Places –

Sonoran Desert

Phoenix, Low Desert – 1999

At midnight the heat radiates from the cement driveway under my feet. I stand in the white moonlight gazing up at twinkling stars. The dark outline of tall trees and roof tops form a stage-drop where city glow breaks the blackness of night.

This is my summer ritual: star-gazing in my pajamas. I wake out of some consciousness that tells my snoozing brain I can open the doors and go out to a cool 90 degrees. I lay in a chaise lounge in the middle of the driveway under a sparkling dome of heaven. The air is gentle, warm, caressing. Like other desert creatures, I have become nocturnal. The moon is my muse.

It’s summertime in Phoenix, Arizona. Temperatures soar over 110 ̊. After June, the buildings and streets absorb the day’s solar energy and then slowly release it through the night. Even though the sun goes down, the built environment radiates like an oven.  The hum of air conditioners is a constant auditory feature of modern desert life.

In the old parts of town residents open aqueducts in their yards. Encircled by an earthen berm, the lawns hold the precious ground water releasing it slowly to soak deeply into the sandy soil and keep their urban lawns green. In the 1900’s people moved to the desert for its dry climate and to escape allergy-causing vegetation. However, the mulberry and olive trees they imported with them resulted in Phoenix becoming the asthma capital of the west by 2000. The average low temperature has increased by 10 ̊ in just 40 years—the result of miles and miles of asphalt and concrete which act like a heat sponge.

Native trees have been reduced by introduction of non-natives (exotics) like the Tamarisk tree in areas where the water table once ran close to the ground. For thousands of years these habitats supported the greatest species diversity in the state.  Beavers and otters abound in rivers and streams, and fauna like deer and Coati mundi inhabited native forests. Memories of Arizona’s extensive green belts have faded with each new generation. Who will remember what has been lost?

Gazing at the twinkling night sky above me, I imagine the ancient Hohokam people—who laid down the original grid of canals still in use today— how they, too, must have lain outside in the cool of moonlight thousands of years before me. Did they work and cavort at night like the desert’s creatures, and sleep in the cool of their adobe huts, or under a shady ramada of reeds, during the blistering heat of daytime? What happened to their great city and 200,000 inhabitants? Why did they leave this valley and its two rivers, the Salt and the Gila, leaving only their canals behind?  Am I part of a Great Reenactment?

I watch the dark outline of a big, brown bat drinking nectar from a tall saguaro’s bloom in my neighbor’s yard. Afar I hear coyotes yipping from a hilltop in a suburban sea. In the wee hours of the warm, dry night, I drift into a deep sleep under a canopy of stars.

Places – Imperial Valley

Yuma, Arizona Farm Fields

Imperial Valley, Below Sea Level, 1990

The Colorado River was a wild, red fury in its natural state. It flooded its banks in southern Arizona and Northern Mexico on its way from the Rockies to the delta on the Sea of Cortez, Gulf of California. This was true for thousands of years. Early people learned its rhythms and developed cultures in sync with the river’s seasonal flows. They are called The Colorado River Indian Tribes—distinct communities that still exist along the river’s course. Their history encompasses the dramatic changes wrought by damming the great river to create one of the most extensive desert gardens known to humankind.

When I crossed the Continental Divide atop the Laguna Mountains, under a brilliant star-studded black sky, I was entering a dimension so subtle it would take me years to define it. Something more than gravity pulled me down the steep, winding road as it descended into the Imperial Valley. The sun was just breaking above a distant horizon as my vehicle finally leveled out onto the valley floor. Immediately an aroma of soil, mist, and something close to boiled peanuts filled my nostrils. It is a scent that I have only experienced in this part of the U.S. – distinct and overtaking. It is not unpleasant but haunting in a way. You know it is not natural for the valley but something created by a great deal of struggle, sweat, and industry.

In the far distance a range of ruddy red mountains formed the eastern border of the valley with Picacho Peak soaring into unbroken blue. I recall my daughter’s reminiscence after moving to Washington, D.C. from Arizona: “Mom, I miss that big dome of sky that made me feel protected under its blue canopy.”

Openness, expansion, mystery and fear were the emotions that churned in me that day.

