Sunday, December 26, 2010


returning home on Christmas day, it is cold and tonight it will freeze. The garden is barren except for the okra that juts up like punji sticks, leafless and yet continuing to produce, miraculously, okra, inedible and alien in shape.

this day extraordinary blossoms emerge. overnight a hard freeze, and I wake to check on them. they are vibrant in the morning sun bathing fragile petals in warmth. tonight another, harder, freeze. I am not sure they will make it, these hot summer plants that delight me with their insistence upon bringing forth beauty into the gray cold day.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Leavenworth, WA Summer 2010

My God, I look at the creek…If I seek the senses and skill of children, the information of a thousand books, the innocence of puppies, even the insights of my own city past, I do so only, solely, and entirely that I might look well at the creek…
Here is the word from a subatomic physicist: “Everything that has already happened is particles, everything in the future is waves.” Let me twist his meaning. Here it comes. The particles are broken; the waves are translucent, laving, roiling with beauty like sharks. The present is the wave that explodes over my head, flinging the air with particles at the height of its breathless unroll; it is the live water and the light that bears from undisclosed sources the freshest news, renewed and renewing, world without end.

-Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, pp. 102-3

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


It often feels best to lay low, inconspicuous, instead of waving your spirit around from high places like a lightning rod."
--Annie Dillard

Saturday, November 27, 2010

ghost limbs

Tonight I am thinking of Sudek and the war, his desperate searching for the limb that he lost in the war, furious at this war and that war and the wars we wage among ourselves, and the fear that war is as much who we are as love, and a part of me nods and knows that is true and I am not afraid but just resigned to the dark side of life that takes away what you most love when you least expect it, and you are looking for that thing the rest of your life, like some condemnation to hell, while others shop in malls or online and watch the fashionable TV shows, you reside in the black shadows of a pain so exquisite you would release yourself from it, but cannot because what you love might be out there, might be found.

The deep, necessary excavation begins. Last weekend or the week before I was listening to Selected Shorts on NPR, and transfixed by a story by T. Coraghessan Boyle about a man delivering a kidney for a transplant. He is, like all of us, caught in the immediacy of the everyday, of the things that we think of moment by moment of our urban lives as important. He is furious and frustrated as traffic impedes his delivery due to a mudslide at the nearby town of La Conchita.

A young woman frantically accosts him, begging for his help. Her child and husband are buried in the mud beneath the house while she had gone out only for a few minutes. Begrudgingly he abandons the everyday world of the traffic jam and follows her to the mess, where he hurls himself into digging, becoming the digging itself, excavating for he knows not what or why, but to uncover something that suddenly takes on more importance than even the awaiting recipient of the kidney still in the trunk of his car.

Maybe it is as much the abandoning as the digging. As we commit to the excavation, so maybe we abandon those things that no longer matter.

I had to search. Far outside the city, toward dawn, in the fields bathed by the morning dew, I finally found the place. But my arm wasn’t there—only the poor peasant farmhouse was still standing in its place. They had brought me into it that day I was shot in the right arm. They could never put it together again…
--Josef Sudek


The seasons on the farm passed, and for Grace time was calculated only in quotidian measures: the sudden paroxysms of weather, the familiar appearances of certain transient species of birds, the planting of seeds, the ripening of things upon the vine, and the sweet hovering of bees. Time's more intimate units were marked by the uninterrupted arcs of the sun and moon, the cooking, the laundering, and the tireless search for the elusive thing that would offer up some bit of her mother, like a delectable drop of nectar drawn form a honeysuckle blossom.

At fourteen, Grace discovered that when she would stand outside her father's bedroom window with her hands pressed against the glass, letting her eyes drift off in a mist of vision, she could see Lizzie pressing her ear against her father’s chest as he slept, his hands folded over him like a corpse. Like a bird then Lizzie flutters off the mattress, picks her way across the floor barefoot between the newspapers and journals and papers scattered everywhere to the high bookshelves that lined the walls of the rooms.

