her, presumably to “start a new life,” according to fantasies governing the relationship — on both sides — at that time. Lamberton coped with prison by continuing to read, write, and teach. He was remorseful and desiring of forgiveness but understood that his remorse could never change the past and that forgiveness might never come, especially from his wife, the person he had hurt the most and by whom he most desired to be forgiven. 

In the pages of this, his third book written and published during his incarceration, it seems almost as if his wife, Karen, suffers more from being married to a convicted sex criminal than Ken does from being in prison. Karen also found productive ways to cope with the consequences of her husband’s betrayal, going back to school and earning a paralegal degree, as well as a B.A. in political science. She was hired by a Tucson law firm. She sued the Department of Economic Security and won not only her initial class action lawsuit but prevailing over the six years of appeals against her by the State of Arizona. She visited her husband regularly, bringing their daughters as often as possible. His relationships with the girls seem good, despite the odds. 

And yet, prison exacts a grievous toll on the marriage. 

Readers new to Lamberton’s work, as I was, may be surprised by how much of his life in prison focuses on nature and wildlife, though it was nothing new for him. His book Wilderness and Razor Wire was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing in 2002. In Time of Grace, he notes carefully and almost compulsively the annual visitations of various courting and migrating birds and insects and the blooming and leafing-out of trees, emergence of ground plants, sightings of tadpoles (after the rains), a brooding mother duck, many bats, and once, excitingly, a ringtail. Snakes, butterflies, even flies or a broken eggshell — nothing in the natural world is beneath his notice, and everything in his walks around the perimeter of the yard contributes to his sanity.

…I adjust my calendar to the metronome transgressions of birds. For now, they cue me to after summer’s ebb: shorter days as the desert gradually cools and dries. Grasses beyond the perimeter fence bleach and go to seed under scattered cholla cacti, tiaras of light caught among their blond spines. 

But Lamberton is no disembodied angel behind the razor wire. Acutely aware of his own sins, he is no less blind to the sins of others, whether they be wardens, prison guards, wealthy and politically powerful unpunished criminals, or American society at large. It would be difficult to read this book and not be angry at the widespread injustice Lamberton recounts. Not, I add, that he feels his sentence was unjust. No, he says he deserved it. But he sees that the system is not geared basically toward justice at all. In his “Author’s Note” at the book’s beginning, he writes:

Like many people, I believed the justice system was a vehicle for truth. I discovered that truth is irrelevant and politics is not, that our adversarial system favors the affluent, that judges have become redundant, that a plea bargain is not a compromise but a surrender. That justice is a contest with winners and losers…. I also discovered that prison is a society  with a caste system based on the types of crimes committed and those ranked a the top — murderers, drug offenders, gang members — prey on those at the bottom . . . and I was at the bottom. 

And yet, as important as the revelations of injustice — is it wrong of me to see it this way? — are the author’s views of the natural world around him and the beautiful language in which they are expressed. So whether your interest is in law, prison reform, natural science, or literature, this book will command your attention from the first page to the last. I’ll go further and say that this would be an excellent choice for a book club, particularly if members of the group come to discussion with some diversity of experience.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Please Explain It To Me



Good morning. I've had some thoughts percolating since December and have decided today is the day —

Letter To My Conservative Friends: 

Or should I say “To Those of My Friends Who Call Themselves ‘Conservative’”? Because I’m having a hard time understanding what you believe and what you want. Maybe it will help if I tell you what I see as “conservatism,” and you tell me where I’m wrong. This is how I see it -- not a definition, by any means, but some important features:

True conservatism defends freedom. Conservatism worthy of the name would stand firm against tyrants around the world, not roll over for them, wiggling and peeing and showing a soft underbelly. I’m not talking about aggressive empire-building — going out and taking over other people’s lands — but standing against those who would do so to others. Are we on the same page here or not? If not, what am I missing?

I also see true conservatism as fiscally responsible. So conservatism would invest in and maintain a strong military but would not send them on pointless, expensive domestic maneuvers or half-heartedly pursue unwinnable, endless foreign wars, squandering public investment and digging an ever-deeper national deficit to prop up private (perhaps unwise) corporate investments. Or do you see protection of private corporate investment overseas and defense of freedom — our own and others’ — not only compatible but inextricably intertwined? Please explain. What policies would you have our country pursue, and how do you see them fall under the umbrella of conservatism?

