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

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.

The Remarkable Diana Gabaldon

When I was at work at Arizona State University, little did I know that I was crossing paths with a person who would soon become an internationally known author with a fan phenomenon that continues to grow. Diana Gabaldon is author of the Outlander book series.

The first book which set off the chain reaction, Outlander, was published in 1991. Probably I felt the Earth tremble but didn’t know what it was. I was crossing a river of my own, thinking about writing a book, but didn’t get around to it until 2003. Literally, I crossed the Colorado and would eventually find my way to Phoenix and Arizona State University still clueless of the Gabaldon earthquake. Her eight books have sold over 35 million copies in 26 countries and are printed in 23 languages.

Outlander was a phenomenal success; 7 sequels rolled-on-out into eager fans hands all emanating from an incredible mind — with the 9th in the series due in 2020. See Diana’s website for updates. http://www.dianagabaldon.com/

Diana is a generous writer, sharing more information with her readers than any other author I’ve ever read, and actively engaging them on her website, in literary groups, her blog, and more, answering questions and engaging readers the world over. She has also published tomes called Outlander Companions that give readers a lot of background information on history, medicine, time-travel, etc. (Well, she was professionally a science historian and well trained to record and report with deep attention to detail, and also the weird little anomalies in human affairs.)

I’d heard about the TV adaptation from my daughter in law but didn’t get around to watching it until the 4th season, which in turn sent me on a wild adventure watching all the previous episodes and season, then buying and reading the entire series of books. I’ve started to reread book 5 and 6 in anticipation of the 5th TV season on Starz.

What prompted me to watch the Outlander TV series was a novel I was drafting about a young doctor whose mother’s family emigrated to the U.S. from Wales. [This is partially my own heritage along with Scottish and Irish ancestors who emigrated, and traveled down into the Appalachians where they settled.] My character  is an intuitive who wishes to learn more about natural remedies and practices of her mother’s home country especially after she has just finished a long residency and is deciding on her path in the practice of medicine.

In the fall of 2018 I was taking a course in Arthurian Legends, and reading about Welsh and Scottish history when I happened to stream Outlander to see what it was that had millions binging on Starz.

Diana’s mind is vast. That is the best way I can explain it. Matched with master storytelling which from all I’ve read is a natural gift, I could not stop reading, and when one book was finished I felt like my oxygen mask had been yanked from my face. I literally crawled into the closest book store gasping for the sequel! Later I ordered ahead so that there would not be days of blue lipped waiting. This was behavior never observed in myself before. I’ve become a fan of both Diana and now the Outlander cast members and writers of the adaptations.

What is it that has seized my mind and heart with such power, joy, and keen interest? I cannot express it yet but its something like this: characters that lift my spirit reminding me that we can be better than we think we can, and we can end up doing good even when we just stumble into it. It’s about intent. It’s also the story of a great love that stands the test of time and tragedy and never seems to be shredded or dulled by it. It’s the story of my family’s emigration, it’s the story of our nation’s early history, it’s about science (which I love and have worked in for my career) and it’s about a woman whose mind and skills are challenged to help others.

Finally, Diana has created a woman, Claire, who is a sort of hero for me and many women in even this modern day, maybe more so in our time. She says what she thinks, she never goes back on her word, she is imperfect and vulnerable, and she wants to be loved through and through by her man. Diana has created that man for her in Jamie Fraser who matches Claire’s strengths and provides a protective and totally absorbing love affair whose flame is inexhaustible.

And there is lots of humor! Thank you Diana for making fun of us along the way. If we can’t laugh then it IS a tragic affair, this life we all strive to live and make some meaning out of. She possesses a great sense of humor and puts her characters in numerous embarrassing situations.

I find the books healing in a way, like a balm for my tattered soul — tattered by the banal world I’m living in, the broken hearts, the disappointed people, the loss of a framework in which to live in this fractured time. The story is stabilizing. The people care about and love each other and even when the way is not clear, the characters choose a safe way forward. And to think, Diana is still rolling-out their lives,  showing us a way forward. The fact that Claire and other characters time-travel adds a mystery to it all and opens up unique possibilites for the author to explore and compare historical times and mores, and ask interesting questions such as, “Can history be changed?”

What can I tell you. I am a goner. Diana Gabaldon has captured my imagination and my heart for the time being. And I am grateful.

 

The Little Farm of My Meditations

There is a small farm called Dream Acres. It is not of my dreams. It is real. Its curving meadows lie adjacent to the place where I live. My living room and bedroom windows look out on it whereby I view its seasonal changes and the daily coming and going of bird, cow, coyote, raven, buzzard, airplane, and farmer. I observe the delicate changes of light and wind, rain, and cloud on its surface.

When I first arrived here I was annoyed that I could hear the eternal drone of an interstate, and that another busy thoroughfare bordered the other end of the farm. I watched the cows to know if it bothered them like me, or, to discern if we all had just given-in to it. A perpetual state of mourning as it were.

Days and months passed and the cows came onto the meadow to graze and went to sleep in the barn at sunset. Years passed. New groups of cows and steers adjusted to the long, narrow meadow and the grassy sink hole with its gnarled, sturdy tree at the bottom — the only feature in an otherwise green grass and golden reed sea.

I also adjusted to living high above the meadow and its constant presence in my life on the third floor of the apartment complex. I suppose some bovine members might meditate on my comings and goings which are as regular as their own. What do they think of me? Alone above the earth looking down on moonlit nights when they have chosen to sleep under the stars on warm nights, or during the rainstorms or frosty mornings when I check on them to make sure they are alright?