The smooth pine boards of the floor had recorded hundreds of such passages of her bare feet between the bookshelf with its sacred languages and the bed, where the grounding touch of his hands on her skin freed fragments of poetry, fecund and unformulated, from every cell of her flesh, releasing unutterable syllables that flashed like sparks from her skin, where his mouth gathered them gently back into an utterance that flooded back into her, coherent and whole. As she rested in his arms, she would often see her own death flicker around her like a firefly. Seeing these flashes like lightning behind the lids of his eyes, he did not know that he also was witnessing her death, that he had already lost her.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


From the pieces of stories that she touched as a child, like scraps of cloth stitched together to keep her warm at night, she began to craft a memory of her mother. Each day she would seek out new evidence of her, digging through drawers, leafing through the hundreds of volumes of books that collected dust on the shelves, such was her hunger to know the truth about the woman in whose body hers had formed for nine months. Who had she been, where had she come from, and why had she abandoned her life even before Grace herself had taken her first breath in this world?

This all happened not far from the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, near old Salt Creek and the playa lakes where buffalo once migrated, at a time when the landscape was already sectioned off into a tidy grid of cash crops, each a different color, like swatches of fabric. The tracks of travois and lodge poles had long been turned under by sodbusters, but the stories still hung on the air, bits of history tossed about on the wind, catching on cotton stalks and the hems of girls’ church dresses.

It is almost impossible to look out over the expanse of land (where the only vertical interruptions on a completely horizontal plane are the wooden electrical poles that flip by like a deck of crucifixes at sixty miles an hour) without musing on what it must have felt like to encounter such unending monotony on horseback, or in a covered wagon.

In the year that Grace was torn from the belly of her mother, the town of Blessing was nothing more than a small oasis in a sea of dust and corn. The Victorian courthouse in the center of town with its clock tower and pitched roof had already burned to the ground twice after being struck by lightning. It had been replaced in the 1950s with an industrial-looking concrete structure with bare slab walls, whose sole decoration was a series of large black and white photographs of the Dustbowl--entire farms being consumed by a cloud of thick sand as high as a thunderhead. She would often stand for hours in the dimly-lit halls of the courthouse, staring in wonder at the images behind the glass. The new courthouse stood in the shadow of the tall grain elevators blocks away on the edge of town, and was flanked by the drugstore, the Post Office, and the T.G. & Y. The bank and grocery store were less than a block away. By fall of 1970, the population was just reaching two thousand.

The tidy German farmhouse that her father’s parents had built at the turn of the century was still much the same, but had long-since fallen into disrepair. The paint had been sandblasted for decades by strong, unceasing winds, and the undulating sea of prairie grasses had overtaken the once-productive vegetable garden. The interior consisted of two bedrooms, a cellar, a parlor, a dining room, and two kitchens—the summer kitchen, attached to the main kitchen, was sparsely furnished with an iron stove on its backmost wall for use during the hottest days of the summer. The tiny house was a museum, whose interior landscape was roamed daily by the eyes and fingers of young Grace. Antiquated relics still lay atop bureaus and the dusty piano. There was a faded velvet sofa that crunched when you sat carefully upon it so as not to be speared by the occasionally-protruding horse hairs, wicker chairs whose seats had long ago collapsed, and hundreds of dusty books on sagging shelves whose pages flaked away between her prying fingers. None among these objects had been more lovingly caressed than the cast iron stereoscopic viewer perched atop a collapsing box of Keystone Company Polaroids from around the world--scenes of Amsterdam and Paris, the Taj Mahal and Canterbury Cathedral. The effort required to achieve the fleeting suspension of the parallel images into one, unified, three-dimensional view was a metaphor for the way in which Grace apprehended the multiple voices of history, and the delicious moment of the marriage of disparate things--dual images, whispers and silence, light and shadow, longing and hope--was delirious respite from the one-dimensional plane of singular focus.