The Imperial Valley stretches over 100 miles from the foothills of the Laguna Mountains in southern California to Yuma, Arizona at the juncture of California, Arizona and Mexico. It is a vast alluvial plain, rich in minerals and, before the irrigation of the valley, a low desert dotted by barrel cactus and rolling tumbleweed. Once the dams and extensive canals were built (a colorful history of drastic measures, tragic mishaps, and powerful men with big dreams and money to back them) the desert floor flowered into one of America’s most productive bread baskets. In 1990 the lettuce crop alone harvested $16M for growers.

As the sun rose higher, row upon row of lettuce and blue canals appeared and disappeared from view like an old-time flickering movie. Egrets and gulls flew above or walked among the rows! Did they migrate from the oceans of southern California or up from the delta on the Sea of Cortez?The whole experience was surreal. Then I began to notice the heat…oh, dear. My un-air-conditioned beach mobile! I was unprepared for this region of the world. I was sweating profusely now and had brought only a small bottle of water with me. Suddenly I felt threatened. Where was the nearest town?  Where were the people? I saw nothing but huge sprinklers like warriors from Star Wars on thin metal legs rolling across fields throwing streams of precious Colorado River water onto American grown vegetables and cotton. On and on I drove, past a feedlot that stank for miles, past an ostrich farm and more green flushed with blue sparkling water. Was there any water left in the Rio Colorado? I wondered.

The heat grew ever more oppressive. At below sea level, the Imperial Valley is a heat sponge. I nearly fainted before finding a small town and limped into Wendy’s where I remained for three hours slumped over a table. The waitresses were empathetic. Many California beach combers succumbed to the valley’s record temperatures. It reached 119 degrees that day in May.

Cadillac Desert Video

Imperial Valley, CA

Places 3

Prickly Pear Sonoran Desert

Moving to the Colorado River Valley in 1990 began a great period of personal growth and learning. Teaching children of migrant farm workers (who harvested lettuce in view of the classroom windows) and children of Colorado River Indian Tribes who lived on near-by reservations, I quickly learned the harsh realities of the cultural landscape as well as the natural landscape on which our life science lessons focused.

The following blog posts are three memories from living in the desert (1990-2008).  The first is my initiation to the land’s elemental beauty and its stark realities. The second and third memories illustrate lifestyles in two desert cities with very different perspectives on how to live there – Phoenix and Tucson.

Because I was introduced very early in my time in Arizona to indigenous perspectives, I was able to more acutely measure the gap between native and contemporary points of view about the human relationship to nature, the meaning of community, and the underlying values that are at the roots of how cultures develop.

By getting to know Cocopah families – families whose nation was separated by the U.S. Mexico border and whose way of life on the Colorado River was fractured by the damming of the river – I witnessed the social, financial, emotional and spiritual devastation wrought by being unable to live by the values one holds dear and by which one knows oneself.

Another important stream of influence on my thinking was the environmental movement in which I was actively engaged through education, a daily endeavor that caused me to read the history of these great cities and to get involved in local citizens movements to create more sustainable ways of living there.

While we are going about our daily lives, critical problems such as over-drafting groundwater continue. Indigenous values that have been pushed to the background are emerging into the foreground. Are we paying attention? What can we learn about place and the art of living from the first people of a place?

I understand, now, why spiritual seekers often go to desert lands. There is quietude and mystery. Stories are hidden from casual view, unspoken but exerting their presence. The quest then is discernment.

 

Places 2

 

My Grandparents’ Hill Top Home

I will make the case that to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development.  To an extent undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents. ~ E.O. Wilson from Biophilia (Harvard University Press, 1984) 

The first memories of the natural world I recall in any specificity are from the family visits to my grandparents’ farm on the Watauga River in east Tennessee. The Feathers descended from John Feathers who immigrated to America from Ireland in 1850. Small farmers all, my relatives were subsistence farmers probably carrying on the tradition of people whose lands were always subject to seizure by foreign or religious powers.  They were independent, making their own food, clothing and furniture, raising children by the Good Book and taking simple pleasures in seasonal celebrations, dancing and singing, and harvesting and preparing the fruits of the Earth.

I did not know my father’s family until well after the Depression years that hit hard. Dad remembers being hungry, after all the animals had been slaughtered, when the beans and corn that had been put away in the cellar in blue-tinted jars had been emptied…when his mother made gravy from bacon fat and baked fresh biscuits to hold their hunger at bay.  But they made it through with hard work, sacrifice and luck.  When I showed up on Earth, their little farm was still there to welcome my sisters and me each summer or Christmas of our lives tromping from military base to military base.  Over these many years of annual migrations to my grandparents’ farm my character began to form and I learned where I came from, and something up ahead of me began to take shape.

