Concrete Fields 

Every time I return to the town where I grew up, another field has died.

I think, “They can’t build anymore houses. There isn’t any room.”

And then they find room. The grassy lot, once rich with goldenrod and dandelions. The meadow, once overrun with blackberries but open, muddy in the rain, perched over by finches with their talons between thorns. The old field, where the deer bent their heads at dusk.

They call these places unused. Vacant. Potential real estate. They build clone houses with beige plastic siding and windows that look straight into the neighbor’s bedroom. 

Why do we need more houses? Who would want to live here when the open spaces are gone?

Take A Stone From The Desert

 

Take a stone from the desert. Carry it home with you; keep it safe in the inner pouch of your backpack. Unwrap it carefully. Feel how it has cooled. Turn it over in your hands. Feel the softness of your fingers, exfoliated by wind and stone, and how the rock, too, is smoother than you remember. Flip the lights on so you can see, without a doubt, how the colors have changed. What was once red is now brown-maroon. What was once tea-green is now gray. This is not the same rock you pulled from that ledge of sandstone, but a memory of it.

 

We go to the desert to renew ourselves. This is a land of sky and distance, incredibly ancient but wearing away before our eyes. We are tangled in the elements. Night rushes in. Sweat turns to chills. When the sun rises you are bundled in fleece, but, just as your hands thaw, the day suddenly blooms into warmth, and the sweat returns.

 

Look, there, the ravens circle wordlessly. By the river, Canadian geese honk their morning songs. Wild turkeys roam the sagebrush, laughing. Any sound here is startling and abrupt. When the birds are not calling, it is completely silent. If you stand for a moment, and hold your breath, you hear the buzzing of stillness, the buzzing, perhaps, of time, that very strange quiet that we do not hear in the city.

 

We often think of the desert as a place for escape. All wilderness is seen this way; as a refuge from the evils of society. Perhaps we need not to escape those evils, but to face them. Perhaps the desert should be the place we go to breathe, to listen; to lay with our backs curved against sandstone, to watch the stars turn, and wander carefully through the bleached moonlit landscape, its shapes contorted, its shadows moving like clouds. It is in these moments that the best thoughts form. There is no better place to see the relationship between us and time. Our smallness is evident, here, but it is a magnificent smallness. How beautiful it is to see that there is more than us, more than our mistakes and our self-imposed distance from the non-human world. And once we have seen this, we can return to the city and apply what we have learned.

 

We need to see ourselves in the context of the larger world in order to understand who we are and how we want things to change. This is why, in the dry desert air, things start to make more sense. Out here, we learn to rejoice in the things we have no control over. We learn to love harsh extremes and to find solace in our connection to vastness.  We form new ideas in the openness and carry them with us, like desert stones, changed by landscape. Each stone is a different color when we arrive to our city homes, inseparable from its surroundings. We hold the rocks themselves and the memory of their brightness, and both help us understand what needs to be done.

From Rain to Red Rock

Making the transition from the rain forests of Oregon to the second driest state in the country has been quite the adventure. Utah is beautiful in a completely different way from the Pacific Northwest. There are the red deserts with ravens high above them; the aspen forests that flutter like wings; the long chains of mountains that catch the sun on their faces. Everywhere you look, in Salt Lake City, there are mountains, much gentler than the great peak of Mt. Hood, but still magnificent. I am still getting to know them, but that will come with time. I’m almost halfway through my two-year Environmental Humanities graduate program (hence the lack of blog posts the past few months!); another year to go, and another year to get to know this beautiful landscape!

All the Waters I Have Seen – Lake Superior

“Does it have a tide?” I asked.
“A very slight one.”

“Are there ever any actual waves?”
“When you get out far enough.”

“Do people swim in it?”
“Sometimes. Usually it’s too cold.”

“It doesn’t smell like the ocean,” I said, but they were skipping stones and had stopped listening.  Too many questions, I guessed, but that was okay, because as they threw their stones in long gallops I gazed and gazed, entranced by the runny soup broth texture of the water.

“See—you can’t even see the other side,” my friend said as she whipped a stone across the surface. “And no wind. Every time I go to the Oregon coast I come back looking like a drowned rat or something.”