True conservatism builds for the future. It respects precedent and draws lessons from the past but never forgets that the object of government policy is long-term stability and security and prosperity in the future. In short, a true conservative is not a gambler, and true conservatism would not take foolish risks with our national future for short-term gain, either financial or political. Perhaps this relates to my paragraph above, and one answer will serve to explain my confusion on both points.

True American conservatism stands by the Constitution and the rule of law. Thus conservatism would respect not only a partisan interpretation of the Second Amendment but the entire Constitution. Furthermore, a conservative president would respect (not demean) the office of president, as well as Congress and the judiciary, and would respect freedom of speech and freedom of the press, however violently he might disagree with opinions sometimes expressed. One-man rule would not be conservative, would it? Would it?

(“The law is no respecter of persons” does not mean disrespect: it means that no one person, even the president, is above the law.)

True conservatism is not anarchy. Does this need to be said? Apparently it does. The current Administration in Washington, D.C., would do away with government protections for ordinary citizens at every level and in every department by appointing to office the least-qualified individuals with the strongest short-term self-interest in destroying rather than fulfilling the trust those offices require for their continued operation. The only way I can understand this as part of a conservative agenda is if conservatism believes the missions of these departments is illegitimate exercise of government’s power. That these departments should never have been established. But then, where does conservative respect for precedent begin and end? Is there some historic line in the sand, before which precedents are respected, after which they are undeserving of respect? Or — as I fear — is the label ‘conservative’ merely shorthand for a party line? If your party does it, it’s good; if the other party does it, it’s bad? Respect and conserve the one, disrespect and destroy the other? Can you understand why it’s hard for me not to see what’s happening as essentially partisan?

True conservatism is honest and proud. It is not built on lies and name-calling, blaming, shouting, bullying, and whining. William F. Buckley represented a conservatism I could understand. He did not rely on urging mobs to shout three-word chants but engaged intellectually with opponents and articulated his own views with careful arguments and defense. 

This is why, as I see it, conservatism is moribund in our country today: dying if not dead. Can it be resuscitated? Only, it seems to me, if more than a brave handful of conservatives with spines will once again stand up for its principles. So where do you stand? And where do you think I fail to understand you?

A lot of political mileage has been made of the simplistic and short-sighted idea that government is at the root of every social problem. Is that what you think? Is that how you define conservatism? Think about life in this country without government. Would you really, for the sake of anarchical “freedom,” give up the rule of law and hand over your fortunes and your sacred honor to predatory, unregulated private corporations? Because — follow the money to the power — and you’ll find corporations in the driver’s seat. Where can you see any future security in that scenario? And where, in that picture, is any recognizable conservatism worthy of the name? 

Libertarianism is not conservatism. This, at least, is my opinion, based on considerable reading. Libertarians will tell you that private individuals and corporations will do the right thing because only in that way can they protect their investments and future profits. But the investments of any individual — and thus of any corporation — must be made in the short term for profits to benefit that individual (or those stockholders) directly. In the long run, after all, our generation — like all those before it — will be dead! So if governments around the world do not step into the breach to protect air and water and soil quality, woe betide future generations! Or do you see human nature and the natural human life span differently?

I really want to hear from you. Since I’m opening the conversation, though, I’ll lay my cards on the table and reveal my conclusions here at the start:

Conservatism and progressivism need not be enemy camps. One parent in a family may be stricter and the other more obviously nurturing, but that does not mean children would be better off if both parents always took the same approach or if one’s approach did not temper the other, and it certainly doesn’t mean two parents must engage in continual tug-of-war to raise their children! I’ll go further: sometimes it’s important to listen to grandparents, too, and even the children may have perspectives their elders need to take into account. 

Democracy rests on a faith that something similar is true of government, that we will be better off making decisions together, with more guiding us than the will of a king, more protecting us than the goodwill of the wealthy and powerful. We need justice, and we need understanding and mercy. We need to stand on our own, and a helping hand is sometimes necessary to get us there. 

(If a winner-take-all, Hobbesian “law of the jungle” is your view of freedom, you are an anarchist, not a conservative, as I see it.) 

In any political party, when ideological purity is demanded, ideology gets in the way of practical solutions, but “compromise” does not have to be a dirty word. It doesn’t having no principles. After all, the best way to a given goal may well be a path neither side initially envisioned on its own.