The well house was one of Grace's favorite places. It was a small stone structure, rounded like a dove côte, but framed and screened on the top with a pitched roof. Even in summer the clear water that bubbled within the stone shelves nested beneath the surface was freezing cold. Gazing into the glassy water, she could just see the heavy earthen crocks that had once held butter and cream and milk, covered with thick cheesecloth whose edges once dipped back down into the water long ago.

Grace's father was a walking ghost in the world of the living. Years ago, he had banished himself to the cellar to emerge only at odd hours of the night. She often listened for his phantom shufflings in the bowels of the house. Although his hinged assortment of bones clothed in flesh resided predominantly in the cellar, his soul was to be found on the overburdened walnut shelves within the dog-eared pages of books onto which his fingers had pressed the indelible imprimatur of his longings. She often sought in these same pages the person she might have loved, the man she imagined that existed before she was born. Reinscribing the burning arcs of his vision over the beloved words, and through the traces of perspiration and oil that his fingers had left upon the pages of the heavy tomes, she daily redeemed him.

He father, however, beheld his growing daughter through an impenetrable mist of alcohol and would never know of her unceasing search for him in the forgotten books nor about her peculiar gift. His eyes would never linger upon her delicate hands, freckled arms, and shoulders, her white skin, to see himself reflected in the brilliant organization of her cells--he was afraid that he would encounter her mother in those eyes, and that the demons of her death would call forth with unflinching cinematic honesty the shattered bone, the blood.

Monday, November 22, 2010


There is an hour when the sun hovers on the horizon and the light is filtered by the dusty atmosphere of dusk. Looking out over the expanse of fields that stretched unto eternity in every direction, the wind often whipped an anguished sound from a farmhouse miles away. Maybe a pig slaughter, though she couldn't be sure. Grace knew that cruelties were dealt out in equal measure with the vast spaces the way you cut cold butter into flour to make biscuits, that in the end one could not tease out the pain. Her body is poised tautly in listening. She can hear the whispering stories of wheat and grass, the story of a ghost of a girl standing at the edge of the Farm-to-Market road, where the cattle trucks fly past leaving a wake of hard, bitter wind. The rust colored seed-heads of prairie bluestem and the violet tips of aristidas and grama grasses shimmer, heavy laden with the weight of light and the memory of a young woman running across the road and into the fallow field that slept at the edge of the stripped-bare fields of cotton, a field that erupted in the sudden iridescence of grasshopper wings.

Grace has watched her countless times, young Lizzie, darting between the veils of time like a lithe deer through the grass. She seems half animal, each cell cocked to bolt away and disappear at the cracking of a twig. Lizzie approaches an old screen door hanging by a single hinge, the wind slapping it in spasms against the doorframe. This moment of apprehension is imprinted in the metal of the doorknob: catching her reflection in the warped glass of the kitchen door, Lizzie gasped. Her entire life was articulated in the clotting thunderheads rising out of the north, but Lizzie could not decipher the tragedies to come. How could she? She had never learned to read the future in the summer clouds. Had she been born in this desolate landscape, had she drunk since birth from wells dug deep down into the heart of the limestone channel where prehistoric water coursed beneath the surface of the prairie for millennia, she might have developed, among other things, a certain proclivity for reading the future in clouds, or for sensing tornadoes coming miles away. Hours before the sky turned greenish lavender and the birds ceased to sing, the local women would feel the hairs on their arms and necks keening toward the sky, and they would begin moving things down to the deep cool of the storm cellars.

Grace’s father is waiting for her there at the kitchen table bent over a tattered volume of Emerson’s sermons, his skin flushed and reddened by the wind and sun. He was unaware of the chaotic slapping of the screen door, or of the hour kept by a clock that once ticked over the mantel of the fireplace in another unthought-of room; he is unaware even of the irregular rhythm of his own heart. The click of the door stops time.