A distinct memory is the feel and sound of our car wheels rolling up the gravel driveway late at night and getting my first glimpse of the lit windows in the large two-story house under the big maples. Deep shadows cast by a summer moon onto the white clapboard shingles or running across the lawn after a December snowfall primed the excitement in my heart as I anticipated my grandparents waiting on the front porch with its yellow light above the door.  Before the car came to a full stop, the doors flung open to release a tumble of jubilant children. The admonitions of our parents and greetings of our grandparents as they nestled us in their arms melded into the ever present rush of the river below the hill sweeping us into its flow and reverie once again.

I always considered the hilltop farm and its contours my home, which I explored like a small insect in my very own world.

Places make a quilt of memories woven of faces, feelings, and senses.  Any one of these can evoke an entire memory or set of memories from long past – so powerful are they laid down in our very core. I can recall vividly the sound of ripe watermelon ripping open after my grandfather had slashed a big gash down its middle and his sausage-sized fingers pulling it apart to expose the glistening red fruit. The aroma of its warm flesh, plucked fresh from the garden on a hot summer’s afternoon, laid bare for our refreshment under the cool shade of a towering tree, remains with me to this day, a half century later. Every time that I cut open a watermelon I am drawn into the good, wholesome feelings of those cherished days with my grandfather, sisters and cousins, spitting watermelon seeds across the lawn and watching my parents relaxed on a porch swing up the hill in the sheltering embrace of the old homestead.

These are my first memories of place. They are a tapestry of nature, nurture, and the flow of time. Yet I see now that they have a timeless quality and remain as fresh with me as the moment they happened.

 

 

 

PLACES

Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge

Places define much of what we become and in myriad ways determine the things we do.  Far from a “backdrop” to the drama of our lives, the places we inhabit, grow to love, and defend fiercely as we would our children, are intimately a part of us.  We breathe their air, drink their waters…eat from the table of their mantles until they form our flesh and blood and point of view. In turn our breath is taken up in tree trunks and leaves and our excrement is filtered into the earth. Our voices can be heard moving over the land where they mingle with the buzzing hordes and songs of feathered choruses. We are not apart from a place but knit tightly into it in mutual exchanges. We are relations.

My family history begins in the Smoky Mountains where many Irish, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants settled. Although I was born there, at the end of WWII my father returned to the States and whisked up my family into a 16-year journey of military life. We moved from coast to coast in the U.S. with one gentle, magical time in Honolulu on Oahu. It would not be a State of the U.S.A. until 1959, years after we left.

Changing places frequently lends to a sense of loss and confusion precisely for the reasons that place is not a location but the source of our biological and psychological lives. I am only now beginning to appreciate this fact, now looking back. As hard as it was to be continuously uprooted and thrown upon new soil, I learned to grasp hold quickly and savor the rich, diverse places on my “dance card” in life.

Civil Disobedience for Climate Action

Democracy Now has been following the Fire Drill Fridays sparked by Greta Thunberg’s clear voice — a youth crying in the wilderness of world and national houses of legislation which remain deaf to the urgency of acting to protect the planet and life everywhere. Jane Fonda is busy stirring a national day of civil disobedience EVERY Friday on the steps of Capitol Hill. Listen in:

https://www.democracynow.org/embed/story/2020/1/13/jane_fonda_fire_drill_fridays_washington

World Waking Up to Climate Change

Photo by Susan Feathers

In the past few days we have learned that major investors and businesses are getting in step with climate action. BlackRock investing firm announced they would no longer invest in businesses that are not meeting climate change objectives.

“Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” Mr. Fink wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The New York Times. “The evidence on climate risk is compelling investors to reassess core assumptions about modern finance.” ~ New York Times 1-14-20

Microsoft announced a Net Negative carbon footprint plan to reduce its emissions and to eliminate its carbon footprint completely by 2030.

The scientific consensus is clear. The world confronts an urgent carbon problem. The carbon in our atmosphere has created a blanket of gas that traps heat and is changing the world’s climate. Already, the planet’s temperature has risen by 1 degree centigrade. If we don’t curb emissions, and temperatures continue to climb, science tells us that the results will be catastrophic. ~ Microsoft Commitment to Sustainability