Lake Superior was technically a freshwater sea, an inland sea, the relic of glaciers, so I’d expected it to be comparable to the ocean. There was nothing I could place that wasn’t oceanic; it was enormous, and the water hushed and breathed. There was nothing about Superior that dwindled its sea-ness, except for the smell and something that was missing, something more than salt. I expected this to change, and I stared and I stared, but the longer I looked, the less like the ocean it became.

“It’s really not much like the coast at all,” I told my friend, and I threw a stone into the water.

All the Waters I Have Seen – The Colorado River

 

If I was upset when I was younger I would run to the trees. I would stare up at them and hope that they might know me. I would stare intensely, my whole neck tilted back, and I’d hold my body still so that when the wind came through I would feel like a mountain overlooking the sea, the clouds and the water and the tilt of the earth spinning around me, like I was the one steady thing in this world.

Far from my sea of ferns and cedars I found a greater steadiness. The desert is a place of slowed time. Ancientness is everywhere. As we perceive it, the ruins and petroglyphs speak of eternity; they are time capsules; they are symbols of both immortality and fragility.

All around are ancient seabeds, arroyos and washes, eroded cliffsides half-digested by rain. A millennia of changes, visible before my eyes, and yet from my place, from my senses and from all the shortened count of human time, this land has lived forever.

As I follow the cairns between sagebrush I am completely alone. At last the trail is empty. I stop, just briefly, and hold my breath. Nothing. Nothing at all. No wind, no tussle of blackbrush, no cries of ravens. No hiking boots, no hot breathing. For this moment I am underwater. I am in space.

I find water. The sun softens. I want to jump in and swim against the river currents, but I don’t, because it is too close to sunset, and I don’t want wet hair when the night grows cold. Instead I stare at the plumes of white and I try to imagine what the water might feel like as it tosses and pulls its way through faded colors—gray, blue, and sandy red—past the Grand Canyon, past cow pastures, past ancient time to some desert basin. This, the Colorado River, will not reach the sea as it once did. It is a dying river. For some reason this is what breaks my illusion, the spell of a desert afternoon; this is what sets the world in motion again. Maybe I am moving just the same as any of them, and there is no such thing as steadiness.

All the Waters I Have Seen – The Jordan River

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The Jordan River in Salt Lake City

I cannot reach you on foot; I cannot run to you on sunny days, or sit quietly on your banks. I will never know you well, but I doubt anyone does. I’ve heard little about you. It seems that you’re not charismatic enough—nothing like the Colorado River, or the Green River. You aren’t large or fast or striking in color. You are the equivalent of an old dog who sleeps all day. Sweet, placid—easy to ignore. But you are also an oasis in a nearly waterless land, and I don’t think you’re cherished enough for it. Maybe this is because you reside on the west side of town, the poorer side, the place of industrial plumes and coal trains. Here, there are signs in Spanish and homeless people on sidewalks. Here, the buildings are blocky and ugly, utilitarian, made to store commodities and to please no one. Maybe I’m harsh to judge, but I think you’re the most beautiful thing in this part of town. And you and this whole area could be valued if you were only noticed. Maybe someday they’ll see what an asset you are, and they will sit on your shores and gaze lovingly at your slow, green water. Until then, I will be the one who notices, all the way from the other side of town.

All the Waters I Have Seen – Wind River

I woke in the morning to snow. On the way in we’d hiked after dusk, so I hadn’t seen the river yet, nor the mountains on either side. Throughout the day they revealed themselves, coolly, like the moon rising above the horizon. They were blue, and in some places flat on top, like forbidden towers. As much as I disliked the idea, there was, indeed, something sublime about them. They seemed untouchable, impossible; the realm of starlight and feathers.

As the fog cleared the snow began to melt, and we ventured out of our tents. This was a group backpacking trip, school-sponsored, and we spent the day marching on mudded pathways. Our boots made crisp, leaf-crunch noises over the frost. This kept us warm but there was always that wind, there, which burst over us at random openings between spruces. With great joy I surveyed the plants, plucking gooseberries, chokecherries, currants, and the last, shriveled raspberries of the year.