She stands there before him, nervously shifting from foot to foot on the musty kitchen linoleum beneath the naked bulb, shivering though it is still summer. The blood had abandoned her veins. Lizzie struck him as a bird that might suddenly start beating its wings against the ceiling and windows. When he pulls her close to him, enfolding her in his warmth, her heart hammers against his rib cage, and his heart reverberates in her throat. Before long the beating is synchronized through the miracle of the secret language of cells that recognize each other and are reorganized in this recognition across the vast distance of muscle and skin.

What followed always appears before her both as story and memory, seen from above, what the cobwebs would have seen, or what was reflected in the cut glass of the tiny, crystal shades on the light bulbs over her father's bed. She wonders if this is love, this luminous fluid circulating through their bodies. Lizzie was a squiggle of liquid light, her body trembling, like a moth emerging, unfolding, at seventeen, an image overexposed on a pale sheet, glistening in an angle of desire. Watching from the ceiling or the sky, Grace waited for the right moment to pour herself into them, hovering there so long, disembodied, not feeling or hearing or smelling, but yearning to experience the weight of flesh, the confinement of skin, the delirious sensation of taste and touch and sound. Lizzie’s eyes were pressed closed like the new petals of a rose, so peaceful, as they wrapped their pale wings around one another, unaware that their spirits bled in and out of one another’s bodies and the air like a vapor. Grace clearly remembers the moment when little pearls of her father were held inside her mother, and then she slipped like a gasp into the opalescent drops of fluid and it was done.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Penetrable Air

…alas, but that is what we are. Does the infinite space
we dissolve into, taste of us then?

--Rainer Maria Rilke, The Second Elegy

She had witnessed it all, what had happened long ago, the shot that reverberated in the air, hovering somewhere in the fragile space between light and air and the accumulating density of her unborn flesh. For a moment she had seeped through flesh into sky. She was suspended in some bodiless place from which she beheld the old chopping block in the kitchen, the porcelain sink, the curtains, the tiles. Her father was standing at the sink chopping greens, his mind carried deep into the veins of the leaves. The sudden sound of the shot stopped time, trapping the particles of light that traveled through the kitchen window, through the corpuscles of the green leaves and her father’s body. The shot arrested and imprinted the sparse tidiness of the kitchen indelibly on the objects in the room as if imprinted on a silver bromide plate.

Hearing the shot, her father ran out into the fading light,the old screen door slamming behind him. Crows erupted from the corn. He flung himself toward the collapsed figure in the field of yellow grass. At first he did not comprehend what fluid soaked the thick roots of bluestem in a bath of vivid hues: ochre and crimson in stark relief against the pale yellow of her dress, the whiteness of her legs. He fell to his knees beside her. His fingers fumbled for the delicate blue veins of her throat. There was an astonishing stillness. Her right hand still tightly gripped the gun. He wrenched it away, flinging it far across the field. He could not look at her face. At first he buried his head in his hands, but then suddenly looked up, ashen and emotionless. He ran back to the house, the screen door slamming again behind him, but it was only a moment before he emerged like a wild man running with the knife he had just been wielding at the chopping block. He again dropped to his knees, covered her face with a dishtowel, and reached toward her smooth belly. He knew what he had to do. He ripped open her thin dress and with an animal sound of anguish, he carefully carved away the flesh. The tiny form was bundled tightly there, wrinkled like new cabbage within the milky film of the caul.

It was perhaps because of the extraordinary circumstances of her birth that Grace was born with a peculiar gift. Her touch evoked eruptions of images and sounds and smells from whatever object her mother had once touched. She saw through them into the past the same way one might focus one’s vision on the sky reflected in a pool of water, or upon the depths beyond the surface membrane of a pond. In the fields beyond the farmhouse, the past was dispersed in the vast space and wind, just rippling over the tips of heavy seedheads. But inside the house, each object that Grace held in her hand would call her to its secret places.

She was six years old before she realized that what she saw was different from what others saw. There was a world of playgrounds and streets and storefronts, mutually agreed upon as far as she could tell; and there was another world—one than hovered between the cells of this one. There were certain places that she was particularly drawn to, but nowhere more than the place in the field that sang out with her mother's blood, the very spot on the earth where her mother had ended her life. In this place Grace inhaled the familiar smell of soil--the nitrogen, the faint, far-off scent of lightning, the acrid, metallic particulate of burned gunpowder that even now seemed to hover in the astonished air.