True conservatism looks to its legacy, as does true progressivism. I’m certainly not saying that conservatism and progressivism are “the same” — far from it — but neither wants to leave the country in smoking ruins! So if that isn’t a call for mutual respect and bipartisanship, I’m afraid the danger we face is not to conservatism or progressivism alone but to the very soul and future of our nation. 

We were once the light of the world. American policies were not always right, and I think we all know that. (Don’t we?) Native Americans were massacred and held in concentration camps. Black Africans were enslaved, bought, sold, and treated as less than human. The United States has intervened in the internal events of other countries, sometimes for the good, other times with terrible consequences. Citizens have been denied the right to vote or to have their votes count, and innocent people have been deprived of life and liberty. Through all these blunders and sins, our country espoused right ideals. Have Americans been nothing but hypocrites? I’m not saying that and don’t want to argue the point.

I would say, rather, that from its inception and over its history our country has made periodic and halting efforts to realize its ideals, at times making partial progress and at other times backsliding seriously — as does any human endeavor, individual or group. Acknowledging our national shortcomings is not being unpatriotic, in my book, and certainly I cannot see holding up lies and calling them truths as conservative. Can you?

The conservative may think I am too critical of our history (do you think so?), while the radical will see my picture as too rosy-hued.  The more important question I would put to you is: How does the world see us today? How does it view our national leadership and those who support it? Is a man who shows no respect for the dignity and honor of his own high office conservative? Does “respect” mean nothing more than agreeing with and applauding one man as “the greatest,” even when he forgets he is the highest-ranking servant of the peopleall the people — those who voted for him, those who voted against him, and those who didn’t vote at all; those who cheer him and those who criticize him?

My heart has been heavy for over two years now, and that heaviness weighs on me daily. This is very personal. I feel estranged from too many friends on both sides of the political divide. 

I don’t understand my polite conservative friends because I don’t understand how they can call themselves conservative and continue to see the current president (or speaker of the House, when you come right down to it) as a conservative leader. But there are also the not-so-polite ones, people I thought for years were my friends but who have now cast me into a camp they identify as “left-leaning liberal fascists.” I don’t even know what that is supposed to mean, but it doesn’t matter, because no conversation is possible against chants of “Lock her up! Lock her up! Build the wall! Build the wall!” Places that once felt welcoming and homelike no longer feel that way to me.

Both sides, I said, though, and I mean it. There are some men and women with whom I agree politically, to a large extent, some of them friends of long standing, whose company I now avoid because they operate these days on a permanent setting of high dudgeon, their rage matching that of the chanters on the other side. They follow bad news (and there’s plenty of it) minute-by-minute and eagerly pass along each latest outrageous tweet. The worst part I see in this, what breaks my heart, is the wall they, my political allies, are in the process of building against anyone on the other side of the divide. Some of these friends are politically active in productive ways, also, and that I applaud, but others seem to be doing nothing but shouting. 

Then there are those who studiously avoid any discussion of politics. You might think I would be comfortable with that, but no, that avoidance feels so false to everything I know we are all feeling that I can hardly stand it, even as I politely keep my own observations on life’s surface with strangers until and unless receiving a sign that, whatever our politics, we share present heartbreak. Otherwise, while I go about my public business with my public face, emotionally I tend to draw into my shell, my little world. So yes, I avoid, too, and I feel false when I do it, and how many of us are doing it, and how long can we keep it up? I ask not only my friends who call themselves conservative but all my friends and also anyone I’ve never met who may be reading these words. 

This is about so much more than which party won or lost some particular election or office. It goes so much deeper. It is a plague on our historical moment, played out in public but experienced also in private, in sleepless nights and silent, lonely days. 

Every new year brings fresh opportunities to reach out, to touch, to love, to give, to be grateful for the life we have. But I am untrue to myself if I pretend I’m not feeling the deep sadness that has been the emotional background for me of the past year and that now accompanies me into the present. So if you are feeling it, too, whatever your political beliefs and allegiances, please know that you are not alone. In the end (and yes, I’m finally coming to it), that may be the most important thing I can say: If you are sad, you are not alone. Many of us are hiding sadness and depression, some with angry shouting, some with light small talk, some by withdrawing into silence and isolation.

