Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Terra Incognita

I have become a ghost in a ghostland.
1. Cabin Becoming a Crow

Seven years ago my best friend and I drove East on I-40. We were headed for a writing conference in central Oklahoma. When we saw the Cuervo highway exit in New Mexico, we pulled off. It was time for coffee. What better place to drink my friend's fierce dark brew than a dirt road on which we might be attended by fierce dark birds.
There were no ravens, but there was an old New Mexico cemetery. The tombstones were melting back into the rose-gray dirt. The inscriptions were in Spanish.
There were stone lambs weathered to gray lumps on some of the markers. What dates we could make out told us that the bones gone to pure mineral under them had been the bones of ninas y ninos.
The names of the grown-up dead might have been given in hopes of bestowing virtues and blessings. Fulgencio. Rosendo. Adora. Epifania. Dulce.
Shining One. Path of Fame. Beloved. Manifestation. Sweetness.
The oldest stones were carved with roses and crosses and circles. There was a rusted iron grill around a family grave. Faded plastic roses glowed pink and pale orange in the mid-morning light. The silence was crystalline.
We drank our coffee, talked and were quiet; then we gathered up the plastic flowers that had blown into the ditch between the cemetery and the dirt road. We scattered them on the oldest graves, and on the most recent burial. There was no last name. Only this: Juan. Our brave son. 1950-1968.
We headed back on the dirt road. A town rose on the hillside to the east. We drove slowly up through its six streets. Lights burned in perhaps five of the twenty houses. We wondered who lived there. We made up stories that the families left were the grand-children of vaqueros and miners. We imagined asking about buying a house, and learning that only those from the original familes would be allowed to own property in that place. We were good at telling stories. We drove, always, on roads of worship and imagination.
-space break-
This winter I drove east to visit my daughter. I was alone. It was midnight by the time I came to the Cuervo exit. I was tired and the moon was just past New. I pushed through the last miles to Tucumcari and slept in the Buckaroo Motel. I woke to a thread of pale green seaming the eastern horizon. A mother cat and her teen-age kittens twined around my ankles as I went for coffee. The owner's young daughter ran to get me milk. The cats and I drank our breakfasts in the chill air.
I timed my return trip so I could visit Fulgencio, Rosendo, Adora, Epifania, Dulce and Juan. I slept again in the Buckaroo Motel. Again, the mother cat and three kittens who lived in the laundry next to my room greeted me as I brought my coffee to the stoop. For a few minutes, I felt less alone.
I drove west in the growing light. By the time I came to the Cuervo exit, the sky behind me was soft tangerine. I found my way past the hill-side houses and pulled up to the cemetery. There was a new fence around the graves. A road had been bull-dozed up to a new gate. Epifania's marker had been set upright. A vase of roses tilted at its base. The flowers were frozen. I righted the vase.
Again I gathered plastic lilies and marigolds from the ditch and scattered them over the graves. Again I drove back through the little town. All the houses but one were breaking apart into the earth and air. The authorities had tacked Condemned signs on the doors. There seemed to be only one story to tell about Cuervo. It was the story echoing in my smaller life.
-space break-
This morning I woke to bone deep cold. The fire in the woodstove was dead. I went to the woodpile in my front entry. I bent to pick up a log and saw that the floor under the edge of the woodpile had crumbled down into the dirt below.
Cuervo surrounds me. My cabin is becoming earth. Air. A crow.

2. Hunting the Moon

 "Each generation receives a little capsule of
instructions, says Eisley, that passes through the
eye of the needle like a blowing seed.  They are
carried "through the molecular darkness of a minute
world below the field of human vision and of time's
       "They are transmitted from one generation to
another in invisible puffs of air known as
words---words that can also be symbolically incised on
clay.  As the delicate printing on the mud at the
water's edge retraces a visit of autumn birds long
since departed, so the little tablets in perished
cities carry the seeds of human thought across the
deserts of millenia.
                       ---Loren Eisley, The Star Thrower"
                      in Richard Wentz' The Contemplation of Otherness:
                      the  critical vision of religion.

       Barn's burnt down
               now I can see the moon.

      All wisdom is rooted in learning to call
                things by the right name.
                       ---Kung-fu Tze