In this place she bowed beneath the burden of gravity that had pressed her mother down and the delicious unburdening she had experienced in one shocking flash. Lying on her belly in the tall grass in late summer, she often served as patient midwife to innumerable damp-winged cicadas emerging from their stiff brown shells, and she somehow understood the shotgun in such terms, as midwife to a birth witnessed by the tall grass metamorphosed from her blood.

Monday, November 8, 2010

you had me at 'good-bye'

"There is a pessimism about land," wrote John Graves, that "after it has been with you a while it becomes merely factual."

So we become addicted to that which cannot be with us for a long time. We tend to imagine ourselves as perpetual, as continuing through time, although we clearly are not. Yet the beauty of the ephemeral is daily masked in the facade of the perpetual.

Other things bear the weight forever of things lost, and thus are elevated to exceeding beauty. John Graves' traveling down the Brazos (those arms of God) lamenting the dam that would forever arrest a thing of ever-changing life and beauty, and those arrested moments of my life spun out like fine lacemaking on the dammed river that was my Possum Kingdom Lake. The haunting interruption of mortality--of life, always abbreviated.

I drove back through the lake area years ago in mid-summer. A freakish front rolled in and we could not stand outside a minute or two before shivering uncontrollably. It was like a veil of icy air kept me from accessing the past. So it will always be, some imagined moments in time that set the pace for happiness, and happiness will always be compared with a sunfish in a bucket awaiting release, and fueling up the Chriscraft at a gas station/hamburger joint on the water, and later the big band sound of Glen Miller will sweep across a linoleum floor where hours later it will be dark, and everyone will be sleeping the deep sleep of belonging, to one another, to the house precipitously cantilevered off a steep cliff, and to one another. My great-grand mother will be there with her wild red hair and we will all sleep the sleep of tightly nested families,knowing no good-byes and no Army Corps of Engineers come to change the world to something better and more hospitable--something that will erase, in its utter beauty of engineering, our perfect, transient, world.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

rather than words...

crab claw, puget sound

There are three bowls--one of wire, one of wood, one of enameled tin--that contain a history embedded in things collected over the years. Three turtle shells resurrected from a cave beneath the Pedernales River, a snake skin, a deer jaw, a possum's pelvic bone...

a set of bird cards, a hand-made book, a bit of moss from a giant sequoia;
a downy owl feather, a butterfly wing, an old photo, a stone crab claw;
a clam shell, purple mollusk, and pine cone, a stone.

These are the stories I will want to remember, those coded in the language of the land, and of found things that were evidence of a secret path only I knew.

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

--Philip Larkin

Monday, May 10, 2010

Butorides virescens

Adventures with a Texas Naturalist begins with a story about a nurse in a home for the elderly who contacted Bedichek to assist one of the residents. The man had not slept in weeks. Bedi obliged and showed up one day and the man, who had suffered a stroke, struggled to imitate the call of a bird he had been hearing but could not identify. He finally scrawled on a piece of paper, to come back tomorrow, "if quiet and still." And it was, and Bedi returned and sat for a while and listened. Before long it came. He wrote down on the paper, "Inca dove." And the man sat back and relaxed and soon fell asleep.

So it was that I found myself equally perplexed, and Bedi gone. I heard the bird one morning as I sat out on the back deck with the morning coffee, watching the wind stir the trees. It came from the boughs of a large hackberry, and I stood beneath and listened, but only caught a glimpse of the bird, somewhat smaller than a hawk, taking flight to the south.

