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 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.

 

 

 

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.

Dream Acres

DREAM ACRES FARM

Holding-Out and Holding-On in America’s Heartland

Dream Acres Farm in Bowling Green 2018

Golden meadow grasses wave in the afternoon breeze along a far bank of dark green pine and hardwoods aflame in fall colors. The trees form the meadow’s northern border. Lover’s Lane, Old Towne Apartments, and Interstate 65 serve as other borders to Dream Acres Farm—a sliver of Kentucky farmland and noble hold-out against development.

The white picket fencing, farmer’s house, and rolling green lawn that face Lover’s Lane were built when this land near Bowling Green was “the country”. I imagine teenagers romanced in a car along a moonlit dirt shoulder, and that dense forests still grew to the horizon. The farm’s 15 acres are worth millions now that the town has grown up around it. Everyday another few acres of Lover’s Land churn under the blade in becoming hotel, medical center, nursing home…

Cutting the Meadow

Every day I thank the farmer for holding fast to his farm amidst the pressure of land sales. He tends a dozen fine steer and occasional cow and calf to graze and grow in his meadow. Because the windows of my small apartment face the meadow, I am a constant observer of the herd’s movement, their presence or their absence. When the first hard frost arrives, they are gone to groceries and restaurants, and suddenly the meadow feels abandoned. Slowly, I’ve learned much about bovines: how they form attachments with the farmer, running and frolicking around him whenever he drives his rusty tractor out to inspect fences. I never knew cattle could move so fast. I’ve sketched their charcoal-black postures in the emerald grass of springtime and photographed them hip deep in a field thick with golden grasses in the fall.

This spring a community of swallows took up residence at my apartment complex, nesting on windows and gables facing the meadow and from which they emerged and returned with lightening-speed, providing me with more entertainment. After some time, I realized why they had come. As the cattle moved in the high grass, grasshoppers and gnats rose in swarms. The swifts careened in and around the thick calves and heavy hooves like fighter pilots after targets. When the insects’ life-cycles ran their course, the swifts disappeared into thin air.

Daily observation helped me discover the diversity of life in the meadow beyond the obvious farmer-bovine-grass relationship. Black silhouettes circled in the late afternoon sky portending prey moving in the grass sea: rodents, rabbits, snakes, perhaps frogs. I am sure there is an owl perched in the far border of trees whose throaty hooting I cannot hear over the constant roar of I-65. The life in the meadow also includes a neighbor’s acre of goats attended by sheepdogs that escort them in and out of a sagging, grey barn. Dream Acres Farm has its own barn from which the cattle emerge and return, but most days they sleep out under the stars.

When the farmer dies, will his heirs sell the farm and make millions? Probably—in the way of progress. When they do, I will disappear as the swifts to find another teacup of wild. And then, when no teacups remain, shall we all disappear like the swifts, into thin air?

I pray for the old farmer to live another day—my knight, my muse.

Jodi Picoult Explores Racial Injustice In “Small Great Things”

Published in 2016

Kudos to Jodi Picoult for taking on America’s most entrenched injustice. and helping readers discover in themselves how he or she may perpetuate racial injustice. Small Great Things is sheer bravery by a white American writer.

This novel bravely goes where few white writers would venture without the risk of their white privilege bleeding through the narrative, or of committing cultural appropriation. Jodi tells us readers that is exactly why the original idea and partially written manuscript were put aside for more than a decade.

Before Picoult decides to take up the gauntlet, she joins a white privilege workshop to delve into her own prejudices, she gathers to herself men and women from the black community who speak the hard truth to her and help her understand her role in perpetuating injustice. She interviews reformed white supremacists. Picoult dives deep to show how racial injustice is sustained by a thousand small cuts a day, carried out by whites who are often clueless to their own complicity.

Small Great Things explores how racial privilege, even more than outright discrimination, pervades white consciousness.  A person may think “I’m color blind,” or “race makes no difference to me”. However, Picoult’s book reminds us it is easy to think that when you are a beneficiary of the culture’s every advantage.

Yet, Picoult also shows how “minorities” can play into perpetuating the injustice by remaining silent to hold on to tenuous advantages they may have and that are working to help them accomplish goals like owning a home and sending their child to college. The main character, Ruth Jefferson, demonstrates how that works.

Picoult shows in the character of Kennedy, Ruth’s public defender when Ruth, a respected labor and delivery nurse, is accused of killing the baby of a white supremacist couple. Prior to their son’s death, they demanded that Ruth, an African-American, be forbidden to touch their child (Davis). Ruth is removed from the family’s service after Davis is born. She is mystified. As one of the most capable nurses, she can’t imagine why they do not want her to help care for their son. Then she observes the tattoos on the father’s arm and head, and she realizes he is a white supremacist. As the story advances, Baby Davis is discovered to have an inherited disorder that contributes to his death.