       I write on a tablet of light from a perishing city.
In its outskirts I could be anywhere:  Phoenix, Chapel
Hill, Seattle, Flagstaff.  In their outskirts, the
cities have perished.  Or been transmuted by the kiss
of vampires.
       Still, instructions drift through the eye of the
needle.  From Masahide.  From my younger self.  He
tells me there is radiance beyond charred black.  I have
fore-told my future.
       I once wrote:  "That double light of story and
connection has shone true---on the levelling and
subdividing of the hills and creeks of my childhood
home; on the gentrification of the neighborhoods we
hippies re-built in the heart of an Eastern city; and
even now, on Western towns and earth disappearing
before our eyes, eaten by insatiable hungers as
thoroughly as bone by cancer.
       Under that light, in pure gratitude, I offer story
and the possibility of connection, delicate and
essential as Desert Big Horn bones in an un-named
Mojave wash---or any first meeting."
       Over the last four years, the double light of story
and connection began to fade from my life.  In the
last year I came to doubt that it would do anything
but disappear.  A few friends; the Sacred Mountains; a
cluster of seven Ponderosa, one of them reduced to a
stump by the busy work of the forest service; the
double-trunked pine behind my cabin, the ancient alligator juniper in the meadow at the base of the mountains---women and men,
stone and trees have been my illumination, my medicine
and fragile tether.
       Two months ago I learned that the Hassyampa Insitute
for Creative Writing summer writing conference had
been killed.  For ten years or more, writers and
teachers have gathered in Prescott, Arizona for a week
of work and beauty.  A month ago, a gifted editor and
even more gifted friend told me that it had become
impossible to publish the books she loved; and then
another editor and friend said an identical
       I told myself that as long as my hand moved a pen
over paper; as long as my fingers moved words out
through computer keys, I was where I needed to be.  I
walked with friends, sat with the trees.  The dark territory in me
       And then, I was invited to a little desert town to
read and teach writing for a Land
Trust. I drove west between blue-black mountains.  I
was alone on the little two-lane till a beat-up
Eighties Ford truck appeared on the western horizon.
As the driver passed me, he slowed, grinned and raised
his hand.
       I waved back and pulled off onto mosaic hardpan;
climbed out and leaned against the car.  The mountains
to the south had begun to catch  pink-gold light.  It
seemed vital to know their names. There is always a
road atlas on the passenger seat.  I opened it and
studied the Eastern Mojave.
      Old Woman Mountains.
       I smiled as I had not for much too long.  Easily,
deeply.  I knew the barn was nearly burnt.  I knew
that somewhere down a dirt road there was an un-named
Mojave wash, and moon-white bones and an old woman
finding them.  I knew it was time to leave what had
once been my home.
       It was time to hunt the moon.
3. Terra Incognita
It is fate that determines the territory
of the heart.
                               ---Terry Tempest-Williams
                               Desert Quartet

              "She holds herself in the fire dying
               through the eleventh hour
               through the twelfth
               with the outrageous hope..."
                               Miriam Dyak
                               quoted in Ilse Asplund's
                               Eco-Feminism: Bridging the Gap

       Sometime in the next six months I will move to a
one-room cabin in XXXXXX, The Desert.  Sooner than later. Fate determines not only the territory of the heart, but its timing.
       "Why XXXXXX?, friends and neighbors ask.
      XXXXXX because there is a huge military base and
bombing range and that guarantees the little town will
never be regarded as charming by the rich and jaded.
XXXXXX because on my first drive through town there
were never more than five vehicles ahead of me at a
traffic light.  Those vehicles were bleached-out and
battered pick-up trucks and Eighties beaters with
windows tacked together from duct tape and plastic
wrap. And there were maybe a dozen traffic lights.
       I'm moving to XXXXXX, The Desert because my neighbors
(despite a city council that believes global warming
is a hoax) will be committed to keeping the town desert
rat's-ass.  They are already known for turning out by
the hundreds at planning and zoning meetings armed
with references to XXXXXX's General Plan.  And most of
them live in real houses...which are their first and
only homes.
       So far, I haven't heard of any absentee landlords,
though there is fierce debate about whether Walmart
ought to be allowed in.  The debate is not about taxes
or killing local businesses---most of the local
businesses are dug in deep as desert wildflower roots.
 The debate is about carbon foot-print: Is Walmart's
toxicity worse than the forty-five minutes to drive to
the nearest town with discount stores?
       I'm moving to XXXXXX, The Desert because when I asked
my ally there what kind of Big Money was in the
place---Old Money or New Money?, she laughed, "There's
no money, Big or otherwise."
       There are lots of artists and potters and musicians
in XXXXXX.  There are only a few writers.  And, there
is a deep hunger to write.  I will have work.
       Should I ever have enough to buy a house in XXXXXX,
The Desert, there are decent two-bedroom houses  for
$65,000.  Since I am not likely to be a buyer, there
are apartments for rent for $500..  The place could be
Flagstaff, Arizona 1985.
       My new home will cost $300. a month.  I'll
share kitchen and bath with my land-lady.  When I wake
in the morning, I'll look out on miles of golden
Mojave stretching to cobalt and buff mountains---in all directions.  I will be
held in a circle of granite and basalt---and rock whose names I have yet to know.
       And therein lies the essence of why I am moving to
XXXXXX, The Desert.  I woke the first morning of my
working visit to the place.  As always, I was
frightened.  My mind whirled:  loss, loneliness, not
enough money; age, the rotting publishing world.  I
opened the curtains over the north window.
       First light was amber on the creosote and cactus.  I
didn't know the names of most of the plants.  I wanted
that knowledge.  Second light fell on the first of an
aviary of birds.  I did not know their names.  I
wanted to.  And then, the top of the creosote went
red-gold.  I stepped out into warm air and looked
east.  The sun crested a purple-black range of mountains
whose names I did not know.
       I went into the cabin and picked up my notebook and
pen. I sat on the low stoop and made notes about
second light and nameless birds and red-gold creosote.
 It was the first time I had wanted to write in
months.  There were more question marks than words.
The lacunae were mysteries for the solving.
       The absences are the reason I am moving to XXXXXX, The
Desert.  They will save my life.

                       "I asked my seven year old daughter, 'What does the
               environment mean?'  She answered simply, "'It's the
               circle of life."
                        All things turning, one into the other, without division."
                               Ilse Asplund
                               Eco-Feminism: Bridging the Gap (1990)

(The name of the town has been changed to protect the