The next day I heard it again, this time in the neighbor's magnolia. There was a responding call a street or so away, and I was vexed. All I could associate with this new call was possibly hearing it near the water. We live about a half a mile as the crow flies from Barton Creek, but I'd never seen wetland species this far. It's odd that the sound of an unfamiliar bird can feel so unsettling. I remember when I first moved to Austin, hearing the screech owls at night and imagining it must be some type of a loon. Birds resist and elude our imaginations.

Mother's Day I sat down at the computer and went through Cornell's Ornithology site and listened to the sounds of dozens of birds. When I arrived at the call, the world seemed to align itself. I felt like the man in Bedichek's story, slumping into the restful peace of having placed a sound, a leaf, a creature of any kind alongside its name.

Monday, April 5, 2010

on fire

The last time I had a fever I was reading Legacy of Luna by Julia Butterfly Hill. I had reached the point in the book where a storm is battering Luna, and Hill is hanging on for dear life, when she is calmed by what she perceives to be the tree itself. As the storm whipped the branches of the tree, my head was wracked by pain and my body seared by fever. I set the book down and never returned to it. It changed the course of my life nonetheless.

This fire began on the Colorado River, sitting in a chair by the rippling water, watching a Great Blue Heron fish patiently where the surface of the water broke over a series of rocks that spanned the 100-ft width of the river. I felt that he (or she) was as aware of me as I was of it. We watched one another quietly until I was joined by a more gregarious friend and the bird soon spread its six-foot span of graceful wings and drifted further downriver. There was so much activity I worried that there would be little opportunity for such future encounters.

That night I lay beside my seven-year old in the tent and read to her the poetic mysteries of sedimentation from A Land, by Jacquetta Hawkes, a book loaned to me recently by a friend. Ms Hawkes was an archaeologist in the mid century and the daughter of a Nobel laureate in biochemistry: The last of the great mountain-building storms was the Alpine that raised what is at present the greatest upward irregularity of the surface of the planet...

I read until we both fell asleep, but I awoke that night drenched in sweat, although it was not more than thirty degrees outside. I went outside under the stars and thought that morning must be coming soon because a strong blue light was already washing away the stars in the east. It must have been the moon, however, because the night went on and on while I flipped from one side to another in my sleeping bag.

Fevers are a strange phenomenon. Unlike the virus itself, the fever presumably is being instigated by our own bodies as a mechanism to burn away the offending organisms. Why then chase them away with fever reducers? During the day I certainly felt better when I could mitigate the aches, but at night I was almost content swimming in the half-waking delirium of the fever. I wondered also if other offending things might be burned away, such as toxic thoughts and fears? What if a good strong fever could burn away a portal to a new way of being in the world? Charlotte Joko Beck uses a similar analogy when referring to meditation. She says something like, the zendo is not a place to go and hang out and be quiet, the zendo is a furnace room for burning away impurities.

Welcome furnace room.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Winter grass (Stipa leucotricha)

"The scenery along the river is agreeable, with a pleasant alteration of gently sloping prairies and wooded creek bottoms," wrote Frederick Law Olmstead about Austin on his travels though Texas in the early 1850s. Traveling through the same region today one would be hard-pressed to make the same comment, save for a few parcels of land spared from the advance of development.

The yard guys showed up today, and my frustration at attempting to explain to them my almost futile attempts at restoration….actually, to even explain the difference between a particular grass that belongs to a specific plant community as opposed to one that does not. Armed with weed eaters and leaf blowers, they see any vegetation peering beyond the straightedge of the city's curb as violating a fundamental precept of landscape.

    I do suspect, however, that in their own places of origin, their own human communities, many of them hold a similar, vague blueprint of the species belonging to their indigenous plant communities. The fourth graders at a local eastside elementary were similarly confused. We talked about words like habitat and ecosystem, yet these concepts were frozen in structural blocks, such as rocks, water, plants, air—the things that animals need to survive. Perhaps the idea of specific communities of plants and animals is beyond the fourth grade (although I don't think it should be), but they all seemed to readily associate the word ecosystem with the rainforest, and yet seemed confused that there were several invasive species located in a nearby riparian area that were detrimental to this ecosystem, even though they did not cause a rash when touched. It calls to mind something I read when studying for the certified arborist exam, that the primary reason for pruning trees are human reasons.