In this new year already underway (as it’s taken me weeks to decide to make these thoughts public), I wish us all calmer, brighter times, opportunities to look at one another with love and respect, and as many occasions as possible to open our hearts and minds to one another. Because we can’t leave everything to the younger, rising generation. As long as we’re here, age 20 or age 90, we have work to do. Together. 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

“Reading the Landscape” in Our Different Ways

Sarah puts nose to the ground every day
A recent groundswell of interest in Sarah’s winter doings provokes this post. I won’t presume to speak in Sarah’s voice, as she is a very quiet, nonvocal dog. She gives a single low woof! if she feels the need to alert us to something, and we always pay attention then, or she might whine, very softly, if she wants something and feels we are not paying attention, but that’s about it. So hope a few photographs and brief remarks will fill the bill and make Sarah’s fans happy.


Sarah and I go out exploring the high desert near our winter cabin at least twice a day, morning and mid- to late afternoon. (Her evening sortie is brief, for utilitarian purposes only.) For me, during these expeditions, vision is the primary sense, hearing the second. I can’t present to you the morning song of the mockingbird, the happy cranking of the cactus wren, of the thump! of a vehicle going over the cattle guard at one end or the other of the ghost town, but here is one of the kind of sights that catches my eye. 


It’s different with Sarah. Her nose is #1 sense organ, and she employs it constantly! Sometimes I have a visual hint to tell me what she might be smelling. For instance, I might see a track that she thoroughly sniffs. Or when she applies her nose to the end of a twig or grass stem, I can infer that some animal recently brushed against it. —But what kind of animal? Cow? Coyote? Javelina? Bobcat? Her nose must detect so many distinct scents!





If Sarah were at all verbal, I’m sure she would share her discoveries. As it is, she collects her impressions, and I collect mine, but she and I do enjoy one another’s company while exploring, each in her own manner. 


Wishing you a day of good smells!!!


Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Challenging Desert Warms My Heart

Invisible mountain morning
…The rain had driven everybody indoors. The stock pens east of town were filled with cattle waiting to be loaded onto trains, so after doing chores, the cowboys had a good excuse to visit the saloons to get out of the lousy weather. The Horseshoe [Saloon] smelled like cigar smoke, beer, whiskey, and cow manure. 
  • Phyllis de la Garza, Railroad Avenue

From a temperature of -10 degrees Fahrenheit at 4 a.m. on Thursday morning, Cochise County warmed up into the high 40s for the beginning of the weekend, and after dark on Saturday the rains came. Rain pattering on a metal roof reminds me of summer evenings on our front porch in Michigan, but I won’t be venturing out through wet grass with Sarah-dog here. Instead we’ll meet with mud and grit. The high desert is very gritty. Even when the ground is dry, we are always tracking in dust and tiny, hard, rough-edged stones, and when snow or rain dampen boot soles, a whisk broom at the door and a mat on which to leave shoes is the only solution. 

In the early Sunday morning rain, our little ghost town of Dos Cabezas seemed little more than a scant clearing in the clouds, mountains all around vanished in the mist. The only steady sound outside the cabin was that of the rain and, at long intervals, a truck or camper whooshing by on the high below. Because of the PGS (“partial government shutdown,” but I’m sick to death of hearing that phrase, aren’t you?), Chiricahua National Monument is closed for the duration, and I wonder where all the campers who had planned to stay there will go, since other parks and federal lands that allow camping must also be closed. There are private RV parks in Willcox, so I suppose some will go there, but it isn’t as if vacationers and wandering retirees can just drive to another state. The whole country is affected. 

Rain increases from gentle pattering to a pounding pour. (In Phyllis de la Garza’s novel, set in Willcox and the surrounding area, “rain pounded down like a fist.”) If Dos Cabezas is a clearing in the clouds, a restricted area of visibility, it can also be seen as a little lake of land, with each house and cabin, old miner’s shack and crumbling adobe ruin an island. From our small island here on high ground, I can look back along the wash and across the mesquite scrub to a ranch nestled at the base of the mountains to our north, while south, across the highway, other neighbors’ places are visible, as are the lower slopes of gentler mountains that fade away into the mist maybe fifty yards up. 