By following the developing relationship between Ruth and Kennedy, Picoult takes  readers with her on the discovery of white privilege, peeling it back layer by layer until finally Kennedy is seeing it in herself. We also follow Ruth’s discovery that she has blinded herself to racial assumptions that arise regularly in her peers. Ruth’s determination to discuss the role of racial hatred in her case — a strategy strongly opposed by Kennedy — is a result of finally understanding her complicity in the persistence of racial discrimination by remaining silent.

The story of Turk Bauer and his wife Brittany, both white supremacists, brings to light the complexity of racial hatred. We learn the circumstances that led to Turk’s induction into the Aryan Nation. We  go to events where racial hatred is cultivated, taught to youngsters, and how it is organized across the nation. Inside Turk’s head, we see how he is influenced by fear and anger in his particular life circumstances. We witness Turk’s the awful suffering from the loss of his child. We see his humanity even when his beliefs and actions are despicable to us. Jodi is showing that racial relationships in America are complex and nuanced.

Critics have reviewed the novel’s sometimes cardboard stereotypes and slow action, but really, Picoult took on a monumental task as she worked through her own racial biases and white privilege, inviting her fans to do the same within themselves. This is how hard it is. Picoult is a skilled writer. We can give her a little slack if at times the characters may lack realism or the plot slows here and there. She took on America’s deepest wound, most entrenched injustice, and one that is still festering in the hearts of us all.  We must get at it in ourselves until we can live a free nation. Picoult offers us her experience as one way we might get there.

MORE RESOURCES FOR READERS:

Michael Eric Dyson: Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America

Watch Frontline: Documenting Hate which aired on August 10. It is a documentary of the white supremacists at Charlottesville, VA uprising over confederate monuments. It was so much more, of course. This ProPublica investigation helps us learn about how a permissive environment ushered  hate groups into the American mainstream.

Read Jon Meacham’s book “The Soul of America, the Battle for Our Better Angels”.  In the Introduction, Meacham compares Strom Thurman’s Dixiecrats to Trump’s nationalist movement.

Extremism, racism, nativism, and isolationism, driven by fear of the unknown, tend to spike in periods of economic and social stress — a period like our own. Meacham, p. 4 of Introduction.

POD SAVE THE PEOPLE

 

 

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.

 

The Writing Vortex: Louisa May Alcott

by Harriet Reisen

When Louisa May Alcott became seized with the idea for a new book, she describes the feeling as being drawn into a vortex. A prolific writer, most of the time by necessity, Alcott might turn out a novel in a month! Often her hand would become paralyzed and she’d have to switch to her other hand, a skill she taught herself in anticipation of her “overdrive” writing style.

Harriet Reisen’s 2009 biography of Alcott–Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women— is an engrossing read. Her extensive research (she read well over 100 of Alcott’s publications) and energetic writing style are only a part of why this book is so readable: she was also that little girl whose imagination was seized by Louisa May’s stories in Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. Reisen visited the sites where Alcott lived, and met with editors and rare book experts who have followed the Alcott trail of hundreds of publications (books, essays, letters, short stories). There are still dozens of publications Alcott refers to in her journals and letters that have never been found. In fact, it was only recently that a rare book dealer found a letter squished between the pages of an Alcott book that eluded to one of Alcott’s aliases and discovery of another publication!

For writers it is worth noting how different the publishing industry was during Alcott’s writing life. Yet, for us writers, Alcott’s musings and writing practice still hold value today. She was relentless when she began a new story or novel. She wrote straight through without editing much (a Hemingway style) and she wrote from her own experience. She tried to stay away from contentious political topics (even though she was very much an activist for women, abolition, and all sorts of social injustices), instead keeping her narratives to common human emotions and situations that as time has proved are just as relevant today as when she was writing. Love, jealousy, conniving, friendship, loyalty–its all there in very well defined, unforgettable character. I suppose a writer could do no better than to study this one amazing author and human being as mentor for their own writing.

I highly recommend this biography to all writers but also to anyone who loves Alcott’s novels. The biographer, Harriet Reisen, wrote the script for an accompanying film which eventually PBS aired on American Masters with the publication of the book in 2009. Amazon Prime has it today as well as the film site.

REMINDER: For Mother’s Day, PBS is airing a new version of Little Women. May 13th is the Day. Make your crumb cake and brew the tea ladies and gentlemen.