    Over the last three years I have steadily removed the crabgrass, St Augustine, and annual grasses to allow the Stipa, the winter grass, to flourish. I suspect that it was this grass, not the buffalo grass that goes by the name "Mesquite grass" that Olmsted was referring to when he wrote, "The grass of the Eastern prairies is course and sedgy, like that of rank, moist, outlying spots in New England… Our animals showed no disposition to eat it." With only the slightest nod toward care, it flourished in my yard, and soon exceeded in beauty the Lindheimer muhly that I had paid real money for at a local native nursery. But today it is mowed to the ground like any weed around town that happened to sprout near the edge of a curb or walkway.

    Restoration seems to be less of a straightforward business than one would think. After all, the world itself is engaged perpetually in process. We are forever reminded of this, and it is sometimes hard to justify the position that anything truly is indigenous to any particular place. I am not so naïve a purist, however, I appreciate an ever increasing (even if only my own) awareness of the relationships between the land and its vegetation, its communities plant and otherwise, and this great variable of climate. How do you explain, anyway, to a classroom of children, most of them immigrants from Mexico or South and Central America, that it is important to eradicate those species that have come from someplace else; that these species are so successful at outcompeting the ones that are indigenous to this region that the locals can no longer compete? Trying to explain why invasive species are bad for the nearby preserve made me feel a bit like a more educated version of Rush Limbaugh.

    I have a particular, perhaps genetic, love of the prairie grass communities, for the post oak and the cottonwood, which not only sound like water when the wind blows through their leaves, but serve, like the sycamore, as indicator species for underground springs and water sources. Maybe in each of us there is a place where a vast expanse of undulating grass, periodically interrupted by wildflowers, corresponds. It is hard to get at this, here in a country where newly installed subdivisions come equipped with angular plots of grass appointed with a requisite number of shrubs and trees, all connected to an irrigation system as a hospital patient to an IV drip. The idea of the home has ceased to integrate with the idea of land, and certainly the word landscape, as Dean Fritz Steiner pointed out in his book Human Ecology, has been reduced to the most pedestrian terms. I think we need to rethink ecology. We need to introduce the idea of ecology as a question rather than a formula, an investigation for students, rather than a prescription.

    But then what are we left with in the end? What was it that inspired Olmsted, after all? Certainly not the ecology, but the experience of landscape. The encounter with the sublime, with the formality of the geological and vegetative oeuvre, formed from the palette of his vast perception of these natural occurrences of species prior to the interfering hand of man. In the end perhaps we are all formalists, just slaves to differing ideals of form, some aesthetic, and some "scientific" but still operating our heads the same way our hands might wield leaf blowers.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

arrow carriers

I remember this story today and suddenly see some sad irony in it that I had not seen before:

I was in Montana on the Cattaraugus Reservation visiting with a friend, an artist, who had studied at the Fine Arts School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was twenty six years old, and we were having tea. She was explaining that because she had gone overseas with the Peace Corps, she had returned an honorary warrior in the tribe, more specifically, She Who Carries Arrows. Going to another continent entitled one to warrior status, which apparently trumped gender status, and she returned an arrow carrier.

Her brother suddenly burst in the house telling us that there had been a shoot-out in the nearby town of Hardin. Two men had attempted to rob the bank, and the female sheriff, a mother of two young toddlers, had attempted to stop them. She was hit by a bullet, but not badly, it seemed. The ambulance drivers loaded her up, chatting with her politely. She died en route to the hospital. Apparently the bullet had silently entered her pelvic region and ricocheted amply among her pelvic bones. She hardly felt a thing as she bled to death.

The ambulance drivers were devastated and psychological support teams were called in. I don't know what became of the toddlers or the husband of this warrior, but the room and the tea, with our children playing on the floor around us as this all happened still haunts me. Who are we, we women, we mothers and warriors? Who?