Bonnie Landers, the fictional narrator of Railroad Avenue, periodically throughout a tale in which she meets one terrifying situation after another, reminds herself not to whine. It does no good to whine. That’s another way the high desert is gritty. It’s the same, of course, with nature in general, whether the locale is a mountaintop or the middle of the ocean: nature has no sympathy. On the other hand, neither does it bear us any animosity. It just is. And so you either give up in the face of it, and turn, tail between your legs, or you deal the hand you’re dealt. It isn’t “heroic,” simply a matter of accepting and meeting a situation. It's a different kind of grit.

I will say, though, that in our most recent high desert challenge — a couple nights of unusual and unexpected subzero temperatures that froze and cracked plastic fittings to an outside rainwater storage tank, confusing the pump about where to send water — we would not have been able to deal with the situation on our own. 

Willcox Railroad Park cottonwood in frost on cold Thursday morning
One neighbor brought water, and a couple of others brought tools and know-how, and after a few round trips to town for new fittings the situation was resolved. The Artist and a neighbor wrapped the repaired pipes to insulate against any future extreme cold, after which the Artist strategically placed ladders around the nearly ground-level prior problem areas to discourage foot traffic by night-roaming cows (free range) and “pigs” (javelinas). We didn’t whine or cry, but the truth is that we would have been lost without our neighbors.

They had stories, too. One hard freeze a few years back busted up pipes from Safford, up in Graham County, to Sierra Vista down close to the Mexican border, and hardware stores all the way to Tucson ran short of needed supplies. It took a trip all the way to Phoenix to buy enough pipe so that half a dozen houses in Dos Cabezas could once again count on running water from their wells to their homes. One man made the trip to Phoenix for the rest.

I’ve read elsewhere about the myth of “rugged individualism” among pioneers on the frontier and how the real story was more, of necessity, neighbor helping neighbor. Of course, I don’t have first-hand experience to back that up, not having been here a hundred years ago. We are here now, the Artist and I, with electric lights and running water and a gasoline-powered automobile to make the 30-mile round trip to town, and we’re only here for the winter, not for the grueling summer, when heat and scorpions and rattlesnakes threaten the unwary. Still, the warm hearts and casual generosity of our ghost town neighbors have made the difference for us between possible and impossible. “Oh, who would inhabit/this bleak world alone?”

Thursday night, before falling asleep, I finally heard coyotes. We hear them all the time back in northern Michigan, and when we first heard them here, back in the winter of 2015, the sound made me feel right at home in what was then a strange, new place. The place doesn’t feel strange any more, but I am happy to hear the coyotes’ voices. Like the sight of the mountains, that sound makes me smile. 






Wednesday, January 2, 2019

New Beginnings?

Hoppin' john, collard greens, cheesy biscuits

January 1-2, 2019
Dos Cabezas

When you think about it, the idea of a ‘beginning’ to anything is strange. I wrote those words out long-hand on a pad of yellow-lined paper on the morning of January 1st, but they were really (as I also wrote) a continuation of what had begun on my laptop screen two weeks previously as “Desert Diary,” and that was only picking up again a record of descriptions and thoughts written last winter and three years before in blog posts and letters to family and friends.

Cabin from wash on snowy New Year's Day
Was 2015, then, the beginning of all this writing and of my love for mountains and high desert? If so, why did my heart leap up when the owner of our cabin first told us about it, uttering the words “high desert,” “open range,” “ghost town,” words that thrilled me even then? 

Sarah & fence
I’d never longed to see Arizona — it wasn’t a dream for me, like the dream of seeing Paris — but the truth is that I had always, as a young, horse-crazy girl, dreamed of going West, dreamed of the West from the front porch (west-facing) of our family home on the Illinois prairie as I gazed over and past the cornfields across the road and imagined myself on horseback, riding beyond those prosaic fields, into the sunset. Out under — at last! — black skies pricked by innumerable stars, far from any city or suburb. As it always had and perhaps still does to Europeans, “the West” represented freedom to the child I was, fenced about by social rules and expectations. “No running in the house!” Could they not see that I was not running but galloping? That I was not a child but a wild horse? As I galloped, indoors or out, or dreamed on the front porch, gazing across cultivated fields, I imagined boundless wilderness, open and challenging. There were pictures in my head from television cowboy shows, but there were no sheriffs or bandits or range wars in my fantasy. I had no wish to conquer anything or anyone, only to be there, to “breathe free,” and test myself, not against adults or other children or social mores or any arbitrary will or rule, but against natural reality, harsh though it might be.