At lunchtime we crouched by the river to fill our water bottles. When I held mine to the light I could see all the hairs of moss, all the splinter-thin leaf veins that I’d captured along with the water. I purified it with a UV stick. My fingers numbed through the aluminum; through my gloves.

By nightfall the frost and the fog had returned. I huddled carefully within my tent. True darkness. Then, sometime in the deep of night, I heard a long weee-ahhh, a great, sharp whistling yell from across the river. The first thought that came to my mind was a bugling elk. I’d never heard an elk, nor was I sure what bugling was, but I just had that feeling about it. Later I looked it up, and I was right; it was an elk, a male urging forth the rut, establishing his own form of elk sublimity. This was a sound that reminded me there were not just elk out there, but bears, and mountain lions. There was something about it that was far more river than mountain—far more tangible, even in all this cloth-darkness, yet still foreign enough to give me chills, to make me feel a startled sort of awe. This was a sweeping place. The sharp-metal sound of the elk was not small, but it was for some reason comforting. Obviously I was not alone here, in my backpacking group, but it was good to know that I wasn’t alone out there, either, in this land of snow and mountain and elk, and I soon fell asleep to the great confluence, and all that it echoed.

All the Waters I Have Seen – Willow Heights

We hear the clearing before we see it. A parting of winds, a pause in the flickering. We emerge from the flame-trees. Our faces are painted yellow in the light. Flames burning underwater; flames that carry no heat; that is the way of the aspen trees.

From the meadow we see the ski resort across the canyon. In the snowless months it is a wound, a bald spot that is made more unsightly by those metal towers that beam, useless, in the sun. We turn our backs to it and continue uphill, through the grass, past elderberry bushes and what might be wild licorice. What I want most is to see a moose. I’ve never seen one. Today is no different; we have seen no moose, but we did hear a raven somewhere off to the east.

The path becomes mud in low-lying spots, and that’s how I know the lake is near. We turn a corner and there it is—small, still, rimmed by shrubby willows. Behind this we see the mile of aspens we’ve just walked through. From here they are an undulating summer curtain, or perhaps a kite, and despite their fall colors I feel as though it’s summer.

We sit on the bare sand beside the lake. The water-wind chills us, but we do not move. The sun is on our faces. Our breathing becomes low and flat. The aspens shhh in the distance. Time recedes and we lapse in to water-induced meditation, softer and softer, until we are as smooth as the surface before us.

All the Waters I Have Seen – Red Rock Lake

Memory. Hill and wind unfold at once. Sagebrush. Lodge pole pine. Pronghorn antelope. They run as ghosts at dawn, blurred like distant rain, the echo of clouds that shift over the horizon as though they have deflated, are deflating, ghost-clouds reaching some thicket, some lakeshore, the backs of deer, a rain-world intangible here by the water; brushstrokes.

I’ve missed the water. My new desert home is nothing like this. I’ve not seen a river since I left Oregon; I’ve not seen a lake since I drove past the Great Salt Lake on the move over—car full of boxes, the water only slightly visible from the highway and just beginning to shiver with sunset.

Here in Montana I feel as though I am walking on a mirrored sky. Even the non-reflecting grasses hold clouds in their vastness. The lake is distinctly oceanless. It is tied to nothing, unlike the rivers at home, which flow to the sea, the Pacific, whose fogged closeness I used to smell in southwestern winds. Now I smell the alpine, some northward basin wind that speaks of steppes and mountains converging.

I used to walk with my dog down our neighborhood streets. It was only a short walk to the water. “Come on, Ginger,” I would tell her, and we would run for a moment, “let’s go see the river,” and she would pant, and we would slow down, and after a time we would see the green, slow-moving Willamette, which in my mind was always simply the river. I felt some pride in calling it that, rather than by its full name. It meant I knew it well. It was simply the river, River, as central to my lifeworld as the moon or the sun or the wind.

This lake is a guest in my world. I do not know it, nor will I, since I’m only here for a few days. I am like the trumpeter swans, the great blue herons, the ibises. I am like the antelope, silent, and moving, and reverent; destined for dry places, made of memories—made of water.