Early on I began to photograph the meadow with my cell phone camera. I shared photos on Facebook and here on WordPress. Later I learned that old friends, John and Erin, had taken a painting class and asked permission to paint the little farm. I can’t wait to see what they see from the photos. I guess the little farm is now seen by dozens of people as the place where I live.

When I was growing up, my family visited another small farm in east Tennessee – Watauga. My grandparents’ farm. It was on these yearly visits that I formed a loving attachment to Earth. One cannot live without it, no? Like an umbilical cord it ties us to our origin and stabilizes us through the storms and droughts of daily life.

Remembering the beloved place I envied the cows at Dream Acres who lie warm upon its grasses under the stars, breathing the scents of soil, grass, pungent odors of manure, and the sweet air. Some long ago memory–blood memory–rises in my subconscious and I feel one with the Earth standing on my little porch under that same canopy of stars just as my relatives from Scotland, Ireland, and the Appalachians, all farmers. All coming and going with the meadows and mountains that formed the borders and vistas of their lives. I guess I come honestly to my nostalgia for small farms and their secret lives of which I am blessedly welcome at Dream Acres.

My grandparents’ farm house in Watauga, TN.

Corn Tastes Better on the Honor System – Robin Wall Kimmerer

Robin Wall KimmererRobin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a botanist who explains her knowledge of an indigenous worldview about plants with that of the western worldview. In that process, Kimmerer embeds whole Earth teaching along with botanical science. Here in this beautiful essay, ” Corn tastes better on the honor system” published in Emergence Magazine, is one of the author’s best teaching contrasting indigenous ways of knowing with western perspectives about the Earth. At this ragged time in American history, return to sanity. Listen.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants and Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. She lives in Syracuse, New York, where she is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, and the founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.

Nature Writers for Earth Day

My writing practice began with love for nature writers. Rachel Carson in particular seized my imagination with her ability to combine science and lyrical language. No one in my view achieved what she was able to do–immerse readers in nature. Most of us know Silent Spring as her “manifesto” on the interconnections among humans, wildlife, and the earth. But, how many of you have read Under the Sea Wind? In this small book, her first, Carson writes life stories of three particular individuals: a Black Skimmer, a Mackerel, and a Sandpiper during one season bringing each alive as characters in a novel. The Black Skimmer (Rynchops), Sanderling (Blackfoot), and a Mackerel (Scomber) live, breed, avoid predators, and follow the urgings of seasonal changes, migrating, nesting, and feeding–all within exciting adventure writing. Readers dive deep into unseen lives nevertheless connected to them by large forces in seas, winds, and landforms. Under the Sea Wind is an immersion experience much like a 3-D visual experience today. Note: Under the Sea Wind was published about the time the U.S. was drawn into WWII. It was not until a dozen years later that it seized the popular imagination. For a superb biography of Carson’s life, read Linda Lear’s Witness for Nature, and for an excellent glimpse into Rachel Carson’s writing life, read Paul Brooks’ The Writer at Work.

Watch American Experience for the latest film about Carson’s life. It chronicles her writing and features the commentary of her biographers.

http://www.pbs.org/video/american-experience-rachel-carson/

For a regional writer of nature, I can think of no one better than Jack Rudloe who writes about the Gulf near his home and Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory and Education Center. Jack was inspired by Ed Rickett’s whose work and life were enshrined in the popular imagination by John Steinbeck. Jack Rudloe, the 19-year old would-be scientist and nature writer, corresponded with Steinbeck in the latter year of Steinbeck’s life. Read any of Jack’s books for a another immersion adventure in: The Living Dock, The Sea Brings Forth, and the Search for the Great Turtle Mother. Anne Rudloe, his wife and marine scientist, wrote books with Jack that are reminiscent of Carson in their deep love for and accurate science about the landscapes they love and defend. Anne Rudloe passed away in 2010, and Jack and his sons carry on as Titans for Nature–like Carson in Silent Spring.

Enjoy Jack’s video about his book, The Wilderness Coast.

If you have time to sit down to read the record of Ed Rickett’s and John Steinbeck’s travels in the Sea of Cortez–The Log of the Sea of Cortez–you will be treated to a glimpse into evolving ideas about ecology as an ethical basis for living. Then, treat yourself to the film Cannery Row with Nick Nolte, Debra Winger, and John Huston. John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row, is based on Rickett’s marine supply business in Monterey, California when the coastline abound with sea life.

 

Songs of Ourselves – Great Read

In 2015, Blue Heron Book Works published a collections of blog posts, journal entries, and other writing forms from writers across the nation. Bathseba Monk, the intrepid and visionary editor of Blue Heron Book Works, and her editor Mary Lawlor, put together a book of American voices as varied as the landscape between our coastlines.

Songs of Ourselves is a real trip into and across Americana. If you haven’t read it, I compare it to about two dozen Blue Highways wrapped into one volume.

Listen to Tomas Benitez: Quietude in the Gully. No moaning animals or ruckus. It’s as if the Pomona Freeway Ocean knows and slows to a steady heartbeat rhythm. The waves rumble with a distant peace. La Luna is framed by the dark outline of the palm fronds on the left, the Yucca tree on the right seems to be reaching up like a hand holding her aloft. She is so beautiful tonight; it is all about her I suspect. Maybe the animals are huddled in their shadowed hollows also watching her. Not even Jinx is dancing in her moonlight. We’re in church. ~ pages 15-16.

Well worth the read. A treasure of American voices across our land. Buy it here.