[Sidebar: Some, I know, will immediately want to compare my girlhood dreams to those of a boy, so I’ll pause here to say that I am not interested at all in that comparison. Men, usually the ones to raise the comparison questions, can only speculate about how their youthful experiences compare to what they can only imagine were those of someone now a woman. They cannot truly compare, as the only experiences they had were their own. And the only experiences I had were mine, so I cannot compare, either, but comparison is not what I’m about. I am only describing my dreams, and I can say definitely that I did not dream of surviving a Western wilderness as a girl, only of meeting the challenges of nature. Perhaps a boy’s dreams center more on becoming a man. Perhaps their dreams are more gendered. I don’t know. I suspect there are as many differences among boys’ dreams as there are among the dreams of girls, but I find questions of gender when they intrude on my experiences with the natural world, whether actual or imaginary, annoying and unwelcome, because part of what I sought to escape in my childhood imagination was just such restricting social norms.]


Back to the more interesting (to me) question of beginnings, though. Did the feelings I now have for my winter Arizona surroundings begin with a child’s dreams as that child gazed across an Illinois cornfield, imagination ablaze with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and company? Or was the beginning further in the past, when my parents attended their first rodeo out in South Dakota while I was still in my mother’s womb? South Dakota, my birthplace and scene of my conception — would such a place not mark a child with an invisible brand, not to be erased by subsequent moves and homes? Or do I go beyond reason with such a question?

On New Year’s Eve I opened a new book that I took up again in the morning, as the new year officially began. A gift from friends who were here in the cabin for six weeks before our arrival and the most appropriate possible reading for me, here, as we usher out the old and welcome in the new far from northern Michigan, the book is Drum Hadley’s Voice of the Borderlands, poetry of his cowboyin’ experience along la frontera, the mountains and high desert of Sonora, Mexico, and Cochise County, Arizona. Names of familiar places recur in narrative vignettes: Sulphur Springs Valley, Willcox Livestock Auction, Agua Prieta, and there are mentions also of places I know only from maps, such as Guadalupe and Antelope Wells. I finished the first section, “Cowboys and Horses,” with great satisfaction as the new year began and the first snow of 2019 fell on Dos Cabezas. On the morning of January 2nd, we are under a winter storm warning still, with accumulations of eight inches possible at elevations above 5,000 feet (that’s us) and temperatures not to rise above the freezing mark until Thursday.



Beginnings, endings. Human beings designate moments, days, years as such, but are those designations anything more than mileposts we drive into time as a way to organize our stories?



Monday, December 31, 2018

What Might You Love?

Mountains at last!

Arizona is not all desert, because so much of it is mountain. Scores of separate ranges, each with a name of its own, are sprinkled here and there, and in the southern part of the state they often rise abruptly from the desert floor itself. In fact it is impossible to move anywhere so far away from them that the horizon is not ringed around with peaks. 

- Joseph Wood Krutch, The Voice of the Desert: A Naturalist’s Interpretation

In Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Catherine, the naive young heroine of the novel, has an opportunity to travel far from her small home circle for the first time and to meet people with views and experiences wider than her own. She is introduced to new kinds of reading and also new ways of looking at the world. Her impressionability is not lost on Henry, at first a chance acquaintance who very soon becomes a major figure in Catherine’s mental and emotional world. 

Older and more sophisticated, Henry is also possessed of a subtle, teasing nature not always understood by Catherine and only held partially in check by his more gentle sister. Though their conversation often leaves her uncomprehending, Catherine is enchanted by both siblings and begins to look at the world through their eyes, finding beauty where she had never previously looked for it, in small, easily overlooked details — for example, a blooming hyacinth. Henry is amused but does not taunt, instead saying approvingly, if tongue-in-cheek, “It is good to have as many holds on happiness as possible.”

Henry might have been teasing Catherine, but I think he was absolutely right to say that about happiness — though as I reflect for a moment I can see that a Buddhist might disagree, for is love not attachment? Never. mind, though. I am not going down that road this morning. Neither the Buddhist path nor that of philosophical debate. Love and the holds it gives us on happiness are my theme this morning.

Thrilling mountains in New Mexico!

On our way west, as we crossed the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas and the first, flat stretch of New Mexico, I was impatient for mountains. Finally, in New Mexico, seeing our first mountain of the trip in the distance. it, I couldn’t help smiling happily. Soon, larger ones appeared. Now, surrounded by mountains every day, I wake in the dark eager for dawn to light up my high desert neighborhood. Though the sky was cloudy for our first couple of days here, there was sufficient daylight to show the contours of the slopes, and as we made the first drive from Dos Cabezas to Willcox I began mentally drawing the mountains on the other side of the playa in soft pencil, a very sketchy mental drawing, mostly broken planes of light and dark, and I felt that smile again on my face.



“I guess I love mountains,” I mused aloud, wonderingly, to the Artist. 

“I guess you do,” he agreed.

“It’s something I never would have known about myself if we’d never come out here.” I went on, enlarging upon  my theme, the strangeness of surprises lying in wait in the self. “It’s like being predisposed to be allergic to something,” I went on, groping for expression. “If you’re never exposed to it, the allergy doesn’t get triggered. It never manifests.” Then my epiphany burst full-blown: “Love is like an allergy in reverse!” 

Strange notion, is it not? My darling might have argued with me, citing counterexamples to my claim,  different kinds of love and different ways of looking at love, but instead he agreed, understanding me instantly and perfectly, and I sighed and thought contentedly how fortunate he and I were to encounter one another so many years ago, giving our love a chance to be born when we might easily have gone a lifetime without it.

A more conventional way of expressing my idea, I realized a few days later, is to say that there is a contingency to falling in love, and I’ve known that for a long time. That which comes, over time, to feel necessary to our happiness — a partner, a child, certain places and activities — was not always so, pre-ordained by the stars. If we had never met … if we had not found Sarah that day at the Humane Society shelter … if my father had not studied French in high school and been stationed in France after the Liberation … if I had not been born to literate parents, with books and music in our house for as long as I can remember … if I had never seen a horse … if we had not gone camping on Lake Michigan when I was 12 years old … if, if, if … then I might not have had the opportunity to fall in love with David and Sarah and the French language and books and horses and Michigan. 




My friend and correspondent in New South Wales, Australia, for instance, also loves books and dogs (we share those passions) but has otherwise an entirely different set of loves from mine. She does not love horses and has never seen Michigan — and yet her life, too, is full, with many holds on happiness.



I’ve thought before, many times, of how the contingent in a life becomes necessary, but my thoughts were mostly terms of specific persons and places or, if in categories, familiar ones one might encounter anywhere, such as books and horses. Discovering in myself a love of mountains surprises me. For most of my life, I looked at photographs and paintings of mountains and remained unmoved, even while recognizing their beauty. It was beauty that had nothing to do with me, I felt. Really. I could look objectively at the most impressive mountain image and turn away with a shrug. It was not Michigan, after all. Perhaps the landscape of Mars is beautiful, too, but what has it to do with me? Surely no one can expect me to feel love for it.

And yet, somehow, where I least expected it, a new love has crept upon me, so gradually that I can hardly say when it began. I have learnt (as Henry put it) to love mountains. Mountains in general. The sight of them now makes my heart glad. I love that wherever we go in our winter neighborhood, we are surrounded by mountains — the Dos Cabezas, the Chiricahuas, the Pinaleños, and the Dragoons that separate our Sulphur Springs Valley from the San Pedro Valley to the west.



That is the generality of my new love, but the particular is even stronger. When, three miles or so from the New Mexico-Arizona state line, I discern for the first time the twin peaks of Dos Cabezas, then I have a feeling of coming home similar to what I feel when crossing from Indiana into Michigan. Closer to home in Michigan is catching the first sight of Grand Traverse Bay and what my friend Laura calls “the coming home tree,” that beautiful old willow standing against the water at the T intersection, and then turning left to re-enter Leelanau County. Similarly, here in Cochise County there is one long curve at last, my "coming home curve," the sight of my mountain and the land opening out below it, exposed rocks along the side of the road with prickly pear cactus and century plants against the rock face, and then a reverse curve as Highway 186 climbs up again, and there it is — the cemetery, the Dos Cabezas sign, the cattle guard, and the sign with the image of a horned cow, while up and to the left is the single cabeza that presides over the ghost town, over the Philadelphia Wash, and over our little winter cabin. 






Yes, I now love mountains in general, but these mountains — this range, its distinctive twin peaks, and my peak in particular — are special. Not the tallest mountains in the Southwest, they are the mountains where my heart now feels at home. 


What will you open your heart to and fall in love with in 2019? A world of possibilities awaits....